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Reading wrap-up - October 2021

A month's worth of books from the library, episode 2! This month, I readmostly books on the smaller scale of things, and among them I discovered a new favourite I hurried to re-read before returning it. On the Robin Hobb side, I started The Liveship Traders trilogy which I'd only read once before (more frequent updates on Instagram here: #OneHobbAMonth).

Ormeshadow, by Priya Sharma · 2019

This book is a link between Thomas Hardy and fantasy. You may read it like the historical account of a farmer's life with a touch of magical realism, or like fantasy with firm roots in History. Most of it is the story of Gideon, a boy dreaming of a legend that is bound to remain a legend. When his father tells him about their forefather Gideon, the one who befriended a dragon, the seed of legend sends a shoot through the soil and up in the air. But it may still remain a fantasy. Part of the decision belongs to the reader - I do love when a story makes room for those who read it.

CW: animal pain, animal death.

the book is set on a woodden table next to some dried leaves, with a patterned cloth in the background.

Derniers Jours d'un monde oublié, by Chris Vuklisevic · 2021

Here is a novel under the tutelage of Janus, turned both toward the past and the future. You visit Sheltel, an island whose inhabitants think they are the only survivors of a worldwide natural catastrophe. And yet the story opens upon the arrival of a pirate ship looking for food and freshwater.

The author, Chris Vuklisevic, has written a complex, polyphonic novel that is never confusing. Her prose is efficient without ever losing its elegance. She creates a beautiful panel of varied characters, putting women at the forefront. Sheltel is not a sexist society, but it isn't free from sexual violence either (see content warnings below). This book whisked me away, and even though I eventually didn't feel emotionally attached to any character, I know this book has the potential to seduce many readers because it's rather flawless.

Rep: I'm pretty sure there was a W/W relationship, but it wasn't prominent.

CW: incest (mentioned), animal death, sexual violence, torture, war, fire & fire injury.

the book rests on a wooden table with a golden compass and dried flowers.

Time Was, by Ian McDonald · 2018

What is a theme you love reading about?

I can't resist a good time-travel story, particularly when it's about feelings rather than science. When my eyes fell on Time Was's synopsis, an imaginary pen ticked many boxes I love: old books & bookshops, queer love, time-travel. And the book delivered. I finished with tears in my eyes and the satisfied feeling of having read a powerful story, no matter how short.

Rep: gay characters

CW: war crimes, war, rape, mention of HP.

the book is propped on an old radio, mostly cut by the frame, against a white background. The corner of a snowy landscape painting appears at the top of the picture.

Madame Pamplemousse and the Time-Travelling Café, by Rupert Kingfisher · 2009

The next stop in my middle-grade-literature adventure was this book I stumbled upon while reordering the children's section at the library. I'd been looking for books about food & magic, which is exactly what this one is about. The first volume wasn't available, so I had to start with book 2 and had a little difficulty understanding what I'd missed in book 1. All in all it's a fun adventure, but it really went too fast for my liking. I'd say it's good for children aged 8-10. There's time-travel, coffee that isn't really coffee, and a terrible plan to wipe out culture & entertainment from the city of Paris where the story is set. To me, the author tried to make the young girl the heroin of the story, but she couldn't compete with Madame Pamplemousse who is the real protagonist, as in "the one moving the story forward". That created a little frustration, but nothing major. Long story short: a cute story about the importance of wonder - and delicious treats.

CW: police brutality

the book is open at the title page. A few dried flowers and orange slices are scattered on top.

Ship of Magic, by Robin Hobb · 1998

The first time I read The Liveship Traders trilogy, I was baffled by the complexity of the narrative and how different it was from the Farseer trilogy. I know a few readers who have preferred Liveship Traders because of its variety, and I certainly praise that, but I've always felt a deeper attachment to Fitz and the Fool. However, re-reading Liveship made me realise just how stunning this book was. Yes it's complex, but I appreciated it a lot more knowing from the first pages who was whom and I loved the hints at where the story was going. I hadn't realised the first time round how the whole 800-page volume was about slavery. It's certainly obvious, but I'd been so focused on understanding what was happening the first time that it had slipped my attention.

CW: animal death (massacre of whales described at length - I always skip this section), slavery, suicidal thoughts, toxic relationships, self-harm.

the book is standing in the foreground next to a small dark brown bottle holding dried flowers. Other books by Robin Hobb are piled in the background.

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary, by Ken Liu · 2011

This book is very short, but it undoubtedly is one of the heaviest and most dense I've read this year. It includes absolutely horrendous descriptions of torture and war crimes, so don't do as I did and check the content warnings listed below. I will not refer explicitly to these in my review, but I wish I'd had a note at the beginning of the book.

The Man Who Ended History is an absolutely fascinating little book in many ways. It reads like the transcription of a fictitious TV documentary juxtaposing interviews, voice-overs and textual descriptions of visual material presented on screen. This apparent distance helps tell about the atrocities committed during the China-Japan War in the 1930s, but no distance can really alleviate the horrors of the Japanese camps. The most chilling part may be that most of the accounts presented here are taken from historical sources and have nothing fictitious, despite this book being marketed as Sci-fi.

The premise is that a Japanese-American physicist, a woman, and a Chinese-American historian, a man, have developed a tool to witness historical events as if one were transported then and there. From then, the documentary focuses on the ethical and philosophical issues raised by this discovery, since the historian decided to give this opportunity to families of victims rather than scholars, and that each "time-travel" destroys the possibility to visit each time period a second time.

There is a lot to talk about from such a small volume. One huge caveat I must raise, however, is that once again the author is determined to minimise the role of women, as he'd done in The Grace of Kings. First in the title itself : the man of the title is the historian, but without the woman physicist none of the experiment would have been possible. Secondly, the form is a documentary which means that everything is presented very neutrally. Then why is there an italicized description of the physicist making comments on her beauty?? It has absolutely nothing to do here, and yet it's the very first sentence of the book. This baffles me. I know after The Grace of Kings I'd said I'd stay away from Ken Liu in the future, but this book had been heavily recommended and it sounded too interesting to pass. Which it is, undeniably.

CW: detailed descriptions of rape, sexual violence, torture, and mutilation.

a white hand holds a copy of the book in front of a bookshelf.

Madame Pamplemousse and The Enchanted Sweet Shop, by Rupert Kingfisher · 2010

The third volume in Madeleine and Madame Pamplemousse's adventures is just as sweet as the previous one. This time the danger comes from sweet treats hiding a darker heart. I enjoyed the fact that this book blended fantastical elements with down-to-earth troubles, this time bullying at school. Once again, I found Madeleine rather passive for most of the story, but she gained independence by the end and that was nice. Something felt a little off with the narration, maybe a little disjointed, but it was fine.

CW: school bullying.

the book is open at the title page. A few dried leaves are scattered on top and a wooden spoon & fork are set next to it.

Sorcery of Thorns, by Margaret Rogerson · 2019

In this very bookish adventure, we follow Elisabeth, a guardian-in-training who sees the safe boundaries of her world crumble down when her beloved library is attacked by a monster trapped so far within the pages of a book. Although she manages to defeat it and escape with her life, nothing is the same anymore. With the head of the library gone, she is suspected of dark intentions and has to prove her innocence at the capital city.

This story is quite fun and lively, with a nice feminist undertone. I do wish the heroin's training appeared more in her actions. We are told she's training as a guardian to work in a library, but the focus is put so much on what she doesn't know and is mysterious that I couldn't fathom what she did know. There was a rather cliché romance with a brooding and tortured man, but it wasn't overly fast. What annoyed me more was how the heartless demon was said not to be interested in sex, which is a very human, asexual orientation too often pasted onto psychopaths and evil beings. There was also this awkward trope of how beauty was always related to the palest skin tone possible.

All in all, if you can get past a few tropes ("she released the sigh she didn't know she'd been holding"), it's a fun page-turner with a heroin who knows what she wants.

Rep: bi secondary (important) character, blind secondary character.

a white hand holds a copy of the book in front of bushes with dark green leaves and small red berries.

Words and Worlds: From Autobiography to Zippers, by Alison Lurie · 2019

This is a delightful collection of short articles published in different magazines and covering subjects as varied as sexism in American universities, kitchen wear, and zippers. If you fancy a short collection of thoughts by an opinionated lady, this is one you should consider! My copy probably doesn't have as many essays as in the English version, but I thoroughly enjoyed the ones I read.

A white hand holds open a copy of the book on a white plush blanket partially covered by a pair of tweed trousers, next to a candle.

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What did you read in October?

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