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Reading wrap-up - August 2021

After my now-traditional re-read of a novel by Robin Hobb, Royal Assassin in August (you can find my Instagram posts with the hashtag #OneHobbAMonth), I started a month of diverse reading since as usual from France, the UK and the USA, but also Chile and Russia. I ended up with a potential new favourite, lovely discoveries, a disappointment and a not-so-puzzling experience...

Royal Assassin, by Robin Hobb · 1996

"Here we are, and here is always the place we must start from."

Each time I read this book, and it's been 4 or 5 times, I wonder why I make myself go through all that pain again. Robin Hobb isn't gentle with her characters. She pushes them to their limits, and then beyond, while keeping a firm grip on her story. Because she's also a master storyteller, and a queen of character writing. I go back to her books because there are no others I can immerse myself as much into. I know Fitz, and I know the Fool, by some deeper knowledge than just words. I live for the conversations they have in this particular volume. Yes, there's one the characters I hate the most in all literature, but there's also fabulous friendships between people of all genders. It's a truth universally acknowledged that found family is my favourite trope, and I have an inkling that I first experienced its thrill with this series. 

TW: child death, suicide, ptsd, torture, violence.

(Pic from volume 1 to limit spoilers.)

the book is open to show the illustration of a woman in a grey dress, next to a few branches of dried white flowers.

Tilly and the Bookwanderers, Pages & Co. Vol. 1, by Anna James · 2018

Tilly is a bright girl of 11 living with her grand-parents, the owners of Pages & Co, the family bookshop. Tilly is used to spending her time reading, less so of meeting her favourite characters in the flesh. But Tilly is a bookwanderer - she can travel inside books and invite characters into her world. Can a book hold the answer to her mother's disappearance?

I read this sweet, sweet book as research for a creative project and it was really lovely. A heart-warming story for middle-grade children celebrating the love of books in all their forms - there's a second character with dyslexia who prefers books in audio format and I thought that was a welcome detail.

a white hand holds a copy of the book in front of a bookcase.

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card · 1990

This writing textbook is a mixture of very vague ideas and very specific advice on writing speculative fiction. I haven't read anything by this author, I just knew he was famous, but upon finishing this book I did some research and will not be reading anything by him considering his views. Don't fear to be missing out : the most helpful pieces of advice from the book can be found elsewhere. For instance, I was introduced to the MICE quotient by Mary Robinette Kowal in a great masterclass available on YouTube. This quotient is a great tool to get an overhead view on your stories.

Is there a piece of advice from a writer that changed your approach to writing?

a white hand holding a coy of the book in front of four oil paintings.

Network Effect, by Martha Wells · 2020

The 5th volume in the Murderbot Diaries delivers like the previous episodes. This one is actually much bigger, at 400 pages, but Martha Wells manages to keep the rhythm of her novellas and provides climaxes at regular intervals to keep interest high. Our favourite cyborg faces bigger and bigger challenges, some of them being of the emotional kind. I was sometimes lost amidst the details of the plot, but the overall progression of the story was always clear. There were some great ideas in this volume, plot twists which were both unexpected and completely in keeping with the atmosphere of this series.

Rep: aro / ace, agender MC, queer secondary characters.

a white hand holds a copy of the book in front of a bush.

Magic Charly, by Audrey Alwett · 2019 (in French only)

Kiki's Delivery Service meets Terry Pratchett in this French middle-grade fantasy featuring a magical grandmother who's lost her memory, a young Black boy discovering his powers and a clever witch in disguise.

This book was really enchanting. That being said, when the prologue brings together baking and magical books, it's sure to catch my attention. I had lots of fun following Charly's adventures, and was genuinely surprised by some of the revelations which brought a lot of depth to the story. Bonus point for a wonderfully diverse cast!

Rep: Black teenage boy, Asian wizard.

TW: child death. 

the book is balanced on a balustrade, with a background of blurry paintings on the wall.

Lady Astronaute, by Mary Robinette Kowal · 2018

I discovered Mary Robinette Kowal thanks to a short story masterclass that was hugely helpful to my writing. I hadn't read anything by her yet, so when my local library added this collection to their shelves, I borrowed it in a heartbeat. The collection is set after Kowal's trilogy starting with The Calculating Stars, but it can be read on its own. The stories are efficient, clever, and some are surprisingly moving for such short pieces. They mostly take place on Mars in the 1970s, after humanity colonised the planet, so in a way they could be considered alternate histories. This collection could work well for people who are not familiar with sci-fi, since they're concerned with humans rather than technology.

TW: terminal illness.

a library copy of the book rests on a dark wooden table. A bunch of dried flowers towers over it.

The Black God's Drums & A Dead Djinn in Cairo, by Phenderson Djèlí Clark · 2016/2018

In France, Clark's two novellas are published in the same book. First of all, I want to congratulate Mathilde Montier, the translator, who did a fantastic job, especially on the first one, transposing the characters' unique way of speaking and Clark's lush prose.

The first story, The Black God's Drums, takes us to a New Orleans buffetted by storms, in which a young orphan witnesses a conversation that leads her to all sorts of trouble, including the threat of a black god's anger. In A Dead Djinn in Cairo, a lady detective encounters an unusual corpse and mystical symbols hiding a complex and metaphysical conspiration.

Both stories unfold very detailed worlds rich in imagery, in an alternate history that deals the cards of humanity in a new and fascinating way. Both are set around the turn of the century and feature female characters with strong voices. The first one, in New Orleans, took me a little while to get used to the intricate world-building. The second one swept me off my feet instantly and I would gladly have read a lot more (which I should be able to do in The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and A Master of Djinn one day).

a French copy of the book on a distressed leather and wood table. The white wall behind is slightly cracked.

City of the Beasts (La Ciudad de las Bestias), by Isabel Allende · 2002

This is one of those books that touches on really important topics but in a way that I didn't really enjoy. City of the Beasts celebrates the Amazon forest and keeps raising alarm on how it's treated and how it needs to be saved, which is sadly still relevant nearly 20 years after it was published. To do so, the author writes a YA / middle-grade adventure novel about a 15-year-old Californian boy with an excentric grand-mother who turns out to be some sort of Chosen One and to save the local inhabitants. This is an instance of the White Savior trope, in which a white foreigner saves grateful locals, to the point that he's initiated into their secrets. It didn't sit right with me.

As far as the writing style is concerned, the narration was so detached (too much in the "tell", not enough in the "show") that I had no empathy for the characters and didn't really buy into what I was reading. There was also the fact that in France, this book is published as an adult book when to me, it felt very middle-grade. There were lots of repetitions, and the characters were very cliché.

I really wanted to love this book, so I was all the more frustrated. This is probably because ever since I noticed City of the Beasts years and years ago, I built an image of it in my head that I was bound to miss when reading the actual book.  I can't help but think that in the twenty years since this book was published, middle-grade has evolved and isn't written in the same way. The middle-grade books I've read recently were witty and fun when this one sounded rather preachy and a little condenscending towards the inhabitants of the Amazon forest.

TW: colonisation, cultural appropriation, death, genocide, gun violence. 

a white hand holds a copy of the book in front of bushes.

Vita Nostra, by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko · 2007

This book felt like two in one. On the one hand it was a fascinating, fantastical story about a young woman joining a school not completely of her own free will, but finding her true self there. On the other, there was a panel of insufferable high schools students riddled with societal injonctions and prejudices. It made me quite uncomfortable, reminding me of my own high school years. I wish that the characters had been more nuanced to echo the beautiful complexity of the main part of the novel, which is about this strange institute and what it teaches. That side of the story had a dream-like quality. It was quite compelling!

PS: there wasn't a shred of representation but I don't know how inclusive Russia is in general so I won't make assumptions.

TW: toxic relationship, slut-shaming and virginity-shaming, lesser TW for sexual violence (mentioned, not described).

an e-reader showing the cover of the book is set on an old, wooden chair in front of grey-blue curtains.


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What did you read in August?

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