Staff Picks for Adults and Teens

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The Book of Unknown Americans


"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


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

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


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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Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek (2014)

After finding a copy of a 1950's popularity guide written by a former teen model, Maya decides to do an experiment. Maya decides to follow the advice in the book (including wearing a girdle & setting her hair in curlers) to see if it can help on her own quest for popularity.  As this was a social experiment, she kept a diary of her daily experiences.  No one outside of her family knew what she was doing.  As she starts her year long journey, Maya is in 8th grade and living in a rough town on the Texas/Mexico border.  She considers herself to be on the bottom rung of the social ladder and is determined to climb her way out.


This memoir is the result of Maya's experiment and was thoroughly enjoyable all the way through.  Maya is a brave young woman, who will surely go far in life.  I work with teens on a daily basis and there are not many I know who would stick it out and follow ALL of the advice given by Betty Cornell. The results are humorous, insightful, and inspiring.  This is a book both teens and adults can enjoy.  If you have a teenage girl in middle or high school on your holiday shopping list, check this out!


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Leaving Time


Jenna Metcalf's mother has been gone for 10 years.  Alice Metcalf disappeared after an incident at the New England Elephant Sanctuary, where she worked as a naturalist and expert in elephant behavior.  Her daughter, now a precocious thirteen year old, feels abandoned and is passionate to learn what happened to her mother.  In "Leaving Time", the most recent novel from Jodi Picoult, Jenna enlists the help of a once celebrated psychic and the heavy drinking detective assigned to her mother's unsolved case ten years ago.  

Serenity Jones is the psychic who disappeared from the public's radar when she misread a vision that lead to doubts about the validity of her predictions.  Virgil Stanhope left the police force when the cold case surrounding Alice Metcalf exposed doubts about his ability to solve crimes.  The two misfits see helping Jenna as an opportunity to make past wrongs right and vindicate their previous failures.  However, the only evidence to investigate comes from Jenna's early, yet vivid, memories and the conflicting memories of Jenna's Father, who has had a significant breach from reality.  The trio of Jenna, Serenity, and Virgil climb steep hills and walk down blind alleys in an effort to find clues about why the injured Alice vanished after her coworker was found dead on the grounds of the Elephant Sanctuary.      

In "Leaving Time", Jodi Picoult displays her usual gift of sprinkling the reading adventure with surprises.  She also gathers all loose story threads and ties them together neatly by the end.  The author does a masterful job illustrating the mystical lives of the elephants who reside in the sanctuary and where they are nurtured by Alice Metcalf and her husband Thomas.  The complexities of their familial relationships with each other often mirror, and sometimes surpass, those of humans. The animals also exhibit incredible attachments to their young and experience grief in a sophisticated way.  Picoult uses these fascinating aspects of elephant life to illustrate Jenna's feelings of abandonment; which help to explain the girl's obsessive need to find the truth that will answer the question of why Alice left her daughter.   

Picoult also brings awareness of the Sanctuary as a peaceful place for aging or injured elephants who are veterans of the circus or the zoo.  By the conclusion of this story, a new appreciation for the plight of these majestic creatures awaits.         

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Winter Street


You could say the Quinn Family is dysfunctional… A week before Christmas father Kelley , an innkeeper, finds out his second wife Mitzi has been sleeping with the inn’s hired  Santa. Eldest son Patrick, a highly successful hedge fund investor, is being investigated for fraud. Son Kevin, who has been secretly sleeping with the inn’s housekeeper, just found out he is going to be a father. Daughter Ava, who has pinned all her hopes on getting a diamond this year for Christmas, finds out her boyfriend has left to spend the holiday with his mother in New York. Did I mention his old girlfriend is also in town?  And we can’t forget Bart, the youngest son and the only child of Kelley and Mitzi, who recently made the rash decision to join the Marines is now MIA in Afghanistan. Sounds dysfunctional enough? Well how about if I tell you that Kelley’s ex-wife, a famous television news anchor decides to join her family for the holidays this year? Like most of her books, Elin Hilderbrand brings humor, suspense, plenty of drama, and bit of heartbreak to the story. The book ends a bit too quickly, but I have a feeling we will see more of The Quinn Family in the future.

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The Mouse on Wall Street


The Duchy of Grand Fenwick is a tiny country (5 miles long, 3 miles across) located in the Alps, squeezed between France and Switzerland.  The nation was founded in 1370 by an Englishman, Sir Roger Fenwick, thus making English the national language.  The primary industries are the raising of sheep and the production of the wine Pinot Grand Fenwick.  The country is a parliamentary democracy under the reign of the hereditary Duchess, Gloriana XII.  Grand Fenwick is also entirely fictitious.




Grand Fenwick first burst onto the world stage in 1955 with the publication of the book, The Mouse That Roared, in which the microscopic duchy declared war on the United States solely in order to gain reparations.  This wonderful plan was foiled when Grand Fenwick won the war, leading to all sorts of complications.  In the treaty ending that war, Grand Fenwick won the rights to market a wine-flavored chewing gum in the United States.  Many years later, that gum unexpectedly becomes a great success and Grand Fenwick finds itself awash in American cash.  This is proving to be horribly disruptive to the Fenwickian economy, yet the money keeps rolling in.  What to do?  Duchess Gloriana strikes on the idea of losing the money in the stock market.  She selects a stock by randomly sticking her embroidery needle into the newspaper’s stock listings and off goes the check.  Needless to say, things don’t go as planned.



This third novel in the Mouse series is a funny and charming book, which makes a few satiric points, but gently.

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