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Review – Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Standalone by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Series: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe #1

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

At first, I thought I was less than impressed because it was super reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, particularly Dandelion Wine. I need to be in a very specific and rare mood to enjoy Dandelion Wine type books. However, as I kept going (and skimming through the first third), I realised that Aristotle’s uneven narration isn’t actually worthy of the comparison. There are lines here and there that shine, but it’s mostly the writing equivalent of stage tricks that one finds in lazy literary fiction. Repetition masquerading as strengthening an observation or impact, over-simplification (at its worst when “depicting” a romantic kiss between any couple), and my favourite: general wheel-spinning.

Like many a disappointing LGBTQ romance with only one character’s perspective, the romance is less romantic than it is distressing. For most of the book, Ari not only denies so much as being attracted to Dante, but genuinely seems to be telling the truth. The 180 turn at the end was simultaneously a relief and a betrayal. It felt like watching someone do a crappy magic trick and hating the entire performance because I knew how it was done.

There’s also a smattering of boring rehashes of things from other similarly plotless gay romance, like sexless female friends, physical assault (no conclusion, because that would look too much like plot and too little like tastelessly trading on the existence of hate crimes), and too-easy acceptance because there’s only a few pages left before the end.

What had the most positive effect on me was when the titular characters talked about being “Mexican enough.” As a mixed race Mexican American, I worry about being perceived as too white. Dante’s worries that he wasn’t Mexican enough made me cry, and Ari’s joy over having a properly Mexican pick-up truck felt super familiar. It wasn’t a major part of the book, and it didn’t always resonate with me, but it was still nice to read it.

This kind of slice of life narrative is not usually my thing. When it’s done badly, it suffers from nothing much going on. Anything that does happen runs the risk of never concluding, underlining the nonexistent plot, or being superfluous. I never liked Ari as a character, even when I sympathised with him, and Dante felt like a good character who was often literally shuffled out of the way. Not very romantic. Even their friendship seemed tenuous and its lifespan can only be explained by the words “author mandate.” I feel like I know what this book wanted to do, and yet I can’t deny that it was executed poorly.

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Bad Day (freewriting)

In a competition for shittiest day, Ludy knew she wouldn’t win. She watched the news. Read books. People survived bombs, spousal abuse, and hurricanes. Her day had merely been a personal black cloud. Cartoonish. Still enough to soak her through and dampen her smile.

A literal rain storm brewed overhead, threatening to reward her imagery. She had an umbrella, but it was busted. Barely good enough to beat off a mugger, which had busted it even more. At least it still added to her outfit. Cheery pink and dotted with tiny white flowers. The perfect addition to her light blue sundress and grey jacket. Scarf with a duck pattern.

The scarf was the only thing that had survived her day. The jacket had lost a sleeve, and a rakish tear in the dress’s neckline prompted her to walk with her arms up. As if she were a boxer about to begin a match.

The skies opened up, weeping with a thousand unseeing eyes. Ludy stared into the rain with wide open eyes, baring her teeth like a wild animal.

And got a mouthful of dirty water.

Choking and cursing, she lashed out. She spat. Her arms swung, fast and hard. Her tantrum cut off suddenly as she realised that she had struck something. The way her day had gone, she should have expected a wall, but it was too soft. Something living. Not a stray dog with rabies, which she also should have expected.

A human man wearing a crisp business suit and a shocked frown. He held a cell phone to his ear, hovering as if it were more important than a crazy woman hauling off and smacking him in the street while she swore like a hobo.

She scowled at his umbrella. The source of the waterfall that had gushed over her face. “You should watch where you’re going,” she snapped.

“You hit me.”

“You nearly drowned me!”

He stared at her, clearly uncomprehending. “We’re on the sidewalk.” He looked around, as if he honestly had no idea where they were. “In front of a Chinese restaurant. How could I drown you?”

Words did not come. She spluttered for a few seconds. While her day had not been car-bomb bad, it had certainly been spread-the-misery bad. She snatched his obviously expensive black umbrella out of his manicured fingers and held it at just the right angle to show him exactly what he had done to her.

To his credit, he did not flail about and strike her. He coughed and spat water onto the sidewalk.

“Like that, you bitch.”

It would have been a good exit line, but he was still bent double. She didn’t want to just drop his umbrella and run away like a criminal. Her patience was rewarded when his coughing turned to laughter. An apology lurked in there, even as his suit went shiny, ruined in the strengthening downpour. “I’m sorry.” He held out his hand. “My name is Ivo.”

“Ludivine. Ludy.”

As she shook his hand, his eyes widened. “Are you okay?”

She laughed. It didn’t sound as good as his laughter. Her voice, always high and reedy, had become raspy in the freezing damp. “If I were any less okay, I would have to start screaming.”

“Do you need a doctor? Your dress…”

“You should see the other guy.” She held her hands up to her chest again. Jumped when Ivo covered her shoulders with his jacket. “Hang on, I don’t–”

“It’s the least I can do after I almost drowned you.”

He had already done the least. He’d apologised. It had been the first time she’d heard the word ‘sorry’ since she’d caught her ex in bed with two other women. It sounded better coming from Ivo. “I guess it is.”

“Are you hungry? We’re still standing in front of a restaurant. We could go inside it.”

Even wet, the jacket was warm. Her ducky scarf tickled her nose, pressed sticky against her skin. “Why not? I like Chinese food.”

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Wrong Number

I might continue this. Probably without using graphics.

~

Liam rolled onto his side and cursed. Every nerve blazed with pain. His pillow was crusty with blood, hopefully just from his nose. When he reached up to check, his fingers came away bloody and trailing bandages. He could remember cleaning himself up–clearly he had done a shitty job–as well as some of the fight. “Gotta stop getting into bar brawls.”

His phone chirped on the bedside table, the screen lighting up the room in an explosion of unwelcome light. After two halfhearted waves of his arm, he banged his wrist on the edge. A wrist that he had apparently not broken, but a sprain wasn’t out of the question. Especially after whanging it like that.

If the damn phone hadn’t gone off two more times, he would have left it for the morning. He sat up slowly and inched himself closer to the bedside table before reaching out, again slowly, to pick up the phone like a human rather than a blind monkey. Head throbbing like an unremittant club bass-line. It took a few minutes for his vision to clear away the purple splotches and allow him to actually see the screen.

The number was unfamiliar, but he was used to that. He used his phone for work, and since he worked mostly on commission, most of his calls came from unknown numbers that didn’t stay in his contacts list afterwards. What was strange was the amount of digits. Sure, he had a hangover, but that number was too long. The message didn’t seem to be about a commission either.

texta1

Having been in similar situations, Liam typed the first thing that came to mind and jabbed send without thinking.

texta2

A reply came in immediately.

texta3

Nobody went to clubs to dance. People went to clubs to lose their minds and fuck someone up against a bathroom sink.

texta4

Talk about a wrong number. Liam turned off his phone and dropped it on the bed. At least it hadn’t been a real emergency for someone he knew. And he’d even helped. How long had it been since he could say that he’d helped anyone? He tossed the bloody pillow onto the floor and tugged the bandages off. The blood had dried. It’d be a bitch to wash off in the morning, so he lumbered over to the bathroom to shower.

His skin hated him by the end of it, and his head would never speak to him again. No loss. They were bastards.

Somehow he made it back to bed, although he couldn’t bring himself to even look for fresh clothes. His apartment windows all had curtains. He could get away with sleeping in the buff. Especially since L.A. never reached a temperature that he would personally call ‘cold.’

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Starveling Cat

sore

Listening to: Castle – Halsey

~*~

City dark was nothing like country dark. In the country, night fell gently, an old boy slipping in the back door after sharing a few drinks with the guys. Cities fought back the night with billboards, street lamps, and every window blazing with rebellion against bedtime. Cities were St. George against the dragon with swords of light.

A nice analogy, but the dragons it refers to are not the darkness. Not the literal darkness, anyway.

I lay stretched out on a park bench, one arm hovering over my eyes. Blocking out the light of the nearest lamp post without obscuring my vision completely. A girl had to sleep with both eyes open in this city.

“Please, don’t hurt me…!”

That sounded like the rest of my analogy. The dragons. I let my eyes roll back as if drawn by gravity. The scene settled into my vision like a card slotting into place in a viewfinder. It was even upside-down.

Continue reading

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There’s a Party – 07

“That was ill-advised.”

The prince looked up, his expression so wistful that his eyes might have changed colour. “Certainly it was. Yet you must admit, it was the first interesting conversation I have had in an age.”

At first glance, the damage from the prince’s stunt appeared to be minimal. Not that his bodyguard should worry about the social aspects of this absurd function. Rune snuffed like a bull as he waited for his charge to gain a clearer head. “Even so. You have a duty to the young ladies, not to their brothers.”

“Oh, duty.” The wistful expression drained into a childishly sour one. “They want romance, Rune. I don’t want to romance anyone.”

“If you don’t get back to the eligible ladies, sir, they are going to pout and accuse you of wanting romance with a different set.” So saying, he began to steer the prince back to his proper place in the ballroom.

Royalty had a fifty percent chance of being pressed upon or cutting through the crowd like a ladle through soft cheese. Rune was 2.13 metres tall and over 190 kilos. He doubted a wall could have given him trouble, never mind a few hundred people.

To his credit, the prince neither sulked nor slouched. His proud posture carried him along as though Rune was not here at all. Right up to the illustrious mock parkour where his parents awaited him with the next lady. No one commented on the prince’s impromptu dance partner. Neither the king nor queen even raised an eyebrow.

Nor did the lady. If it had not been more than his job was worth, Rune would have laughed aloud. The lady in question was clearly genteel enough for the title, but likely not old enough. She was more than a head shorter than the prince, with a face that would have suited a porcelain doll, and fluffy pink dress to match. The young princess was taller than this girl.

The prince gave no visible reaction. He gazed stoically at the scene before him and said some vaguely pleasant thing in the local language. A nothing phrase that Rune had quite frankly tired of already.

“May I present Miss Duvall.” The queen gestured to the sprout of a girl and went on in florid terms. Once the most pertinent details had been stated, Rune recited a poem in his head. A local born girl with foreign parents. No money or status. No life experience.

The prince bowed his way through the introduction, then led the little lady onto the dance floor. The difference in height made conversation impossible. The prince did not stoop.

A few feminine giggles arose as the dance went on. Rune stood solemnly, listening. A plump, middle-aged woman said, “How darling. His Highness has time enough for all of us, not just marriageable females.”

Another comment rose up to his altitude, this time from a man who had just put down a glass of wine. “Here I thought we’d just be standing around watching girls fawn over the prince. Let’s go, dear.” Then he pulled his companion up to join the dance.

Rune had been in the employ of the Royal Family since before the prince had been born. Perhaps he should have picked up a few more tricks. The queen had not chosen the diminutive lady at random, or to punish the prince. She had managed the situation.

Without quite meaning to, Rune cast a glance around the edges of the party. As ever, Ms Park hovered about, like a very elegant shadow. Perhaps the queen hadn’t been the one managing the situation after all.

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There’s a Party – 06

Someone had already fainted. Finn was close enough to see the colour and a blurry interpretation of her dress. But it was too far away to be included in the circle of unhelpful onlookers. A man called out in an accent of authority. “Move aside! I am a doctor.”

Moses must have been a doctor too, because the crowd parted like the Red Sea.

Finn was not a doctor. But he and the doctor did have work in common. They were both doing it. Just different sorts.

Someone hurried over to join him. A young man, maybe two year Finn’s junior, if not more. Tow-headed and a little skinny, wearing a big hat and scarf.

Most of the room was devoted to dancing or staring at the doctor and his patient. Finn looked about the immediate area, in search of the local attraction.

“Are you hiding from somebody?” he asked, after coming up empty.

The huddled figure took a step to the left. In accordance with, Finn realised, Finn’s own movement. “My parents, mostly.”

“Good luck with that. I had to expatriate to get away from mine.”

Still huddling a bit, his new acquaintance snorted. “I wish I could do that.”

“You wouldn’t if you knew the whole story.” Finn shuddered, hoping the gesture would be taken for exaggeration.

He’d expected some automatic pity or contradiction. But the young man just laughed nervously.

Then he dodged about so dramatically to the left that the only place to stand was between Finn and a long table.

Finn stared at him. “The last person who came that close to me wanted my wallet.”

“Sorry it’s just–let’s dance!”

He was being dragged onto the dance floor before he could even process what had happened. Fortunately, dancing came naturally to Finn. Even waltzes.

They got a few looks from older couples. It was enough to make Finn comment. “They really need to update the language of dance.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re dancing the lady’s bit. You aren’t a lady.”

“Should I be flattered that you noticed?”

“Certainly. But my point is, they should call it something else.”

People had begun to stare in earnest. Whisper was to polite a word to cover what else they were doing.

Finn sighed. “You’ve been found out.”

The prince stumbled over the next step. His elbow nearly knocked into another dancing pair, but he managed to rein it in. “I thought the hat would help.”

“It did with most of them.” Finn indicated the ballroom at large. “But you were just on stage ten minutes ago. Even the ugliest hat won’t disguise you for long.”

A big pink mountain loomed towards them. The man had obviously missed his calling as a Dashiell Hammett character. Finn drew Prince Matteus onto the sidelines where the kid could be safely collected.

On impulse, just before the giant arrived, Finn shook the prince’s hand. “Now ask me what I do for a living.”

“What?”

“Do it. It’s what royalty does.”

The prince’s eyes lit up. “Of course. And what do you do?”

The giant was there, watching with disapproval as powerful as a grandmother’s. “Whatever I can do, your Highness,” Finn said, and ended the handshake.

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There’s a Party – 05

Small rebellions fueled Ewan’s life. He stood with the one partygoer in the room who looked lethally unsociable, talking while the MC made a speech. If the bearded wallflower didn’t blow a blood vessel, someone would at least shush them.

“I have no particular feelings towards champagne.”

“Then it must’ve been the white wine.” Ewan nodded sagely. “For me, it’s canapés. Vol-au-vent mugged me on a street corner.”

Behind him, he heard someone stifle a laugh, but it could have been a sneeze. Beardy stopped frowning to look so genuinely puzzled that Ewan nearly lost his game face.

“What did it hold you up with? A revolver?”

There. Ewan spluttered, and laughed. The MC went on without even a dirty look, but those closest to Ewan and the Beard looked as they would have liked to have been armed.

Ewan waved at them, giving his most disarming smile. “You’re funnier than I’d’ve credited.”

“I’m not sure why you say so.”

Thunderous clapping rocked the room, and Ewan joined in to keep from covering his ears. Under the noise, he asked, “I think we might need an introduction.”

The applause went on, but they both bucked conformity in order to shake hands.

“Ewan Blackwood.”

“Dr Henning Voss.”

Eyebrows up, Ewan went back to clapping. Something was definitely going on. He glanced at the stage. “Oh, the prince.”

Beard doctor followed his gaze, muttering something in German. “What a circus.”

At last, the noise began to die down. Music took its place. Some lass peeled off a magazine page had been allowed the prince’s first dance.

While many of the guests took up the call to dance, a good number held back. At least they wouldn’t be conspicuous. Although no one was looking at them now that talking was allowed.

“A circus,” Dr Voss repeated, shaking his head.

Ewan was inclined to agree that it was a circus. For one thing, they’d hired a clown like him to play at being a guest. And he’d never seen so many people pretending to live in the ton of Regency romance. “Too bad it isn’t more of a theme park.”

Dr Voss looked horrified, then seemed to force a laugh. “Don’t speak too loudly. Someone might believe you are serious.”

This was going much better than Ewan had expected. He’d thought he would have to spend the entire week in the company of fat old women who talked only of centrepieces and their lapdogs. Even if he had been a legitimate member of this social class, this wasn’t his thing.

Which made him think. “Why are you here? Demanding wife? Daughter in need of marrying off?”

This time, Dr Voss laughed like he meant it. “Nothing like that. I’d almost rather have a wife or daughter to drag me about.”

“Then…?”

He pressed his lips into a thin line, which had a funny effect on his beard. “There can’t be any harm in telling you. I’m working.”

“Heh, working the party?”

“No, working as a doctor.”

“That doesn’t sound as fun.” Then some lights clicked on in Ewan’s brain. He slapped his forehead. “Although it does explain why you were glaring at a drinks tray.”

A crack like wood giving way under pressure resounded about the room. Gasps followed it, and new circle formed outside the one meant for dancing.

“S’pose that’s your cue,” Ewan said to Dr Voss’s fleeing back as he reached out for a glass of champagne sweeping past.