Last month, I read so many great books, but the works of three authors really stood out: Sophie Anderson, Ali Benjamin, and Judy I. Lin. So, for September, I wanted to read another book by each of them. I’m so glad I did!
The Castle of Tangled Magic, by Sophie Anderson (2020)
It’s hard for humans to keep their belief in magic as they grow older. You want to understand things, so you build ideas of what the world is in your minds, then reject anything that doesn’t fit into that…. But you keep it all in your heart, Olia. And it’s still there, when you need it. That’s why it’s important to look and think with your heart.p. 122
Summary: “Twelve-year-old Olia knows a thing or two about secrets. Her parents are the caretakers of Castle Mila, a soaring palace with golden domes, lush gardens, and countless rooms. Literally countless rooms. There are rooms that appear and disappear, and rooms that have been hiding themselves for centuries. The only person who can access them is Olia. She has a special bond with the castle, and it seems to trust her with its secrets. But then a violent storm rolls in… a storm that skips over the village and surrounds the castle, threatening to tear it apart. While taking cover in a rarely used room, Olia stumbles down a secret passage that leads to a part of Castle Mila she’s never seen before: a strange network of rooms that hide the secret to the castle’s past… and the truth about who’s trying to destroy it.”
Reaction: This was such a lovely read, full of lessons on self-confidence, discernment, compassion, forgiveness and redemption, and the powerful pull of “home.” As with The Girl Who Speaks Bear (2019), this story pulled me in almost immediately with its folktale stylings and magical realism, and I’m learning that this is a new favorite genre for me. I didn’t give this one quite as high a rating as The Girl Who Speaks Bear, as this one didn’t quite give me the full range of emotions that Bear did, but still, I thoroughly enjoyed it and cannot wait to read the first of Anderson’s books in this group, The House with Chicken Legs (2018). Highly recommend.
The Next Great Paulie Fink, by Ali Benjamin (2019)
The whole thing reminded me of one of those coin-sorting machines: You take a jar of jumbled-up change, dump it all into the machine, and within about twenty seconds all the dimes are neatly stacked, and all the nickels, and all the pennies and quarters, too. That’s what middle school feels like: a giant sorting machine. Which means that right now, everyone’s trying to figure out where I fit.p. 21
Summary: “When Caitlyn Breen begins her disorienting new life at the rural Mitchell School – where the students take care of real live goats and study long-dead philosophers, and where there are only ten other students in the entire seventh grade – it seems like nobody can stop talking about some kid named Paulie Fink. Depending on whom you ask, Paulie was either a hilarious class clown, a relentless troublemaker, a hapless klutz, or an evil genius. One thing’s for sure, though: The kid was totally legendary. Now he’s disappeared, and Caitlyn finds herself leading a reality-show-style competition to find the school’s next great Paulie Fink. With each challenge, Caitlyn struggles to understand a person she never met … but it’s what she discovers about herself that most surprises her. Told in multiple voices, interviews, and documents, this funny, thought-provoking novel from the bestselling author of The Thing About Jellyfish is a memorable exploration of what makes a hero – and if anyone, or anything, is truly what it seems.”
Reaction: It’s official: I am an Ali Benjamin fan! This book is not only funny and thought-provoking, but also deftly told in various formats and points of view – and next to impossible to put down! Benjamin takes characters that at first seem to be thin, two-dimensional figures – fitting into their various coin slots in the sorting machine – and expands them, through Caitlyn’s eyes, to be uniquely themselves, defiant of any conventions that others might feel compelled to obey as the “rules” of middle-school life and its hierarchies. This, in turn, inspires Caitlyn to step outside the world she believes in and determine for herself what’s most important and who she wants to become. I really enjoyed this novel and am curious now to check out Benjamin’s adult novel, The Smash-Up (2021). Highly recommend this one!
A Venom Dark and Sweet, by Judy I. Lin (2022)
***SPOILER ALERT: The book-jacket summary of this novel gives away info about the first book, A Magic Steeped in Poison (2022). If you don’t want to know what happens in the first book, STOP HERE!***
It is the white sword, however, that catches Kang’s eye. The cursed sword that accompanied the warlord, who caused so much death and destruction. Yet, depending on how the story is told, he was either a rebel who fought senselessly or the heroic protector of his clan who defended them until his last breath. Kang wonders how historians will describe this time period. How he will be remembered in the records of history.p. 160
Summary: “A great evil has come to the kingdom of Dàxi. The Banished Prince has returned to seize power, his rise to the dragon throne aided by the mass poisonings that have kept the people bound in fear and distrust. Ning, a young but powerful shénnóng-shi ― a wielder of magic using the ancient and delicate art of tea-making ― has escorted Princess Zhen into exile. Joining them is the princess’ loyal bodyguard, Ruyi, and Ning’s newly healed sister, Shu. Together the four young women travel throughout the kingdom in search of allies to help oust the invaders and take back Zhen’s rightful throne. But the golden serpent still haunts Ning’s nightmares with visions of war and bloodshed. An evil far more ancient than the petty conflicts of men has awoken, and all the magic in the land may not be enough to stop it from consuming the world.”
Reaction: Unlike the first book, this story is told from both Ning’s and Kang’s point of view, giving additional insight into the young prince’s motives that we did not get in the first installment. (The story begins with Kang, but it is only Ning’s POV that is written in first person; Kang’s is told in close-third.) In many ways, the lack of Kang’s POV was necessary for holding or increasing tension in the first novel, but here, the tension comes not from being blind to his perspective but from anticipating how and when the two will collide. With a quicker pace driven primarily by the evolving political fallout of the end of book one, this book – the first half, in particular – is spent less in the meditative world of tea-making and regional cuisine and more on the run. Even in the latter half, as the beauty of shénnóng magic is increasingly on display, it is often still the inner landscape of the characters – and of Ning and Kang’s relationship, in particular – that serves to slow the pace to a held breath, a shared memory, a skipped heartbeat. The story resolves a bit too quickly, I think, and left me wishing a couple things had gone differently, and that is reflected in my rating the book a bit lower than the first one. Still, I really enjoyed this duology and am glad to have read it. Highly recommend.
Soundtrack Sidenote: Because my home is often chaotic and noisy, I usually read while listening to the “white noise” of a coffee shop video. Sometimes I try to pair the visual of the video with the novel I’m reading (e.g., a Venetian cafe for a novel set in Venice). For this novel, I found a magical tearoom ASMR and ohmygoodness, it was perfect!