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Reading wrap-up - October 2023

October started on wobbly legs, but ended up delivering two strong new favourites, and great books all-round. I managed to read for two different reading challenges which are still ongoing, the #PumpkinAutumnChallenge as well as my own #LetsReadThatTBR challenge. Some books cross over the two, but not all.

A Fire Born of Exile, Aliette de Bodard · 2023

Book sent via NetGalley.

In which I strongly recommend a book I DNFd. Don't run!

This Sci-fi novel with strong feminist and queer vibes was everything it promised it would be. Fun, with depth and intricate world-building. I loved how the author blended Vietnamese culture into this far future, especially with the way pronouns are handled.

The reason I stopped at the 25% point was entirely the fault of my tired brain, nothing else. I just couldn't keep track of who was who and exactly what was happening, but I know for sure that Sci-fi enthusiasts will have no problem following those endearing characters and their adventures. I loved that Aliette de Bodard included characters deemed older. Not everyone wielding bots has to be 18, you know? Here's to featuring older characters in genre fiction.

I absolutely intend to come back to this book when I have more mental space for it. In the meantime, I'll recommend it to readers who enjoy a relatively (but not too much) fast-paced adventure focused on characters, with detailed and intriguing world-building that makes people question their perceptions.

An e-reader showing the cover of the book rests on a dark purple blanket, surrounded with pine boughs.

History of the Rain, Niall Williams · 2014

Here is a peculiar book I would be hard pressed to summarise. I considered abandoning it many times, and only kept going because I could feel a reading slump coming and I didn't want it to taint a future read I'd anticipated.

For most of this book I was confused. It is very intricate and jumps back and forward in time so that I had no idea when and where and who I was reading about. The prose was quirky and imaginative, which I like, but at the start I thought it was a bit forced. Then towards the end it came together for me and, perhaps because the story became a little bit more linear, I managed to reach the end.

History of the Rain is really a book about storytelling and the love of books and bookish legacies. It is also meandering and you might get bogged down more than once, just like the characters do in the Irish countryside the story takes place in.

I'd still recommend it, because it has a very special kind of beauty and will appeal to readers who are well-versed in classics and do not fear to be led astray in the narrative chronology. There were more than a few quotable lines that I didn't write down because I was busy finding my bearings in the book. Be warned also that it is a very sad one (have a peek at the content warnings and do ask me if you need more specific ones), although there's this deep, deep faith in literature that brings a little light and hope.

CW: WW1, grief, death of parent, fire, terminal illness.

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

Honey Girl, Morgan Rogers · 2021

Grace Porter has always had a plan and now she has accomplished it. PhD in hand, she’s ready to take on the next part of her journey. But what will that part look like? And how hard will she have to keep working to earn her father’s pride and respect from her white coworkers? When she celebrates in Las Vegas with her closest friends, ending up married to a stranger was definitely not part of the plan. But can it be?

This heartfelt novel was tender and full of yearning. I fell head over heels for Grace and her found family. True, I sometimes thought “having so many endearing characters is not like real life”. But none of these characters is without flaws - they are all painfully human.

Grace Porter’s journey struck a chord deep within me. Of course, I cannot compare to the hardships she has to face as a Black, queer woman in a scientific environment filled with white men. But I know something of feeling lonely and lost, almost done with a PhD at 29 and with the gnawing feeling that people have had time to figure things out and get started with life while you’re deep in theoretical work.

The poetry within Morgan Rogers’s prose utterly charmed me. As a reader who tends to stay as far away from romances as possible, this one felt both messy and sweet, and the willingness of those two women to make this unexpected marriage work somehow touched me. Who knew a contemporary romance would end up as one of my favourite books of the year?

Rep: Black lesbian MC. Asian, lesbian love interest. Diverse & queer cast of characters.

CW: depression, mental illness, racism, mention of self-harm and panic attacks.

An e-reader showing the cover of the book rests against a pile of books with their spines facing back.

Les Portes de l’Envers, collective · 2023

Isekai. This Japanese concept signifies passing from one world to another and is at the heart of this short story collection. All the protagonists here are coming from our world and find, randomly or not, a portal to somewhere else. The variety of each story defies any attempt at summarising this book. You will journey from fantasy to sci-fi, through western to existential dread. Yes. There are some sweeter pieces, others are funnier, while some might make you shed a tear or elicit an irrational fear of staircases.

You could say I’m not objective in presenting this collection in which I publish a short story, “Peindre les abricotiers en fleurs”, also known as PAF (“painting apricot trees in bloom”). However, I did not take part in the selection and I could just as well not have enjoyed their stories. The truth is, each one finds its place in this collection, and sheds light on another facet of this theme that might seem stale but still holds space for a lot of originality.

I was often moved, but I think my favourite part is noticing the difference, sometimes extreme, in reception from one reader to the next. One member of the team said they had felt that existential dread I mentioned earlier. Reading the same piece, I felt somewhat peaceful, wrapped in something uncanny that was not necessarily comfortable but which was told in such gorgeous prose that it became hypnotic.

Beyond the fact that I do have an interest in this book, I highly recommend you dive into the diversity of the voices composing it and offering journeys as different as possible from one another, on the other side of the Doors.

Content warnings for each story are available at the end of the book.

an ebook showing the cover of the book on a wooden table next to peonies in flowers and in buds.

Legendborn, Tracy Deonn · 2020

Bree has just lost her mother when she enters an early programme at university. If grief and this new life weren’t enough to deal with, she witnesses an attack by creatures who clearly aren’t human and suddenly her world expands. She discovers secret truths running through the fabric of what she knew, and finds herself in the midst of a very white secret society where she has to fight to prove she belongs even though she’s not sure about that herself.

This very clunky synopsis doesn’t cover half of what makes this book exciting. Although I’m not drawn to stories of evil creatures threatening the world, the way Tracy Deonn works with her tropes is stellar. Bree’s story of resilience and grief and blackness is intricately woven with a fast-paced narrative that had me reaching for this book over and over again. This book draws on some ancient themes (Arthurian legends, Black history in Southern USA) and shines a fresh, modern light on them. This book is admittedly more dark than academia, but there were very thoughtful narrative points in which the characters discovered untold truths about the past and their family histories. My favourite part may have been the balance between male, white, secret but official power, and the legacy of hidden Black power passed from generations through women. The way all the threads gathered between Bree’s fingers was extremely satisfying from a narrative point of view, and very moving as well.

I may not have been sold instantly on this book, but the speed at which I read the last hundred pages is a testament to how efficient it is.

Rep: Black MC, various LGBTQIA+ secondary characters including non-binary representation.

CW: racism, one HP reference, slavery, violence, PTSD, grief, mention of sexual violence.

The book, whose cover features a portrait of a young Black woman, rests on a bed of old books, one of which is entitled “King Arthur”.

Mémoires de la Forêt, Mickaël Brun-Arnaud · 2022

Archibald Renard is a special bookseller. As well as being a fox, he welcomes in his shop one-of-a-kind volumes, handwritten by their authors and waiting for their one reader. When Ferdinand Taupe enters the bookshop, he’s not looking to buy a book, but to find the one he once entrusted to Archibald. Ferdinand is afflicted by the Forget-All disease, and only his book will enable him to open the door to his memories. Then, Archibald has no choice but to accompany him on his quest.

This gorgeous middle-grade novel deals with incredibly difficult topics with a tremendous amount of heart. When my eyes got misty at page 50, I knew I was in for an emotional journey, and I wasn’t disappointed. This book will break your heart and patch it up again, but it will leave cracks. The subtle prose does wonders with the characters’ emotions and kindles similar emotions in the reader’s heart. Bright, autumnal illustrations go hand-in-hand with this heartfelt tale. There is so much to love about this book.

CW: grief, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, fire, abandonment, death of a parent, mention of bullying.

The book, surrounded with autumn leaves on a dark background.

The Beginning Place, Ursula K. Le Guin · 1980

This short, puzzling novel is built on the theme of a portal between worlds. The author plays with the trope of travellers to fairy-land experiencing a different temporality and getting trapped in an in-between space, unable to stay in the magical realm but less and less at home in their world of origin. Except perhaps the solution lies further into fairy-land?

I’m starting to think I’m cursed when it comes to Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels. I’d been disappointed by the first volume of Earthsea (although I’m determined to try again), hadn’t been captivated by The Dispossessed, and here I am discombobulated by this one, which I sadly didn’t get. Thankfully The Left Hand of Darkness is one of my favourite Sci-Fi novels!

The Beginning Place is a minimalist narrative, heavy on the contemplation, which I usually favour. Don’t look here for action, quest or even conflict, here you’ll find two characters who are a little lost, find each other and learn to trust, while often seen through the eyes of the other. I felt like the narration was too detached to my taste, and despite the very small amount of narrative, I constantly felt I didn’t understand what was happening. It was not a successful experience for me eventually, but this novel could please readers who lean towards slow-paced experimental narratives.

CW : domestic violence, mention of sexual violence.

the book is open at the title page, with a sprig of dried roses laid on top.

The Manor House Governess, C.A. Castle · 2023

Book sent by Alcove Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Bron’s life has always been steeped into classics and especially 19th-century English literature. Reading helped him through boarding school and now he’s ready to embrace his Jane Eyre fantasies and take on a job as a tutor for a child in a Cambridge manor house. As a genderfluid person using masculine pronouns, Bron has always felt a closer connection to the female heroines of these books, hence the title of “governess” he takes on. What he wasn’t expecting was for the web of secrets underlying his favourite Gothic novels to follow him at Greenwood Manor.

Here is a very earnest debut novel. The author’s love for literature, and especially English classics, permeates each page of this book. And yet it’s not a pastiche or a pale comparison, first of all because of Bron, our main character, whom I felt very attached to. It was a privilege to be privy to his innermost thoughts, and I often felt like it was extremely important and personal for the author to be writing this particular story. Admittedly, some passages felt a bit lengthy to me, as if I was drowning in Bron’s thoughts just as he was drowning in his. At other times I felt like the author had a list of items to put into his narrative and worked hard to make them appear in as fluid a manner as possible, but it worked.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this queer spin on beloved stories. The way it included many tropes of Gothic novels made me think of the way romance novels mostly follow the same plot but have thousands of readers enjoy them anyway. The Manor House Governess felt both familiar because of the classics it drew from, and new because of the unique perspective of its endearing protagonist.

Rep: genderfluid MC, LGBTQIA+ secondary characters.

CW: fire, outing, queerphobia, mention of terminal illness and abandonment.

An e-reader showing the cover of the book is propped onto an old book, next to a sprig of dried roses, on a wooden table with a patterned cloth in the background.


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What did you read in October ?

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