In December, I finally took some holidays, which hadn't happened in a while. I took this opportunity to (surprise!) read a lot, especially shorter formats and YA or children's books to rest after the very demanding but fascinating book I'd started the month with.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton · 2013
In 1866, Walter Moody sets foot in New Zealand only to become enmeshed into a secret meeting the members of which have gathered to discuss mysterious events from the past few days. A man has been found dead in his remote cottage and a "lady of the night" collapsed in the middle of the street. The two events, in appearance unrelated, uncover an underlying web of loyalties and treasons on the backdrop of the gold rush in the land of the long white cloud.
This chunky volume (a little over 800 pages in my paperback edition) was recommended by Ceallaigh from Ceallaigh, whom I've come to trust entirely for book recommendations. I have to admit I was daunted when my copy arrived in the post as I hadn't expected such a big book, and the first pages daunted me even more with their lush 19th-century-inspired prose, but my word was the journey worth the effort.
Eleanor Catton simply is a magician, capable of writing a book that is completely steeped in 19th century culture while still feeling modern. The first half of the book is incredibly slow, but in a good way. The author takes her time drawing intricate portraits of her characters and their relationships with one another.
I do admit I was completely lost for most of the story, but one the one hand it's because I have trouble with ensemble casts, and on the other hand I did finish this 800-page book without understanding much about the plot, so it's a sign that the writing alone is strong enough to have kept me interested.
The last chapters were quite emotional and surprising, as they were written in a completely different way than most of the book, but they wrapped up the narrative beautifully. I understand now the praise this book received (winner of the Booker Prize in 2013)!
The Legend of the Golden Raven, by K. Ancrum · 2017
It's so hard to review novellas, because you can't tell too much or you'll risk spoiling the surprise for readers. I picked this book up as an introduction to The Wicker King, a book I'm hoping to read soon. I wanted a taste of the author's style and this free novella was just what I needed. Yes, you heard right, it's free!
It convinced me that K. Ancrum creates stunning imagery through simple words. She weaves so much creativity into her writing that I was sometimes a little confused, but it was mostly due to the short format of the novella and probably to the fact that I hadn't met the characters in The Wicker King beforehand. I'm very much looking forward to reading one of her books where K. Ancrum has a bit more space to explore her imaginings.
Read this one for a short blend of contemporary, myths and fantastic fiction, with LGBTQ+ rep. What's not to love?
The Barnabus Project, by the Fan Brothers · 2020
In the mood for a gloomy picture book?
Barnabus is a failed creature, born in an underground laboratory that creates perfect creatures to sell in the shop. Alongside his misshappen friends, he dreams of what lay beyond his bell jar.
This is a beautiful picture book, with just the right amount of darkness to make light seem even brighter. The muted tones and play on light made me stop at every page, and evoked a velvety, tactile texture belied by the touch of paper. A beautifully-illustrated tale about imperfection, that left me a little sad by the end, not because the ending was sad, but I found it a little pessimistic. In retrospect, I suppose the authors chose a bittersweet ending that reflects life, rather than a happy-go-lucky one.
Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu · 1872
Tiptoeing into the realm of classics I found this Gothic novella from 1872.
In around 100 pages, it encompasses all the generic features of a gothic novel: an innocent heroin, a remote castle, ruins, a mysterious stranger, etc. It doesn't escape from many clichés of the time: all the girls are beautiful and most of them are pure things, domestics are treated like furniture, old men rule, etc. And yet, by choosing the heroin, Laura, to narrate the story, the author gives her a strong voice and will of her own that is most welcome.
Also, it can totally be read as a lesbian story, which is pretty original for the time (though not unique).
Plus it's about a vampire 25 years before Bram Stoker and I found Carmilla much easier to read, not only because it was shorter. There was none of the endless monologues I had trouble with in Dracula, and Laura's ambition wasn't to find herself a husband and care for him, contrary to Mina.
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin · 1974
This is my second Le Guin novel this year after reading The Left Hand of Darkness last June.
This story is based on the contrast between two societies, Anarres and Urras, each on their own planet. Anarres is a utopian society in which the founders abolished the idea of personal property. I loved how the author explored all the implications of this idea. The other planet, Urras, just felt like an image of our Earth. There was nothing particularly original about it. Its purpose was for the narrator coming from Anarres to look at a society much like our own with the eyes of someone to whom the basis of the world - capitalism - is entirely foreign.
Sadly The Dispossessed didn't grab me as much as the other had. I thought it was clever and philosophically very interesting. The reservations I had were entirely due to me rather than the book! First of all I didn't really care for the main character. As in The Left Hand of Darkness, the narrator felt very detached at the beginning, almost as if nothing could get to him. In The Left Hand of Darkness, it was beautiful to witness his change of opinions and his growing acceptance of the Other. In The Dispossessed, I didn't find the same evolution. I felt that the character's beliefs weren't really challenged throughout the book, only reinforced. Which is a little sad for a highly philosophical book.
I'm afraid the translation didn't help either. The Dispossessed came out in 1974 and its translation in French came out in 1975. I did find it a little dated, and not as fluent as it could have been. On some occasions there were some idiomatic phrases transposed directly into French, which of course sounded strange.
Overall, I'd say this is a great book for lovers of philosophical sci-fi, or who aren't familiar with sci-fi - readers who enjoy exploring concepts and ideas pushed as far as possible in a coherent world that isn't heavy on sci-fi elements. I myself prefer character-driven novels so this one wasn't for me, but I bought it for someone in my family and I think this person will enjoy it.
Magnus Chase T.1, by Rick Riordan · 2015
A dear friend has been telling me for years to read Percy Jackson. Which book did I pick up first from Rick Riordan? Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. I am that chaotic. For my defence, I bought it for her Christmas and wanted to read it so that we could chat about it.
This is the fun & fast-paced story of Magnus Chase, a Boston teenager who's been living on the street since his mother tragically died in mysterious circumstances. One day, when trouble seem to be piling up more than usual, he discovers he might be the son of a Norse god... before dying horribly. This is his story.
This book is a nice blend of mythological elements, adventure and comedy. It was a little too fast-paced for me but that's only because I don't often read middle-grade / YA. One thing that pleasantly surprised me was the wide representation in the cast of characters: disability, skin colour, sexual orientation, ... There's a bit for everyone! I won't go into details not to spoil you. This book is the first tome in a series and while I don't plan on continuying reading it, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Ateliers d'écriture [Writing workshops], by Martin Winckler · 2020
When the second lockdown ended in France and my favourite bookshop reopened, I paid it a visit. The moment I set foot inside, a bookseller greeted me and pushed this book in my hands saying she'd thought about me when seeing it. Reader, I bought the book.
It is divided into two parts. In the first one, Martin Winckler suggests writing prompts, quite generic ones, assorted with relevant advice, and writes about his own writing process. In the second one, he presents a series of short stories written along the years in various genres.
I thought this book was really comprehensive and pleasant to read. The writing prompts themselves didn't inspire me so much because they were light on the constraints (and I need a few of those), but for the same reason they're perfect for beginners or people who don't need much to start writing. The short stories were all very good, with original set ups or surprising endings each time. The author's style wa simple but generous. A lovely discovery for my writing shelf!
The Awakening, by Kate Chopin · 1899
I wanted my last read of December to be short but rather meditative, and The Awakening was the perfect book for this purpose. It is a story of growth, of consciousness, and of coming to oneself. One quote sums it up nicely, I think:
It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier's mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.
This novella felt like a breath of fresh air. It was gently and slowly empowering, which was really a nice balance for the darker days of the year I read it in.
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What did you read in December?