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!

Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Athiests edited by Victoria Zackheim

Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Athiests edited by Victoria Zackheim
Published by Beyond Words Publishing
Review copy provided by Netgalley

Twenty-four authors share their perspectives on faith in this diverse collection of essays. Zackheim chooses essays about having faith in God, losing faith, having faith that there is no God, and everything in the middle. Most people interested in the subject of faith will find something to take from this collection.

The writing in this essay collection is great. Zackheim clearly pulled out all the stops to get some authors who would contribute truly thoughtful, interesting, and beautifully written pieces. Of course I was more drawn to some of the essays than others (as is typical with any essay or even short story collection) but overall I found something to think about in each one, which is a success in my book.

Oddly enough, the essays that appealed to me the most were those from atheists and agnostics. I guess I never thought of atheism or agnosticism as a faith-based position, to me before reading this collection both those things mean the absence of faith. But I was surprised to find myself nodding along with a lot of what was explained in those essays – many of the authors have faith in their beliefs, too. Just because their belief is that my God doesn’t exist doesn’t make it any less valid of a belief. I think this would be a valuable read for any Christian who finds him/herself having difficulty understanding and/or dealing with atheists and agnostics in their lives. I personally learned a lot and found myself coming to a deeper understanding of what it really means to be atheist or agnostic.

I was most disappointed by the fact that there was nothing in here from people who believe in non-Western religions. I wanted to read not only about Christianity and Judaism, but about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, anything other than my own religion. I didn’t find much of that, which was really disappointing in a book that was supposed to be about all kinds of faith (at least, that’s what I was expecting).

I liked this collection a lot but the absence of a lot of world religions made me ultimately not as excited about it as I wanted to be. It’s worth a read, though, and the essays really are very well thought-out and beautifully written.

Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home by Laura Ling and Lisa Ling

Somewhere Inside: One Sister's Captivity in North Korea and the Other's Fight to Bring Her HomeSomewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home by Laura Ling and Lisa Ling
Published by William Morrow

From the publisher:

On March 17, 2009, Laura Ling and her colleague Euna Lee were working on a documentary about North Korean defectors who were fleeing the desperate conditions in their homeland. While filming on the Chinese–North Korean border, they were chased down by North Korean soldiers who violently apprehended them. Laura and Euna were charged with trespassing and “hostile acts,” and imprisoned by Kim Jong Il’s notoriously secretive Communist state. Kept totally apart, they endured months of interrogations and eventually a trial before North Korea’s highest court. They were the first Americans ever to be sentenced to twelve years of hard labor in a prison camp in North Korea.

When news of the arrest reached Laura’s sister, journalist Lisa Ling, she immediately began a campaign to get her sister released, one that led her from the State Department to the higher echelons of the media world and eventually to the White House.

Somewhere Inside reveals for the first time Laura’s gripping account of what really happened on the river, her treatment at the hands of North Korean guards, and the deprivations and rounds of harrowing interrogations she endured. She speaks movingly about the emotional toll inflicted on her by her incarceration, including the measures she took to protect her sources and her fears that she might never see her family again.

Lisa writes about her unrelenting efforts to secure Laura and Euna’s release. Offering insights into the vast media campaign spearheaded on the women’s behalf, Lisa also takes us deep into the drama involving people at the highest levels of government, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, Senator John Kerry, and Governor Bill Richardson—intense discussions that entailed strategically balancing the agendas and good intentions of the various players. She also describes her role in the back-and-forth between North Korea’s demands and the dramatic rescue by former President Bill Clinton.

Though they were thousands of miles apart while Laura was in captivity, the Ling sisters’ relationship became a way for the reclusive North Korean government to send messages to the United States government, which helped lead to Laura and Euna’s eventual release.

I’ve been on a bit of a North Korea kick lately – seriously guys, I am fascinated by this dark and terrifying place – and when a blogger reminded me about this book, I knew I had to read it. I am a huge fan of Lisa Ling – I think her journalism is smart and brave, and I truly admire her for the stories and truths she’s been able to bring to the public eye – and while I was less familiar with her sister Laura, I was still very interested in this harrowing story.

Somewhere Inside was everything I expected. What Laura Ling experienced was truly terrifying, and something that just shouldn’t happen in this world. She literally stepped a FOOT onto North Korean soil (which, she admits, was a huge mistake) and was immediately arrested and brought to a North Korean jail for months. What she experienced was atrocious and scary and almost unbelievable. But the most unbelievable part, to me, is that compared to actual prisoners in North Korea (non-famous ones), she was treated exceptionally well. She was fed regular meals, allowed to receive letters and a few packages from home, given an English translator so she could understand what was said to her, and guarded twenty-four hours a day by two women whose company she actually ended up enjoying. Her extraordinary ordeal was nothing close to paradise, but even she admits as she reflects upon her time there that it could have been much, much worse.

Lisa Ling’s story is almost as terrifying as her sister’s, just because there were so many unknowns in her situation. She is an incredibly famous person with a lot of political connections, but even she had extreme difficulty securing her sister’s safety – and came very close to not doing so at all. She had to walk on eggshells for this entire time in fear that she could do one wrong thing and they would execute her sister. She had to rally every single political figure she could think of (including President Barack Obama) on just the slightest chance that one of them would have enough pull with the North Korean government to get something accomplished. And she had to do all this while reassuring the rest of her family that somehow she would be able to get it done.

Like all of the other books I’ve read about North Korea, Somewhere Inside serves as a reminder of how horrific the regime in North Korea is. There are no words to describe how closed, strange, oppressive, terrifying this society truly is. If nothing else, this book will remind you of how lucky you are to live anywhere but there.

I would be remiss not to mention that, of course, this book is written exceptionally well. Two journalists coming together can obviously put together a coherent and well-written memoir, but these sisters really did an excellent job.

Highly recommended!

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!

The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness by Liza Long

The Price of Silence: A Mom's Perspective on Mental IllnessThe Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness by Liza Long
Published by Hudson Street Press

From the publisher:

Liza Long is the mother of a child with an undiagnosed mental disorder. When she heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, her first thought was, What if my son does that someday? She wrote an emotional response to the tragedy, which the Boise State University online journal posted as I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother. The post went viral, receiving 1.2 million Facebook likes, nearly 17,000 tweets, and 30,000 emails.

Now, in “The Price of Silence “she takes a devastating look at how we address mental illness, especially in children, who are funneled through a system of education, mental health care, and juvenile detention that leads far too often to prison. In the end she asks one central question: if there’s a poster child for cancer, why can’t there be one for mental illness? The answer: the stigma. Liza Long is speaking in a way that we cannot help but hear, and she won’t stop until something changes.”

I wanted to read this book because I, like most people in the country, am saddened and shocked by the school shootings that have happened over the last fifteen or so years, and my background in psychology has me absolutely convinced that mental illness is the culprit for most (if not all) of these horrific acts. I am not a mother, but I cannot imagine what it might be like to be a parent of a child that chooses a crime like this, and I was interested to hear from the point of view of a mother who believes – as Long does – that her child is capable of something like this, if not under proper medical care.

It’s clear from the very beginning of Long’s book that she is one hundred percent devoted to her children and would do absolutely anything to ensure that they get the love, attention, and proper medical care they need and deserve. In addition to her son who has mental illness (she calls him Michael in this book, though that’s not his real name), she has a son older than him and a younger daughter and son. In addition to being a full-time working mother, she is also divorced from the childrens’ father. To say that her life is overwhelming is an understatement. When she describes dealing with Michael’s terrifying rages and tantrums, threats and physical altercations, it’s almost too much to comprehend.

What was most enlightening to me about The Price of Silence, and I think a lot of readers will agree, is just how backwards and unhelpful the mental health system in the United States truly is. Long describes a world in which it’s better for a mentally ill child to go to jail than be subject to whatever psychological help her insurance will pay for (usually none). She describes a life in which she takes her son to doctor after doctor and is told time and time again that he’s just being a boy and that hitting, screaming, and terrorizing his younger sister are normal behaviors for a child his age. She describes a world in which being white and middle class puts you at a distinct advantage in the mental health care your family can receive, but even that care is paltry at best – so what about the rest of America, the ones who don’t fall into that space of privilege?

I think that Long is incredibly brave for writing this book and I definitely think it’s a necessary contribution to the body of work on this topic. Since I applaud her so sincerely for her courage in writing about her family and her son so candidly, I don’t want to say much that’s negative about the book but I also have to be honest. I found some of the book to be redundant and it seemed like (at times) she kept repeating the same message over and over again. I also wasn’t wowed by the style of writing – I kept reading it because the information itself was fascinating, not because I was particularly compelled by the way that information was presented.

That being said, however, I do recommend The Price of Silence to everyone. It’s important to at least hear the voice of someone else before you begin judging them. I know parents with unruly children are judged instantly – maybe people should stop and think that perhaps that child has something deeper going on than just bad parenting. If nothing else, this book reminded me that you never know what someone is going through until you hear it from them, until you walk in their shoes. And of course, having an untreated mental illness is in no way an excuse for committing unimaginable crimes, but it is important to understand that there’s usually more to those criminals than simply being horrible people. They are usually suffering immensely before making the devastating choice to retaliate with violence. Anyway, The Price of Silence is good! It’s a very important book and I think you should read it.

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!