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.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling – Reread for HP Readalong

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter, #3)This is the point in Sheila’s Harry Potter Readalong that I was VERY excited to get to. For me, book three is where things really start to pick up and where the books move from being very children’s book-ish to more young adult, dealing with more difficult, adult themes and darker stuff. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban isn’t my favorite in the series, but it’s the gateway to what I really love about the Harry Potter world – the complexities of the relationships between these people, the history that took place before Harry was even born, and everything that led up to Voldemort’s coming back.

I don’t have a ton of new or exciting thoughts on this book, however. This book, to me, is more of a segue into the longer and more complicated last four books. It’s kind of in-between in my opinion. I know that I didn’t love Sirius Black when I read the book the first time, and now that I’ve read the series several times I can look back at this book as that innocent time in Harry’s life before he knew the truth of things and it’s just so CUTE how scared he (and everyone else) was of Sirius! I found the squabbling between Ron and Hermione just as annoying as I did the first several times I read this book, but I guess they’re baby teenagers (thirteen I think) so … hormones? I remember thinking the end of the book was so very complicated with the time-turner and the secrets the characters were keeping coming to light, but really it’s not all that complex once you get what’s going on.

I love this book! Even though I don’t have a lot to say about it, it’s a hugely important book in the series and it really advances the story. I’ve already started Goblet of Fire and WOW that book is longer than I remembered it being. But yay Harry Potter! :)

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

The Impossible Knife of MemoryThe Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
Published by Viking Juvenile

From the publisher:

For the past five years, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own.

Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over? The Impossible Knife of Memory is Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest: compelling, surprising, and impossible to put down.

Everything I have read by Laurie Halse Anderson has been incredible, and this book is no different. She writes with such unflinching honesty and creates characters who are so damaged and raw, characters you get mad at but want to hug all at the same time.

In this case, Hayley is damaged and raw, yes, but she is also a child and is keeping her shit together pretty well for a teenager tasked with the enormous responsibility of taking care of her mentally ill father. I just wanted to shake Andy – couldn’t he see what he was putting his daughter through? The answer is, unfortunately, no he couldn’t see it, not through the haze of his PTSD and resulting self-medication through alcohol. I felt deeply for him, but ultimately I just wanted him to get help and get back into the real world so that Hayley could attempt some semblance of a normal teenage existence.

I liked Finn a lot, and I definitely liked him and Hayley together, but honestly he was secondary to the story of Hayley and her dad for me. I think the book could have been just as good without him in it. Not that he took anything away from the story (really it’s a perfect book, in my opinion), but all I’m saying is the romance itself wasn’t absolutely necessary and the book would have been phenomenal either way.

It’s terrible what happens to the men and women in our military upon returning home. They go through unimaginable mental and emotional trauma (not to mention the physical trauma) when fighting a war, and when they come home they are expected to carry on as if nothing happened, as if their bodies and minds aren’t irreparably changed, mostly for the worse. And the level of pride and self-reliance that the military instills in them makes it very difficult for those suffering from PTSD, addiction, and other mental and emotional issues to get the help that would truly make a difference in their lives. The level to which Anderson portrayed this very real problem in her novel is excellent. The Impossible Knife of Memory is an important book, and it’s one I won’t soon forget. Please read it.

Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts

Zac and MiaZac and Mia by A.J. Betts
Published by Text Publishing
Review copy provided by NetGalley

From the publisher:

The last person Zac expects in the room next door is a girl like Mia, angry and feisty with questionable taste in music. In the real world, he wouldn’t—couldn’t—be friends with her. In hospital different rules apply, and what begins as a knock on the wall leads to a note—then a friendship neither of them sees coming.

You need courage to be in hospital; different courage to be back in the real world. In one of these worlds Zac needs Mia. And in the other Mia needs Zac. Or maybe they both need each other, always.

I have very little to say about this book because, while I thought it was cute and I liked the characters okay, the thought that it felt like a copycat of The Fault In Our Stars wouldn’t stop nagging at me. While that’s annoying, because Zac and Mia is its own book with unique characteristics and merits of its own, it just kept being too close to the other novel I mentioned. And unfortunately, it was close in the way that it came in as an overwhelmingly clear second fiddle to that other book.

If you haven’t read the John Green novel I mentioned, then Zac and Mia might work better for you. If you have, I’d caution you to tamper your expectations of this one. That being said, these characters are different and likable and the story moves along smoothly. So I did like it. But … what I said about it being a copycat is what I can’t get over. So that’s about all I can say about this one.

In the Age of Love and Chocolate by Gabrielle Zevin

In the Age of Love and Chocolate (Birthright, #3)In the Age of Love and Chocolate by Gabrielle Zevin
Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

From the publisher:

All These Things I’ve Done, the first novel in the Birthright series, introduced us to timeless heroine Anya Balanchine, a plucky sixteen year old with the heart of a girl and the responsibilities of a grown woman. Now eighteen, life has been more bitter than sweet for Anya. She has lost her parents and her grandmother, and has spent the better part of her high school years in trouble with the law. Perhaps hardest of all, her decision to open a nightclub with her old nemesis Charles Delacroix has cost Anya her relationship with Win.

Still, it is Anya’s nature to soldier on. She puts the loss of Win behind her and focuses on her work. Against the odds, the nightclub becomes an enormous success, and Anya feels like she is on her way and that nothing will ever go wrong for her again. But after a terrible misjudgment leaves Anya fighting for her life, she is forced to reckon with her choices and to let people help her for the first time in her life.

It’s really hard to talk about a conclusion of a series to people who may or may not have read the rest of the series. So instead, what I’ll do is recommend that you pick up this awesome YA series, beginning with All These Things I’ve Done.

In these books, Zevin imagines a world only about 75 years from now where chocolate and coffee are illegal. Anya Balanchine is our main character, a plucky, smart, and determined teenager who is dedicated to her family and will do anything to protect those she loves. Oh, and she’s the daughter of a major player in organized crime – her family is in the illegal chocolate business.

There are so many things about this series I loved, and I’m happy to say that the conclusion to it was almost perfect.

Please read these books! They are awesome.

Torn Away by Jennifer Brown

Torn AwayTorn Away by Jennifer Brown
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

From the publisher:

Jersey Cameron has always loved a good storm. Watching the clouds roll in and the wind pick up. Smelling the electricity in the air. Dancing barefoot in the rain. She lives in the Midwest, after all, where the weather is sure to keep you guessing. Jersey knows what to do when the tornado sirens sound. But she never could have prepared for this.

When her town is devastated by a tornado, Jersey loses everything. As she struggles to overcome her grief, she’s sent to live with relatives she hardly knows-family who might as well be strangers. In an unfamiliar place, can Jersey discover that even on the darkest of days, there are some things no tornado can destroy?

I was a huge fan of Jennifer Brown’s first two novels for teens, Hate List and Bitter End, but she’s written several since that I haven’t read, so I was excited to dive back into her work with Torn Away. Let me tell you, this book left me an emotional wreck. From beginning to end, I held Jersey close to my heart and what happens to her in this novel is beyond devastating. I read this book in one sitting and I pretty much sobbed throughout the entire second half.

The thing about Torn Away is that the book starts with this tornado, almost from the very first page. The reader gets to know about Jersey’s life before the tornado through flashbacks and her describing things for the reader – so really, the whole book is just Jersey and what she’s going through, you don’t have much time to get to know other characters. So it’s next to impossible NOT to let this one character take over the reader’s whole heart as the story goes on.

What happens to Jersey is beyond heartbreaking. Not only does she lose her family, home, friends, everything to this tornado, but the one person left in her life (her stepfather) ends up sending her away to her biological father’s family – a family she’s never even met, let alone is close enough to where she’d want to live with them. This family is AWFUL. I cried the entire way through Jersey’s time with these people, I just could not get how it was possible to treat another person, your FAMILY member at that, so horribly. 

Oh, and about Jersey’s stepfather? Yes, he lost everything too, but my goodness what a selfish man he was. It was just truly sad to read how he basically refused to take care of her and passed her off to whoever would take her. So, so sad. 

Ultimately Jersey does end up with people who love her and her story is one of hope and resilience against the most difficult of odds. I was satisfied with the ending, after feeling so deeply for Jersey I was desperate for her to find the love and home she needed. This is an emotionally difficult read, but it’s so worth it. Jersey will crawl into your heart and stay there, and she’s not a character I’ll soon forget. Highly recommended.