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Reading wrap-up - November 2021

After a month of October rich in beautiful discoveries but poor in diversity, I wanted to make things right in November and I'm quite happy with my wrap-up:

The Cheffe, by Marie Ndiaye · 2016

In my quest of books about food, I borrowed this French novel telling about a fictitious cheffe. In reality, Marie Ndiaye tells as much about this character as about the narrator, her former employee who harboured a one-sided love for her. He tells about him, and about her, in an interview presented as if readers held a microphone and asked the questions (not given in the text). The novel looks like a long monologue interspersed with narrated scenes that I fought to contextualise given how different they were from the rest.

Rather than a portrait of the cheffe, this book gives us the picture of a man who collected for weeks his superior's confession as they were working together in her restaurant. It results in a lot of long digressions, like a stream of consciousness, served by sentences that are sometimes half a page long (in which I often got lost and had to backtrack to understand their structure). Aside from the psychological portraits I enjoyed, you'll understand I had my reservations about the prose: the format of the monologue / interview demanded, in my humble opinion, a more oral style, whereas here it was extremely literary.

Rep: aromantic / asexual character? These words are not used, but several phrasings leave little doubt.

CW: food, fatphobia, toxic mother-daughter relationship.

the book is propped on a bookshelf with some dried flowers in the foreground and piles of book in the background.

Sylve-Dôme, by Jessica Motron · 2021

In a future in which magical creatures have been wiped out from the earth, Priam broods. This historian would give much to swap his grey and dull world for a breath of fresh air. When his sister gifts him a "Sylve-Dôme", he is grateful to welcome this little corner of greenery in closed circuit. But he hadn't taken into account his boisterous nephew whose mischiefs take Priam and the boy right inside the dome.

Reviewing a text I've read at different stages is no garanty of objectivity, but I've spent an excellent moment in Priam's company under the changing leaves of the Sylve-Dôme. As a reader who woefully lacks visual imagination, I had no trouble imagining the colourful world created by Jessica. I loved the interactions between the characters and how she turned clichés upside-down to bring depth to this wild adventure.

Thank you, Jessica, for trusting me with your story while you were writing it. It's a priviledge to have followed its evolution revision after revision, and I can vouch that your novella has reached its most polished stage!

Thank you to the publisher L'Alsacienne indépendante for gifting me this book so that I would review it. My opinion is mine.

an ebook with the cover of the novella is standing on a bookshelf next to a pilea in a white pot. Piles of books are visible in the background.

Seule en sa demeure, by Cécile Coulon · 2021

Tucked into a pine forest and its heady scents, the Marchère mansion awaits its new mistress. Aimée has just married the owner and discovers inside its cold walls the life of a wife over which secrets loom. Candre, her husband, has lost his first wife a few years ago, leaving him without children. An ideal match for the young woman, it seems...

Cécile Coulon's novel is a clear hommage to two English classics: Jane Eyre and Rebecca. That's what drew me to it in the first place, while also making me approach it with caution: could the author bring something more to these haunting novels? To my delight, her gorgeous prose instantly took me to 19th-century Jura and I followed with enthusiasm the variations she composed around the theme of the young innocent woman married to a widower. She paints powerful portraits of complex characters who grow closer and apart in this deeply feminist story. A real delight, only clouded by an ending that was rushed to my taste (but this is partly due to the fact that I didn't want the story to end).

CW: questionable consent, mutilation (not described), grief.

Rep: queer character (her orientation is not defined, but she's not heterosexual).

the book is set on an old, wooden chair in front of grey-blue curtains.

The Solitary Gourmet 孤独のグルメ, by Jirō Taniguchi and Masayuki Kusumi · 1997

In a series of chapters like items on a menu, mangaka Jirō Taniguchi and writer Masayuki Kusumi take the reader on a culinary trip to Japan, dismissing the fancy restaurants for more traditional and local spots. We follow the main character, a quiet salesman, as he visits new places or neighbourhoods he hasn't set foot in in a long time, and seeks out places to eat. Each dish is pictured in detail, considered thouroughly by the customer, and enjoyed with more or less pleasure. This manga is a fascinating insight into Japanese cuisine and sociology, an invitation to sit back, relax and enjoy the slow passing of time. The experience was not as satisfying to me as it could have been since I'd never tasted even one of the many dishes mentioned, but I'm sure the careful pen work and textual descriptions will bring vivid memories back to those of you who have.

CW: food (not very surprising here).

the book is set vertically on a wooden table next to a Japanese glazed tea cup.

The Mad Ship, by Robin Hobb · 1999

Power dynamics shift and collapse in the second volume of the Liveship Traders trilogy. New characters are introduced, while others disappear only to reveal worse dangers than the ones they embodied.

Robin Hobb's character writing shines particularly brightly in the sequel to Ship of Magic. I'm thinking of one in particular, whom I can't stand in book 1 but start to tolerate in book 2 (and will end up loving in book 3). I can't even imagine the effort it must have taken to orchestrate such a masterful chorus of voices, but it works. Now that we are more familiar with names and characters, the deeper currents of the story start to move closer to the surface and big mysteries are glimpsed through the moving tide.

CW: closed spaces, sexual assault, slavery, rape.

a white hand with dark nails holds a copy of the book open on a white blanket partly topped with a folded pair of tweed trousers, next to a candle.

L'Arpenteuse de Rêves, by Estelle Faye · 2021

Myri is an Arpenteuse (a Walker). Or so she was before renouncing her gift, that of visiting the dreams of people sleeping nearby. Since then, she has been making do in the lowest neighbourhoods of Claren, where she has gathered around her a family of outsiders. But when pollution starts to threaten the foundations of the city, and ghosts appear to terrorise inhabitants, it may be time for Myri to dive back into people's dreams and find her way there.

Estelle Faye's latest YA book is once more a success to me. In 2021 I've read a large number of her books, including a huge new favourite (Les Nuages de Magellan) and plenty of beautiful discoveries (Un Reflet de Lune, Alduin et Léna). L'Arpenteuse de Rêves is clearly one of the latter. There are many characters but each one has their voice and story. Adventures pile up with little time to breathe, following a rhythm that reminded me of Un Eclat de Givre. The themes are also quite close: an omnipresent city, a character who keeps running from many things but especially themself, water creatures, theatre, etc.

Last but not least, I'm charmed by this cover.

Rep: lesbian MC, black SC.

CW: death of a family member.

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

The Erdmann Nexus, by Nancy Kress · 2008

Dr Erdmann is a not-yet-retired physicist teaching at university when he's not at his medicalised residence. The first time he experiences a kind of stroke that's not really a stroke, he blames it on his old age. But when it happens again, and seems to happen to other residents, he starts to think that something else might be afoot.

This is a novella touched with Sci-fi and the fantastical, taking place in a medicalised residence in which, for once, the adventure happens to old people. It reminded me a bit of the retirement home section in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas - a panel of different characters confronted with something threatening, but here the focus isn't so much about the fact that the staff won't help or believe them. We know from the start that there's something more to the cases touching the residents, only we don't know what. And at the end the novella can be read quite differently depending on your state of mind: a metaphor for grief, a Sci-fi exploration of consciousness, etc.

CW: fatphobia, domestic violence.

a white hand with painted nails holds a copy of the book in front of dark green bushes.


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What did you read in November?

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