Cover Image: Down in the Belly of the Whale

Down in the Belly of the Whale

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This was a really great contemporary read that dealt with heavy issues really well. I found that there was a great balance of hard-hitting scenes and light fluff.
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Aionios Books LLC and NetGalley provided me with an electronic copy of Down in the Belly of the Whale.  I was under no obligation to review this book and my opinion is freely given.

Harper Southwood usually can sense other people's pain, but her ability fails her when she needs it the most.  With a strong desire to stand for truth and justice, will Harper be able to summon the strength to help those in need?

The synopsis of the book makes references to LM Montgomery's most beloved character, Anne Shirley, and I can see a small measure of her in Harper.  Her desire to help is sometimes fumbled, awkwardly, which does remind me of Anne.  I like Harper for her view on life and her strength in difficult circumstances.

Down in the Belly of the Whale handles tough subjects in a more lighthearted manner, but I think they are glossed over a little too much.  The actions by the police were not realistic, as they would have never allowed Harper to be injected into the situation.  This book would be a good starting point for parents in talking with their teenagers about subjects such as abuse and self esteem.  YA readers may find Harper relatable and I would recommend it to other readers.
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I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

This is a novel starring Harper, a very young teenage girl, her family, and her best friend. For such a short novel, it attempts to take on a bit too many serious topics; even though each topic was important in its own right (dealing with child abuse, spousal abuse, homophobia, degenerative diseases, etc), I thought that they weren’t necessarily given the attention they deserved. If the purpose was to spread awareness, then I think the author accomplished that but as far as a cohesive, compelling story fell a bit flat. I didn’t particularly like the writing style or the characters. 
This novel might be good for teenagers going through similar things. It was just ok for me.
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A teenager with a special ability to sense impending sickness finds herself facing not one but two major life challenges with the people closest to her. As she tries to navigate her fear and events that change without warning, she discovers her own resourcefulness as well as a new appreciation for her family. Author Kelly Kay Bowles gives readers a fairly likeable protagonist in the somewhat entertaining but ultimately unbalanced novel Down in the Belly of the Whale.

High school sophomore Harper Southwood has a theory: she must have been born to trolls and been adopted by a human family. What else could possibly explain the fact that she doesn’t fit in with any of the typical groups in high school? More than that, Harper’s talent for getting sensations when someone’s about to get sick definitely doesn’t seem human. No one else she knows gets physical impressions when someone will fall ill. What makes it worse is she can’t do anything about the illnesses themselves.

One of the best examples is Harper’s best friend, Cora, who comes to school with strange marks on her body. Harper swears they look like cuts, but Cora doesn’t seem like the kind of girl who would harm herself. Until Harper finds out that that’s exactly what Cora’s been doing by the worst method possible: she gets news that Cora has been admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt.

Harper races to the hospital to see her friend and to demand answers. Cora shares with Harper what she’s never shared with anyone else before: when she was younger, she was the victim of sexual abuse. After losing her mother to cancer and the reappearance in her life of her abuser, Cora exercised control of her emotional pain by undergoing its physical manifestation. 

As if things couldn’t get any worse, Harper’s mother has experienced strange symptoms lately. Harper tries to convince herself that it can’t be anything too serious. After all, the normal physical tics she feels with other people haven’t bugged her this time around. Surely her mom can’t be too sick. Instead, Harper’s mom gets a life-changing diagnosis, and now Harper finds herself almost completely convinced that she’s the child of the trolls. Only a troll baby could be so helpless in being able to help two of the most important people in her life.

Author Kelley Kay Bowles gives her target audience a wonderful protagonist. Harper is real and relatable, and her assertions that she must be part troll are endearing. They reinforce the idea that every teen goes through a phase in life when s/he feels out of place. 

Less successful in the story are the two challenges Harper must deal with: her mother’s physical illness and her friend’s emotional one. While Bowles handles each individual challenge with sensitivity, it almost feels like two plots in one book. Harper spends quite a bit of time wringing her hands and bemoaning the fact that her age and lack of life experience doesn’t allow her to help her mother or Cora in a substantial way. Bowles may have wanted to show her readers that life’s trials come in all different shapes and sizes, but because she must spend precious story space on both the full effect that one single story would have gets diluted.

While some parts of the climax feel a little overdramatic and unrealistic, readers will probably take to Harper right away. I recommend readers Borrow Down in the Belly of the Whale.
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I read this book and have been putting off reviewing it because I really did not like it. I did not like the character development or lack there of. The "hard hitting" topics covered where not done well. I was not intrigued by the plot as it progressed and would have DNF'ed it if it was not an ARC. The synopsis sounded great but the actual book no so much.
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I was really between a 3- and a 4-star review. 

I received this as from Netgalley and this review is my own.

There were many parts of the book that I liked. 

I greatly appreciated the heart and soul in the book. Both with regards to Cora and to Mom. As an adult, there were definitely some red flags from Cora that Harper missed, but that has to do with life experience. I loved Harper's empathic senses. It was fascinating when she discovered they are linked to the places in the body that are targeted with acupuncture.

I applauded when Cora was able to tell Harper what had happened and then when Harper sprung into action. Thank you for having a solid ending with THAT part of the book! 

Uncle Pasta was delightful, so was Charles. 

And I loved Cade's character. He was great. It is good to see characters who some might see in their daily lives and think "That person is really odd b/c he dresses like/talks like/listens to xyz" and that person is amazing! It's good to smash some of those stereotypes.

Having the aebleskiver recipe at the end was fun. My family also enjoys aebleskivers (they are amazing with caramelized apple slices in them! Oooh, and goat cheese!)
I had a hard time believing just how open Harper is with her family. Not that it is bad, honestly, it is what every parent (and perhaps every child) hopes for. It just didn't ring quite right. 

All in all, it was a quick read with some solid writing.
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There is so much to unpack here. 

Harper is your average, everyday high school girl who thinks she is a changeling troll child and has the basic maturity level of a 10-year-old. She is just living her strange life when she spots self-harm marks on her friend's leg, which kick-starts the plot of this fantastically problematic book!

Things I learned about Harper, the main character of Down in the Belly of the Whale, within the first 10% of this book: 

- She has said/thought enough problematic things that I have 24 highlighted sections in my Kindle already.
- She doesn't think other human beings use words like "whom" or "perpetuating" and thinks that using words like these makes her weird.
- She uses "obsessive-compulsive" incorrectly to describe her tendencies to 'rehearse' conversations — like most people do. At most, this is anxiety, not OCD.
- She is literally a walking high school girl stereotype — whines about her hair, whines about math class, doesn't like attention, describes PE as "the definition of shame and sorrow."
- Pretty sure she is store brand Mia Thermopolis, but that's neither here nor there.
- She makes up inane names for people like "Ms. HAG-lione."
- When she found out her best friend was self-harming, her first response was to say things like "I can't believe you would do something ludicrous like that," "I thought you were smarter than that," and "are you crazy?"
- I don't know what else to even say, because after the part where she actually asks a depressed person if they're crazy, I rage-quit. 

But wait, there's more! 

- Harper has a gay uncle who is literally written as the most flat, stereotypical LGBT character ever — he dances and sings in the kitchen, he's always cheerful, he loves the BBC and musicals. Not to mention the author thought it was cool to write the following sentence: "Uncle Pasta and I are not genetically linked in the matter of sexual orientation. At least, I don't think we are." Is this supposed to be a joke? Because implying that homosexuality is genetically transferable is... irresponsible.
- All of her high school teachers are similarly walking stereotypes. A cool female English teacher who wears overalls, tennis shoes, and no makeup; a weirdly intense PE teacher who wears extremely unfashionable clothes "out of 1972" and screams things like "Today we test your mettle!"; and a drama teacher who wears floral "broomstick skirts" and Birkenstocks while traipsing around the classroom dramatically.
- Her father is also one of the most stereotypical characters ever. He comes home in a huge huff about work, and has his wife cook dinner because he "feels emasculated." He complains about his boss having an affair, he stays huffy until his wife yells at him about appreciating the good things in life, and then he pretends his wife's cooking is good with a "Sure, honey, it's delicious." Can't get more bland than this, folks.
- This book feels like it was written by an older person who hasn't been in high school in decades and thinks high schoolers are stupid and immature. It comes off as pandering and weird and problematic in a lot of ways, especially the ones involving Harper being ridiculously cavalier about OCD and then calling her friend (who needs help) crazy.
- It also perpetuates a whole lot of stereotypes, many of which are touched on above, but especially the "girls shouldn't want to sound smart in front of others, especially boys" and "girls are bad at math" stereotypes. 

Basically, a lot of this book is (for lack of a better word) icky, and I'm only 10% in. Once we got to the point where Harper implies that smart people don't cut themselves ("I thought you were smarter than that,") and calls her friend crazy, I was like, no thanks. I'm good without reading the rest of this. 

I also saw reviews (which I looked up after deciding to stop reading) talking about poorly handled rape situations and badly researched scenes in mental health facilities, and that hit the last nail in the coffin of this book for me. I don't need to subject myself to poorly handled rape scenes and I really don't want to be subjected to this book anymore.

Overall, things to think about:

- OCD is a real, serious disorder that needs to stop being used as a synonym for "anxious" or "meticulous."
- LGBT+ people are not stereotypes and deserve better.
- High schoolers are not dumb, and many use words like "whom" and "perpetuate" on the daily. Stop implying this is weird.
- High school girls are allowed to be good at math and good at PE/sports. Please stop. 
- There are good ways to write a character who is ignorant — specifically, including something that implies they are wrong. Even if it;s written in first person, using lines like, "I can feel as it comes out of my mouth that it's the wrong thing to say" etc can do the trick! Please stop writing ignorant, dangerous ideas like "gayness is genetic" or "people who are depressed are stupid/crazy" and then not providing any context, especially in books meant for teens. 
- Just please stop writing the high school experience as one huge bubbling pot of stereotypes.
- Stop.

Okay, guys. I'm going to stop going on about this book now — but I'm giving it two stars instead of one since I never finished it.
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I received a free copy of this from netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I could tell by the description of this book that I wanted to read it. What I couldn't tell is just how much. I thought this was a great book with a lot of "meat" to it. It talked about serious topics but didn't seem overdone. I really liked Harper and thought she was a great character. This is not a feel good book because of the serious topics, but it does make you feel.
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I liked this story very much and read very quickly, as a page turner. I was especially entranced by the young narrator voice, the best facet of the book: Harper sounds like a very credible gifted teenager, clever and funny, in a self deprecating kind of way, and a bubbling mind, which frequently let her to obsess about some thing or another. She’s smart and wise, but can also be very short sighted in some situations (her infatuation with a boy based only on his looks for instance), marking her as still a very young person, and never an adult.

The other characters weren’t quite as good, but only for lack of correct exposition: at the exception of the mother, a strong figure with a delightful personality, most characters felt like not really stereotypical, but left at a first draft. Not because of a lack of skill, but more because of the choice of telling about a lot of things at the same time.

In general, even if I really appreciated the story and am looking forward reading the next author’s book, I had the impression of overabundance of themes used, at their disadvantage.

I applaud the author’s efforts to developed some strong situations for her heroin, but I couldn’t help thinking that it was too much for the book. In the end it felt a little more pedagogical than naturally included in the story.

Another point that felt a bit discordant was the funny and light beginning which suddenly sank in dark reality facts. Harper’s arch voice was suddenly lost, of course, she wouldn’t keep her sparkling tone, and I felt like jumping from one book to another one at full speed…

All in all I’m just quibbling, as usual, because contemporary YA book is my favourite, and I’m always spliting hairs about tiny details… shame on me!

To conclude I warmly recommend this book, for its endearing heroin and its story which doesn’t shy to show difficult realities and explains how the right attitude can make a real difference.
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This is a rare time that I feel I need to give four stars even though I never got that into the book.

Harper has the perfect family and that's why she's found out she's a changeling, a troll, because how could she be part of that family? And she has a very useless superpower of knowing when people are about to get sick. That's it, she can't do anything to prevent it, she simply feels in her something is wrong. And that's how she knew her best friend was cutting herself. And even that seems to be failing because her mother has something the doctors haven't found out and she never felt it (and this one seems to come from the writer's personal experience.

This book is deep. It is told in a very light way, I even wondered if it wasn't children's fiction, but it goes deeper and deeper. I guess the title makes sense.

So why did I say I didn't get into it? I think the writing is sometimes to prolix, I'm sure the author meant something by it but it didn't get through to me. And even though that made it really seem like the narrator was a teenager—I so used to write like that back then!—, during the dialogues, Harper and her friend never sounded legitimately like teenagers.

Still, the story was beautiful, well researched, well written. The kind of story I think YA should have more, because it's genuinely good. I know, it's weird that I'm saying this when I personally didn't enjoy it so much. But I repeat the problem was me and not the book. In other words, this book won't please everyone, it's not a light read even though it may seem so. The characters has layers and some get quite dark.

I also recommend this for book clubs. Oh, there's so much you can discuss! One thing that bothered me the whole book and that took way too long for the parents to tackle on was this belief Harper has that she isn't part of her own family. How many other teenagers don't think like that in different degrees? And there's more I don't want to spoil anyone about.

This is a beautiful book.

(Run date for this review is May 5th)
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Harper Southwood is an intelligent and insecure teen grappling with major issues.  I really wanted to like her character, but the writer tried to tackle too many issues in the same book. It ended up being unfocused and overwhelming.  Thanks to Netgalley for an advanced readers copy.
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I got a copy from NetGalley and Aionios Books, I am very grateful but please know that all opinions are my own.

“Harper Southwood is a teenage girl who can sense when people will get sick—but so what? She can’t predict her best friend’s depression or her mother’s impending health crisis. Being helpful is all Harper ever wanted, but she feels helpless in the face of real adversity. Now, she’s got a chance to summon her courage and use her wits to fight for justice. Laugh and cry along with this irrepressible, high-spirited teen in her journey of self-discovery, as she learns that compassion and internal strength are her real gifts, her true superpower.”

Down in the Belly of the Whale was such a good read, it was touching without really trying. I initially had a problem with Harper being a little self absorbed, but I realized that she wasn’t… I was just in her mind, and that’s what makes it relatable.

I love the characters, especially Harper’s family, but I hoped Cora (Harper’s BFF) was there more. The writing was engaging to make me not stop reading. I feel like some of the issues in the book were not discussed so much, which I hoped it was. I mean seriously I wouldn’t mind more pages. They’re viewed from an outsider’s view so I understand if we don’t get to know more.

Harper Southwood is a great character with great development in the end.

4 out of 5 stars.
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Thank you, Kelley Kay Bowles!
“Down in the Belly of the Whale” offers a refreshing take on today’s heroine!  In this 21st century, where there is so much drama and so much angst eating at the hearts of our young adult population, it’s nice to read about a quirky and upbeat character, who can inspire a fresh perspective on tomorrow, despite the challenges of today..
Bowles presents some very real and ever-present issues and demonstrates that things don’t always happen as we would wish and there aren’t always clear explanations to things that perplex us.  Harper, an ultimate empath (right down to her knees!)  takes these quandaries in stride and still has hope and the quirky, contagious strength to move forward..
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Review will be posted to and my Goodreads profile on April 29th, 2018

**Thank you to Netgalley and Aionios Books for providing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.**

Down in the Belly of the Whale is sweet, thoughtful, funny, and it taught me something, as all good books should do. I’d like to acknowledge the care Bowles put into writing this book. I won’t spoil anything, but as YA authors often do, she took a hard topic, one not often written about for teens, and made it accessible and teachable. A lot of YA deals with the dramatic and shocking aspects of mental illness and the culture surrounding it, but this book cuts to the bone of the issue, tackling the reality of many families’ situations regarding depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts with respect.

I liked the plot, I think it was very well paced, and definitely well planned. The ending did feel a bit sudden, but I think I was enjoying myself so much I forgot the book had to end!

This book actually features supportive, loving parents, instead of sending them away with a mysterious excuse and leaving the protags to figure things out, and I think that's positive and important! Harper’s parents and her uncle are there for her, to help her and Cora through the events in the story, and I think it’s a good reminder that not all teens have to have their experiences alone. Parents are helpful, and letting teens think they must deal with problems alone is a problem in and of itself.

My biggest problem was fairly minor, and didn’t really prevent me from enjoying the book. At times, I felt like Harper’s voice was a bit young. She was supposed to be in high school, and the issues discussed were very heavy and serious, but because of the writing style, she read more as a middle-schooler to me. The fact that she wasn’t surprised me when I found out part way through that she and Cora, her best friend, were in high school. She did grow as a character, and she did gain self-confidence, which I loved, but at the end, she still read as young to me. Because of this, I was a bit put off by the romance, but nevertheless, it was cute.
In the grand scheme of things, I liked many elements of this story, which earn it 4 stars in my heart. Go forth and read!
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Down in the Belly of the Whale took me right back to my high school years! Harper, our heroine, reminds me of my best high school friend with her expansive vocabulary and love of work play, and I adore the way Harper reflects upon her experiences. She is honest, relatable, and so dang funny. Kelley Kay Bowles tackles some serious issues in this novel, yet each difficult situation leaves Harper and the people she cares about closer, stronger, and more confident in their ability to handle all that life can throw at you with grit, humor, and grace.
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I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley. This book has content warnings for child sexual assault/rape, self harm, attempted suicide, body shaming, cat dissection, and hospitals.

Unfortunately, this book was not only incredibly poorly-written, but it was also extremely harmful in multiple areas. To start with the writing: this book was all over the place tonally. It dealt with some very dark topics in a rather carefree tone that came off as extremely flippant. The main character, Harper, is said to be intelligent but doesn't seem to understand anything about the world around her, and this makes the book seem encyclopedia-like in places as she waits for the people around her to explain things to her. For example, after accusing her uncle's new boyfriend of being a druggie because he needed to give himself a shot of insulin at the table and is explained the medical necessity of shots, she is STUNNED just a few pages later at the thought of a totally different character needing to give themselves shots on a regular basis, something that is incredibly unfathomable even after having the concept explained to her literally earlier the same day. It wasn't charming; it was extremely annoying, and it felt poorly-executed.

The book's handling of child sexual assault was even worse. Harper is constantly in "savior mode" despite having no idea what she's doing, and even though nearly every move she makes is dangerous to someone or another she faces no consequences for any of them. Her best friend Cora attempts suicide and ends up in the hospital; it's unrealistic because no one is actually keeping an eye on her despite her being suicidal, and Harper had ignored all of the signs of Cora being suicidal previously. After Cora admits that her uncle had sexually abused her and tells Harper that she does NOT want to report it because her father believes her uncle and not her and she doesn't feel safe reporting because of that, Harper immediately ignores Cora's wishes and takes it upon herself to report it. And Cora's father lashes out physically on someone else because of it. The really strange part is Cora isn't even the slightest bit upset with Harper for completely ignoring her and Harper feels no remorse or guilt for ignoring her friend like that. Reporting an abusive relative of a friend isn't necessarily the worst course of action, but the way in which it was handled here where the person who reported against the victim's wishes receives no consequences at all for her actions was incredibly unrealistic, and it rubbed me the wrong way. 

Some of the other characters were... Interesting... Harper's lab partner, whom Harper insists regularly that she's going to marry, has this weird infatuation with the cat they're dissecting, and it's pretty gross. Harper's uncle, who is probably the most likeable character in the book despite not being super likeable, is essentially the token gay character placed to show that being gay is "normal" and that's about it. Most characters are forgettable messes without much in terms of personality, and those that weren't forgettable were either caricatures or overly annoying.

The book also had multiple instances of fat-shaming and skinny-shaming that grated on me, and the book had a "discussion" about cultural appropriation that essentially stated that as long as you know where the thing you're misusing came from, then misusing it is not appropriation. That's... not how that works. At all. In fact, that's deliberate appropriation, and it's gross.

The only borderline redeeming quality about this book was some (and I mean some) of the discussion of multiple sclerosis, which is the only medical part of the book I even sort of trust because the author herself actually has MS. There were some learning moments there, but they really got buried in the disaster that was the rest of the book. This book didn't really work for me, and it's not one that I can recommend to others.

Final rating: 1 of 5 stars
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Thank you to NetGalley & Aionos Books for providing me an advanced copy.

Trigger warning: Sexual assault/rape, suicide, self-harm.

So I finished this book in one sitting because it's a very fast and short read, and I suppose that's one of the very few positives I can say about it. That and I did kinda like the friendship between the main character Harper and her best friend, thought it was genuinely sweet at parts.

I can't really think of any other positives other than those two things, so I'm just gonna go in.

My main issue with this book pretty much comes down to the tonal problems. As you can tell from the trigger warning I put, this book deals with a lot of very dark, serious issues, however the tone fluctuates in such a weird way. One second it's all comedic and light-hearted, then it goes dark and unsettling, and then it goes right back to being happy and upbeat again. It just didn't work. I understood what the author was going for, I've seen this done well in other books before, but it just wasn't executed very well here. 

I felt like all the serious topics that were present were simply just plot devices, and the way they were wrapped up was almost too easy and everything was handled too optimistically. I guess I found that... unrealistic. It's like the author had rose-colored glasses when writing it. If she had wanted to make a fluff piece, she could've easily done that, but the serious stuff--the suicide and especially the sexual assault and rape depictions--were so gut-wrenching that it just did not fit with the overall cheery atmosphere of the book. I hate to say this but I just didn't think it was handled carefully enough.

Another glaring thing I noticed that was really weird about this book was how often it felt the need to explain things. There'd literally be entire paragraphs that almost seemed copy-pasted from encyclopedias and slightly altered. I'm not accusing the author of doing that, I'm just saying it felt like that. There's three scenes in this book of the MC having to dissect a cat for her Anatomy class (sidebar; the "Oh No, I'm Partnered With My Hot Crush" trope is used here) and in each of those scenes, there's whole paragraphs of the teacher explaining the process and the organs point by point. Like... Why? How is that relevant to the plot? 

Sometimes characters would just be having normal conversations and all of a sudden they'd just turn into a living Wikipedia page of information. I just thought it was so strange, and often times during this book I skimmed because, I kid you not, I felt like I was reading a textbook. It felt like homework. Even the chapters start with dictionary definitions of the chapter names, and it's not as if the chapter names were like, SAT words or something either. Most of them were pretty basic.

Basically all of this has made me realize that perhaps this book is targeted towards a younger audience. I think this particular brand of YA is more appealing for like, preteens. They even use f**k/f**king instead of just saying fuck/fucking. I can't even remember the last time I read a book that had censoring. Either a book had swear words or it didn't. 

But yeah, I'm a twenty-one (almost twenty-two) year old gay man, so perhaps I just wasn't the target demo for this book. Perhaps young girls who aren't very knowledgeable about the things explored in it will appreciate it, learn a lot of interesting little factoids and have more of an emotional reaction, but I've just seen other books tackle these subjects with much more gravitas, so overall I was disappointed.
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Down in the Belly of the Whale started off well, the characters were surprisingly complex and plot was fresh and original. While the narration was a little more immature than I'd hoped, I was kept engaged by the short, sharp chapters and steady action.

Just over half way into the story, however, my attention began to dwindle and I felt that the story could no longer hold my attention as well as it had at the start. It felt like the whole pace of the story had suddenly slowed right down, which was certainly not something I had expected with this book. While I didn't feel particularly close to any one of the characters, I struggled on, Still wanting to see how their story would end.

Towards the end of the book, the narration got steadily more grating, until I no longer felt the desire to continue reading. While part of me still wants to know how the story concludes, overall, the effort I felt that I had to put into reading the book wasn't worth what I was getting out of it. 

All in all, Down in the Belly of the Whale just wasn’t the rewarding read I was expecting it to be and while I liked the unique idea of the plot, in the end, the disappointing narration let the story down, leading to me DNFing this book. A 2 star read ⭐️⭐️.
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I loved the characters in this book. Each with their own set of quirks that made them really unique and different from what is normally in books now. I did, however, feel that Harper was a bit immature. I loved the relationships Harper had with the people around her. I also enjoyed the fact that this was a book that was easy to get into and I read it rather quickly, thanks to the style of writing. I think this deserves five out of five stars.
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This book was an interesting read but it won't stick with me forever
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