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Reading wrap-up - February 2021

Dernière mise à jour : 23 mars 2021

One thing I didn't expect from making monthly TBRs is that I would end up reading nine books in the 28 days of February. There may be something about knowing precisely what book awaits me after the current one. On the one hand I don't want reading to become about numbers, but on the other hand I'm more hopeful about making a dent in my physical TBR. So without further ado, here are the nine books I read in February!

Arlis des Forains by Mélanie Fazi · 2004

Young Arlis belong to a circus troup travelling across the USA. Alongside Katrina and her serpents, Jared and his bear, Lindy who play for Arlis the part of the mother he never knew, and the others, life is chaotic, interspersed with heated arguments and secrets. In Bailey Creek, Arlis meets Faith, the pastor's daughter, whose stable life Arlis longs for. But Faith hides secrets of her own, and slowly reveals to Arlis what may be hiding in the endless wheat fields surrounding the village.

I started this book without knowing what to expect, except a fantastical story. I was quite surprised with how slow the pacing was. The narration seemed to stretch like a summer day before the first elements of mystery were introduced. I didn't particularly love the characters or the setting. For once, I wish the supernatural could have come a little sooner in the story to grab my attention. But I think this book will be perfect for fans of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, in a more slow and minimalist way.

Cajou, a fierce-looking tabby cat, is sitting on a bed next to a copy of the book, whose covers show a young boy in a field, with a scarecrow in the background.

Wizard of the Pigeons, by Megan Lindholm · 1985

As a huge fan of Robin Hobb, it took me a while to dare read the books she's written as Megan Lindholm. I savour the fact that somehow there were still books by her I had left to read, but I also feared I wouldn't enjoy Megan Lindholm's writing as much as I loved Robin Hobb's. This illustrated edition of Wizard of the Pigeons was the opportunity to find out. And I'm relieved to say Megan Lindholm can weave sentences just as poetic and intricate and brilliant as Robin Hobb.

Wizard of the Pigeons is an urban fantasy novel featuring a veteran anti-hero, Wizard, a toy of his own magic, surviving in the streets of Seattle. There are shards of light, but this is a dark, dark story. One chapter really upset me, but I couldn't resist keeping on reading, and though I may not have picked up this book had I known about the trigger warnings, I'm glad I did. This is a story of survival, and I really felt all the struggles but also the hope Wizard experiences. 

TW: animal abuse (but it is my duty to tell you that the cat is alive by the end), rape, suicide, assault.

The book standing on the top of a bookshelf, next to a bunch of dried roses. On the shelf below are books by Robin Hobb and an embroidery in a round hoop.

Les Chats de l'écrivaine, by Muriel Barbery · 2020

This is a super cute picture book for all ages, narrated by one of the feline companions of the authoress. Throughout the pages, illustrated in eye-soothing tones of grey and orange, we meet Kirin, Petrus, Ocha and Mizu, who have decided to band together and claim their rights as co-authors of their human's works. After all, they're the one mentally supporting her all day long, and they even have their say during the dreaded revision process...

Cajou the cat, curled around a picture book.

The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien · 1955

When you can't find the words to tell once more about a book you love, you can always rely on quotes.

"Death was ever present, because the Númenoreans still, as they had in their old kingdom, and so lost it, hungered after endless life unchanging. Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars."

"We in the house of Denethor know much ancient lore by long tradition, and there are moreover in our treasuries many things preserved: books and tablets writ on withered parchments, yea, and on stone, and on leaves of silver and of gold, in divers characters. Some none can now read; and for the rest, few ever unlock them. I can read a little in them, for I have had teaching. It was these records that brought the Grey Pilgrim to us."

A one-volume copy of The Lord of the Rings, with a cover illustrated by Alan Lee, sitting on a shelf with other Tolkien books. An embroidery showing a Hobbit hole is peeking behind the book, as well as a bunch of dried flowers.

Hello England! by Héloïse Weiner · 2020

This fun comic book tells about the author's first year in England with her significant other. It really reminded me of my first (although much shorter) stay with a friend, and made me laugh out loud more than I can count! A great short read between two heftier tomes.

A copy of the book on top of an open English dictionary.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin · 2015

How to begin talking about this book? It's even hard to categorise it. Here you have a blend of fantasy and sci-fi in a post-apocalyptic world. Well, it would be better to say an apocalyptic world, because it feels like the apocalypse keeps happening. The Stillness is a big continent shaken by earthquakes, on which humans learn to survive the heard way. The story is split between three different women, Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, who each have harrowing hardships to overcome. Be warned, this book isn't for the faint-hearted. Some passages really made me nauseous and I almost stopped reading entirely at some point. But it's also an intense page-turner, one that was hard to put down even for all the heart-break.

In addition to fabulous character development regarding the three narrators, there is dense world-building. As with most great speculative fiction, the world-building can be boiled down to one characteristic (devastating earthquakes), but Jemisin has really thought about all the ways it impacts every aspect of geography & human societies, down to some we would never have thought about but which make perfect sense. In her world, magic isn't about creating something, it's about stopping "natural" disasters through energy transfer. There's also hints of lockdown and curfew and masks, which would have sounded exotic had I read this book before 2020 but now... Well.

TW: honestly, I felt there were all the trigger warnings in this book, but especially : rape, enslavement, child abuse, child death, emotional abuse, toxic relationship, torture, suicidal thoughts, mental illness, grief + one mention of cannibalism, hints of sexual violence. Heavy stuff.

Bonus point for trans & bi rep.

An e-reader showing the book cover is resting on a wooden table, with a warm-toned fabric in the background.

Nus, by Laure Becdelièvre · 2020

My local library is hosting a literary prize for debut novels, with four contestants, so I thought it was as good an occasion as any to read a bit more literary fiction in French. You may or may not have noticed that as a French reader, I don't read a lot in this genre. I actually had a little chat with my mum, who gently berated me for not reading enough "real" books. I'm sure most readers of speculative have come accross the comment here or there. According to her, there is less reality in following characters in an imaginary land than in the "real" world. But, as this book very much proved it, I don't feel any closer to a pregnant woman working as a live model for art students, than I do about a hobbit torn away from the comforts of his home.

I read to escape, and to find echoes of myself in characters. These are the priority for me. If the characters don't speak to me, I'll focus either on the atmosphere, or on the writing.

With Laure Becdelièvre's debut novel, I clearly had nothing in common with Mathilde, the main character. However, the prose grabbed me from the first page. It's lyrical, not overwritten but beautifully evocative. In the book's 336 pages, I didn't notice a lot of repetitions, which I admired since the narrative is very much closed on itself. The book opens with Mathilde discovering she's pregnant, and follows the minute or overwhelming sensations of her body through the nine following months as she keeps her work as a nude model in an art school. Every page is about her, her thoughts and feelings and sensations. At some point I felt almost claustrophobic for lack of air and perspective, but as I said earlier, the writing was easy to get lost into. Despite the book's size, it was very quick to read, but since so little happens (and yet so much), I feel like it could have been even a little shorter and still make its point.

One thing that did take me out of the story was the references to real-life events, here the terrorist attacks in France in november 2015 and the subsequent ones in neighbouring countries. To me, this is much too recent to read about, and I don't think it brought anything to the story; it only served as a sound box of all the comments that were made at the time. It also felt rather shoehorned-in, but that may just be because it took me out of the story.

A positive point was the representation, beyond the straight couple at the centre: there's a fat, Muslim, fabulous secondary character and another character that I can't give much info about without spoiling too much. However, I read them from my white woman's point of view, so I'm clearly not the best at judging whether it was done with sensitivity.

Thanks for coming to another one of my Ted Talks.

TW: death of a friend, grief, Islamophobia. Minor TW for blood, miscarriage and body horror.

A copy of the book laid vertically on a bookshelf. A sprig of roses breaks the monotony of the white cover.

La Commode aux tiroirs de couleur, by Olivia Ruiz · 2020

Olivia Ruiz has built a novel like a chest of drawers. In each compartment, she fishes memories retracing the legacy of an uprooted family growing roots again. We mainly follow the story of Rita, who flees from the dictature in Spain with her two sisters, and settles in France where she's determined to find her place - or make it.

Olivia Ruiz's style is quite concise, with many non-verbal sentences, which created a sense of unexpectedness in the prose. I never knew where the next sentence was going. Despite the novel's short size, it was quite demanding focus-wise, and all the more so as in the first chapters it's not always easy to determine who's speaking, Rita or her grand-daughter.

I feel like Rita's story is anchored in her time - she is both propelled forward by a feminism she has no name for, and held back by some form orf interiorised sexism that leaks through here and there. Her story is rather harrowing, whether through her tragedies or her great joys, but the narrative felt quite detached because of its speed. We only linger on a few key moments here and there, and the rest passes by in a blur. The essential points are made, and without looking like it, this novel touches on a vast array of subjects. I wasn't swept off my feet, but I'm glad I read it.

TW: child death, death of a parent, grief, terminal illness.

A book on a dark, wooden bedsite-table, in front of a light, greenish grey curtain.

The Silent City, d'Elisabeth Vonarburg · 1981 (1998)

This francophone science-fiction novel, written by an author from Quebec, opens on an extremely sexist post-apocalyptic world. The first chapters were hard to read because of this. However, some feminist reflexions bloom timidly throughout the story, and the last quarter asks some very interesting questions about the legimity and the violence of a women-led fight. This shift appeared way too late in the book for my taste, all the more so as despite the very sexist undertones of the first two thirds of the book, the main character is genderfluid, which to my knowledge is a rarity for a book first published at the beginning of the 1980's.

On the whole, I didn't really enjoy this book, because of the sordid atmosphere throughout the biggest part of it, and especially what I read as a representation of incest (you might define it differently depending on your interpretation, but here's mine) which wasn't challenged. I do however salute the existence of this book, and the original voice of its author, Élisabeth Vonarburg.

Read with caution for genderfluid, bisexual and homosexual rep.

TW: incest, child abuse, sexism, misogyny.

An e-reader showing the book cover is resting on a wooden table alongside a bunch of dried flowers, with a warm-toned fabric in the background.

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What did you read in February?

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