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

★★★★★

When We Collided by Emery Lord

When We Collided by Emery Lord

Title: When We Collided
Author: Emery Lord
Series: N/A
Pages: 352
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Release Date: April 5th 2016 

      “Vivi and Jonah couldn’t be more different. Vivi craves anything joyful or beautiful that life can offer. Jonah has been burdened by responsibility for his family ever since his father died. As summer begins, Jonah resigns himself to another season of getting by. Then Vivi arrives, and suddenly life seems brighter and better. Jonah is the perfect project for Vivi, and things finally feel right for Jonah. Their love is the answer to everything. But soon Vivi’s zest for life falters, as her adventurousness becomes true danger-seeking. Jonah tries to keep her safe, but there’s something important Vivi hasn’t told him.

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“I don’t mind being introduced to people’s skeletons firsthand, in person. I more than don’t mind it. I prefer to reach right into the closet and shake their bony hands and say hello for myself.”

Although Emery Lord’s When We Collided explores important subjects like mental health, I found it difficult to connect with the two main characters. When Vivi moves to Verona Cove, she has one thing on her mind: to have fun. Jonah has been struggling with family issues for months now. Ever since his father’s passing and the slow decline of his mother’s mental health, it has fallen upon him and his siblings to care for the younger kids in the family. Vivi blows in like a whirlwind, completely turning Jonah’s life upside down. Jonah has grown accustomed to the responsibility of caring for three young kids and even with his older siblings’ help, it isn’t easy. Meeting someone like Vivi, who isn’t turned off by the disorder in his world, seems almost too good to be true. For Vivi, a summer of fun turns into something more serious when she finds herself not only falling for Jonah, but also his entire family.

I could never figure out if Vivi’s bubbly personality was who she really was or if it was a face she put on for the rest of the world. Her confidence is admirable, but there were times when I just did not like the girl. She could be self-centered and vicious in her jealousy. There were moments while I was reading where it felt like it was Vivi’s world and everyone was just living in it. This became really frustrating, especially when so much of the narrative is focused on Jonah’s problems. It was difficult to swallow her never-ending enthusiasm and zest for life when Jonah was struggling to get by. Vivi has a tumultuous past that we get little glimpses of, but it isn’t until the end that we finally understand what she’s been going through. I think it would have served her character more for the revelations to have happened sooner. Jonah should have been a character to easily relate to and there were times where I felt for him and his circumstances. I loved his interactions with his siblings, especially the young Leah, but I do think the story veered away from these relationships as the story went on, which affected the way I related to him.

When We Collided explores mental health issues like depression and bipolar disorder, but not in as much depth as I would have liked. The story is pretty light in tone at the beginning of the novel and I kept waiting for that shift in tone where the issues both characters were dealing with would be forced to the forefront. This doesn’t happen until late in the story and I would have liked to have spent more time with the characters as the deal with these issues rather than running away from them.

Rating: 2/5

★★

P.S. I Like You by Kasie West

P.S. I Like You by Kasie West

Title: P.S. I Like You
Author: Kasie West
Series: N/A
Pages: 304
Publisher: Point
Release Date: July 26th 2016 

      “While spacing out in chemistry class, Lily scribbles some of her favorite song lyrics onto her desk. The next day, she finds that someone has continued the lyrics on the desk and added a message to her. Intrigue!
      Soon, Lily and her anonymous pen pal are exchanging full-on letters—sharing secrets, recommending bands, and opening up to each other. Lily realizes she’s kind of falling for this letter writer. Only, who is he? As Lily attempts to unravel the mystery and juggle school, friends, crushes, and her crazy family, she discovers that matters of the heart can’t always be spelled out…

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“I didn’t have that sad of a social life. I had a fun and perfectly normal relationship with an anonymous pen pal. Okay, so an anonymous pen pal didn’t exactly sound normal, but I would ignore that fact.

I recently read Julie Buxbaum’s Tell Me Three Things which has a similar premise to Kasie West’s newest release P.S. I Like You. The premise behind both isn’t the most complicated, two characters end up exchanging notes of some kind in an anonymous fashion and soon begin to develop feelings for each other. The plot of these stories is often predictable, the reveal easy to call after the first few chapters, and yet I keep coming back to them. It would be really easy to get hung up on the logistics of these stories, but to do so would completely miss the point. These novels are meant to entertain, to make you smile and squeal silently when you know what’s coming but the characters themselves remain clueless. This is exactly what I did while reading P.S. I Like You, because sometimes a feel good book is just what you’re looking for.

Lily Abbott has an undeniable charm. Unable to hold back her own thoughts, she’s known for saying odd things at the most inopportune moments. She’s sassy and cynical, prone to sarcastic replies and awkward social exchanges. The most important things in her life are her family and her music. Her house is always full, loud, and chaotic. I loved how much Lily’s family meant to her, especially her siblings. Though I admit I have a soft spot for the young Jonah. Lily has always sought refuge in her songwriting where she has a chance to form the words needed to express herself, something that isn’t always easy for her with other people. But Lily is also very self-conscious. It’s difficult for her to share this side of herself because she fears rejection. This self-consciousness is a constant hurdle for her throughout the novel.

The exchanges Lily has with her secret pen pal are a delight to read. They go from funny and light to tackling personal struggles in both the characters’ lives. Lily has always felt that she could express herself better on paper and these letters are the perfect way for her to really find her voice. I’ve complained in the past about not getting to know the love-interests enough in Kasie West’s books, but this plot really allows readers insight into Lily’s counterpart. My only complaint is that I wish the novel had been longer. I would have liked to have seen more interactions between Lily and her pen pal after the big reveal, but that may be because I could not get enough of them together.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

The Long Game by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Long Game by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Title: The Long Game
Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Series: The Fixer, #2
Pages: 360
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Release Date: June 7th 2016 

      “For Tess Kendrick, a junior at the elite Hardwicke School in Washington, D.C., fixing runs in the family. But Tess has another legacy, too, one that involves power and the making of political dynasties. When Tess is asked to run a classmate’s campaign for student council, she agrees. But when the candidates are children of politicians, even a high school election can involve life-shattering secrets.
      Meanwhile, Tess’s guardian has also taken on an impossible case, as a terrorist attack calls into doubt who can—and cannot—be trusted on Capitol Hill. Tess knows better than most that power is currency in D.C., but she’s about to discover firsthand that power always comes with a price.

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“The closer you’d been to death, the easier it was to feel him breathing down your neck—and the necks of those you loved.

Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s political thriller, The Long Game, is jam-packed with action and plenty of mysteries that will keep you guessing throughout. The sequel to The Fixer, this novel follows Tess Kendrick as she continues to navigate the political landscape of her new school Hardwicke, while dealing with extremely complicated family relationships. In the first book, Tess was thrust into a world wholly unlike the one she grew up in. Her sister Ivy is a well-known political “fixer” and this coupled with Tess’s own drive, made her peers seek her out in order to fix their own problems. In The Long Game, Tess has come to terms with this role. She hasn’t gone so far as to offer her services to other students, but she won’t turn down someone in need. Tess is a character whose convictions motivate her to take on almost impossible tasks, but she’s smart and determined, making her a force to be reckoned with. Tess is also stubborn and unforgiving. Her need for answers sometimes makes her reckless and her defensive walls make it difficult for people to get close. After the revelation in the first book, Tess isn’t sure where she stands with Ivy. I enjoyed the progression of their relationship and look forward to seeing how it further evolves. Tess endures a lot in this novel and she comes to understand more about who she is and how much the people in her life mean to her.

Tess has inadvertently gathered a group of friends to help her in fixing the problems at Hardwicke. Vivvie Bharani went through terrible circumstances in the first book, but she’s finally settled in with her aunt and is never happier than when she is helping others. Asher Rhodes is the kind of fun-loving friend everyone should have. He’s loyal and funny and brings a lighter tone to the group. Henry Marquette is the most reluctant of the group. Defined largely by his unwavering principles and steady presence, Henry feels like the cornerstone of the group, the one that let’s everyone know when that their schemes might just be too crazy to work. Of Tess’s friends, Henry is the most developed and I think this is one of the reasons I like reading about him so much. He has a lot in common with Tess, both have been lied to and manipulated. They don’t easily trust, so the moments they open up to each other were some of my favorites.

The Long Game is filled with secrets and lies, unpredictable moments, and a twist that will have you screaming. I did not expect The Long Game to be an emotional roller coaster, but that’s just what it was. A thrill ride from start to finish, this sequel is sure to surprise readers and have them begging for more.

Rating: 5/5

★★★★★

The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson

The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson

Title: The Unexpected Everything
Author: Morgan Matson
Series: N/A
Pages: 517
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 3rd 2016 

      “Andie had it all planned out.
      When you are a politician’s daughter who’s pretty much raised yourself, you learn everything can be planned or spun, or both. Especially your future.
      Important internship? Check.
      Amazing friends? Check.
      Guys? Check (as long as we’re talking no more than three weeks).

      But that was before the scandal. Before having to be in the same house with her dad. Before walking an insane number of dogs. That was before Clark and those few months that might change her whole life.
      Because here’s the thing—if everything’s planned out, you can never find the unexpected.
      And where’s the fun in that?”

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“I was trying very hard not to look quite as thrown by all this as I felt. Clearly, the downside of having a theoretical crush on someone you know nothing about was the crashing realization that you actually knew nothing about them.”

Morgan Matson’s The Unexpected Everything, her latest contemporary novel, is in a word delightful. It has so many of the elements I look for in a contemporary book, from an organic romance to complicated family relationships to an emphasis on strong female friendships. Andie has her summer all planned out, but life doesn’t always work out the way you want. Her father’s being investigated for embezzlement which means she by extension has become a pariah, resulting in her summer plans completely falling through. When she becomes convinced that this is about to be the worst summer of her life, she meets Clark and ends up accepting a job offer as a dog walker.

Andie has a very contentious relationship with her father, stemming from his devotion to his job and the fact that ever since her mother passed away years ago, he hasn’t been around. Of all the relationships in this novel, this is the one that moved me the most. Andie’s father isn’t sure how to interact with his daughter anymore and Andie is certain her life would be better if he’d stop pretending that he cares about what goes on in hers. There is a lot of tension between the two, but I was glad to see that although Andie has a lot of resentment toward her father, she was open enough toward him that they could begin to restore their relationship.

Andie’s group of friends is a vital part of her life. With a largely absent father, she’s spent the last few years relying more and more on them. Palmer, Toby, Bri, and Andie (and sometimes Palmer’s boyfriend Tom) are a single unit. They share nearly everything, talking about both the trivial and serious issues in their lives. Each has their own personality and I really appreciated how much life Matson breathed into these secondary characters. My personal favorite was Toby, she added such a delightful touch of humor to the narrative and her sometimes flighty ways were very much endearing. Matson introduces a certain storyline that really challenges the easygoing dynamic between these friends and I’m really hoping that she has a spin-off in store for us because I must know more.

Clark was immediately a character I liked. He was shy, a little socially awkward, and irresistibly nerdy. While both Andie and Clark seem quite taken with each other, they didn’t hit it off on the first go and I liked seeing how Matson used this circumstance to give a more well-rounded look at both characters. The two slowly get to know each other and both have moments where they pull away from the other, not quite willing to show their vulnerable side. But they also find opportunity to let down those walls that keep them from experiencing all the benefits to be had from an emotionally intimate relationship.

I was a little skeptical of a 500+ page contemporary novel, but the story is well-paced and never feels like it’s dragging. The Unexpected Everything is full of characters you’ll learn to care about, who don’t always make the best decisions, but whose relationships you’ll find yourself fully invested in by the end.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★