Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz


AuthorBenjamin Alire Sáenz 
TitleAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
NarratorLin-Manuel Miranda
Publication Info: New York, NY : Simon & Schuster Audio, p2013.
Summary/Review:

Sáenz has written a beautiful novel about friendship, family, love, coming of age, and coming to terms with your identity as a teenager. Set in El Paso in the mid-1980s, the book is narrated by 15-year-old Mexican American boy Aristotle – or Ari – who has learned to repress his feelings from his parents. His father won’t speak of the horrors of fighting in the Vietnam War and neither of his parents will talk about Ari’s much older brother who is in prison.  The story begins when Ari meets and befriends Dante, another Mexican American boy his age, at the swimming pool. Dante and his family are more open in their feelings and he draws out Ari over a series of meaningful conversations.  The two boys deal with the typical trials of teenagers as well the specific problems related to understanding their identity as Mexican Americans and masculinity.  They suffer injuries when hit by a car, are separated when Dante’s family goes to Chicago for a year, and explore their sexuality.  Without giving too much of the plot away, this is an absolutely beautiful book and one that I think a lot of young people (and formerly young people) can identify with. As an added bonus, Lin-Manuel’s expressive voice is absolutely perfect for the audiobook narration.

Favorite Passages:

He didn’t say anything. And then I heard him crying. So I just let him cry. There was nothing I could do. Except listen to his pain. I could do that. I could hardly stand it. But I could do that. Just listen to his pain.

Recommended booksGeorge by Alex Gino, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, and Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Rating: ****1/2

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Book Review: My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand


Author: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
Title: My Lady Jane
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2016)
Summary/Review:

This work of historical fiction flat-out revels in the fact that it is completely made up.  This version of the story of Lady Jane Grey, a.k.a. the Nine Day Queen, has the boy King Edward being manipulated and slowly poisoned by his adviser Lord Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Edward designates his favorite cousin Jane to be his heir and has her married to Dudley’s son Guildford.

So far, similar to reality, but sillier.  In this alternate history, some people are Effians, that is having the ability to change into an animal.  Swiftly, Jane inherits the throne when Edward is declared dead, and then she and Guildford are forced to flee when Mary in turn claims the throne.  Jane, Guildford, and Edward (spoiler: he’s not dead) all have adventures, discover new powers, and meet interesting people along the way to a happier ending than reality.  The book is riotously funny both in the dialogue and the authors asides.  The audio book is excellently performed by Katherine Kellgren.

Recommended booksThe Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain and The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White
Rating: ****

Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury


AuthorRay Bradbury
Title: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Narrator: Jerry Robbins and the Colonial Radio Players
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2007)
Summary/Review:

This is a book a read as a child and I revisited it through this dramatization by the Colonial Radio Players.  All I could remember was a mysterious carnival and a dust witch (which is different from a sand witch).  The material lends itself well to dramatization with the exception of characters constantly having to describe what they’re seeing.  The story captures that frightening feeling in a child’s life when they know something is wrong and for the first time realize that the grownups can’t fix it.  I also really came to appreciate the father and son relationship of Charles and Will Holloway, and how Charles tries to do his best despite not knowing the answers.  The story works well at maintaining a sense of dread and horror which is then released with laughter and joy.

Recommended booksThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon


Author: Nicola Yoon
TitleThe Sun is Also a Star
Narrator: Dominic Hoffman, Bahni Turpin, Raymond Lee
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2016
Summary/Review:

This beautiful and romantic young adult novel tells the story of two teenagers who share one significant day together.  Daniel is the Korean-American son of immigrants, an aspiring poet, and in order to fulfill his parents’ aspirations is heading to an admissions university for Yale University.  Natasha is an undocumented immigrant from Jamaica brought to New York due to her father’s quixotic dreams of becoming an actor, is passionate about science, and is meeting with a lawyer in a last ditch effort to stave off deportation.

They meet by happenstance, then meet again, share their dreams and philosophies, and fall in love.  This book is completely unrealistic in that there’s no way that Daniel and Natasha could do all the things that they do in a single day, and the coincidences are too many.  But Daniel and Natasha are REAL, their thoughts and conversations spectacularly illustrate them as fully fleshed and specific teenage human beings.  Natasha and Daniel alternate as narrators offering different perspectives on the same situations, and there are also chapters from a third person omniscient narrator who fills in the details on the seemingly minor characters and family members who play a big role in the story.

This is a terrific and  thoughtful novel.

Recommended booksLet the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Rating: ****

Book Reviews: Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia by Brandon Sanderson


AuthorBrandon Sanderson 
TitleAlcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia
Narrator: Ramon De Ocampo
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2012)
Previously Read By the Same Author:  Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians and Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones
Summary/Review:

The third book in this series sees Alcatraz Smedry finally arrive in the Free Kingdoms where he learns he’s quite a celebrity (lots of not so subtle jabs at Harry Potter here) and that there are currently evil librarians meeting with the kings and queens of the Free Kingdoms on a treaty.  Alcatraz’s frenemy and protector Bastille is stripped of her knighthood due to Alcatraz breaking her sword in the previous book.  Alcatraz and a whacky crew – including a daft prince and a “recovering librarian” – work to uncovers suspicious goings on while the librarians are in town.  Central to the plot is the Royal Archives (Not a Library), a running gag that makes me laugh as an archivist who has attended professional conferences, but maybe won’t be as funny to other readers.  As usual, this addition to the Alcatraz series is clever, witty, funny, and still a rather ripping adventure.

Favorite Passages:

“The love books.  However, to them, books are a little like teenage boys.  Whenever they start congregating they make trouble.”

Recommended booksA Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer and Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick


AuthorMatthew Quick
TitleEvery Exquisite Thing 
Narrator: Vanessa Johansson
Publication Info: New York : Hachette Audio, p2016.
Summary/Review:

Not sure what to make of this book. Nanette O’Hare is a good student and star soccer player at her high school, but an outsider who spends her lunch time with her English teacher.  When her teacher introduces her to an out-of-print book about a disaffected teen railing against conformity, Nanette’s life is changed and she finds and befriends the book’s author. While Nigel Booker refuses to discuss his novel, he does encourage Nanette to rethink her life, leading her to quit the soccer team and reconsider going to college.  He also introduces her to a boy her age who is also a fan of the book and a tortured poet, Alex.  Alex is kind of the manic pixie dream boy of the novel which is kind of a tragedy since neither Nanette nor the author seem to want to realize that he is a colossal douche.  I won’t go into any spoilers but a lot of things happen that push Nanette to the edge of her sanity and increase her resentment against everyone she knows.  I think the problem with this book is that so many characters are so one-dimensional and villainous, that it undermines the generally well-rounded and contradictory characterization of Nanette herself.  Maybe I’ve just finally outgrown teenage rebellion?

Recommended booksThe Pigman by Paul Zindel, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Rating: **

Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson


AuthorLaurie Halse Anderson
Title: Chains 
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, ©2008.
Summary/Review:

This historical novel set during the early days of the American Revolution focuses on 13-year-old Isabel, an enslaved girl promised freedom on the death of her master, but finds she has no recourse when she and her sister Ruth are sold to cruel new masters in New York.  Working a Loyalist household she finds herself drawn into spying for the revolutionaries, but soon learns that despite promises from Loyalists and Patriots alike, that neither side is concerned with freeing Africans from the bonds of slavery.  Anderson captures the anger of Isabel, but doesn’t neglect to also characterize her as having many concerns typical to a young teenager as well.  The author also really captures the uncertainty of the Revolution, the people of New York taking different sides in 1776, with some among them willing to shift loyalties to whomever has the upper hand.  She also doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war on the civilian community from a brutal fire to depictions of captured Americans cruelly held in cold, overcrowded, and disease-ridden prisons.  The book is the first of a trilogy of books called The Seeds of America and ends on a cliffhanger at a momentous occasion in the narrative so I will be sure to read the rest of the series.

Favorite Passages:

“Momma said that ghosts couldn’t move over water. That’s why kidnapped Africans got trapped in the Americas. When Poppa was stolen from Guinea, he said the ancestors howled and raged and sent a thunderstorm to turn the ship back around, but it was too late. The ghosts couldn’t cross the water to help him so he had to make his own way in a strange place, sometimes with an iron collar around his neck. All of Momma’s people had been stolen too, and taken to Jamaica where she was born. Then she got sold to Rhode Island, and the ghosts of her parents couldn’t follow and protect her neither. They kept moving us over the water, stealing us away from our ghosts and our ancestors, who cried salty rivers into the sand. That’s where Momma was now, wailing at the water’s edge, while her girls were pulled out of sight under white sails that cracked in the wind.” – p. 25

The woman in the yellow head cloth worked the pump for Grandfather. “The British promise freedom to slaves but won’t give it to the white rebels,” she said as she pushed the handle up and down. “The rebels want to take freedom, but they won’t share it with us.” She set down the first bucket and picked up the second. “Both sides say one thing and do the other.” – p. 166

Recommended booksThe Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau


AuthorJeanne DuPrau
TitleThe City of Ember 
Narrator: Wendy Dillon
Publication Info: Listening Library (2004)
Summary/Review:

This book is the first part of a series about a subterranean city built for reasons not yet explained over 240 years before the events of the novel.  By this time, the people of Ember have forgotten about their origins and are dealing with crumbling infrastructure and dwindling supplies (a very clear analogy to climate change).  The protagonists of the novel are Lina and Dina, two young people who have reached the age where they are given their “Assignments,” their jobs they have to do to contribute to the survival of the community (I don’t think the novel specifies their age, but they seem to be around 12 years old).  A curious pair, Lina and Doon piece together instructions left behind by the “Builders” of Ember, and find a way out of the underground city.  They are a clever and likable duo, albeit a bit one-note.  The plot is very simple but it should be readable for it’s target age group.  The book ends on a massive cliffhanger which makes of course makes me want to read the next book, but also a bit resentful because I didn’t find the book engaging enough on its own to want to read more.

Recommended booksGregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, and The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer
Rating: **

Book Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli


Author: Becky Albertalli
TitleSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Narrator: Michael Crouch
Publication Info: Harper Audio, 2015
Summary/Review:

Simon is a closeted gay teenager living in the Atlanta suburbs and finding himself falling in love for the first time.  The problem is that the boy he loves he only knows through anonymous email exchanges.  Over the course of this novel, both Simon and “Blue” end up coming out and eventually meeting in real life.  But what’s great about this novel is that it explores the changes and complications of life in Simon’s circle of friends and family.  The book has a lot of heart, romance, and humor.

Recommended books:

Every Day by David Levithan and George by Alex Gino
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones by Brandon Sanderson


Author: Brandon Sanderson
TitleAlcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones
Narrator: Ramon De Ocampo
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2012)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians
Summary/Review:

Six years ago I read the first book in the Alcatraz series and really enjoyed it and meant to continue with the series.  Now at last I’ve read the second book in the series and it was worth the wait.  Sanderson’s Alcatraz Smedry is an unreliable narrator who keeps interrupting the story to deliberately make the reader question everything.  It’s gimmicky but in-universe it works since the concept of this world is that evil librarians control reality.  It’s a funny adventure set in the Library of Alexandria, and Sanderson is committed to the idea of the wraith-like curators persistently trying to trick the human visitors into taking a book in exchange for their soul.  It’s a clever and enjoyable read and I should not wait so long to continue the series.

Recommended booksA Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer and Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins.
Rating: ***1/2