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Reading (and Listening) for Days of Beach Towels and Porch Swings

Photo by Jenni Kowal on Unsplash

American Dirt

By Jeanine Cummins

Reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

Lydia lives with her husband and their 8-year-old son, Luca, in Acapulco, Mexico. In her bookstore, Lydia meets Javier, and soon the two form an intellectual bond as they discuss books. Unbeknownst to her, Javier is the violent leader of a drug cartel, and when she gets caught in his crosshairs, Lydia and Luca begin their harrowing journey to el norte, the United States. As Lydia and Luca wend their way north, they encounter both violence and excruciatingly beautiful kindnesses. Especially poignant are their encounters with servants of Jesus who offer food, a cup of cold water, prayer, shelter, and hope. American Dirt profoundly and heartbreakingly puts a personal face on the reality of the migrant experience. (Flatiron Books)

Little Mole Finds Hope

By Glenys Nellist, illustrated by Sally Garland

Reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

Lying on the floor of his underground burrow, Little Mole doesn’t feel good inside. When Mama asks him what’s wrong, he says, “I’m sad.” Mama knows just what Little Mole needs—hope! But Little Mole is confused. He doesn’t know what hope is or where he can find it. So clever Mama bundles up Little Mole and walks with him through the tunnel out of the burrow, showing him along their path that “there is always hope in dark places.” In this first book of an upcoming series of children’s picture books, Nellist’s gentle and comforting narrative is enhanced by Garland’s artwork highlighting light in dark places and effectively portraying sadness, perplexity, wonder, discovery, hope, and joy. (Beaming Books)

The Water Dancer

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

Born into slavery, Hiram witnesses the affluent, arrogant lives of the plantation owners and their families. Employing his gift of photographic memory, he watches and memorizes his people’s humiliations and losses as well as his own. Hiram also possesses a mysterious power, and as word of it spreads, he is taken into the work of the Underground Railroad to transport slaves to freedom. But his own journey is fraught with confusing demands and degradations, making him unsure of who is friend and who is foe. In this riveting novel for adults, author Ta-Nehisi Coates portrays characters who experienced and survived slavery and found a way forward, embracing sacrifice so others could have freedom and life. (One World)

Creative Juices: A Splash of Storycraft, Process, and Creative Soul Care

By Cynthia Beach

Reviewed by Ann Byle

Creative soul care, process, and storycraft are the moving parts of a writer’s life, Cynthia Beach says. She digs into obstacles that can stymie writers, such as perfectionism and procrastination, as well as the craft of writing, including plot, characterization, point of view, dialogue, and setting. Each of the book’s many short, readable sections includes a small treat called “Brain Matter,” usually a writing exercise that allows readers to deepen their takeaway and apply lessons to their writing life. Also included is information on writers’ groups, critiques, publishing options, and hiring an editor. Creative Juices is for fiction and nonfiction writers, new writers, and those farther down the road, and it’s filled with golden advice and nuggets that will brighten any writer’s journey.  (Soul Seasons)

The Legendary Harry Caray: Baseball’s Greatest Salesman

By Don Zminda

Review by Paul Delger

Baseball broadcaster Harry Caray’s legacy and popularity remain strong. People still sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”—a song he made famous—at Chicago Cubs games, and a statue of the beloved Caray with his signature thick glasses stands outside Wrigley Field. Zminda’s biography takes a close look at Caray’s professional and personal life. Caray announced games like he was a fan, and he often became a cheerleader for the team. He also criticized owners, players, and fellow broadcasters. Caray loved the limelight and would steal a broadcasting call from a partner when something exciting happened. But overall, Caray earned his fans’ delight with an unpolished, quirky, opinionated, and fun style. An enjoyable and compelling read about one of baseball’s most interesting characters. (Rowman and Littlefield)

The Keeper of Wild Words

By Brooke Smith, illustrated by Madeline Kloepper

Reviewed by Jenny deGroot

Brook needs her grandma Mimi’s help because she has nothing special to tell about her summer when she returns to school the next day. But Mimi needs Brook’s help too, to find a long list of special nature words that she is afraid are disappearing. Brook and Mimi spend the day in the wild looking for each word on Mimi’s list: ‘wren’ and ‘willow,’ ‘lavender’ and ‘violet,’ ‘drake’ and ‘doe.’ They find every word and return home as the sun sets. The author dedicates the book to poet Mary Oliver, a fitting tribute to a writer of wild words. This book celebrates the grandparent-grandchild relationship and a day spent discovering the beauty of words and the outdoors together. (Chronicle Books)

Dream of the Iron Dragon

By Robert Kroese, audiobook narrated by J.D. Ledford

Reviewed by Trevor Denning

For fans of science fiction and history, Dream of the Iron Dragon (available in print, ebook, and through Audible) provides numerous delights. One complication leads to another, and the next thing we know our space-traveling heroes are fighting with and alongside some of history’s greatest warriors, the Vikings. Given the fantastic premise, Kroese keeps everything surprisingly grounded. Scientific and historical details were thoroughly researched, yet the heart of the story is always with the characters, each of whom has hopes, ambitions, wounds, and a purpose. Narrator J.D. Ledford expertly gives each character a unique voice and conveys every ounce of emotion without ever upstaging the story. Her performance is so good, in fact, it’s easy to forget she’s there. (14 hours, 56 minutes, Audible)

The Odyssey (Audiobook)

By Homer, translated by Emily Wilson, narrated by Claire Danes

Reviewed by Otto Selles

The classics can be intimidating, especially a work like Homer’s The Odyssey. You know you should read the book, but unless you are obliged to study it in school, this epic poem will probably remain on your list of books to read someday. In a feat supported by a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” Emily Wilson has provided a first-rate English translation of The Odyssey. She manages to use clear and relatable language that makes a 3,000-year-old epic feel oddly close to home. In this audio version, actor Claire Danes (Homeland) makes Wilson’s translation even more approachable, reading with great clarity and never tripping over Greek names and places. The audiobook also includes Wilson’s illuminating introduction that provides many keys to understanding and appreciating the work. (Brilliance Audio, Audible)

Fahrenheit 451 (Audiobook)

By Ray Bradbury, narrated by Tim Robbins

Reviewed by Otto Selles

The experience of listening to the dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451, about a firefighter who burns books for a living, during a national pandemic was at once powerful and unsettling. First of all, actor Tim Robbins (Shawshank Redemption) is a fantastic narrator, capturing the feverish force of Bradbury’s descriptive and, at times, over-the-top prose. He uses different voices for each major character, emphasizing the novel’s satirical aspects. As I listened, however, I began to identify with the firefighter Guy Montag’s anxiety, for I was feeling increasing anxiety about the coronavirus. Fahrenheit 451 challenges us to think. When we re-enter society, will we still take time to read well, think deeply, and consider what we might change over the long term in our lives and in society?


An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago

By Alex Kotlowitz

Reviewed by Cynthia Beach

Journalist Alex Kotlowitz knows something about human beings and violence. In 1992, he made two Chicago brothers famous in his award-winning There Are No Children Here, a coming-of-age story set in a housing project. Kotlowitz’s new book, An American Summer, tightens its focus on Chicago’s summer of 2013 to show what happens to the human spirit in an American city where, on average, three violent crimes occur daily. Kotlowitz invigorates the sociological imagination. You meet victims, perhaps the police officers who found them, perhaps a parent. You meet the context, the wider definition of these fellow image-bearers of God, people who were but are no more. And in the end, you become sure of their humanity. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). 

Almost Time

By Gary D. Schmidt and Elizabeth Stickney, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

Ethan knows it’s almost sugaring time when his dad puts applesauce instead of maple syrup on his Sunday pancakes. Soon Ethan’s wait is over: the sap begins to run, and he and his dad work companionably side by side to collect the sap, boil it, and pour it into jars. In this lovely, slow-paced picture book about longing and waiting, authors Gary D. Schmidt and his late wife Elizabeth Stickney welcome young readers into the anticipation and satisfying rhythm of a yearly event—one that adds sweetness to both the taste buds and the relationships of a young boy. Illustrator G. Brian Karas’s artwork contrasts nature’s darkness and light, winter and spring. (Clarion Books)

Dragon Hoops

By Gene Luen Yang

Reviewed by Otto Selles

Gene Luen Yang begins this graphic novel by declaring, “I’ve hated sports ever since I was a little kid. Especially basketball.” The novel goes on to explain how Yang became a basketball superfan while teaching at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif., and describes the numerous challenges faced by O’Dowd’s team. The book’s bold and colorful images capture the excitement and movement of a hard-fought basketball game. Serious moments are balanced by Yang’s quirky humor and admissions of his own nerdy awkwardness as he tries to mix with the “cool kids” of the basketball world. High school readers, sports lovers, and anyone open to reading a good story in graphic-novel form will enjoy this engaging book. (First Second)

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