April marked a new step in my PhD work - redaction. But it certainly did not mean less reading! I even discovered some new favourites, a feeling I'd missed last month.
The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova · 2005
To mark the new step in my PhD thesis, I wanted a book that would encourage me and spur me on. For that, I picked up a dark academia novel that I'd been saving for the Autumn, Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, and sweet Eru was I right! This is the perfect blend of nerdiness, academia and Gothic vibes with tons of travelling involved, which soothed my lock-down self beyond words.
The cast of characters isn't too big, so that even though the story is split over 3 different time periods (the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s) I had no trouble following each narrative, which is saying a lot for me! They all revolve around historians or historians-to-be who discover a mystery surrounding the character of Dracula. As the size of the book may suggest, the pacing isn't too fast and leaves room for enchanting descriptions of all the locations the protagonists travel too across Europe and a bit of the USA. This book definitely soothed my wanderlust and put me in the right mood for my own academic pursuits!
CW: torture, animal death, vampirism (is that a TW?)
The Tea Dragon Society, by Kay O'Neill · 2017
Could I love a book more? That remains to be seen. This graphic novel about a young blacksmith discovering the existence of tea dragons is cuteness incarnate and will warm your heart. It's packed with lovely representation and an eye-soothing palette with lots of floral motifs and did I mention tea dragons?
The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu · 2015
First of all, I want to praise the diversity and plotting in this book, and the representation of a polyamourous relationship. It is a perfect alternative to G.R.R. Martin. Now, let's turn to why I nearly threw this book out the window, shall we? Rant ahead!
How fitting that when I tried to find again one quote from this book involving women, I couldn't get my hands on it? I'll paraphrase (no spoilers). It's a scene when soldiers (men) insult other soldiers (men) by implying they are women. The scene goes on for some time before one of the characters says something like "women are half of the world's population. Why should we be embarrassed to be compared to them?" If only the very author of the book had kept that in mind!
I don't believe anymore in novels that present to me a fantasy world with lovely worldbuilding but fraught with sexism. Why can you imagine a world with flying, silk-sailed ships and gorgeous air battles between kite riders, but not one in which women are treated as equals to men? Why should women in a fantasy world be reduced to tending babies, cooking or selling themselves? Why should women die to give men reasons to fight?
These problems aren't specific to The Grace of Kings, of course. But if an author is praised for their creativity, I expect more. More than what fantasy stories have always told their women readers. In a 620-page book, you can't imagine an interesting woman character on page 466 and hope the last 150 or so pages will make up for the first 466. In my opinion, that's not how it works. If you want to imagine a world of political intrigues and epic battles, have women be generals, soldiers, rulers. Have men tend babies and cook and mend things. And don't ever, ever tell me that your story is inspired by history, because if you put dragons and gods then clearly you're the one making the rules.
"My only worth to them is my proximity to *him*" says one female character. The author keeps telling us what the problem is, but does he try to solve it? No! I'm sorry for the rant, but that's infuriating.
Now I'll go back to reading The Priory of the Orange Tree or Le Chant des Cavalières.
CW: animal cruelty, animal death, blood, child abuse, child death, death, genocide, grief, kidnapping, mass murders, misogyny, murder, physical abuse, sexism, slavery, torture, violence.
Adapting Tolkien, edited by Will Sherwood · 2021
In April, my very first article as a Tolkien scholar was published!
As much as an accomplishment this is, I just want to point out a truth that not everyone may be aware of. Bear in mind I bear absolutely no grudge against the publishers of Adapting Tolkien, who, on my request, published illustrations for the first time in this book (many thanks to them!).
What I have in mind is a more general problem: academic authors don’t get paid for articles in scholarly books. You read that right. Not a single penny for an article I spent roughly 4 weeks writing and 1 week revising. It’s usual in academia, but it doesn’t make it any more acceptable.
The Martian, by Andy Weir · 2014
Sweet Eru, this book was *good*. I was a little wary going in since, you know, reading about an astronaut stranded on Mars and living in a confined space wasn't exactly the type of escapist literature I was craving, but I had a good feeling about it. Andy Weir flew by my expectations.
The Martian is a story of hope. Defiant hope despite the odds. No, the hero can't go out - at least not without the proper suit. Yes, he faces death on an almost daily basis while being away from his friends and family. But there is so much hope, with a dash of humour, that I felt energised rather than anxious. I even laughed out loud at one of his jokes, and let me tell you it had been a long time I hadn't laughed out loud while reading. Mark Watney isn't perfect. He's human. And while some characters have internalized sexism, the book in itself isn't sexist in my opinion - looking at you The Grace of Kings. If you're in need of a pick-me-up, let me suggest this story of a man doing his best not to die. Plus, for Sam Gamgee / Mr Wickham stans, there are potatoes.
Les Guerriers de Glace, by Estelle Faye · 2018
Alduin and Lena live quietly in their mountain village, oblivious to the threat of the terrifying Ice Warriors who pay the villagers a visit every 8 to 10 years, taking captive a woman each time. To the children, they are a thing from the past. But when Lena is chosen as a tribute to ward off the creatures, the two of them have to find courage to defy the authority to save their lives.
Estelle Faye has crafted a lovely story of friendship. While a little cliché at first, it has some really nice twists in store for readers of all ages. Plus, it's largely illustrated with two-tone pictures that breathe even more life into the narrative. The vocabulary is rich and balanced with simple syntax, so it's a lovely way for children or people learning French (wink wink) to enrich their vocabulary!
Un Eclat de givre, by Estelle Faye · 2014 (re-read)
In a post-apocalyptic Paris, Chet, a jazz singer, merely survives from singing gigs to shady jobs. He is haunted by the memory of a lost love, the echoes of which he searches or misses in his fleeting conquests. Meanwhile Paris is in the thrall of a new drug, one that makes its users forget the stifling heat, and Chet is dragged against his will in a conflict well above his grasp.
Estelle Faye's second novel is elegant, sensual and dark. Her prose is absolutely beautiful, and clearly makes up for the slightly repetitive scenario, scanned by Chet's various injuries. Another of her strong points is her transvestite protagonist whose singular voice rings long after the book is closed.
Note: during the first few chapters, Rufus Wainwright's "La Complainte de la Butte" played in a loop in my head.
Rep: bisexual MC, gay secondary character.
CW: addiction, blood, body horror, drug use, medical content, sexual content, torture, violence.
L'Île au Manoir, by Estelle Faye · 2018
One night, young Adam hears a voice calling him. A girl on the beach asks him to help, but when Adam arrives there, he only finds a mysterious key. A storm is coming to his island, and strange things keep happening. Can the girl, the key and the storm be linked? Can Adam save his island?
This is another lovely middle-grade novel with a close-knit group of friends, on an island off the coast of France. The setting is slightly Gothic and eery, and although the prose was simpler than in Les Guerriers de Glace, by the same author, I found the protagonists more original. I would have liked a little more character development, though, but that's because I'm not used to reading middle-grade (and I'm changing that in 2021).
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante · 2011
Do you enjoy books with a larg cast of characters?
I don't. And when I opened My Brilliant Friend, I literaly recoiled from the list of characters, ha ha. But I was curious to read this immensely succesful book and to discover for myself what it was about. I was curious to read about Naples in the 1950s and the two friends, Elena and Lila, who had captivated so many readers.
Eventually, and without surprise, I was lost among all those characters, I didn't enjoy the writing style and I was tired of reading again a story about children growing up. However I kept reading because the pages turned themselves and because I liked how the author described a friendship like many others - in which the members grow together, apart and close again, without knowing how to define the bond that tie them together but without being neither able nor willing to cut it.
Persuasion, by Jane Austen · 1818
I hadn't read a book by Jane Austen in quite a long time. Last year I contemplated re-reading Emma but I had hated it so much the first time round that I couldn't bring myself to the task again. I also remember feeling really sad while watching the BBC adaptation of Persuasion, but a few friends convinced me I should try reading it, and they were right. Mind you, I felt it dragged quite a bit, and I couldn't care less about the endless discussions and social niceties for most of the book, but I did enjoy the fact that the heroin wasn't a very young woman dazzled by first love. I found her and Captain Wentworth quite endearing, and while I wish the book had been half as short, not so fatphobic and elitist, I'm glad I finally read it.
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What did you read in April?