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Reading wrap-up - July 2023

July marked another episode of my To-Be-Read-Pile reading challenge! I was excited to go through my reading trolley and select titles along the following prompts:

the very dark picture of a book open with a bunch of dried flowers lying on top, over which the title of the challenge and the prompts are written in white.

As a result, I discovered excellent books waiting for me in my TBR, and had confirmation of the feeling I had some of them wouldn't be for me. Never mind, now they are out of the trolley and ready for other adventures.

Dreamer’s Pool, Juliet Marillier · 2014

Blackthorn has been in jail for almost a year, for no other crime than helping fellow women fight their abuser. Her hearing is very near, but her odds aren’t exactly favourable. So when she receives a visit from Conmael, who is clearly not human but rather a fae, she strikes a bargain with him. In exchange for her freedom, she must spend seven years away from the place of her torment and help anyone asking. Although, to her, that sounds like another type of prison, she doesn’t really have another choice but to agree. That very night she is set free and makes her way north where she establishes herself as a wise woman. With her comes Grim, a fellow prisoner with too much of a conscience and an unending store of loyalty for Blackthorn. Trouble is never far, though, especially when the cottage they settle in is so close to Dreamer’s Pool. This place of magic is on the lands of Prince Oran, who meets his betrothed after they exchanged loving letters. However, the lady arriving at his estate seems like another person entirely and Oran finds himself torn between heart and duty.

This novel, set in mediaeval Ireland, combines elegant prose and a thorough character study. There is no fast-paced action, or grim descriptions of violent fights. However, the story blends the light and the dark, because it deals heavily with violence towards women and how most of the characters are determined to put an end to that, so although there are harrowing passages, it is an uplifting story.

I’m so happy I met Blackthorn and Grim. They are nuanced characters, with their qualities and their flaws. Blackthorn is thoroughly pissed off with people and men in particular, but she’s also ready to see the good around her, and Grim is such a kind-hearted bear of a man that I had no choice but to love him immensely. The subtle queer vibe was also lovely, as the two form a platonic relationship that made my heart sing.

I was looking for a book that would take its time and let me spend a long while with loveable characters and Julliet Marillier provided. I’d heard her recommended again and again and now I absolutely know why. I didn’t start with the first book, Daughter of the Forest, which sounded more fairy-tale-like, but it doesn’t really matter because the books can be read out of order. Characters do make appearances in other novels but it won’t spoil their narratives.

Rep : Blackthorn & Grim very much sounded ace or at least demisexual but of course no word was used due to the historical setting.

CW: confinement, mention of rape, memories and discussion of sexual violence, kidnapping, fire.

Against a background of dark leaves, a white hand holds an e-reader showing the cover of the book, with a pale, dark-haired woman in a white dress.

Du Sel sous les paupières, Thomas Day · 2012

Judicaël is a petty thief in the streets of Sait-Malo. The year is 1922 and France rises painfully from the war, suffocated by a fog that never lifts. In this grey landscape, Judicaël meets Madchen, looks into her eyes and everything changes for him. His daily life goes from survival to a race against time to find the paper-flower-girl again, a quest in the course of which he crosses paths with a robot straight out of Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky and with creatures from celtic legends.

This book, which I saved from a library weeding, intrigued me by the poetry that seemed to emanate from it (from what I could read on the blurb). What I found was a bit of a disjointed story, dealing with plenty of different themes without really developing any of them. I enjoyed the blend of History, Irish folklore and science-fiction, but I found that the relationships between characters were basic, given that the heart of the story is saving a damsel in distress the hero fell in love with after chatting for 30 seconds. Said damsel turns out to be afflicted with a terrible disease, if her distress wasn’t obvious enough. The other characters are all male, and the few women making an appearance are described only where their breasts are concerned. It may be a detail, but it’s the kind of detail that weighs on my reading experience. Yes, the main character is quite nuanced, with areas of shadow, but I had a hard time pinning him down since he often changed his mind depending on the situation. I would like to find more qualities to this book, but the truth is I mostly finished it because it was short.

CW: fatphobia, terminal illness.

The book is open at the title page, with a sprig of dried roses resting halfway across.

Sea of Tranquility, Emily St John Mandel · 2022

The third son of a wealthy family looking for a purpose in the 19th-century Canadian wilderness, a young girl in the forest of a pre-pandemic world, and an author on a busy book tour stopped in her tracks by a violin player in an airship terminal, find themselves connected by the experience they make of a glitch in reality, a second when darkness engulfs them and they catch echoes of other realities.

This book! This. Book.

I’m very tempted to leave the review at that because what can I say? This book is gorgeous, it made me question my abilities as a writer, it’s doing things in one page that other books take hundreds of pages to do and yet doesn’t feel rushed. I pity the translators for having to work so much information in so little words, all the while keeping the perfect fluidity of the sentences and the overall rhythm of the book. A masterclass in writing.

It won’t be a spoiler, because it’s literally in the contents at the beginning of the volume, that the structure of this novel is like that in Cloud Atlas. I won’t say more, because if you know, you know. It’s not a structure I’ve encountered much in books, but when well done it’s incredibly effective.

And when I thought this book couldn’t get any better, the last line encompassed a writing project I’d had in mind for months.

Do read Sea of Tranquility if you want a quiet, moving, time-travel story that will make you long for something you can’t name. Emily St John Mandel writes science-fiction like literary fiction, taking the best from all the genres to gift us with one gem of a book.

Rep: bisexual character in a queer-friendly environment.

CW: pandemic.

A pile of books turned backwards, with only Sea of Tranquility spine-forward, and a bunch of dried flowers on top.

Meditations on Middle-earth, edited by Karen Haber · 2001

This collection of essays brings together well-known voices of the fantasy genre to speak about Tolkien's legacy. Many of them recount when and in what conditions they first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Some take a slightly different path, like Ursula K. Le Guin waxing lyrical on Tolkien's poetry, or Douglas A. Anderson telling about Tolkien's reception and Christopher Tolkien's work.

Although this collection isn't ground-breaking, I think it's fascinating for several reasons. First, most of the author's are writers of fantasy (and science-fiction for a few of them), telling what Tolkien means to them as readers, yes, but mostly as writers. Then, it's a snapshot of Tolkien's reception right before the first movie by Peter Jackson was released. Only one, Douglas A. Anderson, actually mentions that, but I think it's important. Most of the authors in this collection first read Tolkien in the 1960s, and it was really great to hear about what it was like experiencing these books at such a different time, when fantasy wasn't as widespread and meeting fellow enthusiasts wasn't as easy as clicking on an app icon.

The book is standing at the front of a Tolkien bookshelf. Its covers, in shades of green, features a portrait of Gandalf by John Howe.

The Tender Narrator, Olga Tokarczuk · 2020

This very small volume brings together three non-fiction essays by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. The title one is her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2019. The second one deals with translation and the third one with confinement and the pandemic.

It would be hard to summarise these essays, no matter how short. I was expecting something a little different, to be honest, when reading the first one. The concept of “tender narrator” intrigued me and I’d hoped for a longer development on the notion as the author perceived it. In fact, it comes as the conclusion of her thoughts on information and disinformation, autofiction, distinction between literary genres, the place of literature in our contemporary world, and other very vast themes that Olga Tokarczuk approaches with immense clarity. I’m now curious to read her fiction.

A white hand holds a copy of the book, with the author’s portrait on the cover, in front of bookshelves.A white hand holds a copy of the book, with the author’s portrait on the cover, in front of bookshelves.

Impressions & Impressoes, Emilio Morais · 2023

This polymorphic collection brings together prose and poetry, arranged by themes, first in French and then in Portuguese. The author starts with a stream-of-consciousness piece, on themes as varied as “the foam of life” or “bees”, then he composes a poem on the same subject. The first half of the collection is in one language, and the second half in the other.

Though I’m not familiar with poetry, I was surprised to prefer the verses, even if they were a little too well-mannered and sometimes bent the sentences to place the rhyming word at the end of the line (something I’m not fond of). But the prose parts felt a bit cold to me. They offer context to the poems, as if the latter needed an explanation based on facts confirmed by science or human experience. I would have preferred to read more personal explorations of the themes. All in all, I had the feeling that the author was very shy and hid behind vague and general assumptions. I do hope he will become more confident and open up a bit more in his subsequent collections.

The book is open at the title page. It lies on a dark, warm-toned, patterned cloth.

The Wind in the Wall, Sally Gardner & Rovina Cai · 2019

This superb picture book for grown-ups tells a story of greenhouses, rare birds and a rivalry between gardeners. In just a few dozen pages, the author and illustrator weave a Gothic tale full of things unsaid. Some people might lament the amount of mystery still to be solved by the end, but I loved it. The writing is evocative and just the right amount of quaint, while the pictures are feather-light and dark at the same time. After admiring the art of Rovina Cai for years, I’m so happy to own one of her books. Sally Gardner’s prose brings the perfect balance, making this a highlight of my book collection. I think the best weather to read this book would be an autumn rain.

A white hand brushes the book lying on a dark background.

84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff · 1971

This book is a bookworm’s dream. I’ve had it on my radar for years and have finally read it and kept giggling every other page. This short book is the correspondence between Helene, a New-York-based writer, and the employees of a second-hand bookshop in London, spanning 20 years of witty banter. I had to check these were the actual letters these people sent because they are too funny and touching to be true, but they are. And for letters written in the 1950s and 1960s, they show that book-loving never goes out of style. Hanff is the funniest, her outraged letters are a mood. If you enjoy books, and especially second-hand ones, please read this!

In my edition, the letters are followed by a sort of sequel, Helene’s diary when she visited London in 1971. That part wasn’t as charming, but it was still very enjoyable and helped me ease out of the epistolary section with my heart relatively intact.

A white hand keeps the book in balance on a grey trolley filled with books.

No Sex Club, Betty Piccioli · 2023

(Book sent via NetGalley by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Alan and Tilda are back in second year of high school after a summer that feels like a failure. Despite injunctions, both are still virgins and set out for another year of bullying from the rest of the class. In first period, there arrives the new girl, Acérola. With her very personal sense of style, she stands out, but what attracts Alan and Tilda’s attention most of all is the flag pin on her bag: black, grey, white and purple stripes signalling asexuality. Quite soon, they start chatting and charting another way, one that does not imply sex as this compulsory step to secure your place in society.

Where was this book when I was in high school? In this French Loveless, Betty Piccioli takes us to Nantes, where her two main characters build a team and a project to raise awareness. This novel strikes a perfect balance of fun and education. I had chills when I finished it, it gave me so much hope. In high school, I was mostly ignored by bullies because as first of my class I could be of use when the time came to work in groups or to revise for an exam, but I’ve always felt like an outsider. Literally watching people from behind a window. If I’d had a book like No Sex Club (or Loveless), although i wouldn’t have had the courage to launch a club, at least I would have felt more at peace and would have understood I was asexual way earlier. This is an inclusive novel, that deals not only with the double theme of asexuality and aromantism, but also with the whole of social and romantic relationships.

The characters are very endearing. I loved watching them grow and blossom. They make mistakes — after all, they’re only teenagers, but it makes for a more realistic and touching story. I hope this book will find a place in every high school of France and beyond.

Rep : gay character, asexual character, Black and fat character.

CW : acephobia, bullying, sexual harassment.

An ebook showing the cover of the novel rests in a circle made by human feet and a black-and-white tabby cat.

Electrocante, Boris Quercia · 2021

In this dark sci-fi novel halfway between Blade Runner and Black Mirror with a touch of Murderbot, Natalio, a low-grade police officer, takes on a dangerous mission for a client in between official cases. His “electrocante” was destroyed while on his last job, and Natalio can only afford a second-hand model with shady-looking repair jobs. The android only confirms Natalio’s suspicions when he starts reacting differently from other robots, but Natalio has neither time nor means to care about that.

This novel isn’t particularly original, but it’s efficient. It navigates from trope to trope and offers a narrative centred on the duo formed by this policeman flirting with legality, and this robot making him question human-robot relations. The author could have gone for a huge philosophical novel about such relationships, or about dehumanisation of / by technology, or else about the conspiracies riddling this dystopian society. Instead, he puts forward characters and their questions without giving a definitive answer. I would have liked a bit more originality, but there is good in the way the author makes his narrative relatively universal.

CW: violence, guns, short scene of self-harm and cannibalism.

A white hand holds a copy of the book, with the face of a man and yellow lettering, in front of a bookcase.

Quelqu'un se souviendra de nous, Nadège Da Rocha · 2023

Pandora, Medusa, Arachne,... These women who only appear in Greek myths to be assaulted. In this novel, the author takes up their stories after the end of the myths, and imagines what comes next. For Pandora, this includes revenge. In the name of all the victims, she is determined to make the gods pay, and especially Zeus and Poseidon. In her tribulations to get her hands on the only weapon that can kill them, she rallies other women to her cause, women deemed monsters, and together they march towards Olympus.

I loved that this novel did not apologise and depicted these women’s fury, but also their sorority. The combination of violence and softness worked really well and brought nuance to the narrative. I admit to having been caught off-guard by the quick pace of the narrative, but that is only due to my lack of familiarity with YA books. This novel drew a bridge between my teenage self, passionate about Greek myths, and the positively tired and pissed-off person I am today in face of the violence women have always faced and still face.

All in all, I loved the project of this book and its intentions, I loved a little less its execution but as for that part, it’s a very personal problem and not a flaw at all.

Rep: queer and diverse cast.

CW provided at the start of the book: spiders, snakes, violence, anxiety, PTSD, death, mentions of suicide and rape.

An e-reader showing the cover of the book, with three cracked marble portraits around golden lettering, rests against a pile of books with their spines facing back.

Solaris, Stanisław Lem · 1961 (1966)

Kelvin, our main protagonist, is on his way to the Station, a research facility in orbit over Solaris, a planet with an unusual behaviour. For dozens of years, scientists have observed and hypothesised, never unlocking the secret of this planet which seems conscious. The team aboard the Station only has two members left when Kelvin arrives, but they may not be the only inhabitants…

A librarian put this one in my hands saying it was contemplative sci-fi, when I asked her about books in translation from languages I didn’t know (see my #LetsReadThatTBR challenge). I can absolutely confirm it is contemplative, which I enjoyed. Half of it focuses on the characters, their relationships and their inner battles when faced with a phenomenon that is very much fantastical. However, the other half is very science-oriented, and my literary mind was not ready for lengthy descriptions of the history of science around Solaris. Nor was my aphantasia (inability to create mental pictures) ready for the lengthy descriptions of the planet’s changing geography. However, all of these are very “me” problems and, though they prevented me from fully enjoying the book, I can say it’s a good example of classic science-fiction. Not devoid of 1960s ideas regarding race and gender, sadly (there is a very awkward scene in the first few pages that thankfully is not mentioned again afterwards), but creative and quite believable for something written eight years before a man set foot on the Moon.

TW: suicide

A white hand holds a copy of the book against a background of dark leaves.

The Mercies, Kiran Millwood Hargrave · 2020

It is 1617 on an island off the coast of Norway and a wave of unprecedented proportions swallows most of the men from the village of Vardø. The women find ways to survive even when some of them have to turn a blind eye to propriety. Their community is united by grief more than anything, but still divided by the importance they are willing to give to Christianism, the imported religion, which clashes with the Sámi way of life some of them uphold. Yet Vardø is enduring, when a boat brings to them a commissioner, Absalom, and his wife Ursa. He is tasked with restoring religious order and putting an end to the spread of witchcraft. She is merely doing her best in this new life alongside a husband she did not choose.

This novel, in the best vein of historical fiction, gives a body and feelings to anonymous silhouettes in history books. The characters are nuanced and though the action doesn’t rush forward, the narrative has an intensity and a tension that is reflected in the unforgiving landscape and biting wind blowing through this naked land. The writing style is concise but beautifully complex, taking sentences in unexpected directions without using fancy words or trying to mimic a historical style. This is a fiercely feminist novel in that it doesn’t put women on a pedestal but rather shows the multiple ways in which each one deals with her grief and considers her place within society, flaws and all. When I first heard of this book I thought it was some kind of historical utopia, describing a moment when women had lived harmoniously after the men had disappeared. It’s not. There’s tension and conflict, which makes it all the more realistic. I think this is a fantastic book (not a drop of magic here) which looks at the history that is not only made by white, rich men.

Rep: sapphic characters.

TW: animal pain & death (including a beached whale and a fishing scene), grief, sexual violence, murder of women in the name of religion.

Marie, a white person with short, dark, curly hair and a striped T-shirt, holds a copy of the book so that it hides her face up to her glasses. The cover has white lettering on a background of abstract flowers in red and blue tones.

No Woman Born, Catherine Lucille Moore · 1944

The divine star Deirdre is dead. A terrible accident on stage cost her her life, and the world is mourning. But is she really gone? Harris, a scientist, is on his way to meet with his colleague Maltzer, who has devoted himself entirely to a secret project for a year. When Harris is reunited with his friend, he does not expect to hear Deirdre’s voice again.

This anticipation novella first published in 1944 is one more proof that women weren’t absent from the playground of science-fiction. In this short story behind closed doors, characters are faced with the limits of humanity and the machine. These scientists, all men, are confronted to this woman of a new genre, as much reborn as she is created, and who doesn’t intend to remain for long under their supervision.

This work of fiction makes the readers think without drowning them under an avalanche of scientific details. It is the epitome of speculative fiction, asking “what if?” and watching the characters deal with the consequences.

CW: ableism.

The book lies on a patterned cloth, surrounded with eucalyptus branches.

Les Âmes croisées, Pierre Bottero · 2010

Nawel grows up among other Aspirants in the rich city of AnkNor. In the privileged shrine of the high city, she only knows her peers, Pearls, members of the elite, while Ashes inhabit the lower city and take care of lowly tasks. The day of the most important ceremony of Nawel’s life is approaching. Soon, she will be called to pick the cast whe wants to join, and make her peace with the decision she will receive. Historian, Governor, Priestess, … The balance between the nine casts ensure the durability of the city, while the tenth, the Armors, is shrouded in mystery. Sure of her status, Nawel is strutting along the roads of the Ash town when she is responsible for a tragedy. There opens in front of her a path that diverges from the one laid out year after year of good behaviour.

At last! After battling and grumbling my way through 3 of Bottero’s trilogies, I finally found a book by him I enjoyed. This one was gifted to me with the recommendation to read the other ones before in order to enjoy it best, hence my tenacity. In the end, the link is rather tenuous because the trilogy that Les Âmes Croisées was supposed to open was interrupted by the author’s death.

I do think that this novel, even with such an open ending, is satisfying in itself thanks to Nawel’s character arc. I didn’t have much sympathy for her at the beginning because of her arrogance that is so strong it becomes a threat to others. Yet her evolution as a character was a pleasure to follow.

Contrary to the author’s other books which focus on action and the hardly credible supernatural capacities of the characters, what I enjoyed here was the quieter pace and the focus on character psychology which was nuanced and believable. The queer sub-themes were subtle but present, whether through secondary characters of the heroin herself, who is aromantic through and through although the word was never used, and may very well be asexual as well.

Reading this novel was such a relief! I was determined to enjoy it but unsure after an odyssey of nine (nine!) disappointing reads.

Last but not least, I’m in love with this cover by Noémie Chevalier !

CW: classism, off-page police violence.

a white hand holds a copy of the book in front of a leaf-patterned wallpaper in tones of dark-blue and beige. The book is white with a golden portrait of the heroin and dark blue lettering.

Some Desperate Glory, Emily Tesh · 2023

Kyr is a child of Earth. Or rather, of Gaea. Earth is dead, destroyed, and no matter how much Kyr trains in the simulation, nothing can bring it back. On Gaea, the remnants of humanity - those who haven’t allied with the aliens - make do with few resources and boundless discipline. Kyr and her Sparrows, the six other girls her age, spend their days from rotation to rotation, taking turns in Agricole, Nursery, Systems or another vital part of the colony to ensure their survival. When they reach 18 years old, they are assigned to one job forever. Kyr is the best of her mess, her stats are excellent, and she sees no other future than in combat troops to fight the aliens responsible for the destruction of Earth. When the slip comes and the word “Nursery” is written on it, dooming her to a lifetime of pregnancies, and when her brother is assigned to surrender his life in a desperate mission, she has no choice but to rebel.

What a book! I was drawn to it before I even heard what it was about, given that Emily Tesh wrote some of my favourite novellas, Silver in the Wood & Drowned Country. This sci-fi novel surprised and delighted me in how different it was from those, confirming Tesh’s qualities as a writer.

The first few chapters were a challenge, getting to know Kyr and her strong but flawed character, and the universe in which Terrans lost the war. Then, through the intricacies of plot and world-building, the characters started to shine and take centre-stage, bringing with them many questions around the notion of legitimacy and power. Kyr has a fantastic character arc, and I loved witnessing her growth as a character, from a devoted teenager so sure of her hierarchy’s benevolence to a questioning young woman having to sort through what’s true and what she’s been told all her life.

There were some plot twists I did not see coming, and I loved how they blended exterior conflicts with character writing. Tesh pictures a world that is still riddled with sexism and racism, but she shows the origins and how the characters decide to deal with the situation in a very satisfying way all along a fast-paced narrative that kept me turning the pages.

Rep: Kyr reads as asexual, there are gay and lesbian secondary characters as well as some diverse characters.

CW provided at the beginning of the book: sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, ableism, sexual assault, suicide, and mentions of forced pregnancy, child abuse, genocide, suicidal ideation.

the book stands on a dark wooden side table, with a metal necklace hanging from the corner. The cover shows the full-body portrait of a young blond woman in grey uniform, with orange lettering over the picture.


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What did you read in July ?

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