Andrew Smith, Andrew Smith Event, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Dystopia, Fiction, GLBT, LGBT, Science-Fiction, Young Adult

Thoughts: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

18079719Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

So, this is the way the world ends.  Not with a bang, but with a …uh… clacking-buzzing sorta sound? Yes, I think T.S. Eliot would be proud of Andrew Smith’s newest wasteland, which is to say, an average, all-American, small town in Iowa.  Of course, this small town just happens to be infested with gigantic, horny, insatiably hungry grasshoppers. Luckily, there is one historian present to witness and record the strange happenings that lead up to the end of the world: Austin Szerba.  Our narrator-historian is a corn-fed teenager just as horny and insatiable as the unstoppable grasshopper army. Okay, to be fair to the cannibalistic insects – Austin is probably hornier than they are.  But at least he doesn’t eat everybody. Young Szerba hilariously, but adeptly, graces his readers with the histories of a town, a family, a friendship, and the founding of a new world order.

Here’s the thing, though.  The premise of the book, as outlined above, might sound a bit ridiculous.  And, in spots, it’s far from believable.  This is because it’s rooted in science-fiction which, by its very nature, is not meant to be entirely realistic; yet, we know that much of science-fiction has indeed anticipated our actual scientific discoveries and technological advancements (anyone notice that Star Trek had tablets and wireless communication devices decades ago?). On the surface of Grasshopper Jungle, then, is an action-packed coming-of-age story with groovy, original and horrifying science-fiction elements.  Dig deeper, though, and you’ll find that Smith is asking some seriously profound questions about life, power, love, independence, and responsibility.

So, maybe mutated humanoids-turned-insects who breed like there’s no tomorrow (‘cause there ain’t, folks) isn’t your bag.  This book is still probably for you.  Why?  Well, because of everything else that Andrew Smith gives us in this book.

For example, we are saved from totally wigging-out over the nasty self-inflicted bug invasion at the core of the story by the presence of three very real, very believable, and very human protagonists who happen to be mired in a wonderfully messed up ménage à trois.  Robby loves Austin.  Shann loves Austin.  Austin loves them both.  It’s confusing and it’s painful.  It’s erotic and it’s maddening.  It’s teenage life in the Midwestern United States, where a young man is coming to terms with his sexuality, his family history, and, yeah, the realization that he just might be the destroyer of the world, the savior of it, and the chronicler of the whole damn thing, too. Holy shit.

What else can I say about this book?  Andrew Smith understands young adult males like few writers out there today.  He also has a superhuman ability to weave incredibly fantastical tales with deeply moving stories about the human experience and what it is like to grow up feeling different.  After Stick, and Winger, and so many other incredible books, it is impossible to deny that Smith has a cosmic connection with the teenage male psyche and all that comes with it.  So if you are prepared to enter that deeply disturbing, sometimes heartbreaking, but always hilarious world of the teen boy mind, then you will find no better avenue than this.


Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: Young Adult+

Interest: Science-Fiction, Coming-of-Age, Sexuality, LGBT, Friendship, Dystopia, Family, Fictional History. Midwest USA, Corn.


Notable Quotes:

“We never heard sirens in Ealing. It’s not that bad things never happened here, it’s just that nobody ever bothered to complain about it when they did.”

“History does show that boys who dance are far more likely to pass along their genes than boys who don’t.”

“I was on the conveyor belt toward the paper shredder of history with countless scores of other sexually confused boys.”

“Good books are always about everything.”

“History never tells about people taking shits. I can’t for a moment believe that guys like Theodore Roosevelt or Winston Churchill never took a shit. History always abbreviates out the shit-taking.”

“History shows that an examination of the personal collection of titles in any man’s library will provide something of a glimpse into his soul.”


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Book Review, Coming-of-Age, David Levithan, Depression, Family, Favorites, Fiction, Gay Lit, Gender Identity, GLBT, Homophobia, Homosexuality, LGBT, Relationships, Transgender, Young Adult

Thoughts: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

17237214Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD:  51


When you look at the cover for Two Boys Kissing, you get a pretty good idea of what this book will be about.  Then you read the synopsis on the inside cover and your idea becomes a bit more defined, a bit clearer.  Finally, you sit down to read the book, only to discover that your first impressions were of the vaguest kind.  In Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan brings back the literary chorus of old.  The narrative guides of Shakespeare and Ovid at long last reappear, this time through the collective voice of our “ancient” gay predecessors.  These are the men and women who bravely pioneered the social frontier, the rainbow-clad Lewis & Clark who pressed love onward – quietly or with booming voice- and who were lost to one of the greatest tragedies of our day, the AIDS epidemic.

As our guide, this chorus reveals to us a day in the life of multiple contemporary gay youths, in many iterations of the “type.”  The main couple, Craig and Harry, are the two boys kissing, but they are not a couple at all (although they used to be).  Their goal is to stand up for equality by breaking the world’s record for longest kiss – hoping that the process and the end result of two boys’ names together in a permanent book of world record will get people thinking, if not change the world entirely. They are also standing up for their friend, who was violently and viciously beaten for being gay.

In addition to their primary story, the chorus also gives us a peek into the worlds of Peter and Neil, a young couple who are learning what that word, “couple,” means; learning how to navigate life for themselves and for each other, including, most importantly, how to understand and respond to one another, sometimes without words.   We also meet Avery and Ryan, both of whom have their demons, past and present, and who must confront the idea of what it means to be different, even within the same “gay world.”

Finally, we see Cooper, the boy who no one sees and who refuses to be seen.  Cooper’s story is where the chorus truly rallies – where these spirit guides are needed most, lest we forget that where we came from and where we are going are inextricably linked.  Technology advances, and these advancements change our perspectives and our possibilities, but for boys like Cooper, the loneliness and isolation only grow deeper, more vacuous.

Two Boys Kissing is the gay anthem for our day.  It is the very book created from the very inspirations that many of us have been waiting to read for a long, long time.  Levithan pulls stories from the real world and links them to our present and our past.  He does this through the eyes of a compassionate yet devastatingly helpless and sometimes forgotten chorus of our forbearers. Levithan, since the publication of his wonderful short novel Boy Meets Boy ten years ago, has veered from the idyllic and romantic, to the daring and experimental (Every You, Every Me), and the exploratory (Every Day), right into the real, the raw, and the historical.  He keeps getting better, and Two Boys Kissing is a triumph indeed.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: YA+
Interest: LGBT, Transgender, Relationships, First Loves, Coming-of-Age, Interconnected Plots, Family, Depression, Hate Crimes.


Notable Quotes:

“We thought of magic as something that existed with or without us. But that’s not true. Things are not magical because they’ve been conjured for us by some outside force. They are magical because we create them.”

“You spend so much time, so much effort, trying to hold yourself together. And then everything falls apart anyway.”

“It is hard to stop seeing your son as a son and to start seeing him as a human being. It is hard to stop seeing your parents as parents and to start seeing them as human beings. It’s a two-sided transition, and very few people manage it gracefully.”

“What strange creatures we are, to find silence peaceful, when permanent silence is the thing we most dread. Nighttime is not that. Nighttime still rustles, still creaks and whispers and trembles in its throat.  It is not darkness we fear, but our own helplessness within it.”

“Our bodies don’t have to be touching to be connected to one another. Our heart races without contact. Our breath holds until the threat is gone.”

“You grow. Your life widens. And you can’t expect your partner’s love alone to fill you. There will always be space for other things.”

“Here we are, thousands of us, shouting no, shouting at him to stop, crying out and making a net of our bodies, trying to come between him and the water.”

“There is the sudden. There is the eventual. And in between, there is the living.”


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1001 Books, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Coming-of-Age, Courtroom Drama, Events, Fiction, Harper Lee, Historical Fiction, MockingbirdReads, Read-Alongs, Social Drama, Southern Lit

Thoughts: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

2657To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 46

Harper Lee’s noted –and only- work, To Kill a Mockingbird, has become a classic piece of literature and a staple of American culture and southern history.  The narrator and protagonist, Scout Finch, along with her brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, begin the story as lighthearted, inquisitive and playful children who are fascinated by a mysterious neighbor named Arthur “Boo” Radley.  As the story progresses, they have a series of encounters with Boo, but they do not know it (until all comes to a head in the tragic and life-altering conclusion).  Jem and Scout’s father, Atticus, is the town (and county’s) best lawyer, and also a representative to the state legislature.  He is tasked with defending a black man against the charge of rape, and the task will change his children forever.

Although the book directly wrestles with issues of racism, violence, bigotry, caste, and education, its primary concern is coming of age and loss of innocence.  Scout’s innocence, in particular, but also Jem and Dill’s, is threatened by successive incidents that reveal to these generally kind, somewhat simple kids the presence and nature of human evils.  This is especially made clear with the conviction of Tom Robinson, a black man who, from the start, was bound to be found guilty, despite Atticus Finch’s brilliant defense and the clear evidence support Robinson’s innocence.  This conviction shatters Jem’s world and forces him into manhood, meanwhile causing Dill, a gentle and artistic soul, to face the harsh realities of a world he tries so hard to avoid.

The trial is only the first of two major incidents which will change the kids’ worlds.  The second happens at the end of the book, when the man whom accused Robinson of rape (and whom Atticus clearly implicates instead), attempts to make good on his promise to ruin Atticus Finch.  Although neither he nor anyone in his family was punished for their perjury and false accusations, and although Robinson was ultimately convicted and suffered the harshest fate, Bob Ewell still feels it necessary to seek his own justice for the “damage of character” done to him at the trial.  This particularly subplot is particularly telling of how class, within white society, is just as important and just as divided as the world of blacks and whites.

Ultimately, To Kill a Mockingbird is an exploration of human nature and each individual’s capacity for both good and evil.  It is a commentary on the importance of moral education – much more so than academic education, and a discussion on social class and the true meaning of justice (and who is entitled to it).  Harper Lee utilizes interesting Gothic techniques, reminiscent of the great southern Gothics such as Flannery O’Connor, to build tension and anticipation, and to foreshadow the story’s more important events.

Allowing the story to be told from Scout’s point of view, in retrospect, adds both honesty and evidence to the story, but also some room for doubt.  She narrates the entire story in the first person, as through her childhood self’s eyes, but then adds analysis and supplementary thoughts to the narration, as an experienced adult revisiting these events after many years.  The inclusion of these comments makes the narrator more trustworthy, as it reveals to us that she is aware (and admitting) that she is somewhat distanced from the time and place of the story and, therefore, could possibly be over or under-exaggerating certain things.  The tone of her narration, like the tone of the story, begins in childhood innocence but becomes increasingly foreboding and self-conscious as the tale unwinds.

To be sure, To Kill a Mockingbird holds a beloved place in the hearts of many readers and also a coveted spot in the canon as a “classic” of American literature.  When I first read this book, many years ago, I was not as much of a fan as I thought I would be, but this re-read has proved me wrong.  The book is well-written and masterfully constructed (where and how Lee begins the story, for instance, really struck me as perfection, this time around).  The characters, good, bad, and indifferent, are believable, interesting, and important to the plot and scenery.  This is a book I will be revisiting again and again.

I read this book as part of a read-along, with additional thoughts posted Here.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 16+
Interest: Social Justice, Racism, American South, Courtroom Drama, Coming of Age, Southern Gothic.

Notable Quotes:

“Thus we came to know Dill as a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies” (9).

“There were other ways of making people into ghosts” (12).

“It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind” (19).

“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults” (99).

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (103).

“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that just doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” (120).

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what” 128).

“Dill was off again. Beautiful things floated around in his dreamy head. He could read two books to my one, but he preferred the magic of his own inventions” (163).

“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks” (259).

“Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret court of men’s hearts Atticus had no case” (276).

“I came to the conclusion that people were just peculiar. I withdrew from them, and never thought about them until I was forced to” (279).

“As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra” (321).


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Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Crime Novel, Fiction, Murder Mystery, Mystery, Stephen King, Supernatural

Review: Joyland by Stephen King

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Joyland by Stephen King

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 43


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Stephen King’s Joyland is the latest in his massive repertoire of what I will hereafter describe as “really cool reading stuff.”  In this supernatural mystery crime thriller (yep, it is all of that), young Devin Jones, fresh out of his first year of college, heads down the eastern U.S. coastline to take a summer job at an old-fashioned amusement park called, you guessed it, Joyland.  While trying to get over “that” girl, the devastatingly beautiful tease who became his first love and who broke his heart for the first time, Devin soon finds himself involved in the very peculiar life of a dying boy, his bombshell mother, and a decades old murder that all of them must somehow solve together, or else.  What starts off as a curiosity – a folk legend and a hobby- for Devin and his Joyland friends, soon turns into a terrifying nightmare which will change Devin’s life forever.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

One of the areas where I tend to find King lacking is in his character development.  His stories and their connection with the reader are always at the forefront, so his characters seem to be there only as means to an end.  What King wants for his reader is self-immersion – the stories should be happening to you.  He does manage to accomplish this, better than most, but, still, characters are one of my favorite (and, in my opinion, one of the most important) aspects of any good novel, so I do look for their strengths, weaknesses, growth, etc.  Joyland is a short novel, without much room for growth, but King does allow his main character, Devin, to experience certain major life events and to learn from them. Most of the minor characters (which includes everyone except Devin) are relatively flat throughout, except for Annie.  Her story, along with that of her sick son, Mike, are the very touching secondary support that the primary story needs to make this book just complicated enough – just emotional enough- to touch the reader on a deeper level. Devin’s growth coincides with his relationship with these two, and Annie’s growth, too, happens only because Devin comes into their life.  The other friends, park workers, and even the primary antagonist are sidelined for the majority of the story but, in the end, it really doesn’t matter.

Prose/Style:
4 – Excellent prose/style, enhancing the story.

Stephen King obviously knows how to write a story – his prolific body of work, permanent best-seller status, and massive personal wealth (not to mention all those page-to-screen adaptations) can attest to this.  Typically, though, something about King’s writing will irk me.  I sometimes find it a little bit too pedantic, or a little bit too graphic, or a little bit trying-to-hard-to-be-shocking.  This time, though, King seems to be deeply in love with his story, and his writing reflects that.  The book is a page-turner, not because it is an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller or horror novel, like so many of his others.  Yes, you do want to find out what happens next, but it is because you are engrossed with Devin’s life.  Sure, you realize there are things happening beneath the surface – secrets that are bound to be revealed, soon. But, also, you just want to be a part of Devin’s life.  You are happy for him when he finds enjoyment in perhaps the most un-enjoyable job imaginable.  You are thrilled when his relationship with Annie starts to progress, and when you learn more about Mike.  King’s dialogue is believable, Devin’s awkwardness is believable, and the descriptions of people, places, etc. are interesting enough to engage the reader and drive the plot forward.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Joyland is not as scary, nor as suspenseful, nor as gory, nor as crude as I expected it to be.  I mean, this is King, after all.  Where is the horror?  Where are the blatantly graphic sexual episodes?  I realize that I always anticipate something from King, and yet he always manages to surprise me.  This has happened with every King book I’ve read, from Christine to Gunslinger, from Carrie to “The Body.”  Although King sometimes uses the fantastical, the terrifying, and the unbelievable to get his point across, his stories are, at heart, very much about human nature and the human experience. Joyland is no exception; in fact, it might just be King at the peak of his storytelling ability.  This book left me with a sense of nostalgia that I haven’t felt since seeing the Spielberg film Super 8 just a few years ago.  It reminds one of “the good old days” – where innocence and experience begin to meet, where love has crushed us, but the future still shines bright; where mystery entices us and, despite our better judgment, we dive for it only to find ourselves in over our heads.  The book was, really, a delight.  It is sad, but hopeful; fantastic, but real; and current, but elegiac.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Crime Thriller, Mystery, Supernatural, Coming-of-Age.

Notable Quotes:

“Age looked at youth, and youth’s applause first weakened, then died.”

“The mind defends itself as long as it can.”

“Even when what you’re holding onto is full of thorns, it’s hard to let go.”

“Some people hide their real faces. Sometimes you can tell when they’re wearing masks, but not always.”

“The last good time always comes, and when you see the darkness creeping toward you, you hold on to what was bright and good. You hold on for dear life.”


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Book Review, Chicago, Coming-of-Age, Dystopia, Fiction, Science-Fiction, Veronica Roth, Young Adult

Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

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Divergent by Veronica Roth

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 41


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable.

In Chicago, sometime in the (not too distant) future, society has been torn apart by war, and those who remain have separated into factions:  Dauntless, The Brave. Those who believe in justice and freedom from fear.  Erudite, The Intelligent. Those who believe in peace through education and growth from knowledge. Amity, The Peaceful.  Those who believe in kindness, forgiveness, and self-sufficiency.  And Abnegation, The Selfless.  Those who believe in self-sacrifice, altruism, and love of God and others before one’s self. And then there are The Divergent.  The most dangerous of all, these are the ones who seem to belong to all of the factions, and none.  Their skill sets are wide, which makes them feared by many.

Upon coming of age, every young adult must choose a faction, usually the one they are born into, but also with guidance from certain tests that take place the day before selection. Those who change factions are often shunned by their families forever, and those who do not make it through their faction’s initiation, become factionless – loners – as good as dead and only cared for by the Abnegation.  Sixteen-year-old Beatrice (Tris) Prior is one of the Divergent – a secret she must discover for herself, and then protect from all others, or risk certain death. While training with her faction, she uncovers other secrets, secrets that will tip the balance of power and cause great unrest – even war- among the four factions, unless she and her small group of friends can stop it.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

One of the things Divergent has going for it, unlike some of its contemporaries (such as The 5th Wave) is a good deal of substantive character development and relationship-building.  Sure, you have the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” but there are also characters who remain somewhat mysterious, with the potential to go either way.  Beatrice is a flawed protagonist – a heroine we can root for, but one with realistic faults and challenges, which makes her all the more endearing and relatable.  You also get subtle hints, early on and then throughout, that many of the minor characters have back-stories of their own.  Some of these are discovered, some remain mysteries (possibly to be explored later in the series?).

In addition to Tris, another interesting character is her mentor and love-interest, Four.  He and Tris have much in common, though they (or Tris, at least) cannot be entirely sure of their connection.  Their relationship is interesting to watch and adds a decent side-story to the main plot.  The minor characters, like Tris’s family, Peter, Drew, Al, Molly, and others from the faction are necessary but not terribly memorable.  Even the major antagonist(s), including the leaders of two factions, as well as a mentor in Tris’s faction, serve their purpose, but their backgrounds and motives are not very well explored.  Meaningful and/or believable motivation always makes a “bad guy” more interesting, but the explanations, here, seemed more convenient than anything.

Prose/Style:
4 – Excellent prose/style, enhancing the story.

Roth’s style is well-crafted and fast-paced.  The interplay of action/violence, romance, and mystery/self-discovery keep the story interesting and allow it to progress with intrigue – a classic bait-and-hook technique which keeps the reader asking “What happens next?” Although Tris’s story was interesting enough to keep the reader engaged, the minor characters and subplots were not as richly crafted.  It is unfortunate that some of the glazed-over moments (such as the rising tension between the Erudite and Abnegation factions, witnessed through newspaper/press releases which are read by (or to) Tris) are not treated with as much intricacy and delicacy as the main plot.  Developing these subplots further and truly integrating them into the overall story, rather than crafting them in such a way as to leave them sort of floating on top, would have added great depth and richness to the story.

This is a similar failing as is made, in my opinion, by Suzanne Collins in Mockingjay.  Whereas The Hunger Games and Catching Fire were rather nuanced, the third book seemed to be a slap-on ending to a series that, ultimately, did not need to be a series.  So, too, do the subplots in Divergent sometimes stick out as sore thumbs – there, but not nearly developed enough to care about.  That being said, the writing is fluid and gripping; the prose is appropriate to the genre and intended reading level; and the overall experience of reading it is a positive one, which does make one interested in finding out what else Roth can do with Tris, the factions, and the development of this world.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present and enhance the story.

Divergent is one of the first young adult dystopian stories that I have enjoyed in quite some time.  Not since Ender’s Game have I been enticed enough by a story to truly want to pursue its sequels.  While I have read and enjoyed other recent books/series of this type, such as The Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’s series is a fresh idea, delivered in a clean, entertaining way, and seems to stand out in a genre which has many overlapping elements and borrowed ideas (The Hunger Games, for instance, having been very much a reimagining of Battle Royale, to give one example).  All that being said, the idea of the factions and what they stand for; the loathing of “outsiders,” as well as who should care for them (and why); and the fear of those who do not fit into a predefined mold – Roth has taken these very natural, every day challenges and molded them to fit a dystopian world, one which was built on human limitations and which will be threatened by distinctly human evils.

Above all of this, though, is the simple coming-of-age story.  The fear and anxiety that we all have, upon reaching adulthood, that we are not quite ready to handle these new responsibilities – that we might make bad decisions which, now that we are in the real world, could have disastrous consequences.  We begin to define who we are not in relationship to the family (or faction) we are born into, but the friends and families we choose.  This is a simple, age-old theme that dates back to the beginning of storytelling, but in Roth’s hands it feels new and exciting again.  Divergent, despite some faults, was a page-turner, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Dystopia, YA, SciFi, Coming of Age.

Notable Quotes:

“To live factionless is not just to live in poverty and discomfort; it is to live divorced from society, separated from the most important thing in life: community.”

“Valuing knowledge above all else results in a lust for power, and that leads men into dark and empty place.”

“I believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.”

“Becoming fearless isn’t the point. It’s learning how to control your fear, and how to be free from it, that’s the point.”

“Why do people want to pretend that death is sleep?  It isn’t.”

“They try to make you think they care about what you do, but they don’t. They don’t want you to act a certain way. They want you to think a certain way. So you’re easy to understand. So you won’t pose a threat to them.”


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Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Family, Fiction, Friendship, Gay Lit, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, LGBT, Mexican American, Monthly Review, Young Adult

Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

By Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 39

 

 

 


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

I was introduced to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Laura of Owl Tell You About It, who had nothing but glowing things to say about this book.  A quick Goodreads and Amazon scan brought up a lot of other positive reviews, some of them outstanding, and from bloggers I’ve been connected with for a while.  How did I miss this one?

The story is about two teenage boys, Aristotle and Dante, whose lives and personalities seem worlds apart, but who are connected by something stronger than circumstances.  Although they and their families are very different, the two boys soon become friends (not without plenty of tense moments) and stumble upon a universe all their own – two planets, as different as Earth and Mars, but orbiting each other in the most natural way.   

Through painful accidents and dangerous situations, through tragedy and loss, through long-distances and secret family histories rediscovered, what Aristotle, especially, learns is that it is okay to be vulnerable – to need someone.  And what Dante learns is how to be needed, and how to be patient.  This is a story about two boys, Ari and Dante, one who is sure about who he is and the other who is on a difficult path to discovery.  Their worlds collide and the friendship they create in the process might be enough to destroy them, or to save their lives.


Characterization:
4 – Characters very well-developed.

Aristotle, Dante, and their parents.  These are the primary and secondary characters in a book that is rather light on characters, which is fine because the real story is Dante & Aristotle.  Some others make their appearances, in brief or in memory.  Aristotle’s brother and sisters, for instance, and Dante’s boyfriend.  But the story is, start-to-finish, in-and-out, all about Dante and Aristotle.  Dante can swim. Ari can’t. Dante is well-read, artistic, and self-confident.  Ari prefers solitude and quiet – he harbors a darkness, an anger, and has a hard time communicating. Dante loves poetry and loves to draw.  Ari spends most of his time thinking about his older brother (who is incarcerated), and about why his parents refuse to talk about it.  Dante is fair-skinned and beautiful, but longs to feel closer to his Mexican heritage;  Ari is darker, plain, and wouldn’t mind being less obviously Mexican. 

Somehow, these two very different boys find each other, balance each other, and develop a friendship that fits them both like nothing ever has.  Dante manages to penetrate Aristotle’s defences, and Aristotle helps keep Dante grounded, giving him the strength and courage he will need to confront his biggest fear.  Through it all, they share words and dreams, poetry and laughter, books, games, and even artwork.   Together, they  realize that the universe doesn’t just surround them – it is what they create for themselves.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

If the story itself isn’t wonderful enough (it is), the way it is delivered cannot be ignored.  This is the first book I’ve read by Sáenz, but numerous people told me, while reading this, how much they enjoyed his prose and storytelling abilities.  I’m jumping on the bandwagon.  His prose is sparse but romantic.  The complexities of language – of finding the right word for the right moment – are part of Aristotle’s journey, so the prose itself becomes a part of the story.  Vivid imagery, beautiful language, emotional knuckle-punches, and a great sense of humor all pack themselves into a carefully crafted style that is accompanied by natural dialogue and a unique narrative perspective. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

If I am being honest, I must admit that I was disappointed by this book in two ways; first, by the final reveal (or revelation?) and second by the way that reveal came about.  I was incredibly excited to possibly have discovered a genuine, touching, “boy’s boy” book about two guy friends, one of whom just happens to be gay.  But it doesn’t turn out exactly as it appears, and even if the ending isn’t too deftly veiled, one (me, at least) still hoped it would go a certain way.  I realize I’m being ambiguous, but it’s hard to talk about what happens without giving away the whole ball game – and since this is such a beautiful story told in such a wonderful way, I definitely do not want to spoil it for anyone.  Others might be perfectly pleased with the way it turns out, though, again, I’m not sure that anyone could be thrilled with its mode of delivery.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Prove me wrong! 

Ultimately, this is a sweet, sweet book filled with emotion, passion, love, pain, and reality.  It’s a coming of age story that is believable and remarkable at the same time.  Even though I would have taken the ending in a different direction, I’m still thrilled with the experience of reading this book – it has won countless awards, and it’s not hard to understand why.  We’re looking at a new standard for honest, contemporary YA with realistic male characters and topical issues, delivered in a believable and magical way.  Right on.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Friendship, Family, Mexican-American, Gay, Coming of Age, First Love, YA.


Notable Quotes:

“The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.”

“I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get – and never would get.”

“That afternoon, I learned two new words. ‘Inscrutable’ ‘friend.’ Words were different when they lived inside of you.”

“And it seemed to me that Dante’s face was a map of the world. A world without any darkness.”

“You can’t make anyone be an adult. Especially an adult.”

“The summer sun was not meant for boys like me. Boys like me belonged to the rain.”


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Andrew Smith, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Favorites, Fiction, Friendship, GLBT, LGBT, Loss, Young Adult

Review: Winger by Andrew Smith

11861815Winger by Andrew Smith
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 36

Ryan Dean West is Winger, so nicknamed for the position he plays on the high school Rugby team.  He is fourteen years old and, being intellectually gifted, is already heading into his junior year of high school. He begins the new school year as a resident of Opportunity Hall, the “reject” wing of his school campus’s dormitories.  How did such a bright kid end up in exile?  Take one part smarty-pants, one part wild boy, and two parts bad judgment, and there you have it!  Living in Opportunity Hall with Chas, the school’s biggest bully, as a roommate sucks, but it is not the biggest of Winger’s problems.  And the fact that Chas’s girlfriend is totally lusting after him is bad, but still not the worst of it.  That one of Winger’s friends posts pictures of his band-aided scrotum on the internet and another is gay (how do you deal with that!?) definitely causes Winger some anxiety, but these are still not the worst of his issues.  No, the worst part is, he’s in love.  Not so bad?  Well, it is if you’re in love with your best friend.  And it’s really bad if your best friend is a girl two years older than you.  Two years might not seem like such a big deal to those of us who are now counting our birthdays in decades instead of years, but when you’re young, two years feels like a generation, especially when another guy, an older guy, your best friend, in fact, is competing with you for the same girl’s attention.  Winger is a classic coming-of-age story for the new era. It is smart, daring, honest, and dangerous.

One of my favorite things about Smith’s books has always been the characters.  Smith clearly knows and understands his characters inside and out.  No one in the story is there for the sake of being there – they are all integral to the story’s plot and progression, be it for comic relief, emotional growth, romance, sexual awakening, or whatever else.  Winger is no exception to this mastery.  The main character, Ryan Dean, is not the greatest guy in the world; in fact, he does some pretty lousy things.  But he’s growing up.  He stumbles and he learns.  He says stupid things, but reflects on them later.  We get annoyed with him, sometimes, but we root for him because we can see and remember our own journeys to adulthood reflected in his.  The bullies, too, Chas and Casey Palmer, are equally rounded – they are not all bad, and they are not just there because every protagonist needs an antagonist.  They have their stories and histories, too, and they are equally important to this world that Smith has created.  Although the story focuses on the students, Winger and his friends, Smith also captures the best and worst of adulthood.  There are teachers (Mr. Wellins!) who live in their own little obsessive worlds, trying to make their students see what they see in the things they love; there are absent parents and clueless mentors; there are even unlikely romances between creepy hall directors who ultimately let their residents down in the worst possible way.  This mixed bag of characters, their individualities, and their interconnectedness with one another and with the main story itself all help to create a story world that is believable and engaging, hilarious and terrifying – just like life.

When you have a favorite writer, the anticipation that builds when waiting to read his or her new book is a peculiar experience.  You know you love what they do, but part of you is always dreadfully afraid that the new book might disappoint.  When you’re a self-identified “reader,” there are few things more terrifying and heart-breaking than to be let-down by your favorite writer – it is a fear that few people can know or understand.  So, headed into this reading experience, having loved every single one of Andrew Smith’s published works to date, had me simultaneously nervous and excited.  I discovered Smith when I received an advanced copy of his book Stick from the publisher, for review.  Immediately after finishing it, I bought every one of his books.  And I’ve enjoyed all of them.  Smith has a distinct voice, a poignant style, and a raw and daring point of view.  It is remarkable, then, having already known what Smith was capable of, that Winger has blown my head right off.  Smith clearly cares deeply for this story – the language and style are creative and distinctive, without being distracting.  Smith understands people, but it takes a great storyteller to metamorphose that understanding into a readable, enjoyable story.  He does this in traditional ways, sure, but he also adds unique signatures to his prose and form.  For example, Winger carries on conversations with himself – something we probably all do – but has it ever been so realistically employed in prose?  I don’t think so.  The cartoons, too, add a fun element to the narrative, but also add to the reader’s understanding of the main character/narrator’s personality.  Sometimes his deepest feelings, though caricatured through comic, come across most pointedly in his drawings.  The dialogue, the jokes, the sarcasm, and the descriptions, too, are without flaw.

This year, I have been fortunate enough to have read some great young adult fiction from some of the most popular, award-wining writers.  Although the YA genre is not my particular specialty, I do enjoy it and read it often; in the last 5 months, I’ve read works by Rick Yancey, David Levithan, Lauren Myracle, Cassandra Clare, and Rick Riordan. I’ve enjoyed, to varying degrees, all of their books and have found much to praise about each writer.  But Andrew Smith stands unequivocally head-and-shoulders above the rest, and Winger is in a league of its own.  It is not uncommon to read blurbs and reviews that claim such-and-such book is THE book of the year – for whatever reason.  I have made a point, on this blog, to write my unbiased opinions of books, based on my own criteria – the things that work for me when reading a story.  I’m not sure I’ve ever, in a review, suggested that anyone go out and buy a book.  But there’s a time for everything, and this is that time.  Winger is the first book this year to capture my attention from the start and hold it to the end.  It’s the first story to tug at my heart, my soul, and my funny bone, and to make me believe that this story and the characters in it are real.  If you’re a lover of YA fiction or coming-of-age stories, or if you are, like me, someone who just loves a good story and will dabble wherever you need to in order to find it, then, for crying out loud, go experience Andrew Smith’s Winger.

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: 13+ (Language, sexuality, violence).

Interest:  Coming of Age, YA, Boarding School, Friendship, Loss, LGBT, Bullying.

Notable Quotes:

“Nothing ever goes back exactly the way it was . . . things expand and contract – like breathing, but you could never fill your lungs up with the same air twice” (7).

“Getting through my world was like trying to swim in a pool of warm mayonnaise while carrying two bowling balls” (328).

“I wrote this all down, and I tried to make everything happen the exact same way it did when I was seeing it and feeling it – real time – with all the confusion, the pressure, and the wonder, too” (411).

“Things get tough. And you’re supposed to grow up. And it’s all a bunch of bullshit” (411).

“It felt like it was going to snow, and the clouds hung so low and white that I couldn’t even see the tops of trees around me. It looked like there was a pillow over the face of the world” (423).

“Almost nothing at all is ever about sex, unless you never grow up, that is. It’s about love, and, maybe, not having it” (438).

“The same words that make the horrible things come also tell the quieter things about love” (439).

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