“Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2014)

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“One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke.”

When the weather gets gloomy and cold, it’s often best to take yourself off to somewhere warm, even if just in a book. I made my way El Paso, Texas in the 1980s to escape some of the British January chill. There, I found a story that was much more than I expected.

Angel Aristotle Mendoza – known as Ari – is in many ways your average fifteen-year-old, swallowed up by self-doubt, confusion and family troubles. His brother is in prison and his father is a Vietnam war veteran: neither of these things are ever discussed. At the local swimming pool one day, he meets Dante, a fellow Mexican-American teenager who teaches Ari to swim. Ari has never had a proper friend before, and the two are soon inseparable, spending all their time together laughing and playing games.

As Ari’s self-imposed walls begin to crumble, their bond seems unshakeable, and on one rainy summer’s day, Ari saves Dante’s life, breaking three of his limbs in the process. Unable to speak about his heroic act, Ari closes down again, and Dante has to move away to Chicago with his parents for the rest of the year. When he returns, however, both boys have been changed and they wonder if their friendship can continue as they change from boys to men…

A friend of mine recommended me this and said she loved it. I generally trust her opinion on books, so went for it and was very pleased I did. I’ve long struggled with getting into much young adult stuff, but there’s something quite wonderful and wise about this. The relationships between the boys and their parents are particularly endearing. Ari gets on with his mum, but struggles with his father who is clearly suffering from PTSD. The shadow of his brother hangs heavy over them all, and there isn’t even a picture of him up in the house. It’s almost as if he never existed, but Ari can’t open up the communication channels to ask why or even what he’s in prison for, as it all happened when he was very young. Dante, on the other hand, is an only child and has a very open and affectionate relationship with his parents, which Ari is jealous of.

A lot of emphasis is also played on the two boys identities as Mexicans. According to Wikipedia, 80.7% of the city’s population identify as Hispanic or Latino, and given the city sits right on the Rio Grande with Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city, right on the other side, this is obviously an important aspect to them. Many of the other characters are also of Mexican extraction, allowing for a very diverse novel that paints a world that I’m not familiar with. Sáenz however builds a fascinating and beautiful little world, with characters who feel very real and good company. The relationship between Ari and Dante is, for the most part, kept somewhat ambigious. Ari is the sole narrator, but he’s so used to burying his feelings that he’s even capable of burying them from us.

A charming and beautiful novel about growing up and the hidden trauma that so many carry around with them.

Looking for something different to read that bursts genre and shakes up the status quo of storytelling? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available now at Amazon and Waterstones! If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” by Jenny Lawson (2012)

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Yes, that's a taxidermied mouse.

Yes, that’s a taxidermied mouse.

“This book is totally true, except for the parts that aren’t.”

My bedroom, as you might imagine, looks like a small branch of Waterstone’s. I read extensively and constantly, and always have a book recommendation ready for any occasion. Hell, that’s the reason I write the damn blog. And thank you for reading. My sister’s bedroom, however, looks like a branch of HMV, shelved almost entirely with DVDs. As such, imagine my surprise when a package arrived from her (she’s currently in Australia, farming wombats or something) containing a book that was for me to read because it was hysterically funny. Bear in mind, that my sister really doesn’t read much, so this is like getting a recipe from Paul McCartney for BBQ ribs. Nonetheless, I trust her and if she claims something is funny, it probably is, as we share a sense of humour.

I went into the book blind. I don’t know who Jenny Lawson is, other than from what I gleaned from a little bit of research beforehand. She is, effectively, just a blogger and writer, who talks to the Internet at large about her life and the socially awkward things that happen to her in it. This book is her autobiography, a project usually reserved for more famous faces (and people on TOWIE). This could’ve gone so wrong, but thankfully it went so right.

Jenny grew up in Wall, Texas, living a life that was anything but normal. To my standards at least. Her father is a taxidermist who also loved adopting animals and introducing them around the house, often without any warning to the rest of the family who would suddenly find a bobcat in the living room. On one occasion, he adopts a load of turkeys and insists on claiming that they are quail, only for them to latch onto Jenny and follow her to school repeatedly, ending in an incident when one (called Jenkins) gets into the school cafeteria and shits everywhere. This is just from one of the first chapters and it doesn’t get any less insane from there.

Jenny covers her life quickly and breezily, with genuinely funny observations. She has had a strange life so far and it has included such unforgettable moments as wearing a deer, discovering no one has taught her how to sit on a couch correctly, being woken up by a puppet made from half a dead squirrel, taking acid, spa weekends with women who might actually have their lives together, talking to people at parties about getting stabbed in the face, and getting her hand stuck in a cow’s vagina. Along the way she drops off valuable pointers about life, such as how to bury a dog (and chase off the vultures who try to undo your work), why Neil Patrick Harris would be a successful mass murderer, and why you should always ask your estate agent how many bodies are buried on the premises of the house you’re buying.

Despite the quick jokes and fast-paced storytelling that Jenny mostly goes in for, there are some heartbreaking chapters that reveal truly awful moments in her life that just aren’t possible to ignore or make light of. She suffers hugely from anxiety attacks, has arthritis and suffered two miscarriages, and yet remains such a positive upbeat narrator. The stories that do allow for comedy have it in spades and I laughed out loud numerous times throughout the book. Some of her stories seem so outlandish that you wonder for a moment if she’s made them up, but I don’t know if anyone could. Also, she tends to have photo evidence of many of them.

Her love for her husband Victor and daugher Hailey is incredible and while she’s probably not someone I’d want to leave alone for too long with my children (if I had any), she’s one of those people who means well and just wants to make the most of her life. And she most certainly has done that. Hilarious, warm and occasionally shocking, I most certainly will not be pretending that this never happened.