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Reading wrap-up - January 2023

At the start of January, after the 103 books I read in 2022, I took the resolution... to read less. And to read better. Not to swallow book after book, and to save a bit of reading time to devote it to writing. A month later, what's the result? I've already read 10 books instead of the average 5 I'd planned. One more reason for me to stop with resolutions.

I have to admit, I may have hyped up reading for me by hosting a reading challenge on Instagram. The goal was to read books from my To be read Pile (or rather, trolley) and not to buy more books between January 1 and February 28. So far I've stuck to the plan, and have read 5 out of the 7 titles I'd set aside for the challenge.

Drowned Country, Emily Tesh · 2020

Drowned Country is the sequel to one of my favourite books of all times, Silver in the Wood (think Jane Austen meets Mythago Wood). This time we follow Silver rather than Tobias, both of whom are not quite the same as when we left them. But Emily Tesh quickly make us feel very much at home in this adventure, introducing us to a new, very exciting character and softly breaking our hearts all over again.

Rep : gay characters.

a white hand holds a copy of the book over a burgundy cloth.

Vicious, V.E. Schwab · 2014

A fierce tale of anger, guilt and resentment. Victor and Eli are each other's nemesis, ever since a string of experiments at university led to death and other unpleasant consequences.

This novel, if you'll excuse the reference, is fast and furious. It grips you and throw you headfirst into the story, cutting the action into bite-size pieces and jumping back in time at the best moments to deliver that piece of information making the narrative all the more suspenseful. It really is a masterclass of plotting and I thoroughly enjoyed the lesson.

Very early on, I realised none of the main characters was likeable - among their many flaws, they think they know best than everyone else - but somehow I still wanted to see what happens and although I took my time, I was hooked. Which was very different from the unlikeable characters I read last month, who made me want to throw the book out the window. I don't yet know how that works, although it's certain that Victor and Eli are absolute badasses and they don't wait for you to make up your mind. They run from and towards each other, while you can simply sit back and enjoy the ride.

Rep : it's not mentioned in this volume, but the author has stated on social media that Eli was bi, and Victor was asexual & biromantic.

CW: drugs, alcohol, suicide attempts, self-harm, murder (including an animal).

a white hand holds open a copy of the book at the title page, on a dark wooden surface. In the background is a pattern cloth.

Je suis une fille sans histoire, Alice Zeniter · 2021

Behind this very ironic title is hidden a reflexion on a fiction that would escape usual heroic narratives, the ones telling the story of an extraordinary character in opposition with an antagonist, the conflict of which is necessarily solved with violence. In short, the story of hunter vs mammoth. Alice Zeniter calls on foundational essays on narratology, from Aristotle to Ursula K. Le Guin, and turns theories that are sometimes hard to get into very clear explanations. Her pamphlet is an excellent starting point, which left me a little frustrated because it comes to the same conclusion as Ursula Le Guin in her article "The Carrier Bag of Fiction", which I'd discovered a month before. But I then had a look at Zeniter's bibliography and discovered she wrote another essay after this one, which I added to my radar.

a white hand holds the book in front of some bookshelves.

Fantasy Art & Studies vol. 13 : Ecole et fantasy · 2022

Fantasy Art & Studies is a magazine bringing together academic articles and short stories. It comes out twice a year and each issue is focused on a given theme: Tolkien's legacy, oceans, music, etc. All the facets of fantasy are explored issue after issue. The 13th one is all about school fantasy.

The short stories offer a panel of pedagogical approaches, teachers and students, while the essays deal with more or less famous examples of the genre. I was looking very much forward to reading this issue, and not only because I have a story in it (!!!). School fantasy is quite close to Dark Academia, a subgenre close to my heart, and so I really enjoyed the paper on Naomi Novik's A Deadly Education. On the whole, I liked the articles more than the stories, which was a surprise, but it doesn't mean I thought they were bad. They were all quite varied and offered excellent endings.

CW: one article studies Harry Potter.

the book is standing at the edge of a bookshelf filled with volumes of various sizes. A branch of eucalyptus leans against its edge.

Before the Green Ball (Antes do Baile Verde), Lygia Fagundes Telles · 1970 (1995)

This short story collection strings together snapshots of ordinary people in their daily lives. Each story is very short, so that as readers we have barely time to get to know the character, and only have a limited glance at the way they see the world. In that regard, I don't value these pieces individually but rather as the tapestry they form of a whole society. We get the perspectives of different social classes, from the poorest to the richest. They seem to be all united by their prejudices which are served raw and blazing because each text is so short.

I was not rivetted by this collection, to say the least, except by one story towards the end which verged into the fantastic. Are you surprised? Because I'm not, ha ha.

All in all these short stories are interesting character studies. I missed a sense of place but I understand it wasn't convenient in such fleeting pieces.

And yes, I did pick this book because of the cover.

Rep : sapphic couple in one story.

CW : death of an animal, mixed bag of prejudices from micro-agressions to nazism.

the book is set on a wooden table. Its cover has a floral pattern with fake stains from a tea cup.

Piranesi, Susanna Clarke · 2020

Piranesi lives in the House. He is a Child of the House, and the House cares for him. Piranesi lives alone in the countless Halls of the House. Or does he?

This is a very, very charming book that is really hard to describe. It starts almost like a fairy tale, in this immense house filled with larger-than-life statues, in which Piranesi keeps a meticulous journal. But then you understand things are not as they seem and Piranesi might not be very aware of what's going on. Things that appear strange to him are in fact familiar to us, which creates a distorsion.

I loved Piranesi's innocence and his sense of wonder and immense love for everything around him, making him the most likeable unreliable narrator. On the one hand I wanted to find out what everything was about, and on the other I wanted Piranesi to stay very, very safe, in a world where truth wasn't necessarily safe. I did not want this book to end and I took my time with it, which hadn't happened for some time. I feel like this book has so many reading levels and I barely scratched its surface, but I never felt like the author was looking down on me. Rather she teased me with lots of clever references to works of art and books which I didn't all get but which future re-readings will shed light on. This book is a delight to read, and I see myself re-reading it multiple times in the future.

PS : I hadn't expected the Dark Academia touch but it was much appreciated.

CW: mental health, death, toxic relationship.

Underhyped books that aren't like Piranesi but have a similar weird charm to them:

  • Les Jardins statuaires, Jacques Abeille

  • The Slow Regard of Silent Things, Patrick Rothfuss

the book is open at the title page on a wooden table, with a patterned cloth in the background.

Le Silence des Carillons, Edouard H. Blaes · 2023

Who is Ermeline Mainterre? When we meet her, she leaves with her inventor of a father and is torn between her love for her family and her own aspirations. Under the Mist which suffocates her and makes the sun a distant memory, Ermeline wants to become a magician. To help those who fight the Spectres endlessly and to leave a trace in the history of Tinkleham. So, whe Ermeline is granted a place in the Belfry, the academy of magic and headquarters of the magical resistance, she knows she's never been closer to her dreams. But how many sacrifices will be necessary to make them come true?

This novel starts sneakily in a rather classical way. I let myself be carried away in Ermeline's bag, enjoying her wilfulness and pride. But bit by bit, I started to feel doubt. Was the story really going the way I was expecting it to? The answer, without further spoiler, is no, and it delighted me. I read this novel with a few writer's cards in hand, and I rejoiced when Edouard told me "see those cards? Well watch what I do with them" and then he ripped them apart and took the story and characters in another direction entirely.

Small word of advice: don't get too attached to any of them.

Rep: sapphic MC.

CW: violent death, fire and fire injury, grief.

an ebook showing the cover of the book rests on a dark wooden surface, surrounded with white peonies in flower and in bloom.

Les Nuits bleues, Anne-Fleur Multon · 2022

How to tell the turmoils and desires of a budding relationship at a moment when any contact is forbidden, here is one of the questions Anne-Fleur Multon asks. She depicts, in a Paris deserted by lockdown, the meeting and the love between two women, ripping any unnecessary part of the text until only emotions and raw sensations are left. The narrative becomes a poem, leaving out the ends of sentences the better to bounce back and dash from thought to thought, from thing unsaid to thing unsaid.

This beautiful novel is a muted bubble. It's never voyeuristic but scrutinizes the folds, the inhales and the exhales of two bodies in love.

This book may not be a favourite, but I'm really glad I read for the literary prize hosted at my local library!

Rep: lesbian couple.

CW: explicit sex scenes.

an e-reader showing the cover of the book rests on a bed, framed by the feet of the reader, wearing white socks patterned with orange and grey flowers.

The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater · 2012

The Raven Boys was one of my favourite books of 2020 (or was it 2019?) and I'm very happy to report that it's still a favourite, and it's still just as hard to describe, so I'd like to end the review here but that wouldn't be very helpful. So instead I'll tell you that this uses themes like found family, dark academia, death, prophecy, Welsh legends and stronger-than-death friendship in the modern setting of a small town in the USA.

The novel is very binary in that you have on the one hand Blue and her family / coven of psychics, all women, to whom she acts as a sound box by making energies louder, and on the one hand this tight-knit group of four lost boys at an elite school. Watching the two universes clash, appraise each other and treat each other with respect even when they don't share the same values is a joy. Seeing the four raven boys mess things up and have each other's back is heartwarming. Witnessing them make a space for Blue in their group is enchanting. It *is* a dark story when you look at the themes and at these characters who clearly need therapy, but there's a lot of light coming from their relationships and the support they find in and give to each other.

PS : while there is no on-page queer rep apart from a very discreet, very in-passing mention, there is a queer vibe going on that I can't quite put my finger on. Things may be more clear in the following volumes. Everyone is very white.

CW : suicide attempt (mentioned), domestic violence, death, toxic relationships.

the book rests on a wooden table next to a bunch of dried flowers, with a patterned cloth in the background.

The Midnight Library, Matt Haig · 2020

For once I'll put the book's content warnings first because I'm going to mention them: death of a pet, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempt, depression. Mentions of: loss of a loved one, drug (abuse), fire, alcoholism, car accident.

Seeing the bright cover and the raving blurb at the back ("A beguiling read, filled with warmth and humour"), I was ready for a moment a little deep but also quite light and softly philosophical. Instead, I discovered a story that was moving and philosophical, yes, but also profoundly sad and, frankly, quite depressing to me.

I'm absolutely sure that The Midnight Library is a chameleon of a book, capable of provoking vastly different reactions depending on the reader's mental state. If I'd been in another emotional space, I probably would have felt the "warmth" and "humour". But the fact is that when, on the third page, you already have a dead cat, my relationship with the book is off to a... complicated start.

Okay, the main character is growing in a healthier direction, and her relationship with herself tends to grow more peaceful, but I'd be hard pressed to qualify this book as optimistic. It was simply the wrong moment for me, and I'm comforted by the fact that it has worked so well for so many people.

the book is set on the edge of a bookshelf. A branch of dried eucalyptus is laid in front of it.


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What did you read in January?

Do you have bookish new year's resolutions?

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