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

aristotle-and-dante-discover-the-secrets-to-the-universe-by-benjamin-alire-saenzTitle: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Series: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, #1
Pages: 359
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 21st 2012
*This review is based on the audio version of this book, narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda*

      “Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

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“There were so many ghosts in our house – the ghost of my brother, the ghost of my father’s war, the ghost of my sisters’ voices. And I thought that maybe there were ghosts inside of me that I hadn’t even met yet.”

Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is compelling coming-of-age story, infused with both touching and tragic moments in the life of Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza. The summer of Ari’s fifteenth year, he meets Dante and while the two could not be any more different, they quickly become friends. Over the course of two summers, both their lives are irrevocably changed by this friendship. This is the very first audio book I’ve listened to and although I was apprehensive about whether or not it would be able to hold my attention, I could not ask for a better narrator than Lin-Manuel Miranda. In fact, I might have been spoiled and need every audiobook I listen to to be narrated by him.

I loved how important family was in this book, not just for Ari but for Dante as well. Much of Ari’s resentment toward his parents comes from how closed off they are around him and this is never more apparent than with regard to his older brother, Bernardo, who is currently incarcerated. Ari wants so badly to know why, to be able to utter his brother’s name, but there’s a lot of hurt and shame that keeps both his parents tight-lipped. Ari’s father is also a veteran who continues to deal with the psychological effects of war. Ari is desperate to know his father, to have a real honest conversation, but this isn’t always possible for his dad. There is so much to love about Dante’s parents and it’s obvious right off the bat that they are meant to be a contrast to Ari’s. Dante’s father shows more affection in one interaction with his son than Ari has ever witnessed from his father. I thought it was still really important that Dante still finds it hard to open up to his parents. When he is contemplating telling them he is gay, he confesses to Ari that he doesn’t want to be a disappointment.

From the very beginning it’s clear that Dante is more sure of himself. He’s curious about the world and himself and isn’t afraid to share his feelings about both. He’s one of those people who lights up a room and his optimism is infectious. Ari’s feelings for Dante are gradual. Unlike Dante, he isn’t so sure of himself. He has a lot of internal dialogue that can be messy, contradictory, and evasive. He hides behind a lot of sardonic comments, but there’s so much happening underneath the surface, you can’t help but feel the weight he carries around. Of course, there were still times when I wanted to slap him upside the head to knock some sense into him. Ari feels more for Dante than he’s willing to admit, but still has to deal with his own internalized homophobia before being able to label what his relationship with Dante really is.

Both Ari and Dante are Mexican American and I found it really interesting and insightful how the characters deal with their ethnic identities. Dante never feels quite “Mexican” enough and is often convinced that other Mexicans don’t like him because of it. Ari makes snide remarks about what it means to be Mexican, even going so far as to say he’s more Mexican than Dante because of his darker skin. When you grow up in a society that stereotypes your culture and places less value on you because of your background, it can really do a number on how you perceive yourself, not just your place in society, but your place within that group. These stereotypes are often perpetuated within the community and I’ve known plenty of Mexican Americans that feel not quite American and not quite Mexican either and it’s a hard line to walk. That being said, I do wish the characters had come to a resolution regarding their identities or at least had a continued discussion about this part of who they are.

Sáenz does a fine job of capturing the pain and uncertainty of growing up when you’re on the brink of adulthood. Ari’s journey of self-discovery is incredibly moving and will have you rooting for him till the end.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

allegedly-by-tiffany-d-jackson Title: Allegedly
Author: Tiffany D. Jackson
Series: N/A
Pages: 387
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release Date: January 24th 2017

      “Mary B. Addison killed a baby.
      Allegedly. She didn’t say much in that first interview with detectives, and the media filled in the only blanks that mattered: A white baby had died while under the care of a church-going black woman and her nine-year-old daughter. The public convicted Mary and the jury made it official. But did she do it? She wouldn’t say.
      Mary survived six years in baby jail before being dumped in a group home. The house isn’t really “home”—no place where you fear for your life can be considered a home. Home is Ted, who she meets on assignment at a nursing home.
      There wasn’t a point to setting the record straight before, but now she’s got Ted—and their unborn child—to think about. When the state threatens to take her baby, Mary must find the voice to fight her past. And her fate lies in the hands of the one person she distrusts the most: her Momma. No one knows the real Momma. But who really knows the real Mary?”

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“I’m dizzy from holding my breath for so long, maybe for years. And something ugly, hidden deep inside me is threatening to erupt. I can’t hold it back anymore. How do I make it stop before it’s too late?

Tiffany D. Jackson’s Allegedly is one of the strongest debuts I’ve ever read. Mary B. Addison’s life is run by the state. Convicted of manslaughter at age nine, Mary has been in the system for nearly seven years. The group home she currently resides in is a living nightmare. The adults she is surrounded by are apathetic at best and the other girls in the group home can be ruthless and cruel. Mary just tries her best to survive, but when she discovers she is pregnant, she has more than herself to worry about. Mary wants to keep her baby, but with the kind of conviction she has on her record, Mary will be lucky to even hold her baby before its taken away. In order for her to even have a chance to raise her own child, Mary must confront her past and speak up when so many have wished to silence her.

Mary’s story is both compelling and heartbreaking. Mary is adamant about her innocence, but she’s also torn between telling the truth and condemning the one person in her life she’s always felt protective of: her mother. The author does an incredible job of holding the reader’s attention, not only by using Mary’s appeal to overturn her case to push the story forward, but also by weaving in excerpts from interviews and various officials’ notes in order to give a clearer picture of Mary’s past. With the entire system stacked against her, it isn’t hard to root for Mary, to hope that she could somehow have a happy ending. But there are instances when Mary’s credibility is brought into question. It isn’t that she is necessarily lying, but that she isn’t telling the whole truth. What happened the night little Alyssa died is shrouded in mystery and while I wanted to hear the whole story from Mary sooner, it was the secrecy and uncertainty of that night that kept me reading.

The most interesting and powerful relationship in Allegedly is Mary’s complicated dynamic with her mother. Though Mary has been through a lifetime of pain, she’s still in many ways very young. Her emotional age is never more apparent than when discussing her mother. Though she blames her mother for what happened to Alyssa, she still wants to protect her. She still worries about her mother’s mental health when she isn’t around, whether she’s been taking her pills and if she’s been having as her mother phrases it “a day.” She wishes more than anything to be able to talk to her mother when it comes to her pregnancy, but her mother remains antagonistic toward the very idea, so Mary remains very much isolated. Mary is starved for motherly love, but is also understandably distrustful of strangers. For her, it isn’t a matter of if the people in her life will disappoint her, but a matter of when.

Allegedly examines minors in the justice system, systemic racism, mental illness, teen pregnancy, and a myriad of other important topics. Jackson has crafted an amazing debut that is both moving and thought-provoking and one that I will not soon forget.

Rating: 5/5

★★★★★

ARC Review: Gilded Cage by Vic James

Title: Gilded Cage
Author: Vic James
Series: Dark Gifts, #1
Pages: 368
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Release Date: February 14th 2017
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher, which does not influence my review*

      “Our world belongs to the Equals — aristocrats with magical gifts — and all commoners must serve them for ten years. But behind the gates of England’s grandest estate lies a power that could break the world.
      A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.
      Abi is a servant to England’s most powerful family, but her spirit is free. So when she falls for one of the noble-born sons, Abi faces a terrible choice. Uncovering the family’s secrets might win her liberty, but will her heart pay the price?
      A boy dreams of revolution.
      Abi’s brother, Luke, is enslaved in a brutal factory town. Far from his family and cruelly oppressed, he makes friends whose ideals could cost him everything. Now Luke has discovered there may be a power even greater than magic: revolution.
      And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.
      He is a shadow in the glittering world of the Equals, with mysterious powers no one else understands. But will he liberate—or destroy?

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Gilded Cage by Vic James has a unique premise, but never quite held my attention. It’s always disconcerting to go into a book thinking one thing and finding out it’s entirely something else. From the synopsis, I got the impression this was a historical fantasy; however, the novel is more in the vein of dystopian fantasy. In a world divided between those with unique Skills and those without, the Equals wield power through unconscionable means. Each citizen is required to fulfill ten years of slavery, most in the dilapidated slavetowns. When Abi arranges for her family to serve the Jardines, one of the most powerful Equal families, she hopes the decade passes quickly without incident. But her plans immediately go awry when her younger brother, Luke, is torn from his family and forced to work at the slavetown of Millmoor. Both will discover that Equals are far more dangerous than anyone imagined and there may be no stopping them.

Abi is a character that deserved a better storyline. She’s a hopeless romantic, but she’s smart and keeping her family safe is of utmost importance to her. Unfortunately, much of Abi’s story centers on her attraction to one of the Jardine sons. She spends most of her time inquiring about her brother or swooning over Jenner. Jenner was the least complex of the three Jardine brothers. None of the chapters are told through his perspective and he only shows up in order for Abi to silently wish he felt the same way about her. Abi’s crush is hard in itself to understand. The Equals are not known for their generosity and for whatever reason, Abi seems to forget that Jenner is part of the family that has enslaved hers. They literally treat a man like a dog, though Abi never struggles to reconcile Jenner’s supposed goodness with the acts of his family. There’s never a moment where he needs to prove himself to her as she’s all too ready to admire him based on the fact that he’s nicer than his brothers (which isn’t a hard thing to be).

Luke had the far more interesting storyline when he ends up working in harsh conditions, but finds light when he meets a group of commoners who aren’t ready to give up total control to the Equals. There’s a strong sense of community among them as they look after and provide for one another when those in charge see them as less than human. Their plans begin to expand as they get word that there is a possibility of the slavedays ending for good. Luke learns a lot through his time at Millmoor, but I did begin to wonder why neither he nor Abi had any real understanding of what went on in the slavetowns if everyone in the population, save for the Equals, was required to serve. Luke is just beginning to find his place in this group when he’s suddenly pulled right out of it. His arc comes to a chaotic close at the end of the novel that left me wondering if the rebellion really knew what they were doing to begin with.

The most interesting character was the youngest Jardine brother Silyen. He was manipulative and vicious and it was only when he was yielding power that I felt I had a grasp of what having a Skill meant. But even he wasn’t enough to save this novel. The periodic info-dumping didn’t help either, especially as I struggled to get through these chapters in particular. I was also never sure if this was a universe built upon real-world history or a form of alternate history as it never addressed colonialism and slavery, which I imagine would have an impact on how this new form of slavery would be received.

Rating: 2/5

★★

ARC Review: Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

Title: Wintersong
Author: S. Jae-James
Series: N/A
Pages: 448
Publisher: Thomas Dunne
Release Date: February 7th 2017
*I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, which does not influence my review*

      “All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.
      But when her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her sister and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.
      Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world.”

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Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones has a gorgeous setting that begs to be explored, but its characters failed to draw me in. Liesl has grown up in a family that doesn’t quite appreciate her. Much of her life revolves around taking care of her younger brother, Josef, and helping him grow into a talented musician. Though Liesl once had her own dreams, she chose to bury them deep in order to help her brother succeed. Her relationship with her sister Käthe is much more rocky. Liesl’s practicality is juxtaposed with Käthe’s easy nature. Liesl is haunted by memories of an otherworldly childhood companion, memories that she is convinced are just a figment of her imagination. When Käthe is taken, Liesl can no longer deny these memories and must enter the Underground and claim her sister before she is lost forever.

Liesl is supposed to be a sympathetic character and for the most part, I did sympathize with her. She had loads of musical talent herself, but was forced to play second fiddle to her brother. Käthe was always looked at as the pretty one, while Liesl has come to accept that she is plain. Unfortunately, Liesl spent far too much time bemoaning these things. She continually put herself down and at every turn, denied her own talent because in her mind it would detract from her brother. What bothered me more was Liesl’s insistence on describing herself as plain. She seemed far too wrapped up in this fact and after a while, I tired of her putting such importance on how she looked. Liesl’s character does shine when it comes to music. A talented composer, Liesl has had little time to devote to her art and it was only when she was embracing this side of her, that I really felt moved by her character.

Liesl’s relationship with the Goblin King is confusing. Der Erlkönig is many things, beautiful and dangerous, one moment he is callous and the next surprisingly shy. Unfortunately, this made me feel like I was reading about two different characters that I was never able to reconcile. These contrasting traits made it even more difficult to feel anything when it came to the romance. Liesl and the Goblin King’s exchanges were at first filled with tension and it kept me reading, but quickly became tedious, especially when the protagonist didn’t quite understand her feelings and never really seemed to question them. We are told these two were friends when they were children, but are given little to no backstory regarding this. I would have liked a couple of flashbacks, just to put their relationship into perspective.

I did appreciate that Liesl finally came into her own and Jae-Jones had such beautiful descriptions when it came to the Goblin King’s world, but in the end I was left wanting more.

Rating: 2/5

★★

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. ValenteTitle: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Series: Fairyland, #1
Pages: 247
Publisher: Square Fish
Release Date: May 10th 2011

      “Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

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“But no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move. And, perhaps, we do not truly know what sort of beast it is, either. Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.”

Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is one of the most enchanting middle grade novels I’ve ever read. When young September finds herself whisked off to the unusual and magical Fairyland, she isn’t sure what to think, only that surely a great adventure awaits her. I was absolutely tickled by the challenging vocabulary in this middle grade book as it shows that the author does not wish to talk down to her readers and expects much from them. Valente’s beautiful and iridescent descriptions are a delight and with each page, her world grows larger and more lush. It is novels like this, with so much heart and vivid world building, that reminds one that perhaps the most important stories aren’t written for adult but for children.

From witches to wyverns and the occasional talking leopard, Fairyland is a place of mystery and delight. September crosses paths with a number of different creatures, most notably the kind and protective wyvern named A-Through-L. September’s good-nature and unwillingness to allow others to suffer endears her to all those she meets. The friendship that grows between September and A-Through-L (affectionately shortened to Ell) is sweet and lovely. September also meets the imprisoned Saturday, whom I am excited to learn more about in the next books. The Marquess, the pugnacious child-ruler of Fairyland, makes a worthy adversary. Her strict rules and unfair restrictions on the friends September has made immediately puts her at odds with the protagonist. The Marquess is a sly character, unyielding and manipulative. Unwilling to give up the autocracy she has built and desperate to hold on to her power, the Marquess will do anything to get what she wants, including threatening September.

With quirks reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and characters as memorable as those in The Wizard of Oz, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making begs you join September on her adventure.

Rating: 5/5

★★★★★

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Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

stalking-jack-the-ripper-by-kerri-maniscalcoTitle: Stalking Jack the Ripper
Author: Kerri Maniscalco
Series: Stalking Jack the Ripper, #1
Pages: 326
Publisher: Jimmy Patterson
Release Date: September 20th 2016

      “Seventeen-year-old Audrey Rose Wadsworth was born a lord’s daughter, with a life of wealth and privilege stretched out before her. But between the social teas and silk dress fittings, she leads a forbidden secret life.
      Against her stern father’s wishes and society’s expectations, Audrey often slips away to her uncle’s laboratory to study the gruesome practice of forensic medicine. When her work on a string of savagely killed corpses drags Audrey into the investigation of a serial murderer, her search for answers brings her close to her own sheltered world.

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“Everything was most certainly not okay, and this was no mathematical equation; my hands were covered in blood. I frantically wiped them off on my bodice, but it was no use. Blood stained my fingers in a crimson accusation.”

Stalking Jack the Ripper is a nice blend of thrills and mystery. With a likable protagonist and detail-oriented story, this work of historical fiction was really fun to read. Jack the Ripper stories can be really intriguing as they are based on a mystery that’s never been solved and authors can do what they will when it comes to filling in the blanks. Though novels that center around the idea that the forward-thinking protagonist is not like other girls in her time period can be annoying at times, I still enjoyed reading about how Audrey Rose defied societal expectations and appreciated that most of the men in her life helped her instead of hindering her ambitions. I also liked that the author was sure not to put down other females or femininity itself in order to elevate the protagonist.

Aside from a couple of instances where I found it frustrating that Audrey Rose made the foolish mistake of wandering alone at night by herself with a serial killer on the loose, the protagonist was a character I could really get behind. Her interest in science stems from her mother’s passing and her eccentric uncle’s work with the dead, both as a professor and an assistant to the police, help her achieve her goals. Despite Stalking the Ripper‘s commitment to detail, the story does gloss over the fact that Audrey Rose’s grandmother was from India. I think this could have been a really defining and interesting part of the protagonist’s identity, but only a couple of times is this mentioned and I would have liked to have heard more about this part of Audrey Rose’s family.

I really liked the exchanges between Audrey Rose and her uncle’s assistant Thomas. He’s a little too sure of his deductive skills, which may drive the protagonist crazy, but also challenges her to be better herself. There were also times where he was sociably awkward one moment and adeptly flirtatious the next, which could be confusing. Stalking Jack the Ripper‘s mystery wasn’t too hard to unravel, as I had a pretty good idea of who the killer was pretty early on, but it was still entertaining to see the mystery unravel and I’m looking forward to seeing what new mystery Audrey Rose solves in the next book.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

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