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Reading wrap-up - November 2023

Between my two reading challenges, on the one hand the #PumpkinAutumnChallenge and on the other hand my own challenge #LetsReadThatTBR, I did put y TBR pile to good use in November. And I was right to do so, because I ended up with an exceptional wrap-up. Simply put, I loved all my reads, and two of them will probably feature in my 2023 favourites. I think November has been my best reading month of 2023!


The Witch and the City, Jake Burnett · 2023


Book sent via NetGalley.


It seems a large part of my reading this year is composed of puzzling books. Is that a theme? What’s the last puzzling book you read?


The Witch and the City follows the witch Oneirotheria, who is looking for her memories. She navigates the streets of Osylum, guided by her knowledge of language and etymologies, in this very Shakespearian and a little Dantesque novel that is never quite what it seems to be. The author has a love for words that finds a release in very playful language, a lot of synonyms and clues scattered across names and dialogues. I was attracted to this book because of the link the publisher made to Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, one of my favourite books of the year, and the parallels are indeed easy to draw, with an innocent character whose view of the world is limited by their knowledge, and a location that is both sprawling and enclosed within uncrossable boundaries.


I was instantly enthralled by the language in The Witch and the City, which sustained me throughout chapters that kept confusing me more and more, but not in a bad sense. Do not look for clear and definite answers here. There is a twist that sheds light on some aspects of the world, but most of it remains a mystery. I am absolutely certain this book begs for a re-read, and will be experienced differently depending on how well you know your classics, especially your Shakespeare. I don’t know a huge lot about the Bard, and was still able to enjoy this novel, but I’d be curious to know how a better-versed reader interprets it and is able to anticipate some revelations.


This is a novel for Autumn and Winter times, filled with moving shadows.


An e-reader showing the cover of the book lays on a beige carpet with red and blue patterns.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Koenig · 2021


Sonder. Chrysalism. Anemoia. These sound like words from the dictionary, right? Well, they are, but not just any dictionary: John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. For years, first on his Tumblr and YouTube and then in this book, the author has created words to encapsulate emotions and sensations there was no word for.


I discovered Koenig’s work on his tumblr yeaaaaars ago, and waited for years for a physical-book-version. I was so happy when it happened! This is such a gem of a book. I did read it quickly, but it’s the kind of book best left by your bed to peruse now and then. It holds a lot of poetry and thoughtfulness. The one thing I would have to say is that while European roots for words are played upon, words taken from non-European languages are usually left as they are but with a new meaning. It felt like a missed opportunity, because for speakers of these languages, the word is already known. But that’s very minor. All in all this is a gorgeous book for bibliophiles and would make a lovely Yuletide present.


The book rests on a dark blanket and is bracketed by feet in William-Morris-inspired socks.

Éparpillés sur la mer, Mina Jacobson · 2023


The Earth has been submerged by the rising sea levels. Communities survive thanks to the deep harmony between their members, a harmony that is created. Indeed, humans are no longer born alone but in two, three, or even more. Individuals are now linked by a chip that blends the boundaries of their perceptions with the group. But are they still individuals when all thought is born in a collective consciousness?


This short story is part of the Chronopages project by Editions 1115. Each month, contributors receive a story in their mailbox. After steampunk fantasy by Adrien Tomas, here we are taken to a Waterworldesque universe (here’s to 90s references). I loved this short and intense narrative that is much more interested in what makes us humans than in world-building. That’s sci-fi as I love it, interrogating the fundamentals of humanity. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers, but I highly recommend this short story!


The booklet lies on a purple fabric, surrounded with dead leaves and pinecones.

The Last Goddess, Kateřina Tučková · 2012


On the slopes of the White Carpatians, huddled at the edge of the forest, lived the last goddesses, among which Surmena, Dora’s aunt. Dora is a researcher, a scientific mind determined to shed light on those that could be qualified as witches because of their knowledge and powers. They have only barely escaped from repeated assaults led by men of power, from inquisitors to Nazis, and have seen their numbers dwindle with time. There are only some twenty of them left at the end of the 20th century when Dora starts her research journey, which will take her from secret to secret, in archives sometimes locked tight, until, maybe, she can find and tell the truth about those women. But what truth?


This pure dark academia novel takes the reader to Czech Republic and its surrounding countries, on the footsteps of colourful characters. It’s hard to determined what’s fiction and what’s reality, because of the tremendous work by the author who has gathered and studied historical sources. The narration is interspersed with documents found by Dora, so that the reader follows her research as it unfolds. Nothing is spared to them, neither the sexual violence, nor the dark hours of nazism, nor the petty and sordid neighbours’ feuds. This is an impressive novel, firmly rooted in the land it describes, as well as implacable.


Rep: lesbian protagonist.


CW: misogyny, torture, all kinds of sexual and sexist violence.


The book lays open on a graphic, flower-pattern fabric in dark tones.


La Cité diaphane, Anouck Faure · 2023


Seven years after leaving, the archivist of Roche-étoile is back in the city that has been stormed by an unknown plague. The squares, the lofty towers and the corridors are now empty of a once-prosperous population. The archivist, looking for the origins of the catastrophe, dives into the city’s memories, only to find out part of the truth might lie in their own memory.


This dark and elegant novel warns you from the first pages that this is going to be a slow, atmospheric, and deeply gothic narrative. In other words: my cup of tea. If I was repulsed by a few scenes of body horror, as I should, I was charmed by the rest of this book with its meticulous prose and tortured characters.


Stories about memory are often favourites, probably because of my own failing one, and here I found what I was looking for. Without spoilers, the memory of the place blends with the memories of the characters for a most beautiful result. Add to this a non-gendered character and I am in love. I sometimes kept an eye on gendered language, knowing how much French loves it, but I couldn’t find any - this kind of discreet but pervasive stylistic device is so, so delightful.


Last but certainly not least, the author herself illustrated her novels with pictures à la Gustave Doré, where the darkness of the narrative creeps into the image the better to reveal sparks of light.


Rep: genderfluid character.


CW: graphic violence, body horror.


The book stands on a wooden chair next to a sprig of dried roses, in front of grey patterned curtains.

Cimqa, Auriane Velten · 2023


This is the story of Sarah and Sara. When we meet them, Sarah is a young girl who discovers one day, alongside the rest of the world, that the three dimensions aren’t exactly what they used to be. As for Sara, she’s a woman in her fifties in a world where this upheaval is now part of daily life. With Sarah, we discover the marvel, the secret and the chaos surrounding the first moments after the change. When everything is still possible and imagination is at the tip of a finger. Sara has a more disillusioned outlook on this phenomenon that has been digested and spat out by entertainment industries she’s just a small part of.


This gorgeous novel is exactly the type of sci-fi I love. It’s not that much about geopolitical stakes and the epicness of the phenomenon that has shuffled the cards of perception. It’s about the way change is embodied in individuals and affects their relationship with the world and with other people. The perspectives of those two characters are perfectly complementary in that regard, and give a voice to those who are often left by the wayside - women who are no longer young, bright and fresh. I had a lot of tenderness for older women in genre fiction, and I thought that Sara and her partner Eva were perfect examples, as written by Auriane Velten who transcribes perfectly how each protagonist communicates. Sarah, the young girl, speaks like a child her age, and looks at the world with innocence and creativity. Sara, the older woman, is more composed, more tired as well, but filled with a frustration that requires only a spark to burst.


The relationships each protagonist weaves with her entourage ring so very true. These are humans who aren’t perfect, who make mistakes and admit when they’re wrong (willingly or not). Sure, their circumstances are imaginary, but the author explores how women like you and me react, and not how they are called to become heroins and accomplish great deeds. If you haven’t got it yet, this is a new favourite.


The book is laid on a wooden table, next to a sprig of eucalyptus. There is a warm-toned, patterned fabric in the background.

Qisiose, Emmanuel Quentin · 2023


Third volume in the Chronopages series, Qisiose makes us meet the namesake, who works at a shunting station, who dreams to change horizons as he grapples with the desire for something else.


This short story, like the others at 1115 editions, is too short to say much more, but it explores once more what makes us human in the context of a journey that takes the main character to unexpected skies. The beginning reminded of Haruki Murakami and his bored characters, but Qisiose quickly takes matters into his hands and sets out for adventure, even though he doesn’t exactly know what he’s looking for. I really enjoyed the ending, and I wish I’d been more attentive to clues that would have made me guess it early. My reading experience would have been quite different, but I can always reread this very short piece.


The booklet peeks from the pocket of a flower-patterned, grey-toned dress.

Nous serons l'incendie, Jeanne Mariem Corrèze · to be published


Book sent by the autho for beta-reading.


Four years have passed since the end of Le Chant des Cavalières (The Dragonriders’ song), Jeanne Mariem Corrèze's previous book. Sarda has been invaded and war is everywhere. Pockets of resistance bring together dragon riders and civilians in a desperate quest for the abolition of authoritarianism. Characters we had left in the previous volume are back to tell us the sequel to their adventures, and new names appear as well, to recount their mysterious past, their present scarred by the war, and their future that is yet to be written.


The biggest thank you to the author Jeanne Mariem Corrèze for sharing this book with me as a beta-reader. What an honour and what a pleasure! Le Chant des Cavalières is a book I love and never stop recommending around me. Good news, I’m about to do the same with Nous Serons L’Incendie. This is an epic of small people, the ones who never forget that a war is fought with weapons, yes, but also with taking care of one another and gathering around simple gestures like making a meal or tilling the earth. It is carried by a lyrical and lush prose that never ceases to enchant me and would do wonders, I’m sure, when read aloud.


Get ready for this fantasy novel between Arthurian and South-East-Asian influences. I can’t wait for you to have it in your hands. Let’s hope for a quick publication!


PS : since the book isn’t published yet, this is a cover I made myself. Be gentle with me, I’m not a pro!


an e-reader showing the me-made cover of the book lies on a dark blanket, surrounded with pine boughs.

A Lesson in Vengeance, Victoria Lee · 2022


Felicity Morrow is back at Dalloway a year after the tragic accident that caused her best friend's death. It's a new year at the elite school and a new set of students are housed with her at the very demanded Godwin house, among creaking floorboards and tilting bookshelves. Among them is Ellis Haley, young prodigy writer who attracts people like nectar for bees. Ellis is working on her next novel, about the Dalloway witches, a group of five students who died in the 1800s at Dalloway, whom Felicity was studying when tragedy struck. As one tries to make it all a thing of the past and the other is desperate to dig it out, ghosts are never far.


This book ticked all the dark academia boxes, one by one. Meticulously. As much as I loved all the references, and was glad to get most of them, it did feel a little too conspicuous. Like the author was presenting each one and saying ‘See? We're on the same wavelength!’.


That being said, again, there was much to love about this book. From the unreliable narrator to the mystery and the vibes. I loved how the beginning and the end unfolded, shining light on the characters’ tortuous psychology. My favourite part was perhaps how blurred the line was between reality and the supernatural. Yet I came out a bit frustrated. I think I wish the themes had been explored that little bit deeper. But it's really to find a fault because this novel was perfectly enjoyable. I can also blame the stratospheric hype this book came with.


Rep: lesbian MC.


CW: alcohol, death, murder, animal death.


The book lies on a dark blanket surrounded with old-looking books, dried leaves and pinecones.


La Femme Falaise, Hélène Néra · 2023


1920. Alice Green has fled London and taken residence in Paris to escape from the scandal of her relationship with another woman. Two years later, she is just healing from her heartbreak and struggles to find her place in the socialite circles. So when she meets the Princesse de Malanset, she sees her as an accomplished figure who has everything Alice lacks: elegance, self-confidence and an aura of seduction that doesn’t leave Alice quite cold.


This thoughtful historical novel is a gorgeous study of character in the treasure chest of a time brought to life meticulously. The author has spent a long time studying lesbian history in the 19th and 20th century, especially on her blog “Les Faunesses”, and doesn’t stop at an exposé on sapphic relationships in 1920 Paris. She dives into her heroin’s introspection until her every emotion becomes familiar. Alice is a deeply endearing character, with real evolution throughout the narrative, which makes it quite engaging to read. I had a hard time putting this book down as I wanted to know if Alice was going to overcome her heartbreak and find a measure of solace and, who knows, happiness. But what charmed me most was Hélène Néra’s prose, madly elegant, constantly renewing itself in astonishing fluidity. I’d already loved Kerhoded, her previous novel published by Projets Sillex, and here I found out that the author went from one genre to the other with perfect ease. I highly recommend this self-published book that I got as a gift to someone else but might get another copy to lend it around me.


Rep: lesbian characters.


The book rests on a wicker chair, with a dried sprig of white flowers laid across the cover.

 

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 November ?

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