Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Dante can swim. Ari can't. Dante is articulate and self-assured. Ari has a hard time with words and suffers from self-doubt. Dante gets lost in poetry and art. Ari gets lost in thoughts of his older brother who is in prison. Dante is fair skinned. Ari's features are much darker. It seems that a boy like Dante, with his open and unique perspective on life, would be the last person to break down the walls that Ari has built around himself.
But against all odds, when Ari and Dante meet, they develop a special bond that will teach them the most important truths of their lives, and help define the people they want to be. But there are big hurdles in their way, and only by believing in each other―and the power of their friendship―can Ari and Dante emerge stronger on the other side.
This book has so much representation I might just have to happy-dance. Not only are the two main characters and their families people of color, but there are several gay characters - and none of them are portrayed badly! Plus, aside from being wonderful examples of diversity in literature, all the characters are layered and interesting. Dante and Ari are a bit too immature for fifteen at the beginning of the book, but they get more believable after their birthdays.
The entire book gets better the more you get into it, really. Most of my thoughts on it were gibberish and "awwww's" for the first few hours after I read it. I'm still not entirely sure how to convey my feelings for this book except to say that I really, really love it. I absolutely adore Ari and Dante, their story, the way Sáenz writes - let's just say it's not hard for me to imagine why Aristotle and Dante won all the awards on its cover.
On the other hand, I can definitely see why some people don't think it quite lives up to expectations. Especially in the first few chapters, the book reads more like a middle grade novel than a YA one, and the dialogue i occasionally stilted. Still, those are relatively small problems. There was much more that went right with this book than wrong. I can't guarantee that you'll love Aristotle and Dante, but I can assure you that I most definitely did. Subtle, profound, and fun to read, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a book you should definitely give a chance.
Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
Vera’s spent her whole life secretly in love with her best friend, Charlie Kahn. And over the years she’s kept a lot of his secrets. Even after he betrayed her. Even after he ruined everything.
So when Charlie dies in dark circumstances, Vera knows a lot more than anyone—the kids at school, his family, even the police. But will she emerge to clear his name? Does she even want to?
A.S. King's ability to write a book that feels real, no matter what unrealistic elements are included in it, is one of my favorite things about her writing. Her characters could live down the street from you, or have the locker next to yours. Vera is no exception. Even with a touch of the supernatural (hello, Charlie), Vera's story resembles that of thousands of ordinary teenagers: falling in love with your neighbor, dealing with grief, dealing with your parents and their philosophies...
Vera and Charlie are both brilliant characters; they're complicated and flawed but still likable. Interestingly, they are mirror-images of each other as well. The other characters are also pretty well hashed out, although we don't get as close a look at them. Even Jenny Flick - cast as the crazy, slacker bitch - was reasonably developed.
I absolutely love the way the book is narrated: Vera tells the story with brief, occasionally wise, interludes from her father, Charlie, and the Pagoda. Mr. Dietz's parts filled in the holes of Vera's backstory and explained a lot of her eccentricities (another thing I loved - seeing just how much Vera and Charlie's respective parents influenced them). Having the Pagoda - an inanimate object - interrupt every few chapters was genius on King's part. I feel like that pagoda taught me something about the world, although I have absolutely no idea what it is.
Another stroke of King's genius came in the form of Charlie, the pickle in Vera's Big Mac. King puts forth a very interesting view of death. Charlie's dead, but he isn't exactly in an afterlife, nor is he a typical ghost. As he tries to communicate with Vera and get her to clear his name, the reader learns a little at a time about his death and Vera's life with him. Suspense in waiting to find out how Charlie died, and why his name needs clearing in the first place, is well-paced. I don't think I stopped reading for more than an hour at a time
I would recommend Please Ignore Vera Dietz to A.S. King fans and people who like really good contemporary books. You won't be disappointed.
The Tyrant's Daughter by J.C. Carleson
When her father is killed in a coup, 15-year-old Laila flees from the war-torn middle east to a life of exile and anonymity in the U.S. Gradually she adjusts to a new school, new friends, and a new culture, but while Laila sees opportunity in her new life, her mother is focused on the past. She’s conspiring with CIA operatives and rebel factions to regain the throne their family lost. Laila can’t bear to stand still as an international crisis takes shape around her, but how can one girl stop a conflict that spans generations?
It has been almost two weeks since I finished this book, and I'm only now getting around to writing a review for it. This is mostly due to my well-developed ability to procrastinate, but it's also because I don't have a whole lot to say on The Tyrant's Daughter.
Let me clear up a few things: the writing was good, and I enjoyed reading it. The Tyrant's Daughter provided insights into middle-eastern culture, and Laila's experiences in America made me examine my culture a little more closely. This book, if anything, made me even more ashamed of the Americans that call women "terrorists" for wearing their hijab - which is why I recommend this book. The Tyrant's Daughter should be required reading in American high schools, simply because the story it tells is so important.
Important doesn't necessarily mean incredible, though. Laila's story wasn't as strong as it could have been, due mainly to her nonchalant attitude. "Nonchalant" isn't really the right word; Laila narrated her story like it happened a long time ago. It was obvious that she felt something about the events she was retelling, but the emotion was distant. There were a few scenes that made me fairly angry and even a little choked up, but my reaction was more because of the details in the story than the way it was being told. The nonchalance, for lack of a better word, also stole a lot of the suspense from the story, making the climax of the novel seem almost like a non-event.
Laila was relatable as much as she was foreign, and she was a passably complex character. The majority of the other characters had only two sides; they had depth, but they weren't complex. The rest were completely flat. Most of my interest in the characters came from Laila's analysis of them, which was again insightful.
The Tyrant's Daughter is definitely, absolutely worth the read. I give Carleson a lot of credit for tackling this subject and doing a respectably good job with it. The impact of the story is strong; the rest of it is somewhat weak.
No One Else Can Have You by Kathleen Hale
Small towns are nothing if not friendly. Friendship, Wisconsin (population: 688) is no different. Around here, everyone wears a smile. And no one ever locks their doors. Until, that is, high school sweetheart Ruth Fried is found murdered. Strung up like a scarecrow in the middle of a cornfield.
Unfortunately, Friendship’s police are more adept at looking for lost pets than catching killers. So Ruth’s best friend, Kippy Bushman, armed with only her tenacious Midwestern spirit and Ruth’s secret diary (which Ruth’s mother had asked her to read in order to redact any, you know, sex parts), sets out to find the murderer. But in a quiet town like Friendship—where no one is a suspect—anyone could be the killer.
This book is strange and wacky and I absolutely love it.
No One Else Can Have You starts off with the discovery of Ruth Fried's body, stuffed with straw and hung from a tree in the middle of a corn field - a pretty gruesome scene. As Kippy investigates her friend's death, she uncovers shocking police negligence, small town secrets, and the darker side of Friendship. But this is not an overly serious story.
Although a lot of heavier themes run through the book (murder, grief, PTSD, etc), No One Else Can Have You is funny and, above all, entertaining. Most of the dialogue contains "okeydokeys" and "don'tcha knows", the story takes a number of unexpected turns, and the characters are hilarious. Some of them are almost caricatures, but Hale rounds them out and gives them realistic and endearing qualities along with their goofier ones. Kippy herself has a lot of personality, as eccentric as she is lovable. Her honest, occasionally foot-in-mouth narration kept the story interesting. Actually, she's pretty badass. And although she's no Sherlock Holmes, Kippy was better than a lot of YA "detectives."
The murder, in all its grotesqueness, was the perfect offset to the strangeness of Friendship and its inhabitants. Kippy's investigation was amateur, as to be expected (what sixteen-year-old has access to a forensics team?), but it also carried a lot of weight with it. As Kippy uncovered more evidence that the killer was still on the loose, and as that evidence was repeatedly ignored by the police department, the more dire the situation became. Friendship's smiling, happy populace contrasted with all the secrets the town kept buried like black and white, and the contrast kept the book from being too dark or too light.
There were a few little things in the book that I didn't like as much or weren't, technically, politically correct (ie, referring to Norse mythology as "Nazi stuff"), but overall it was a solid read. The pacing is perfect, all the crazy things work, and even the romance is good. If you're looking for a cold, hard mystery novel, this isn't it. But No One Else Can Have You is a wildly entertaining story with a dark side, and the most fun you'll ever have reading about murder.
Conversion by Katherine Howe
(Available July 1, 2014)
It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ texts: Through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t.
First it’s the school’s queen bee, Clara Rutherford, who suddenly falls into uncontrollable tics in the middle of class. Her mystery illness quickly spreads to her closest clique of friends, then more students and symptoms follow: seizures, hair loss, violent coughing fits. St. Joan’s buzzes with rumor; rumor blossoms into full-blown panic.
Soon the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts, as everyone scrambles to find something, or someone, to blame. Pollution? Stress? Or are the girls faking? Only Colleen—who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit—comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuries ago . . .
I read Conversion with three black cats on my lap, feeling very witchy (even though cats don't really have anything to do with witches traditionally), reluctant to put it down for more than five minutes at a time. I was completely and totally absorbed in Howe's book. What first piqued my interest was the Mystery Illness, and Howe delivered all the tension, unease, and fear you'd expect to find in a book about an epidemic. But Howe also incorporated Ann Putnam's account of the events at Salem in 1692, with the same elements. Colleen's place in the middle of an epidemic and Ann Putnam's place of power in the Salem Witch Trials paralleled each other in a lot of ways, so that even when they weren't directly related to each other, they were connected. There was a great deal of subtlety in Conversion, from the implied causes of the outbreak and the way the girls' relationships progressed to the way Howe incorporated a piece of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. (I grinned like an idiot when Connie showed up. No shame).
Even though the Salem Witch Trials happened over 300 years ago and a mystery illness like the one that befalls St. Joan's seems too strange to be true, Howe writes them realistically. I can't begin to imagine the hours of research it must have taken to get Ann's story down, or to follow the progression of the Le Roy Mystery Illness of 2012 (which Colleen's story is based off of). My hat is off to Howe for that. She even managed to create a fairly accurate portrait of high school, which is damn near impossible. To be fair, not every little detail was spot-on realistic - Howe definitely added some flair to Colleen's story to make it even creepier - but even the more outlandish bits felt plausible.
The atmosphere of Conversion practically earns a star all on its own. I got shivers up my spine reading it. Colleen's story freaked me out because an unknown "illness" was infecting a bunch of people with no known cause and that's just a bit scary. Ann's story was creepy more because there wasn't any illness, just a whole load of lies that led to hysteria and paranoia and 20 deaths. A lot of stories about the Salem Witch Trials are told from the point of view of an outsider or an accused woman; it was interesting and a little freaky to hear Ann Putnam's version of events. I was hoping Conversion would be a little eerie, and it was.
I loved the diversity of the characters in Conversion, from their personalities to their backgrounds. Both the modern and historical casts were developed (some more than others, of course) and helped to drive the story. A few times their interactions became a bit cheesy, but to be honest high school is pretty cheesy, and I'm no holding it against anyone.
Definitely, definitely read Conversion if you like creepy-but-not-scary books or have any interest in either the Salem Witch Trials or the Le Roy Mystery Illness. It would also make a great book club read; there's plenty of things to discuss. Conversion was a very well put-together book, and it's made me a fan of Katherine Howe's. I want to see what else she can do.
Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman
In 1930s Munich, danger lurks behind dark corners, and secrets are buried deep within the city. But Gretchen Müller, who grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her "uncle" Dolf, has been shielded from that side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf's, and Gretchen is his favorite, his pet.
Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler. And Gretchen follows his every command.
Until she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen. Gretchen should despise Daniel, yet she can't stop herself from listening to his story: that her father, the adored Nazi martyr, was actually murdered by an unknown comrade. She also can't help the fierce attraction brewing between them, despite everything she's been taught to believe about Jews.
As Gretchen investigates the very people she's always considered friends, she must decide where her loyalties lie. Will she choose the safety of her former life as a Nazi darling, or will she dare to dig up the truth—even if it could get her and Daniel killed?
My heart is still pounding from reading Prisoner of Night and Fog. The last 200 pages of the book are non-stop suspense and action scenes. The book starts off much slower, as Gretchen searches for answers regarding her father's death and the lies her Uncle Dolf has been feeding her for her entire life. Blankman does not excel at writing mystery; half the time Gretchen would talk to a witness, who would tell her something she already knew or had figured out, and then treat it as a huge revelation. Since the majority of the book revolves around her father's death and supposed martyrdom, a good portion of the book was kind of annoying to read. Not that the murder mystery wasn't interesting, it was, it just wasn't presented very well. Blankman repeated herself too many times; if you want an example, look on pages 119 and 261; almost an entire paragraph is repeated (I won't type it here because of spoilers).
If I disliked the beginning so much, why in the world would I give Prisoner of Night and Fog four stars? Because even though the mystery wasn't amazing, the writing was solid and everything else going on was marvelous. Most books about Hitler's Germany take place during WWII, and feature Hitler as a distant, cruel power. In Blankman's book, Hitler is featured as a character with much more depth - and it's terrifying. Blankman resurrects Hitler through her story, showing him not as a figure in a textbook but as an ordinary human. Just, you know, an ordinary human who manipulated his country into killing millions of Jewish people and feeling righteous about it. The parallels between Hitler and Gretchen's brother, Reinhard, were frightening and added even more depth. It was both interesting and horrifying to read about Hitler's rise to power, and Blankman depicts pre-WWII Germany without sparing any greusome details.
Besides the unique aspect of having Hitler as a character, Prisoner of Night and Fog also has the best case of character development I've read recently. At first, I couldn't really connect with Gretchen - not while she was talking about the "Jewish infection". As she changed throughout the book, I found myself liking her more and more. The way she transformed from the brainwashed Nazi sweetheart into a kind girl who could think for herself was exceptionally realistic. So was the relationship between her and Daniel; strained at first and eventually loving and unmarred by hate. I really loved that bit.
The book, like Gretchen, got better as the story progressed. If you're willing to stick with it through a bit of a slow beginning, Prisoner of Night and Fog is an excellent read. One of the blurbs on the back cover mentions a sequel, but it could easily be a stand-alone if you don't want to start a series. I highly recommend this book for fans of the WWII genre, historical fiction, and anyone looking for a thrilling summer read.
These Gentle Wounds by Helene Dunbar
Five years after an unspeakable tragedy that changed him forever, Gordie Allen has made a new home with his half-brother Kevin. Their arrangement works since Kevin is the only person who can protect Gordie at school and keep him focused on getting his life back on track. But just when it seems like things are becoming normal, Gordie’s biological father comes back into the picture, demanding a place in his life. Now there’s nothing to stop Gordie from falling into a tailspin that could cost him everything—including his relationship with Sarah, the first girl he’s trusted with the truth. With his world spinning out of control, the only one who can help Gordie is himself . . . if he can find the strength to confront the past and take back his future.
These Gentle Wounds is incredible in as many ways as it is unremarkable. On one hand, it's riveting, tense, and written in a simple, convincing voice. Other than an excessive use of similes, the writing is great. Dunbar obviously did her research on PTSD. Gordie's "spins" back to horrible memories are painfully realistic, and it's easy to sympathize with him. Besides suffering PTSD, Gordie is also intelligent, a little awkward, and super athletic - his personality doesn't consist of his tragedy alone, thank God. However, Gordie sometimes seems a little childish; not dramatically so, but I had to remind myself a couple times that he's fifteen. Overall his character is very strong, and I really liked him.
Gordie's brother, Kevin, who doubles as his protector, is just as well characterized. Dunbar allows him to be the perfect brother for Gordie without making him too good to be true. The boy's relationship is complicated but loving, and is one of the better aspects of the book. Sarah, Gordie's crush, isn't as well rounded as Gordie or Kevin. She gives a little insight into her life that keeps her from being completely flat, but she features into the story very little. Gordie spends more time thinking about her, and worrying about what she thinks of him, than he does actually being with her. Told from Gordie's perspective, though, the bittersweetness of first love is a satisfying addition to the story.
The main conflict of the story is the return of Gordie's biological father, a complete asshole if ever there was one. The final confrontation between him and his son was white-knuckle for me. The blunt, graphic way Dunbar chose to write it made it tense and affecting.
These Gentle Wounds is about recovery and family - two subjects that can easily get cheesy or overdone. Dunbar wrote starkly and emotionally about both, and the outcome was brilliant. In some ways, it reminds me of Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Admittedly, These Gentle Wounds is probably not the best book you're going to pick up this summer, but it's well worth the read and definitely deserves a place on your bookshelves.
Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
In Smoke and Mirrors, Gaiman transforms a mundane world into a place of terrible wonders—where an old woman can purchase the Holy Grail at a thrift store, where assassins advertise their services in the Yellow Pages under "Pest Control," and where a frightened young boy must barter for his life with a mean-spirited troll living beneath a bridge by the railroad tracks. Explore a new reality, obscured by smoke and darkness yet brilliantly tangible, in this collection of short works by a master prestidigitator.
I was first introduced to this book when my friend made me read the short story Babycakes, in which the animals disappear and babies - yes, babies - take their place as lab subjects, leather suppliers, and a food source.
Babycakes and stories like it fill the pages of Smoke and Mirrors, a collection of Gaiman's short stories written over the years and all compiled into one place. Some of them, like Babycakes, are terrifying and disgusting. Others are silly but fantastic, while still more are serious. A few are sexually explicit and even pornographic. They all contain elements of fantasy, ranging from creepy to entertaining.
Every story is of a high caliber, since it's Gaiman writing them, but as usual a few rise above the rest. They're the creepiest or weirdest ones. Some of them even make me afraid to turn out my light. That would be because they all seem very, very real, like if you were to be observant enough, you might find a troll under your nearest train bridge or a fictional H.P. Lovecraft town off the highway. Fantasy lovers will be thrilled with this anthology, as will any Gaiman fans who haven't read it yet.
Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan
The man who calls himself David Loogan is hoping to escape a violent past by living a quiet, anonymous life in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But when he's hired as an editor at a mystery magazine, he is drawn into an affair with the wife of the publisher, Tom Kristoll - a man who soon turns up dead.
Elizabeth Waishkey is the most talented detective in the Ann Arbor Police Department, but even she doesn't know if Loogan is a killer or an ally who might help her find the truth. As more deaths start mounting up - some of them echoing stories published in the magazine - it's up to Elizabeth to solve both murders and the mystery of Loogan himself.
I have to admit: the summary of this book didn't seem all that impressive. I read a few pages and see if I liked it, even though I wasn't expecting to, and got so caught up in the story I put everything else aside to read it. Loogan was enigmatic and slightly threatening from the beginning, which is what really drew me in. Plus, I was hoping Waishkey would be the femme-Sherlock Holmes the summary promised.
I'm a little disappointed in how Waishkey turned out. She was a great character and probably is a very good detective, but almost all of the "sleuthing" in Bad Things Happen was just speculation. The leads they uncovered never proved or disproved anything, just added another theory to the list of possibilities. So Waishkey wasn't really discovering any vital clues; no one was. One of my favorite parts of mystery novels is figuring out the importance of new leads, but most of the leads in Bad Things Happen led nowhere. There was absolutely no way to guess who the killer was until the killer was revealed. Almost everyone in the book was under speculation at one point, and the theories were all equally plausible or unlikely.
Normally a plot that corkscrews like that would seem badly planned and ill-fitting for a mystery novel, but it kind of worked for Dolan. It never felt like any of the characters were in all that much danger, barring a few scenes, so the only source of suspense was from not knowing who the killer was. The book was constantly interesting and the plot never dropped off, but I wasn't on the edge of my seat until the end of the book. When the mystery started to fit together, it picked up really quickly and everything started to make sense; Dolan didn't leave any loose ends lying around. Because of that, even without suspense and solid clues, Bad Things Happen was still majorly intriguing. I was captivated from the first page to the last.
The characters in Dolan's book are all subdued but well-depicted. They were likeable, and the bad guys were well-hidden. If they hadn't been, the whole book would have fallen apart, but I didn't figure out who they were until they drew their weapons, so to speak. Loogan's character was particularly interesting, as was his personal mystery. I was not disappointed when his past was revealed.
The biggest disappointment I have with this book is that none of the murders were "echoed stories published in the magazine." One of the killings was based off a murder in a (fake) mystery novel, but none were based on a story published in Gray Streets. I looked forward to seeing how Dolan worked that into the book, but it wasn't there.
On the other hand, the best part of the book was probably the interactions between the characters. The dialogue is witty and smooth, and Dolan doesn't waste a word. I usually find characters who don't give straight answers annoying, but Dolan worded their responses in such a way that it was hard to tell who was lying and who was telling it straight.
Bad Things Happen is a great book simply because it keeps you guessing. There are certainly better mystery novels out there, but I'm satisfied. I might even read the second book in the series.
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
It is 1875, and Ann Eliza Young has recently separated from her powerful husband, Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon Church. Expelled and an outcast, Ann Eliza embarks on a crusade to end polygamy in the United States. A rich account of her family’s polygamous history is revealed, including how both she and her mother became plural wives. Yet soon after Ann Eliza’s story begins, a second exquisite narrative unfolds–a tale of murder involving a polygamist family in present-day Utah. Jordan Scott, a young man who was thrown out of his fundamentalist sect years earlier, must reenter the world that cast him aside in order to discover the truth behind his father’s death. And as Ann Eliza’s narrative intertwines with that of Jordan’s search, readers are pulled deeper into the mysteries of love, family, and faith.
I was born in Salt Lake City, where almost all of our neighbors were Mormons and sacred underwear hung on the laundry lines. We left when I was still a baby, so I don't remember living there, but my mom's stories about the city and her Mormon friends always interested me. And of course the scandalous history of polygamy was a draw to Ebershoff's book.
The 19th Wife is centered mainly around polygamy (which is a fascinating topic itself), but it also recounts the beginning of the LDS Church and their evolution. Ann Eliza's story is a mixture of praise for the church and scorn for it. Her story offered a really cool look at the beginnings of a religion and life in a theocracy. Jordan's story allows readers a glimpse at modern-day cult life as he revisits the Firsts of Mesadale. The practices of both the early Mormons and the Firsts are controversial today, but Ebershoff points out the flaws in their belief systems without condemning the Mormons.
Both Ann Eliza and Jordan's stories are both well researched, though I'm not sure which of the historical documents included (if any) are real and which are fabricated. Either way, the variety of texts, from letters to diaries to interviews, creates a many-sided and cunningly interwoven story. Jordan's story and Ann Eliza's go together well, combining the historical fiction and mystery dramas. They are both fantastically paced for the most part, although the book begins to drag towards the end. The romance in Jordan's part of the book also felt a little bit forced, but that and a few slow spots were the only major flaws I found.
Right about now you're probably wondering why I read this book when it says right in my Policy that I don't read religious titles as a rule. And here's the reason - Ebershoff manages to write about religion and characters who are extremely devout without shoving the religion's values down your throat. The sermons included in The 19th Wife serve as background to the story, not as incentive to join the Latter-Day Saints. The 19th Wife is more about education than indoctrination, which suits me just fine.
The 19th Wife appeals to many audiences, and it should be equally fascinating to all of them. If you're looking for a historical epic, this is your book. If you want a book with a little murder, mystery, and Mormons, this is your book.
Ex Libris, Veritas
Welcome to Verity Reviews, a book blog to promote, review, and critique YA books of all genres.
As Simple as Snow