July 2020
Children's/Teen Reviews
*Pablo Cartaya. Each Tiny Spark.
Read by the author. 5 CDs. 5 hrs.
Listening Library. 2019. Ages 10-14.

Emilia Rosa Torres has a life with many challenges. In sixth grade, Emilia has ADHD learning difficulties; at school her mind is often unable to focus on tasks. Her mother and a school counselor spend much time daily helping her plan and carry out her school assignments. However, Emilia's mother, a software developer, travels frequently for work. Her father, in the military, has just returned from an 8-month tour of duty, is experiencing PTSD, and has difficulty readjusting to home life. This Cuban-American family lives with Emilia's grandmother, referred to simply as Abuela, who runs the family's garage business in a suburb of Atlanta and provides stability for the family. As the story opens, Emilia's mother is attending a conference in San Francisco. Upon his return, her father retreats to work silently in his garage, until he notices Emilia's interest in helping him fix an old car and teaches her to weld. Her Abuela seems at times to be overly critical of Emilia, wanting her to start being more "lady-like." When Emilia is assigned a social studies project - to create a tour guide to her town – she is forced to rely on her own resources and her best friend, Gus, to come up with an idea. Focusing on the familiar Spanish elements of the town, specifically a grocery store where the family buys traditional Cuban foods, Emilia begins to expand her topic. She interviews people and visits the library, where Liz the librarian helps her find relevant information. She learns about illegal immigrants, race relations, and the ethnic complexities of her town. When many students are having difficulty defining and limiting their topics, their teacher refocuses the assignment: they are to attend and discuss in class the topic of the next school board meeting. That discussion concerns community input for the controversial vote to merge two schools in ethnically and economically different neighborhoods in the district. From the research she has already done, this change catches Emilia's interest. She and Gus decide to create a film about different views on the school merger in their community.

This excellent audiobook captures the essence of middle school life as well as family-related issues regarding career demands, veterans, immigration, learning difficulties, inter-generational families, and minorities. Author Pablo Cartaya narrates the audiobook, which while in English, often shifts to Spanish, understandable through context. His novels, clearly based on his own life experiences, "focus on the Latina youth and how they navigate culture, family, and their communities" (cover). This coming-of-age audiobook will appeal to and inspire middle schoolers, like Emilia, who struggle to find their voices, their passion amidst the challenges of daily life. Each Tiny Spark covers many issues relevant to this age group and offers an excellent vehicle for group discussions.

Reviewed by Susan Allison
*Rachael Craw. The Rift.
Read by Karissa Vacker.
8 CDs. 10 hrs.
Candlewick on Brilliance Audio. 2018. Ages 12-18

Fans of fantasy, suspense, and teen romance will flock to Rachael Craw's other worldly thriller The Rift. Set on Black Water Island, a mystical land filled with auras and energy, as well as deadly rift hounds, the story details the reunion of childhood friends Cal and Meg who were ripped apart by tragedy when they were young.

Actress Karissa Vacker is a talented narrator who flawlessly brings The Rift to life. She deftly draws listeners in with her accurate portrayal of desperate emotions. Vacker's efforts are believable and add a deeper dimension to the author's words. Cal's desire to be accepted as a Ranger, Meg's overwhelming guilt over leaving the island years ago, and Sergeant's bullying and belligerent qualities as the Head Ranger are just a handful examples of the narrator's range. Male, female, young, old, confident, fearful, cocky, spiteful—all are highlighted with convincing precision.

Vacker has narrated more than 100 audiobooks, including Cottage by the Sea by Debbie Macomber, All the Little Lights by Jamie McGuire, and The Moores Are Missing by James Patterson.

Reviewed by Lisa Arnold
*J.L. Esplin. 96 Miles.
Narrated by Robbie Daymond
7 CDs. 8 hours, 20 minutes.
Macmillan Audio. 2020.

This is J. L. Esplin's first middle-grade novel. The fact that her father was a Secret Service agent plays into her knowledge of emergency survival skills.

13-year-old John and his 11-year-old brother, Stew, are not too worried when the power shuts down completely and everywhere in Nevada. Their dad, away on a trip, is a survivalist. They have plenty of water and food and gasoline to run the generator j- even after two weeks. A group of nasty, desperate men ambush the boys by night taking all their water, food and gasoline. Fortunately they still have the survival packs their father made hidden away. But they can no longer survive on their own; they must make it to friends who live 96 miles away – walking. John is convinced they can somehow do it; Stew is not so sure but what are the alternatives? Barely into their journey they are joined by Cleverly and her brother Will who have even less, much less, than they do.

All of the characters are fully fleshed out, completely real and believable. All have limits and each has skills and expertise – but they are kids.

One of the best opening sentences: "Dad always said if things get desperate, it's okay to drink the water in the toilet bowl."

Robbie Daymond is a voice-over artist who has done more voice-overs than it is almost impossible to list. In addition to narrating books, he has done movies and video games. He demonstrated his expertise in this story becoming the voice of teenagers and younger. Very good whining and exasperation!

Reviewed by Katrina Yurenka
*Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Aurora Burning (Aurora Cycle, book 2)
Narrated by Kim Mai Guest, Johnathan McClain, Lincoln Hoppe, Donnabella Mortel, Jonathan Todd Ross, Erin Spencer, Steve West
Digital Download. 15 hrs, 17 minutes
Listening Library. 2020.

Squad 312 returns in a riveting science fiction adventure that will captivate listeners. Following their discoveries in the first book, the crew continues to work towards defeating the Ra'haam and saving the galaxy. This is complicated by several situations, one of which is the appearance of Kal's sister. She is determined that he will abandon his shipmates and rejoin the Syldrathi army and claim his legacy. Her hostility and antagonism, especially towards Tyler, is an interesting new plotline. Overall, expect more heists, more angst, and more heartbreak!

Most of the same stellar narrators from book one in the trilogy reprise their role for book two. Kim Mai Guest plays Aurora, growing into her new abilities and navigating an unexpected romance with Kal. We can hear her internal and external struggles to maintain her emotional bonds with him and the crew while needing to divest herself of these bonds in order to fulfill her mission. Lincoln Hoppe's Fin is still delightfully sarcastic, adding a continual comic relief to the story. The character is more richly developed, and Hoppe rises to the challenge of reflecting this with an increasingly nuanced narration.

Johnathan McClain's Tyler suffered a momentous loss in Aurora Rising, and McClain brings an extra emotional depth to the role. During scenes of Tyler's imprisonment and interrogation, this is especially apparent. Listeners who previously enjoyed Donnabella Mortel's witty performance of Zila will be pleased to note that Zila gets more attention in this volume. Zila discovers that she actually does care about her fellow crew members, and her character transformation is believable. Jonathan Todd Ross reprises his role as Magellan, the voice of Aurora's "uniglass." There isn't as much for him to explain to Aurora or the listeners in this story, so his part is a bit diminished, but he does provide much needed humor in some of the tenser moments. Erin Spencer is Scarlett, the team's diplomat, forced into unexpected and unfamiliar tasks in order to help the squad. Steve West returns as Kal, and his extensive narration experience emphasizes the major changes Kal's character experiences.

A must-listen for fans of the first book, but be prepared for the cliffhanger ending; it's a perfect set-up for book 3.

Reviewed by Olivia Durant
*Jennifer Mathieu. The Liars of Mariposa Island.
Read by Christian Barillas, Alma Cuervo, Maria Liatis.
7 CDs. 7.75 hrs.
Recorded Books. 2019. Ages 14+

Jennifer Mathieu's novel of a first generation Cuban American family is painful to listen to—not because of the narration, but because of the circumstances and responses to those challenges made by the book's main characters. Alcoholism, depression, abuse, drugs, a constant spate of swearing, and, as the title alludes to, lots and lots of lying fill the pages. This is not a book for 12-year-olds, as the publisher recommends but perhaps for those 14+.

The three narrators, Christian Barillas, Alma Cuervo, and Maria Liatis, are experts in their field. Barillas plays the part of Joaquin Finney, a recent high school graduate whose sole focus is to escape his battered home life and head to California. Barillas brings warmth and humanity to his frustrated and angry character, especially when Joaquin struggles with the idea of leaving his younger sister behind with their mother. His performance is natural and likable.

Maria Liatis brings troubled, confused, and devious Elena Finney to life. Liatis's vocals fill Elena with plenty of emotion, whether she is stable or wasted. Elena has an uncanny ability to deceive everyone in her life, including her best friend, her seedy new boyfriend, and her delusional mother. Liatis works her magic to make each encounter believable.

Alma Cuervo shares two sides of Caridad's life with listeners. The first is of a young Caridad who is being raised in Cuba. She is from an affluent family and is treated like a princess. But when Caridad is yanked from her homeland during the Cuban Revolution and sent to the U.S. alone under the ruse of going to camp for a few weeks, Caridad's fairytale life takes a dramatic turn. Her high society pride and love of her homeland keep her from making friends and turn her sour to life on the mainland. The narrator effortlessly brings both youthful and happy Caridad and bitter and angry Caridad alive. Liatis manages to make listeners have both sympathy and disdain for this complicated character.

Reviewed by Lisa Arnold
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