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The Great Upending by Beth Kephart

Source: Purchased

Hardcover, 272 pgs.

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The Great Upending by Beth Kephart is a story with mystery, family, and lives turned upside down in unexpected ways that will create long-lasting bonds. Sara and Hawk Scholl are siblings living on a rural farm in Pennsylvania, a farm that has seen its share of troubles and there’s no end in sight to them. Twelve-year-old Sara has Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue, and she needs a rather expensive operation that her financially strapped parents cannot afford.

The farm in this story is alive with animals running, prize birds escaping, and a Mister renting out the family’s converted silo. The kids have chores and the parents are praying for rain to end one of the worst droughts they’ve ever experienced. The Mister is a mystery, and even though they are told to keep their distance, they can’t help by spy on him from the roof or a nearby tree. Kephart’s prose is as poetic as always, even as she describes a disease that can mean an early death for many who have it.

“It all comes down to glue. I’m a body built out of stretch.” (pg. 29)

“The only rain that’s anywhere is the rain that rains eyes to chin, over the long stretching stretch of my thinking, and now, downstairs, I hear Mom and Dad talking. I hear the number we need: twenty grand for Sara’s surgery.” (pg. 78)

“I take a picture, which is like a seed, the way it keeps its beauty folded in.” (pg. 205)

From the love of reading to the vivid, wild pull of imagination, Sara and Hawk are drawn into their own mystery and start making plans to help the stranger who is helping them, even if the money from his rent is not enough to cover the bills or the dream of surgery her parents carry for Sara. These siblings are tied by the bond of family, but they’re also conspirators in a tale of salvation and preserving the thrill of imagination. The Great Upending by Beth Kephart is gorgeously rendered and brings to life the beauty and hardship of farm life and the struggles a young girl with Marfan syndrome can face, but how those hardships are only part of the story.

RATING: Quatrain

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of twenty-two books, publishing memoir, young adult literature, a corporate fairytale, an autobiography of a river, and an essay/photography collection.

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham), based in part on Kephart’s teaching at Penn (where she won the 2015 Beltran Teaching Award), won the 2013 Books for a Better Life Award (Motivational Category), was featured as a top writing book by O Magazine, and was named a Best Writing Book by Poets and Writers. Small Damages (Philomel) was named a 2013 Carolyn W. Field Honor Book and a best book of the year by many publications. Going Over (Chronicle) was the 2014 Parents’ Choice, Gold Medal Winner/Historical Fiction and a Booklist Editor’s Choice. One Thing Stolen (Chronicle) was a 2015 Parents’ Choice Gold Medal winner. Kephart’s 2014 Shebooks e-memoir is Nest. Flight. Sky.: On Love and Loss One Wing at a Time. Her 2013 middle grade historical novel, Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent (Temple University Press), was named a top book of the year by Kirkus.

Kephart is a National Book Award nominee and a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize. She writes a monthly column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune, has given keynote addresses on the state of literature and teaching, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards, the National Endowment for the Arts, and PEN. 

Kephart was one of 50 Philadelphia writers chosen for the year-long Philadelphia’s Literary Legacy, exhibited at the Philadelphia International Airport. Excerpts from her Love: A Philadelphia Affair were the subject of a six-month Airport exhibit. She is a Radnor High Hall of Fame.

Kephart is the co-founder of Juncture Workshops, offering memoir workshops and resources to writers across the country.

Frankie Sparks and the Talent Show Trick by Megan Frazer Blakemore

Source: Purchased

Paperback, 128 pgs.

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Frankie Sparks and the Talent Show Trick by Megan Frazer Blakemore, illustrated by Nadja Sarell, is the second book in this third-grade inventor series. Frankie wants to be like her idol, Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic, and she and her magnificent assistant Maya are going to audition for the school talent show. They have been practicing their magic act in front of their families, but the audition doesn’t go so well when Maya comes down with a case of stage jitters. What’s an inventor to do?

Of course, Frankie asks her friend if she still wants to do the talent show. She can’t do it alone and she really doesn’t want anyone else to be her assistant, so it’s up to Frankie to come up with a solution to the problem. First she has to do some research, which is why she heads down to the local magic shop. But over the course of school and other daily activities, Frankie gets an idea from an unlikely source.

My daughter and I had a great time reading about the magic tricks and I love telling really lame jokes, which is why Frankie’s classmate Ravi is so endearing to me. We love how caring Frankie is about her family and friends and how caught up in finding a solution she gets. We were impressed by her creativity and how she saw an ordinary kitchen utensil as something more. This book will help kids tap their own creativity and learn that they are never too young to be problem solvers. And we love that the “design” process is mapped out and explained in the back of the book — kids are even challenged to find their own solutions to help their friends or family members.

Frankie Sparks and the Talent Show Trick by Megan Frazer Blakemore, illustrated by Nadja Sarell, may have her own idols that she looks up to, but she’s definitely a role model for younger kids. She can help them strive for more, be creative, and learn about science, math, and art all while having fun. We can’t wait to pick up book 3.

RATING: Cinquain

5,000 Awesome Facts (About Everything!)

Source: Media Masters Publicity

Hardcover, 224 pgs.

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5,000 Awesome Facts (About Everything!) from National Geographic Kids packs a lot of information into its little more than 200 pages, and many of these pages have full color photographs. The layout of the pages differs, but they are each packed with some fun and unusual facts from the 15 facts about mysteries throughout history to facts about animals (like penguins and dolphins) and facts about women, transportation, robots, paranormal activity, space junk, the Olympics, swimming, and Antarctica, among others.

We did notice that certain lists of facts are super long and don’t fit well into a fun and engaging bubble or other format, which means they were simply listed with one large photo or two medium photos. For instance, the two pages of sharks were just a list with one photo of a Great White Shark, and the text was a bit small. While my daughter loves watching shark week, this page of facts was not engaging to her. Neither were the two pages about skeletons and muscles, which was similarly arranged.

However, this book is chock full of information that kids can explore at their leisure and share with their parents. We love using these books to quiz each other and share what we found interesting. It’s fun to see our daughter say, “I knew that.” And then she’ll share a fact that she found interesting by first asking, “Mom, did you know…” I love these kids of books for this reason alone. My daughter also loved learning about inventions and some other things that she wouldn’t think to ask about. This book provides her with new thinks to explore on her own and with help.

5,000 Awesome Facts (About Everything!) from National Geographic Kids is a great gift for kids who are curious about the world around us — including the man-made parts of our world. My daughter loves nature, so those parts of the book were most interesting, but we did have some conversations about space junk and other things she had no idea about. We’ll likely turn to this book again and again, especially when we can get back to doing road trips.

RATING: Quatrain

Whale Day by Billy Collins

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 144 pgs.
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Whale Day and Other Poems by Billy Collins often takes the most mundane situation and spirals it out into something that is by turns humorous and poignant. Aging is a theme throughout the collection, but it is not aging with grace, but with a sense of humor. Imagine your aging dog and walking them down the street, how the gait of the dog changes and how the dog stops to be picked up by the owner rather than continue under its own power. This is exactly the situation in “Walking My Seventy-Five-Year-Old Dog.” Collins takes this situation and reminds us that it isn’t polite to ask a lady her age (a bit tongue in cheek), reminding us that to age is a normal course of life that we need to observe but not dwell on.

Other humorous poems that made me laugh (at a time when a pandemic has made us all stressed and sad) include “Down on the Farm” with its fainting goats, “Imperial Garden” in which a Chinese cookie fortune says less about the recipient than the giver, “Mice” where the observer views the burning down of a house as a new adventure for his small friends, “The Card Players” in which he compares his current game to a Cezanne painting and realizes his game may not be as artful, among so many others.

One of the most selfish statements, “Me First,” is turned on its ear in this collection and becomes a moment of love, while still being a little bit selfish but understandable given the attachment of the narrator to the object of his affections. Like “Anniversary,” there is a selfishness in wanting the “love” to remain alive for as long as possible, even if that life is lived by a baby born on the person’s day of death. The final section of the collection is a homage to devotion and love, even as things begin to fade away like the “tear-off calendars,/the days disappearing one page at a time.//” (from “My Father’s Office, John Street, New York City, 1953”, pg. 103-107)

Collins’ latest collection is one to keep on the shelf for always. His conversational style is dominant here, and his poems will leave readers with joy and hope, but also more things to think about. Whale Day and Other Poems by Billy Collins is another splendid collection of more than just ordinary moments in time and it explores the effects of aging and how we can handle them if we choose to be less serious.

RATING: Cinquain

Other Reviews:

About the Poet:

Billy Collins, is an American poet, appointed as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. In 2016, Collins retired from his position as a Distinguished Professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York after teaching there almost 50 years.

Weird But True: Halloween 300 Spooky Facts to Scare You Silly by Julie Beer

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Paperback, 208 pgs.
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Weird But True: Halloween 300 Spooky Facts to Scare You Silly by Julie Beer contains all things Halloween, the quirky, the factual, the fun, and the ghoulish. I wanted to review this one on Oct. 13 because it is a mirror for Oct. 31 and because 13 is considered an unlucky number.

My daughter loved the fun facts in this book and was awed by the spectacular displays throughout that people made with carved, lighted pumpkins. These displays are massive and inventive. I was riveted by the unusual: did you know that Halloween was once associated with love and romance? Or that in Scotland, people peeled apples in one long strip and tossed the peel over their shoulder to see what the first letter of their future love would be? Or that people in England used to take the front doors off their neighbors’ homes and hide them? And one I never would have known without reading this book is that the filling of Kit Kats is made from ground up Kit Kats.

Some of the fun facts I knew in here, especially the ones about Macbeth and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but there wasn’t much about my favorite Halloween reads, but then again, perhaps my personal readings of Edgar Allan Poe are not traditions elsewhere.

There are even some goodies in here that I hope to try with my daughter on Halloween in lieu of Trick or Treating — some mummy wrapping, apple bobbing, and carving challenges. Weird But True: Halloween 300 Spooky Facts to Scare You Silly by Julie Beer is a delightful look at the holiday and all the craziness that it inspires. Definitely a great gift to offer kids when candy and door-to-door stops is ill-advised.

RATING: Quatrain

Rational Creatures edited by Christina Boyd

Source: Publisher
Ebook, 486 pgs
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Rational Creatures edited by Christina Boyd is a collection of stories that explore the rational side of Jane Austen’s characters, delving deep into what makes them tick. From Louisa Musgrove who leaps from the Cobb and is severely injured to Hetty Bates, the spinster who chatters away. Sixteen Austen-inspired stories are within the covers of this anthology, and each one will shed light on some of Austen’s most modern thinking characters. But don’t be fooled by the title because this collection also has the romance many Austen readers desire.

Imagine Elinor Dashwood sketching her beloved knowing he belongs to another, pouring her deep passion and melancholy into his visage with such care. “He has found it, she thought, not daring (not wanting) to break the intensity of his gaze. Could he see, in that drawing and in her face, all she wanted of him? What would he do if she were to reach out and touch him — to feel for herself the line of his jaw, the arch of his brow, the fullness of his bottom lip?” (from “Self-Composed” by Christina Morland)

Readers also get a glimpse into Charlotte Lucas and her thoughts on marriage and her longing for a life like her friend Elizabeth Bennet — a life filled with love. We find that Hetty Bates may be more like Elizabeth Bennet than we’d think, having spurned a marriage proposal. Perhaps Ms. Bates is Ms. Bennet’s alter ego, had Mr. Darcy not strove to improve himself and hope she’d accept him. Even Fanny Price, who many see as weak, is brought into a new light in “The Meaning of Wife” by Brooke West. “Edmund did not truly know her at all, choosing only to see the young woman he expected her to be. It struck her as darkly amusing that for years she had longed for Edmund to look upon her with desire but, now that his heart had found his way to her, she could find none of the expected joy.”

Rational Creatures edited by Christina Boyd offers so much in these short stories but at it’s heart is about women who are searching for their own love stories, even if they are ridiculed, hated, and ignored by others. Isn’t love the most redeeming for us all. Each of these characters is given new life by these authors and their stories are as beautifully engaging as the originals written by Jane Austen herself.

Rating: Quatrain

Cloud Hopper by Beth Kephart

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 332 pgs.
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Cloud Hopper by Beth Kephart is a novel of adventure in the eyes of three teens who have found their own family among one another. K, Wyatt, and Sophie look to the skies as Sophie’s Grandma Aubrey wove tales of her namesake, Sophie Blanchard, aeronaut extraordinaire. A cloud hopper comes to life in a young migrant girl who falls from the sky one summer as the trio are watching. When they scramble to save her from the wreckage, the trio begin a journey of self-discovery and shared secrets that has little to do with the hopper herself. Sophie must become more at ease in the air, like her namesake, if she is to come terms with all that happens in this novel.

Kephart’s lyrical prose creates a sense of urgency to find the migrant girl’s family without them being caught by ICE or worse, as the hospital will only keep her so long as she heals. Sophie’s grandmother’s multiple sclerosis is progressing at the same time. Sophie is pulled between her friends and the mission and the love of her grandmother who needs her most. What Kephart does so well is create a vivid scene in each moment, making the reader feel they are there on the forest floor searching, in the Cessna circling, at the hospital appeasing, and striving for a resolution and a happy ending, even if they know not all endings are happy.

“You pick the best people for your life, Grandma Aubrey always says. And you stick with them.” (pg.78)

“‘Nothing that is not to be expected,’ she says, but it takes her way too long to say it, and my thoughts are worries, and my worries are like the black storm in the sky that came upon the hopper and threw her to the ground.” (pg. 129)

Like many other Beth Kephart books, readers will be swept into a new world — a world that is both real and fantastical. It’s poetic, it bends the rules, and it soars. Cloud Hopper by Beth Kephart is like the hopper, flying perilously toward danger without a safety net, but the journey is well worth the unpredictability.

RATING: Cinquain

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of twenty-two books, publishing memoir, young adult literature, a corporate fairytale, an autobiography of a river, and an essay/photography collection.

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham), based in part on Kephart’s teaching at Penn (where she won the 2015 Beltran Teaching Award), won the 2013 Books for a Better Life Award (Motivational Category), was featured as a top writing book by O Magazine, and was named a Best Writing Book by Poets and Writers. Small Damages (Philomel) was named a 2013 Carolyn W. Field Honor Book and a best book of the year by many publications. Going Over (Chronicle) was the 2014 Parents’ Choice, Gold Medal Winner/Historical Fiction and a Booklist Editor’s Choice. One Thing Stolen (Chronicle) was a 2015 Parents’ Choice Gold Medal winner. Kephart’s 2014 Shebooks e-memoir is Nest. Flight. Sky.: On Love and Loss One Wing at a Time. Her 2013 middle grade historical novel, Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent (Temple University Press), was named a top book of the year by Kirkus.

Kephart is a National Book Award nominee and a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize. She writes a monthly column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune, has given keynote addresses on the state of literature and teaching, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards, the National Endowment for the Arts, and PEN. 

Kephart was one of 50 Philadelphia writers chosen for the year-long Philadelphia’s Literary Legacy, exhibited at the Philadelphia International Airport. Excerpts from her Love: A Philadelphia Affair were the subject of a six-month Airport exhibit. She is a Radnor High Hall of Fame.

Kephart is the co-founder of Juncture Workshops, offering memoir workshops and resources to writers across the country.

Daughter of Black Lake by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Source: publisher
Hardcover, 320 pgs.
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Daughter of Black Lake by Cathy Marie Buchanan is like the oral tales of old where facts are distorted by the story teller from ear to ear. During the Roman invasion of Britannia, we meet the Smith family in which Hobble is a runt because of her gait issues, her mother is a healer for the tribe at Black Lake, and her father is the blacksmith. Like the lake with its dark, unknowable depths, much of the nature-based religion and philosophy of the Druids leaves the village’s families tentative in their dealings. With certain families currying favor with hunted meat and others who are too meek to stand up to a dying religion, there are mysteries lurking.

The Smith family was once considered among the best and most generous, but their fall from First Family has left Devout, Hobble, and Young Smith doing their best to appease the lone druid who comes to Black Lake and the Hunter family, who now holds that coveted place in society, are just waiting to pounce and reclaim their place.

Hobble has been training with her father to run fast despite her disability. Weak members or runts are considered possible sacrifices to appease the gods if needed. Devout, her mother, has a secret, and like the Black Lake she is impenetrable, at least in Hobble’s eyes. Their relationship is muddied by the secrets she holds, even as Hobble displays a gift of foresight and an ability to “see” the truth. She is unique compared to the other bog dwellers, but her vision of the invading Romans becomes a serious concern for her family, the village, and the lone druid who comes to seek brave men to join his rebellion.

“Though we do not speak of my birth, I can describe the deep blue veins webbing my mother’s breasts, the slight tremble of my father’s hand as he clenched his knife, and above all, the way she hid the crescent from his view. The finer points of the scene glinted before me with the exactness of a sharpened blade, same as they had for that vision of R0mans at Black Lake.” (pg. 3)

This mystical tale is woven like a tapestry with each strand hard to hold onto until it comes together with the other colors to create a full scene of village life under the druids and the change that hovers on the horizon under Roman rule. In the backdrop the struggle for power plays out just as it does in the foreground between the Smiths and Hunters where the power shifts from one to the other. Buchanan’s story unfolds in a deliberate way to immerse the reader in this ancient time when even writing was not done and knowledge was passed from person to person. Daughter of Black Lake by Cathy Marie Buchanan is a struggle for survival amid a world of secrets and lies, political gains and losses, and magic.

RATING: Cinquain

Other Reviews:

Photo Credit: Heather Pollack

About the Author:

Cathy Marie Buchanan is the author of the nationally bestselling novels The Day the Falls Stood Still and The Painted Girls. She lives in Toronto. Find out more about Cathy at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.

 

EXCERPT:

Join us for a fun tour with reviews accompanied by progressive excerpts on the blogs and a game of finding out your “Black Lake name” on Instagram beginning Oct. 8!

Please use the hashtag #daughterofblacklake, and tag @tlcbooktours, @riverheadbooks, and @cathymbuchanan.

Devout was once a maiden of thirteen, wandering the woodland at the northern boundary of the clearing at Black Lake. She felt the sun reaching through her skin cape and her woolen dressas she walked, gaze sweeping the curled leaves, twigs, and fallen branches of the woodland floor. She bristled with anticipation. Now that she had begun to bleed, that very evening she would join the rest of the youths eligible to take mates in celebrating the Feast of Purification. Together they would mark the advent of a new season, and in doing so leave behind the cold, bitter season called Fallow and welcome the slow thaw of the season called Hope. At such a promising juncture, Black Lake’s boys offered trinkets to the maidens. With a polished stone or an opalescent shell, a boy made known his desire to take a particular maiden as his mate, and with that gift accepted and then a witnessed declaration, a maiden cast her lot.

Devout told herself not to beselfish, not to set her heart on holding in her cupped palms evidence of a boy’s yearning. It was her first Feast of Purification, and the possibility of a mate remained as unfathomable as the distant sea. Still, the idea of a trinket, of being singled out, of wide eyes and maidens gushing that she had drawn affection—all of it glinted like a lure before a fish.

She stooped to peer beneath a bush, looking for the bluish‑purple petals of the sweet violet she had come into the woodland to collect. The flowerheld strong magic: A draft strained from a stew of its boiled flowers brought sleep to those who lay awake. A syrup of that draft mixed with honey soothed a sore throat. A poultice of the leaves relieved swellings and drew the redness from an eye. She touched her lips, then the earth. “Blessings of Mother Earth,” she said.

Mother Earth would come that night, and in Devout’s mind’s eye, she pictured her arrival, imagining it much like the mist rolling in from the bog. Mother Earth would glide into the clearing, permeate the clutch of roundhouses, and in doing so chase away vermin, dis‑ ease, wickedness. The cleansing put the bog dwellers at ease. Though the Feast of Purification came at a time when the days were growing longer, still night ruled. After a daythat was too short for the bog dwellers to have grown tired, they tossed amid tangles of woven blan‑ kets, furs, and skins, worry creeping into their minds. Would the stores of salted meat, hard cheese, and grain last? Was there enough fodder left for thesheep? Had slaughtering all but a single cock been a mistake? Were the ewes’ bellies hanging sufficiently low? Were their teats adequately plump?

Check out the next stop on the blog tour and the next excerpt at Lit and Life.

National Geographic Kids: Beginner’s United States Atlas and United States Atlas

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Paperbacks, 128 pgs and 176 pgs.
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National Geographic Kids has a new 2020 edition of both the Beginner’s United States Atlas (3rd edition) and the United States Atlas (6th edition). The Beginner’s atlas includes the basics about what a map is, the land, the people, and the national capital, as well as individual maps and facts about each states. The atlas divides the country into 5 regions designated by different colors, and the back of the book contains a glossary, postal codes, and metric conversion chart. We love the full color topographical maps in this volume and the large text that makes the information easy to read.

My daughter and I will spend a great deal of time learning about maps and what features on the map signify, as well as the importance of the scale and compass. The full color photos in the atlas are gorgeous and vivid. They include natural features and animals, historical elements, and the state birds and flowers, among other things. The beginner’s atlas is a great place to start with elementary school students to help them learn about the different states in our country. We’ve already checked out our home state of Maryland.

The United States Atlas is a smaller paperback atlas that also includes full color photos and is chock full of information. This atlas includes information about the physical aspects of our country, including its climate and natural hazards, and information about our population, energy, the national capital, and people on the move. Again the atlas is broken up into 6 regions (one of which includes the U.S. Territories) that are color coded. There are facts and figures, postal abbreviations, map abbreviations, place names in an index, and more. This one has more in-depth information than the beginner’s atlas.

We love that both of these provide text and facts, but that they also provide photos that bring each state to life. National Geographic Kids’s new 2020 edition of both the Beginner’s United States Atlas and the United States Atlas will be a great addition to homeschooling and virtual schooling this year. With the topsy-turvy COVID-19 pandemic still underway, this will give us a needed break from Zoom classes and allow her to explore the country — at least in a book.

RATING: Cinquain

You Need a Budget by Jesse Mecham (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 5 hrs
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You Need a Budget by Jesse Mecham, narrated by the author, is a hard and fast look at budgeting. The first big takeaway for me was that budgets are not rigid tools, but are meant to be flexible. You can visit the website and signup for the software and more too.

Here are your four rules for budgeting:

  • Rule One: Give Every Dollar a Job.
  • Rule Two: Embrace Your True Expenses.
  • Rule Three: Roll With The Punches.
  • Rule Four: Age Your Money.

For couples, this means you have to also embrace the goals and expenses of yourself and your spouse and some goals and expenses may belong to both people in the relationship. No one goal or expense (that are necessary or desired expenses) supersede another.

The biggest rule for me that made me rethink budgeting is rule two because it shouldn’t just include the mortgage or the utilities and food, but also large, less-frequent expenses like holiday gifts, car repairs, etc. I need to break them into manageable, monthly “bills” that we assign dollars to — giving them a job.

One of the hardest lessons will be this: commit to the process of planning. You can stop timing bills to a specific paycheck — this is probably a foreign concept for many people, especially those not taught about finances. Much of what I’ve learned about finance is on the fly and with many failures. For couples, the biggest lesson will be communicating about spending on a regular basis, which can mean a monthly meeting.

One of the best parts of the book is the chapter on teaching children about money and how to talk to them about money without freaking them out. My one issue is that it talks about how he plans to not save for his kids’ college education and that he expects them not to take out student loans. I found this section a bit “pie in the sky” given the high cost of tuition in America. I did like the allowance portion of the book, however, because it enables kids to be kids and spend their money how they want and learn that they might have wanted to save that money they spent for something else. This turns into practical lessons.

You Need a Budget by Jesse Mecham is an intriguing listen with real-world examples of people paying off debts, learning how to budget as a couple, and more. But I think I would have preferred a print version that I could mark up. It’ hard to mark up and audio. Good thing there’s a website with free tools and more.

The Engagement Gift by Lauren Blakely (audio)

Source: Audible freebie
Audiobook, 2+ hrs.
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The Engagement Gift by Laura Blakely, narrated by Elena Wolfe and Teddy Hamilton, is a short, erotic novella in which a young engaged woman debates in her head and with her friend whether she should ask her intended for a secret fantasy. Lily is adventurous in the bedroom and so is her fiance, Finn, but there’s one thing she struggles to ask her mate to do because it could ruin the intimacy they’ve created.

For me, this novella was steamy and erotic, but the characters felt a little flat and the relationship between Lily and Finn was one dimensional. I understood that they were hot for each other and obsessed with adventure in the bedroom, but it felt like that was all there was between these characters and for a marriage, I think you’d need more than that.

The Engagement Gift by Laura Blakely, narrated by Elena Wolfe and Teddy Hamilton, is a short read and I think that was part of the problem if you’re looking for character development. If you’re looking for a quick “romp in the hay,” however, this might be for you.

RATING: Epitaph

Afterland by Mai Der Vang

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 96 pgs.
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Afterland by Mai Der Vang, whom I was lucky enough to hear read at a virtual event for Pedestal Magazine, explores the after effects of the Secret War in Laos, during which the Hmong people became a surrogate army of the CIA. The war and its effort to disrupt traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail caused the significant displacement of numerous villagers over a nine year period. Der Vang opens her collection with “Another Heaven,” which sets the stage for her song of the Hmong people: “When funeral recites/The supper gardens of my forefathers,/Cross-stitch from my mother kin,// Then I will come to you/” Der Vang is stepping into the shoes of the Hmong, trying to make sense of a secret war and its consequences.

This initial poem sets the tone for the entire collection, an ethereal, out-of-body reminiscence of a people displaced from their homeland and they must learn to rebuild and grow again. “It’s when the banyan must leave/Relearn to cathedral its roots//” (“Dear Exile, pg. 22) Der Vang’s vision of the world will have readers imaging a world through new eyes. How do you regrow your roots in a new land? Readers will step inside the imagined journey and emotional roller coaster of being displaced. What is this “afterland” — is it a return to the old ways in a new country, the return to an old country, or the adoption of a new country and new ways?

One of my favorites in the collection is “Cipher Song”:

It's come to this. We hide the stories
on our sleeves, patchwork of cotton veins.

Scribe them on carriers for sleeping
babies, weave our ballads to the sash.

Forge paper from our aprons, and our
bodies will be books. Learn the language

of jackets: the way a pleat commands
a line, the way collars unfold as page,

sign our names in thread. The footprint
of an elephant. Snail's shell. Ram's horn.

When the words burn, all that's left is ash.

The poem reminds me of the family stories that are sometimes hidden because relatives aren’t asked or they are unwilling to share them, especially if they are painful. I recalled a time when my grandfather told us tales of the “old country” when he was willing to speak about WWII, but peppering him with questions would shut his mouth and the stories would stop. Der Vang is an archeologist bringing the Hmong back into the light, breathing life into their stories, like the “Phantom Talker” “with creosote mouth//hiding behind/your silent head/in the vermilion portrait.//”

Afterland by Mai Der Vang is full of haunted lines and ghosts, and her poems are beautiful like “a cello slinks/From every strand.//Vineyards ribbon/Inside the intimate air.” (To the Longhorn Hmong, pg. 59) Der Vang circles back to her own ancestral history in the penultimate, title poem. Readers get the sense they are coming full circle.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Mai Der Vang is an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle. Her poetry has appeared in the New Republic, Poetry, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, and her essays have been published in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Post. Her debut collection, Afterland, received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. She lives in California.