Books in the Park

suggestions from the Barbara S. Ponce Public Library at Pinellas Park


Leave a comment

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

 

Ari Mendoza is fifteen years old during the summer of 1987. He lives in El Paso, TX and has few friends. His mother is a teacher and his older siblings are grown up and out of the house. His twin sisters are mothers and are 12 years older than him. His brother is in prison. His father is a Vietnam veteran, though he never speaks of his time in the war and he and Ari rarely speak at all. Life for Ari is pretty isolated until he decides to make a decision that is his and his alone after going with the flow or just doing nothing for his entire life. He rides his bike to the public swimming pool, despite not knowing how to swim. It’s there that he meets Dante.

Dante is unlike anyone that Ari has ever met. He is intelligent, kind, and adores his mom and dad. Like Ari, Dante is also Mexican-American. Their shared cultural background and loner status are just a few of the similarities that ignite their initial friendship. The relationship between Ari and Dante flourishes throughout the summer until they go back to school. They don’t attend the same school and won’t see each other again until the following year. During their time apart they grow in different ways. Ari has taken a job and has become an angry teen. He wants to know more about his brother, who he barely remembers. He learns to drive and spends time alone star gazing in the desert. Dante, spending the year in Chicago, starts to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood.

During this gap between being a child and an adolescent, Ari and Dante learn about friendship, acceptance, sacrifice, and love. As a teen centered LGBT novel, it deals with the themes of coming out in a place and time where being gay was not seen as an easily acceptable concept. It also goes into gender roles, specifically masculinity, as well as artistic expression, family secrets, and intellectualism.

The book chronicles the summer, school year, and following summer from the perspective of Ari as he exists between the universe of being a boy and a man. It is one of the purest and most sincere relationships to have graced the pages of a YA novel.  Sáenz’s characters are well written and fleshed out and their story is so realistic that you might question whether or not you are truly reading a work of fiction.

The audio book is narrated by Lin Manuel Miranda, creator and star of the hit Broadway musical, Hamilton. The attitude and inflection with which he reads the story truly feels like an auditory glimpse at the life of two teens in 1987.

Check the PPLC catalog for Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. 


Leave a comment

The Devil and Winnie Flynn, by Micol Ostow and David Ostow

devil-winnie-flynnWinnie Flynn doesn’t believe in ghosts. (Though she wouldn’t mind a visit from her mom, explaining why she took her own life.) When Winnie’s mysterious Aunt Maggie, a high-profile TV producer, recruits her to spend a summer working as a production assistant on her current reality hit, Fantastic, Fearsome, Winnie suddenly finds herself in the one place her mother would never go: New Jersey.

The review that follows may make it sound like I hate this book but, there is some indefinable quality that has kept me thinking about it ever since I read it almost nine months ago. Finding a book that is unforgettable, for whatever reason, is high on my list of requisites.

When I first picked up The Devil and Winnie Flynn, the premise seemed interesting. I had hoped that Winnie’s story would play into the clichés of reality TV and the horror/paranormal genres while still delivering an exciting and scary mystery. The movie Scream is a great example of this type of story done well, which succeeds in sending up the horror genre in a way that is fun and scary. Instead, in The Devil and Winnie Flynn, I got scenes that played lukewarm rather than terrifying, characters who were distracting, a mystery that seemed haphazard, and unsatisfying world building.

One main issue I had was with how the driving questions of the book are dealt with. Winnie must confront whether the paranormal and magic are real and how these things relate to her recently deceased mother. But, nothing quite connected with me in the way, I’m sure, the author wanted it to. The book intertwines script style writing and official memos from the show, Fantastic, Fearsome, with the rest of Winnie’s narrative. Instead of adding to the mystery, I felt that these additions took me out of the action and disrupted the flow of the story. It made things feel not quite real. Maybe that was the point but, for me, it didn’t work.

Despite the flaws I’ve described here, I decided to review and recommend this book because, while there is nothing better than finding and reading a book that you love, it can also be worthwhile to explore things you aren’t sure of. Books like that can make you think. Or, they might just be really fun to complain about. Totally valid.

While The Devil and Winnie Flynn wasn’t right for me, I can definitely see other readers being sucked into Winnie’s feelings of loss and being lost, of the quiet way in which the mystery is developed, into the eerie black and white illustrations of David Ostow, and even into the continuous stream of pop culture references. Take a chance with this book, it will stick with you long after you’ve read it.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Devil and Winnie Flynn.


Leave a comment

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

buddha-otsukaJulie Otsuka’s beautifully and poetically written second novel tells the story of young Japanese “picture brides” who leave behind a life of poverty and hard labor in Japan in the hope of finding happiness and prosperity in America. Their hope, however, turns out to be based on an illusion. Upon arriving in America, they discover that not only are the men waiting for them much older than they were led to believe (they had sent 20-year-old pictures of themselves), but that the stories of their husbands’ prosperity were merely the fabrications of the matchmakers who had brought them together. In reality, their husbands treat them with crudeness and they experience a kind of suffering they are not prepared for.

Otsuka writes in the first person plural point of view, as though the women are speaking collectively about their common experiences. This makes the telling of their saga more powerful than one individual story would have been. “Some of us were from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.”

Though the women continue to feel like outsiders in their adopted country, by the 1940’s they have settled into their life in America, many running businesses with their husbands and establishing their own communities. Their children have assimilated into the culture, speaking fluent English and feeling ashamed of their parents’ old fashioned customs and broken English. But life becomes surreal again with the outbreak of World War II and the looming threat of internment camps.

The Buddha in the Attic is in a sense a prequel to Otsuka’s first novel, When the Emperor was Divine, which details the life of a Japanese family living through World War II. Her novels are based in large part on her own family’s history, as Otsuka’s grandparents and parents were among those taken to the internment camps. Their stories should not be forgotten.

Winner of the Penn/Faulkner Award for Fiction and a National Book Award finalist.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Buddha in the Attic.


Leave a comment

The Smell of Other People’s Houses, by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

other-peoples-houses

I really enjoy books that take me to a time or place very different from my own. Medicine Walk, by Richard Wagamese is one such title, with its tale of a young Native American man reconnecting with his father.  The Smell of Other People’s Houses, by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock is another such book.  The setting in Alaska’s early days of statehood, its environment of rough-and-ready native hunting and fishing families, and its narrative related by four very different voices from four very different perspectives really succeed in placing the reader in that different time and place.

Four children’s perspectives are woven throughout this story, which is broken into the events of spring, summer, fall, and winter. Ruth suffered the loss of one parent to a plane crash, then another as her mother loses her mind from grief. Dora wants to get out of her life, but doesn’t trust her luck when it happens. Hank and his brothers decide it’s safer to run away from home than to stay, and Alyce works hard practicing dancing but her hard work on her father’s fishing boat threatens to keep her from her dreams—or does it?

What’s notable in this book is the children’s assumption of agency. At some point, they take control of their lives. They have seen what their lives are and know it is up to them to embrace or reject the status quo. With this, the characters all play a role in other characters’ lives, whether it’s as an instigator, a beacon of hope, or a fellow traveler in their lives’ journeys. The gentle interaction between all their stories remind us that we can all be catalysts for each other, even though we suspect we have nothing to offer.

This book works as a coming of age story (well, four coming of ages) as well as a peek into another life and world that can illuminate our own. Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s narrative is well constructed and solidly grounded in Alaskan life. Good authors can make a setting feel real, but great authors make you feel as if you are there. Read this book and be transported to 1970s Alaska—you won’t regret it.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Smell of Other People’s Houses.


Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by John Tiffany, Jack Thorne, and J.K. Rowling

cursed child thorneFirst off, I’m a huge Harry Potter nerd. When I hear those first few musical notes at the beginning of each movie, I get goosebumps. I read my first Harry Potter book when I was 10, and 17 years later I’m still obsessed. Having said that, I was not at all excited for this new installment. I had come to terms with the end of Harry and was content just revisiting the original material. But for some reason when the library got our first copy in for circulation and I was holding it in my hands, I just had to have it. My mom bought me a copy (as is tradition) and I read it all immediately in one sitting. I know there is a lot of hate going around for Cursed Child right now. I’ve seen people refer to it as fanfiction. Honestly, I sort of agree, but it is really really really good fanfiction. It wasn’t written by J.K. Rowling, but it was written by an accomplished playwright who did wonders with a new storyline. Seriously, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany do a great job capturing character with only dialogue. I was beyond impressed.

The story is definitely fast-paced and at times a little confusing, but we’ve got to remember that it isn’t a book, it’s a play. You can’t expect the same level of detail that the rest of the series supplies. Only super nerds like myself would go see an 8 hour Harry Potter play.  What I’m saying with all this is that if you’re fan of the characters, the story, the message—you’ve gotta read Cursed Child. Love it, hate it, you feel how you want but you’ve just got to have this story in your brain. I don’t want to spoil anything so I won’t get into to specifics but TIME TURNERS. Guys, we get more details about time turners and MCGONAGALL. She’s back and just as awesome as before. Read it for her. Cursed Child got me back in the Harry Potter spirit and now I’ve got to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in November. Thanks J.K. Rowling for another great story.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.


Leave a comment

Armageddon Summer, by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville

In summer of 2016, we asked our patrons for book reviews as part of our adult summer reading raffle. We have chosen the cream of the crop to feature here on our blog.

This review is by Anne Wi.

armageddon summer yolenI was not sure what to expect when I first started this book, but I was quickly sucked in; I REALLY enjoyed it!

The story is told from 13 (almost 14) year-old Marina, a teen stuck in a cult-like religious group because of her parents (who are separated). The Pastor of their “group” tells them that the end of the world coming soon, the date of which just so happens to be on Marina’s 14th birthday. The Believers, 144 of them because that is how many the Pastor said are needed, are ushered to the top of a mountain where they are told that they will survive Armageddon. Marina meets an unlikely friend named Jed, and they quickly form a tight friendship.

I do not want to give too much away, but this is a must-read book, and a wonderful tale of friendship, love, and religious confusion.

Do you think the world will end in this book? You will just have to read it for yourself.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Armageddon Summer.


1 Comment

Medicine Walk, by Richard Wagamese

medicine wagameseA deep book needs plain language, and the beauty of Medicine Walk is the measured manner in which the events of this book are related. While his protagonist works his way through his walk with his father, the power of family history and feelings are made that much more intense by the unfettered tone of the prose. In the end, you feel like you were a fellow traveler.

The book begins when Frank’s father, Eldon calls for him. Frank is a young Indian boy who was abandoned by his father, leaving Frank with a local farmer named Bunky. Bunky is white, and does his best with Frank, but recognizes the difference in cultural heritage and how Bunky’s mentoring lacks Native American knowledge. But the faithful day comes when Eldon comes calling for his son. Bunky encourages Frank to find out what his father wants, despite the abandonment.

It turns out that Eldon is dying, and he asks Frank to take him on a days-long journey so he can die as a warrior. What follows is as much a journey as a meditation on family, life, history, and what it means to be a man. While they travel, Eldon fills in Frank on what he missed: Eldon’s history, his mother, the tragedy that forced Eldon away, and the details of his life, ruined by drink. The journey takes them through both the sparse back country and the past. Frank’s skills, learned at Bunky’s knee, overcome obstacle after obstacle as they approach what will be Eldon’s final resting place.

Author Richard Wagamese is no stranger to Native American issues, both current and past. What Eldon has had inflicted on him gets, heartbreakingly, passed through his son through tales of love, tragedy, and neglect. Frank’s quiet stoicism and steady competence point the way to a kind of reconciliation between father and son, past and future. The neat, blunt prose is Wagamese’s gift to the reader.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Medicine Walk.