Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

12000020by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
YA Contemporary
5 of 5 stars

Aristotle and Dante meet one day at their local swimming pool, and Dante’s offer to teach Aristotle to swim will change their lives. The two strike up an unlikely friendship (Aristotle is angry about a lot of things, mainly not knowing why his older brother is in prison and Dante seems happy-go-lucky). Both of them are introspective, struggling to find their identities in a world they don’t fully understand, and their conversations involve a lot of musing and laughing as they wait to grow up and receive some answers. Then an accident changes their relationship forever.

Ari might be angry and prickly but the things he loves bring out the best parts of him and make you feel for this boy that wants so desperately to find his place in the world. I fell in love with his desert and his family and his dog and his truck. I wanted him to find answers and the things he learns along the way are meaningful to everyone. It would be easy for this book to sound instructional or preachy, but it never does.

This is a deceptively simple book about a boy trying to solve the mystery of himself that pulls you into every day life and then rips the rug out from under your feelings to leave you a sobbing mess. The relationships manage to be nuanced and real when we only glimpse them in “ordinary” moments. I enjoyed the first 3/4, but it’s the end that made me LOVE it.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy – Ramona is as well-known in her small southern town for her blue hair as she is for being a lesbian. But her surety of her identity is tested when an old friend moves back and she discovers not everyone fits into a box. See my review here.
  • Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli – Simon is only “out” with his mysterious email pen pal Blue. Both of them haven’t told each other their real names, but their growing relationship is threatened by another student who will expose their emails to the school unless Simon helps him land a girlfriend. See my review here.
  • You’re Welcome Universe by Whitney Gardner – An art-filled story of friendship–and rivalry. When Julia is expelled and becomes the only Deaf girl in a mainstream school, she throws herself into her art even more. But she unwittingly stumbles into a turf war and must figure out who is trying to push her out. See my review here.


22098550by Sara Pennypacker
Children’s Lit
5 of 5 stars

This was a serendipitous find! From the cover to the contents this little story is beautiful. I read it in 24 hours and immediately went back to the store for a copy to send my foxy friend Janella!

While on the surface this is a typical children’s story about a boy and his pet (a fox instead of a dog), this has so much more to it. This is about a boy searching for his emerging identity when his only role model is a distant, angry father. It’s about a woman reclaiming what she lost from serving at the war front. It’s about a fox being in the wild world for the first time and learning how to survive. It’s about what makes us human and what makes us monsters.

When Peter’s father enlists in the army, he sends Peter to live with his grandfather in the country. On the way, Peter is forced to abandon Pax in the woods. Peter knows it’s wrong–and when he reaches his grandfather’s house, his immediate plan is to run away and rejoin Pax no matter what. They’re only a few hundred miles apart…

Pax doesn’t know why his boy left him in the woods, but he resolves to wait for Peter to come back. But approaching armies are encroaching on his safe space, and he won’t be able to wait forever…

The descriptions of the world seen through an innocent fox’s eyes and a young boy’s growing understanding are beautifully heartbreaking. I cried so much reading this book (which I never do) and I can’t recommend it enough as a middle-grade read with more substance than you’d expect.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Pax is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight – The classic story of a boy and his dog. When the family must sell Lassie she leaves her new owner repeatedly to return to Joe. But then she’s sent to a remote corner of Scotland, and her bond with Joe is tested to the utmost as she attempts a final, thousand-mile journey home. I loved this book as a kid, probably read it three times. It’s so sweet!
  • The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery – A stranded pilot encounters a little prince from space who comes to learn about life on Earth. This short book is incredible and enduring. See my review here.
  • Pegasus by Robin McKinley – A lengthy novel detailing two cultures that attempt to live symbiotically despite their near inability to communicate. Twelve-year-old princess Sylvi is more than ready to bond with her ceremonial pegasus. She knows that only with the help of translators will she and her pegasus be able to communicate and guide their nations together in peace. But Sylvi and Ebon can talk easily on their own, and it leads them both to wonder what other secrets lie between their nations and what it means for their alliance. In typical McKinley fashion there is intense world-building and subtle character development, but this is an immersive story that gets very enjoyable about 1/3 of the way through.
  • The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl – I confess I haven’t read this yet but I loved the movie (I know, I know). A clever fox must save his family from vindictive farmers with his most daring (perhaps fantastic?) plan yet.
  • The 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith – The classic tale of a young London couple with two dalmatians, who then have 15 puppies coveted by a crazy lady obsessed with furs. Everyone knows the movie but this story is so much cuter in the original version! The descriptions are charming and there is more characterization.

Backlist Bonus: An Abundance of Katherines

15707124by John Green
YA Contemporary
3 of 5 stars

After I read Looking for Alaska I was eager to dive into Green’s next novel. It sounded different enough that I was excited to see what he moved on to. Although parts of this story did make me laugh or held my interest, overall it was much harder to get through than any of his other books. The pace was plodding, and Colin didn’t interest me as a protagonist. Now that I’ve read four of his books, I can truly say this is my least favorite—though the quality of the writing puts it in my “okay” column.

Colin has been dumped by nineteen Katherines to date, and he’s ready to figure out why it keeps happening. He is working on a formula to predict a relationship’s end (who does the dumping and who is the dumpee, or if the relationship will work long-term) and is convinced he’s on the cusp of perfecting it. We follow his analysis of his previous failed relationships as he goes on a road trip with some friends and keeps a sharp eye for the next Katherine. Instead, he meets a Lindsey, who threatens to wreck all his notions about relationships.

This story features a rather predictable plot, lots of (interesting) math, and repetitive conversations. If you enjoy Colin’s perspective you’ll like this book, but if you find him wearisome I can assure you Green’s other protagonists are more lively and interesting. I was interested to see how Colin’s formula would develop (especially since Green enlisted an actual mathematician’s help) and this has a lot of quirks you’d find in humorous anecdotes from someone’s past. It feels a bit like a rambling story your grandfather might tell you years later. Worth reading if you want to read the complete set of Green’s work.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, An Abundance of Katherines is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews – Greg relates his senior year and the circumstances that led to breaking his cardinal rule of remaining aloof socially: befriending a classmate dying of cancer. See my review here.
  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han – Lara Jean resolves to get over her past crushes by writing them love letters that she never sends. Except the letters DO find their recipients and she finds five boys wanting answers from her. A charming YA love story. See my review here.
  • The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith – A somewhat predictable but decent romantic comedy that takes place over a 24-hour period en route from New York City to London.

Backlist Bonus: Looking for Alaska

16167989by John Green
YA Contemporary
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel: March 3, 2005

This was my first exposure to John Green and remains my favorite. He’s become known for a few of his own clichés (the manic-pixie-dream-girl, the awkward guy with a weird hobby who falls for her, the side-kick friends…) but this is his first book and I think that’s what makes this story feel the freshest.

Understandably, Green is a popular and thus polarizing author, but for whatever it’s worth, I think if you like one of his books you’ll probably like all of them. And if you find one isn’t your cup of tea…well, then I wouldn’t read the rest of them!

Miles “Pudge” Halter has led a dull life to this point. We find him at Culver Creek Boarding School, hoping for some adventure. What he finds is Alaska Young—the most beautiful, interesting, sexy, screwed-up girl he’s ever met—and what happens after that is not something he could ever predict.

This is a quintessential coming-of-age novel with all the required elements: boarding school, teen angst, first love, drinking, sex, happiness and heartbreak and finding yourself. Miles and Alaska are endearing characters and I enjoyed following their crazy adventures as they build a friendship that could be something more. They blunder their way through all the questions we face in high school, the ones that aren’t in text books, that aren’t covered in class. It has that Mood that happens when you follow high school’s important and mundane moments, and it addresses the fact that sometimes you don’t get a formal resolution. It’s just the right length and the characters’ dialogue is what keeps it moving. Definitely put this on your list if you’re exploring older YA.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Looking for Alaska is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mim is not happy with her father’s re-marriage or their move. When she hears her mother is sick, she decides to go on a solo road trip to visit her. See my review here.
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews – Greg lays out the hazards of befriending a girl in class solely because she has cancer. An interesting take on high school relationships. See my review here.
  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell – The highs and lows of first love, especially when you know first love isn’t meant to last. See my review here.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – Probably the only YA novel more quintessentially coming of age than Green’s work. Charlie has never fit in but now he’s a freshman and determined to change that. See my review here.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces

20702546by Isabel Quintero
YA Contemporary
5 of 5 stars
Debut novel – October 14, 2014

My best friend rec’d me this book (an embarrassing 5 months ago) and I finally got my hands on it. I am so glad I did! This book actually made me cry (a rarity) and it is amazing! I’ve read my share of YA high school coming of age novels, but this is unlike any of them. I wish I had read this book when I was in high school.

I was a little nervous when I opened it and realized it’s Gabi’s story as told through her diary, but this format is actually perfect. We get all the ups and downs of Gabi’s high school experience–the stress of class, homework, and peers–but Gabi has so much more going on than the average angst-ridden white student at the center of most of the YA high school novels I’ve read. Her father is a meth addict, her best friend just found out she’s pregnant, and her other friend Sebastian needs a home because his parents kicked him out for being gay. She’s overweight, and constantly guilt-ridden by well-meaning but conservative relatives about what “good girls do” and how her appearance is paramount because otherwise she won’t get married. College? That’s for White sluts. And anyone else who can afford it.

Gabi’s frustrated, elated, and insightful entries chronicle how turbulent high school is, and how difficult it is to grow up in a world of contradictions. Her sharp observations regarding feminism (i.e. a female’s place in the world, body image, and social status) feel smart without being ahead of her age group. She is an honest protagonist that wins you over again with each day’s account of her life.

An additional nice surprise is her poetry. A few poems make it into her diary and these enhance her senior year in ways that surprised me. I don’t normally enjoy poetry (not that I’ve had much exposure to it since English classes) but these were good. The strength of this book is the open language of the writing. It reminds of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ work–strong thoughts and emotions packed into seemingly simplistic thoughts that anyone could have, if they ever stopped long enough to think. I can’t recommend this enough!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s store website, here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Juniors by Kaui Hart Hemmings – Speaking of her style in this review, her sparse, punchy writing is amazing, and Lea’s story of fitting in as the product of two cultures sounds similar to Gabi’s. It didn’t end up taking the direction I wanted, but you decide! See my review here.
  • The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes – When Minnow escapes the Community the night it burns down, missing her both of her hands and key knowledge about the world outside of the cult, the bigger question is what she knows about the Prophet’s death. See my review here.
  • Born Confused by Tenuja Desai Hidier – Dimple Lala struggles with her identity as the child of traditional Indian parents who finds that India is a trendy stereotype at her high school. Add in being set up with a “suitable boy”–who might not be as suitable as her parents believe–and Dimple has a lot to figure out before she graduates.
  • Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar – A Mexican American family in the southwest is getting ready to sell their family ranch. Carolina feels caught between her parents’ wishes and her grandfather Serge declaring that he doesn’t want to leave his home. Then the story he’s telling Carolina about the past seems to be more real than make-believe. See my review here.

Backlist Bonus: Divergent

8306857by Veronica Roth
YA Dystopian
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel – April 25, 2011

Right after The Hunger Games, the YA shelf needed a dystopian series to catch readers, and the Divergent series won that battle. This trilogy follows 16-year-old Tris, who faces the momentous choice of which faction (and virtue) to dedicate her life to: will she remain in Abnegation (the selfless) with her family, or follow her heart to the Dauntless (the brave)? And what consequences will she face as a result?

I heard about this book from my best friend, who happened to attend the same university as Roth and wanted to share the excitement that somebody our age could sign a 3-book + movie rights deal. This was my first exposure to peers writing best-selling material for teens and I was thrilled that this was becoming more commonplace–honestly, I still am!

This was a fun story to read, and several key scenes were so cinematic and beautifully written through Tris’ sparse, direct voice that I couldn’t wait for the next installment.  As it turns out, I feel the first book is the strongest of the trilogy, but it was worth following Tris to the end, and this is still one of the better dystopian options out there, in my opinion. As an added bonus in this genre, there is no love triangle. Tris is a complicated heroine and her world has plenty of mysteries to unlock, but which boy she’ll choose isn’t one of them. I also enjoyed her constantly evolving relationship with her brother Caleb; he challenges her commitments in the best way. Jeanine is an excellent antagonist, with her own complexity and motivations. This small core cast of characters is what pulls you through the wreck of Chicago and its faction systems as Tris struggles to solve her identity and why the Erudite faction believes it should eradicate the Abnegation. Although the series didn’t go where I expected, I appreciated the author’s creative freedom and choices, and I’m curious to see what she does next.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Divergent is available on Goodreads and its parent company Amazon. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – The most obvious comparison, but it is very similar. Twelve districts must send two tributes to the capital to fight to the death on live TV as a reminder of the brutality the totalitarian state saved the people from decades earlier. Katniss volunteers to save her sister, but she quickly learns half of the game is mastering the politics and alliances surrounding her. See my review here.
  • Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve – As a literal interpretation of municipal darwinism, the largest cities are mobile and sweep across the world consuming and absorbing each other for resources and labor. Tom finds himself stranded on solid ground and must find a way to survive in this stark post-apocalyptic world.
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan – Mary spent her life in the fenced village deep in a forest, and she knows what happens if she leaves its protection – death by zombies – but she can’t stop dreaming about the ocean, and whether the Sisterhood is telling the truth when they say no one else survived. See my review here.
  • Delirium by Lauren Oliver – I haven’t read this yet, but Roth recomends it as an engaging dystopian trilogy that explores a world devoid of all love, and the consequences that brings to the very fabric of society.

Backlist Bonus: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

13573503by Stephen Chbosky
YA Contemporary
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel – February 1999

This short, poignant novel is the quintessential American high school coming-of-age story.

Charlie is a shy freshman befriended by senior step-siblings Samantha and Patrick. We hear about his first year through a series of letters he writes to a “friend.” Charlie has good taste in music and books but has a hard time talking to people or making friends. Sam and Patrick pull him out of his isolation and introduce him to parties and surviving class while dealing with romantic relationships, eating at diners, family problems, and living up their last year before college. It seeps nostalgia for both high school and the 90’s at every turn, with beautifully written reflective lines from Charlie as he keeps his “friend” apprised of his adventures.

Throughout the letters Charlie becomes both more open about his feelings and more evasive about the events that caused him to spend the previous summer estranged from his friends and family, and his gradual reveal of the details and how he is healing is what gives this novel the depth and grit to set it apart from the average teenage drama.

Not that it’s all serious – Charlie’s wry sense of humor sneaks in at times, and there are enough light-hearted moments to make you wistful for the few good memories you might have from those four transformative years. The author wrote the screenplay and directed the film adaptation, which is also excellent.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is available on Goodreads and its parent company Amazon. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – When Mim learns her mother is very sick, she runs away from her father and new stepmother to go see her. Along the way she confronts uncomfortable situations and the uncomfortable truths coming her way. See my review here.
  • Luna by Julie Ann Peters – Told from the point of view of Liam’s sister, Regan, we watch the difficult and personal transformation of Liam to Luna as she embraces her transgender identity. This isn’t a perfect representation of a trans character, as the plot and characters can feel a bit shallow, but it’s still worth a read.
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green – This is a boarding school story but it captures the same mood as Chbosky. Miles is trying to find himself when he meets the most interesting person he’s ever encountered – Alaska Young. We get a taste of the uncertainty and longing of being almost-adults as they spend a wild few months together. See my review here.

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