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 I Must Betray You, by Ruta Sepetys

I Must Betray You

by Ruta Sepetys

Philomel Books, 2022. 319 pages.
Review written March 12, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This is another book that’s sobering to read during the war in Ukraine. I wish this was ancient history, but I remember well when it happened.

I Must Betray You is set in Romania in 1989, during the last days of the Ceausescu regime — but seventeen-year-old Cristian Florescu doesn’t know they are the last days. All Cristi has ever known is his family’s bleak apartment, waiting in lines for goods, having to speak softly for fear of being overheard, pictures of the Ceausescus overlooking everything, and knowing that anyone might be an informer.

But when Cristian is called into the principal’s office, he hadn’t been prepared that now he needs to be an informer. His mother cleans the house of an American diplomat. Cristian is to accompany her and befriend the diplomat’s teenage son and report back. The reward? One he can’t give up – medicine for his grandfather, who is dying of leukemia. But the leverage is that the agent who interviews him knows about a dollar bill he got from an American from selling a stamp. That is illegal, and they threaten prosecution — unless Cristian does what they want.

But once he starts as an informer, he doesn’t know who he can trust. And then, when the girl he’s had his eye on for ages actually shares a Coke with him — State Security finds out, and she accuses him of being an informer.

And that’s only the beginning. Through associating with the Americans to spy on them, Cristian finds out about protests in other Eastern European countries. Maybe Romania doesn’t have to be this way?

Several awful things happen in this book. The fight for freedom in Romania wasn’t easy. But this book tells the story from the perspective of a young person trapped by the regime, but who dares to dream of a better life.

I also appreciated the Epilogue, which showed that overthrowing the Ceausescu regime didn’t instantly resolve all problems. There are also historical photos at the back, taken in Romania in the 1980s.

rutasepetys.com

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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 Gilded Ones, by Namina Forna

The Gilded Ones

by Namina Forna
read by Shayna Small

Listening Library, 2021. 12 hours, 46 minutes.
Review written January 24, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
2022 Cybils Young Adult Speculative Fiction Finalist

The Gilded Ones is an epic tale set in a fantastical kingdom inhabited by people and strange sentient creatures – and demons who appear as human girls.

At sixteen, Deka is ready to undergo the purification ceremony, but the ceremony is interrupted by an attack from the fearsome Death Shrieks. In the chaos, Deka learns she has surprising powers – but also that she is a demon. A cut reveals that her blood is gold.

There’s a death mandate, so the village elders try to kill Deka. But she’s a demon and stubbornly comes back to life, through decapitation, dismemberment, burning. After a long ordeal, a woman comes to the village with the seal of the emperor and takes Deka away. Now the girls like her are being trained to become a powerful fighting force to wipe out the Death Shrieks, and Deka’s special powers will be helpful.

It’s a fun tale, full of Black Girl Power. (Although it’s a different world, Deka has the dark skin of Southerners.) There’s friendship, teamwork, romance, destroying the patriarchy, and even a cute and loyal pet.

Unfortunately, I had a lot of trouble with suspension of disbelief for this one and details of the fantasy world bothered me. How could blood serve the function of blood bringing oxygen to the body, and yet be gold, turning into a supple metal after it’s shed? How could someone actually come back to life after dismemberment? Sure, they explain body fibers reaching out to find one another, but seems like if someone really wanted to kill them, they could make barriers that couldn’t be overcome? How can a shapeshifter gain and lose matter and change from the size of a small bird to the size of a giant? How could creatures expend lots of energy but not need to eat? And then I had problems with the plot – there were schemes on both the good side and the bad side that lasted decades, even centuries, and I was murky about the motivation.

Okay, but this book is finding readers and I already knew that I’m often way too picky about world-building details. If you want an epic series about a formerly oppressed sisterhood powerfully battling to win freedom for everyone, and an underestimated girl discovering she has power to save the world – this book is only the beginning.

GetUnderlined.com

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Review of Ain’t Burned All the Bright, by Jason Reynolds, artwork by Jason Griffin

Ain’t Burned All the Bright

by Jason Reynolds
artwork by Jason Griffin
read by Jason Reynolds and a full cast

Atheneum, 2022. 384 pages.
Audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2022. 30 minutes.
Review written April 12, 2022, from a library book and eaudiobook.
Starred Review

Ain’t Burned All the Bright is an illustrated poem about a kid and his family at home during the pandemic. That doesn’t sound very exciting — but the poet is Jason Reynolds. And his long-time friend Jason Griffin did 384 pages of art to go with it.

I put a hold on the audiobook before I realized it was an illustrated poem and not a novel. And decided that both listening to the audiobook and looking at the artwork was the perfect way to experience this book.

The audiobook performs the text twice — first with Jason Reynolds reading it, then with a full cast. And then there’s a discussion between the creators at the end (which is also printed in the book). The whole thing only takes 30 minutes, so this is a quick read, but has lovely play with images and language.

Jason Reynolds said this book began thinking about oxygen masks. The way he plays with that image is surprising and lovely.

We’ve got a kid wondering why his mother doesn’t change the channel, a brother playing video games, a sister talking on her phone, and a father ill in his bedroom. And the kid has thoughts about it all.

I’m not even sure how to describe this book. But it’s Jason Reynolds’ poetry along with striking images, and I would really like to talk with a kid who reads this book to find out all the things they notice that I miss. It feels like there’s more than meets the eye here. But I do know I like it.

jasonwritesbooks.com

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Review of The Ones We’re Meant to Find, by Joan He, narrated by Nancy Wu

The Ones We’re Meant to Find

by Joan He
narrated by Nancy Wu

Tantor Audio, 2021. 11 hours.
Review written February 1, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
2021 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction

The Ones We’re Meant to Find tells two parallel stories in alternating chapters. One story is of Cee, who’s been living for three years on an abandoned island, trying to build a boat so she can go look for her sister, Kay.

The other story is about Kasey, a socially awkward scientific genius who lives in the next-to-the-top level of an eco-city built above the clouds, designed to be safe from all the disasters that have overtaken planet earth. Kasey’s sister Celia went missing three months ago, and everybody thinks she’s dead.

The two stories do come together, but not at all as we expect they will at the beginning.

Before they come together, Cee tries to set out to find Kay, but her boat is swamped by a storm. She washes up back on the island. Not long after that, a boy washes up on the beach, and life on the island changes.

Meanwhile, with the help of a hacker, Kasey finds Celia’s brain interface, which she had removed before she disappeared. Kasey can access Celia’s memories and find out why she left. Oh, and the world faces more disasters for everyone outside the eco-cities.

The set-up is intriguing, and we want to learn about how they connect. For me, several details toward the end stretched credibility, but I can’t list those things because it would give away the big reveal. However, it’s a nice speculative fiction book about how people might respond to manmade disasters threatening to make earth uninhabitable and the kind of dilemmas people might face. A book that makes you think, while providing engaging characters facing difficult decisions and trying circumstances.

joanhewrites.com
fiercereads.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 I Have No Secrets, by Penny Joelson

I Have No Secrets

by Penny Joelson

Sourcebooks Fire, 2019. Originally published in 2017 in Great Britain. 288 pages.
Review written December 4, 2020, from a library book

I Have No Secrets is a Rear Window type thriller for teens. The main character is Jemma, a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy. She can’t speak or control her muscles, but she is fully intelligent. She has a loving long-term foster family with two other special-needs siblings. Even eye-movement technology was not able to help her communicate.

And Jemma’s aide Sarah has a sinister boyfriend. Because Jemma can’t communicate, when no one is around, this boyfriend, Dan, tells Jemma his secret – that he’s the one who murdered a teen boy in the neighborhood recently. He enjoys telling Jemma he’d be happy to put her out of her misery, too.

Unfortunately, Jemma also knows that Sarah is cheating on Dan, having never broken up with Richard, her earlier boyfriend. When Sarah disappears after going to a concert with Richard, Jemma knows who to suspect, but she has no way of telling anyone. But then her family hears about a new technology that can use sniffing to communicate, which might be able to help Jemma. In their happiness, they mention it to Dan, who says he’s worried about Sarah’s disappearance.

Okay, the plot is a little bit predictable, but it’s carried out in a way that helps you understand Jemma’s life and relationships when she can’t communicate with anyone. The reader has to have some suspension of disbelief, since it’s told in present tense from Jemma’s perspective – even while she’s unable to communicate. But it does help you understand what that experience would be like.

This would be an interesting follow-up to Out of My Mind, which is a book about a younger girl with cerebral palsy becoming able to communicate. If nothing else, both books help the reader empathize with someone with a sharp brain being completely underestimated because of bodily limitations.

pennyjoelson.co.uk
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Review of The City Beautiful, by Aden Polydoros

The City Beautiful

by Aden Polydoros

Inkyard Press, 2021. 462 pages.
Review written February 1, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2022 Sidney Taylor Award Winner, Young Adults
2021 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction

The City Beautiful is set in 1893 Chicago, during the World’s Fair. Alter Rosen works in a print shop, scraping and saving to bring his mother and sisters to America from Romania, still haunted by the death of his father during their voyage to America.

Then Alter’s best friend Yacov is found dead. Alter hadn’t even been able to admit to himself that he was in love with Yacov. He’s convinced this is connected to the disappearances of other Jewish boys in the neighborhood, but the police scoff at the idea.

And then when Alter is trying to tend Yacov’s body, he gets possessed by Yacov’s dybbuk. He is haunted by Yacov’s memories and a compulsion to find the man who killed Yacov — and his family back in Russia. It’s clear that if Alter doesn’t fulfill this mission soon enough, the dybbuk will take over, and they will both die.

So we’ve got a mystery with some twists and turns. Along the way, we learn about the horrible hatred that followed the Jewish people across the ocean. And a young gay teen trying to come to terms with his emotions. And a young man trying to survive in America and make a home for his family.

The author helps you understand the world of 1893 Chicago and what kids and immigrants were up against, simply trying to survive. One of Alter’s friends works for an anarchist newspaper, and we’ve got background about that movement as well.

This is an atmospheric historical mystery with heart.

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Review of Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow

by Xiran Jay Zhao

Penguin Teen, 2021. 394 pages.
Review written January 27, 2022, from my own copy sent by the publishers for the 2022 Cybils
2022 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Iron Widow is about an angry young woman who starts out seeking vengeance and moves on to destroy the patriarchy. It’s set in a completely different world, but with a culture reminiscent of elements of Chinese history.

Huaxia is besieged by aliens called Hunduns, made of spirit metal. But pilots can fight them, using their qi to control giant Chrysalises to battle and destroy the Hunduns. But pilots can’t channel all that qi alone. They need a pilot-concubine in the cockpit next to them, contributing qi and helping to channel it. There’s one major problem: More often than not, the concubine can’t handle that much qi and dies.

Zetian’s older sister was sold off by her family to be a pilot-concubine, but she didn’t even live long enough to die in battle before the pilot, one of the biggest celebrities in the country, killed her. So now Zetian is determined to enlist as a concubine — and kill him. But before she has the chance to carry out her vengeance, the alarm goes off and they’re pulled into battle. And it turns out that Zetian’s qi is so strong, the one who is overwhelmed and ends up dead is the pilot.

But that’s not the end for Zetian. Next, the army matches her up with the Iron Demon, a man who murdered his family before he became the most powerful pilot of them all. And he is not what Zetian expects. But the more involved she gets, the more she finds out about the pilot system and how it treats girls as disposable.

Zetian herself has bound and broken feet, so it’s always painful to walk. Her feet were broken by her grandmother when she was five years old, so that she would be refined and acceptable to men.

This book has a love triangle with a rich boy Zetian has known for years, but the love triangle has bonds of love (and off-page sex), rather than jealousy, between all three. I tried not to think about whether it would be likely that all three would feel that way about each other. We do see Zetian learn to see and understand more deeply than externals.

Much more disturbing for me, there’s a scene where the main characters torture and kill someone. This person has tortured many others and deserves whatever he gets, but I’m from the Don’t-Sink-To-Their-Level school of thought. I think an atrocity is still an atrocity, even if the victim has committed multiple atrocities himself.

That scene does highlight how horribly the people currently in power are using their power — and that Zetian will do absolutely anything to fight back. She goes from wanting vengeance for her sister to wanting to topple the entire system and save more girls from being sacrificed to the system. And she’d like to win back the province of Zhou from the Hunduns as well. She does an amazing job of defeating the bad guys, and you can’t help but root for her.

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