January was a month of new intentions and things to try out. Among these is some sort of TBR to help me balance the books I read and make a dent in my physical TBR. I explained all that in my blog post about my BuJo (click to read) so I won't go into details here, but to summarize I planned to read not specific titles, but rather categories: one book by a non-white author, one LGBTQ+ book, one Tolkien-related book, one non-fiction book and one book from my physical TBR pile. As it turned out, I read more than usual in January, so I suppose my plans worked at least for one month.
The Hobbit Sketchbook by Alan Lee · 2019
At the beginning of January, to ease gently into my PhD work, I reread two art books. The first one needs, I think, no introduction. Alan Lee dives into the illustrations and sketches created for both the 1997 illustrated edition of The Hobbit and for Peter Jackson's 2012-2014 movie adaptation. It's the perfect companion to Lee's Lord of the Rings Sketchbook, one of my most beloved and reread books ever.
A Tolkien Tapestry, by Cor Blok · 2011
This is the second art book I read to kickstart my return to work after the holiday break. Cor Blok is a Dutch artist who discovered The Lord of the Rings a few years after its publication, in the 1950s, and set out to create a series of "pictures to accompany" the text. Between 1958 and 1962, he painted over 140 pictures in a very original technique involving gouache and layers of silk paper. Blok met J.R.R. Tolkien himself in 1961, and the author bought several of his artworks. Blok's art is delightful in its minimalism. He believes in omitting from the image anything that can be removed. The resulting pictures are still remarkably readable, and play on textures and a muted colour palette that are really pleasant.
The Black Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang · 2017
Starting the year strong with my first fiction book of 2021! In this queer Asian science fantasy, Neon Yang invites us to meet Mokoya and Akeha, twins who grow up and apart in a world where magic and science meet.
There is a lot to love in this book. First of all, it's a novella, meaning that it falls on the "short" end of the book spectrum, but it doesn't make up for its small count of pages by piling action scene on action scene. The focus is put on characters and dramatic scenes have more to do with feelings and self-discovery.
Then, there is a fantastic representation of gender identities and sexual orientations which I found really refreshing and welcome.
Last but not least, the world-building was both detailed and not overwhelming at all, which is probably the feature that impressed me the most with this book. Neon Yang created an original blend of real-world-inspired elements (one location feels inspired by the Forbidden City, the magic system draws from the 5 elements) and completely original creations. Everything was woven seamlessly into the narrative.
The Black Tides of Heaven is the first volume in the four-part Tensorate Series, the second tome of which is The Red Threads of Fortune. By the end of the first one, it was quite obvious that not everything would be wrapped up. I guess the only thing left for me to do is put Volume 2 on my TBR, or to wait for the one-volume edition to be published at the end of the year.
Porcelaine, by Estelle Faye · 2018
In her story divided into three periods, like three acts in a theatre play, the author weaves together the fates of Xiao Chen, Cinder-feet, River-mist and Li Mei. Xiao Chen, son of a potter, is forced to flee his village because of a curse. He joins a company of travelling comedians with whom he wanders across 3rd-century China and beyond.
I thought the story was a very pleasant to read. Beyond a rather trope-y overture scene that brought to my mind Lian Hearn's Across the Nightingale Floor, Estelle Faye paints an original story, drawing from China's history and legends. The tone is almost that of a fairy tale, thanks to a good balance of surnatural and natural elements, and the characters are well-rounded.
Yet I had some reservations regarding their descriptions, and the importance of physical beauty that is tirelessly repeated. Admittedly, it's an important theme of the novel, that sometimes reminds the reader of Beauty and the Beast, but to me it lacked a little subtelty. I also cringed at the sometimes repetitive way of designating characters, but most of the time this was lost in otherwise elegant style, both simple and evocative. I enjoyed all the details of life in a travelling company, which really plunged me in the characters' daily life.
The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien · 1954
This marks my 4th reread of The Lord of the Rings, thanks to the readalong hosted on Instagram.
Despite all the conversations, all the studying for my Masters & ongoing PhD, all the movie nights and the overall fan-girling, each reread brings something new to the forefront and I find myself surprised by passages I hadn't noticed the first time round, details that had escaped my notice and new reasons to love this book. For instance, this passage from "In the House of Tom Bombadil":
He then told them many remarkable stories, sometimes half as if speaking to himself, sometimes looking at them suddenly with a bright blue eye under his deep brows. Often his voice would turn to song, and he would get out of his chair and dance about. He told them tales of bees and flowers, the ways of trees, and the strange creatures of the Forest, about the evil things and good things, things friendly and things unfriendly, cruel things and kind things, and secrets hidden under brambles. As they listened, they began to understand the lives of the Forest, apart from themselves, indeed to feel themselves as the strangers where all other things were at home.
Les Nuages de Magellan, by Estelle Faye · 2018
Queer. Pirate. Sci-fi.
The first thing I thought, a few chapters in, was: "This is the book I wish I'd written". Les Nuages de Magellan was exactly the book I was craving at that moment. I'd quite hyped it up in my mind before picking it up, but somehow it zoomed past my expectations and soared into space.
This book tells about Dan, a young waitress, sometimes singer, who finds fame where she hadn't looked for it, ends up being chased for an evening she barely remembers, and escapes her planet on Mary's ship. Mary is a sort of space pirate, who's been hunted most of her life and hides deep within her memory traces of a legendary planet. One is fleeing home, the other is trying to find it again.
This book was so much fun! It's rare when I find myself unable to put a book down, but this was one of them. The characters were endearing and diverse, the world-building was just rich enough to provide surprises without drowning me into information I couldn't process. The overall themes of memories, found families and friendship without borders were just perfectly dealt with. I so wish this was translated into English! For a similar feel, I highly recommend Becky Chambers's The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (read my review here - click).
The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang · 2018
In this heart-warming graphic novel, Francès is a young seamstress working in a Parisian workshop. One day, after creating a scandalous dress for a client, she is recruited by a visiting princess who commissions Francès to create fabulous costumes for her. But on the first day they meet, Francès finds out that the princess is none other than... a prince.
Jen Wang has written and illustrated a fun, beautiful and inspiring story about our dreams and the sacrifices we're ready to make to reach them. Both characters are fully fledged, and it's a pleasure to see them evolve in Wang's airy and colourful pages. Beside the enchanting story, I loved the warm colour palette and the balance between vignettes and negative spaces, which really let the pictures breathe. A lovely, lovely book, to put in every hands.
Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier · 1913
This classic was heartily recommended to me as a delightful blend of realism and fantasy.
It's the story of a friendship between the teenage narrator, François, and Augustin, the "great Meaulnes" of the title, who pops up in François's life with the nonchalance of an older boy. From fascination to attachment to detachment, their relation unfolds on the background of a rural region of France.
I can't say this book fascinated me, but I appreciated the slow moments of contemplation, and the intrusion of the fantastical in a very realistic narrative. And that's what it is: fantastical, and not fantasy. You never leave the French countryside, and yet the characters seem at times to walk into a more colourful reality, in the surroundings of a castle where a fabulous party is going on.
The atmosphere of profound melancholy and uncertainty made me think of Hiromasa Yonebayashi's movie When Marnie Was There. And, since the person who recommended this book to me also admitted not having been able to read The Lord of the Rings, I'll just say that I found quite a few common points between the first chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring and Alain-Fournier's novel: descriptions of an unstained countryside, the taste for nature, the intrusion of the fantastical, etc. Don't tell me I see Tolkien everywhere!
A Land of Light and Shadow, by Stephanie Ascough · 2020
A young princess in a land bordered by a dangerous cleft. Unexplained earthquakes and figures looming in the corner of Ardin's vision.
This book starts quite nicely, with a diverse cast of characters led by a black, disabled princess (she has lost vision in one eye). As a middle-grade book, I think it's lovely. There's mystery, a cute story of friendship, and a learned heroin who's confident in her knowledge, although self-conscious about her disability. I liked that that side of her was not a trouble for the rest of the characters. They simpy accepted her as she was. Unfortunately, the book as a whole didn't really capture my imagination enough to push me to finish it. The novelty of the main character wasn't sufficient for me, since the rest of the book was very classic in its themes. I would however recommend it for readers up to 12 (the age of the heroin) and older readers looking for a comforting story!
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What did you read in January? Do you have any bookish plans for the year?