Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

hp4Gah! It’s been so long since I’ve finished a book. The problem lies in choosing to read a book I was super excited about, having it be the only book I brought on vacation, not being really into it. When we got back from vacation I picked up HP because the time was right having just spent two days at Universal Studios immersed in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. My slow book didn’t stand a chance against HP. So, I know I keep saying this as I am rereading this series, but I’m really really enjoying this. Possibly more than the first time? I love reading the books so much more closely together than as published because this time I’m really appreciating the story arc, the momentum, the turn towards the dark, and I’m feeling very caught up in it without having forgotten any prior details. It’s also fun to read them after we see the movies because the movie leaves out so much of the book that it’s like the movie is an exciting teaser for the full story. [I'll probably switch to just reading the books now because I don't think our kids are up for watching #5 yet, but I don't want to wait to read it.]

As a reminder, this one is the one with Cedric Diggory, the tri-wizard tournament, and the ultimate return of Voldemort, leaving the ending one filled with the threat of impending danger, battle, and sides being drawn. The Malfoys are proven to be aligned with the Dark Lord, Snape continues to confound, and the Weasleys are becoming more prominent characters. Also, Ron, Hermione, and Harry are aware of boys and girls now and thus the beginnings of romantic and confusing feelings.

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

belzharI could not WAIT to read this book. All I needed to read of the description was “boarding school for highly intelligent emotionally fragile teens” and I immediately placed myself #1 on the hold list. In fact, I didn’t even read more of the description than that so I could enjoy just letting the story unfold and surprise me. (if you like that experience you can take my word that it’s great and stop reading this review now, otherwise read on and I will give away a few details.) Let me say that I loved The Interestings, but have not been very interested (sometimes actively disinterested) in Meg Wolitzer’s other novels. But really, she is a terrific writer.

Jam (short for Jamaica) is very sad and unable to interact well with the world ever since her boyfriend died. Finally her parents send her to this boarding school, The Wooden Barn, in Vermont that specializes in teens who have had troubles.  When she arrives she finds out that she has been assigned to the mysterious “Special Topics in English” class. Her roommate tells her no one ever gets into it who applies, they only study one author, and all the students claim it changes their lives buy won’t say why. It turns out that Jam is in the class with 4 other kids and they can’t figure out what they have in common. Their teacher tells them are going to study Sylvia Plath (and only Plath) for the entire semester. In addition to other work they receive leather journals that the are required to write in. The teacher tells them she won’t read the journals, but will collect them at the end of the semester and never return them.  She also asks that the students care for and look out for one another.  It’s hard for Jam to see that happening because she’s so wrapped up in her grief and doesn’t want to make friends. But then they all write in their journals and something happens that does bind them all together.

I loved the supernatural/mysterious element of this book. I loved the surprises, the emotions, the construction of it. It was all around terrific. And I’ll be honest-I also appreciated that it wasn’t 500 pages and was a fairly quick read, very engrossing, but not dragged out.
I want to call out one bit of the book that I loved and am sure is Meg Wolitzer’s own voice coming through and to it I say, “right on sister! I totally agree and love it that you call this out so specifically.” Near the end, when Jam has had her life changing semester, she says:

“People are always saying these things about how there’s no need to read literature anymore–that it won’t help the world. Everyone should apparently learn to speak Mandarin, and learn how to write code for computers.  More young people should go into STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math.  And that all sounds true and reasonable. But you can’t say that what you learn in English class doesn’t matter. That great writing doesn’t make a difference….Words matter.  This is what Mrs. Q has basically been saying from the start. Words matter.  All semester, we were looking for the words to say what we needed to say. We were all looking for our voice.”

Words and stories do matter. They are worth studying, enjoying, interpreting, internalizing, and more.

Oh My Stars by Lorna Landvik

starsI honestly don’t know whether or not I’ve read this book before. I may have-I really liked Landvik for a period of time and was happy to rediscover her. This is a marvelous book. Just the sort of story to wrap yourself up in and enjoy.  It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking.  The conceit is that you are a visitor to a diner and an old lady starts telling you a story, and it’s the story of her life.  And what a story it is.

Violet grows up poor and homely with a drunk mean bitter father (after her mother has run off when she was very young.) At 16 Violet seems to be making a way for herself by having found a job at a thread factory, which is nice for her because not only is she working and surrounded by nice people, but she has dreams of being a fashion designer. Sadly and dramatically, though, she loses her arm in a machine. That clinches it for Violet-her terrible life needs to end. So she boards a bus for the Golden Gate Bridge, where she plans to jump to her death. Along the way, rather fatefully, the bus breaks down in a small town in North Dakota. And it’s there that Violet’s life turns around. She meets Kjel-a handsome Nordic young man with a beautiful voice and charisma, and his friend Austin-a black man with an amazing musical ability.  Somewhat improbably the three of them set off on the road together.  The story of their lives is filled with ups and down galore, wild success (Elvis level success) and failure, and historical detail, too.

I loved this.

The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey

yanceyI’ll give it three stars, but this was a huge disappointment to me. It felt very convoluted and frankly I barely even care for the characters (who I couldn’t keep straight) anymore. Picking up (I think?!) where the first book left off, but it was actually pretty hard for me to remember who was who and what was going on. The beginning did a pretty good job of recapping that, and I was initially delighted that right away on page 8 a main character called someone out on what I considered a flaw in the first book(spoiler : if the aliens are so pure and have no bodies, what do they need with Earth?)  But I felt like that was still never fully resolved. The entire writing style of this book seemed different too. Different sections tell different points of view, there seems to be a lot more stream of consciousness, and again sort of vague theories and “explanations.”  The villains are definitely villainous and the action and fighting scenes seemed straight of Tomorrow When the War Began, which is good. Overall, though I am annoyed that I opted to pay 20 cents a day to keep it out so I could read it, and I was very excited about it, but it just did not live up to what I thought it should be.

The Making of Us by Lisa Jewell

jewell2Continuing the Lisa Jewell streak…. this was super. I loved how she connected the different points of view and make a full story out of the pieces, which is not unlike how the characters put together the bigger pictures of their own lives. Three young people all find out that they were conceived by an anonymous sperm donor.  Some have always known, for others it’s a shock, but as young adults over 18 they all now have access to a registry and can find out if they have siblings (they do-it’s them.)  So, we meet these characters (Lydia, Dean, and Robyn) and find out about them and what their lives have been like, and then how it affects them to consider meeting the previously unknown siblings, as well as the father.  As for the donor dad, he is in a hospice, dying.  His close friend takes it upon herself to have him connect with these children before he dies.

There’s a bit of anticipation–will they meet him before he dies? where is the 4th sibling? but mostly you are caught up in each of the character’s own stories and not too worried about how they will connect. I gave this 4 stars on Goodreads but if they allowed fractions I might rate it a little higher. Though I don’t know because I found Robyn a rather unlikable character, and goodness knows Dean had some serious personality flaws (but was more likable), and I found the subplot with Lydia’s personal trainer, Bendiks, rather odd. So I guess I’ve just talked myself in to keeping it a 4!

Overall-a good solid story with lots of emotion.

One Plus One by JoJo Moyes

jojoI really disliked Moyes’s last book (that everyone else loved), so I wasn’t so sure about this, though it sounded right up my alley. And indeed it was so up my alley that I got this at the library yesterday at noon and had finished it by noon today. I couldn’t stop reading it! Oh, I just loved it.

Jess is a down and out single mom doing everything she can to keep it together. She is truly an admirable character-a kind mum, working any job she can, trying to find money to pay bills (and not succeeding), worried all the time about the kids, living in a terrible council estate. Her life is pretty crap. Her husband left two years ago, depressed and unable to help. The children are Nicky, a teenager who is an outcast mostly due to his loner ways and mascara. And maybe also due to the fact that Jess is actually his stepmom, so both his mom and dad have abandoned him.  Tanzie is 10, a mathematical genius, and also someone who doesn’t fit in. There are horrible hooligans who bully Nicky and are truly criminal, but the police turn a blind eye. Then there’s Norman, the flatulent dog. Flatulent dogs are always good comic relief in a book.

Ed, on the other hand, is a super wealthy, very smart, computer guy who has become insanely successful. But, some unfortunate, somewhat accidental, insider trading has him in hot water. His life is falling apart. Jess cleans his holiday home and through a series of events he ends up driving her and the children and Norman to Scotland. The trip takes forever because Tanzie gets carsick over 40 mph. Their destination is a maths olympiad which, if Tanzie wins, will provide enough money for her to go to a private school and hopefully get a leg up out of their horrible life. So it’s a madcap road trip with a lot on the line, obviously Jess and Ed fall for each other, and everyone bonds. (This reminds me, a bit I think, of the movie Little Miss Sunshine.)

So, it took a little while to get to the road trip, the heart of the book. It was so heartwarming, as well as inciting all kinds of other emotions. Nicky and Tanzie’s father is a terrible excuse for a person and I was furious with his despicable being. Ed helping out Nicky was so touching and sweet. And at the end I just had to cry through a couple of chapters. Definitely a feel-good story, with some pretty sad, pretty realistic moments. I’d recommend this to anyone.

From a Distance by Raffaella Barker

lighthouseA long time ago there were a couple of books I read by Raffaella Barker that I loved and found enchanting. I didn’t think of her again for years until last week my friends mentioned her new book and I promptly picked it up. I remember the other novels as being very funny, and this felt so much more serious that I wondered if she’d slowly changed her style in the years I hadn’t been reading her, or was this a departure? Either way, I really enjoyed it. I loved the set-up of the story–one of those deals where in the present tense we see people figuring out something that has happened in the past (and dealing with its consequences) alternating with chapters of the events unfolding in the past (like in that Lisa Jewell book I read recently.)
So, in the past WWII has just finished and a young man, Michael, is headed home. But the war has confused and hurt him and he doesn’t feel he can head back to Norfolk, to his father and mother, the farm, the absence of a brother, and the “sweetheart” who presumably waits for him to return and settle down, but whom he barely remembers. He ends up heading instead to Cornwall. There he meets a lovely woman, Verity, and falls in love with her, the area, and they way of life. Verity is part of the community of artists there, and she herself is passionate about designing fabric. This was all super interesting to me as it reminded me of The Shell Seekers, one of my all time favorite books, which is partially about the artists’ community in Cornwall post WWII. Michael and Verity fall in love, but he believes this is just a bubble in time and that he must return to the family farm. To which I kept saying throughout, Why must it be one or the other? Why can’t he and Verity marry, have a baby, and stay there and just visit his mum and dad from time to time?

In the present day, in Norfolk, Verity’s son, Kit,  arrives to claim an inheritance-a lighthouse. He’s never been there before, doesn’t know why his mother owned a lighthouse without telling him, or what its significance might be. Kit’s a bit lost and overwhelmed by the friendly welcome in the area, especially by the noisy family headed up by Luisa and Tom. Luisa makes ice creams and dreams of a specialty ice cream van. Kit’s arrival brings a bit of spice to her life, as there is a definite instant attraction between them.

There’s definitely a lot going on in this story, what with so many characters being at crossroads in their lives. And, I have to confide, that though this is not a complicated story I found myself unable to get a handle on the logistics of one key component in particular, which I found maddening. Honestly, it’s not that complicated, why couldn’t I get it? Perhaps I was reading too late at night, or maybe I just kept forgetting where everyone was from. I loved how it all turned out, the promise of the future, and the structure of it. I must go back and see what I have missed out on by this author!