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Reading wrap-up - June 2022

June is Pride Month in the USA, a tradition that's quite widely followed across the world. Last year, I'd decided to read mainly books by or featuring LGBTQIA+ people. This year, I didn't really think about it because it's more of a year-long goal. So in here you'll find a selection of queer books, yes, but not only, and not just one but two new favourites!

A Deadly Education, Naomi Novik · 2020

Galadriel, known as El, is angry. Who wouldn't be, when the school you're doing your best to attend is trying to kill you and her promotion's equivalent of a prince charming keeps trying to save her (and succeeding)? It's El's third year at the Scholomance, and things are getting... complicated.

I thought the first third of this novel was really strong, intriguing and imaginative (I was very glad not to have too visual an imagination because it sometimes leaned towards horror and we know how I deal with that (I don't)). Then it slogged a bit in the middle, when it got quite repetitive and not much happened, until the rhythm picked up in the last third. I wasn't much convinced by the prince charming character, who I vainly hoped was going to be the occasion to subvert the trope. Too bad it only happened in the very last sentence of the novel. I often felt like we were promised things that didn't end up happening.

One thing I loved, though, was the way language was treated, especially with regards to the magic system. The whimsical library wasn't bad either, in an annoying sort of way. And the very concept of a school trying to kill its students and that being their motivation to study is, I have to admit, fun. But all in all I wasn't entirely taken by this book I'd had high expectations for.

Rep: Welsh-Indian MC, international cast of characters.

CW: death, blood, racist micro-agression.

an e-reader showing the cover of the novel is sitting on top of old books on a wooden table, next to a bunch of dried flowers. There's a patterned cloth in the background.

How Long 'til Black Future Month?, N. K. Jemisin · 2018

Short story collections are hard to review. What I can say is that each one in this collection was strong, and N.K. Jemisin adapted her style to each one, which was quite impressive. I was so mesmerized by the second story, "The City Born Great", that the next ones paled a little in comparison, but this collection has absolute gems in store. It spans most of the subgenres of speculative fiction, from fantasy to science-fiction to the fantastic with a touch of steampunk. I was especially delighted to read a couple of stories based on food, and was always baffled by the writer's craft. After reading The Fifth Season I knew I could trust Jemisin's longer fiction, but short stories imply quite a different approach and not every novel-writer is a good short-story-writer. Well, Jemisin's collection is a masterclass in itself.

Rep: most MCs are Black, many are queer.

CW: racism, hate crime, bullying, sexual violence, animal death... Not all apply to the same stories, and it can be difficult to keep track of them over such different narratives, so my list is far from exhaustive, but these are, to my opinion, the main ones.

an e-reader showing the cover of the book rests on a calendar open at the page for June, next to a sprig of dried roses.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark · 2019)

It took me about two pages to fall in love with this book. Clark's writing style is flawless, so rich and luscious without being overwritten. He makes you notice all the details, all the nuances of his steampunk Cairo and the dozens of cultures making its identity.

In this novella we follow a classic duo of seasoned detective + new recruit, investigating, as the title suggests, the haunting of an aerial tram car. Cairo is in the midst of political unrest, the women demonstrating for the right to vote. Clark's 1920s steampunk Cairo is absolutely vibrant and filled with colourful characters. A quick, fun read in which we get to meet the heroine of A Dead Djinn in Cairo. I'm really excited to read A Master of Djinn one day and get back to this universe! In the meantime, Ring Shout is waiting for me on my TBR mountain...

Rep: Egyptian characters.

CW: except a case of haunting and a spooky sort-of-ghost, I didn't notice any content warning.

the book is set on a dark wooden table embossed with dark green leather that has a golden border. A white hand with lilac nails keeps the cover down.

Les Sorcières de la République, Chloé Delaume · 2016

What a weird, weird book!

This novel, part Sci-fi, part fantasy, part political fiction, tells the trial of a Sybil in 2062, judged for taking part in the collective amnesia decided shortly after a feminist party won the French presidential elections in 2017. 3 years of blank, no archives, no memories. Why such a decision? What has possibly happened in those 3 years to make 98% of the French population consider oblivion?

In chapters alternating with a journalist commenting the trial, the Sybil tells us about her life, started 2913 years ago, and how the Party of the Circle came to existence, bringing to the forefront of French politics the voices of modern-day witches.

This book is absolutely puzzling. It's told in reported speech, in theatre, in email exchanges, with the odd ad break here and there. It shows women (the author makes it clear we're talking about all women here, cis and trans) taking back power, but also how such a power escalates into chaos. I don't really know what to think about it, except that it's like nothing I've ever read.

CW : child abuse, sexism, rape, cannibalism, fatphobia.

the book is seen from above, with white peonies over it and out of focus.

Les Enfants du Passé, Luce Basseterre · 2017 / 2022

Djaël has been roaming the galaxies for far too long. This seasoned pilot, augmented to resist the assaults of years, has always been content with brief familial, friendly or sensual meetings to appease his loneliness. Then why does he feel he has to buy the freedom of an enslaved stranger and take them on his ship? And why does Djaël's son find the genetic trace of his father in the mistreated body of a teenager that turned up in the morgue?

Fans of Becky Chambers, assemble! Luce Basseterre gifts us with this book a French space opera deeply queer and diverse, maybe not as optimistic as her American counterpart, but just as brimming with respect for any living creature, so that it translates into language - Luce Basseterre uses a neutral language, with neo-pronouns. She first published her novel in 2017, and was able to revise it when it came out in paperback in 2022 so that it would be even more inclusive. In her future, neutral forms are the norm and masculine / feminine forms the exceptions.

I have to admit it took me a while to get used to the neo-pronouns and articles, well beyond the use of 'iel' (the French equivalent of singular 'they'). At first they distracted me from the plot. But what a joy to read a book that uses language to reflect the author's vision of the future! I'd started thinking, a few months ago, that the future could only be non-binary, and to find such a thoughtful incarnation in this book could only delight me.

Rep: Black, pansexual MC.

CW: child abuse, sex, death of children, eugenism.

the book is set open on a wicker chair above a red-tiled floor. A red stamp in the form of a Welsh dragon has been applied to the title page.

Dragon Keeper, Robin Hobb · 2010

Despite reading a lot of fantasy, I haven't been that attracted to dragon stories because the creatures have always felt a little too perfect and powerful for my taste. But that's not the cause with Robin Hobb's dragons. These are sick, pitiful creatures who, yes, may gulp down a human in a heartbeat, but also need their help to survive. Yet the humans don't see kindly to them. When the dragons don't fill the roles they'd been ascribed by legends and folk tales, when they keep to the ground and only consume precious resources, the Rain Wild Traders decide to drive them away. A group of misfits is hired to accompany them, just as undesirable as the dragons.

Dragon Keeper opens the Rain Wild Chronicles and shows another facet of Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings. Where Fitz's books are about identity and Liveship Traders about freedom, I find this series to be mostly about ableism, and also free will. Dragon Keeper is more like Liveships than Farseer because of the wide array of narrators we get, but here they're all traveling together and so I find it easier, upon first reading it, to get one's bearings and dive in the story. While it's not my favourite of Robin Hobb's stories, I love how her characters interact and how she makes us love some of them and absolutely hate others, knowing full well such opinions are bound to evolve along the way. My favourite may be the quiet dragon scholar lady...

Rep: one of the MCs is gay, but the atmosphere of the book feels quite queer in general.

CW: animal pain & death, ableism, sexual assault, injury described in detail, blood.

the book is set at the front of a bookshelf filled with Hobb's series.

The Swallows, Lisa Lutz · 2019

Every time I read a thriller, I remember why I don't read thrillers.

Do I really need a reminder that humans are capable of the worst things? I'm not sure. What I know is that the premisse of this book intrigued me because it's set in an American boarding school and centers around the creative writing teacher. Well, Ms Witt applied as literature teacher, but her classes were switched just before the first day of school, so she has to manage. When she asks the student for an anonymous portrait in 4 simple questions, she's not expecting to dig out the school's darkest secret.

I don't know if it's my asexuality speaking, but I found it super annoying that all characters thought constantly about was sex. I know consent is one of the central themes of the book, but that wasn't clear on the back cover. I did finish it because it was quick, and I enjoyed the feminist uprising taking place, but I won't be reading this again. And I'll stay away from thrillers for a while.

As a side note, I'm not sure having one character with an Asian name be the best student is particularly welcome. Especially when there's zero diversity in the cast...

Rep: one gay character.

CW: sexist microagressions, sexual harassment, alcohol, drug use, toxic relationship. Minor CW: death of parent, one mention of Hogwarts.

Spoiler CW: adult/teenager relationship, suicide.

the book is open on a wooden table, on top of a pile of blank paper. Some pens are scattered around and there's a patterned cloth in the background.

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys · 1966

I don't read a lot of classics. School has clearly put me off reading them, and I don't see why I would relate more to a book written a hundred years ago than one written ten years ago. Yet from time to time I'm intrigued, like with Wide Sargasso Sea, which imagines the story of Bertha, Mr Rochester's first wife in Jane Eyre.

First of all, the introduction to this book was really well written and helped me make the most of my reading by highlighting a few important themes and setting the scene. It helped me because I have to admit I struggled a bit with the narration to begin with. It feels very much like a dream - I didn't always knew where or when I was, or what was happening. But there was a beauty to the language, and a life, that kept me going. Jean Rhys was from Dominica, and she drew from her culture elements of language which makes the whole prose sing, even though I didn't find it always easy to grasp. As a result, I felt a little detached from the story, but at the same time I felt how necessary it was. This is clearly about flawed and unreliable narrators trapped in a flawed and unsatisfying relationship.

Rep: white Creole main character.

CW: colonisation, fire, mention of the death of a child and the death of a parent, toxic relationship, confinement.

the book lies open on a dark background next to a golden compass.


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What did you read in June?

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