Staff Picks for Adults and Teens

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Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin

2014

Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, was born to gifted and well-to-do parents. Her mother was a singer and her father was a well-known preacher who marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights movement. Life wasn’t a piece of cake. Aretha’s mother left the family when she was young leaving the father as a single parent. Her father showcased her childhood talent by waking her up in the middle of the night to play piano and sing for his party guests. Aretha experienced her first pregnancy at the age of 12, her second baby arrived when she was 15 and she dropped out of school. Aretha’s babies were raised by big mama, her father’s mother. Aretha experienced her first recording session with Columbia Records in 1960 at the age of 18. The book covers her years her early years of gospel singing in the church which taught her the response and call method she employed throughout her career. She was associated with Columbia, Atlantic and Arista Records.  She dealt with a variety of agents and collaborators most notably Jerry Wexler. We discover that Aretha is a dreamer who has trouble following through with grandiose plans. She is a diva who jealously protects her status as Queen. Aretha is unable to manage her financial affairs and tour schedules, has a fear of flying and is often not on speaking terms with fellow musicians or family members for months at time. Yet she is an artist whose work is greatly admired. Her classic recordings of Chain of Fools, RESPECT, Think, and other works are considered standards in the R&B canon. Ritz’s readable but detailed biography could have focused more time on Franklin’s personal life but the star is notoriously private. Ritz interviewed countless acquaintances and family members in order to construct this inside look at Franklin’s life.

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The Boston Girl

(2014)
The Boston Girl

 

Truth be told, I love a good coming of age story.  The Boston Girl is one to remember.   Addie Baum, recounting her life to her granddaughter in an interview, is an engaging storyteller.  Once you suspend your disbelief to allow for a beautifully crafted tale as a spontaneous interview, you are bewitched by this touching reflection on life in a Jewish immigrant family during the first half of the 20th century.  Addie’s meaningful or playful asides to her granddaughter maintain the compelling dimension of the story being told.  It is sometimes difficult to separate the curious young woman from the seasoned octogenarian, but Addie Baum is vibrant at every age. I did not want to put this book down, even after I had turned the last page.  I will likely listen to the audio version to hear this story at Addie Baum’s knee once more.

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Wandering Son

(2011)

Wandering Son is a masterfully handled manga about two fifth grade friends, a boy and a girl, who wish they were a girl and a boy, respectively.  Shuichi is naturally quiet and shy, and keeps his desire to be a girl private, restricted to only a few very close friends, including Takatsuki, who wants to be a boy.  The two struggle through their difficulties together, like when boys at school point out Takatsuki’s budding femininity.  The friends encourage each other to be brave, practicing wearing opposite gender clothing in public together, in a town or two over, to avoid potential scrutiny from their peers.

I was very impressed with the sensitive, thoughtful handling of the difficulties faced by transgendered people in this story, especially in the frequently long, roundabout path of coming to terms with being trans.  This book does a great job at bringing this seldom talked about subject to light.  The author never resorts to the typical, offensive “cross-dresser” gags that are so frequent in popular media.  Instead, this is a thought-provoking, real, and very sweet story about coming out of one’s shell to embrace their true personality and finding the support to do that.  It is never heavy-handed in its message; instead, the author chooses to show Shuichi and Takatsuki’s journey.

I found it refreshing that in this series, the students actually grow up and graduate from multiple grades; surprisingly, it is not episodic.  I think this gives the story the advantage of having appeal to a wide variety of ages, from teens to adults.  This story comes highly-recommended.

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Girl With a Pearl Earring

(1999)
Girl With a Pearl Earring

Inspired by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer's famous painting, Tracy Chevalier creates a beautiful tale about Girl With a Pearl Earring.  As a fan of both historical fiction and art, I fell in love with this book.  In Chevalier's imagination, 16 year old Griet comes to live with the Vermeer family in Delft, Holland to serve as a maid in their home. Griet struggles to find her niche within the household which includes six children, Vermeer's fiery tempered wife, Catharina, her mother, Maria Thins, and Tanneke, a loyal maid who does not take kindly to Griet's arrival.  Vermeer and Griet share a similar view of the world, despite their completely different places in society. Eventually, Johannes takes an interest in Griet and she becomes his muse and model for this stunning work.  As one can imagine, scandal follows quickly on the heels of this relationship.

 

If you like the book, I would also recommend the film starring Colin Firth, as Vermeer, and Scarlett Johansson, perfectly cast, as Griet. (The resemblance between Johansson and the young girl in the actual painting is stunning!)

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The Book of Unknown Americans

(2014)

"The Book of Unknown Americans" by Cristina Henriquez tells the touching stories impacting the lives of a group of immigrant families sharing space in a Newark, Delaware apartment building.  The immigrants have come together from various countries around the globe such as Mexico, Puerto Rico, Paraguay, Panama, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.  Each of them face common and individual challenges related to assimilation into their adopted American homeland.  Central to Henriquez's story are teenagers Maribel Rivera and Mayor Toro who develop a close bond as they grant each other  the unconditional acceptance they both so desperately need.   

Arturo and Alma Rivera have recently crossed the Mexican border with their only child Maribel. They are desperate to find the quality schooling necessary for Maribel after an accident left her with a traumatic brain injury.  Celia and Rafael brought their young sons Enrique and Mayor to America nearly 15 years earlier after fleeing military conflict in Panama.  Many of the neighboring families came to the United States to escape poverty, war, or persecution.  Parents hoped to give children better opportunities such as a good education promising a more secure future.  Together, they all form one big family as they navigate the obstacles of new life in a country that does not always readily accept their presence.    

A good part of "The Book of Unknown Americans" is told from the perspective of Maribel's mother Alma.  She struggles with the guilt of her daughter's accident and places all her hopes for the future into Maribel's recovery.  Alma finds solace in the kindness of her neighbor Celia who has her own struggles trying to understand her husband and son. 

The author builds a touching story from the experiences of the apartment dwellers.  She offers a momentary glimpse into the lives of immigrants who have gambled their past for an uncertain future in an uncertain place they now call home.  Upon arrival and immersion into a strange culture, they find a mix of despair, joy, and hope.  Henriquez respectfully, and successfully, illustrates an emotional side of the issue that is more clearly about relationships than government policy.   

   

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Death By Black Hole

And Other Cosmic Quandaries

The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, is a familiar figure to those of us addicted to those documentaries about space that pop up on PBS and the History Channel. Tyson is an affable figure on TV, and proves to be the same in print. This book is a collection of articles that he wrote for “Natural History” magazine. They present complex topics in a clear, conversational manner, infused with humor. Thought-provoking and entertaining.

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The book of trees

visualizing branches of knowledge (2014)
The book of trees:  visualizing branches of knowledge

A fascinating introduction to the history and design of tree forms used to explain knowledge in a visual way, this book is filled with historical and modern tree designs.  From hand-lettered medieval trees showing the relationship of Biblical characters to modern computer-generated trees of Twitter feeds, there are 200 wonderful examples of all sorts of tree styles.  There is something for everyone—square representations of states by area in 1939, the X-Men family tree, or icicle trees used by statisticians.

Author Manuel Lima’s critically acclaimed bestseller Visual Complexity examined information visualizations; now his second book highlights visual literacy and symbolic representations that store information.  Short biographies of pivotal figures in this progression provide more historical depth.

 

 

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Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life

2014

Diego Rivera was twice the size and age of Frida Kahlo when they married in August of 1929 but they seemed destined to be together. Rivera was a famous Mexican muralist who used the fresco method of painting on wet plaster. Kahlo was known for her self-portraits showing her suffering due to internal injuries resulting from a bus accident and for her depictions and deep love of animals. As a child, she contracted polio. She had always been sickly. Reef has written a book about one of the most interesting artist couples in history. They were ardent Communists who befriended Leon Trotsky, they each had extra marital affairs, they married twice, and their artwork can be seen throughout the world. Numerous photographs enhance this book.

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The Snow Child

2012
The Snow Child

Initially, I was pulled into this story by the trailer seen here.   I was absorbed by the hearty pioneers placed against the vivid backdrop of colonial Alaska.  As I read this book in the summer, its imagery made me shiver.  It seems very timely, given the fresh snowfall.  Based upon a Russian folktale, The Snow Child transports you to the Alaskan wilderness, where a husband and wife struggle to begin a new life, one that is treacherous and hard-fought, but enchanting.  The couple, haunted by their childless state, takes in a mysterious girl, found alone in the bitter cold.  Though the girl, Faina, is accepted into this small family, she retains her mythical quality and flits in and out of their life.  The story deals with reality versus illusion, what it means to belong, and emotional as well as physical survival.  Grab a warm blanket and curl up with this gem.  Sample it here.

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This One Summer

(2014)

I read This One Summer in one sitting. With no bathroom breaks! For a 320 page graphic novel, that’s really saying something.

The story is about a pre-teen girl named Rose and her parents taking their yearly summer trip to their lake house. This is something Rose normally looks forward to, but the tension between her parents is disturbing. Something is haunting her mother and it can’t be dispelled, even by her father. Rose doesn’t seem to have much refuge, even finding herself arguing with her slightly younger friend/neighbor on the beach Windy. The two are suddenly at odds, with Rose now interested in doing “grown up things” like watching gory movies, while all Windy wants to do is be a kid. The girls find themselves intrigued by a local drama between teenagers in the small town, but often disagree about what conclusions to draw about these “adult” events, which eventually become life-threatening.

This is a story with a fascinating slow boil to an intense conclusion, with everything coming to a head almost at once. Despite this, the story doesn’t feel contrived or too neatly tied up for real life; it remains very realistic and authentic the whole way through. This story doesn’t sugar-coat or preach, despite presenting some excellent life lessons when the characters have to deal with true problems. The writing is excellent, as is the art, which is done in an airy style and filled with purple melancholy tones. The art really suits the feel of the story, which is all about the bittersweet experience of growing up; although there is excitement at what lies ahead, many things are also left behind.

This is a great read for an older teen and up. For teens, this story would likely be very relatable and for adults, it immediately summons the nostalgia of adolescence. The Tamakis’ work has some serious literary merit, and that is definitely clear in Summer, which reads like a classic.

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Of Poseidon VS. Percy Jackson's Greek Gods

Of Poseidon
Percy Jackson's Greek Gods

VERSUS - The APL Teen book review where two books on a related theme go head to head and only one comes out a winner. The winner will be decided by the author’s subjective and highly biased criteria i.e. her opinion.

November’s VERSUS stars two audio books that focus on the topic of Greek myths - Of Poseidon by Anna Banks and Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods by Rick Riordan. If you can already spot the winner then you’re ahead of the game!

Of Poseidon is a modern love story/bildungsroman within the framework of Greek mythology. Our protagonist is 18 year old Emma whose demure and clumsy persona is immediately embraced by Galen a feisty prince of the Syrena. Written with sensuality and detailed settings, the book lends itself easily to an audio interpretation. Although the narrator’s delicate voice struggled with the male characters, Rebecca Gibel deftly portrayed the emotional swells and depths of the characters as they develop new connections and relationships. The story may sound a bit familiar to the average young adult. Girl meets boy who saves her from danger, Boy and Girl don’t initially get along, Boy leaves Girl to protect her from himself. Boy is intensely jealous of Girl’s attention to other guys,--and I could keep going but if you are a Twihard you can pretty much fill in the blanks for yourself.

Did I like it? It reads like adult fiction and considering that Emma is in high school that just doesn’t ring true. I don’t remember a bell ringing at 18 where all of the sudden I just morphed and every relationship (romantic or otherwise) made sense. Some of the terms that Anna Banks used to world-build like the word mate instead of marry sound base and mechanical. When world-building makes you want to pause or gag, it’s not effective world-building. Also throughout the book there is an undercurrent theme that says “Men are great in every way and women are dumb, selfish, vapid, emotionally-unavailable creatures who need to mate as soon as they are 18.” Depressing!  The ending of this book is also abrupt and was probably intended as a cliffhanger but most readers will already know where this is going. This book garners a strong 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods (you know you want another apostrophe!) is a painful plod through the Greek pantheon told through a cut and paste of various ancient Greek texts. Oh wait, it’s EXACTLY NOT that. Fans of the Percy Jackson series will be thrilled to have his distinctive humorous take on the world through the eyes of a demigod return in this audio book. Read by Jesse Bernstein this book is a reinterpretation of the original myths, starting with the ancient Greek creation story followed by a general overview of the 12 Olympian gods of the Greek pantheon plus Hades. Unlike the other Greek myth inspired books, heroes and monsters get short shrift in this tome with Riordan hinting throughout the book of another title that will come in the future. (Check out the cover image .jpg at the end of this review) Percy’s use of modern terms such as girlfriends instead of mistresses can be a little clunky at times but generally not disconcerting enough to make the reader question the text.

Did I like it? In the interest of full disclosure, I am a complete Percy Jackson Fangirl and I have had one pleasant email exchange with Rick Riordan. But that said I loved this book. I liked the way Riordan dealt with tough topics like patricide and cannibalism. He doesn’t give a pass to bad behavior and clearly condemns substance abuse. Jesse Bernstein has narrated Percy Jackson’s voice in this series from the beginning and once again he rises to the occasion providing the emotional context and vocal range that allows you to fully immerse yourself in the world created by Rick Riordan. A Full 5 out of 5 stars for a book that is as close to perfection as an author can manage.

And the Winner of this VERSUS is Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods by Rick Riordan. Listen to it today!

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