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Reading wrap-up - June 2023

After two months of carefully-picked books for the challenge I'd set myself, and before the new edition of said challenge in July, I let my mood guide me reading-wise in June. A journey with three train rides helped me re-read a big book I kept a fond memory of. A few days at a friend's home with wonderfully-stocked bookcases turned into a reading sprint, and advance reading copies helped fill up my reading month, with the satisfaction of having read great books.

A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab · 2015

Kell is a thief by choice. Lila is a thief by necessity. The former can travel across different Londons, turning his manifold coat on the side relevant to the place to blend in or stand out. The latter is stuck in her Grey London, looking for one thing: escape. Of course the two were bound to meet. But what happens when they do might very well change the destinies of both.

This book was objectively excellent. I love V.E. Schwab’s way with words. She can turn a phrase as delightful as Leigh Bardugo and the two are equally good at crafting a narrative that will hook you but also leave many hints that you will or will not get.

In A Darker Shade of Magic, it’s not really about who’s good and who’s bad. It’s all a matter of perspective, really, and the real baddies (because yes, there are a couple of truly awful people) are not the antagonists. This is one of the things the author highlighted in her video series that serves as a readalong this summer, and I loved that distinction. I love that big phrases such as “villains” or “saving the world” aren’t relevant in this book. The focus is on the intricacies of characters’ motivations and relationships, and it makes for a much more delectable reading experience in my opinion.

I’m so sad that I didn’t get the spark of a favourite book when reading this one, because I cannot find any fault in it. I loved every aspect of it. Maybe that’s just a matter of the moment I read it, when I was craving a different type of book, with less magic. But this book is still excellent and I highly recommend it.

Rep: the vibe is very queer without any label assigned to the characters.

CW: sexual assault attempt, violence, blood (quite a lot of it actually).

The book rests on a background of overlapping maps.

Sirène à la source, Gauthier Guillemin · 2022

In a Burgundian forest, a river runs through an old laundry. Its spring is guarded by a low wall on which a sculpted mermaid watches over Seine’s family. Seine grew up there with her sisters and parents and now she’s fled there as an adult, to write. Under the mermaid’s empty gaze, past and present mingle, until the very borders of reality start to fade.

This short story is part of the “Chronopage” collection edited by @editions1115 — short fiction that can be read in less than an hour and provide an occasion to travel at low cost, and to discover an author. This one was recommended to me for the link it draws between a land and its folklore, and it did not disappoint. In the Burgundian woods, the descriptions are very evocative while letting a degree of uncertainty hover the scene. Is Seine a reliable narrator? Is her mistrust towards the mermaid she can glimpse through her window, justified? This short story won’t leave you wanting for more, even though it’s more evocative than affirmative. I enjoyed reading it once, and then a second time, to appreciate its subtlety.

a white hand holds a copy of the booklet in front of a dark bush.

Du thé pour les fantômes, Chris Vuklisevic · 2023

Sisters Felicité and Agonie were born with one foot in the real world. The former has learnt the art of tea-brewing: tea to waken memories, tea to forget, tea to attract ghosts, … The living and the dead mingle in her Nice apartment (Nice like the French city). The latter, Agonie, has a power worthy of her name. It has defined her since her birth, when her mother made the choice not to love her. The two sisters did not grow up as enemies. And yet, they went their separate ways 30 years prior. Only the sudden death of their mother might bring them close again. Just like a teapot mended by the delicate art of kintsugi, will they be able to patch their relationship, not forgetting the hurt, but rewriting the consequences?

I was eagerly waiting for Chris Vuklisevic’s second novel after enjoying her first one, Derniers jours d’un monde oublié. My heart did not resist the stunning cover, but I also felt the amount of secrets hidden behind it. No heroic quest here, no demon to confront if perhaps the one you carry under your skin — under your tongue, in Agonie’s case. This story feels very personal, rooted in the city of Nice and its countryside, where inhabitants can be as unforgiving as the scorching sun.

“A witch, and she’s hunted. No witch, they make one for themselves.”

This novel is a narrative steeped in folklore that deals primarily with family and secrets: those that hurt, that mend or that send people on the road in a quest for answers or solace. Sometimes, emotions flare and the text bursts at the seams, letting poetic fragments tell the characters’ turmoils. The arid hills echo their voices and absorb their emotions as they would raindrops.

Here is a novel far from the beaten paths of SFFF, embedding stories within stories and linking them with supple and singing prose. A gorgeous discovery!

CW: toxic family relationship, death of a parent, child neglect, child death.

The book is set on a dark table next to an earthenware tea cup and some foliage.

A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver · 1994

This short and playful essay will give you the basics to write and read poetry. It does not linger on obscure considerations of theory, but rather exposes clearly the tenets of poetry through a focus on sound, versification, voice, and imagery. Here Mary Oliver has the same congenial voice she has in Upstream, and the same eye for detail that she applies to highlighting effects of style in a variety of extracts taken mostly from American poets. This is a good introduction to the art of the verse, whether you're interested in writing or reading it.

The book is open at the title page on a dark wooden surface. A sprig of dried roses lies on the page.

Le Renard, Pauline Harmange · 2023

During a leisurely Sunday family stroll, a young girl, or young woman, the border between the two being quite blurry, strays away from the group and takes the forest path rather than the usual itinerary going around the woods. Her walk takes her deeper and deeper into the forest, at the rhythm of memories emerging and drawing a map of who she is. Her encounter with a fox straight out of a fairy tale may be random, but it might just as well be a fruit of the narrator’s bookish imagination.

This very short novel charmed me with its prose. There aren’t any fancy words here, but sentences are stringed together cleverly, never quite taking the direction I was expecting and grabbing my attention while doing so. I felt I was more drawn to the word choice than to the narrative, but the latter was very sensitive and followed the protagonist as she meandered through the murky waters of adolescence. Pauline Harmange blended together past and present, folklore and pop culture, the better to explore the many branches stemming from this encounter, seen from the eyes of a character I had no trouble identifying with.

CW: eating disorder, animal cruelty.

The book lies flat at the front of a black bookshelf. Its red cover features the drawing of a fox.

Vénère (Pissed off), Taous Merakchi · 2022

Here is a book like a cry from the heart. It explores, explains, promotes and carries the author’s anger. As the subtitle makes clearer, her anger is that of being a woman in a men’s world. Taous Merakchi is very clear that she makes no generalities here. She reminds her readers from the first pages that, despite what the titles on library and bookshop shelves suggest, there is no such thing as “the” woman. Women are only true in their plurality and, in the same way, there are thousands of ways to angry when you’re of that gender (cis or trans, of course). Most of this essay deals with sexism, sexist and sexual violence, but Taous Merakchi does not close her eyes on intersectionality and also touches on the way sexism finds a common ground with racism.

She celebrates here the heartfelt anger too often denied to women because they should be careful, project a picture of beauty and softness even when the world feels like a vast, ongoing aggression. So thank you Taous Merakchi for speaking so frankly and for giving a voice to this rage that can overcome us when we are faced with our society’s rampant sexism.

CW: sexism in all its forms, from the more discreet to the more violent, racism, cancer. Mention of eating disorder.

A white hand holds a copy of the book in front of a white wall, next to a window.

Daemon Voices, Philip Pullman · 2017

This book, which I've been meaning to read since it came out, is a collection of talks and articles by Pullman regarding the craft of storytelling. There are 32 pieces, and even though a few of them come with similar arguments, there is still a wide variety of approaches to the topic. In some chapters Pullman touches on the way his creativity works. Others deal with artists he admires, whether well-known like William Blake or a little more obscure. There are parts on religion, from the point of view of a very unreligious author, one on illustration that of course I was very interested in, and all in all plenty of things to ponder. Thankfully there's a helpful topic finder at the start to help you pick whichever chapter you're interested in.

This book is not a writing textbook, but through and through you get different points of view regarding storytelling, not just Pullman's, and that makes it quite valuable. I was really short on time so I had to skim-read more than a few parts, and could probably do with a more leisurely reading experience to absorb Pullman's points. That being said, I have so many other books about craft I want to read that I’ll probably pick another one.

a white hand holds a copy of the book in front of black bookshelves. The cover is red with a black-and-white bird holding a banner on which the title is written.

The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss · 2007

This book is a special one, but not only for good reasons. I first read it in 2016 and was delighted to find that the writing style compared, in my opinion, to Robin Hobb’s. Which is huge for me to say. The characters aren’t nearly as endearing, but the atmosphere is excellent and completely makes up for it. You’ve got mysteries aplenty and what is (again, to me) the best prologue I’ve ever read. In less than a page.

That’s for the hype. Now for the bad news.

The Name of the Wind is the first volume in a trilogy that for now only has two books. It came out in 2007 and the second one in 2011. You’d think by now the third volume was only months away? Well, for a variety of reasons, it seems that it isn’t. So I bought book 2 years ago but haven’t read it so far just in case of massive cliffhanger.

Fast-forward a few years, and here I am re-reading book one. In there we meet Kote, a peaceful innkeeper in a supposedly peaceful small village. One day a scribe turns up and recognises Kote as Kvothe, a figure of legend. The pretence doesn’t last long and Kvothe agrees to tell Chronicler his story, in the course of three days. The Name of the Wind is the first of those (by the way, the audiobook is 28 hours long so I don’t know, maybe days are extra long in this world? It’s never mentioned).

Patrick Rothfuss weaves a captivating narrative here, telling about his protagonist’s story from a very young age, just like Assassin’s Apprentice. I particularly love the theme of music running through the book, as well as the setting of the University. I’m almost ready to forgive the blatant absence of women as more than objects in the story, and that’s saying a lot because it did make me grind my teeth. But Rothfuss has a way with words, and he wrote one of my top 10 books set in the same universe: The Slow Regard of Silent Things. So I think, now that I’ve reread Book 1, I’m quite ready to start Book 2 in the near future.

CW: violence, parent death, drug use.

The book is set on a wooden table. A eucalyptus branch rests on it and there is a warm-toned, patterned cloth in the background.

Dark Woods, Deep Water, Jelena Dunato · Out on Septembre 19, 2023

A ageing soldier devoted to his lord, a young lady about to lose her illusions, and another young woman who’s never had many illusions to lose, all find their way to a path in the woods leading to a castle whose inhabitants may not want them to leave, in this Gothic, medieval-inspired, Eastern-European fantastic tale.

This book confused me, but I don’t think it’s the author’s fault at all. The story is split into three different perspectives, and you’re given little time to find your bearings before things start taking a dark turn for the characters. While this type of opening won’t bother many readers used to plot-based fantasy & science-fiction, it made things a little difficult for me, who tend to prefer character-based stories that take their time establishing the stakes & world-building.

That being said, I really enjoyed the snippets of folklore interspersed throughout the story. I would even have enjoyed a bit more, but I appreciated the fact that the author rooted her novel in this fictional, yes, but quite realistic world. It is a dark one, I must insist, especially in terms of sexual violence (see the content warnings).

The blurb was slightly misleading because what it describes doesn’t happen before you’re about one third into the story, which added to my confusion. There was also a timeline thing that wasn’t clear, but I loved the way each character has a different experience of time passing. The way we saw some of them through the eyes of the others was also very well done in my opinion. This novel really delivered on the structure with different strands slowly getting braided together, which is a feature I really love in books.

On the whole, I remain quite confused by this book and would be hard pressed to recount the narrative in detail, but I’d recommend it for fans of G.R.R. Martin with a Gothic and folkloric touch.

CW: rape, sexism, violence (sword fights), mention of fatphobia.

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

Les Cendres du Serpent-Monde, Marine Sivan · 2021

Erik had arrived on the island of Cahor with as much hope as the other colonisers. A fresh start, a mysterious land hiding potential treasures, … He had eventually met an indigenous people harassed by the invaders, and was started befriending them when tragedy occurred and stranded him in the stinking city of white settlers on the shore. So when his luck turned once more, he seized a job offer from a newcomer and headed with the group into the jungle, looking to reestablish contact with the first inhabitants.

This novel, very much inspired by the dark history of South America, spares neither the characters nor the readers. Through Erik’s disillusioned gaze, whom we follow a little against our will since he’s the narrator, all the cruelty of men is laid out before our eyes. You’d better not get attached too much in this narrative in which no one is safe, whether from others or from their own demons.

It is a dark read, enhanced by an intricate prose full of slang to make you hear the characters just as if you were there with them. On a few occasions I did find a bit of simplicity would have served the narrative better, but on the whole it was really efficient and I gobbled this book up in less time than its size suggested.

CW: allusion to child abuse, mass slaughter, colonisation, racism / xenophobia, violent fights, murder, death of a child, grief.

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

Sweet Bean Paste (あん), Durian Sukegawa · 2013

Every day, Sentaro prepares dorayakis, pancakes filled with sweet bean paste, in his little corner shop. He acts mechanically, conscious that this job is all he has, but unable to put much heart into it. His encounter with Tokue, an old lady with crooked fingers, has unexpected surprises in store.

This novel is just as bittersweet as the one by Nashiki Kaho I read last month. Here, the “sweet” part is due as much to the sugar used in the confectionaries as in the interactions between the characters: Sentaro, Tokue, but also the lonely highschooler Wakana. As for the bitter part, it enhances the sweet and provides plenty of occasions to shed a tear, just like the movie did when I saw it. This novel is a very humane parenthesis in a busy day-to-day life, a short read that appeases, wrings your heart and makes you think all at once.

CW: medical abuse, confinement, alcoholism. Mentions of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempt.

The book is open at the title page with a bunch of dried vegetation across it.

Big Girl, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan · out on August 24, 2023

Warning: this book & review deal a lot with fatphobia.

Malaya’s weight seems to be everyone’s problem. In 1990s Harlem where she spends her teenage years, it rains cutting remarks, disgusted stares and Weight Watchers reunions. Her mother and grandmother take turns to repeat to her that everything would be better if only she lost weight, but Malaya would just like people to let her enjoy her friend group at high school, music pouring down the streets of her neighbourhood, colours she wants to spread from her fingernails to the walls of her bedroom.

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s novel is that of a girl suffocating and breaking free until she can breathe again. Yes, this is the novel of a victory, although it’s paid for dearly. The reader suffers alongside young Malaya, whom no one considers beyond her waist measurement. But we can also feel everything bubbling up inside her and begging to come out: her creativity, her happiness, her strength. This is a wonderful portrait of a teenager in upheaval, whose situation is mirrored in her neighbourhood changing fast and transforming irremediably. Surrounding Malaya is the whole Harlem Black community that the author depicts here in its flamboyance and metamorphosis, from the high school to the bodegas disappearing little by little.

This is a powerful novel, voiced by a very nuanced protagonist bent under the weight of injunctions. Malaya’s interactions with her mother and grandmother, both upset by her weight, are very violent. If you suffer from or have suffered from eating disorders, please note that this is a triggering book. It does celebrate victory over unhealthy attitudes, but it goes through dark moments.

Through the translation (I read it in French), I sensed how the author worked on the language, and I’m sure this book would be even better enjoyed in its original language because there are ways of speaking so specific to a time & place that they get lost in translation.

Rep: Black, queer, fat MC.

CW: fatphobia, body shaming, eating disorder, death of parent, grief, mentions of domestic violence.

An e-reader showing the cover of the book, with large yellow letters on a blue-grey background, is set on a jigsaw puzzle with a vintage picture of vegetables.


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What did you read in June ?

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