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I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons by Kevin Hart and Neil Strauss (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 11+ hrs
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I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons by Kevin Hart and Neil Strauss is a look back at the hard road of comedy and the bumpy road to stardom, but it is also explores Hart’s own life and how it impacted his future career and family. Hart pulls no punches in this one and lays everything bare, including his problems with alcohol, domestic abuse, and more.

Growing up near Philadelphia was hard, especially with a strict single mother and a father who was addicted to drugs and hardly ever home. His stories about his family are outrageous to say the least, and Hart will say that he couldn’t have made them up if he tried.

Throughout the book he offers advice he received from other comics on the scene in Philly, New York, and LA. But he also offers lessons from his own life. One takeaway that really resonated with me is that even though his mother forced them to take public transportation even when they had another option, trained him for his rigorous show schedule and the waiting on TV and movie sets that can be not only frustrating but tedious. His mother’s tenacity also inspired him to keep striving for his goals, as he faced empty bank accounts and non-paying venues.

Hart is funny throughout the audio, which he narrates, but there are moments of crassness early on when he talks frankly about becoming an adolescent boy and later in life when he’s in Hollywood. These are part of his story, and if you don’t like profanity or detailed information about sex, you may want to skip this one or those parts.

I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons by Kevin Hart and Neil Strauss was wildly entertaining, funny, and enlightening. I learned a great deal about where my own determination and drive comes from by Hart reminding me of those restrictive days as a kid in my parents’ home. I can now see how those restrictions helped me become the disciplined person I am. Hart’s still on a journey, but his journey is now aimed at improving the lives of his children, encouraging him in the way his mother did, and ensuring they don’t think they can skip school and do the things that he did. There were many laugh out loud moments, but there are lessons that you won’t soon forget.

RATING: Cinquain

A Ghost Town at Sundown by Mary Pope Osborne

Source: Gift
Paperback, 96 pgs.
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Magic Tree House: A Ghost Town at Sundown by Mary Pope Osborne is another adventure in the Magic Tree House series in which Jack and Annie seek the answer to a riddle. I may have known the answer and my daughter may have pulled it out of me, but she still didn’t believe me and read the whole book to see if I was right.

Jack and Annie find themselves in the Wild West and hiding from horse rustlers. Annie soon pulls them into a caper to reunite a foul with its mustang mother who has been taken by the rustlers. Along the way they meet Slim Cooley whose horses have been stolen.

Magic Tree House: A Ghost Town at Sundown by Mary Pope Osborne is another adventure for the kids that leads them to learn things about the old west and themselves. Jack is cautious and a note taker as always, but Annie is as impetuous and instinctual as ever.

RATING: Quatrain

Camp Red Moon by R.L. Stine (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 4+ hours
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Camp Red Moon by R.L. Stine is a collection of four creepy camp stories written by others and introduced by R.L. Stine — The Werewolf in the Woods, The New Camper, Battle of the Bots, and The Ghost in the Cabin. The stories are sufficiently creepy and probably should be read with others if you get scared easily. I listened to these in the early morning hours while getting ready for work, and definitely got the chills a couple times.

My favorite of the stories was The New Camper in which a young man soon realizes that his new cabinmate is slowly usurping his personality and friends. Soon, his friends are calling his new cabinmate by his name. Battle of the Bots was a bit predictable, but it was still entertaining, as as The Werewolf in the Woods. The Ghost in the Cabin was spooky in all the right places, and the laughter was sufficiently creepy. However, to be more accurate, this should have been called “The Ghosts in the Cabin,” since there was clearly more than one (not a spoiler).

These are probably more frightening than the Goosebumps series of books, but they are definitely great campfire stories to add to your own tales in the woods. This is family friendly, and would be OK for younger readers, probably not under age 10. Camp Red Moon by R.L. Stine would be a fun listen on a road trip, especially in the wilds of the Northeast or in the woods.

RATING: Quatrain

Vacation Under the Volcano by Mary Pope Osborne

Source: Gift
Paperback, 74 pgs.
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Vacation Under the Volcano by Mary Pope Osborne, a second book in this series gifted by my aunt to my daughter, finds Jack and Annie in Pompeii. This is not the time to be in the popular vacation city, but our kids don’t know it until it might be too late.

On a mission from Morgan La Fey, Jack and Annie are on the hunt for a story scroll. Where could the library be that has the scroll they need. They run into Gladiators, soldiers, shop owners, and a soothsayer. My daughter learned so much from this little book, and I was amazed that she could remember how to say “Mount Vesuvius” and “Pompeii” pretty quickly.

Vacation Under the Volcano by Mary Pope Osborne offers kids pronunciation keys to help with difficult or unknown words, and this story has a great deal of tension. It also offers some cliffhangers, which my daughter has learned about in school. She really enjoyed this book and couldn’t wait to finish it.

RATING: Cinquain

The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage by Mel Robbins (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 7+ hours
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The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage by Mel Robbins, narrated by the author, is a long narration of how to use the 5-second rule to change your behavior and achieve your goals. In addition to a short explanation of how the rule works and how to apply it, she does offer some answers to frequently asked questions she’s received over the years and information about the psychology behind why the rule works.

Much of our indecision and regret are tied to our emotional responses to thoughts and goals — we effectively talk ourselves out of acting on our goals or ideas. Count down from 5 and then act — this leaves no time for your emotions to talk you out of accomplishing your goals or taking action. This advice can be life changing, and her examples demonstrate how it can change behaviors and build confidence in yourself. Invaluable advice and information.

However, there are far too many testimonials and it ends up sounding like a long-winded sales pitch. This could have been much shorter and succinct, with a link to a bunch of testimonials on her website for those who were interested.

The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage by Mel Robbins is a little long-winded and promotional, but if you want the CliffNotes version, view her TEDTalk.

RATING: Tercet

Tigers at Twilight by Mary Pope Osborne

Source: Gift
Paperback, 72 pgs.
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Tigers at Twilight by Mary Pope Osborne is one of a bunch of books my aunt sent my daughter over the summer. It is book 19 in the series, but kids can follow along pretty well reading them out of order. Personally, this would drive me crazy not reading them in order, but my daughter is not bothered.

Jack and Annie are siblings who have adventures in a magic tree house. In this book, the kids are sent to India in search of a gift to free Teddy the dog from his furry state. Using a nonfiction book as their guide, they meet langurs, elephants, a hermit, and a tiger. There is danger, fun, and a bit of fear that they won’t uncover the gift or find their way home.

My daughter took to this book instantly, and part of it is the mix of fiction and nonfiction. She likes to learn about the natural world while reading fiction and this has both. Tigers at Twilight by Mary Pope Osborne was a good adventure story that’s not too scary, but packs in enough information about a real place to help kids learn about the world.

RATING: Quatrain

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson (audio)

Source: Audible Purchase
Audiobook, 5+ hrs.
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The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson takes elements of Buddhism and westernizes them in a way that most readers can relate to them. This is an approach to life that requires an individual to take a hard look at themselves, realize their own limitations, and keep those in mind as they make choices about their work, play, and relationships. Unlike the generations he talks about in his book, I was not treated as special simply for showing up and I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons. Some of the lessons I learned may not be as hard as lessons learned by others, but they have provided me with a certain perspective on my own limitations.

We all have flaws and limitations and we need to accept them. Point taken.

Manson expresses himself with his no-holds-barred language and jokes — some of which may make you cringe — but his points are these:

  1. Deal with the bad and the good equally.
  2. Stop relying on outside forces or values to make you happy.
  3. Establish value priorities and stick to them. (not like earning more money)
  4. Be honest with yourself and others.

I do feel the author relied a little too much on a certain four-letter word, but even with that, the book offers some advice that many people might need. Do I think those people will pick up this book? Maybe, but most likely not. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson is an interesting listen, but much of the Buddhism is lost in the tropes and the humor.

RATING: Tercet

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 12+ hours
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Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover explores Tara’s experiences as a child of survivalists in the mountains of Idaho who also have very restrictive views on Mormonism. As a child, all care was provided by her mother who was an herbalist and midwife. The children were not allowed to go to doctors, nurses, or hospitals. As the family prepared for the end of the world and tried to remain detached from public services, Tara helped her mother collect herbs and worked with her father in the scrap junkyard. Without any public education or barely any homeschooling, Tara entered the classroom for the first time at age 17.

The gaps in her knowledge became very clear to her and her thirst for knowledge propelled her career in education — taking her to Harvard and Cambridge — but she also noticed that her family’s Mormonism was very different from that of her classmates at Brigham Young University. Her will power to educate herself is amazing, as is her ability to learn things on her own or with very little help until she passes the ACT.

But as she becomes more educated, a sense of disconnect begins to emerge between herself and her family. While listening, it seems as though things between her brother and herself are glossed over and then overly dramatic. It’s like watching a train wreck, and I suspect that the things she’s writing about that she wrote journal entries about are a bit like “out of body” experiences for her in some ways. She’s disconnected from that self and her family. This memoir will have readers feeling that acutely, and its a grieving process that doesn’t seem to have reached a conclusion by the end of the book.

For some readers, this could be a trigger given the violence she witnessed and endured throughout her life. Readers will either believe all that occurs from Tara’s point of view, or believe the truth is somewhere in the middle. The family has different points of view on these incidents and Westover does the best she can in sharing those early on.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover is a deep dive into a family life that may seem impossible. For instance, the burns her father sustains and survives is nothing short of a miracle. This is just one incident and result that seems impossible to believe. The overarching theme of how education can set you free, however, should not be ignored. Westover is a talented writer.

RATING: Quatrain

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 361 pgs.
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The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is the journey of Xiomara Batista, a young teen in Harlem who has secrets. She’s becoming a young woman aware of boys and a longing for acceptance — an acceptance of herself. She must come to terms with her religious mother and restricted upbringing and the reality that she does not fit the spiritual mold her mother had hoped for. The novel is told in verse.

The verse is reminiscent of childhood entries in a journal — rough and raw — full of emotion. Xiomara finds sanctuary in her words and her poems. She struggles with sexism and being a twin to a boy she feels disconnected from. Who is Poet X?

It is a journey of self-discovery. She finds strength from her pastor, despite her religious questions, and from her teacher who inspires her to read her words aloud. But all of this strength can be blown away by one woman who is also unclear about her life and her daughter and how things all went wrong.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is deliciously dramatic but it never loses its poetic center — the exploration of self and the journey toward a stronger self that can stand in the face of chaos.

RATING: Cinquain

Trini’s Big Leap by Beth Kephart, Alexander de Wit, and William Sulit

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 44 pgs.
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Trini’s Big Leap by Beth Kephart, Alexander de Wit, and William Sulit is published by Penny Candy Books. Trini is a fearless gymnast and a kid with a can-do attitude. But how she faces a challenge will be a lesson to all her readers. When faced with a challenge, how do you react? Do you give up? Do you ask for help? Do you ask someone to do it for you? Or do you work with others who have different skills.

Trini spies her friends in another room building things with blocks, but no matter how hard she tries, she just can’t build the castle she envisions. When Mr. Ed asks if she needs help, she refuses, even though she’s discouraged and frustrated. She doesn’t understand why she can’t do it.

Sulit’s delightful illustrations bring the bouncy Trini to life, and kids will engage with her high-energy activity. The pages are colorful but soft, and are a great complement to the story.

Trini’s Big Leap by Beth Kephart, Alexander de Wit, and William Sulit is a delightful picture book with a great message about perseverance and discovery. Take a journey with Trini and her friends and see how teamwork can save the day and move mountains.

RATING: Quatrain

Please check out these great interviews at Penny Candy Books.

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 13+ hrs.
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Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, narrated by Rebecca Lowman, is a true-crime look at murder in Los Angeles through the lens of one reporter and a case of black-on-black crime that was solved. The murder of a black cop’s son, Bryant Tennelle, by a gang member and a young man trying to fit in and stay on the good side of a gang member is not the case I expected to hear about in this book. With all Leovy’s talk about black-on-black crime and how there is a sort of lawlessness and take-it-in-their-own-hands mentality there, I expected to hear about someone other than the “good” son of a cop who chose to raise his family in the district where he worked as a homicide detective and police officer.

The case does highlight a bit of hero-worship on the part of the author with regard to Detective John Skaggs, who led the investigation. Skaggs is a persistent investigator, and Leovy does mention that his skills have closed many cases, which made me wonder why she focused on the case he helped solve related to the death of a cop’s son. Although it seems she is trying to suggest that the case wasn’t solved effectively because the victim was the son of a police officer, her entire book does the opposite, especially when there is no counterpoint to this case. As a reader, I would like to have seen another case in parallel involving another black man who was not the son of a police officer and how that case unfolded in the department.

The most enlightening part of the narrative is the commentary on how the criminal justice system has devalued the lives of all black men in these communities by failing to invest the time and resources necessary to investigate their murders. In her passages about how departments were merely pushing papers around and closing cases without putting the time in — unlike Skaggs who persistently visited and revisited communities to find evidence and witnesses — it is clear that real police work was not being done and that the officers gave up easily and had too little resources to follow-up on evidence or tips, etc. This is not to say that there were not officers and detectives in those departments who were not dedicated to finding the murderers, but without appropriate resources, the deck can be stacked against them actually closing cases.

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, narrated by Rebecca Lowman, takes on a large problem in America — black-on-black on crime. The topic is a bit broad, and while she uses one case as an example, it might be the wrong one for her to have used. In the author’s note, it is clear she relied heavily on reports she wrote for news outlets, and she did offer a great many statistics. But what she espouses is a tougher state-based control over enforcement, and I’m not sure that’s the right answer, especially given many cases of bias, policy brutality, and the over enforcement/sentencing of minor crimes involving black men. This book has a lot of discussion points, however, and would be fantastic for book clubs.

RATING: Tercet

Owl Diaries: Eva and Baby Mo by Rebecca Elliott (book 10)

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Owl Diaries: Eva and Baby Mo (book #10) by Rebecca Elliott is the 10th book in this series of Branches Books from Scholastic and a favorite series of my daughter. Eva is one curious owl and she’s kindhearted. When she learns about hobbies at her elementary school and she and her classmates are charged with sharing their own hobbies, she realizes that she doesn’t think her parents have hobbies at all. Eva soon learns that her parents once has a dazzling hobby, but with their growing family, they have had little time for it.

My daughter has loved this series since the beginning, and she now is able to read most of these books on her own, which is a delight to hear. She loves reading about Eva and her friends, as well as their plans and projects. In this book, Eva and her friends devise a way for her parents to rediscover their hobby. They offer to babysit Mo. They do not know how hard it will be.

Owl Diaries: Eva and Baby Mo (book #10) by Rebecca Elliott is a delightful book about how sometimes things look easier than they are in actuality. Eva and her friends learn how hard babysitting can be, but they also realize how fun it can be.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

A school project from when Rebecca was 6 reads, ‘when I grow up I want to be an artist and a writer’. After a brief detour from this career plan involving a degree in philosophy and a dull office job she fulfilled her plan in 2001 when she became a full time children’s book illustrator and has since written and illustrated hundreds of picture books published worldwide including the award-winning Just Because, Zoo Girl, Naked Trevor, Mr Super Poopy Pants, Missing Jack and the very popular Owl Diaries series.

She lives in Suffolk in the United Kingdom with her husband, a history teacher and children, all professional monkeys.