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December wrap-up

Hello, dear Internet friends! How was everyone's Christmas? Mine was really lovely, thanks - spent it at my grandmother's, basically being fed delicious goodies and reading books. I hope you got to spend some time (safely) enjoying family festivities, delicious holiday food, and some fun Christmas presents! I got books. Which will surprise nobody.


By far and away my best reading month of the year, this - 22 books total, none of them rereads, and globally all pretty strong novels. I think this was also helped by the fact that half of it was spent on vacation and so I could read as much as my little heart desired. There were four late contenders for my Top 10 of 2020 list this month as well, which is always a nice little way to end the year.


Anyway, as ever, please read on for my full wrap-up this month!


TL;DR:

Best book of the month: It's a three-way tie! Good Omens, Enter the Aardvark, So You've Been Publicly Shamed. All excellent, all contenders for the Top 10 list of 2020.

Worst book of the month: The Worst Best Man. It was just... bleh.

Most 'pleasant surprise' book of the month: Un aller simple. I was expecting to enjoy it, but I wasn't expecting to love it as much as I did, or to get so much out of just 120 pages - and I certainly wasn't expecting to run the gamut of all those emotions!

Most disappointing book of the month: Written in the Stars. Another example of why Pride & Prejudice retellings are risky - I wanted to like this one, but all it really did was remind me of how great the original is and why people should stop trying to improve upon perfection.


Rouge impératrice (3.3★/5), by Léonara Miano: An academically very interesting book, that unfortunately for me fell just a bit flat. The lead-in was way too slow and way too long, so it didn't really pick up until more than halfway in; and when a book is 600+ pages long, waiting till page 400 to be interested does leave a bit of a bad taste in your mouth. Basically, this book is a futuristic, slightly fantastical book that takes place more than a century in the future, in a united Africa that is trying to come to terms with a population of recalcitrant European immigrants that refuse to assimilate. It's a neat, quite scathing societal commentary book, and academically fascinating - but the pages-long paragraphs with no dialogue did just make it a bit difficult to be fully immersed.


Maisie Dobbs (4.2★/5), by Jacqueline Winspear: An easy, thoughtful historical fiction/murder mystery hybrid that sparked my interest in the follow-up books. My full review is here.


Enter the Aardvark (5★/5), by Jessica Anthony: A wonderful, wonderful read. In contention for my Top 10 of 2020 list. I highly recommend and I gush about it here.


So You've Been Publicly Shamed (5★/5), by Jon Ronson: A really well-done, nuanced exploration of the concept of online and public shaming. I think I would have liked a bit more of a historical look at the question of public shamings (but that might just be because I'm a massive history nerd), but all in all, this was a really interesting, thought-provoking book that doesn't attempt to be prescriptive. Compassion and nuance, people - it'll go a long way! Highly recommend. Goes in contention for my Top 10 list, I think.


The Worst Best Man (2.1★/5), by Mia Sosa: Had a lot of potential, but didn't quite live up to it. The story and the romance felt rushed, the dialogue was clunky, I never really bought into the relationship between the two main characters, the sex was a smidgen too clinical, and the attempts at introspection didn't quite come through or feel natural, it just pulled me out of the story. Also, the internal monologues of Lina and Max were just a bit too interchangeable for me. Ah well.


Good Omens (5★/5), by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: Goddamn it, another late contender for Top 10 of 2020. This book was absolutely beyond bonkers, but so hilariously funny and imaginative and well-written I was disappointed when it ended because I wanted to keep reading it forever. I loved everything about this ride. Literally everything. The only thing I didn't like about Good Omens is that it wasn't several hundred pages longer. The Amazon Prime adaptation is also excellent. Inject Michael Sheen and David Tennant's antagonistic bromance straight into my veins.


Cover Her Face (4.3★/5), by P.D. James: A good, enjoyable, well-worked murder mystery of the old Agatha Christie school, reworked for the 1960s. A bit too deus ex machina at the end with the big reveal, perhaps, but well-written and with some great, nuanced characterization, realistic dialogue, and a central detective interesting enough for me to pick up at least the next book in his series.


This Time Next Year (4.5★/5), by Sophie Cousens: A charming, fine, easy read, that won't leave much of an impression but still was a nice experience. You can read my review here.


The Shape of Water (3★/5), by Andrea Camilleri: A fine book. The mystery was a bit uninteresting, and the resolution did come a bit out of nowhere - plus there were a lot of unnecessarily naked women, which kind of turned me off the whole operation. It seemed a bit too 'Italian' in the sense that the dialogue included people flinging themselves about dramatically in ways that felt very contrived and unnecessary, but maybe I'm saying that because I've spent too much time living among the Britons and they are slowly crushing my melodramatic Mediterranean tendencies out of me by the day. Anyway. This was a fine book, but my interest was not piqued enough for me to carry on with the series - I know this is a cult classic in crime fiction though, so I think my disinterest is personal rather than an actual comment on the quality of the writing (translation also felt stilted to me, but how would I actually know).


Still Life (3.5★/5), by Louise Penny: Another fine mystery. Interesting central detective, great setting and context. Louise Penny kept back an infuriating number of details, for what seemed to me no other purpose than to keep back details; and the big reveal felt like a bit of a cop-out. Don't know if I'll be carrying on with the series, but there was some lovely writing in here and it was, all told, you know, fine.


Written in the Stars (3★/5), by Alexandria Bellefleur: A modern, queer retelling of Pride and Prejudice. There were some good things about it - the relationship between Darcy and her brother; the relationship between Elle and her roommate Margot - but it fell a bit flat for me. The build-up of the love story felt rushed, and a lot of the dialogue was so full of clichés and tropes I could almost hear the Taylor Swift songs Bellefleur was ripping off (I see you, Death by a Thousand Cuts. And Lover. And Our Song. And The Way I Loved You. And Long Live. There were a lot.) and the ending was too abrupt, not quite wrapping up some of the looser threads. I don't know if I'm going to come back to this author or not, but really, the only thing this book made me want to do was re-read the original.


The Crystal Cave (4.5★/5), by Mary Stewart: A meandering, mystical revisiting of the origin of the Merlin myth. I think I would have liked some clearer explanation of the magic, but I very much enjoyed getting lost in this story. I'm very much looking forward to digging into the rest of the trilogy.


Les Affamés et les rassasiés (4.6★/5), by Timur Vermes: Another dark satire from the German author of Look Who's Back. I think this might have ended up being a five for me if I understood more about the German political context that forms the bedrock of the narrative, but as it is, deliciously funny, sharply satirical, excellent (hateful!) characters, and never a dull moment. In a 500-page book, that's saying something. Highly recommend - available in an English translation here.


Un aller simple (5★/5), by Didier van Cauwelaert: This is the Goncourt-winning book of the year I was born, and is another late entry in the competition for my Top 10 of 2020 list. This tells the story of a Romany in the Marseille region who erroneously finds himself deported to Morocco, and the French bureaucrat who accompanies him. It's a mixture of travelogue, fable, social critique on nonsensical immigration policy, and it's told in such simple, lovely language that I was more than once blown away by the strength of van Cauwelaert's writing. It's poignant, thought-provoking, cuttingly funny and achingly, bruisingly sad - I inhaled this in one sitting because I could not bring myself to put it down. No English translation available, unfortunately, but it's short so I volunteer to translate it if anybody wants to read it.


L'Archipel du Chien (4.4★/5), by Philippe Claudel: This is another one that's part fable, part social critique - this time of the trafficking of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean and people's willingness to look away from uncomfortable truths - the bodies of three men wash up on the beach on the Dog Island of the title, a small, tight-knit community, and everything starts to unravel from their decisions of what to do and who to inform about the men who drowned off their coasts. The metaphor is heavy-handed at times (especially in the last fifty pages of the novel - Jesus, Philippe, we get it) but the writing is lovely, if very stark; and the characterization and the pacing is never off, not even by a paragraph. The fact that such a short book packs so much of a punch, both narratively and in literary style, is a testament to Philippe Claudel's mastery of his craft. English translation available here.


La succession (4.8★/5), by Jean-Paul Dubois: A funny, satirical little book about family legacies, and the many different shapes and forms they come in. Docked a couple of points because of the unrelenting grimness of the final chapters, but all told a fast, easy, enjoyable read that made me want to really dive into more of Dubois's work. This particular oeuvre is not available in English, but his Goncourt winner from 2019 is and I will be doing everything I can to get my hot little hands on it come January (in the original, obviously).


L'Immeuble Yacoubian (3.6★/5), by Alaa Al Aswany: A bit of a complicated read, this. There wasn't a plot per se, and it was very much character-driven - was kind of the perfect example of a book driven entirely by ambiguity and complexity. This was a very thought-provoking, very beautifully written book, and if you like novels that you walk away from a bit confused but can't stop thinking about for days afterward, then this is very much the one for you. Available in an English translation (originally written in Arabic) here.


La Belle de Venise (3★/5), by Emma Mars: An uncomplicated, trashy historical romance about the formation of the Castelleto in 14th century Venice. There's accidental incest! There's gorgeous costumes! There's long-lost children reappearing! There's a forbidden love affair between a prostitute and a priest! It's silly, it's ridiculous, it's completely implausible; but it's also quite fun. I docked it points because A) the dialogue is objectively terrible and B) I really don't want this to be a series so I'm angry that the author disobeyed my wishes and set it up as the opening act of a trilogy, which I will not be reading.


Les Aérostats (3.1★/5), by Amélie Nothomb: Not my favorite Nothomb. The plot and the characters felt very much surface-level throughout the book, and we were told the dialogue was clever without there being any actual textual proof to back that up. I was left with too much ambiguity for my taste, even in a Nothomb novella. Still, though - some sparkly writing throughout, and I will continue to read everything she publishes with anticipation.


Dans la main de l'ange (3.5★/5), by Dominique Fernandez: Another life novel that I think may have gone over my head a little bit. I think I would have appreciated more context on the art that P.P.P. (the novel's main character) created rather than such an emphasis on personal philosophy; but the writing was glorious and the subject definitely interesting - just maybe for a finer connoisseur of the subject matter than I.


Beauté fatale: Le nouveau visage d'une aliénation féminine (5★/5), by Mona Chollet: An interesting social critique that didn't necessarily teach me anything I didn't know, but did make some points I could debate in my head. I think the book is dated in a certain way - it was published in 2011, and an awful lot has changed in the past nine years - but it was a quick, informative read and it made me angry enough to need to read a romance novel immediately afterwards to purge myself of my feminist, give me a pitchfork FORTHWITH, rage.


The Duchess War (3.5★/5), by Courtney Milan: A sweet, swoon-worthy, charming romance with some very hot sex scenes. Reader, my loins, they tingled. The best part - there are three more books in this series! Yes, Courtney Milan, YES. (Side note - everyone should listen to the Heaving Bosoms podcast).


So there you have it, folks - there concludes my 2020 reading. Please let me know which of these books you've read and which you want to pick up now, and please do stay tuned for my Official Top 10 of 2020 list which I hope to publish... shortly.


See you back here next year, for yet more adventures to take us away from the shitstream that this decade has been so far!


Happy reading (since that's all any of us can do right now),

Amélie xx

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About

I’m Amélie, I love books and reading, and I also love talking about them.

I’m incredibly lucky to be bilingual, so I read books in both French and English, and will talk about both of those on here – although I will do more in English, since I know that’s probably what the majority of the people who ever find this blog will be interested in!

I also like history, traveling, Shakespeare, coffee, cheese, musicals, Italian Baroque art, the ballet, Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You, flowers, makeup, high heels, and baking. Yes, I’m a walking cliché. I am aware.

Please do tweet at me with any suggestions/book recommendations/thoughts.

In case you’re curious – yes, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time.