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Reading wrap-up - August 2022

In August I went through most phases of stress, from the one that made me read a lot, all the time, to the one that prevented me from understanding more than one paragraph at a time. And so I went from doorstoppers to very short formats, and in all that variety I managed to find two new favourites!

City of Dragons, Robin Hobb · 2012

The third volume in the Rain Wilds Chronicles starts really slow. The first few chapters serve as a reminder for what happened before, which is good if you don't read them back-to-back but a little annoying if you do. However, after that the rhythm picks up! We get a few new perspectives in this volume, which expands the scope of the story. It does mean that things don't evolve a lot for the protagonists we've been following so far, but the change of scenery is welcome, I think. Sorry for being so vague but I refuse to spoil anything!

Rep: queer characters.

CW: I didn't notice anything different from the previous volumes. If you survived this far, you're good!

the book stands on a shelf filled with other Robin Hobb books.

Stories of your life and others, Ted Chiang · 2006

I've wanted to read this short story collection since 2016 when I fell in love with the movie "Arrival", by Denis Villeneuve. It's inspired by "Story of your Life", which features here. I really loved it. In regards to the narrator's daughter, it's less dramatic than the movie version, which I really enjoyed. In the movie, I've always felt that part was a bit too much (even though it did make me cry). However, I think the movie format was maybe better suited to the whirlwind of emotions that builds up as you understand what's happening for the narrator, linguist Louise Banks. In that perspective, the short story was a little more factual.

As for the rest of the stories, I don't have anything negative to say. They're all built on a strong idea, and efficiently executed. I have to admit that a couple of them went way beyond my ability to understand what was going on because of the blend of science & philosophy. And the ending of the first story "Tower of Babylon", was a slight disappointment because I'd read a similar thing elsewhere. But on the whole it's book I'd really recommend.

CW: suicidal thoughts ("Division by Zero"), death of a family member ("Story of Your Life"), eugenism ("Seventy-Two Letters"), death of a loved one, car accident and religious bigotry ("Hell Is the Absence of God"), beauty-based discrimination ("Liking What You See")

the book peeks out from the pocket of a garment in a black fabric patterned with large grey flowers.

The Many Half-lived Lives of Sam Sylvester, Maya MacGregor · 2022

If you're looking for something to read after Heartstopper and you've already read all of Alice Oseman's books, look no further! This book has STELLAR representation. It is darker than Oseman's books because of the heavier emphasis on trauma, but in the background it's a story about queer joy, and healthy boundaries, and respect.

We meet Sam Sylvester, who's just moved in with their dad in a new city, ready for a new beginning. We know from early on that something terrible happened to Sam, triggering the move. But they're determined to leave it as much behind as possible, and focus on their passions. Or obsessions. One of these is the recording of "half-lives" - fragments of life from teenagers who died before reaching their 19th birthdays... A date which is coming soon for Sam. What they hadn't expected was that one of the teens had lived in Sam's new house... and died there.

Rep: non-binary autistic MC. The author, as they say in the acknowledgments, is queer, non-binary and autistic.

CW: queerphobia (challenged), child death, toxic relationship, vomit.

an e-reader is placed in front of a row of very old books. The cover shows Sam, a young adult with white hair and a tattooed arm holding a notebook, all in shades of pink and blue.

Cathédrale, Hermine Lefebvre · 2022

Queer, French Dark Academia? Sign me up!

This book was one of my most anticipated releases of 2022. I don't usually buy new releases, but meeting the author at a literary festival in May was the push I needed apparently.

Cathédrale is quite a subtle book. It's very much focused on the characters, which of course I loved. Their interactions really hold the book together while making the reader feel like there's something amiss. We alternate between two perspectives, that of Frédéric, the working class student who was lucky to get a scholarship because he would never have been able to attend Cathédrale, the capital's prestigious university. And we get Lionel, heir to a ruling family, who walks the minute line between unlikeable and nice. Think sass, a touch of arrogance and rule-defiance. All in the context of a university which seems to have a mind of its own.

While I really enjoyed the character writing, I wasn't completely satisfied with the "dark academia" part, because I wish there had been more of it! That's really just my academia-longing speaking here, but I was surprised to wish for more world-building (which I never do) and more diving into the intricacies of magic and knowledge. We do get a good helping of that towards the end, but it felt a little rushed to my taste. Probably because I didn't really want the book to end, to be honest.

So, all in all, a solid addition to the Dark Academia realm of literature, with the bonus of queer rep and neurodivergent rep.

Rep: aro/ace autistic MC, bi secondary character.

CW: I couldn't really point out any content warning. That doesn't mean there aren't! Only that I failed to notice them.

the book on a terracotta-tile floor. The cover, in dark shades, shows a spiral staircase leading to a door which is partially open and lets in golden light.

The Jane Austen Writers' Club, Rebecca Smith · 2016

Part celebration of Jane Austen's literary achievements, part writing advice, this essay invites you to take inspiration from Jane Austen to write your own stories. A lot of space is devoted to an analysis of what makes a Jane Austen novel, but the writing prompts are general enough to fit different perspectives. I'd recommend this book if you don't need specific advice on writing but could do with a little push to consider your work from another angle. Although SFFF is clearly not the focus here, I think sometimes it's nice to look at how writers from other genres do it and who knows? A little banter or small-town drama could take your space opera epic into unexpected directions.

Although I found the quotes often too long, the contextualisation was often on point and concise. One thing I also appreciated was when at the end Rebecca Smith pointed out Jane Austen's prejudices. Although this is very much an ode to her writing, the author included a short part about Austen's fatphobia which was quite welcome.

an ebook showing the cover of the book lies on a white carpet with orange and blue-grey patterns.

Winter's Orbit, Everina Maxwell · 2021

What fun!

This sci-fi book about an arranged marriage has an outrageous premise and very endearing characters. Jainan and Kiem are so well fleshed-out that I was ready to overlook the fact that I couldn't fathom why two men would be forced into a diplomatic arranged marriage, since arranged marriages are usually meant to produce offsprings. But you know what? It took barely a chapter for the banter and alchemy to convince me it was still a good idea. True, the total lack of communication in the first half of the book almost made me pull my own hair, but it's so satisfying to see the relationship evolve, and evolve healthily.

I'm not a fan of romance but this one was pleasant. It did start as insta-love, but took a long time to develop from there so it didn't feel that rushed.

Rep: brown queer MCs, diverse & queer characters.

CW: animal pain, toxic relationship, bullying.

an e-reader showing the cover of the book is set on a wooden table, on top of an old-looking book, next to a sprog of dried roses. There's a patterned cloth in the background.

The Absolute Book, Elizabeth Knox · 2019

I really really wanted to enjoy this book but I had to abandon it a third of the way in, because my stress-riddled mind didn't make sense of what was happening. It's a complex story weaving the real and the supernatural, with flashbacks and lots of questions, which is going to be great when I have the mental space for it. Which is not now.

CW: eating disorder, injury detail.

Rep: so far I had black fairies!

The Old Man and His Cat, volume 3, Nekomaki · 2017

Daikichi and his cat Tama are back for my greatest pleasure in this soft and light tome, with a touch of nostalgy. There's nothing quite like this series to escape, with the help of a few lines and some touches of colour, to this small, Japanese island of cats. Daikichi grumbles nicely, cooks and tends his little vegetable garden while the new town doctor tries to convince unwilling neighbours to let themselves be cared for. Everything is made to spend a quiet moment and swap our daily troubles for the slow life of this Japanese grandpa and his cat.

CW: grief, death, suggestion of animal abandonment.

On a dark background, the book is open at a page showing a white cat wearing a scarf, roasting himself by a stove. A bookmark rests on the book, with drawings of a cat and kitchen things.

Beyond the Gender Binary, Alok Vaid-Menon · 2020

I've been hunting for a second-hand copy of this book ever since I saw Alok in Jonathan Van Ness's Getting Curious. If you haven't watched that, give yourself a favour and go. It's 30 minutes of pure love and joy and also heartbreak.

Beyond the Gender Binary does exactly what it says on the tin, exploring what lies beyond the idea of a gender binary. It does focus a lot on the harm done to victims, so be prepared for that, but it gives a checklist of arguments against the usual responses to people who feel threatened by the existence of trans and non-binary people. This book is very short and easy to read, so it should absolutely be everywhere.

CW : transphobia, queerphobia.

a white hand with burgundy-painted nails holds a copy of the book, the cover of which shows a drawn portrait of Alok Vaid-Menon, in front of dark bushes.

A Psalm for the Wild-built, Becky Chambers · 2021

The dedication to this book is "For anybody who could use a break" and that's exactly what this is. What a precious, precious little book. I wouldn't exactly know how to describe it. It's got tea, a God of Small Comforts, and a sentient robot. Its main character, Dex, is a monk dedicated to help others but a little lost inside. It's Sci-fi insofar as it's set in the future, but really that's not the point. The point is that this book is bursting with humanity and small comforts and even though I'd hate to give you an order, you should absolutely do yourself a favour and read it. Also, I'll tell you more about it in next month's wrap-up.

an e-reader showing the cover of the book rests on a bed of dead leaves.

The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros · 1984

This book feels like a collection of candid snapshots taken by our narrator and main protagonist, Esperanza. She's a young girl from a Latina family growing up in Chicago, who doesn't know where she belongs. Her story is that of so many first-generation immigrants and she faces the same hardships, some she sets light on, others she's too young to really notice. This novel told in bite-size pieces is quite touching but tumbles into dark territory toward the end (see most of the content warnings).

Rep: Mexican-American family.

CW: sexism, fatphobia, domestic violence, sexual harassment & violence, child death.

a white hand holds the book open at the title page, on a wooden table. There is a patterned cloth in the background.


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What did you read in August?

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