Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Benjamin Alire Saenz’s new YA book Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has one of my favorite titles, and I picked it up for that reason alone. The book is about two Mexican-American teenagers named Aristotle and Dante, although Aristotle tries to go by Ari (he notes, “I renamed myself Ari. If I switched the letter, my name was Air. I thought it might be a great thing to be air. I could be something and nothing at the same time. I could be necessary and also invisible. Everyone would need me and no one would be able to see me”) and Dante sometimes chooses Dan. They meet at the beginning of the summer Ari is fifteen, in 1987, when, for a lack of anything better to do, he goes to the local swimming pool. Dante is there, and he gets Ari’s attention with his nasally, allergy-ridden voice, and his offer to teach Ari how to swim. The two quickly become friends, something that Ari in particular is missing from his life. When he thinks about how he is typically alone (although not lonely), Ari says, “I got along okay. I had school friends. Sort of. I wasn’t wildly popular. How could I be? In order to be wildly popular you had to make people believe that you were fun and interesting. I just wasn’t that much of a con artist.”

The book is mainly driven by conversations, and several pages will go by in an almost screenplay-like format, with dialogue following dialogue following dialogue. For a YA novel, I found this really engaging, immediate, and fast moving. As a reader, I became wrapped up in the friendship between Ari and Dante, since the elaborate and drawn-out conversations meant that their relationship was happening right in front of me, almost in real time. For example, when they talk about their parents, the entirety of their conversation is laid out, almost nothing communicated by description:

Dante shook his head. “We’re too nice, you know that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Our parents turned us into nice boys. I hate that.”
“I don’t think I’m so nice.”
“Are you in a gang?”
“Do you do drugs?”
“Do you drink?”
“I’d like to.”
“Me too. But that wasn’t the question.”
“No, I don’t drink.”
“Do you have sex?”
“Sex, Ari.”
“No, never had sex, Dante. But I’d like to.”
“Me too. See what I mean? We’re nice.”
“Nice,” I said. “Shit.”
“Shit,” he said.
And then we busted out laughing.

Ari and Dante’s parents are actually a great addition to this book. Although they are not in the picture too much (Ari and Dante are really at the center of the story), when they are, they are sympathetic, caring, and understanding of their sons. Ari’s father is back after serving in Vietnam, and his much older brother Bernardo is in jail (and has been for several years). Dante’s father is an English professor, and his mother is writing a book about teens and addiction. Parents can never really be at the heart of a young adult story, but here, they fit in at the periphery in just the right way.

There are several parts to this book: one that examines the summer Ari and Dante meet, one that details the accident that changes their friendship (reminiscent of what happens in A Separate Peace by John Knowles), Dante’s move with his parents to Chicago, and his return a year later. But it is always their friendship and relationship that makes the story work. Although Ari and Dante are exceptional characters on their own, Saenz’s writing is at its best when the two are together, and luckily, it is that way for most of the novel. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

I first found out about The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith from an article in The Horn Book Magazine. The article was called “What Makes a Good YA Love Story?” and included books by authors John Green, Daniel Handler, and Sarah Dessen (who all do write excellent YA love stories). Smith’s novel was also highlighted, and it sounded like a really cute love story. The cover looked really familiar, and after a bit of digging around I found an old ARC copy that I had (the book was published in 2012) and read it right away.

Seventeen-year-old Hadley Sullivan is four minutes late for her flight to London. Her dress needs adjusting, she fights with her mom, she loses her cell phone charger, and there’s traffic on the way to the airport. Those four minutes mean that she’s placed on a slightly later flight and has to spend an additional three hours at JFK. While she’s waiting at her gate, she meets Oliver, just a few years older than her and heading to London, too. They find out that they’re in the same row of seats for the flight, and they spend the few hours before their flight getting dinner at the airport and getting to know one another.

When they get on the flight, the kind old lady who mistakes them for a couple gives up her middle seat so that they can sit together, and from there, Hadley and Oliver have nothing else to do but get to know each other over the course of the flight to London.

Smith paces the story well through their conversations, revealing just enough about both Hadley and Oliver at a time. Hadley is going to London for her father’s wedding to a new woman, one that he met while taking a temporary position as a professor in Oxford. She is still angry about the fact that her father left her mother to be with a new woman, one she has not even met, and as a result, Hadley has planned her trip to London to arrive only a few hours before the wedding, and to leave immediately after (even though she is going to be a bridesmaid in the wedding party). Hadley suspects that Oliver is traveling for a wedding as well. He’s a university student in the United States, although his family still lives in England.

The entire story only takes place over the course of about twenty-four hours, as Hadley and Oliver meet at the airport in New York, lose each other in London, and find each other again. It's very self-contained, with only a handful of characters (even with the flashbacks). The only thing that I stumbled over while reading this story was the fact that it’s told in the present tense. I understand that the present tense makes the story much more immediate, and gives the impression of actually happening in real time. However, it’s third person and present tense (“Hadley shrugs” “When he catches up to her”), which really threw me! If it had been present tense and first person, I think there would have been no problem at all, but every once and a while the way the story was told took away from the story for me.

I really enjoyed Smith’s book and was sorry that I took so long in finally getting around to reading it. Hadley and Oliver are such likeable characters, and it was fun to inhabit their twenty-four-hour world together. The book would make such a great movie, and the immediacy and conversation seemed written for adaptation to that form exactly. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen is exactly that, a journal kept by 13-year-old protagonist Henry as mandated by his psychologist, the ponytail sporting Cecil. The book begins in Vancouver, where Henry and his father have recently moved after a horrific event, “IT,” happened to their family. Henry’s mom is in Ontario with her parents, visiting a psychologist and then entering a facility. As a reader, there is a sense that the family that Neilsen introduces at the beginning of the book is much changed from the way they were before.

In Vancouver, Henry is finding it impossible to move on from what happened to his family; his bullied brother Jesse took matters into his own hands when principals, teachers, and students did not. He lives in a rented apartment with his dad, and tries to keep the secret of his family and what happened to them before they moved to Vancouver. The book moves from the present to the past, as Henry reconstructs the events leading up to IT, and the way high school bullying ruined the life of his brother.

As a 13-year-old, Henry seems incredibly young for his age, reverting to tactics that would seem much more suited to a protagonist under the age of 10 than one well into adolescence. I really thought I was reading about a ten-year-old, or at least a character who had not yet left elementary school. For Henry to be already in middle school was a stretch while reading this book.

As well, in the background of the book is an emphasis on a fictional international wrestling federation with characters and storylines that are based largely on those who actually populate the world of WWE. I would have loved to see the real characters, maneuvers, and storylines of WWE in this book, rather than fictional ones that are loosely based on reality. WWE is something that appeals so much to adolescents, and a recognition of the same stories that they watch being played out on WWE in book form might have added to the realism of the book. The high school competition Reach for the Top also makes an appearance, as Henry is on his new school’s team, which gives the book a similar feel to something like E. L. Konigsberg’s The View from Saturday (there are many questions and answers interspersed throughout the book!). Neilson’s new book is a quick read that uses a journal entry form to communicate its material, and the way bullying can change a family forever.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt is one of my favorite writers, especially for The Underneath and Keeper. I received an ARC of her new book, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, due to be released this July, and read it in one sitting. I will be picking the book up again when it’s published, especially to see the black and white interior illustrations that will be added in the final version (Appelt’s writing stands out so well on its own, but her collaborations previously with David Small and August Hall lend another dimension to her writing).

One of Appelt’s strengths is her ability to draw several different stories, characters, and timelines together within the same book, slowly crisscrossing them together. In The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, she does this as an omniscient narrator that speaks as “we.” The over a hundred chapters (varying in length from one page to several) occasionally return to the narrator, as Appelt writes, “Friends, we are sorry to say, there was not” or “But that, sports fans, was just enough time for our heroes to go into full-bore retreat.” The perspective allows Appelt to keep both her story and her readers in tact and interacting constantly with one another.

Two raccoon brothers, Bingo and J’miah, are two of the Official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts, a responsibility that extends back to their great-great-greater-greatest-grandparents. When lightning strikes near their home in a 1949 DeSoto, the battery temporarily comes to life to give the brothers a weather report. It is, in part, their job to listen for the voice and to know when to wake the Sugar Man, the mythological man who guards over the forest (he’s related, Appelt says, to Sasquatch, Yeti, and Barmanou). Meanwhile, Chap Brayburn and his mother live on the Beaten Track Road where they sell sugar pies out of a café attached to their house. The sugar pies are made out of the fresh cane that grows below their house. They are struggling to come up with a “boatload of money” to save their café and the swamp that Sonny Boy Beaucoup plans to turn into a gator-wrestling amusement park. There is also a herd of wild hogs heading towards the sugar cane that grows by the Brayburn’s house with destruction on their mind.

Appelt tells these stories and others, flashing back to visit with Chap’s grandfather in 1949 and detailing the events that happen to him then. It is such an enjoyable read, and I continue to get so excited for Appelt’s new books to come out!