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Reading wrap-up - January 2024

It's time for the first reading wrap-up of 2024 ! The year started with a bang and a huge new favourite. I followed up with a list of titles I'd established in advance because I'm back with the #LetsReadThatTBR challenge (especially on Instagram). I happily associated books waiting on my reading trolley with each prompt, and added a few ebooks not to forget my ereader in which a lot of books are sleeping but I think about them less because they're not visible on a daily basis.


Babel, R.F. Kuang · 2022


A warning, first: no amount of gushing can do justice to this masterpiece.


Babel feels like the ultimate book. It’s captivating, thought-provoking, moving, beautiful, intricate but not complex. It was the perfect book for me at this moment of my life and I’m just happy to have read it, and sad that it’s over. It was probably the most hyped book of 2022 and 2023, which is why I took my time before starting it. Also because I couldn’t find a copy when it came out in 2022 and I was in Oxford, so I waited a year to come back and buy the paperback. I’m that kind of person. But back to the book.


Its narrative starts out deceptively classically, although the focus is put very early on the many types of violence enacted by colonialism. Babel is at its heart a bildungsroman, which is a genre I’m getting a little fed up with, except when it’s done brilliantly.


We meet Robin Swift, born in Canton and soon taken from his dying relatives to be raised in England by a benefactor that is determined to help Robin enrol at Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation. And so Robin is fed languages, is encouraged to keep practising his native Chinese language, and despite the ambient racism, gets entry at Oxford’s prestigious institution, where he slowly learns about silver and the translation-based magic that underlines every aspect of English life. He also learns about friendship and trust with his cohort, three other students cherry-picked to make their way up Babel’s eight floors. And little by little, he learns about the less savoury side of this grand English endeavour. How colonialism preys on foreign cultures and peoples, how everything is linked in a web of privilege and racism.


This novel is as brilliant and mind-opening as it is crystal-clear. It relies heavily on the research the author made and the knowledge she acquired as an Oxford student herself, but all this treasure of information, part fiction, part revolting facts, is handed out to the readers through an engaging narrative with characters you’d give the world to, and through a scattering of footnotes that delighted me highly. It is a deep dive in the mechanics of colonial violence through the veneer of dark academia, a genre which thrives the most when it addresses the privileges surrounding who has access to knowledge and who gets to write the books from which knowledge is acquired.


There are other parts I could go on and on about but they’re spoiler-territory so I’ll refrain.


Tldr; this book was catnip to me, and yes, I cried at the end.


CW : racism, colonialism, suicide ideation, suicide, police violence, gun violence, war, racial slurs, sexism.


The book is surrounded with other, old-looking books, slices of dried orange and pinecones.

Petit éloge de la douceur, Stéphane Audeguy · 2007


This short alphabetical book on the theme of softness promised quite a lot. It reflects on the way softness / sweetness (there isn’t a direct translation of that, probably something the scholars at Babel could work with) is tied to plenty of other notions, but the author never really defines what he means by “douceur”. And that, as the good PhD student I am, troubled me, because how are you supposed to discuss something if it’s not first defined ? I also wondered for a while about the pertinence of having three items relate to pornography, and about the reasons why the author always mentioned male authors, and never women.


Fortunately, I also found things to enjoy, like the notion that realism in literature and cinema is always concerned with what’s most violent and grey in reality. But all in all, this little book left me feeling disconcerted and not exactly convinced.


The book, propped on a purple and grey blanket, is open at the title page.

Roses are Red, Violet is Dead, Morgan Spellman · 2024


Ebook sent by the author for review.


The sequel to Say I Boo was just as enjoyable as the first volume ! In this new one, we are reunited with Abby Spector, ghost hunter extraordinaire who is called by her cousin. Sam is in need of Abby’s help at the inn where they work, which may be haunted by a less benevolent ghost than usual. Spooky messages have been left on walls or windows indicating a nefarious plot, and with an important Valentine’s Day dinner event coming up, the inn really doesn’t need the bad press.


I really enjoy the balance Morgan Spellman achieves with this series. You’ve got the right amount of cosy, the right amount of mystery, sprinkled with a hint of romance and deep human feelings. Abby is still battling with grief, and I love that the author doesn’t come up with a magical cure so that by the end of even volume one all’s perfectly fine and Abby can ride away into the sunset with her new girlfriend. No, it doesn’t happen like that. For all the lighthearted vibes, this book doesn’t belittle the struggles of its characters.


CW: grief, death, fire.


An ebook showing the illustrated cover of the novel lays on a pile of old-looking books, on a wooden table next to a bunch of dried roses. There is a warm-toned, patterned piece of fabric in the background.

The Absolute Book, Elizabeth Knox · 2019


Book alchemy is a strange thing. Sometimes a book ticks all the boxes but the magic doesn’t happen. Sometimes a book sounds like something you’d rather pass by, and yet it provides such thoughtful insight it feels like it was written for you. The Absolute Book fits the first scenario. It was recommended by readers whose opinion I hold in great value, and from the blurb to the cover it sounded like the right book for me. I first tried to read it in the summer of 2022 and abandoned it. On a sentence-based level, I had trouble understanding who was doing what and what was happening. I blamed it on my focus which was very wobbly at the time. Here comes 2024. I’m looking at my TBR trolley and deciding what to read for the #LetsReadThatTBR challenge. I spot this one, which has been daunting me for a year and a half, and takes a lot of space on that trolley. It’s time to find out if we’re really meant to be. And it turns out we aren’t. I still don’t understand in detail what’s happening in this book. I really want to, and I guess the broad strokes, but nothing more. And that’s relevant, I think, for a book in which some things are hard to perceive, and characters walk the very blurry line between worlds. This time, I finished the book. That’s most of what I can say about it. And that’s okay.


CW: death of parent, grief, fire.


The book stands at the front of a bookshelf.


Meander, Spiral, Explode, Jane Alison · 2019


The subtitle of this essay says it all: “Design and Pattern in Narrative”. Jane Alison explores how authors have taken inspiration, consciously or not, from natural patterns to structure their stories. More precisely, Alison looks at patterns different from the classic wave or three-act structure that implies a swelling wave, a climax and the… aftermath, which is a rather phallocentric way of building a narrative structure and, what’s more important, certainly not the only one. The author looks at wavelets rather than one wave, at spiral patterns, cellular, or meandering. She takes extensive examples from novels or short stories from a range of different authors. I was particularly excited when she illustrated the pattern of the fractal with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a book I thoroughly enjoyed and plan to re-read (but I’m not entirely convinced by Alison’s analysis, hence the need to re-read both the novel and what she says about it).


I’d say this book is written more from the perspective of a reader than a writer, or rather it’s not written as a textbook on story structure. It opens perspectives and suggests ways of doing without giving you tools like other books about writing do. I underlined a few passages that I’m looking forward to thinking about and I’d recommend this book as a good starting point, for instance in a writing group.


An e-reader showing the cover of the book leans on a pile of books with the spines facing back. A sprig of dried eucalyptus completes the composition.

Plaisirs gustatifs, collectif · 2023


Here is a collection of stories I wish I’d been part of. I literally had planned to send a piece for it because the themes of literature, cooking and queerness speak to my heart, but then inspiration didn’t answer the call. She was obviously busy visiting the authors of this book, thanks to whom I had an excellent time. All of the genres are represented here - contemporary, fantasy, sci-fi, fantastical, and especially a lot of heart. Because of the editorial focus of the publishing house, each story is filled with inclusivity, and each one gets an illustration by a different artist. It makes this book a beautiful thing inside and out. I only knew two names from the contents, but I’m happy to have discovered other names I’ll keep an eye out for in the future (in a friendly way).


CW: each story is introduced with content warnings.


A white hand holds a copy of the book in front of a dark-leaved bush.

Rouille, Floriane Soulas · 2018


1897, Paris. It’s been three years since Violante arrived here. What her life was before that, she has no memories. To survive, she became a sex worker and climbed the steps of the strange social ladder at work in her brothel. She became Duchesse, a renowned woman sought by the powerful. Life is hard enough as it is, but with a new drug appearing in town and mysterious disappearances, Violante’s quest for her memories starts to bear strange ramifications with the turmoils of this steampunk Paris.


Don’t expect anything soft and cosy with Floriane Soulas. Her worlds are harsh and cruel, and the characters do whatever they have to do to survive, including questionable choices and morally grey decisions. The prose doesn’t hide any of the horrors, whether social or physical. It makes for a gripping story that is quite hard to let go of, even though it’s not one I’ll consider as a comfort read.


Given the main character’s job, sexual violence is rampant in this book. However, I appreciated that it was in the background, not extensively discussed, and never fantasised. It was part of a bigger discussion on violence towards bodies, that the author explores extensively in her latest novel, Tonnerre après les ruines. I find it fascinating to read different books by one author and see the themes and language evolve through a body of work. Having read Soulas’s first and latest novels, I can safely recommend her novels with the warning that they are physically violent. Yet, violence is never gratuitous, and I appreciate that, especially in Tonnerre, Soulas claims violence as a tool for women too, however awful a tool it is. Novels are supposed to make us have a good time, yes, but they are also supposed to make us think.


CW: violence, murder, injuries described in details, gore, drug abuse, blood, animal cruelty, addiction.


The book leans against a dark wooden box, next to a golden compass.

Two Truths and a Lie, Sarah Pinsker · 2020


Stella is helping a childhood friend empty his deceased brother’s home when she asks a fairly innocent question. Does he remember the TV programme they took part in as kids? Marco does. Except Stella has just made this memory up.


In this short story that had been on my e-reader probably since 2020, Sarah Pinsker does a great job at setting up an unsettling atmosphere. I won’t go into the details of the plot because it’s so short, but if you enjoy not knowing exactly where you stand, and being puzzled, this is a great one. There is quite a lot of imagery that could be discussed and the ending is very open to interpretation, which I personally enjoy !


A white hand holds an e-reader showing the cover of the short story in front of a bush with pink buds.

La Séquence Aardtman, Saul Pandelakis · 2021


The year is 2111. Roz is an engineer on a ship that has left the earth to explore the universe and look for planets to terraform. The crew is mostly human, but includes a bot, and is helped by an AI, Alexandre. Asha, in 2131, is a bot was a special interest in bots’ individuality and experience, especially their experience of incarnation. These two characters navigate a world that is far from a utopia, but in which they try to approach people with the respect they deserve. In the twenty years that separate them, society has continued to worsen, without bots being in any way responsible for the hardships humans live. Humans don’t need anyone to further systems of oppression. Roz and Asha, each one in their own time, think and invite readers to think about what it means to be alive and to have a body.


Saul Pandelakis’s novel intrigued me just as much as it daunted me. With its well-packed 600 pages of sci-fi and philosophical notes, I was afraid to dive into too demanding a piece of literature. I was wrong, because the author constantly harks back to the experience of the body, which is universal, whatever the body. This novel is both a celebration of bodies and an experience of its diversity. Multiple types of bodies are staged throughout the book - human bodies, bots, able bodies, disabled, fat, black, cis, trans, etc. We mainly follow Roz and Asha’s points of view, but they are interspersed with interludes in which we hear about side characters whose journeys are important to the main narrative. Whether we understand this importance right then or in time, it doesn’t fail to create that feeling of “so that’s how this comes from / how this relates to that”.


This novel embodies what I love most about sci-fi: when it questions human experience. Yes, it deals with technology and especially coding, but it’s mostly about how technology impacts our experiences of the world and our interpersonal relationships.


Rep: trans MCs, asexual SC, wheelchair user SC.


CW: death, explicit sex scene.


An e-reader showing the cover of the book is resting on a beige, geometrical-patterned carpet.


Strange the Dreamer, Laini Taylor · 2017


Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer is a whimsical, creative and dark fantasy all at the same time. Dark in that it deals with really dark themes (see CW). Whimsical and creative in that the setting is surprising and magic takes many different forms.


We follow Lazlo Strange, an orphan raised in a library and destined to spend his life between books, attending to the needs of scholars without ever being recognised as one. Lazlo is slowly but surely gathering every morsel of information he can find about the city of Weep, whose true name escaped his tongue and his memory the first time he came across it. The secret behind this act of magic haunts him and he is desperate to learn more about it, when a unique opportunity arises and a delegation from Weep arrives in town.

Sarai is a godspawn, born from unspeakable pain and destined to live her life hidden from the rest of the world with her brothers and sisters, so close to the fabled city of Weep but so far away. Trapped in her citadel, she can only visit Weep through the moths that carry her power and make her infiltrate people’s dreams, invisible, unknown. Until the day a boy sees her.


I can see this book being so loved by its readers, and potentially breaking their heart. It’s filled with longing and rage, with love and betrayal, with shame and secrets. Unfortunately we got off on the wrong foot, since it ticked a few boxes that make me roll my eyes. That’s not against the author of the book, it’s a very personal taste. Then, I felt a little bit like when reading an Erin Morgenstern book, in that it was very imaginative and visual and since I have no visual imagination I had trouble getting a grasp on the universe. I could never feel the atmosphere of this book, and so I was having trouble with reading. I actually switched to the French translation halfway through (thank you libraries !) and that helped me finish it. I could have just abandoned it, but it wasn’t a bad book so I felt frustrated at the thought of not getting through a novel that had been on my wishlist for so long.


I’d recommend this book if you enjoy The Night Circus and The Starless Sea (which I do want to reread) and if you’re ready to have your heart crushed, in part with the romance. Even though I didn’t feel like that, I could see the potential.


CW : child death, blood, mention of forced pregnancy and rape.


An e-reader showing the cover of the book is tucked in the bend of a root in front of an ivy-covered wall.

 

For regular book reviews, head over to my Instagram page (you don’t need an account): https://www.instagram.com/mariebrunelm/.


What did you read in January ?

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