Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – thoughts upon a reread

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Harry Potter, #6)Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
Published by Scholastic

I am way far behind on the Harry Potter Readalong, but as of this writing I’ve already finished the last two books, just haven’t made the time to write about them. Well, here are some brief thoughts on the sixth book!

Love love love. I so overwhelmingly love this book and everything about it. I know I said the fifth book was my favorite, and maybe it still is, but this is a very close second. More than anything else about this book, what I truly love about it is just how much Harry learns about the truth of his life and what he has to do, and how much trust Dumbledore FINALLY places in Harry. After years of keeping him in the dark to “protect” him, Dumbledore finally gets that he needs to just be honest, Harry is not a kid anymore (well, I’d argue that a sixteen-year-old boy is most definitely a kid, but for wizarding purposes not so much), and he deserves to hear the whole story, nothing left out. So Dumbledore does a pretty decent job of that, and we readers are treated to the same information. Which is to say, lots and lots of information is thrown at Harry and the reader in this book. I’ve read this one a few times now, and I feel like each time I read it, I catch something that I must have glossed over the first few times. Every time there is something new to me – either I had forgotten a certain detail, or never paid enough attention in past readings to pick up on it.

This is also the book where I fully came to appreciate Rowling’s genius in writing this story. There are things that happen in this book that were foreshadowed several books back, only we as readers had no idea what was to come – but Rowling certainly did! Nothing proves to me more that she is immensely talented than every single word written in this book.

And Harry and Ginny! Cue trumpets and a parade because YAY! There are a lot of fans who thought Rowling got this wrong, who felt that Harry and Hermione should have ended up together, but I am not one of them. I love Harry and Ginny together and seeing it happen was oh so satisfying.

The end of this book is soul-crushingly devastating and I cry every single time I read it. It is terrible, awful, so unbelievably painful and every time I read it, I secretly hope that maybe they’ve changed it and IT doesn’t happen. Yet it always does. But it must be done to further the story and get Harry to the point of such anger and resolve that he knows with absolute certainty what he must do, what is his destiny, and that is exactly where the book ends. And I love it.

Obviously this is in no way a “review” of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And it’s also not a comprehensive list of all of my thoughts (of which I have many more). But you get the general idea of my feelings for it, which is my goal.

Thoughts?

Mini-Reviews: Books Everyone is Talking About

Everything I Never Told YouEverything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Published by Penguin Press

This novel, about a Chinese-American family in the 1970’s, has gotten a LOT of buzz since its publication last summer. In this novel, seventeen-year-old Lydia, the middle child of the Lee family and the favorite child of her parents, has gone missing, and instead of leaning on one another for support, this family, which was already fragile to begin with, basically comes apart at the seams.

I read this for book club, and while I unfortunately could not attend the meeting, I found out the following month that most everyone didn’t like it. I actually disagreed for the most part, I guess I can’t say I “like” a book this depressing, but I thought it was written very excellently and the author really made me feel for these characters. I didn’t like either adult in this family, but all three of the kids broke my heart for different reasons. I really got close with these characters and felt that sense of urgency as the end of the book approached to finally find out exactly what happened to Lydia. While I can’t say I loved Everything I Never Told You, I thought it was a solid piece of fiction, incredibly well-written, and I can see why it has received such high acclaim.

We Are Not OurselvesWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
Published by Simon & Schuster

This is an epic family saga type book – think Wally Lamb but a little quieter – exactly the kind of book that I can really sink my teeth into, get involved with the characters, and come away feeling like I’ve gotten to know and love another family, like I have new friends. We Are Not Ourselves follows Eileen Tumulty, raised in Queens by Irish immigrant parents, from about the age of ten – in the 1950’s – to the present. In that time, she takes care of her alcoholic mother, meets practical scientist Ed and gets married, becomes a nurse, has a son Connell, and basically the reader just follows this family throughout their lives.

It may sound boring but it is far from that. There’s a ton of struggle and strife and the push-pull of a marriage and family here. There’s also a Big Event that happens to this family about three-quarters of the way through the book that changes a lot of the direction of the novel. I thought the writing in this novel was incredible and despite its length, i couldn’t put the book down. I really got involved with these characters, and even though I had a difficult time liking any of them, that seemed not to matter as I just felt for them. They didn’t act the way I would have acted, didn’t see the world how I do, yet I couldn’t help but get them. Does that make sense? Anyway, I thought this book was just as great as everyone says and I highly recommend it!

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins
Published by Riverhead Books

If you haven’t heard about this one, you must be living under a rock. In this novel, Rachel is an alcoholic who is mourning her failed marriage and loss of her job, so she rides the train into London each day as if she were going to work and watches the families as she rides by. She makes up names and stories about one particular couple, and when she reads in the newspaper that the woman has disappeared, she decides to get involved in the investigation.

I totally loved this one. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, they certainly didn’t deserve my compassion, but oh my goodness did Hawkins take me on a wild ride here! I could NOT put this book down (especially the last fifty pages – wow!) and was totally engrossed in the story from start to finish. She totally surprised me with the ending and I am just very impressed with what she did here. And for a debut novel, this is incredibly good. Highly recommended – I get why everyone has been buzzing about this one!

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr. Mercedes (Bill Hodges Trilogy, #1)Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Published by Scribner

From the publisher:

In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.

In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the “perk” and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.

Brady Hartfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again.

Only Bill Hodges, with a couple of highly unlikely allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands.

Would you believe that reading Mr. Mercedes was my first time ever reading Stephen King? And that the only reason I read this book is because of one of my book clubs? Crazy, I know. Yet, true. From what I understand, this is one of King’s tamer, more straightforward novels, which kind of makes me nervous to pick up some of his other stuff (because this isn’t exactly tame stuff), but also very, very curious.

So. I was highly entertained by this novel and am finding myself very impressed with King – I get it. He has an incredible talent for writing characters so flawed, so insane batshit crazy, but that are real people. It’s one of those rare things to find in any genre, and to find it in horror/thriller novels is even more special, I think. So first and foremost, I see his talent and am very interested in picking up more of his books.

What I thought was cool about this book is how you know who the bad guy is the whole time, yet there’s still a thrilling sense of urgency throughout the book – will the good guy find the bad guy and stop him in time? Or will thousands of people die? Obviously you need to read the book to find out, but I was furiously turning pages towards the end, biting my nails like a psycho, just desperate to find out how this whole thing turned out.

What I don’t love about these kinds of books is the fact that I’m really squeamish and when something horrible happens that is described in detail, it runs through my head for hours or days or even weeks after I finish a book. There’s only one scene in here that really did that but oh my GOD can I not get that shit out of my head. So I’m scared that more of King’s books have even MORE of this for me to deal with. Anyway.

I thought this book was super great! I will read more of King, I promise. Where should I start?

Blue Stars by Emily Gray Tedrowe

Blue StarsBlue Stars by Emily Gray Tedrowe
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by Netgalley

From the publisher:

BLUE STARS brings to life the realities of the modern day home front: how to get through the daily challenges of motherhood and holding down a job while bearing the stress and uncertainty of war, when everything can change in an instant. It tells the story of Ellen, a Midwestern literature professor, who is drawn into the war when her legal ward Michael enlists as a Marine; and of Lacey, a proud Army wife who struggles to pay the bills and keep things going for her son while her husband is deployed. Ellen and Lacey cope with the fear and stress of a loved one at war while trying to get by in a society that often ignores or misunderstands what war means to women today. When Michael and Eddie are injured in Iraq, Ellen and Lacey’s lives become intertwined in Walter Reed Army Hospital, where each woman must live while caring for her wounded soldier. They form an alliance, and an unlikely friendship, while helping each other survive the dislocated world of the army hospital. Whether that means fighting for proper care for their men, sharing a six-pack, or coping with irrevocable loss, Ellen and Lacey pool their strengths to make it through. In the end, both women are changed, not only by the war and its fallout, but by each other.

I almost put down this book after fifty pages. It was difficult for me to get into, I didn’t understand where it was going, and I wasn’t connecting with the characters. Had I done so, I would have made a huge mistake because Blue Stars is a truly great book and, although it didn’t have that punch at the beginning, the rest of the novel more than made up for the rocky start.

This is a difficult one for me to review because I found the reading experience very difficult emotionally. What Ellen and Lacey experience in Blue Stars is something that sadly many American families go through on a daily basis – the care and rehabilitation of a family member injured at war. There were many times throughout this novel that I had to pause, calm myself down, and steel myself to finish the chapter – not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because my emotions were just so affected by the story Tedrowe wrote (a story that is fiction but could absolutely be true, and I am sure many families would say IS very close to the truth of their daily lives).

That being said, I think Tedrowe was extremely successful in what I assume she was trying to do – showcase the plight of the families in this situation. Lacey lost her job, her sanity, and contact with most of her family and friends during the time she spent at the military hospital with her husband. And the conditions of this hospital (which have been documented in many news stories, you can Google Walter Reed to find out more) were beyond deplorable. She went from a very comfortable and mostly peaceful life to living in squalor, married to a man she could no longer recognize, with no idea how to pay for her next meal, much less the bills that were piling up back at home. Oh, and she quickly spiraled into alcoholism while all of this was going on. To put it mildly, she broke my heart. I cannot imagine how unbearable this life is for those who experience it in the real world. So, so hard.

I connected with Ellen much less than I did with Lacey, but that’s not to say her story is any less important or impactful than Lacey’s – it’s just different. What I loved about the two of them is how they were able to rely on one another in this incredibly stressful and overwhelming situation – when all else failed, they had each other. Their friendship was a beautiful story in itself and a joy to read about.

I wish I could tell you a lot more about this book but honestly, just read it. It really did have a huge impact on me emotionally and I had to take some time after finishing it before picking up my next read. Highly recommended.

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!