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The Magic Doll: A Children’s Book Inspired by African Art by Adrienne Yabouza, illustrated by Élodie Nouhen

Source: Media Masters Publicity

Hardcover, 32 pgs

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The Magic Doll: A Children’s Book Inspired by African Art by Adrienne Yabouza, illustrated by Élodie Nouhen, is an inspirational tale of a family in a small village in West Africa in which a girls explains the special way in which she was born. Unlike other newlyweds, her mother and father struggled to conceive a child in their first years of marriage. The father suggests that she have a carved doll made to hasten the fertility process. The mother does so and carries the wooden child around with her.

This story is touching in how it tackles the struggles of fertility and the traditions of Akua-Ba fertility figures of the Akan people of Ghana. My daughter asked a lot of questions about these dolls and what was going on, and many of these questions were answered in the back of the book. We had a good discussion about this cultural tradition. We loved the collage-like images and the colors. It was a gentle story complimented by the color-scheme chosen by the illustrator.

The Magic Doll: A Children’s Book Inspired by African Art by Adrienne Yabouza, illustrated by Élodie Nouhen, was a wonderful story about family, fertility, and relationships between mothers and their children.

RATING: Quatrain

The Little Dancer: A Children’s Book Inspired by Edgar Degas by Géraldine Elschner, illustrated by Olivier Desvaux

Source: Media Masters Publicity

Hardcover, 32 pgs.

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The Little Dancer: A Children’s Book Inspired by Edgar Degas by Géraldine Elschner, illustrated by Olivier Desvaux, is the perfect holiday gift for the ballerina’s in your family, as well as the artists. Not only will children see ballet through the eyes of a young child who’s a ballerina, but they will also see the wonder captured by the hands and eyes of Edgar Degas.

Jeanne’s mother sacrifices everything to move to Paris to help her daughter achieve her dreams, but while ballet is not precisely what she’s after, her role in the background on stage catches the eye of Degas. Marie, another ballet dancer in the corps, has taken ill and Jeanne is asked to stand in as a model until her return. This will mean additional money for her family.

Degas’ techniques are explored, and the illustrations are gorgeous reproductions of his art. The entire book is similar to his style. While the book focuses on the awe of ballet and art, it does not shy away from the desperate times many of these ballerina’s faced as members of poor families.

My daughter and I loved this book, and it probably doesn’t hurt that her favorite movie that we’ve seen a million times is Leap! about a girl facing similar choices, and not always making the best ones. Here, Jeanne seems to have a good head on her shoulders and makes some good choices to earn her family more money. While we do not know exactly what happens to her career, it does provide a look at the ballet corps’ use of children to fill the backstage and the unique opportunities some of them found there.

The Little Dancer: A Children’s Book Inspired by Edgar Degas by Géraldine Elschner, illustrated by Olivier Desvaux, is definitely a book you’ll want to share with your artists and ballerinas.

RATING: Cinquain

America the Beautiful: A Story in Photographs

Source: TLC Book Tours

Hardcover, 400 pgs.

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America the Beautiful: A Story in Photographs, published by National Geographic, tells the story of our country in photographs and is broken down by region: the West and Pacific, the East and mid-Atlantic, the South and Caribbean, and the Midwest and central plains. Katharine Lee Bates and her work are the spine holding the volume together from her poem/song “America, the Beautiful” to her 1893 pilgrimage across the United States. Like the divisions in America today politically, Bates saw much the same debates and divisions on her journey, but she saw the merciless beauty in all of it, and documented her journey in a diary. What’s beautiful about the poem and this collection is that it not only praises the beauty of our country but never fails to criticize its flaws and call for evolution/improvement. “America! America!/God mend thine ev’ry flaw.”

The photographs in this collection are stunning. Some state photographs are accompanied by stories from authors, actors, and others who are from those states, including Tara Westover and Maya Rudolph. The glorious gray wolves in their natural habitat and the Zuni women of Arizona in their finery and dresses awaiting a celebration. Imagine yourself flying high in the traditional blanket toss in Alaska during whaling festival. Hear about the glories of Las Vegas beyond the gambling and the Neon lights from Wayne Newton. Even Barack Obama makes an appearance to share his memories of Hawaii, and the celebration of the Harlem Hellfighters in a photograph of a granddaughter holding her grandfather’s portrait, draped in an American flag. Some of my favorites are the portraits in sepia; they are gorgeous and there is so much depth in these American faces.

There is a serene calm of Walden Pond in Massachusetts, contrasted with the crowded beaches of New Jersey (at least before COVID-19). Play hide-and-seek with a young boy in Idaho in his father’s cornfield. So much joy in these photographs and stories told in captions and quotations. Fruit so bountiful and children joyous in the streets of Washington, D.C., as they take the summer heat in stride. Tattoo artists, American flags in a field, gray seals playing in the ocean, the weary faces of coal miners in West Virginia the sleepy faces of Appalachian Trail hikers, the camouflage of an alligator in duckweed, the fields of cabbage in Arkansas provide a snapshot of America and all of its faces and landscapes.

America the Beautiful: A Story in Photographs, published by National Geographic, is a love story for our nation. There is beauty in the harvest of Kansas, as rows of wheat give away to what begins to look like a race track, alongside the children in Illinois sharing the spray of water in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Photographs speak a thousand words, and what this collection tells me is that America may have differences and at times be at war with itself, but we are more similar than we think. We are one nation, something we need to remember.

RATING: Cinquain

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (audio)

Source: Purchased

Audible, 11+ hours

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Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, narrated by Stephen Lang, is a ghost story from the beginning to the end, but Judas Coyne (formerly Justin Cowzynski) is an unlikable character with a penchant for collecting macabre items. This penchant is what gets him into a big mess — all of his sins come to roost as he battles the unseen man tied to a suit he buys online in a heart-shaped box. He has effectively retired from public life after his bandmates have either killed themselves or died, but little else has changed with his life — still moving from woman to woman and collecting oddities on the underground web.

Lang is a decent narrator no matter the character and he has the timbre to create a creepy atmosphere.

Jude and his latest woman (like all his women are called by their former state of residence) find that they are locked together in a battle against a ghostly man who is out for revenge. It’s clear this ghost hasn’t had a lot of practice with revenge from beyond the grave, but Jude gets some help from his former girlfriend who has been dead for some time. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, narrated by Stephen Lang, is a dark tale of beyond-the-grave revenge.

RATING: Quatrain

Chaos Theories by Elizabeth Hazen

Source: the poet

Paperback, 88 pgs.

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Chaos Theories by Elizabeth Hazen is a collection of poems that explore the spiraling, out-of-control nature our lives can sometimes take on and how to cope with that chaos and uncertainty. It’s a collection for the current times in that it provides us with a look at life amidst uncertainty, albeit unrelated to COVID-19. Through the art of words and the certainty of science, Hazen strikes into new frontiers with her poems, exploring divorce, motherhood, the turbulent nature of emotions. In “Chaos Theory,” Hazen establishes the unstable ground of these poems by grounding it into a personal moment of “rage [that] comes out of nowhere — the glass explodes/when it hits the wall, as physics says it must,//” (pg. 3)

Ghosts haunt in “Ghost Story” but are they just voices in the narrator’s head spilling her secrets? But the secrets won’t stop just because there are three or four fingers of warm liquid in the glass. Hazen calls us to face our own ghosts head on, not to dull the sharpness of their criticisms or their secrets. To understand the chaos, we must all start from the beginning. “…and no matter what you tell/yourself tonight, no matter what you tell//yourself in twenty years, you are still there,/” (pg. 10, from “Girls at the Bus Depot”)

Hazen’s poems are like an archeological dig, an excavation of the self. In “Extraction,” the narrator says, “…A body holds more mysteries/than the mouth can bring itself to speak./” It’s true that when we’re young and sometimes as we age, we don’t really know our true selves, unless we’ve taken that time to delve deep into who we are, what our desires may be, and what we’re passionate about. It is a journey we must take on our own, but also one that must be done. Without it, we can be lost and make many harmful and wrong decisions.

There are many losses along the way in our journeys, as we search for the truth of ourselves, but those losses are memories that can be recalled with the slightest scent or picture. “or a room holds the vibration of a voice,/a person’s scent, long after he has gone.” (pg. 43, “The Spectroscope”) While loss can be sad and make us feel empty, there are those losses that can bring joy at the happiness some moments held, like uncovering trilobites in the soil.

Chaos Theories by Elizabeth Hazen warns us not to get too caught up in the loss and the memories — “My memory is a haunted house that will/not let me leave.” (pg. 44, “When I Was a Girl”) We must learn to break free from the chaos — sometimes self-created — to find the right path, the calm, and the joy we all seek. At the heart, we’re all working against nature and the passage of time, like the house in “Erosion.”

RATING: Quatrain

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About the Poet:

Elizabeth Hazen is a poet, essayist, and teacher. A Maryland native, she came of age in a suburb of Washington, D.C. in the pre-internet, grunge-tinted 1990s, when women were riding the third wave of feminism and fighting the accompanying backlash. She began writing poems when she was in middle school, after a kind-hearted librarian handed her Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. She has been reading and writing poems ever since.

Hazen’s work explores issues of addiction, mental health, and sexual trauma, as well as the restorative power of love and forgiveness. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, American Literary Review, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, The Threepenny Review, The Normal School, and other journals. Alan Squire Publishing released her first book, Chaos Theories, in 2016. Girls Like Us is her second collection. She lives in Baltimore with her family.

National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of Science by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld

Source: Media Masters Publicity

Hardcover, 128 pgs.

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National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of Science by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld is so well organized with fact boxes, interactive questions, and tips for parents to use with their kids who are interested in doing more with science. The full-color photographs are gorgeous, and my daughter didn’t want to stop reading this one. It definitely opens kids’ eyes to the world around them, the simple ways in which science can be done, and explains how they too can become scientists.

From what our senses tell us about the world around us to how we can find answers to our questions, this book provides a great foundation for kids. My daughter has already kept a science journal for class in 2nd and 3rd grade when they were studying clouds and the growth of seeds, but this book also goes more into depth about hypotheses and theories and the difference between them. I loved the “Branches of Science” tree included in the book, though the branches of engineering, ecology, and physical science seemed a bit short to me; I’m sure there are more branches coming off of those. There is so much more that this book could cover in each chapter, but as a “first” book of science for kids, it does a wonderful job.

We loved how easy to read this was for my daughter. She read it to us on more than one occasion when she got excited about something she learned. I hope that this is just the first in the series and that there are more of these books about the other branches of science that are not covered in this volume. National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of Science by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld is a great addition to any library and will be fun for both parents and kids with plenty of activities to share.

RATING: Cinquain

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

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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