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Reading wrap-up - September 2022

Aaaah, September. The month of 2022 that scared me the most. I had so much work for my PhD that I had to put everything else on hold... Except reading. Because I was lucky to travel a lot to honour my commitments, and on trains I can either sleep or read, but not do much else. That being said, I didn't read more than usual, because the rest of the time I didn't read that much.

A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness · 2011

What better way to get mentally ready for a trip to the Bodleian library in Oxford than by reading a book set partly in the Bodleian library in Oxford?

I first read A Discovery of Witches in 2018 when I was leaving for my first solo trip to Oxford and it helped quite a lot with my stress because Diana, the main character, is literally shown taking each step to enter the library. This time round, I read it for the setting and because re-reading brings me much comfort. It really is a fun book, but also a rather deep one. On the one hand, I still love it as much as the first time, because there were lots of parallels to draw between supernatural creatures and the LGBTQIA+ community. On the other hand, this being the third time I'm reading it, I could no longer stand Matthew (the other MC)'s overprotectiveness and paternalistic behaviour (which are challenged, thankfully) and I really roled my eyes at the insta-love story and the direction their relationship took (I don't want to spoil you!).

But this novel is still very, very enjoyable - I found myself giggling and not putting the book down and having lunch at Blackwell's just because Diana did.

Having said that, you still may not know what this book is about. Diana is a historian of science studying alchemical manuscripts at the Bodleian where she meets Matthew, a vampire, while creatures of all three types (there are daemons as well) close in on her for studying a particular document at the Bodleian. There follows a romance between the two of them, the details of which I will not disclose, but it involves very spirited locations, danger and a whole lot of pining.

Rep: sapphic secondary characters.

CW: blood, murder, torture, death of parent, panic attacks, descriptions of injuries, medical content, stalking.

an e-reader showing the cover of the book is set on a table next to white peonies in bud & in bloom.

Ring Shout, P. Djèlí Clark · 2020

This book was wild and intense and uncomfortable, and I do think it's uncomfortable on purpose. We're in 1920s Georgia, USA and racism is in full swing. Maryse, our main protagonist and narrator, is busy hunting down Ku Kluxes, monsters hiding in the white robes of human Klaners. I don't want to tell you too much because the author has a lot of cool surprises in store.

One thing I loved about it was how important language and oral tradition are. Maryse has her own, very specific, way of talking, and other characters include varying levels of dialect and other languages into American English. I read this in French and I was once again in awe of Mathilde Montier's work (she's Clark's translator).

I was under a lot of stress when I read Ring Shout. But whenever I opened the book, it grabbed me. Even though there are parallels to be drawn with Lovecraft Country, this book feels very unique.

CW: animal death, graphic violence, racism, death, body horror, torture.

the book rests on a wicker chair, with a floor of terracotta tiles in the background.

A Psalm for the Wild-built, Becky Chambers · 2021

I know I raved about this book no sooner than last month, but I've just read the French translation published in September and I am so relieved to be able to recommend it heartily. Marie Surgers has translated exquisitely Becky Chambers's delicate, softly ironic prose and all the small details that make this novella absolutely enchanting.

Dex's story, that of a sibling in the service of Allalae, god of Small Comforts, who leaves their peaceful monastery to serve tea throughout the country, hit me right in the feels. Dex is profoundly kind to others, but perhaps not enough to themself. They leaf through their vocations to find the one that will be their ultimate purpose, the reason for their being in the world. Their journey takes them beyond the lands given to humans, to areas where nature runs free and where descendants of robots live, those who awoke long ago and declared their independence.

This novella does in a few pages what multiple-volume series barely brush. It finds a fragile and oh-so-precious balance between lightness (Dex is quite self-critical) and depth. With the simplest of words, Becky Chambers accompanies our deepest questionings without delivering a ready-made answer but reassuring us that we're not alone and most of the time, to be is enough.

Rep: one non-binary main character and one agender main character.

an e-reader showing the cover of the book rests against a row of old book spines.

Eutopia, Camille Leboulanger · 2022

Thank you Argyll for the Advanced Reading Copy!

What would a desirable future look like? That is the question Camille Leboulanger is asking in this novel. Reflecting on utopia rather than dystopia. Or rather, reflecting on what comes after dystopia, because the declaration of Antonia, which opens with the article "there is ownership only from use" (sorry for this terrible translation), was born after a dark period, from a rejection of all the horrors to which had led the notion of ownership. However, it can be heard to say whether the century preceding this utopia is itself a dystopia, which involves a future from our time, or simply our present, on which the author throws a strong light.

Eutopia opens on a highly desirable future, escaping from the conventions of narration (quest, conflict) to serve the long wanderings of its character, unattached and so deeply free to follow his whims and inspirations.

This novel might have been a philosophico-economico-sociological PhD thesis about the possibilities of a society where ownership is banished. Camille Leboulanger has decided to make a novel out of it, and to invite us to think by asking a series of what-ifs.

I've been reading two utopia-themed books back to back (that one and A Psalm for the Wild-Built) and I've loved noticing the echoes between them even though the books had little else in common!

Rep: bi & poly character in an entirely inclusive world.

CW: death and butchering of pigs for a few pages (which I happily skipped without it spoiling the book).

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

Gallant, V.E. Schwab · 2022

Olivia Prior is living at Merilance orphanage. All she has from her mother is her old diary, in which Grace recounted her slow but sure descend into madness. Her father is but a shadow — she has no memory of him. There aren't many certainties in Olivia's life, but her mother made sure to leave her this message: "you will be safe as long as you stay away from Gallant". When a letter reaches her from her uncle in Gallant, inviting her home, surely this is her chance to be free? Except if her ghosts follow her to Gallant, and if scarier ones await her behind a wall in the garden...

For a book all about death and ghosts, I found it quite soft and pleasant. It was extremely atmospheric, being set in an old manor with a spooky crumbing wall in the garden, filled with ghosts and giving strong Autumn vibes despite being set in Summer. The heroin is headstrong but kind, and although I didn't find the book particularly original, it was precisely what I needed at this very moment and I'm very happy to have picked it up. The prose is simple but poetic, and I'm considering buying a second-hand copy in English one day if I come across a bargain, because I can see this becoming a cozy seasonal re-read.

Rep: non-speaking MC.

CW: death (animal, human, parent, you've got it all there).

the book is set next to a pilea in a white pot, at the front of a bookshelf.

Blood of Dragons, Robin Hobb · 2013

This novel concludes The Rain Wild Chronicles, the only series in Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings universe to count 4 books and not the usual 3. I do understand why 4, because each tome has its own narrative arc, but I also think most of the books could have been a bit smaller. Reading one book by Robin Hobb every month reminds me both how much I enjoy her works, but it also highlights repetitions and moments in which the story drags a little bit. Well, Blood of Dragons certainly had a few repetitions but I didn't find that it dragged, contrary to the previous 2 volumes.

In this one, all the characters' journeys are headed toward some form of resolution. A large part of the book sets the stakes for the end which is a little rushed to my liking, especially in contrast to the long parts I mentioned earlier. But it's still very enjoyable, and nuanced. We are reacquainted with a couple of characters from Liveship Traders, although not for long, so it won't bother readers who start with this series.

Regarding the question "where to start with Robin Hobb?", may I remind you that I have an article dedicated to answering it on my blog (click here to read it). Long story short, you can absolutely start with The Rain Wild Chronicles, but you will enjoy it a lot more if you've read The Liveship Traders trilogy beforehand.

Rep: gay characters in an inclusive society from a world where homosexuality is frowned upon. As for hints: one character may be polyamourous, one feels very aromantic (but not asexual).

the book is set on a wooden chair in front of grey-patterned curtains.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, Becky Chambers · 2022

Dex and Mosscap are back in the second volume of the Monk & Robot series (duology?), and once again I'm so grateful to Becky Chambers for gifting the world with these hugs in the shape of stories. They aren't the kind of book you can summarize because what matters most is the characters and especially their interactions. Both Dex, the monk-turned-tea-servant and Mosscap the sentient robot feel a little lost, like most of us do, and both try to find their way through life when what they thought was their purpose might not be after all.

This book's dedication is "For anybody who doesn’t know where they’re going". It says it all.

With this duology, Becky Chambers has reached something very precious and pure, completely refined until its essence shines bright, and also effortlessly readable. It might sound like these are the books to end all books, because as a writer where to you go when you've reached the core of whatever writing goal you were pursuing? But actually the answer is in the books themselves, with these two friends asking themselves and others what people need and why do they keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I hope I don't make these feel more philosophical or theme-heavy than they are. Because they're more like bubbles, with infitinite reflections held in the lightest of touch.

Rep: non-binary MC.

CW: except for a fishing party, this is a very safe book.

an e-reader showing the cover of the book rests on a bed of dead leaves.

There And Back Again: The Map Of Tolkien's The Hobbit, Brian Sibley & John Howe · 1994

What do you read after a book moved you to your core?

I turn to something as different as possible, and this time it was this book / work of art.

This cover holds together a large map of The Hobbit painted by John Howe, and a leaflet with an introduction, a short essay and a glossary by Brian Sibley. It is a precious little volume, as pretty on the outside as it is on the inside, with the map and additional drawings peppered through the text. I'd been eyeing this one and its companion pieces (John Howe's maps for The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion) for ages, so I was absolutely delighted when a friend from Tolkiendil gifted her spare copy to me. This will hold a place of choice on my shelves, and be prepared to spot it in the background on a regular basis!

the book stands at the front of a Tolkien shelf, next to a bunch of dried flowers.


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What did you read in September?

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