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A story of THE WORLD before the FENCE by Leeya Mehta

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 46 pgs.
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A story of THE WORLD before the FENCE by Leeya Mehta is the migration of the Parsi, the immigration of a young woman from India to America and the feeling of exile and belonging. Several centuries pass in this slim collection of poems, but like the book cover, each person in these poems is on a journey, one that seems to take them away from where they were to a new destination. However, these journeys end up being very circular, bringing them back to the culture and the past they have tried to leave behind. The past is integral to who they are, as is the migratory journey they embark upon.

In the opening poem, “Refugees,” readers are taken to the migration of Parsis in 917 AD in which “the boat is too small” but the past recedes until “the joy and blood that had come before/already turning to myth./” But even in this flight from one place to another, there is a deep-seated worry that things will not change for the better, but Mehta leaves us on the shore of the white beach with their hope. In “Sleep,” we spend time with this family in its new land, leaning into the hope that they can belong on this land, even with the traditions they carry. But their “Welcome” is not as comforting. While they can retain their traditions and the myths of the past, as well as their religion, they are unable to share that with those outside their group.

Mehta is taking us on a journey from her ancestors to the present day, and woven throughout these poems is the angst created by holding onto tradition and letting go to belong somewhere. In “The Towers of Silence,” the narrator says, “But there are places/that I long to describe/in a language I do not know./And the Towers, by our not being in them,/that is our sacrifice.//” These poems speak to the deep sacrifices of migrants as they move from the home they know to a new home that pushes back against their history and traditions.

from "Decorum" (pg. 12-14)

...
I do not know what I should do in a desert;
You cannot assume anything of yourself
Until you have experienced fire.

A story of THE WORLD before the FENCE by Leeya Mehta is just one look at migration and the sacrifices that entails, as well as the need to belong in a new home. There is a fencing off of the past and culture that occurs internally in some migrants, while there is also the fencing off of cultures and groups of people in their new home — separating them from others and preventing them from sharing their own stories and cultures. Mehta is a master storyteller who takes her poetry into the past to demonstrate the richness of a future in a new country.

RATING: Cinquain

I Dream of Empathy by Marianne Szlyk

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 48 pgs
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I Dream of Empathy by Marianne Szlyk is a slim collection of poems that search for empathy, an understanding of how others feel.Her poems speak to the hurts of the past, to the environment, a mother, a husband, and a self. She reflects with sadness for the past and present, but with a sense of hope that things can be better as long as we strive to connect with one another and our environment. There are some poems that are deeply sad, like “She Wonders What Will Become of this City,” in which the narrator says, “She wonders what will become of this city/once the oceans rise and ghost towns form like coral reefs.// The real coral reefs will have crumbled,/all color leaching away into the corrosive sea.//”

Szlyk is an artist of words. She paints full pictures and creates poetic stories to give readers an internal monologue, but also a painting of a life. Like in “Cabin Fever,” she helps the reader see the hopeless feeling of cabin fever, how there is the desire to do something, but nothing inside the home. There is an immobility in that fever. The narrator of the poem is sitting and replaying saxophone songs in her head, while the laundry piles up and the use of the dryer worries her about the impact it will have on the environment.

One of the best sections of the collection are the “Scene from the Blue Room,” where Szlyk explores the relationships between a grandmother, granddaughter, and mother in a series of poems. The love of the sea/lake is passed from generation to generation. The passage of time is distilled into melting ice cream in a cereal bowl and the wafting big band music in the first poem in the series. In the second poem in the series, the granddaughter has made it to the bedside of her passing grandmother, missing her father and their times by the pond/lake, and wishing her relationship with her mother would improve. In the third poem, the granddaughter has grown up and had to sell the house she loved to visit. There’s a sense of closure in that she understands that walls can be painted over.

I Dream of Empathy by Marianne Szlyk is full of surprises and sharp observations about human relationships and how to find empathy or at least understand where others are coming from. She conjures a story where the reader has little choice but to fall in and follow her lead.

RATING: Quatrain

Escape Velocity by Kristin Kowalski Ferragut and Giveaway

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 90 pgs.
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***full disclosure: Kristin is a member of my poetry writing workshop group***

Escape Velocity by Kristin Kowalski Ferragut forces you into motion with each poem, starting with “You Say We’re Like Magnets.” She illuminates the tension — the push and pull of magnetism — between lovers even if the relationship is not quite in sync. There’s a joy in the tension, the figuring out how pieces fit, how they push each other to grow, and so much more. Ferragut’s poems have a ton of depth, but they are equally smart, beautiful, and witty (with a bit of dark humor).

from "Intermittentamorous" (pg. 20)
...
Identifying as intermittentamorous is exhausting
The on and off, yin/yang, dream
of love versus hope of freedom.

Feels like a long practice to learn to be done,
a sigh and unplugging. Skin intact, space for sleep
and a nod to the vast possibilities in silence.

The first section focuses on reactions and the movement that results from those reactions. Ferragut’s poems are intimate and relatable, whimsical, and a spiraling kaleidoscope of science, love, frustration, and moving forward in life. “A Twenty-Four-Year-Old Getting Two Dozen Roses at Forty-Nine: A Dialogue with Myself,” is a delightful examination of aging and changing perspectives.

from "Drowning" (pg. 39)

What was the cause of death?
What is the difference? When
life is terminal and living on
                  so 
                          long.

Ferragut doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff of life; she meets it head on. “Escape and Loss” explores the sadness and regret that comes with the passing of family and friends. “Guilt hides beneath fingernails;/sorrow clings to laughs’ underbellies,/they will escape despite you./But you might leave regret…” (pg. 41) Her poems will turn the world upside down for you, force you to look through a new lens to find the beauty even in darkness. There is an undercurrent of joy and hope in her poems, and perhaps this is what gives her collection the velocity it needs to let readers escape into the real world and see it through Ferragut’s eyes.

Escape Velocity by Kristin Kowalski Ferragut is a journey through life but it’s a window into the darkness to find hope and a way forward when things don’t quite go according to plan. There’s magic in these pages, and I beg you to discover the worlds created in these poems.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Kristin Kowalski Ferragut teaches, plays guitar, hikes, supports her children in becoming who they are meant to be, and enjoys the vibrant writing community in the DMV. She is author of the full-length poetry collection Escape Velocity (Kelsay Books, 2021) and the children’s book Becoming the Enchantress: A Magical Transgender Tale (Loving Healing Press, 2021). Her poetry has appeared in Beltway Quarterly, Nightingale and Sparrow, Bourgeon, Mojave He[Art] Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Fledgling Rag, and Little Patuxent Review, among others. Visit her website.

To Enter the Giveaway:

Leave a comment on this post with an email so I can contact you if you win a copy of Escape Velocity. Deadline to enter is Sept. 10.

Incandescent Visions by Lee Hudspeth

Source: the poet
Hardcover, 68 pgs.
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Incandescent Visions by Lee Hudspeth is a collection with big aspirations, exploring where creativity comes from and how it evolves. It also pays homage to several important people in his life. The collection is laid out in chapters, not sections, much like a memoir would be. One drawback for me was the prologues of each section and the explanation of the poems in the sections; those would have worked better at the end. I prefer to read and reread poems to sit with them, suss out meaning, absorb the feelings they generate.

From Mom

...
Sometimes it's easier to step back and be right here
On the sidewalk
From Stronger

...
In the moment, it's not about the moment
Ghostly priors, messy entanglements
Hanging like links of a heavy chain

There are moments in the collection where the reader will be beside the poet and looking at their own life and the past that haunts them. These poems aim to provide a look at how those pasts can shape us but also at how we have to let them go. There are strong moments in many of these poems, but if the aim is to explore creativity, the strongest poem in the collection is “Framework.” Imagine a blank sheet of paper with a red dot: “I hold the framework in my hands/The framework embraces me in return/It is a portal to other lands/”

Incandescent Visions by Lee Hudspeth is a debut collection with big ambitions that fall a little short, but if the poet’s explanations and prologues were kept out of the collection or to the end of the book, the poems could have stood on their own. Some poems need to be refined. Rhyming poems are generally not something I enjoy, but in this case, Hudspeth does an admirable job. If you’re looking for a collection with heart, Hudspeth opens his to you.

RATING: Tercet

About the Poet:

Lee Hudspeth is an award-winning author and poet, musician, and fellow human being. Incandescent Visions is his first book of poetry. He is the co-author of ten nonfiction books in the field of Information Technology. He has written articles for professional journals like PC Computing and Office Computing. He is the author of over one hundred articles in the online magazine The Naked PC, which he co-founded and co-published. He lives in Southern California with his wife, two sons, and their cat. Find out more about Lee, his books, and his music at LeeHudspeth.com.

The Book of Labyrinths and Mazes by Silke Vry, illustrated by Finn Dean

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Hardcover, 96 pgs.
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The Book of Labyrinths and Mazes by Silke Vry, illustrated by Finn Dean, and being published in September and is certified as climate neutral and FSC certified, is full of history and insight into the differences between labyrinths and mazes, includes fun experiments and exercises, and is beautifully illustrated. The first section explains both and their differences and offers a fun psychological experiment with a spiral. It’s a fun activity for the kids and parents.

In the second section, the book explores Labyrinths in history and myths. You can picture the Minotaur, can’t you? From Egypt to Europe and Asia, labyrinths have fascinated many cultures and have been used for different reasons. Some have been uncovered by archaeologists, while others are still a mystery and may not have existed at all. Kids will love the sample mazes and labyrinths in this section and be eager to try them out.

In the third section, the author explores mazes all over the world. Rulers often built mazes out of hedgerows as a form of entertainment for guests. The author elaborates more on the features of mazes. Throughout every section of the book, the author connects the love of mazes and labyrinths to the often winding journeys of our lives, and our need for patience to make enjoy the journey and take it one day at a time.

The Book of Labyrinths and Mazes by Silke Vry, illustrated by Finn Dean, is a delightful read that has a good deal of history, mystery, and fun activities for kids and parents. The illustrations are detailed and each page has tips and fun facts. There are instructions in how to draw your own maze, which is also a fascinating experiment for both parents and their kids. I see challenges in the future where we create mazes for each other. In the back of the book, there are a list of corn mazes and other ways to find modern mazes in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

RATING: Cinquain

The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 108 pgs.
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The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva is musically New Orleans, but also a collection of poems about learning a role that you may or may not take on.  It takes on the pomp and circumstance of the city and reveals an underbelly of sadness and want, while paying homage to the beauty of the city and its culture. The dichotomy of New Orleans comes to life in Leyva’s poems.

 From "Inamorata" (pg. 5-6)

...
and a funk in the other
     Nola when your bounce
         leaps from speakers

comes the great gyrate
    the whole line
        all heredity backing it up

...

Where'd you sleep
   last night? In the pines?
        Nola you fat and fine

the quick-quick-slow
        that repeats
         like being sick and tired

of being sick
    and tired or late again
            on last week's rent
...

Leyva’s poems are beautiful songs full of love, passion, and sadness. It’s a collection that pays homage to the past and invents a future. It’s about leaning into a bi-racial skin and finding a path that makes the most of an American life that is not always easy and is not always the most glamorous. It’s about breaking out of the molds assigned to us and creating our own lives and incorporating cultures in ways that make the most sense for our own well-being.

Poems like “Ear Hustle” unearth the dark past of an Americanized New Orleans culture in which powdered faces from beignets are unaware of the ancestors who cut the cane for that sugar. There’s that undercurrent of culture that he explores in his poems, but not to seek a rescue but to pay homage to the sweat and the work — to the understudy of society’s labors. These poems are multilayered, while the surface appears playful and musical. It’s a collection that celebrates rather than shames, though some poems do illustrate some of the shames of American history.

One of my favorite poems in this collection, “Sonnet for the Side Eye,” examines nature’s destructive tendencies (like Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans) with humanity’s obsession with naming that destruction. Leyva is tackling a great many things in this collection, but this poem in particular takes our obsession with categorizing things head on. So much divisiveness stems from these labels. But how do we as humans get to the point where we no longer label our fellow humans as a way to harm them or treat them as “other?”

Don’t miss The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva. I heard him read at a poetry event online and had to get my hands on this book, and I wasn’t disappointed.

RATING: Cinquain

Check out this interview with Steven Leyva in ArtsFairfax.

The Weather Pop-Up Book by Maike Biederstaedt

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Hardcover, 14 pgs.
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The Weather Pop-Up Book by Maike Biederstaedt, which publishes in early September, is a great introductory book for elementary school kids to learn about tornadoes, storms, drought, and more. Earthquakes are not touched on, but the author does speak to the benefits of storms and the destruction they can cause. Moreover, the pop-up storms are larger than life and well executed. The book opens and closes easily without any snags.

Younger kids may need help pronouncing some of the terms, but the explanations are on the right level for kids to understand. Older elementary kids will grasp these concepts more easily as they begin to study Earth science in school. This would make a great addition to any teacher’s library to provide students with visual representations. The author does make the push for a move toward renewable energy and more sustainable agriculture, but it isn’t overly preachy.

The Weather Pop-Up Book by Maike Biederstaedt is definitely a good starter book for kids to learn about their environment, natural disasters, energy use, and agriculture. Weather can be something that seems not only destructive but also magical, if you understand it.

Rating: Quatrain

Until the Right One Comes Along by Chris Haley

Source: Poet
ebook, 90 pgs.
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Until the Right One Comes Along by Chris Haley is a highly emotional poetry collection about the search for the right partner. With moments of shallow assessment of other men, Haley’s narrator turns those observations on himself and finds his own appearance lacking. At more than one moment in the collection, the narrator considers himself unworthy of love and unattractive.

“When living is the dynamic you question daily”

“And for so many years I had thought I was not much to look at
Not much to glance Or stare at…

This is less a poetic collection and more of a memoir about the struggle of finding love in a world where instant gratification is prized over longevity and loyalty. He uses prose poems and rhyming verse, though the rhyming verse worked less well when I read it. The prose poems were the stand outs in this collection.

This is journey to find love is full of ups and downs, meeting someone who is the right fit but at the wrong time because you don’t love yourself enough. Meeting many wrong men to find that they only want a one-night stand.

Until the Right One Comes Along by Chris Haley explores the harsh realities of looking for companionship and love in today’s world as a LGBTQ+ person, which makes it doubly hard. It’s an emotional roller coaster, but ultimately, the message is you must first believe you are worthy of love in order to find it.

Rating: Tercet

Later by Stephen King

Source: Purchased
Audible, 6+ hrs.
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Later by Stephen King, narrated by Seth Numrich, is another of those thriller and less-horror King novels.

(trigger warning for possible domestic violence and incest)

Jamie Conklin sees dead people, but you’ll learn this right from the start of this novel. His life is anything but conventional, especially because of his gift. However, his mother, who works in publishing, struggles financially as a single mother and victim of a Ponzi scheme. What I loved was Jamie’s character development, his innocence was whittled away little by little as others use him for his ability, but at the same time, he learns to think for himself and set some boundaries. His mother seems to have learned little from her romantic struggles, and I sense that she doesn’t think beyond the immediate needs and risks to the bigger picture in many cases. But she’s really more of a background character, like Jamie’s invalid uncle.

King always seems to have a firm grasp on childhood and the struggles kids face with parents, peers, and other adults. He makes their lives real and reminds us that we all had those struggles once. But his supernatural elements really bring the creep. Jamie must contend with some dark evils in this novel, and while not always successful, King’s supporting characters round out the story and provide the main protagonist with the direction he needs in a believable way.

Later by Stephen King provides the best in character development and story-telling, but there is a rushed element near the end that seems like it was tacked on a little too quickly. I wanted a little bit more here, but given that it is told from Jamie’s 20-something point of view after everything happened, it seems like he has more to process later on. Perhaps there will be more, later.

RATING: Quatrain

The Unexpected Past of Miss Jane Austen by Cass Grafton and Ada Bright

Source: Purchased
Kindle, 372 pgs.
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The Unexpected Past of Miss Jane Austen by Cass Grafton and Ada Bright (the second book in this time travel series and these definitely should be read in order) is a delightful read. Rose Wallace is just getting to live her dream when Jane Austen reappears in her life at the most inopportune time. After some mild prodding, Austen engages Rose in another time travel adventure, and this time, Dr. Aiden Trevellyan joins her in the past where he’s in his glory — sketching the church, documenting Chawton House, and so much more.

***Don’t read below if you don’t want spoilers***

Rose is eager to help Jane in any way that she can, but she also wants to stay in her time and revel in the revelations she’s had with Aiden. Alas, there isn’t time because pressing matters require Rose to come back with Jane to 1813.

“No, this time, she had to live out the story, not just observe it … “

What I loved about this story is that Aiden and Rose know each other well enough to embark on this journey together, yet their new relationship status still provides that bit of insecurity and awkwardness we love to see in newly beginning relationships.

***Continue reading***

Grafton and Bright are a fantastic team in this series, providing the right amount of tension, awkwardness, and misunderstandings to keep the plot moving forward. Again, Rose finds herself in a situation that leaves her unmoored, but she finds that she can be as confident and courageous as Jane if she quells her emotions and thinks a bit more rationally. The societal confines of 1813 add to the tension and the emotional roller coaster here, which readers will love and hate at the same time.

I actually liked The Unexpected Past of Miss Jane Austen by Cass Grafton and Ada Bright more than the first book, and I really loved the first book. So I cannot wait to see where this series goes next. I hope I won’t have to wait too long.

RATING: Cinquain

Where the Wolf by Sally Rosen Kindred

Source: the poet
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Where the Wolf by Sally Rosen Kindred has a Grimm’s fairy tale feel in which the wolf features prominently, looming over each poem and jumping in unexpectedly. In “First Night,” the wolf can only find the narrator and her family because of the dark, a darkness caused by deep despair, desperation, and the over consumption of alcohol. It is clear that the relationship between the narrator and her mother is broken and by the time the book ends it cannot be repaired as her mother is deep in Alzheimer’s.

Although there is darkness in this collection, it is an exploration of what connects us to our family despite those secrets and dark moments. In “Is She,” “You think this is a poem where the wolf./The forest, after all, is a sleeve of glass daggers./You: the girl. Cold throat, wet shoes./Wolf is the ghost of a hurt remembering itself. Is She. You can hear Her between the trees./” (pg. 10) Readers will fall into the forest with the wolf as she stalks the past, looking for answers that don’t materialize. It’s more about the journey and accepting the past for what it is, how it shapes you, and how you move into the future with it.

The Grief Dress (pg. 38)

....
Could I have asked

for mercy then, forgiveness, could I have
unfastened the buttons of my breath?
....

Isn’t this what happens when we finally learn to let go of grief, loss, and pain? We unbutton ourselves, give ourselves permission to breath again and release all of that pressure inside us. Kindred takes us and herself on a journey through the dark forest and some of her darkest dreams to release the pressure she’s been carrying. Where the Wolf by Sally Rosen Kindred is harrowing in its exploration of memory, grief, and the passage of time, but it is redemptive in that it allows readers to see the poet make peace with the past.

RATING: Quatrain

The Haunted Library: The Ghost in the Tree House by Dori Hillestad Butler

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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The Haunted Library: The Ghost in the Tree House by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Aurore Damant, is the 7th book in this series, which I think is best read in order (although they do recap previous information in each). I think young readers will have an easier time following the character development and changes in both kids’ lives if they start from the beginning of the series.

In this book, a group of girls in town have noticed strange goings on at the tree house where their club meets. Some of the girls believe it is a ghost, which is why Claire and Kaz are on the case, but some of the girls think it is the rival boys’ club trying to frighten them away from the tree house. There are a number of dynamics at play in this book, from learning to include a younger brother, to girls wanting their own time to play together without boys, to young kid ghosts who now much listen to their parents after being on their own for so long. There is a lot of play here, and it shows in the interactions between the ghosts and the “solid” Claire, as well as between the groups of kids themselves, and the dynamics those kids and ghost kids have with their own parents.

The short chapters and illustrations make this a book for early readers to read on their own without much help, but for older readers with more experience, the plot may plod along too much. This series has kept my struggling reader engaged, but over the last year as her skills have improved, the series is not as exciting as it has been for her in the past. However, now I want to know what happens in the next installment because the cliffhanger of this book is a doozy.

The Haunted Library: The Ghost in the Tree House by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Aurore Damant, is a good series for early readers with its short mysteries and ghosts. Readers will love the interactions between the ghosts and the children, and the parents will love reading along with their children, hoping to solve the mystery.

RATING: Quatrain