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Reading wrap-up - May 2023

As promised, I set out on a second instalment of my #LetsReadThatTBR challenge in May, which enabled me to read 9 books from said TBR (including 3 I'd just received). Needless to say, it's quite ridiculous to put so much pressure on yourself, but I did enjoy my reading month, and no book disappointed me (the 2 I didn't like I had expected not to like). I even managed to find a new favourite! So that's a deal.

As a reminder, here are the categories for my challenge which is all about reading the books already on your shelves / nightstand / TBR trolley.

the very dark picture of a pile of books, edges forward, on which is written in white the title of the challenge and the different prompts.

Sirem et l'oiseau maudit, Yasmine Djebel · 2023

Sheltered within the walls of her paper garden, Sirem is apprenticed to her foster father Ziri. Tasks are repetitive but the girl likes few things more than getting lost in books, maybe to forget the tragic past that took her to the door of this city where she’s still perceived as a foreigner while still not sharing the life of her fellow refugees. When her world crumbles down and Sirem has to make a pact with a talking bird, she must stop hiding, take hold of her destiny and confront her past.

Under the relatively classic guise of a quest led by a heterogeneous cast of characters, Yasmine Djebel delivers a North-African inspired tale steeped in Amazigh culture. Here, tattoos have a profound meaning and a myriad of details enchant the senses: embroidered cloths, fragrant meals, sand and heat. It’s so easy to feel wrapped up in this story and walk alongside Sirem and her misfit friends, each member being so endearing, starting of course with the quiet donkey (big Bill-the-pony energy). Mysteries loom overhead, some can be guessed halfway on the journey while others stay shrouded in mist until the end. The whole is served by a prose that is both elegant and to-the-point and which reminded me of Christelle Dabos in its fuss-free beauty. A gorgeous YA book to be savoured at all ages.

an e-reader showing the cover of the book is set on a beige and pink patterned carpet.

Toute une moitié du monde, Alice Zeniter · 2022

This essay follows Je suis une fille sans histoire, a short pamphlet on the place of women in literature, which I discovered in January and enjoyed but left me frustrated. Here, the contents are much more developed and Zeniter draws from her own experience. She tackles a lot of uncomfortable subjects based on her personal experience of being a woman, and a woman of colour, in the French literary landscape.

Even when she touches on concepts of narratology or literary criticism, Zeniter stays very readable, thanks to her oral style and often funny footnotes. As with all essays, I didn’t absorb it in only one reading. I will have to go back to it to grasp with more nuance everything the author develops here, but I already found myself nodding repeatedly during my reading.

A white hand holds a copy of the book in the middle of a bush with white flowers, dappled with light.

The Last Resort Library, Irving Finkel · 1997 (2016)

This oh-so-English novel tells the (mis)adventures of the Last Resort Library, a hallowed institution housing all the manuscripts submitted to and rejected by a publisher. Between a case of espionage from an American counterpart to a visit of work security inspectors or even to a new manuscript that’s proving hard to catalogue, there’s no time for boredom in this episodic narrative full of humour that raises a few questions of author legitimacy and the book industry. The flamboyant cast of characters spares no one, and yet all of them are trustworthy when the time comes to defend the Library by more or less legal means. This book won’t leave an imperishable impression on me, but it’s an entertaining read for a shot of English spirit.

CW: sexism.

A white hand holds the book, whose cover features an illustrated bookcase filled with colourful books in a minimalist style, in front of a not-so-minimalist bookcase.

The Master of the Storms, The Other tome 2, Pierre Bottero · 2007

Pierre Bottero leaves no time for Nathan and Shaé to breathe. They are barely over the events of volume one and here they are, facing the second face of a three-faceted enemy. Will their superhuman abilities be enough?

This last question is throw-away. I found there was actually little suspense since the characters are so strong, even though their antagonists themselves are always more powerful and fierce. The ending did bring a welcome touch of originality to this fast-paced YA novel. One volume left!

CW: epidemic, violence, death of animals.

An e-reader showing the cover of the book is set on a white quilt.

The Eighth Door, The Other tome 3, Pierre Bottero · 2007

It seems like the story takes a huge shift when the third volume of this trilogy opens. There is a strong cut between that one and the previous two, yet the story still revolves around a boy with extraordinary capacities, faced with a seemingly impossible task, who is going to find help and guidance along the way.

The first chapters of this volume kindled my interest for this series, but it quickly fell back on the usual tropes, with a hero who is so strong that I lose all empathy for him, events going at lightning speed, manicheism without room for nuance, and a deus ex machina shoe-horned into the lot. The mystery of the latter wasn’t very hard to unveil after reading other books by the author. I almost underlined the descriptions of female characters throughout the trilogy to confirm my intuition, already strong in The Quest & The Worlds of Ewilan, that they all are described with the same adjective, “sensual”, even when the story is told through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy…

An e-reader showing the cover of the book is set on a wicker chair above a red-tiled floor.

The Cruel Prince, Holly Black · 2018

Jude's life could have ended the same day as her parents'. But by a cruel turn of fate, she is instead taken away by her parents' murderer to Elfhame where she manages to grow up despite everything. Waiting for the day of her revenge.

The hype was real. I'd be immune to it when the book came out and bookstagram erupted into cheer, but when it came back to the forefront in the past month I felt it was time to finally make my opinion. And I'm sorry to say it did not work for me. I'm glad this book is beloved and I can partly see why. But I never empathized with the characters and their motivations, and I never fell under the spell of the atmosphere. It turns out my lack of interest for the book when it came out was justified. Who would have guessed?

CW: death of parent, bullying, murder, suicide.

the book rests on a warm-toned, patterned fabric.  A sprig of dried roses leans on it.

Kerhoded, Hélène Néra · 2023

Kerhoded is a bustling city built on contradictions, between welcome and intolerance, light and shadows cast by secrets and conspiracies. Reva is stuck between two worlds, being born into the immigrant population and targeted by xenophobia, but sheltered by a rich woman and raised in the secluded palaces of the city. Many cogs turn without her being aware of them. When she is sent away to investigate the disappearance of a delegation far from the walls of Kerhoded, who knows what she will discover under the boughs of the forest?

Again, here was a novel I’d been strongly anticipating since its crowdfunding campaign last year. I was wary of my own enthusiasm, so the delight was real when I found out the hype was deserved! Helene Néra has written a very subtle book, taking the time to introduce her complex heroin and the city that gives its title to the novel. A little too much time, naysayers will argue, but it only makes for better revelations. Without spoiling the plot, Kerhoded is a novel that does not take the most expected directions, and I love it for it. You think you understand what’s at stake, but then you realise that the inhabitants of Kerhoded might have a biased view of the world beyond the city limits. The blend of genres at play here works wonders and makes for a gripping and puzzling reading experience, serve by elegant and refined prose that flows effortlessly.

Rep: black sapphic heroin, cast of black & brown characters.

The following content warnings are available at the end of the book: racism, child abuse, death and murders, blood, sexism, ecological collapse, oppressive forest. I just want to say that everything is very well dealt with, and there is no shocking scene.

A white hand holds a copy of the book in front of dark-leaved bushes. The cover shows the faces of two black women emerging from plants.

Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin · 1957

This well-known and well-loved novel tells about David, an American in Paris in the 1950s, and especially about his relationship with Giovanni at a time of hypocrisy when queer love is not tolerated but is everywhere in the capital. It’s hard not to succumb to Baldwin’s lyrical prose and the ease with which he talks about the human experience. David is certainly not a perfect man (his relationship with women has its dark spots, let’s put it that way), but his humanity shines through the pages and rings very true.

I was surprised to read that the two main characters were white, having been led to believe Baldwin tackled the intersection of the queer and Black identities, but I know he has many other books to have a look at, and Giovanni’s Room is certainly not the last one of his that I read.

Rep: white gay men.

CW: classism, homophobia, sexism, suicidal thoughts, death.

The book is open at the title page and lies on a black-and-white, flower-patterned fabric.

La Cité du savoir, Nadia Coste · 2023

On the small island of Hiklion, Sophia and Theo are the best of friends. They’re both around 10 years old and start to dream their futures. For Sophia, the future lies on the shore of Philopolis, where the white walls and blue cupolas of the University rise. To get there, she needs to pass a terrible exam. No one knows exactly what it’s about, but the outcome if you fail is worse than death. Theo’s brother is the living reminder of those dangers, and although he came back to live on Hiklion, his life has never been the same again. That’s why Theo is determined to postpone his own dreams for his future, to save Sophia no matter the dangers. But does Sophia want to be saved?

Here’s a YA novel that smells of sunshine and olive oil. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book inspired by Greece which wasn’t a myth retelling, even though the setting is clearly antique and inspired both by Greek and Roman cultures. The idea of magic being born by words was made to tickle my fancy and I’m delighted to have received this ARC thanks to NetGalley and Scrineo.

I spent a lovely time on the islands of the Irémia sea, letting myself be carried away by the storyteller’s voice who puts the story into perspective and lets just enough of the future be known to make you want to turn the pages faster. Sophia and Theo’s relationship enchanted me: finally a YA novel in which a girl and a boy can have the deepest friendship without it evolving into romance! I did find their emotional maturity surprising for 10-year-olds, but I’ve had the same problems with other YA books (Six of Crows I’m looking at you) so I didn’t let that stop me. I was too busy following the adventures of our two protagonists, their emotions and their dilemmas. Some passages did feel a little long and repetitive, but they do reflect how sometimes we’re trapped in the circle of our own thoughts.

The two friends’ journey was touching and without revealing too much about the plot, I enjoyed how they questioned authority and legitimity.

I’m not the right person to judge how well disability representation is dealt with, but I’d be curious to have the opinion of someone who is. I feel like this part of the story deserved more nuance because to repeat that it’s a fate worse than death and to see how disabled people are treated in this world was not a pleasant thing to read.

The book is out on May 25 from Scrineo, and I’d recommend for fans of wanderlust, with a touch of dark academia and political overthrow.

CW: ableism, classism.

An e-reader showing the cover of the book leans on a row of very old, leather-bound books.

Raybearer, Jordan Ifueko · 2020

Hidden between the walls of a fortress none but its inhabitants can see, Tarisai grows up longing for her mother's love. But The Lady is often on the road and her visits home are short. She is however determined for her daughter to carve a future worthy of her, and so she sends her to the capital with the mission to kill a boy while taking part in a competition. Tarisai soon discovers that the series of trials held in the company of the prince will determine the members of his council. She is supposed to take part like the others. But as soon as she meets the prince, a terrible urge to kill rises in her. She has found her mother's target.

Ready for a breathless adventure alongside very loveable characters in an Africa-inspired land? Raybearer was more YA than the adult novel I'd expected, but I didn't have time to wonder about that as I was swept away and held on the edge of my seat by Jordan Ifueko. The novel kept a fast rhythm, as fast as the drums that keep beating in the background of Tarisai's whereabouts, but it never lost sight of its characters and their emotional journeys. I loved the cast and the lush world-building, and if the last revelations were a bit too hasty to leave me time to process them, they all sounded right and made the pieces click together.

Rep: polyamourous character, asexual character.

CW: fire, toxic family relationship, injury, murder, child mistreatment.

The book, set on a desk in dark wood and green leather, is captured in a strong ray of light.

Nishi no majo ga shinda (The Witch of the West is Dead), Nashiki Kaho · 2017

It’s the beginning of the school year, but Mai is paralyzed by school phobia. Her parents send her to spend a few weeks with her English grandmother, in the Japanese countryside.

This short novel, the first pages of which are reminiscent of Mei and Satsuki moving houses in My Neighbour Totoro, has the charm of a Studio Ghibli production but also the bitterness that seeps through some of the animes. For we know from the start that the enchanted time Mei has with her grandma is bound to end. And yet you mostly feel Mai’s wonderment and pleasure as she watches everything around her, from the hens laying her morning eggs to the path leading to her precious spot filled with wild strawberries.

I loved this book that reminded me of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, in which you also spend a few weeks with a girl and her grandmother. The two novels speak to each other on many aspects and will fill your need for bittersweet lightness in the heart of winter or at the start of summer.

CW: death of animals & loved ones.

A white hand holds an e-reader showing the cover of the book in front of a dark-leaved, pink-budded bush.


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What did you read in May ?

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