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Reading wrap-up - December 2023

Here comes the last monthly reading wrap-up of 2023. I had an excellent reading month, with quite a few shorter formats, and a couple of beta-readings for writer friends I will not share here. I'm managing to end 2023 with a still full TBR trolley, but at least there aren't any volumes blancing on top of the rows... Let's find the victories where they are.

Kaikeyi, Vaishnavi Patel · 2022

Before the story of Rama as told in the Ramayana, there was Kaikeyi, a princess abandoned by the gods who finds her own power and uses it to protect her family.

This novel imagines a multi-facetted portrait of a character often reduced to the evil stepmother trope. What were her motivations ? What was her story before Rama ? Vaishnavi Patel writes an epic fantasy set in South Asia with a lot of heart and a fabulous main character. Kaikeyi is complex and it's a joy to see her evolve throughout the book, discovering how she can see and perhaps influence people’s relationships with her, or when she decides not to use her power. Kaikeyi is also queer, with strong aromantic and asexual vibes. Though of course the words are not used, it is great to read about such a woman and how she navigates her family relationships.

This is an epic at character level, in which we witness political events both from the outside, and from the inside, being privy to the game of influences that is afoot in the palace. It is also about religion, and how sometimes we can respect divinities but also question the interpretation of their words done by men who see their own profit.

There is a tragic atmosphere in Kaikeyi, because as with myth retellings you have an idea of where the story is going. But it is fascinating all the same to see the path the author has put her characters on, which reveals a side of their personalities that doesn’t make it into most versions of the myth.

The book is set on a wooden table, next to a bundled beige patterned scarf and some dried flowers.

The Appendix, Liam Konemann · 2021

In 2019, Liam Konemann set out to record all instances of transphobia he encountered online without looking for them. Unsurprisingly enough, there were many. He had intended to conduct this experiment over 3 months and publish the results as The Appendix, but for various reasons he abandoned before that. He did publish this book entitled The Appendix as a reflection on what led him to this experiment, how he felt while conducting it, and why he eventually decided to focus on trans joy rather than transphobia.

This very short, very accessible book is my first venture into the 404 Inkling series and it won’t be the last. The author is both very open about his process, and always makes sure to quote his sources so that there can be no doubt about the amount of hate trans people are subjected to on a daily basis. He is also very aware of his status as a white, privileged, male-passing person.

I'd say The Appendix may be better geared towards cis people, given that reading again and again about various instances of transphobia can obviously be triggering. It is very valuable as it addresses common misconceptions and candid questions people unfamiliar with trans rights may ask, but it does assume readers have a basic knowledge of the topic. It would feel strange to say I enjoyed this book, but there were very enjoyable parts about trans joy, after the very informative parts about transphobia. I highly recommend it anyway.

CW as listed at the beginning: homophobic slurs, murder, rape, sexual assault, transphobic slurs.

The book is open at the title page on a chequered, autumn-toned scarf. A rainbow pin is tucked in a corner.

Histoires de la mer, illustrated by Maggie Chiang · 2022

This wonderfully-illustrated book brings together folk tales from around the world related to the sea. I bought it as a gift for my nephews after browsing through it and falling in love with Maggie Chiang’s illustrations which are both minimalistic and evocative.

The tales in here are very varied, both in terms of length and geographical origin. I loved the first one, an Armenian story in which the princess saves herself and other women in the process. The last few ones were also enjoyable, but sadly I didn’t have such a great time with all the others. I have to say I’m not the biggest fan of folk tales because I often find their prose too concise. I don’t have time to immerse myself in the atmosphere, and the characters aren’t complex enough, which is absolutely usual and normal for folk tales, the scope of which is quite different from a novel. I also can’t help but grind my teeth when reading stories in which women are the prize for the deserving hero, or monsters to vanquish. This collection doesn’t set out to retell those legends but to share them as they are, coming from very diverse traditions. In that way it’s valuable, and it’s not a big deal if I’m not the intended audience.

The book stands on a side table with a bunch of dried flowers, in front of grey patterned curtains.

A Magic Steeped in Poison, Judy I. Lin · 2023

Ning is apprentice to her father, a physician, while her sister Shu follows in their mother’s footsteps and prepares to become a shénnóng-tú, a student in the magic of tea. That is until tea brewed from a brick similar to the hundreds of bricks gifted by the emperor to his subjects, kills Ning and Shu’s mother and leaves the latter in a state close to it. Ning has practised tea magic as well and developed promising abilities, but she can’t save her sister. Her only hope is winning the attention of the imperial palace and securing the help of a royal physician. To do that, Ning enrols in a competition to become the future empress’s shénnóng-shī, master of tea.

This high-stake, Chinese-inspired fantasy novel is easy to love. With a stubborn heroine devoted to saving her family, tea-magic and a magic tea competition, there’s no time to lose and the chapters fly by. I love that the author still took the time to introduce plenty of details describing the culture (the clothing, architecture, traditions) and the art of tea. It made for a very thoughtful narrative that was quite intense and fun. As usual, I didn’t care for the hint of romance, but by now I'm used to it and I don't hold it against the author.

Just so you know, this is the first volume in a duology and by the end you’re strongly encouraged to pick up the next one.

CW: death of parent, sexism, classism.

A white hand holds an e-reader showing the cover of the book in front of an ivy-covered wall.

Tonnerre après les ruines, Floriane Soulas · 2023

Book sent by the publisher via NetGalley.

I was afraid of this book. And rightly so. Before you make me say something I didn’t say, this book is a masterpiece. It also required me to make a ginger-lemon-thyme-mint herbal tea to fight the nausea it came with. And I had the support of a group of friends to face the last few chapters.

Floriane Soulas deserves all the hugs she’ll consent to, and also a therapy. I may have a slice of therapy, now, thank you.

How can I begin to talk about this book? Let’s stick to the facts.

Tonnerre après les ruines is a brutal post-apocalyptic novel. Lottie and Férale are surviving however they can, one vaccined against diseases wreaking havoc on the survivors, the other forever changed by a variant of the yellow rabies that didn’t quite kill her. They earn their living doing mercenary work for caravans, whose life they share for a few weeks before going their own way again, until one day Férale hears about Tonnerre, where doctors seem to be working on an antidote. Lottie won’t go there, for reasons she doesn’t reveal, but she finally gives in to Férale’s will, the one she sees as a daughter. In Tonnerre, they find a level of inhumanity they have never come across in the wild lands where everything tries to kill people.

This novel stands shoulder to shoulder with N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Mariana Enríquez’s Our Share of Night, but it goes even further into horror. Mariana Enríquez did a lot of suggestion, where Floriane Soulas grabs you by the neck and burrows your nose into the horror. You can’t escape the most revolting details, but you also can’t stop reading this masterful narrative. Because behind its tremendous violence, is a powerful discussion on monstrosity and alienation, on autonomy and the means to reach a goal far bigger than those working towards it.

In Tonnerre, the unspeakable is written in bodies, and especially female bodies. However, I am so thankful to the author for never sexualising this violence. It may well be the only solace she grants the readers over pages and pages of gruesome content. And I say that with the utmost respect for Floriane Soulas and her work. Once again, this book is a masterpiece. But I beg you, if you have the slightest doubt over your ability to handle the themes, please skip this one.

CW: body horror, violence, death of children, terminal illness, death of animals, panic attacks, forced pregnancies, death in childbirth, anthropophagy, self-harm, eugenism, traumatic medical scenes.

An e-reader showing the cover of the book leans on a row old leather-bound volumes with gold details.

The Art of Fiction, David Lodge · 1992

For a year at the beginning of the 1990s, Lodge wrote weekly articles in a journal about the craft of writing. This book collects these pieces that the author reworked, expanding some of them and rewriting some passages. Each of them is introduced with a quote from an American or British novel (this being the author’s area of expertise, since Lodge worked as an academic as well as a novelist). The writer then writes about a specific theme relevant to the extract chosen, for example suspense, point of view, lists, magical realism, etc. The very short format of each section doesn’t lend itself to a lot of depth, but it works as a good introduction and may encourage readers who are also writers to ask the right questions. I appreciated the fact that each reflection was introduced by a paragraph taken from a published novel, so that there was always a good balance between theory and practice. Although I found this book a little surface-level, I do like the array of themes tackled and how they encourage you to make your own opinion about them.

The book is surrounded with other books on writing, dead leaves and dried orange slices.

Light in Gaza : Writings Born of Fire, edited by Jehad Abusalim, Jennifer Bing, and Mike Merryman-Lotze · 2022

This collection brings together essays and poetry by Palestinian authors about Palestine. It provides nuanced and scholarly views on Palestine’s past, present and future, in a variety of different domains: agriculture, social media, architecture, ethics, artificial intelligence, education, politics of course, etc. Some essays are more autobiographical, describing in simple words what it’s like to live in Gaza and what it has been especially since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The poems bring together all those issues in direct, heartfelt lines.

I thought this was an accessible, well-researched and important book. The publisher is offering the ebook for free and I highly recommend it for a portrait of Gazan society very different from what Western media is used to showing its viewers.

This book was published in 2022, with most of the pieces written in 2021, so it doesn’t take into account the horrific events we are witnessing. However it provides context for the colonial violence and genocide perpetrated by Israel, and looks at possible futures for Gaza depending on the reactions of the international community. It is both a love letter to Palestinian culture and resilience, and a plea for help.

CW: colonisation, colonial violence, police brutality, genoc!de.

An e-reader showing the cover of the book surrounded with dahlia in flower and in bud.

Fées de lait et stèles d’argent, Alice Lathuillière · 2023

This fourth volume in the Chronopages series follows Kalos, a sculptor who is also a satyr, who feels a deep melancholy. Determined to look for its source far from the creatures surrounding him, he sets out for an expedition North, where fragile fairies live.

This short story is rich and literary luscious. It is a more demanding read than average, but it also has treasures in store to congratulate the audacious reader. I thought it was stunning, and I revelled on each carefully-selected word.

To give you some context, I read it on a rather chaotic day, during which I was often interrupted in my reading, so that I had to read the beginning several times. Well, each time I went back I discovered something new. Despite its very short format, this story is a promise of many delights upon each re-read.

The booklet, the cover of which features a crystal statue, rests on a wooden table, next to a lotus-shape decoration and a spiral-bound notebook.

A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar · 2013 (2022)

Jevick was born on an island that literature didn’t touch, and grew up between plantations of pepper and tea. His father took regular trips to Olondria to sell their production, and soon Jevick has to step up and take his place. There, in the whirlwind of novelties, Jevick discovers books and how stories endure there after the person who wrote them passed away. He sets out, not entirely of his own accord, on a quest for a ghost and for the thousand and one stories that will accompany his journey.

This superbly-written novel reads like a classic. It starts as a bildungsroman before turning to something more meta, for lack of a better word. Narratives are woven and interwoven, until the reader is left feeling dizzy. Sometimes, if I wasn’t careful and let my focus slip, I couldn’t tell where I was — in Jevick’s main narrative, or in one of the tales he hears? It made for a dream-like reading experience, where one thing bled into the other and the unexpected waited behind every page. The beauty of the prose kept me hooked to my reading. I do think this book is best read several times, and I’m happy to make a special place for it on my shelves until our next meeting.

The book rests on a dark wooden side table, next to a bunch of dried flowers.

Christmas Days, Jeanette Winterson · 2016

The subtitle of this book says it all: “12 stories and 12 feasts for 12 days”. In there you find 12 short stories from the heartwarming to the spooky, and 12 more or less vague recipes to help you get festive without too much fuss in the 12 days from December 25 to January 5.

This book is quite lovely ! The stories had a wonderful balance in tone and atmosphere and the recipes were adequately sprinkled with personal stories and musings from the author. I wrote down a few particularly tasty quotes, including this one: “When I am climbing, I understand that gravity exists to protect us from our lightness of being, in the same way that time is what shields us from eternity”.

I don’t have much more to say about this book except that it was the perfect seasonal read and that its short format makes it perfect for the sometimes hectic days at the end of the year.

A white hand holds a copy of the book, with its black-and-white cover, in front of a decorated Yule tree.

Les Sœurs Hiver, Jolan C. Bertand · 2022

It’s a new tradition of mine to reread this middle-grade novel in the last week of the year. It’s wintery, inclusive, queer, deep and child-appropriate at the same time, as the best children’s books are. It deals with depression with heaps of tact, and has enchanting illustrations. What more to ask ?

The book rests on a fleece blanket.

Les Carnets de Cornélius Renard, Mickaël Brun-Arnaud, illustrated by Sanoe · 2023

This autumn day was supposed to be just like the others, except that Archibald Renard found himself evicted from his dear library. Célestin Loup argues that his own family are the real owners and that Archibald has to leave at once. The latter packs with a heavy heart. While rummaging through his things, he uncovers a message from his grand-father Cornélius, the founder of the library, who wrote his memoirs in a series of notebooks where the truth is hiding. Archibald and his nephew Bartholomé set out on a quest for Cornélius’s memories and for the real history of the library.

Once more, Mickaël Brun-Arnaud gifts us with a deeply touching story, dealing with difficult themes with the utmost tenderness. After summer in volume one, we are here diving in the golds and tawny shades of autumn, the better to explore secrets from the past that are as sweet as they are tragic. As for Sanoe, she does the most wonderful job at decorating the pages with bright illustrations in which I would very much like to burrow.

This second tome is another wonderful discovery, and I recommend this series to both children and adult.

CW: death of loved ones, suicide attempt.

The book, with its autumnal colours, is framed by feet wearing mustard-coloured, cat-patterned socks.


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What did you read in December ?

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