Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – Reread for HP Read-along

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Harry Potter, #5)Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
Published by Scholastic

I have always considered this to be my favorite of the seven Harry Potter books, and after finishing the re-read this time around, I think that might still be the case. (I’ll tell you for sure after I finish the last two books.) I think what I love most about this book is just how meaty it is, how many different elements are in one book. Just the first two hundred pages (in a book that is more than eight hundred pages total) pack SO much of a punch. Harry first learns about the Order, gets to spend time with Sirius, and experiences the Ministry of Magic for the first time. In addition to all of that, there’s quidditch, serious issues at school (ugh, Umbridge), secret Defense Against the Dark Arts lessons, potential love interests for a few characters, serious and obvious issues among the teachers at Hogwarts (how can you NOT love McGonagall after this book?), studying for and taking the O.W.L. exams, and that’s not even considering the major action of the book, which happens in the last fifty pages or so. There’s just so much here and so much to further the story and the characters.

And let’s face it, that’s what is really great about these books. These characters are complex and interesting and have histories and pasts that get revealed slowly, over the course of seven books. This book gives the reader (and Harry) more insight into Snape’s character, insight that leaves a shadow of doubt over the fact that he is an evil, horrible person. Maybe he’s not as bad as Harry, Ron and Hermione think he is?

My absolute favorite part of the entire book is the very end when Dumbledore takes Harry into his office and starts explaining things to him, things that Dumbledore admits he should have told Harry years ago. There’s just so much vulnerability and emotion in this conversation, so much truth and regret and sadness and the overwhelming feeling is just that of love. The feeling of love that Harry’s parents had for him, that Sirius and Harry had for one another, and that Dumbledore has for Harry. The knowledge that Dumbledore would do absolutely anything necessary to protect Harry and to save him, but that even Dumbledore might not be able to heed the dangers that are coming Harry’s way is just heartbreaking. And as Rowling does best, this conversation leads perfectly into the sixth book, and prepares Harry and the reader to learn even more about the history between Voldemort, Dumbledore, and Harry’s family.

Who can’t possibly love the scene at the very, very end when about five members of the Order meet the Dursley’s at the train station?! It is priceless and serves as a reminder that no matter how alone Harry might feel in his life, he has plenty of people who love him and are on his side, always.

Order of the Phoenix continues to impress me and I think it’s still my favorite of the series. I’m looking forward to re-reading the last two books!

A Blind Spot for Boys by Justina Chen

A Blind Spot for BoysA Blind Spot for Boys by Justina Chen
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

After a not-so-great relationship and heartbreak that followed, sixteen-year-old Shana has sworn off boys – until she meets Quattro, a guy who reminds her that it is possible to find a good one. But soon after the two meet, Shana learns that her dad is suffering from a disease that will take his sight in six months, and she decides to spend that time focusing on her family and her father’s health. She and her parents take a trip to Machu Picchu, something her dad has always dreamed of seeing, and she imagines this will be the trip of a lifetime, a chance to spend quality time with her family before her dad goes blind for good – until Quattro and his dad show up, too.

Justina Chen is the author of one of my favorite young adult books EVER, North of Beautiful (my review from 2009), so when I noticed a new book from Chen on my library’s shelves, I grabbed it right away. While I liked this book, I am thinking that my tastes may have changed in the past six years because while the two books have a lot of similar themes, I didn’t come close to loving Blind Spot for Boys like I loved North of Beautiful.

What did work for me in this book was the setting. I loved reading about the characters’ travels to Machu Picchu, a place I’d love to visit myself, and their journey actually turned out quite terrifying and dangerous. There were floods, mudslides, all kinds of scary stuff, and I liked how Chen gave the reader a look into what the residents of that area endured while their homes and lives were swept away in mud and water. It was sad stuff, and while it wasn’t the point of the story, it took the characters away from their own problems for a bit, which I appreciated.

I also liked how much Shana valued her relationships with her parents and brothers – a quality that you don’t see too often in YA fiction. Too often the YA books I read have the adults either too absent or too present in an annoying way. This book has the main character consciously spending time with her parents, who she loves and respects and cares deeply about. It was refreshing to see.

I liked the relationship between Shana and Quattro enough, but it didn’t have that spark that I was looking for. I wasn’t blown away by their chemistry and I didn’t care enough whether or not they got together in the end. I like how their relationship wasn’t the heart of the story, but it was still an important part of it, and it didn’t blow me away like I wanted it to.

In general, the book just didn’t wow me. Although I enjoyed reading it, not much set it apart from other, similar young adult novels I’ve read. It was good but not great.

Overall A Blind Spot for Boys was a good book, it just wasn’t the amazing novel I was hoping it would be. If you like books set in unusual settings this might be a good choice for you, but if you are looking to pick up a Justina Chen novel for the first time, start with North of Beautiful – a far better novel, in my opinion.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The NightingaleThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by Netgalley

Sisters Vianne and Isabelle, though united by a difficult childhood, could not be any more different. Responsible Vianne lives in the country with her darling husband and daughter, and although she made mistakes in her past, she’s now devoted her life to her family, her home, and her job as a teacher. Rebellious eighteen-year-old Isabelle doesn’t hesitate to fall in love with the wrong man, defy her father’s orders, and flee Paris for her sister’s home when all goes horrifically wrong.

With World War Two in full swing, the sisters are pulled apart both by choice and circumstance. Vianne’s husband is forced to go to war, and a German soldier decides to live in her home with her and her young daughter. Isabelle has joined the Resistance, which takes her back to Nazi-controlled Paris and the father she desperately ran from months earlier. Both women are in precarious, extremely dangerous situations, and the consequences for both of them will be beyond what either can imagine.

Every time I think I’ve read all I can about the Second World War, another book comes along and sweeps me off my feet. In this case, The Nightingale reminded me that there will never be “too many” books about this war (or about any war), because there are an infinite number of experiences people had, and therefore an infinite number of stories to be told. In this case, I was entranced by Vianne and Isabelle and the incredible story Hannah told through these characters. This is a book about love, hope, resiliency in the face of devastating circumstances, about powerful women and about survival against all odds. This novel pulled so many emotions from me and I couldn’t put it down – I was totally swept into this story, as difficult as it was to read at times.

Here’s what I thought was so special about this book – these are ordinary, regular, minding-their-own-business people. People stuck in the middle of a war they had no say in, didn’t vote for, didn’t want, don’t understand, much less agree with. Sure, eventually Isabelle gets personally involved and actually becomes quite a celebrity in the Resistance (read the book to find out exactly what she does), but even she doesn’t get entrenched until the situation is so dire that she cannot possibly imagine doing nothing. Vianne is in a different situation, she has a child to protect and care for, but an enemy soldier is LIVING IN HER HOME. Imagine this – we are at war and one day you hear a knock at the door, and an enemy soldier is there, demanding to live in your upstairs bedroom, to eat your food and use your bathroom and LIVE in your house. This is incomprehensible to me but apparently it was the norm in many Nazi-occupied towns and cities over the course of the war.

I just loved The Nightingale so much. I cannot tell you quite how deeply the book resonated with me, made me think, made me fall in love with these characters, made me consider aspects of the Second World War I’d never thought about before, all of that and more. This is only my second time picking up a novel by Kristin Hannah but I can guarantee that it won’t be my last. Highly recommended!

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Silver SparrowSilver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
Published by Algonquin Books

Dana Lynn Yarboro has always known that her father is a bigamist, and that her mother is “the other woman”. Dana and her mom live a secret life, seeing the patriarch of their family only once or twice a week. Her father’s legal wife and her daughter, Chaurisse, who’s the same age as Dana, have no idea that Dana and her mother exist. Dana grows up feeling like Chaurisse gets everything she’s denied – love, affection, nice things, and most of all, an honest and open life. So it’s with the hope of getting to know her secret sister that Dana sets into motion a series of events that will change things for everyone.

Silver Sparrow is a book about something that no one likes to talk about but that I am sure is a lot more common than people realize. Dana’s father had an affair with her mother when he was married to another woman, and Dana was born as a result of that affair. But not only did he have this affair – he constructed a whole second, secret life that he successfully maintained for years. The levels of deceit, deception, and betrayal that went into this man’s life were shocking but I’m afraid not completely uncommon in reality. The fact that this is reality for some people was never something far from my mind as I was reading the book.

This book is told first from Dana’s perspective, then Chaurisse’s, and I have to admit that I felt much more deeply for Dana than I did Chaurisse. I’m sure this is partially by design – Dana’s section is first, so the reader completely gets to know and love Dana before even encountering Chaurisse – but also, partly it’s because of the fact that Dana is clearly the less privileged person in this situation. I was actually surprised by how much I liked Chaurisse but then I had to remind myself that she was just as innocent in this as Dana – she certainly didn’t choose for her father to have an affair! Both girls are at the mercy of their father’s choices and neither girl has an ideal life. The fact that Chaurisse is ignorant of this fact seems glamorous to Dana, but at the same time, Dana has the power of knowledge that Chaurisse doesn’t. Either way you look at it, neither girl has a perfect life.

As the novel gets closer to the end, it becomes clear that Dana will not rest until she gets to know Chaurisse, even if that means lying to her parents to get close to her. While she doesn’t reveal her identity, there is a level of anxiety throughout the last 100 pages of the book that I couldn’t help but feel. It is obvious while reading the book that there’s no possible way the two girls meeting and becoming friends can end on a happy note. I admire Jones for the way she handled this delicate subject and what she chose to do with the characters and their stories. She gave the novel a realistic ending and while it wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for, I’m not sure how else things could have turned out.

Anyway, I really liked Silver Sparrow and I think Jones is brave for tackling this issue, and extremely talented for the way she did it. Highly recommended!

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

The Good GirlThe Good Girl by Mary Kubica
Published by Harlequin MIRA
Review copy provided by SheReads

Mia Dennett is the twenty-something daughter of a prominent Chicago judge, a woman who was rebellious in her teens and unconventional in her adulthood – to the disappointment of her parents – but is now settled as an art teacher in an inner-city school. When she meets Colin Thatcher at a bar one night, she likes him enough to decide that a one-night stand is a good idea. Unfortunately for Mia, Colin was hired to kidnap her and deliver her to someone who he assumes will attempt to get ransom from her father. When Colin decides he can’t hand her over to his unknown employer to be hurt, raped, or worse, killed, he takes her to a remote cabin in Minnesota. Mia’s mother, Eve, and the detective on the case, Gabe Hoffman, work around the clock in hopes of finding them, but Colin is sure that he has a plan to keep them both safe – if they can survive Minnesota’s cold winter long enough to act on his plan.

What a roller coaster of a book! What’s unique about The Good Girl, to me, is that for a thriller it was not at all what I’ve come to expect from that genre. While the kidnapping itself was thrill-rideish and the drive to the woods made me have heart palpitations because I didn’t know what the heck this guy was going to do with her, once they got to the cabin the book settled down a LOT. As in, they were basically stuck in this cabin, just the two of them, for days and weeks on end and it almost got a little boring. But it never did because I continued to be on the edge of my seat, just waiting for something to happen. And I wasn’t disappointed in that something, when it did eventually come. But no spoilers.

I loved how the book was told from multiple points of view, but never Mia’s. Some readers might have found this annoying, but to me it worked really well. It was almost as though Mia was the center of the story, but she wasn’t the point of the story at all. Instead, Eve, Gabe, and Colin got to tell their stories and it was all about how Mia defined their lives during this period of time.

The writing in this book was excellent. It was the perfect mix of being evocative and just giving me enough so that I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Kubica really knows how to write a feeling and sense of place, and she did such an incredible job with this one. I felt like I was in that cabin with them, subsisting on canned chicken noodle soup and being so close to freezing to death.

The ending wasn’t exactly shocking – the whole book is rushing toward something, and you know it can’t possibly be good but you can’t stop reading anyway – but I was somewhat surprised by what Kubica chose to do with these characters and their story. Overall, The Good Girl is an excellent book and one that I won’t soon forget. I’m very much looking forward to what Kubica does next.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – Reread for HP Read-along

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4)Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
Published by Scholastic

If you didn’t know already, Sheila at Book Journey is hosting a Harry Potter read along, and I’m happy to participate. :) Here are some brief thoughts on the fourth book.

  • I forgot how LONG this book is! Although it reads very quickly, it took me a lot longer than I anticipated to get through this one.
  • No quidditch? Sad! Although the competition was probably more exciting than quidditch matches, I did miss that element of the books in this one.
  • We finally see how evil and horrific the Death Eaters are in the very beginning of the book and it is really just some foreshadowing of what else is coming. Poor muggles!
  • I loved Hermione’s sass and ability to tell Ron how much of an idiot he was being throughout this book. I laughed out loud during the part when they were trying to figure out who to ask as dates to the ball and neither Harry nor Ron could believe that some other guy actually asked Hermione. It’s like, wake up and realize your best friend is a girl! And a pretty damn awesome one, too!
  • Over and over again while reading this book I just kept shaking my head in disbelief that the wizards and witches in charge actually allowed Harry to compete in the Triwizard Tournament. Yes I get that there are “rules” and I guess you can’t break magical rules but still … come on now!
  • On that note, I was also shocked that no one really questioned, at least in all seriousness, the fact that Harry’s name was put into the goblet under very suspicious circumstances. Who but a dark wizard would be able to circumnavigate all the hexes that Dumbledore put on the thing? Even though I have read this book before and therefore knew the ending, I was shocked by the fact that no one thought of the extremely obvious culprit behind Harry’s name getting into the tournament.
  • While the last book felt like a bridge between the simpler times of Harry being a preteen and the darker times that are to come in the last four books, Goblet of Fire felt like a perfect middle of the series to me. For most of the book, while Harry is dealing with trials and tribulations and competing in some extremely difficult challenges for the tournament, his life is relatively innocent. Until the end, and at that point it’s ON and bad things happen rather quickly – which is the perfect set-up for the final three books in the series.
  • I remembered the whole ending except for the fact that Moody was involved, and the details of that whole situation. That was a welcome surprise because I love when I forget things in these books so I get to experience it as if it were the first time in the re-read!
  • I love these books. And that is all.

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult
Published by Ballantine Books

Thirteen-year-old Jenna has always known her mother loved her, even given the fact that her mom, Alice, mysteriously disappeared after a horrific accident involving the elephants that both of her parents dedicated their lives to protect and save. Although Jenna spent the first three years of her life on the elephant sanctuary ran her parents, for the past ten years she’s lived with her grandmother while her mother has remained missing and her father is locked up in a mental institution.

She finally decides that enough is enough and determines that although she’s young, she’s perfectly capable of discovering what happened to Alice. She enlists the help of a formerly famous but now disgraced psychic named Serenity Jones, and the very man in charge of her mother’s disappearance originally, Virgil Stanhope. Over the course of their search, Jenna learns more than she ever bargained for about her mother’s life, disappearance, and just how much love Alice always had for her daughter.

Jodi Picoult is a guilty pleasure author for me. I’ve read all of her books, and while I certainly wouldn’t call them great literature, I wouldn’t call them fluffy either – they are good stories about complicated people and interesting subjects. They can be a bit formulaic, and some are better than others, but I’ve never actually disliked one of her novels. Anyway – Leaving Time follows a lot of the same Picoult patterns I am used to (multiple narrators, a book built around a unique “issue”, a fast pace that barrels toward the shocking ending) but gets rid of some others (no courtroom drama in this one, and thank GOODNESS one font throughout the entire novel). I have to say that I was really impressed by this book. There were a lot of things I liked about it, and not much I didn’t. I was torn between a four and five-star rating, that’s how much I enjoyed it!

Elephants! I love elephants and I learned a lot more about them while reading this book. Although there were a few times I simply had to put the book down because the descriptions of abuse that the elephants at the sanctuary suffered before being rescued were just so hard to read. Yes I know it’s fiction but it’s based on fact and one thing that I can’t handle is animal abuse. Picoult uses a ton of metaphors throughout the book comparing the behavior of the elephants to the humans’ behavior, but for some reason I never got annoyed by them – if anything, I grew even more interested in how the elephants were handling different situations.

I liked Jenna a lot but couldn’t help wonder how it was possible for a thirteen-year-old to be so independent, articulate, smart, resourceful, all of that. And where the HECK was her grandma when she was traipsing all around town attempting to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance? These questions made it hard for me to fully engage with her character. But I did like Serenity and Virgil and the three of them made a really good team.

The ending of this book is one I loved, totally didn’t see coming (even though I have read enough of her books to expect the unexpected), but can say absolutely nothing about. Read it yourself and please let’s discuss!

I liked this book a LOT. Picoult may be formulaic, but she strayed a bit with this one and I very much appreciate what she did here. This is definitely one of my favorite of her books.

Have you read anything by Jodi Picoult? People tend to love or hate her. What do you think of this author and would you consider reading Leaving Time?