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Reading wrap-up - November 2020

November was the month of a second lockdown in France. Fortunately it didn't prevent me from reading. I made great discoveries, including one of my favourite books of the year!

The Museum of Silence (?) 沈黙博物館, by Yōko Ogawa 小川洋子

I couldn't find any trace of this book in English, so I translated its French title and added the original in Japanese.

It's the story of an unnamed narrator arriving in a countryside village to create a Museum of Silence - hosting objects left behind by people who have died. These objects tell the specific story of their owners, and keep a trace of them when memories have faded.

This is a rather strange story, in which the concept of the museum felt like the least strange of all. The author creates an out-of-time and out-of-place setting, with a blend of elements from different time periods including very contemporary ones. The shadow of the narrator's employer, an outspoken old lady, permeates her manor house where the collection is temporarily housed. No main character is given a name, which is great for keeping away from cultural references, but it does create a lot of distance and some repetitions within the text - the young lady, the old woman, the gardener, etc, are only referred to with the same periphrases throughout the book.

Although I enjoyed the concept and the indetermination of it all, I can't say I loved this book. I never felt invested and some twists were too far-fetched for me.

TW for slight body horror.

Au Soleil Redouté, by Michel Bussi

Five women win a contest. Its prize? A week long writing workshop in the Marquesas Islands with the most famous and acclaimed writer of the moment. Everything feels like paradise when they land... Until things go horribly wrong.

This book was recommended to me by a participant of my own writing workshops, so I was particularly curious despite it being a thriller - a genre I never read. I did think it was well done and really clever, as far as the plot went. There were twists and turns, and as I expected, I didn't see the end coming. I was less a fan of the way the book was cut, with dozens of very small chapters told from different point of views. I understand there was a good reason for that, but it didn't help me feel absorbed in the book. Each time I was beginning to find my pace, the chapter ended and another character took the microphone, so to speak.

One thing that really bothered me was the underlying ideas carried by the narration. First, no matter who was telling the story, there was a constant trickle of judgement on people's appearance. One scene in particular, where some of the women from the workshop go for a swim, was a catalogue of comments - saying this one was slim and beautiful, this one was a little too fat, etc. And the worst part? One of the women was accompanied by her husband and all the female members of the cast (including another woman's daughter of 16) had views on him. Come on. And then towards the end it turned to fatphobia and rape culture. No thanks! Rising stakes are not an excuse to use such rancid ideas.

All in all, I'd say it's technically a good book, but it wasn't especially pleasant to read.

L'art d'écrire, enseigné en vingt leçons (The Art of writing, taught in twenty lessons), by Antoine Albalat

This book came to me a little randomly but it turned out to be very entertaining. This is a treatise on writing from 1899 (my edition is from 1955) but it's very easy to read. The author explains how he mostly wants to get to the point and not use big words. In 20 chapters, he covers notions that are essential to writers, most of which are still very true today (and often found in more modern articles or books on writing): the importance of reading a lot, write things that resonate with you rather than imitate authors you admire, etc. I wrote a blog post about it here.

Silver in the Wood, by Emily Tesh

I hereby declare that this book is perfection.

Silver in the Wood is a novella, a sapling of a book at around 100 pages, but oh my how much beauty and feeling is it able to pack in those pages. It took my heart, planted it under rotting autumn leaves, and watched it sprout under a pale Spring sun. Yes, that's how much I love it. I'll write silly poetry.

It's funny because I hadn't checked the synopsis of this one when I started it and in my head I had mixed it up with another book, so that I was expecting a different story. But that's all for the better, because Silver in the Wood is so short that you shouldn't read anything about it before diving in. Just now that it's about folklore, forests and growing roots. It's delightfully unexpected, and there a cat (I feel it's my duty to let out a minor but oh-so-important spoiler: the cat is still alive at the end).

Le Chant des cavalières, by Jeanne Mariem Corrèze

[This book hasn't been translated (yet). The title would translate as "The Song of the Dragon-Riders" if there was a way to make "riders" indicate that they are all women.]

A feminist fantasy book with dragons. Should I say more? It will delight fans of Samantha Shannon's Priory of the Orange Tree, with which I find a thematic thread.

Two voices narrate the story of the she-riders (that's the best term I could come up with - other suggestions are welcome!). On the one hand the Matriarch, newly appointed to the head of the Nordeau stronghold, and on the other hand her squire Sophie, head full of promises, who feels put to the side by her mistress's whirlwind of obligations.

This is an almost completely feminine novel, at least in its first chapters. A few important men appear, first in passing and then through one essential character of whom I won't say anything to avoid spoilers (but his name is Myrddin!). To all the killjoys who will say this book only invert the inequal male-to-female proportion in fantasy books I'll say they're not totally wrong, but only one book does not restaure a balance in bookshelves where male characters still constitute an overwhelming majority.

Jeanne Mariem Corrèze creates a vast array of complex characters, whose voices are carried by the two narrators, in a lush writing style. At times I thought the book was a little over-written: adjectives are sometimes piled onto one another and I spotted repetitions here and there. That being said, there is an undeniable epic scope to Jeanne Mariem Corrèze's writing that serves her story.

Speaking of story, I was a tiny bit confused at the beginning: I had trouble understanding the stakes, which seemed to appear a little late in the narrative, making for a rather rushed ending. However, I want to point out that this is the first published novel from the author, and as such it is mind-blowing. She weaves together the genre's topoi (dragons, a warrior's caste, political intrigue) with an abundance of original details. The kingdom of Sarda, peopled by the she-riders, is divided into several regions all having to abide by a rendition treaty signed centuries before with the neighbouring realm. Mentions of the ennemy were a tad manichean, but the diplomatic relationships between the different regions were not in the slightest. Each Matriarch walked the fine line between good and evil, stepping alternately on one side and on the other.

On the whole, I am blown away by this novel and oh so happy it exists. It makes me believe in French fantasy again (my faith had been crushed by a sexist "famous" novel read in the summer) and makes me want to resume my exploration of the genre. This book may not be perfect (I sometimes regretted the heroin's lack of independence, when she's buffetted this way and that), yet everything is beautifully linked together and explained, even if the ending felt a little rushed.

Ascendance of a Bookworm, by Miya Kazuki, Suzuka and You Shiina

This manga, recommended by my friend Kimberly Taylor-Pestell, is one of the cutest books I've ever read. I haven't explored the genre since high school, but I couldn't resist this story of a bookworm who dies under a pile of books and is reincarnated in the body of a little girl in a world where books don't seem to exist at all.

There's actually quite a lot in those pages. The author touches on classism, on disability (the heroin having chronic fevers and poor health). It's filled with comic relief, too, and the protagonist is as obsessed with food as I am.

I was so glad to find these two tomes in my local library! Sadly they don't have the rest but I think I'll try to get my hands on the novel from which this manga series was created.

The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is collection of Le Guin's essays and speeches from the 1970s. As it says on the cover, it's mainly concerned with speculative fiction, its history, Le Guin's appreciation of it, and its place in the publishing industry. The author has a way of putting complex thoughts into the simplest of words that is absolutely delightful, along with lively anecdotes. It makes these short essays a treat to read. I think they will appeal to many, including people who usually shy away from these genres. In a few passages you can tell Le Guin wrote / delivered them 50 years ago, since the literary landscape has fortunately changed quite a bit when it comes to science-fiction and fantasy - but most of her ideas are perfectly adaptable to our days. That's a sign of how great this collection is, I'd say.


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What did you read in November?

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