With a little R&R time over the past week, I managed to knock some must-reads off my TBR, and I’ve got to say, these were some really fantastic books! I now have three more authors to follow – and a list of their books to add to my TBR. If you haven’t read these, I highly recommend each of them. If you have read them, let me know what you think in the comments below.
The Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin (2015)
Sometimes you want things to change so badly, you can’t even stand to be in the same room with the way things actually are.p. 12
Summary: “Some hearts beat only about 412 million times. Which might sound like a lot. But the truth is, it barely even gets you twelve years. Suzy Swanson has always known things that others don’t. She can explain the sleep patterns of ants. She knows there are 150 million jellyfish stings on the planet every year. She knows that the average middle school kid contains about 20 billion of Shakespeare’s atoms. But she can’t understand how Franny Jackson’s lifetime could be cut so short … before Suzy could make up for the worst thing she’d ever done to her friend. As Suzy retreats into a silent world of her imagination, she finds that the universe won’t allow her escape into her grief. Astonishing wonders are all around her … as are the love and hope she desperately needs to forgive herself. This achingly heartfelt debut explores the defining moment in each of our lives when we first realize that not all stories have happy endings … but that brand-new stories are waiting to bloom, sometimes right in our own backyards.”
Reaction: This book could not have come at a more perfect time for me, as this month marked the anniversary of the toughest loss of my life. Benjamin’s novel is both heartbreaking and soul-mending in the most beautiful – and most needed – of ways, and I am so thankful to have had it with me during this time. There is something about the loss of a parent that regresses you right back to a time when, like Suzy, you were just beginning the journey of figuring out who you are, who you want to be, and how to navigate a world where stability and stillness seem somehow always just beyond reach. Suzy’s struggles to cope with the loss of her best friend – a friend she had begun to lose even before death stole her away – were so masterfully explored that it was easy to slip right past imagining and into feeling the rawness of her emotions at each turn. To struggle through denial, through anger, through grief, right alongside her. And ultimately, to come out the other side with some level of acceptance, of redemption, and of peace. This is one of those books that will linger with me for quite some time. Highly recommend.
Next Up: After falling in love with this book, I’m curious about Ali Benjamin’s other works and will probably pick up The Next Great Paulie Fink (2019). It’s another middle grade novel, featuring identity and fitting in as one of the primary themes. (“Being the new kid at school isn’t easy, especially when you have to follow in the footsteps of a legendary classroom prankster.”)
A Magic Steeped in Poison, by Judy I. Lin (2022)
Even when Mother was alive, even when I was happy in the gardens with my family, I always felt like I was orbiting them, occupying a similar space but charting my own invisible course, with no idea where it would take me.
Maybe I’m about to find out.p. 21
Summary: “For Ning, the only thing worse than losing her mother is knowing that it’s her own fault. She was the one who unknowingly brewed the poison tea that killed her mother – the poison tea that now threatens to also take her sister, Shu. When Ning hears of a competition to find the kingdom’s greatest shennong-shi – masters of the ancient and magical art of tea-making – she travels to the imperial city to compete. The winner will receive a favor from the princess, which may be Ning’s only chance to save her sister’s life. But between the backstabbing competitors, the bloody court politics, and a mysterious (and handsome) boy with a shocking secret, Ning might actually be the one in more danger.”
Reaction: I really enjoyed this one! The novel is both wonderfully atmospheric – with detailed descriptions of the teas and tea-making, the food, the gardens, the scenery – and full of intricate political intrigue that serves as a driving force for the plot. The oscillation between the two – and sometimes the suspension of one within the other – strikes the perfect balance for pacing and allows the plot to twist and turn quickly while also packing in depth and nuance as it unfolds. The story reaches a partial resolution, but also leaves quite a bit of work for the second installment, A Venom Dark and Sweet, which was released this week. Can’t wait to dig into that one, too! Highly recommend.
Next Up: No difficult decisions here. I’m definitely going to pick up A Venom Dark and Sweet (2022) and see where this tale takes me next!
The Girl Who Speaks Bear, by Sophie Anderson (2019)
I had to walk deep into the forest before I understood what I was leaving behind. I had to lose what I had before I realized how much I loved it. And I had to look back into my past to see what I want in my future.p. 226
Summary: “Twelve-year-old Yanka has never felt at home in her small village. She was discovered in a bear cave as a baby, and the other children mock her for her unusual size and strength. Yanka is desperate to discover the truth about her past – and learn why mysterious forest creatures keep calling to her – but her protective foster mother won’t let her venture too far into the dangerous woods. When Yanka wakes up one morning to discover, to her horror, that her legs have transformed into bear legs, she knows she has no choice – she must leave her village before her neighbors shun her as a monster. So Yanka leaves home and enters the Snow Forest with her pet weasel, Mousetrap, in order to gather clues about her mysterious past. But the Snow Forest contains many dangers, including creatures from the fantastical stories Yanka believed were only legends. And just when Yanka draws close to discovering who she really is, she’s faced with a terrifying threat that could trap her in the forest … forever.”
Reaction: I was pretty sure I would love this book from the moment I read its summary, and it definitely lived up to my expectations! The story, with its folktale stylings and magical realism, was everything I had hoped it would be. But what sold me even more were the expressive depths of Yanka’s search for identity and belonging, the nuances of her struggle to choose between one version of her life and another, and oh my word, the ending! I won’t spoil it, but despite how much I had enjoyed the book throughout, I did not expect the rush of emotions I felt through the final act. This is definitely going on my list of favorites, and I’m excited to check out Sophie Anderson’s other works. Highly recommend.
Next Up: I’m not sure which Sophie Anderson novel I want to read next: The House with Chicken Legs (2018) or The Castle of Tangled Magic (2020). Either way, I think I’ll be in for a great ride!