Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

In the year and a half I’ve run this blog, I’ve found that the more I love a book, the more I struggle to write the book review. That’s the case with The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

I finished this book on January 8, 2021, and I’m only just now writing this review. (Although I blame part of that on the stress of the Department of Education-related investigation that’s monopolized much of the last year for me.) I’m behind on my Lifetime Reading List plans for 2021—several books behind, in fact—and yet…I can’t find the energy to care all that much.

Partially because this really is only a hobby book blog. More so, though, because I think The Fault in Our Stars impacted me in a way I wasn’t expecting. In the past, The Fault in Our Stars has caused me a few issues, as detailed in this post on my other blog (Trigger Warning: I mention sexual assault in that post). However, this time, I think what hit me the hardest about the star-crossed, little infinity love story between August Waters and Hazel Grace Lancaster is that I finally understand how some infinities are bigger than other infinities, as Peter Van Houten explains to the protagonists in Amsterdam.

John Green’s book is powerful, to be sure. I haven’t often been able to read a Y.A. novel more than once, let alone nearly a half-dozen times, like I have The Fault in Our Stars, all but the latest of which were negative experiences for me (for reasons beyond Green’s control, that is). The pure innocence of both Hazel and Augustus alike, as well as their acceptance of the hard-knock life they’re both leading, is inspiring. And, perhaps most poignantly for me as a leukemia survivor, the way Hazel resolves to make the most of the time she has left following the death of Augustus is a vivid reminder of what I’m still doing here.

When I was going through cancer, I was one of thirty-six kids my family of origin and I got to know well during that two-and-a-half year time frame. Four of us are still alive.

Four.

Three of us are now married; two of us have kids. I don’t know how the other one is doing beyond the fact that she’s still in remission. It’s unreal to me that I am one of a fraction of survivors in our group—and one of a fraction of survivors nationally and globally.

I’ve long believed that it’s my duty to live each day I have to the fullest. Life is a gift for all of us, and the fact that I’m alive when so many have died makes that gift all the more precious to me. In that sense, I can relate to Hazel, who knows she will eventually die—like we all will—yet resolves to live her life more fully because she gets to live. Hazel gets to live in the After of Augustus Waters.

Even for folks who haven’t had a life-threatening illness, there’s a universal truth to that.

We’re all alive—cancer or not—because our ancestors fought and survived unimaginable things. When I think of my kids’ future, I can’t imagine it without them asking questions about the COVID-19 Pandemic and how we managed to survive it and stay completely healthy; we’ve done it because we do not leave the house. We’re desperate to some days, but unless we have to go to the store for an essential item (food, home repair, toiletries) or to work (with masks and social distancing), we haven’t been social in months. We haven’t been to the zoo or a museum or plays or even a restaurant. It’s a little cabin-fever-y sometimes (a lot of the time—toddlers are energetic and loud, let’s say) and I definitely miss seeing friends, taking my kids to the zoo, but it’s worth it. And, in the big picture of human history, it’s a small sacrifice, especially when compared to what my great-grandparents faced by evacuating Italy shortly before World War I broke out across Europe. They came to America and to build a life—a family—that made it possible for me to even exist.

We’re all alive because someone, somewhere in time, decided to do more, fight for something, and survive whatever tried to kill them—famine, persecution, war, poverty, disease, and more. If one person had made one different choice, we might not even be here.

And doesn’t that reality give us something unique and all our own to live for, too?

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a five-star book. It’s the type of book that makes the reader think, encouraging the reader to imagine a life with less privilege than they have—and I believe that we’re not all privileged equally, to be clear. Whether we have health or wealth or something else, someone longs for what we have and we may do the same with what they have. Nonetheless, the love story of Augustus and Hazel certainly reminds us to make the most of what we have, exactly where we are…and to love those we know in the time we have together.

Lifetime Reading List: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

As I stated on my personal blog, Don’t Ask Liv, reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green has been quite the experience for me—and not for reasons that are altogether associated with the book.

Last week, I posted “Dear Brutus,”, which explains why The Fault in Our Stars is difficult for me. I’m a cancer survivor, so reading books about cancer is a hurdle; I always worry if the author has done their research about the experience of treatment itself as opposed to merely the types of treatment available. When I first read The Fault in Our Stars in high school, I thought Green was fair about it, saving the most gruesome aspect for the end. Then, I discovered This Star Won’t Go Out by Esther Earl, Lori Earl, and Wayne Earl, which is the story of Esther Grace Earl, who somewhat inspired Green to write Hazel Grace Lancaster in The Fault in Our Stars.

So, for reason of life experience only, I knew analyzing and reviewing The Fault in Our Stars for this Lifetime Reading List project would be difficult for me. I vehemently did not want to read the book, but I’d committed to the project. I’ve only abandoned a few books so far, like The Princess Bride by William Goldman and 1984 by George Orwell. I knew The Fault in Our Stars was something of a sensation for my generation; I knew it was well-written; so why did I hate it so much?

As I explained in “Dear Brutus,”, I despised The Fault in Our Stars not because of the story, but because of event in my life surrounding when I read the book and at who’s recommendation. After writing that post, though, I felt emotionally purged. The next day, I published the post on Don’t Ask Liv then I finished The Fault in Our Stars, reading almost the entire book in one afternoon (I was on page sixty-something). And with my ambivalence toward the book dealt with (for the most part), I now feel like I can evaluate this book more fairly.

Does The Fault in Our Stars by John Green belong on this must-read list? My answer is yes.

Although I’ve historically had mixed opinions about the way Green addressed the cancer portion of the plot, I have to say, there was one passage in particular that captivated me:

People talk about the courage of cancer patients, and I do not deny that courage. I had been poked and stabbed and poisoned for years, and still I trod on. But make no mistake: In that moment, I would have been very, very happy to die.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, p. 106

As someone with a variety of incurable, chronic illnesses, I relate to Hazel’s words here. There are times that the pain is so much that it’s impossible to think about anything, let alone about tomorrow. There have been nights I couldn’t sleep and paced my bedroom, desperate for anything to do but sit and think about the pain—all the while remaining completely unable to form a sentence to explain to my husband what was wrong. This passage is one of several that—I believe—give The Fault in Our Stars a most deserving place on this must-read list because it captures a phenomenon so well that I know I (as well as others) wish our loved ones understood.

Pain is core theme of The Fault in Our Stars—physical pain, of course, as a result of illness; grieving pain, the sorrow of loss; and emotional turmoil, the result of imagining the pain Hazel’s loved ones will experience when she dies. And in each case, John Green beautifully and bittersweetly explores the various avenues of these different types of pain and how individuals may choose to cope or avoid it. As John Green writes via the fictional Peter van Houten, “Pain demands to be felt.”

Universally, I think we all understand that truth, and the ways in which The Fault in Our Stars addresses pain—whether we can relate to the specifics or not—is worthy of much consideration and discussion.

Lifetime Reading List Review, Part 1 – 2020

When I started the Amazon/Goodreads 100 Must-Read Books in a Lifetime list in January of this year, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Skimming the titles, I recognized several, either because I’d already read them or they were the commonly-used books in films about high school or college—you know, the “coincidental” book the protagonist is reading in their literature class that just so happens to teach them something about the primary conflict in their story?

Originally, I set out to read 25 titles this year—I wanted the whole 100 books to be read within four years, finishing in December of 2024. But this is 2020, and in addition to the global exhaustion we all experienced this year as a result of COVID-19 and, in the U.S., the nightmare of our current politics, the justified protests begging The Man to understand that Black lives do, in fact, matter, and many ups and downs in my personal life, I made my last post here regarding the list on The Pensive Bookworm in September. Partially, I stepped away for the last quarter of the year due to the presidential election (by the way, Biden won), but also because I was just plain exhausted. Even reading for pleasure wasn’t giving me a reprieve—how could I write and analyze what I was reading, too? Nonetheless, I’ll be back to my trek through the list come January.

For now, though, I’ve compiled a quick summary of the 16 books I did manage to read from that list this year. (In the header of each section, I’ve hyperlinked my analysis of the book, whereas the review for each is linked on the “Quick Review” portion.)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes

Favorite line: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Reason it belongs: Reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a reminder that magic does exist—that’s the power of love and friendship.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban J.K. Rowling

Quick Review: 4/5 stars

Would I read it again? Of course—it’s Harry Potter!

Favorite line: “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble?”

Reason it belongs: This is a book about survival by perhaps unconventional methods, and it’s a story that shows readers of all ages that, regardless of your story, you can survive what you may have once considered insurmountable.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes

Favorite line: It’s a close tie between two lines.

  1. “I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.”
  2. “Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.”

Reason it belongs: The Great Gatsby is a beautiful, bittersweet reminder for us to pursue the things in life we truly want, rather than the things we’ve been taught by society that we first “need” to acquire before we concern ourselves with happiness or love.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes.

Favorite line: “If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.”

Reason it belongs: It’s a cautionary tale, exploring the dangers of ignorance—especially when ignorance is the result of determined effort in denial, rather than exploration.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes! I can’t wait to read this with my kids when they’re a little older.

Favorite line: “‘You have been my friend,’” replied Charlotte. “‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’”

Reason it belongs: The friendship between Charlotte and Wilbur is innocent, pure, and sacrificial; this book contains a tale of unconditional love.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Quick Review: 3/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes! As I was compiling this list, I actually wondered when I’d find the time to read it again soon!

Favorite line: “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”

Reason it belongs: Atticus Finch is like a literary fortune cookie—full of wisdom, but contained in something trifling that is fleetingly enjoyable. (I might have a different opinion of this book if I’d had a more innocent and carefree childhood; alas, this is who I am.)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Quick Review: 3/5 stars

Would I read it again? Maybe in several years, when my kids are old enough to read it.

Favorite line: “You don’t forget the face of the person who was your last hope.”

Reason it belongs: The Hunger Games reminds us how easily a society may be desensitized to violence if allowing it to occur ensures their survival.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Definitely. This is my favorite installment of the Hunger Games trilogy.

Favorite line: “At some point, you have to stop running and turn around and face whoever wants you dead. The hard thing is finding the courage to do it.”

Reason it belongs: This book is an incredible “f— you” to President Snow and the Capitol, and because of that, it’s an inspirational tale and a reminder that if one person has the courage to say “I’ve had enough,” many others may follow—sometimes we just need that first voice to give us “permission” to speak.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Quick Review: 4/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes, but only because if I read Catching Fire again, I’d feel weird if I didn’t read the whole trilogy.

Favorite line: “They’ll either want to kill you, kiss you, or be you.”

Reason it belongs: Mockingjay explores the different ways people respond to war and tragedy, pain and suffering, loss and love—the characters are vivid and realistic and encourage the reader to identify with one or another, giving the reader insight into how they might respond if the world as they know it implodes.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Quick Review: 4/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yeah, I feel like I missed some of the story because I was so shocked by the concepts and the world in which I read it (hey there, 2020!). I think I need to read it again, especially if I ever watch the series (which, from what I understand, is quite different from the book).

Favorite line: “When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.”

Reason it belongs: In the United States, I whole-heartedly believe The Handmaid’s Tale is a must read to remind us all exactly why a separate of church and state is essential, that even if you believe your religion is the “correct” religion, you shouldn’t force it on people who aren’t ready to accept it or in the same spiritual place you are.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Absolutely. The characters were so bold!

Favorite line: “I’d cry, if only I had the time to do it.”

Reason it belongs: Through the stories of the maids and the ways in which their struggles open Skeeter’s eyes, this book shows that suffering and ignorance both come in many forms.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Quick Review: 2/5 stars

Would I read it again? No, but I would like to see it performed.

Favorite line: “…Who could refrain/That had a heart to love, and in that heart/Courage to make love known?”

Reason it doesn’t belong: It’s a play. Plays are meant to be performed.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Probably not. I’d rather see it performed.

Favorite line: “Don’t waste your love on somebody/who doesn’t value it.”

Reason it doesn’t belong: It’s a play. Plays are meant to be performed.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Quick Review: 3/5

Would I read it again? Probably not. I might see it live…maybe.

Favorite line: “Listen to many, speak to a few.”

Reason it doesn’t belong: It’s a play. Plays are meant to be performed.

1984 by George Orwell

Quick Review: I couldn’t bring myself to finish it.

Would I read it again? Nope. (And I’m already dreading Animal Farm, which is also on this 100 Books in a Lifetime list.)

Favorite line: None. I couldn’t stand this book and kept wondering what nonsense I was reading. I think Orwell had an excellent point, but he failed to make it well.

Reason it doesn’t belong: The writing is difficult to follow. I think The Handmaid’s Tale is a better cautionary tale about a state having excessive power. Having survived Donald Trump’s time in the White House, I think that’s an experience that teaches us more about misinformation and state-controlled media in the twenty-first century.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Quick Review: I couldn’t bring myself to finish this one.

Would I read it again? Oh no. Nope. Zero chance.

Favorite line: None. Nothing about this book amused me.

Reason it doesn’t belong: This book is terrible.

Of the 16 books I read this year, at least 5 don’t belong (in my opinion). Three of those (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth) are simply because they’re plays, not books, and the same way most people wouldn’t read a film script and expect equal entertainment value, these works should be enjoyed by performance, rather than in print. The other two—1984 and The Princess Bride—were books that I absolutely could not bring myself to finish. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that it’s exceptionally rare for me to not finish a book, but in the case of 1984 and The Princess Bride, I just couldn’t, and you can see my reasons for that in my analyses and reviews of each.

Looking ahead, whenever I do manage to finish all 100 books, I’ll make some suggestions of titles that could replace the books I don’t believe belong on a “must-read” list. As always, I welcome discussion about these books and civil debate in the comments below. 😊

In the meantime, here’s to a happy, healthier, healing new year.

Finding Annie by Katherine Turner

TW: mention of sexual assault/rape

Earlier this year, I read Finding Annie by Katherine Turner, who is a friend and client. I had the privilege of working on Finding Annie in 2019, and reading it again for pleasure was a much different experience than reading it for work.

I wrote the review below at the end of the summer, shortly after I finished reading the book. However, I held off on posting it—I wasn’t sure why. I’ve learned, though, that when I hesitate to do something, there’s a reason, and today, that reason is clear.

It’s Christmas Day, and it’s also the anniversary of when I was violently sexually assaulted. It wasn’t the first time I’d been assaulted—that occurred when I was 15 and I went to hug a male friend and he instead grabbed my crotch. The assault on Christmas Day, though, was different.

I won’t go into details here; that isn’t what this blog is intended to do. (That’s why I have Don’t Ask Liv, a blog for the tougher topics.) What I want to say here is I realized I was holding on to my review of Finding Annie because it was incomplete.

Here’s my original review:

I’ve been blogging here on The Pensive Bookworm for nearly a year, and to date, there remain only two books which I’ve struggled to review—Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and Finding Annie by Katherine Turner. Gone with the Wind is my all-time favorite book.

Finding Annie by Katherine Turner, however, vies for that place in my heart. And in many ways, Finding Annie rivals the mastery of Gone with the Wind, and I love it for many similar reasons. The same way that Scarlett O’Hara has gumption, a determination to survive and overcome, Annie Turner of Finding Annie possesses these same qualities, and that’s what draws me to this book over and over again.

Last autumn, I was honored with the opportunity to assist the author by proofreading Finding Annie. As I started reading Turner’s debut novel, I kept thinking, “This book is special.” I recently re-read my beautiful, autographed hardback copy, and I can’t stop singing its praises.

The story of navigating romance after sexual trauma, Finding Annie follows estranged high school sweethearts, Annie and Rob. Annie has returned to her hometown to house-sit for her foster mother for a year; Rob has never left. Although the two haven’t spoken since graduation, their compatibility is palpable from the start. Of course, as is often the case with all fantastic love stories, Annie and Rob’s story is speckled with evidence that they have been crossed by the stars, and it’s only when the truth of Annie’s unexpected departure years ago is revealed that they can begin to navigate their romantic potential together once more.

The truth behind Annie’s departure brings much pain to Rob, knowing that someone he loved cost him a decade with the love of his life. And as Annie grapples with the pain of her past paired with watching the ways in which it impacts Rob (the exact thing she’d tried to prevent and avoid for so long) she begins a journey to find herself. This journey is something that will be incredibly familiar to survivors of trauma—sexual or otherwise—because it’s the journey of Annie discovering who she is now that she’s accepted what happened to her.

It’s that journey that keeps me coming back to Finding Annie every few months, either to read it again or share a passage with a friend. Like Annie, I’m a survivor of a sexual assault, and Katherine Turner flawlessly captured what it’s like to wrestle with the reality of what happened and the reality of where a person would like to be, despite the past.

There is one passage in Finding Annie that I find to be the most profound, and in this passage, the author reveals (through Rob’s thoughts) the exact thing I’ve been trying to explain to my loved ones for years.

A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth as I carried the board game over and started setting it up on the coffee table. The Annie I knew was still inside; she just needed a little coaxing. The road ahead would be far from smooth, but that didn’t make any difference to me.

That’s the thing normal people didn’t seem to understand about people who’d been through the fucked-up kinds of things we had—we were never really over it. We would always have setbacks. They seemed to think we could just flip a switch and be good from then on, but it didn’t work that way.

Finding Annie, page 197

As a survivor of trauma, I can say truthfully that sometimes, we might be broken, but never beyond repair. We’ll never be as “whole” as we would’ve if The Thing hadn’t happened, but when someone loves us anyway—when someone loves us, stands beside us, through the pain we still carry, even though The Thing is long past—we can begin to heal.

Rob’s thoughts continue, and there’s something else he says in this passage I want to bring to attention:

The journey with Annie had always reminded me more of one of the steep mountain roads that surrounded our secluded valley. You moved slowly back and forth along the switchbacks that might seem to be taking you back the way you came, and might seem to be endless, making no real progress toward the top of the mountain. But really, if you just back up far enough to see the whole road, you’d realize you were always advancing incrementally with each pass. And the winding road itself, if you just took a moment to notice, was at least as beautiful as the view from the top.

Finding Annie, page 197

We survivors…we’re like kintsugi—the Japanese art of using a precious powered metal to repair a broken piece of pottery.

If you look up kintsugi examples, it’s easy to see how they were broken, but it’s also stunning to see how they’ve been repaired. And that’s the treatment I beseech of the loved one of survivors. We may never be whole in the same way, but we can be whole again. If you’d just look past the pain—the brokenness—to see all of us, you’d see we can be beautiful this way, too.

That’s the gorgeous message of Finding Annie, too. As Annie finds herself again—practicing emotional kintsugi, so to speak—and as she and Rob begin to find themselves again, Katherine Turner remains flawless on each page. This book is to survivors what The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama was to the American people in 2006—a voice, rising above the din, to give us hope.

To give us strength.

To give us community in our needs, knowing that others on the same path need the same things, and that some of our fellow travelers have had those needs met, so we can, too.

Finding Annie is a five-star-and-then-some book. Finding Annie is the book I ask my friends to read to understand me better because Katherine Turner is so insightful and transparent with the shared plight of survivors, both recovering from trauma and finding a way to love and be loved again.

I strongly recommend Finding Annie to all survivors and loved ones of survivors. Katherine Turner doesn’t shy away from the realities of recovery, and these blunt truths are essential for the sake of community for survivors; for loved ones, they’re vital to begin some comprehension of what it’s like to be a survivor…and what we often need but don’t always know how to vocalize.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it many more times: Katherine Turner is the author our society, our culture, our world desperately needs. Finding Annie is the first book in Turner’s Life Imperfect series, and I cannot wait to read the next installment of Annie’s story. Everything Turner writes is noteworthy, whether it’s about recovery or striving to make the world a better place. You can follow her blog at kturnerwrites.com.

What was missing is something I only realized today:

Finding Annie is the book that broke open the years of repressed pain and gave me permission to call what happened to me what it was—sexual assault. It wasn’t “a guy getting carried away”—it was a crime. And crimes have victims, someone who was wronged, and we can use all the “survivor” terminology in the world, but first, I needed permission to say, “Dammit, I have been wronged!” Katherine Turner’s book gave me that permission.

Reading Finding Annie a little over a year ago set me on a journey that has changed my life in more ways than I can count. When I think back on last Christmas, I hardly recognize my life. The permission Finding Annie gave me to look back on the Christmas Day nearly a decade ago and say, “Hey, I didn’t want that to happen, I asked for it not to happen, then it did happen, and that was wrong” is freeing. As I read it again this summer, Finding Annie gave me the grace to ask tough questions and renew old connections so that I can begin to piece together my life after that assault… I’m grateful beyond words for that.

After I was assaulted, I didn’t recognize myself. I lived in a very numb state for almost two years. How I healed wasn’t what I expected to do—actually, I didn’t even realize what I did as healing at the time—and yet, looking back now, knowing what those experiences were, I see how I was putting myself back together. I was finding Olivia, to borrow Katherine’s terminology. What that person did broke something in me, and I had to piece it back together; I made myself into a kintsugi piece. I just didn’t recognize it for being that until I read Finding Annie and felt Annie’s heartache like it was my own. Then, I read it again, and I realized the heartache was my own.

It’s about four hours now before the exact “time anniversary” of what happened to me almost a decade ago. Back then, I had no idea what would happen to me Christmas Night, and that night, I had no idea where I’d be in a few years. All these versions of me seem so different, and yet, as I write this, I see how each version—the un-penetratively-assaulted, the un-broken, the un-healed—was a step to this version, the Olivia I am now. And, somehow, all those versions led me to connect with Katherine Turner and read her book, a book about a young woman finding herself as she deals with a long-hidden trauma…a book which lovingly forced me to do the same.

Finding Annie is the book we need because of the way Katherine describes and details the healing process, and Finding Annie is the book I needed to find myself.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

As I said in September’s Lifetime Reading List post regarding Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling, I’ve often had mixed opinions about this book. The primary villain—Lord Voldemort—only appears in name. If such a book were released today, I can already imagine the ways in which the Writing Community on Twitter would rip the author up one side and down the other. And if I let this modern, insufferable-know-it-all attitude of the illustrious Random Writers of the Internet win out, I’m tempted to rank this installment poorly.

However, I’m looking at this third installment of the Harry Potter series through a different filter: Does Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban positively contribute to Harry’s story and the Wizarding Universe?

My answer is yes, so I’m awarding this book five stars. (And if you’ve been following my reviews for long, you’ll know that rather than posting a summary of the book, I prefer to share a single aspect that I think merits a substantial portion of the rating I’ve chosen.)

The bonds of friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione are tested to their limits in this book as—for the first time—all three friends face mortal peril together. (I know an argument could be made for the challenges on the way to reaching the Stone in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but a Transfigured chess board will always seem less dangerous than the bloody Whomping Willow and a werewolf to me!)

As the three young friends venture to find the truth about the night Harry’s parents died (or part of it), they’re faced with more challenges in one night than many adult wizards or witches would face in a lifetime, and they overcome them all relatively unscathed. This aspect of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban speaks to the survivalist nature of each primary character. While Harry is inclined to charge headfirst into battle, Ron tends to remain hesitant, though he will ultimately follow his best friend. Lastly, Hermione often surveys the situation and uses logic to deduce the best plan of action. Together, these three characters represent three sides of being a survivor, and I think this topic is worthy of much discussion.

For example, as the “Harry type” of survivor, a person might charge into the fray with little or no consideration for their personal safety, focusing instead on finding the truth or saving as many other people as possible. The “Ron type,” however, only tends to face their foe when someone they love is at risk—he represents the timeless “I did it for you” type of person who sacrifices greatly of themselves at all time. And of course, the “Hermione type” represents the survivor who prefers to calculate and arm him-/herself with knowledge before diving into danger. Each character survives in his or her own way, and shows the reader that regardless of your physical or mental build, all that matters is the determination to do the right thing—which isn’t always the safe thing.

As time has told, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling is incredibly well-written and worthy of the base four stars. However, it’s this theme of survival exhibited by Harry, Ron, and Hermione (and Sirius Black, but more on him later!) that adds that fifth star for me. I love seeing stories of (as Dumbledore once put it) “moral fiber” and grit, especially in Middle Grade/Young Adult books. By showing our youth that, yes, kids can accomplish incredible feats, we empower them…and that’s exactly what this book does.

Other Harry Potter posts on The Pensive Bookworm:

Lifetime Reading List: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

As I’ve said before, anytime I re-read a Harry Potter book, I wonder what new aspect of the story I’ll enjoy. When I set out to re-read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban yet again, I was struck by the amount of emotion J.K. Rowling was able to evoke from me, particularly regarding Remus Lupin and Sirius Black.

Friends since boyhood, Remus and Sirius were torn apart by the circumstances surrounding the death of James Potter, betrayed by the fourth member of their group, Peter Pettigrew. However, Sirius alone knows of Peter’s betrayal, and after more than a decade in prison, he’s determined to finally correct the record.

Unbeknownst to Harry Potter, this quest sets the events of his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry into motion. While Remus becomes the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor and Sirius hides throughout the grounds of Hogwarts and neighboring village of Hogsmeade, the pair remain foes until the penultimate scene in which Harry and his two best friends learn the truth alongside their professor.

This plot contains a vital—yet often forgotten—lesson. Things are not always as they seem. Remus Lupin, who’d been one of the closest friends of both James and Sirius, was not privy to the information that changed the fate of the entire Wizarding World and allowed Peter to betray them all. Remus readily believed the story put forth by the Ministry of Magic explaining the events surrounding the murder of the Potters, quickly assuming Sirius had double-crossed their friend, never giving a second thought to Peter, who was renowned for his rat-like nature.

As the truth is revealed to Harry, Ron, and Hermione alongside Professor Lupin, a great deal of fraternal love is also apparent. The same way Harry’s father was sure his friends would be with him until the end, the allegiances Harry shares with Ron and Hermione are emboldened, drawing some excellent parallels between father and son. In many ways, Rowling exemplifies how shared experiences can bond a rag-tag group for life, creating connections that run much deeper than they may appear to others, or even those of one’s family.

Although I’ve been known to say that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one book that I feel could easily be removed from the series (primarily because Voldemort, the antagonist of the series, only appears in name), I do appreciate how the weight of Harry’s adventures in this third installment impacts the remainder of the story.

I’m reminded of the adage “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” In other words, the bonds we choose are stronger than those with which we are born. For the way the friendships of Harry’s father influence Harry’s story (and the lessons therein which, I believe, readers should seek in their lives), I agree with the placement of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on the Lifetime Reading List. Additionally, now that I’ve read the first three books of this series with said list in mind, I understand why Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was omitted…but more on that later. 😊

I’ll post my review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban next Friday, but for now, check out my other posts about Harry Potter here:

Lifetime Reading List: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Spotlight: Road Kill: The Duchess of Frisian Tun by Pete Adams

For the month of August, I was given the opportunity to read Road Kill: The Duchess of Frisian Tun by Pete Adams, courtesy of Damp Pebbles Book Tours.

Even though this book wasn’t my personal favorite, I can think of a half-dozen friends who would love it; thus, I absolutely have to promote it here on The Pensive Bookworm.

Check out the blurb:

Cataclysmic events have occurred in the decorous upper middle class enclave within Southsea, Portsmouth, on the south coast of England.

But what were the circumstances that contributed to this violent clash involving a Sherman tank and a bazooka? The strange occurrence is Investigated by Lord Everard Pimple, a naive, upper class twit who not only inadvertently opens a can of worms, but has an introduction into the world of womanly wiles.

Everard’s life is about to blow up like an atom bomb… he just doesn’t know it yet. But after the dust settles, will he still be standing?

The author, too, is a rather interesting individual:

Pete Adams is an architect with a practice in Portsmouth, UK, and from there he has, over forty years, designed and built buildings across England and Wales. Pete took up writing after listening to a radio interview of the writer Michael Connolly whilst driving home from Leeds. A passionate reader, the notion of writing his own novel was compelling, but he had always been told you must have a mind map for the book; Jeez, he could never get that.

Et Voila, Connolly responding to a question, said he never can plan a book, and starts with an idea for chapter one and looks forward to seeing where it would lead. Job done, and that evening Pete started writing and the series, Kind Hearts and Martinets, was on the starting blocks. That was some eight years ago, and hardly a day has passed where Pete has not worked on his writing, and currently, is halfway through his tenth book, has a growing number of short stories, one, critically acclaimed and published by Bloodhound, and has written and illustrated a series of historical nonsense stories called, Whopping Tales.

Pete describes himself as an inveterate daydreamer, and escapes into those dreams by writing crime thrillers with a thoughtful dash of social commentary. He has a writing style shaped by his formative years on an estate that re-housed London families after WWII, and his books have been likened to the writing of Tom Sharpe; his most cherished review, “made me laugh, made me cry, and made me think”.

Pete lives in Southsea with his partner, and Charlie the star-struck Border terrier, the children having flown the coop, and has 3 beautiful granddaughters who will play with him so long as he promises not to be silly.

You can connect with Pete Adams on Twitter and Facebook.

I recommend Road Kill: The Duchess of Frisian Sun for fans of crime/mystery with a touch of humor. This book is by no means a comedy, but several moments certainly had me chuckling with the blunt manner in which many characters are described/give explanations of matters. You can buy it on Amazon at the links below.

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/2XDyNrp

Amazon US: https://amzn.to/3kslSTh

For additional reviews and spotlights on this title, check out these book blogs.

Book Review: Before the Crown by Flora Harding

Note: I received a free copy of this book from Net Galley and am leaving this review voluntarily.

When I first saw Before the Crown by Flora Harding on Net Galley, I hurried to request an Advance Review Copy (ARC). As followers of my blog are aware, I am a huge English History buff and have slowly been making my way from the Protestant Reformation to present day. Additionally, I believe that Queen Elizabeth II is the granddaughter of Henry VIII via his liaison with Mary Boleyn, who bore Catherine Carey, confirmed grandmother of the current English monarch. While I haven’t watched more than the first episode of Netflix’s The Crown, I was quickly certain that Harding’s book was a must-read for me.

I began reading Before the Crown voraciously, excited to read my first-ever historical fiction book about a modern figure. However, within a few chapters, my interest waned. As interesting as the courtship between then-future Queen Elizabeth II and Phillip Mountbatten was, I found myself longing for a bit more historical context (more about the Second World War that defined their youth beyond rationing, for example) and a little less dialogue. For that matter, as I continued reading the book, I felt that I was forcing myself to finish it—the back-and-forth conversation and alternating perspectives (occasionally with overlap in action as the point of view alternated) didn’t hold my interest.

The one thing, though, I did appreciate about this book is the context it gave me for various figures in the Windsor Court, which is certainly helpful as I begin watching The Crown and try to recall who each character is and why they behave a certain way (i.e., regarding their role within the Court).

As far as my enjoyment of the book is concerned in association with the elements of history included in the period, I’m giving Before the Crown by Flora Harding three stars. Perhaps if I was a bit better versed in Windsor history, I would’ve liked the book more. My personal preferences (less dialogue, more context) also prevents me from awarding any additional stars, but I’ll concede that it’s well-written for what it is.

Book Review: Vagina Problems by Lara Parker

Note: I received a free copy of this book from Net Galley and am leaving this review voluntarily.

As someone who has never shied away from calling it like it is—no matter what “it” is—Lara Parker’s Vagina Problems caught my attention instantly. It’s a catchy title, to be sure, but as I am someone with vagina problems, I wondered how Parker’s story and mine might be alike.

A blunt memoir of the harrowing journey to receive adequate medical care as well as an explanation for health issues spanning nearly half the author’s life, Vagina Problems is the book I quickly declared a “must read,” even posting about it on social media—“This book is AMAZING,” I said. “As a chronic illness gal, THIS is the book we need to rally around! If you have a vagina, enjoy vagina, or love someone with a vagina, READ IT”!

Vagina Problems is the type of book that makes the reader laugh; Parker is relatable and so incredibly human as she tells of her troubles, both physically and in her personal life. Vagina Problems is a book that will make the reader positively enraged because women still face so much uncertainty in the medical community, as well as disbelief. (Why are women so readily disregarded, told to “drink some wine” or declared “emotionally unstable” whenever we have a problem a man can’t readily fix?!) And Vagina Problems is exactly the book everyone who cares about vaginas (or, if they’re a misogynist and don’t care beyond the pleasure a vagina can provide) must read.

Lara Parker’s story of living with chronic pain—both as a struggling professional and someone who faces oh-so-many do-gooders who think they can use a cup of herbal tea to solve what medicine cannot—is the story of every single woman living with chronic pain and/or vagina problems. From struggling to be believed that yes, this pain is so much more than cramps to fighting for her right to proper medical care and compassion to trying to accept the reality that, unless something drastic changes, the way of life of a chronically-ill person won’t change, Parker is never afraid to share exactly how she feels or thinks. This is the sort of transparency we need in reading memoirs because it’s the type of storytelling that tells the reader we aren’t living through This or That alone. It tells the reader there is someone out there who gets it. And for potential readers with chronic illnesses or vagina problems, or both, I know you’ll appreciate this.

But I want to address the less-likely readers out there—those without chronic illnesses or vaginas.

As Parker addresses, both the medical community and our society know so much about male genitalia. However, very little is scientifically known or addressed about vaginas, vulvas, clitorises—a woman’s genitals. Even less is commonly known about the problems many women face with their genitals, and Parker’s book opens the door for this conversation. These are things we need to be talking about—as women, mothers, friends, spouses, girlfriends, yes, but also as the non-vagina-possessing counterparts. (I could say the same for heart disease in women versus men, but I’ll save that for another day.)

The reality that one’s organs could permanently influence one’s way of life is mind-boggling to all those who haven’t experienced it, and often, I think that’s why some folks will discount those experiences. “Oh, is it really that bad?” Yes, yes, it is, and we need to be educating ourselves and (as kindly as possible) others that there are many hidden, invisible-to-others ailments the human body can experience. Parker has plenty of experience with those, and her book is the perfect starting point for anyone who is curious about chronic illness or any long-term affliction.

And I say “any” because, as I read Vagina Problems, I was often reminded of my trauma.

Recently, I was diagnosed with Complex-PTSD, for many reasons—one of which is the repeated sexual assaults in my teenage years. My best friend and I have discussed these incidents. Once, she shared that it was hard for her to come to me with her problems because “They just don’t seem so big compared to what you’ve faced.”

I understood, and I do, but that doesn’t matter. I told her that if she’s in pain about something, that’s all that matters. I’m here for her, because I know what its like to not have anyone here for me. It doesn’t matter if it’s a simple romantic squabble or a family crisis—if she’s in pain, I want to know. I may not be able to help, but if I can, I will.

The way Parker described the “barrier” between herself and her friends sans-vagina-problems, I feel a similar barrier in my social circle. I have challenges that my friends simply cannot—and may not ever—understand, and that can be isolating. It can be isolating to be crippled by something unseen, even temporarily. Moreover, it can be infuriating to be crippled by something that you can’t just show someone for them to fix. If I walked into a doctor’s office with a limb missing, they’d be on it like duck on a June bug. If I walked into happy hour naked, my friends would notice.

But if I walk into a room feeling like a part of me is missing, or that I’m completely exposed for all to see? Not everyone picks up on that.

Vagina Problems by Lara Parker is a fantastic book that depicts the life of someone with chronic, incurable pain, and the focus is on the physical. However, so much of what Parker said throughout reminded me of my emotional pain that I want everyone I know to read it, simply because she put words to things I’ve been struggling to describe for years…things I’d imagine many of us struggle to verbalize.

The quality of Vagina Problems that makes it truly remarkable, though, is the fact that I could sing its praises for hours and still have more to say. Everything about this book is helpful, even the aspects that aren’t strictly positive. I want to take my gynecologist a copy and discuss the ways I’ve felt that way in the past—both in his office and other doctors’ offices!—and ask how doctors and patients can be working together to change the narrative for women everywhere.

Vagina Problems by Lara Parker is a five-star book, a must-read for everyone, and a book I can’t wait to share with my daughter in fifteen years or so, so that she enters womanhood fully-equipped, both for the “What if?” for herself as well as with compassion for other women.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

Ever since I did my undergraduate thesis on the entire Harry Potter book series, I wonder what new thing I’m going to pick up each time I read the books. I spent six months studying these books in-depth—my outline for the thesis alone was nearly 100 pages! How could there possibly be anything new to find?

But when I read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets last week, all I could think about was how incredibly sassy the teachers at Hogwarts are! Of course, I noticed a few other enjoyable aspects about the book, but the most memorable was the way in which the professors bonded over the ineptitude of Professor Gilderoy Lockhart. For that matter, the way Ron Weasley responds to Lockhart—even before he’s introduced to the reader—thoroughly captures the general reaction of the Wizarding World and Muggles alike. (And while I don’t like to get too political here, a case could be made for the similarities between Lockhart as an educator and Trump as a politician.)

In regard to Ron, the brotherly affection between he and Harry (and that Fred and George have for Harry as their younger brother’s best friend) is also a noteworthy point in the story. After Ron and Harry’s adventures in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it’s only natural the pair would have bonded. However, their bond is much deeper than is directly addressed. While we know Harry is a kind, compassionate, daring young boy, the resolution he displays after he and Ron have been separated in the Chamber of Secrets as well as his willingness to risk his life to rescue his best friend’s sister is striking. In my life, I can only think of a few people who I suppose would be willing to risk themselves like that for someone I love. The dynamic of friendship between these two twelve-year-old boys is something we need to discuss more—it’s another way our youths should look up to and try to imitate the behavior of J.K. Rowling’s famed protagonists.

I’ll never forget the first time I watched Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) and saw Hermione Granger in the Hospital Wing, having been petrified. When I read the same scene in the book, I had an even more emotional reaction. This cunning and determined young girl was wise enough to protect herself, moments after solving the great mystery of the monster within the Chamber of Secrets, a query that had baffled some of the greatest professors and historians in Wizarding World history. To posses such wherewithal under duress is not something that should be taken lightly; furthermore, that she noted how the basilisk was moving through the school on the paper is another aspect to discuss. Did she make that note for herself (we know she’s an avid reader and talented scholar), or did she write it down in case something did happen to her, that way Ron and Harry would have the answer to the question she knew her friends would ask? I choose to believe the latter (that’s what I’d do).

Finally, I appreciate the insight we receive into Draco Malfoy’s bully nature. From the first time we meet Lucius Malfoy, his father, we understand that the senior Malfoy is also a bully. As an adult, I’m able to see that Draco is simply behaving the way he knows best, the way that has been shown to him his entire life. And at twelve-years-old, I can’t blame Draco for not realizing quite yet that he could rise above and be better than his father. I can’t blame Draco for perpetuating a cycle of abuse toward all who are different from him. The way in which Draco uses the slur “Mudblood” reminds me so readily of the manner in which many children/teenagers will call someone an unkind name, merely repeating things they’ve heard their parents say. It’s tragic, and I’m thankful Rowling gave us yet another fictional version of our reality in which we can discuss such matters with young people, hopefully steering them toward a kinder, more understanding path.

My favorite aspect of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is exactly that: Rowling provides many magical talking points which hearken to the real world. This is what makes an exceptional book; it aggravates me when zealous folks condemn the Harry Potter series “because there’s witchcraft!” without considering the wisdom within each chapter. Like many who have come before me and many who I’m sure will follow, I give Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets five stars.

You can see my review of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone here as well as my evaluation of its placement on the Amazon/Goodreads Lifetime Reading List here.