Posted in Book Reviews

Final Five Books of 2017

If you had hope, maybe you could find a way to make things change. Because if you thought about it, there were so many reasons to try.
-Gregor and the Code of Claw
Sooooo it’s been a hot minute since I posted one of these, but now that I’ve FINALLY posted my all-inclusive series review on Harry Potter, I feel free to make these posts again. Enjoy!

*SPOILER!* I may include some of the book’s plot/content in my reviews for them, so if you haven’t read one or more of these yet and want to read it without spoilers, then you can just skip down. *

11. * Gregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins – The final and best novel in the Underland Chronicles. I read this during our first week-long vacation to Holden Beach, so I have some pretty fond memories of feeling the feels while water lapped at my feet, sand in between my toes. Gregor is just such an amazing, three-dimensional, heroic and compassionate character. It was hard to say goodbye to him! Click here to read my official review on this series as a whole.

12. * The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson – This is a classic in our family. We listen to the audiobook every couple of years just to have a good laugh. One thing I noticed in this most recent listen is how heartwarming the story is, as well as hilarious. And how the main character, by seeing the Christmas Story through the fresh eyes of the Herdmans, gets a new appreciation for Jesus’ birth, too. I think we all need a reminder every once in a while of just how amazing and special it is that our God would come down to us in the form of a baby, placed in a manger.

13. * Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – I finally read Harry Potter for the first time! I read this one over Christmas break. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as I thought it would be, so at first I was disappointed and a little bored by the slow pace, but I enjoyed the climax and resolution enough to decide to continue. SO glad I did! Click here to read my review on the series as a whole.

* Books that I highly recommend have a * next to them

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Posted in Book Reviews, The Ponderings of Life

Why I Love Harry Potter – A Conservative Christian’s Perspective

Six months ago, having worked slowly through all seven books over the course of a little more than a year, I finished reading the last book in the Harry Potter series for the first time. I laid down Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, my eyes a little crossed and blurry from having read half of the 750+ page book over the past three days. Then I went downstairs and flopped on the couch in our living room, moaning.

It was over. I’d spent over a year in the mind of Harry—growing up with him, fighting evil by his side and hanging out with Ron and Hermione. To have all of those experiences suddenly ripped from my fingertips as I turned the last page was unlike anything I’ve ever felt. All the journeys I’d taken with Harry, physically and emotionally, were over. Done.

But what’s truly amazing about the emotions I felt in finishing this series is that there was a time I’d told myself I’d never, ever read Harry Potter.

So, let’s backtrack a little bit. Growing up, series like The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Divergent and especially Harry Potter were on everyone’s tongues. In middle school, these were the only books (it seemed) that kids my age were reading. But I didn’t read them. Having been raised in a conservative, homeschooling family, there were many aspects at work here. On the one hand, my tastes were different than my friends’. While they read these more fast-paced stories, I tended to read slower-paced stories. I read a lot of historical fiction and quite a few classics growing up. These were the books that interested me. On the other hand, while my parents never made an official list of the books we could or couldn’t read, they wanted us to be careful and discerning of the books we picked up. I think we were wary of Harry Potter as a family, not just as individuals. So I didn’t read it. Simple as that.

Then I turned eighteen and graduated from high school. One of my friends, who also loved historical fiction, could not stop raving about The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, both of which she’d read in her later teens. As an adult, my parents made it clear that I no longer needed their permission to read something. I could make the decision on my own. So I decided to give these more “popular” books a try. I read The Hunger Games first. You can check out my review on it to see what I have to say, but I’ll go ahead and give you a hint: I loved it. Next on my list was Harry Potter.

While my family in particular didn’t have a strong stance on Harry Potter in either direction, lots of people around me did. I heard both sides and honestly, I didn’t have a formal opinion. It didn’t seem like either side had it completely right. The only thing to do was to read it for myself and find out.

I was twenty when I started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I wasn’t hooked right away, but I was intrigued. So I read the second book and enjoyed it more than the first, which had been pretty slow. Then I just kept reading and by the time I was on either the fourth or the fifth book, I was a fan. While reading book 6, I started buying the series, even though I hadn’t finished it yet. By book 7, I was changed. In more ways than one, Harry Potter changed me.

I think the biggest argument conservative Christians have is about the magic. Because the kids are witches and wizards and they have wands and use spells. I don’t want to belittle this argument because I think it does them credit to be concerned. It’s clear in the Bible that witchcraft is of the devil and there are people today who do mess with dark magic and it’s a very real, very scary thing. My big BUT is that in Harry Potter, the magic is not real. J.K. Rowling created a world, created its rules and spells, created its magic—it’s fictitious. I’m not an expert on this topic and I don’t pretend to be, but throughout the entire series, not only is it clear that this is a made-up world, it’s also clear that there’s good magic and bad magic. There are certain spells that only the bad witches and wizards use and the good witches and wizards would never use them (unless in a complicated situation). Ultimately, it is up to your own conscience whether you feel comfortable reading a book with witches and wizards and spells in it. All I can say is that my conscience was clear, so I had no qualms in reading this series. And because I was able to give Harry Potter a chance and read it with an open mind, I was able to discover some amazing themes within the books.

Friendship. “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.” – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

How do I begin? From whispering to each other during Potions, to Hermione doing their homework for Harry and Ron, to arguing over petty things, to writing letters to each other over the summers, to visiting Hagrid’s together, to defending each other from Draco, to fighting against Voldemort together; yet these instances only scratch the surface of all Harry, Hermione and Ron did with each other, for each other and meant to each other. Through thick and thin, through the good and the bad, their arms were linked, their futures connected. Maybe it’s just because I spent 3,363 pages with this trio, but I do believe these three friends have the strongest bond of any other group of friends I’ve ever read (with the possible exception of Lord of the Rings, but I think that’s a given).

Dumbledore. “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry lost his parents when he was only one year old. And while Lupin and Sirius each attempt to fill this hole in Harry’s life in their own ways, I think the real father figure to Harry is Dumbledore. From day one, Dumbledore takes Harry under his wing, gives him advice, helps him grow up, challenges him and finally, let’s Harry come alongside him in the final battles. Harry has great respect for this unpredictable, wise and compassionate man and hates to disappoint him. While Harry just wants to be a normal boy, Dumbledore sees his potential for more. And while Dumbledore acts like he’s just talking to Harry as a professor would to a student, they both know that Dumbledore couldn’t have loved Harry more if he was his father. Their relationship was one of my favorites to watch unfold.

Voldemort. Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.” – Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

At first, Voldemort was just the reason Harry is called the Boy Who Lived. Slowly, as the books progress and we learn about his past, his motivations, his desires, not only does he seem more interesting, he becomes more and more threatening and terrifying. There are so many parallels to Voldemort’s life and actions and Harry’s life and actions. There’s something so similar and yet so strikingly different about them. And ultimately, it is love, in all its diversities, that separates them. Harry, alive because of love and living for love, and Voldemort, not valuing life because of his complete lack of understanding of love.

Harry. “It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.” … “I have known, for some time now, that you are the better man.” -Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

As cliché as it might sound, Harry is my favorite character in the series. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got mad love for Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, Mrs. Weasley, Ginny, Lupin, Sirius…you get the idea. But Harry truly is my favorite. Why? If you’ve read even one of my book reviews, you know I have a thing for character development. Now, the thing with Harry is that he starts the series at 11 and finishes at 17, so there is a natural growing up we get to watch happen. We watch him go from ignorant little boy to angsty teenager to a young man grappling with serious events and their consequences. And yet, as similar as Harry and Ron might be in their manner of jokes and interests, Harry didn’t have a normal childhood like Ron did. He’s different. Having been orphaned at one, he was raised by an aunt and uncle who verbally abused him and treated him like trash. Even in the last book, there was a moment where I realized that Harry, though 17, is still just an orphan who wants a family—a real, loving family—more than anything in the world. But at the same time, he’s used to being alone. And having encountered Voldemort at 11 and again and again throughout his years at Hogwarts, he’s also used to being in danger. Therefore, while Ron and Hermione would do anything for him, at the end of the seventh book, Harry must face Voldemort alone. He knows what’s at stake. He knows it began with him and Voldemort and that’s where it will end, even if he doesn’t know exactly how. And it’s then, all on his own, that he must decide what the point of this life is.

Throughout his short life, what has Harry learned matters—really matters?

Family. Friends. Life. Love. In the end, he decided that all these things were more important than even himself. Something Voldemort would never—could never—understand.

“You’ll stay with me?”

“Until the very end.” – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

All the reasons I gave above for loving Harry Potter describes only some of what I felt when I turned the last page six months ago. So, going back to what I mentioned earlier, how has Harry Potter changed me? I think the main answer to that question is this: I wouldn’t have rooted for Harry, bonded with him, Ron and Hermione, been horrified at Voldemort’s actions, or been moved by the love and sacrifices of so many different characters if I hadn’t read this series. Because I realized I had signed off this series because of what other people were saying instead of picking it up and deciding for myself. I very well could have strongly disliked this series. It could have been everything people were saying it was and if so, that would have disturbed me to the point of not finishing it, I’m sure.

But this distorted view people have of Harry Potter isn’t real. I know because I once held that view in some mild way as well. Well, I don’t anymore.

As a conservative Christian, Harry Potter only reminded me of how much love there still is in the world, how light will always shine in the darkness and how good will always conquer evil. And how some things—some people—are more important than oneself. This—this is why I love Harry Potter.

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Posted in Book Reviews

Second Five Books of 2017

“Lantern-shine, dim but kind—
No starkness in darkness—
Even I please the eye.
Outside, wind and rain,
Weather’s fitful wax and wane.
Tomorrow’s sun will reveal
What night conceals.
All we lack, regret, know,
Forgotten in lamp-oil glow.”
-The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre

*SPOILER!* I may include some of the book’s plot/content in my reviews for them, so if you haven’t read one or more of these yet and want to read it without spoilers, then you can just skip down. *

6. * Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane by Suzanne Collins – Click here to read how I feel about the Underland Chronicles as a whole (hint: it’s pretty positive!).

7. * The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – I will admit that I’m biased because Gail Carson Levine is one of my favorite authors EVER, but this is one of her best books. A retelling of Rapunzel and prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre (my favorite book of hers after Ella Enchanted), the first half of this book was just perfect. I could not put it down and I don’t say that often. I loved the tension between Perry and her adopted parents and blood-related sister, her sweet and tender relationship with Willem and her desire to conquer her kingdom’s prejudice. She is probably one of Levine’s best main characters. That said, the book took a turn about halfway through and the tone of the novel changed. While the new plotline was fascinating and interesting, it just didn’t feel like the same book anymore. Overall, I liked the climax and resolution and I appreciated the angle Levine took on prejudice and its affects. But I finished it slightly dissatisfied. However, now that some time has passed, I find myself remembering bits and pieces of the story and feeling warmth at the memories. I think it has a special place in my heart and now that my expectations are properly set, I have a feeling I would enjoy it much more on a re-read. The reason I now think it’s one of her best books is because of the clear message it sends about prejudice and the steps needed to overcome it. In that sense, it’s very powerful and relatable.

8. Stolen Magic by Gail Carson Levine – Sadly, my praise is not as high for this novel as it was for The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. A sequel to A Tale of Two Castles (which I loved!), it’s overall: underwhelming. There is a mystery, but it’s not nearly as compelling as the mystery in A Tale of Two Castles. And in the sequel, Elodie has little to no internal conflict, therefore, no room for character development. The most character development happened in minor characters whose perspectives we were in occasionally, but not nearly enough. By the time the book ended, the story and characters themselves hadn’t really progressed, which never happens in a Levine novel. Her character developments are usually some of my favorites! I have read in her blog, though, that she really struggled with this story and even she wasn’t satisfied with it, so I like to give her grace considering she’s written several of my favorite books. We can’t win them all.

9. * Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods by Suzanne Collins – Click here to read how I felt about this series as a whole (hint: this is when the series takes a turn and I read the last two books so quickly to find out what happens next. I couldn’t read fast enough!).

10. * Gregor and the Marks of Secret by Suzanne Collins – Click here to read how I felt about this series as a whole (hint: ugh, it gets better and better!).

* Books that I highly recommend have a * next to them

Posted in Book Reviews

First Five Books of 2017

“You see, I tired of constant fear, so I made a decision. Every day when I wake I tell myself that it will be my last. If you are not trying to hold on to time, you are not so afraid of losing it.”

-Gregor the Overlander

Happy New Year, my fellow book lovers! It’s been a good long while since I’ve posted one of these and now that it’s 2019, I felt like it was time to review the books I read in 2017. 😉 Hoping to post these reviews this month in preparation for posting about the books I read in 2018 throughout the rest of this year.

*SPOILER!* I may include some of the book’s plot/content in my reviews for them, so if you haven’t read one or more of these yet and want to read it without spoilers, then you can just skip down. *

  1. Don’t You Know There’s a War On? by Avi – I’ve read a few books of Avi’s in the past (my favorite being Sophia’s War) and he’s an excellent storyteller. As for this one, I listened to on audiobook on the way to and from work. It’s about a young boy who believes his principal is a Nazi spy trying to get rid of Howie’s favorite schoolteacher, Miss Gossim. While Howie was immediately likable and I loved the constant reminder adults gave him throughout the book (“Howie, don’t you know there’s a war on?”), honestly, this book was a little odd. Granted, I think Avi’s books always hold an aspect of strangeness, but this one in particular didn’t work for me. If I recall correctly, it turns out Miss Gossim is pregnant and I’m pretty sure that’s why she’s fired. Her fiancé of sorts is off fighting in the war, but he either dies or Miss Gossim doesn’t believe he’s coming back. So despite Howie’s efforts to make her stay, she ends up moving away. The reason this all seemed off to me was, of course, that strange sort of admiration/love 5th grade Howie has for his teacher as well as the fact that she ended up confiding in him things that really shouldn’t be discussed with children. And then we never find out what exactly happened to her. So by the time the book ended, I was confused as the point of the story.
  2. The Healer’s Apprentice by Melanie Dickerson – This is a sappy retelling of Sleeping Beauty set in 14th century Germany. While I loved the interesting setting, vocabulary and clothing, the actual plot was slow, the romance was unrealistic and cheesy and the ending was slightly underwhelming. I read it because Melanie Dickerson wrote all these fairy tale retellings as part of a series that end up intertwining, which sounds so awesome, but so far haven’t found it worth it to try the other books in the series.
  3. * Making Sense of Your World by W. Gary Phillips, William E. Brown and John Stonestreet – I read this book for a class called Comparative Worldviews. It basically goes over the major worldviews out there and how each lines up with Christianity. It really helped me not only define each worldview, but discover what it is about each one that shows its lack of truth.
  4. * Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins – Click here to read how I feel about the Underland Chronicles as a whole. (hint: it’s very positive!)
  5. * 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith – After listening to Don’t You Know There’s War On?, I listened to this audiobook in the car on my way to and from work. Smith wrote the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which I’ve read a few of, and his characters are just so charming, you can’t help but wish you lived in Botswana, too. 44 Scotland Street is much different as it takes place in Scotland and the main characters are, in my opinion, not half as charming. And it’s not to say it isn’t well written. I just think the setting of Scotland Street, while enjoyable, just can’t hold that same unique charm as the setting of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. While I enjoyed listening to the story (it was really different as it was originally written as a serial), there were a few characters I just didn’t care for and I feel like we spent too much time in their worlds. Needless to say, I really want to read the next book and see what happens to the characters I do like.

* Books that I highly recommend have a * next to them

Posted in Book Reviews

Highlight: When Christmas Comes Again by Beth Seidel Levine

And the 12 Days of Christmas Books tour continues! We are halfway through this fun Literature Approved event and I’m so, so excited to share my second (and last) review for the tour. The Christmas book I chose to review this time is When Christmas Comes Again, one of my favorite books from one of my favorite middle grade series–Dear America.

I love this book for many reasons…but before I start ranting and get ahead of myself, you can find out for yourself below!

This book is part of the Dear America series, a middle grade historical fiction series near and dear to my heart. I hope to review many Dear Americas in the future, but I’m excited that my first one happens to be one of my all-time favorites!

When Christmas Comes Again by Beth Seidel Levine is one of the few (if not the only) Dear America about a seventeen-year-old girl. Most of the Dear America heroines are between twelve and fourteen years old, so you can imagine my excitement when I was finally the exact same age as the main character. Therefore, Simone’s questions about her future and her meaning in life are very relatable as I asked myself similar questions at that age. Also, Simone’s family is French and as I am French-Canadian, I loved the bits of French language and references throughout the diary.

Click here to finish reading my review! And when you’re finished, check out the other Christmas books Rayleigh has reviewed this week of various genres. These posts are a fun ride you want to be on!

Contributor Reviewer