Review of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, read by Lin Manuel Miranda

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
read by Lin Manuel Miranda

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013. 7 hours and 29 minutes.
Review written February 12, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2013 Pura Belpré Author Award Winner
2013 Stonewall Book Award Winner
2013 Lambda Literary Award Winner
2013 Printz Honor Book

I got to hear Benjamin Alire Sáenz give his Printz Honor acceptance speech in 2013, and that speech made me very much want to read this book. I finally got around to it after a sequel came out in 2021 – and the same day I finished listening to this, I began listening to the sequel. I am so glad to finally read this marvelous book.

It’s a friendship story about two Mexican American boys. They meet at the start of summer before their sophomore year of high school at different high schools in El Paso, Texas, and have a laugh over their similar names. Ari is the narrator of the book, a boy who spends a lot of time in his own head – which makes him a good narrator. Dante is an open-hearted boy full of philosophical questions and free with his emotions – the sort of boy who’d try to rescue a bird with a broken wing in the middle of the street.

But when Dante does that on a rainy day and a car comes around the bend, without thinking, Ari runs and pushes Dante out of the way – at the risk of his own life. There are some other crises in the book, and lots of thinking about life and what things mean. Ari has a brother twelve years older who is in prison, and his family never talks about that brother.

I knew from the Printz acceptance speech that this is also a book about coming out as gay and figuring out who you are. But that takes up most of the book, so I won’t say a lot about that – except it is heart-wrenching and feels true. The book is set in the late 1980s, and they’re up against harsh attitudes in the world around them, many of which are internalized.

Something I love about this book are the two sets of parents, both of whom are wonderfully drawn and love their sons with all their hearts. It’s refreshing to read a book about teens with loving and supportive parents. Ari’s dad is dealing with post-traumatic stress from his time in Viet Nam, but that makes him human and real, not irreparably scarred.

In fact, that’s what’s so wonderful about this book – all the characters feel true. Nobody’s perfect, and they’ve got flaws consistent with their strengths. I found myself wanting to hug these two boys.

And it’s narrated by Lin Manuel Miranda! He didn’t do a tremendous job distinguishing between the voices of the different characters, though I find I’m picking up on subtle differences a little more by the time I’ve started the second book. But in spite of that tiny quibble, I could listen to Lin Manuel Miranda read anything. When it’s a wonderful book he’s reading, it simply added to my love. Of the book!

benjaminsaenz.com/

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Review of The Reading List, by Sara Nisha Adams

The Reading List

by Sara Nisha Adams
read by Tara Divina, Sagar Arya, and Paul Panting

HarperAudio, 2021. 12 hours, 47 minutes.
Review written June 8, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

This book is about a handwritten reading list that several people find in different surprising places in Wembley, a suburb of London. And then how reading those books changes people’s lives.

The two central characters who get most of the book’s time are Aleisha, a 17-year-old who’s working at the library as a summer job, and Mukesh, an elderly Indian gentleman who lost his wife two years before. Aleisha has her own pressures as she and her older brother are trying to care for their mother, who keeps the house dark and rarely leaves her bed. Aleisha’s planning to head to university and study to be a lawyer when the summer is over.

The first time Mukesh comes to the library, he encounters Aleisha, who has no recommendations for him and is quite rude. But Aleisha feels guilty, so when she finds the Reading List, she decides to read the books and then pass them on to Mukesh. Both their lives are profoundly touched.

I love the way this book highlights how a good book can affect you so deeply. Books can give you insights into your own life and even help build relationships. Besides Mukesh and Aleisha, Mukesh also gains new ground with his granddaughter through books.

I’ve read and loved all but three of the books on the list. Here are the books:

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier
The Kite Runner, by Kaled Hosseini
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth

The book The Time Traveler’s Wife is also featured.

The three I haven’t read are The Kite Runner, Beloved, and A Suitable Boy. Now I want to go out and read those three if they’re anything as good as the others.

I did laugh that my favorite on the list – Pride and Prejudice – was the least favorite of the characters in the book. Oh well! At least it got included.

So it was all a wonderful story. I particularly loved the narrator who read Mukesh’s chapters. I felt like the character was talking with me and this kind elderly widower won my heart.

I did have some things that bothered me a lot about their portrayal of a library. Maybe things are different in the U.K., but I’m not really convinced they are.

First, a student working in the library for the summer is not called a librarian. A librarian is someone with a master’s degree in library science. Although a customer might mistakenly call such a person a librarian, the workers would not perpetuate that mistake.

Next, this poor hardly-occupied library needed library outsiders – Mukesh and Aleisha – to come up with an idea to “save” it – by having a program! A program where the community gets together. That’s all well and good and they had a very nice reason for it. But come on, is the author aware that most libraries have a full schedule of programs to engage their communities? It’s not actually a novel idea.

I did think it was interesting that while they talked about a few regulars, that particular library didn’t have any patrons experiencing homelessness. Maybe that’s not a problem in England? Of course, the library in the book was much, much less frequented than the one where I work. We get more than 800 customers on a typical day. I know there are libraries that don’t get so many, but the portrayal – in a book reminding us how reading can change lives – made me wince a little bit.

I also really wondered how the books on the list were chosen. It was interesting that there was only one children’s book – Little Women – and it’s a very old children’s book, set in 1860s America. But that of course got me thinking: If I were to make a list of my favorite books, books that had power to move people deeply and affect their lives and relationships, which books would I choose?

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Review of A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, by Holly Jackson

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder

by Holly Jackson
read by Bailey Carr, Marisa Calin, and a full cast

Listening Library, 2020. 10 hours, 53 minutes.
Review written April 29, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Big thanks to my coworker Lisa for telling me about this series!

High school senior Pippa decides to use her Capstone Project to investigate a local murder. Everyone in town knows that when pretty and popular Andie Bell disappeared five years ago, it was her boyfriend Sal Singh who killed her. After all, he texted a confession and killed himself shortly after, his body found with her phone.

But Pip remembers Sal. He was a kind person. Could he really have done that? Doesn’t it deserve a little more investigation?

The first person she interviews is Sal’s younger brother, Ravi. He has believed Sal is innocent all this time, but no one in town will talk to him. His whole family is despised because of Andie Bell’s murder. Now Pip is trying to clear his brother’s name, and Ravi has some information that might help.

Pip finds out pretty quickly that Andie wasn’t as sweet and innocent as the stories implied after her death. And as she digs, she starts getting threats that she needs to stop. How persistent will she be? And at what cost?

With a full cast presenting the story, this audiobook is perfect for fans of murder mysteries. How much sleuthing can a high school student do? I found myself believing that Pip’s perspective as a kid at the same high school gave her insight that the police had overlooked.

Now that the mystery is solved, I’m wondering what’s left to find out in the next two volumes of the trilogy, but I’m definitely going to find out.

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Review of The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig, read by Carey Mulligan

The Midnight Library

by Matt Haig
read by Carey Mulligan

Penguin Audio, 2020. 8 hours, 50 minutes.
Review written May 17, 2022, from a library eaudiobook

This audiobook was a lot of fun and kept me entertained and absorbed to the end — which is saying something because I’m not in the target audience. I don’t believe in parallel universes.

The characters in this book say that it’s science, but I’m sorry, just because a physicist came up with a theory to explain some equations, that doesn’t mean it’s science. This isn’t a theory you can verify, after all. To me, the theory that a new universe is created every time you make a decision, besides seeming wildly unlikely, takes away a lot of human agency. What does it matter what choice you make if in another universe you made a different one?

In fiction, it also takes away from the story — why should I care about this particular character if another character just like them is doing something different in another universe? Why should I care about this particular set of choices? But if your choices do make a difference — you’ve got a story.

The way parallel universes come up in The Midnight Library is that Nora Seed has some sad things happen and decides to end her life. After she attempts to do so, she finds herself in the Midnight Library. It’s a library with infinite shelves where the time is always midnight. She sees her old school librarian there, who tells Nora this is her chance to undo her regrets. Each book in the Midnight Library represents another life that Nora could have lived. Choosing a book and reading it takes Nora into another life in an alternate universe where she made a different decision somewhere along the way. If she finds a life that she likes, she can stay.

So, in this context, the alternate universes do provide a fascinating way to explore Nora’s regrets. She quickly sees that if she had done what other people wanted her to — things didn’t always turn out so wonderful. So can she find the life she actually wants?

It does work as an interesting frame, but I still have trouble with the logistics. Nora dropped into lives without the memories of the alternate-Nora from that life. A lot of good it would do to be a polar researcher if you know absolutely nothing about the topic, after all. And I kept wondering, Where did the alternate Nora go? And wouldn’t it be a shame to have fallen in love and gotten married and had a child if you couldn’t remember doing any of those things? So it didn’t seem like a fair trial of the alternate lives. And without having actually made the choices that got her there, they talked about Nora’s “root life” — as if that Nora is the real person and her alternate selves are disposable.

But if you think of this book as a version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” — a vivid look at what would have happened if things had been different — and don’t get too bogged down in the details (as I tend to do), it is always fun to speculate how things might have turned out if you had made different choices.

This book also helped me realize that I’ve outgrown my regrets. There was a time when I wondered how life would have turned out if, for example, I hadn’t dropped out of a PhD program in mathematics. But after my divorce, that all seems like water under the bridge. My divorce was something that got me wondering if I could have done something differently to prevent it (even though it was my ex-husband’s idea). But now, twelve years after the divorce was final, my career as a librarian is blossoming — and if I hadn’t gotten divorced, I would have been content to continue to work part-time. But because I got my library degree and became a librarian, I got to serve on the Newbery committee, and just this week, I got word that I landed my dream job as Youth Materials Selector for my whole public library system. Life is good! So who needs regrets?

Still, this book, and this interesting story of Nora and many different things she might have done, is what got me thinking about how nice it is to live without regrets. So if you can keep yourself from thinking too much about the mechanics, I do recommend this book.

matthaig.com

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Review of To the Land of Long Lost Friends, by Alexander McCall Smith

To the Land of Long Lost Friends

by Alexander McCall Smith
read by Lisette Lecat

Recorded Books, 2019. 9 hours on 8 compact discs.
Review written June 16, 2021, from a library audiobook

Okay, the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series seems to me like it’s getting more slow-moving than ever. But I have come to love the people who inhabit the pages, and I’m happy to spend time with them. My impatience with the pace is mitigated by listening to Lisette Lecat’s lilting accent during my commute. And I have to say that I did enjoy my time spent listening to this book, visiting with old friends. This is the 20th installment.

The first book in the series had some very clever solutions to cases. This one did cover a few cases, but the solution ended up having some fairly large coincidences bring about a solution. It’s fun, but doesn’t necessarily highlight their detective work.

Mma does reconnect with some long lost friends in this book, which gives the title. As always, this book is loaded with charm and philosophical musings about things such as meeting up with long lost friends.

And Charlie! Charlie, who for a long time was just a “young apprentice” as a mechanic, is now jostling for respect as an “apprentice detective,” and he wants to get married! He has to come to terms with what he’s willing to do to make that happen.

recordedbooks.com

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Review of A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, by T. Kingfisher, read by Patricia Santomasso

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

by T. Kingfisher
read by Patricia Santomasso

Tantor Audio, October 2021. 8 hours, 30 minutes.
Review written March 30, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2020 Andre Norton Nebula Award Winner
2021 Locus Award Winner for Young Adult Fiction
2021 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Winner for Children’s Literature

I loved this book! I listened to it while driving to and from vacation, and it helped make the driving delightful. Patricia Santomasso’s English accent captured the voice and tone of the main character beautifully.

The book begins when 14-year-old Mona goes in to work in her aunt’s bakery in the wee hours of the morning — and finds a dead body! Even worse, when the authorities are alerted, they think Mona is suspicious because she’s a magic worker. Never mind that her magic is confined to working with bread.

Mona can make dough rise quickly, keep bread from burning, and even make gingerbread men dance. She’s got a sourdough starter in the basement named Bob that seems to be sentient. But she certainly wouldn’t be able to kill anyone with bread!

Fortunately, when Mona is brought before the duchess, things get straightened out — but that’s only the beginning. More magic workers are dying, and Mona, even confined to bread magic, may be a target. And things keep going and escalating — until the fate of the entire city may depend on Mona using bread magic to defend against an invading army.

This book is just so much fun. Mona is resourceful and compassionate and knows her own limits. The book is full of humor and joy as we read about a worthy heroine thrust into impossible situations and figuring out how to do her best.

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Review of Fallout, by Steve Sheinkin, read by Roy Samuelson

Fallout

Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown

by Steve Sheinkin
read by Roy Samuelson

Listening Library, 2021. 8 hours
Review written 2/22/22 from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2022 Young Adult Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist

Fallout is a nonfiction book about the Cold War, leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Steve Sheinkin takes a storyteller’s approach, telling you the stories of key figures, including many I’d never heard of before. Among others, these included a U2 pilot who got shot down over Russia, a Russian spy who tried to establish a network in New York City beginning soon after World War II, a paper boy who found a nickel that had been hollowed out to hold microfilm, and a Russian chief of staff of a submarine fleet who ordered a submarine captain and first officer not to launch a nuclear torpedo — after the world thought hostilities were ended, but the sub hadn’t heard about it.

The book is gripping and engaging and full of facts from witnesses. Although it takes place before I was born, I remember the climate when nuclear war seemed highly likely, even doing a drop and cover drill at my desk as a child, and being told by my parents that you could never trust the Russians.

Steve Sheinkin begins right after World War II and the development of bombs whose destructive force is hard to even imagine. He progresses through the space race and the rise of Castro and the development of the U2 program to fly over the Soviet Union. We hear about Khruschev’s ruthless rise to power as well as John F. Kennedy’s.

The one catch to this amazing audiobook is that my timing wasn’t good. I listened to it as Putin was threatening to invade Ukraine. Learning how several lucky coincidences saved us from World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and learning that all-out nuclear war would mean the end of human life on earth as we know it — all made it disturbing to have Russia threatening war again, even in a different part of the world.

stevesheinkin.com
listeninglibrary.com

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Review of Miss Benson’s Beetle, by Rachel Joyce

Miss Benson’s Beetle

by Rachel Joyce
read by Juliet Stevenson

Random House Audio, 2020. 12 hours, 4 minutes.
Review written June 5, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

I read Miss Benson’s Beetle because of a recommendation from the “Silent Book Club” Facebook group of it as a Feel-Good Read. The book delivered! This is a delightful and quirky novel about following your dreams.

It’s 1950. Miss Benson has lived through two world wars. She’s been teaching domestic science at a school for girls for twenty years. One day an incident makes her realize that the girls and the staff are laughing at her, in all her frumpiness. She throws it all off and decides to revive her childhood dream. She’s going on an expedition in search of the Golden Beetle of New Caledonia. It has been seen by some, but no specimens have been gathered, so as far as science is concerned, it doesn’t exist.

Since she doesn’t speak French, she advertises for an assistant. That doesn’t go quite as planned, but eventually she and an assistant head off on an ocean liner toward New Caledonia, in search of the golden beetle.

This book never goes for a likely plot. In fact, the things that happen border on ridiculous. But I’ve read that readers can tolerate coincidences that make things difficult for the characters, because that feels like life. What they can’t tolerate are coincidences that solve the characters problems. And yes, Miss Benson’s careful planning gets mostly stymied. The difficulties she faces are outrageous and completely win the reader’s sympathy.

Fortunately, Miss Benson has a companion who won’t let her give up on her vocation.

I should say that I do bear a grudge against the author for something that happened at the end, but this book still qualifies as a Feel-Good Read. It’s in a category all by itself, not a romance, not exploring issues, not helping you know more about a historical period. But it’s a book that’s full of a wild seize-the-day sort of joy, about an ordinary older lady throwing off convention and following her calling.

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Review of One By One, by Ruth Ware, read by Imogen Church

One By One

by Ruth Ware
read by Imogen Church

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2020. 13 hours and 8 minutes.
Review written November 13, 2021, based on a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

One By One is a mystery and thriller designed with nods to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The setting is a ski chalet in the Alps. Soon after a ski outing where a guest goes missing, there’s an avalanche that cuts them off from civilization.

The guests this week are from Snoop, a U.K.-based app that lets you listen to the music other people are listening to. But Snoop’s in trouble financially, and they have to decide whether to take a buyout offer or try to turn things around with new technology. Tension is high because of that decision, and millions of dollars are at stake.

But the new technology is location-based and using it shows them the missing founder is in the bottom of a gorge. And may not have landed there by accident. When deaths follow that are definitely not accidental, we know that a killer is stuck in the chalet with them.

As is traditional, we start the book with ten people in the chalet — eight from Snoop, plus the two staff for the chalet, Erin the hostess and Danny the chef. We get alternating perspectives from Erin and from Liz, who was once a personal assistant at Snoop, and is now the smallest shareholder with two shares. But that means she’s the deciding vote for whether the company should take the buyout or not, which puts her under lots of unwanted pressure.

We get a window into the complicated relationships among the Snoop coworkers from Liz, who thought she’d left it behind long ago. Erin has an outsider’s perspective, but we get hints of some secrets of her own.

As time goes by, their phones have no connection, their power goes out, the temperature drops, the snow keeps falling, and the police fail to come. All while more deaths happen and tension builds.

I wasn’t surprised by Whodunit — I’ve read enough Agatha Christie mysteries to suspect this person — but I still thoroughly enjoyed the way it was unveiled. And yes, as is traditional with thrillers, figuring out the solution puts the one who figures it out in terrible danger.

I had to find things to do that would let me listen to this book to finish it as quickly as possible. Too much suspense to set it aside! Wonderful!

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Review of The Excalibur Curse, by Kiersten White, read by Elizabeth Knowelden

The Excalibur Curse

Camelot Rising, Book Three

by Kiersten White
read by Elizabeth Knowelden

Listening Library (Penguin Random House), 2021. 10 hours, 55 minutes.
Review written January 14, 2022, based on a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

The Excalibur Curse is the conclusion to the amazing Camelot Rising Trilogy and was everything I hoped it would be.

The entire trilogy stands everything you know about Arthurian Legend on its head. In this volume, Guinevere has trapped her loyal knight Lancelot in a shield dome protecting Camelot while she sets off to find out who she really is – she has known all along that she was not the real Guinevere.

Or is she? In this book, Guinevere finds out exactly how she came to be and the terrible cost for her identity. She wants to make it right.

But there are dark forces at work, and Guinevere has trouble knowing who to trust. So many with great power do not care about little humans. Guinevere’s purposes throughout this book get twisted and diverted, but she’s always trying to do what’s right.

Guinevere makes a new friend in this volume, Feena, a princess of the northern kingdom who is at first her captor. I am crazy about every word of Elizabeth Knowelden’s narration, but I especially loved Feena’s Scottish accent representing the northerners.

I don’t want to say too much since this is the third volume of a trilogy that you should definitely read in order. Let me just say that this trilogy will forever change the way I think about King Arthur’s court. It brings a feminine and compassionate outlook to the whole story and shows the power of being a human girl – a power that is often overlooked.

Such a wonderful trilogy! I can say that confidently after now finishing the whole thing. And I do recommend listening to it because Elizabeth Knowelden’s narration is unbeatable. I listened to this even when I should have put it off because of award reading I had to do. Magnificent in every way, but it also makes you think about the human cost in epic history.

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