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2012 in Reading and Writing

I have not been very active over the past few months. One of the reasons for this is that A LOT has been going on in RL. A lot of good things but also a lot of challenges mainly for my partner that have generated a lot of stress for both of us. A second reason is that when I have had the time and energy to play around online I have been doing so over at Medium which is a great newish platform on I which I address issues that I wouldn't normally address here. I have also been reading loads and all has not been reading challenges and work which is great because I was feeling as though I was suffocating for a while there when it felt that each book was taking such a long time to get through. Additionally, I have had the opportunity to do a lot of fantastic things in 2012 through work, including attending the Festival America, a 3 day business trip to Paris to meet with French editors and meeting some fantastic authors such as Toni Morrison, Siri Hustvedt, Harry Belafonte, Richard Ford, James Salter and Ben Fountain.

So here's where I stand at the end of 2012 on the reading and writing front.
  • Medium: I was only recently made aware of the existence of Medium when Kate Lee whom I used to work with when she was an agent at ICM, was appointed director of content. The platform itself is evolving and developping but it's a pleasure to spend time on there, reading what others are thinking about current events but also very random things. It's been liberating to try a new platform, it's allowed me to broach different topics and present them in ways different to what I would normally do on LJ. I'm not about to abandon LJ but I must admit that I'm finding less and less motivation to write book reviews and it's been several years now that I've been struggling to come up with interesting content on a regular basis. I think I can find the right balance between Medium and LJ - perhaps have more serious political and current events related posts on Medium and keep all the genre and geeky stulff on LJ but I do feel that I need to move away from book reviews. I still want to talk about SF&F topics but in a different way that allows more in depth reflections on publishing trends. It's a bit hard to describe because I haven't figured out how I want to go about this exactly but I'm thinking about it and a change is definitely in order.
  • Reading Challenges: While I immensely enjoyed participating in calico_reaction's Theme Park book club and Shannon's Around the World in 12 Books challenge this year, it quickly became clear that I couldn't keep up. Being constantly a month or two behind kind of spoils the fun of participating at all. I have so much imposed reading through work already that I feel I need more flexibility in my spare time. So no more book clubs and reading challenges this year, not as long as I have so much reading for work which is not likely to change anytime soon.
  • French Literature: Being in France for the rentrée littéraire reminded me of all the literary excitement that goes on during that time of the year in France when over 400 titles are published in the space of a few weeks and the nominations for all the big prizes are announced. I have read 3 out of the 4 titles shortlisted for the prestigious Goncourt prize and bought loads more books that I am slowly going through. It's been reinvigorating and it's a process I had begun with the French Female Writers reading challenge in 2011 and so I do plan on continuing to read more French fiction in 2013.
  • Mangas/Comics: This is a love of mine that I have neglected since moving to the UK where mangas are not nearly as popular and as widely available as they are in France. You can find them easily of course but selection is limited. However, I have recently discovered an amazing app with a wide range of choices and that allows me to read on my phone so I don't have to worry about putting all my mangas into storage when I move countries again (which is where my mangas are at the moment... in storage in France...). Same thing on the comics side, I couldn't live without ComiXology which really makes it easy to buy at a reasonable price and read comics both old and new. Among the manga series I have recently discovered and am really enjoying are Deadman Wonderland and Pluto but I've also resumed reading Claymore and Full Metal Alchemist. Akira and A Distant Neighborhood are also in my to-read manga pile. As for comics, I am loving Saga, American Vampire and Saucer Country.
  • Laura Kasischke: This is an author that I discovered through work but having recently finished reading her latest novel The Raising, I cannot recommend her work enough. Even if I worked in another agency, I would still admire Laura Kasischke who is a phenomenally talented author and poet. She's brilliant at creating dark and sinister atmospheres that will keep you on the edge of your seat all with exquisite prose. She is definitely my literary discovery of 2012.

That's it for 2012 folks! More once I know more about what I want to do with this blog exactly. I hope you're all spending wonderful quality time with your families and friends and wish you all my best for the year ahead!

Festival America Follow Up

The Frankfurt Book Fair is right around the corner and as always it's become even more impossible to read non work related books! It's always an exciting time because there's so much going on but it definitely feels like your brain has died after each fair, right in time for the post-fair follow up which is a whole other sort of madness! And that's bearing in mind that I'm not even attending the fair this year, I am just involved in the whole pre-fair preparations and the previously mentioned dreaded post-fair...

What's also making it more difficult to read non work related title is that I have recently joined the agency's New Writing Team and now attend weekly meetings where we go through the slush pile. I'm not complaining mind you! It's really interesting and because I work in foreign rights, this is not something I have done before. It's really interesting to read and see some of things we get sent but it's also very difficult to evaluate a work on just a covering letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters. You generally know quite early on when you don't like something but every once in a while, you get this nagging doubt, could this be good? Could this fit one of the agents' list? It can be really tricky as between themselves, our agents cover nearly every genre and obviously what I feel more comfortable making a judgment on are works science fiction and fantasy and we get so few of those. Anyway, we have just started accepting online submissions so while that's not likely to decrease the slush pile, it has at least now gone virtual!

Back to fairs, I have had my share of traveling and excitement this week as I have just come back from the Festival America which was taking place in Paris last weekend, well more precisely in Vincennes. To be honest, I was only too happy to volunteer to attend this. I do get a bit homesick sometimes, well I mostly miss the general grumpiness, especially in Paris, and the food. I often forget how much people can be rude in Paris and I won't even want to relate my experience trying to buy a European adapter plug for my blackberry charger and the absolutely useless clerk! It's quite fascinating and throughout my limited conversation with him, I kept telling myself that this would never happen in London. That being said, being back home I experience this weird relief that I too am allowed to be rude and grumpy to anyone crossing my way because they sure as hell aren't going to spare me... It's a strange and weirdly comforting feeling. Anyway, apart from being grumpy to my heart's content, I also ate loads of cheese, saucisson, paté, bread, and pastries and brought back plenty with me.

For those who have never heard of or attended the Festival America before, it's been described as the greatest festival of American literature and well, it's in France! This year marked the festival's 10th year anniversary and a record level of attendance when it came to authors, agents and general public.

IMG00025-20120921-1606Toni Morrison was the guest of honor and I was lucky enough to be introduced if only briefly to the great lady herself! Having studied African American literature and Black feminism for several years, Toni Morrison has long been my hero and one of those writers whose works have strongly impacted me. So of course, I was a bit tongue tied when the big moment actually came and didn't manage to say anything that she had not heard a thousand time before but oh well, I am content that I even got to meet her and shake her hand! She's such a wonderful lady, funny and dynamic which you wouldn't necessarily expect given her age.

She also is a proper rock star in France! In order to attend any of her events, you had to arrive at least an hour in advance as the organizers had to refuse people entrance! I think she could've signed books for three whole days and there still would have been a massive queue brandishing their copies of not just her latest novel Home or Beloved which won the Pulitzer but also old editions of all her other works! So that brief meeting was definitely the highlight of the festival for me!

ATT54801But there were also so many panels, debates, signings and so many great authors attending! So much going on that must have required so much preparation. It's even more amazing when you know that apart from one or two people, all of the organizers are volunteers! I didn't remember there being so much going on the last time I attended, two years ago, although back then Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney were among the authors invited.

Anyway, it was a very exciting opportunity to meet up with old colleagues and friends, meet new editors and get a clearer idea of what's going on French publishing as well as discovering new exciting American authors! I have definitely come back reinvigorated and added quite a few American authors to my Goodreads list!

Book Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Strangely enough, I always assume that August is going to be a quiet month both on a personal and professional level and that I'm going to be able to relax and catch up on things. Despite the fact that I can't remember a single time since I've started working where this has been true, I still somehow fall for it every year. I'm not sure when life became so hectic (and we don't even have kids!) but I could sure use a break... perhaps I should start with a holiday...

At any rate, I actually finished reading Among Others over a month ago but haven't had a chance to sit down and write my review before now. This was read for Shara's Theme Park Book Club for the month of July. Note that I haven't finished June's read which is Kameron Hurley's God's War. I'm really struggling with this one but I do plan on going back and finishing it.But for now I'm jumping straight to July and it turned out that Jo Walton's novel was exactly what I needed to read!

It's a bit sad to admit but at times, I no longer seem to be able to focus on a book the same way I used to or to totally immerse myself in it the way I did before. I think that's what happened with Hurley's book. It's not that it's not good, quite the contrary, it just requires a lot of effort to get into, effort that I wasn't able to put into at the time because I had so many other manuscripts that required my attention. I read so much for work, going through the slush pile but also reading manuscripts that agents are going out with or have just sold, texts that won't be available in book stores for another year or two. Sometimes, it's good to read a physical book, that's been edited and published, that has a cover! Don't get me wrong, I love my job and I wouldn't want to do anything else but working in publishing, you don't get to read at work. That's why you have to be passionate about books to do it because you will be expected to do all the reading during your spare time, reading things that might not be your cup of tea at all. Sometimes it feels like all I have is imposed reading, including the two book clubs/reading challenges I've signed up for this year. It's a relief when one of the books that's picked is actually one that my tired brain will engage with.

Like I said, I don't regret any of it, work or book clubs/reading challenges, but it does sometimes feel like my brain needs some space and fresh air... and Jo Walton's book was just that!

Title: Among Others
Author: Jo Walton
Genre: Speculative Fiction
Originally published: 2011
Publisher: Tor Books
Pages: 302
Awards: Winner of the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novel

This read was for the 2012 Theme Park book club, July theme: Women Writing Fantasy in 2011-2012

'It doesn't matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.'

The compelling story of a girl trying to cope with her troubled childhood, a diary of her first encounters with great novels of fantasy and SF, and a spellbinding tale of escape.

Fifteen-year-old Morwenna lives in Wales with her twin sister and a mother she hates. When her twin dies, Mori blames her mother and runs away from home into the arms of her erstwhile father in England. He sends Mori to a boarding school where, with her Welsh accent, her crippled leg and her unhealthy interest in the contents of the library, she is a social outcast. Not that Mori minds so much, because in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels she adores, she has friends and isn't alone in understanding that magic is real. For Mori knows about magic, she has lived with it all her life; and she knows, too, that danger lurks: her mother is hunting her down, and Mori must be prepared to do battle when she eventually finds her.

Let's get one thing out of the way: I absolutely adore this book! So of course, it's going to be difficult to talk about it in any constructive and coherent way. However, despite my absolute endorsement of this book, I can see how it's not for everyone and there are some not so positive reviews out there. In most cases, I can understand the reviewer's points but they don't resonate with me, if that makes any sense. This book moved me in so many ways that even when its flaws are pointed out, I can see them, I won't deny them, but they don't change the way I feel about it. They can't change my reading experience. Is that clearer? It's a bit like loving someone I guess. No one's perfect and you love them, all of them, flaws and all.

There was something reassuring and comforting about Mori's narration and yet, the reader can't quite shake the feeling that she's also a very unreliable narrator. Any fan of the genre will easily relate to her because of her love of books and science fiction and fantasy specifically. Although I hadn't read a lot of the books she mentioned, it didn't hinder my reading in any way. In hindsight, I do wonder if perhaps having that foreknowledge would have shed some light on some of the novel's most obscure moments. I do think this is one that would benefit from a second read but perhaps that would be best kept for a time when I've read more of the classics mentioned in it. The author has compiled a list of works that are made reference to in the novel so that's a good place to start in case you're interested. 

The novel is constructed as Mori's journal, which I find is often tricky, especially in terms of pacing as it makes it delicate to avoid repetitions and to sustain readers' interest - I must say though it wasn't the case here as I couldn't put the book down. The diary device also means that the reader is entirely dependent on what Mori wants to tell us, her interpretation and perception of events. And it's for all those reasons that this choice of narration works so well for this novel.

Let me explain. Magic is presented in a very interesting way: it's everywhere, there for the world to see but when given the choice, the world will always resort to rational explanations rather than recognizing that magic is at works. This ambivalence is at the novel's core. While Mori makes no attempt at hiding this - she believes in magic, she knows what it can do, she knows most don't believe - but can we believe her when all we have is her take on events? Is magic really responsible for what happened to her and her twin or is it simply a metaphor there for her to deal with her loss? Worse still, did she even have a twin?

At some point in the book, it becomes clear that Mori is not Morwenna but in fact Morganna. Morwenna is the one who died in the car accident and Morganna the one who survived and since no one could really tell them apart, no one has actually noticed the switch. Mori took on her sister's identity so that the latter could keep on living in some way through her but she soon realizes that this was naive as she can never live for two (this is part of the grieving process I suppose). As we only learn this half-way through the novel, it does make you question what else Mori has been keeping from us. She is so secretive and protective of her journal (she writes certain entries backwards in case it should fall into bad hands) that it does not seem entirely impossible for her not to be entirely honest with her readers.

Mother/daughter relationships are never easy, especially when you're growing up. It might be easier to think of your mother as an evil witch (this is in fact interesting because I'm currently watching the first season of Once Upon Time which is similar in that regard) then actually dealing with the reality of things.

The diary aspect lulls you into a false sense of security. After all the big battle has already taken place and the one who was to die is already dead, it's all about dealing with what comes afterwards, isn't it? Dealing with grief, loss and moving on. But what if there's more to it? Everyone deals with grief in different ways. What is Mori's? Wanting to believe in magic? Finding refuge in a world that's closer to the books she reads? Portraying her mother as an evil witch? Taking on her twin's identity? Imagining a twin and then her death to hide the truth?

With all this in mind, it's interesting to read Ursula le Guin's blurb:

'Funny, acute, and impassioned... Magic in Walton's novel functions magically, yet can always be seen and explained as nothing unusual. This is a large, interesting idea, well worked out. Walton's trying hard to do what I call moving the boundary: to alter, or make more permeable, the wall between the possible and the impossible. I think she almost succeeds.'

I think Walton is also blurring the boundaries between literary fiction and speculative fiction. Not that I've ever found that one excluded the other but I can see how this book could appeal to non genre readers, despite all the many references to SF&F books. This book is short and I devoured it but it's clear that there's a lot more to it then meets the eye and I'm sure that reading it again, I'll stumble upon things that I missed the first time around.

I must also mention that there are some amazing descriptions in there of nature and specifically fairies. There was also in interesting cast of characters that gave quite a bit of food for thought. Mori's relationship with her father is very strange and disturbing at one point. Her coming back to meet with her old school mates was also difficult but fascinating scene. There was something really disturbing about the aunts but again because all we have is Mori's point of view and she can't even tell them apart or cares much for them, the reader's perception is biased. Are they petty minor witches or bitter old ladies that never had much in their lives apart from each other or both? I also found it interesting that Mori couldn't tell them apart when no one could it seems tell her apart from her twin. Are the sisters a possible version of Mori and her twin sister had the latter lived?

The prevailing ambivalence present in the story gives the novels a slippery feeling. Just like in life, there are no definitive answers, only multiple possibilities; many things will be left unanswered and in the end, it's up to you and what you choose to believe. I can understand that it can be frustrating for some readers but that's exactly the reason why I loved this book. I don't want to give off the impression that the story didn't feel grounded in reality or authentic. Quite the contrary, Mori's story, her loss, her pain, her difficulties in school, her falling in love, felt very real to me and that's why I was able to connect with her so easily. But there is a dream-like feel to this novel, something that you can't quite grasp, a magical feeling that makes you questions your own boundaries, that makes you want to believe that there's more out there, that this is just to tip of the iceberg.  

I was familiar with Jo Walton only through her columns on tor.com but I'm really thrilled to have had the opportunity to read some of her fiction and I can 't wait to read more. Real or not, metaphorical or not, I loved Mori's world and I embraced it whole-heartedly. As with any diary, a lot is left hanging and unanswered. While I would've like to know more, I do see that the book is not about answers which would give an impression of closure when in fact as I finished the book, it felt like something else what opening up, like the magic in the book had somehow slipped through the pages and was pointing to new possibilities, new truths right here and now. So of course, I can only recommend Among Others, it's refreshing and original novel that will lead you into a dream-like world of possibilities and multiple truths.

ETD: I also completely forgot to say that this is one of the rare books that has a main protagonist with a disability that's portrayed in a believable manner and that's really worth pointing out!

ETD 2: I've just stumbled upon this conversation where Jo Walton discusses what would have happened to Mori ten years after the end of the book. She also mentions that she never meant for anything in the book to be ambiguous despite the fact that many people found it to be the case. This is interesting because I really thought it was intentional but clearly it's not. I guess that's just another magical side-effect of the book! 
Title: Une Métamorphose Iranienne [An Iranian Metamorphosis]
Author: Mana Neyestani
Translated by Fanny Soubiran
Genre: Graphic Novel, Politics
Originally published: 2012
Publisher: Ca et Là
Pages: 204

This read was for the 2012 Around the World in 12 Books Reading Challenge hosted by Shannon at Giraffe Days (July: Iran)

Given my horrible track record for the book clubs/reading challenges I've signed up for 2012, I think we can all safely say it's the first time that I have ever managed to post any review on time! Of course, the fact that I've selected a graphic novel instead of an actual novel might have helped a bit in the matter.

To be honest, where Shannon's challenge is concerned, to select one single work to read for each country has proved to be very difficult. You start digging and then you realize that there are all these authors out there that you don't know a single thing about! I feel fortunate enough that I can choose from both English and French translations which broadens the prospect but what of these authors that have not been translated at all, or not in a language that I can understand. It's frustrating on so many levels! Too little time to read, to learn another language, so many talented writers that we'll never be able to discover.

Anyway, when it came to Iran, it only made things harder as I felt like I owed it to myself to know more about this country's literature. As some of you know, my mother was born and raised in Iran before the Islamic revolution. Born of an Iranian father and a French mother (both of whom are now deceased), my mother has never gone back to Iran since she left the country to pursue her education in France over 30 years ago. I myself have never been and have no plans to do so in the immediate future. The Iran my mother loves and talks about has little to do with the country I see on TV so, if I even were to go there, I would need to approach the country without all the emotional attachments and expectations I currently have. I've seen pictures of my mother water skying with her sisters, wearing tiny tops showing way more than her belly button and mini skirts when she was 15. Her childhood didn't seem much different from mine in the Caribbean, growing up with two languages and making a place for herself in between two very different cultures.

So to get to the point, at the moment, I don't feel ready to read about the revolution. I've heard enough about it from my mother, her sisters and my grandfather when he was alive. I want to read about Iran as it is now, the good and the bad, and I want to read historical fiction about Iran from many many years ago. I'm not sure I feel ready to read about the turning point, the revolution, just yet. I will at some point, just like I know I will go there some day and I hope to see the house my mother lived in, where her school was, but not now. I'm not quite there yet.

Okay, enough with the sentimentality... Onto to the review!

One note on the French edition though: the copyright page says that it was translated from the English translation produced by Ghasal Mosadecq. That being said, I've searched on line for an English translation of this amazing and enlightening graphic novel and couldn't find one so perhaps it was never actually published in English. If so, that's a real shame and I really do hope that an English language publisher is going to pick this up very soon.

Mana Neyestani's graphic novel is autobiographic. Neyestani was born in Tehran in 1973. He started his career as a cartoonist working in different cultural and political magazines. He soon became cataloged as a political cartoonist and had to turn to drawing for children in order not to draw to much unwanted attention from governmental authorities. He thought he was safe. He was unfortunately wrong.

In 2006, Neyestani drew a cockroach in one of his cartoons. The drawing was unfortunately taken out of its context and interpreted as being an insult to the Azeri ethnic group which occupies the northern part of Iran and consist of people of Turkish descent. This group is often the target of insults from Iranians and so the government was only to happy to blame the subsequent riots, material damage and deaths on Neyestani's drawing. Neyestani and his editor-in-chief were soon arrested and taken to the Evin prison, even though they hadn't actually broken any law. An Iranian Metamorphosis is the tale of the events that lead to this arrest, as well as Neyestani's time in jail and his attempts at clearing his name, ending up with him and his wife seeking political refuge in a Western country. Neyestani and his wife, Mansoureh, now live in France but this took some time and the French government (as well as other European and Western governments) didn't initially help them get out of Iran despite the threat of more time in prison for Neyestani, death threats and the implication of Iranian secret services.

It is frustrating of course to see how slow Western bureaucracy is and how in the end, it made it impossible for Neyestani and his wife to get out of the country through legal means. They had to resort to dealing with a smuggler who was meant to guarantee them and other Iranians safe passage to a European country because no embassy accepted to grant them the status of political refugees in time! In the end, nothing goes smoothly and it's a long, difficult and stressful process that finally led them to France. But imagine the pain of never being able to go back to your country, the pain of not really being able to say goodbye to your loved ones because they had to keep their escape secret. 

What's beautiful is that Neyestani and his wife stayed together and united throughout the whole ordeal. While they did contemplate splitting up for a moment because they didn't have enough money for them to both make their way to Canada, they decided to go as far as Europe instead if that meant they could stay together.

Neyestani's wife, Mansoureh, helps him every step of the way. She's portrayed making phone calls, chasing embassies and political organizations, dealing with the smuggler among other things. Neyestani makes Mansoureh a central character to his story and there are a few scenes where the stress of the situation gets to them and they snap at one another but then quickly apologize. I thought it was brilliant to have included these short domestic scenes in the tale. They helped ground the story in reality and make it clear that this is something happening to real people, to a real couple that behaves like any couple.

An Iranian Metamorphosis is not a dry account of autobiographical events. In fact, there are quite a few humorous scenes and the recurrence of the cockroach and references to Kafka is both tragic and comic, rendering the entire work sarcastic. This is after all the story of a man being forced into exile because he drew a cockroach in a children's cartoon! 

This was a fascinating and enlightening read on so many levels. As an outsider, there's a great deal to learn about Iran in this graphic novel. First of, while it seems pretty obvious that it would be the case, I didn't know that there were different ethnic groups and that some were regarded as lesser than others. Also, while this is only brushed on, there are quite a few allusions to brutal and violent "interrogation techniques" shall we call them. It's fortunate for Neyestani that he didn't have to go experience any, but honestly the solitary confinement he and his editor-in-chief had to go through seemed horrible enough as it was. You also get a nice insight of Iranian legal procedures and processes. It doesn't inspire much trust to be quite honest and it definitely gives the impression that this is a country best not to be arrested in.

I would really recommend this graphic novel, not just to graphic novel readers. I think this is one of those reads that worth getting out of your comfort zone to experience.

Here's where you can read an extract of the French edition and it will also give you an idea of Mana Neyestani's drawing style.

Some additional interesting links:
RFL/RL: Mana Neyestani: The Kafkaesque World Of An Iranian Cartoonist
The Comics Reporter: Cockroach Cartoonist Jailed In Iran
BBC News: Iranian Paper Banned Over Cartoon

I was in France last weekend and that's when I picked this up. I was specifically looking for it as I'd heard about it on line but as I was perusing the Iranian fiction section of the bookstore I was in, I also picked up these two which I hope to get to very soon:

Le Goût Apre des Kakis by Zoyâ Pirzâd (short story collection - no English translation as far as I'm aware)
En Censurant Un Roman d'Amour Iranien/Censuring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

Title: Afro-Cuban Tales
Author: Lydia Cabrera
Translated by Alberto Hernandez-Chiroldes and Lauren Yoder
Genre: Folktales, Mythology
Originally published: 2005
Publisher: University of Nebraska
Pages: 170

This read was for the 2012 Around the World in 12 Books Reading Challenge hosted by Shannon at Giraffe Days (May: Cuba)

As much a storyteller as an ethnographer, Lydia Cabrera was captivated by a strange and magical new world revealed to her by her Afro-Cuban friends in early twentieth-century Havana. In Afro-Cuban Tales this world comes to teeming life, introducing English-speaking readers to a realm of tenuous boundaries between the natural and the supernatural, deities and mortals, the spiritual and the seemingly inanimate. Here readers will find a vibrant, imaginative record of African culture transplanted to Cuba and transformed over time, a passionate and subversive alternative to the dominant Western culture of the Americas. In this charmed realm of myth and legend, imaginative flights, and hard realities, Cabrera shows us a world turned upside down. In this domain guinea hens can make dour Asturians and the king of Spain dance; little fat cooking pots might prepare their own meals; the pope can send encyclicals about pumpkins; and officials can be defeated by the shrewdness of turtles. The first English translation of one of the most important writers on African culture in the Americas, the collection provides a fascinating view of how African traditions, myths, stories, and religions traveled to the New World-of how, in their tales, Africans in the Americas created a New World all their own. Lydia Cabrera (1899-1991) was a legendary Cuban ethnographer of Afro-Cuban culture and the author of many books, including El Monte and Vocabulario Congo. Alberto Hernández-Chiroldes is a professor and chair of the Spanish department at Davidson College. Lauren Yoder is James Sprunt Professor of French at Davidson College. Isabel Castellanos is one of the foremost scholars on Afro-Cuban culture.

When I initially started researching Cuban literature for this reading challenge, I didn't expect to encounter so many well known and acclaimed authors. Despite having grown up in the Caribbean, I have never actually been to Cuba and in fact know very little about its culture, particularly its literature. Slightly overwhelmed by the number of authors both historical and contemporary to choose from (note to self: never be deceived by the size of a country!), I decided to focus on women writers... surely that would cut it down? While it helped a little, it actually made it very hard for me to choose among all those wonderful writers! I had to come up with a shortlist which included The Fear of Losing Eurydice by Julieta Campos, Remembering Ché by Aleida March, One Woman and Four Others by Mireya Robles, Ghost Heart by Cecilia Samartin, Karla Suarez and Zoe Valdes's works in general.

The plan was to read in the original Spanish edition but lack of time and organization on my part unfortunately didn't make this possible. So, pretty much by default, I started looking for English translations of these novels. I soon realized that the choice was much larger if I decided to look for French translations instead. While this really shouldn't have surprised me as it's a well known fact that Anglo-Saxon publishers translate very little (supposedly because translated fiction doesn't sell well), I guess I didn't expect fort his to include Spanish, especially when it came to Cuba, a country so close to the US. But then, given the history between these two countries, perhaps it's not that surprising. 

The point of this very long introduction is: go check out these wonderful Cuban women writers! There are so many to choose from, so many celebrated novels, that are waiting there right under our noses.

I personally decided to go for something a bit different, something that I hoped would fill a gap in my Caribbean culture and one that I've been particularly aware of since reviewing Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord and listening to her talk with Nalo Hopkinson. I've grown up in the Caribbean but my bedtime stories were the same as that of any child on the French mainland. My mother is French-Iranian so what did she know about traditional Caribbean folk tales and my father simply didn't have the time. But then I don't really know how much my cousins who were born and bred in the Caribbean with two Caribbean parents actually know about these tales. Perhaps not much more than I do... What the talk between Karen Lord and Nalo Hopkinson made clear is that while some tales differ from one island to the next, there are similarities, characters and patterns that are repeated so Cuba sounded as good a place to start as any!

Before I get into the heart of the matter, I'd like to say a few words on the author and the English edition of the work which contains two introductions, that of the English edition but also that of the Spanish edition. While I wasn't aware of this when I first purchased the book, Afro-Cuban Tales was first published in French in 1936 under the title Les Contes Nègres de Cuba. Lydia Cabrera was born in May 1899 in Havana and settled in Paris in 1927. While she originally wrote the book in Spanish, she first translated and published it in French. That being said, I'm quite pleased to have read the English edition because the translators have clearly worked from both the French and Spanish editions and included several notes where these two differed. I felt this gave readers a much broader view and you could sometimes question why Cabrera decided to rewrite certain passages in the French translation.

All the tales collected here were told to Cabrera by some of her Afro-Cuban friends. She put them into writing but the reader can clearly see that some tales need to be read out loud and even sang. As it is often the case in African tales, rhythm and rimes are essential.Cabrera's work is not merely that of transcription as Isabel Castellanos explains in her introduction: in some cases, the author has modified stories by adding incidents and characters while others are clearly stories based on old Afro-Cuban songs and in those cases, music is central to the stories. These are not merely legends and tales collected by an anthropologist, it is clearly part of a creative process. It's fiction that incorporates Afro-Cuban traditions and folklore.

A lot of the stories are of Yoruba origin and the translators have done a wonderful job at giving the reader as much context as possible without ending up with half pages long footnotes. The unfamiliar reader (like me!) will get to learn more about Yoruba saints and divinities and in fact, the way they interact and interfere in human affairs really reminded of Greek mythology.

Cabrera's Afro-Cuban Tales are not fairy tales and in the beginning I was somewhat put off by the fact that in some stories, the bad guy wins and an innocent gets punished for no reason at all. Morality is not what you expect or what westerners are used to, but once you've grasped this, you're only beginning to see the richness of the world in which Cabrera's tales are set.

Boundaries are not where we would expect them to be: some protagonists are animals, others plants, gods and humans and all interact with one another, talking to one another, marrying one another regardless of whether they are man, woman, tree, turtle or earthworm. And yet, everything is solidly anchored into the real world as some stories refer to mulattoes, black people and white people, others refer to slavery and to the class system it left once after its abolition. Some religious practices are carefully detailed, some characters express themselves in creole and others Cuban vernacular. While this is fiction, there's no doubt that it is also thoroughly researched and aims at authenticity.

This strange and delicate balance between reality, authenticity and fiction, magic and folktale is at the heart of Afro-Cuban Tales. As Isabel Castellanos explains is in her introduction "What is unreal becomes real, and what is real, unreal" or in Cabrera's own words "the reality of unreality". And in that regard, it appears that Cabrera's work can be interpreted as a forerunner of magic realism. 

Afro-Cuban Tales is a rich and seminal piece of fiction that mixes anthropology, history and ethnography, one that I would recommend to readers of speculative fiction and those interested in Cuban and African cultures alike.
So unfortunately, my folklore Cuban myths book for the Around the World in 12 Books challenge STILL hasn't arrived!!! I'm already very late without having to worry about postal delays on top of that!

I've recently had the chance to visit Greece, well Corfu anyway, and that rekindled an old love of mine: Greek mythology. I am now planning to fill in a big gap in my literary culture by reading the Iliad and the Odyssey (yes, I've never actually read them!). Those are now on my Sony reader but before I got a chance to get to them, Madeline Miller won the Orange prize for her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, and well, let's just say the price of the ebook edition was simply too tempting to even contemplate stopping myself. I read it and loved it and shall review it shortly! It was exactly what I wanted to read.

Title: Downbelow Station
Author: C.J. Cherryh
Series: The Company Wars
Genre: SF/Space Opera
Originally published: 1981
Publisher: DAW Books
Pages: 439

This read was for the 2012 Theme Park book club, May theme: The Final Frontier

Pell Station, orbiting the alien world simply called Downbelow, had always managed to remain neutral in the ever escalating conflict between The Company, whose fleets from Earth had colonized space, and its increasingly independent and rebellious colony worlds. But Pell's location on the outer edge of Earth's defensive perimeter, makes her the focal point in the titanic battle of colony worlds fighting for independence?

While C.J. Cherryh needs no introduction to genre readers, I must admit that this great lady is one of those classic scifi authors I had yet to actually read (there are quite a few others which I shall not name just yet...). So when this Hugo winning novel turned out to be the result of May's poll, I was delighted!

I dived into Downbelow Station and was really amazed by the scope of the prologue which provides readers with all the background information they need regarding the Company, its fleet, the different stations and the Union. Prologues, especially when they serve as info dumps (which is the case here) generally put me off. However, Downbelow Station is such a dense book that I am not sure there was any way around it.

Despite quite a few typos, problems with grammar and syntax (but perhaps my edition was a bit dated), I was really gripped for the first 200 pages and not terribly bothered by the elliptical and unsmooth writing style. There was so much going on, so many characters and points of view, a lot of material to digest... possibly too much. And then, despite the fact that I really wanted to know how the events turned out, I found myself reading comics.

Let me explain, I generally turn to comics when I need a break: sometimes it's when I have enjoyed a book so much that I don't feel ready to dive straight into something else just yet and am in need of something short and sweet to catch my breath; at other times, it's when I can't get into a book and this generally happens at the beginning of a book rather than at the end. Neither was really the case here but I got tired of reading the novel and finishing it came as a strange relief.

Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy this book on some levels and I would recommend it to scifi fans but definitely not to anyone outside the genre. If you have never read a space opera before and are not familiar with the terms specifically related to the genre, Cherryh is not going to make it easy for you. She's not the type of writer who's going to take you by the hand and explain faster than light travels and the way a space station operates. You either already know it from previous reads or figure it out quickly enough so as not to lose interest in what's going on. This debatable approach has probably put off more than one reader and I think that was the case for a quite a few participants in the book club. I am generally quite self-disciplined (apart from the comics breaks) and not the type of reader who gets frustrated if I don't understand every single detail, but my boyfriend is and that's probably the reason why he and I don't enjoy the same scifi books.

Another thing that frustrated me throughout my reading of the novel and which I think is really the main cause of my eventual exasperation was the constant change in view points. There are A LOT of characters in this novel, most of which I found very interesting and while I didn't like all of them (and I don't think you're meant to), I felt that they were never taken to their full potential. That's part of the reason why I felt so engaged for the first 200 pages. I felt like the story and its character were going to bloom into something spectacular but they never actually did. Instead, I got tired of the constant change of view points. This is definitely one of the hardest things to pull off and part of me wonders if Downbelow Station had been written now, what type of editorial changes would have been made to Cherryh's initial manuscript compared to the ones that were made in the 80s. I do think that books are a lot more character driven now than they used to and I do try to bare that in mind when reading a classic scifi novel. It's interesting to think that perhaps, my difficulties with this novel stem from a new fashion trend in genre literature and that had I read it when it came out (well had I been born and old enough to), I wouldn't have encountered the same frustrations.

And yet, while I was initially puzzled (by the typos, grammar and syntax), a part of me does see why it won the Hugo prize (although I really don't know how it compares to the other novels nominated). The scope of the novel made me want to read the rest of series and I feel like it's not so much the novel itself that deserves the prize as the author's world building and perhaps the rest of the series. It's so vast and so brilliantly conceived that I think it's difficult not to want to know more if you've managed to finish the novel. The problem for me was really the characters and how the author's characterizations skills felt diluted among all of them so that not one really stood out and felt fully fleshed out.

Perhaps, it's the nature of the endeavor itself that makes it impossible to go from large and vast to small and detailed. And yet, I felt like a few changes could have achieved this. It would be interesting to know if other scifi series with a similar ambitions suffer from similar flaws. I am not well-read enough in the space opera genre to be the judge of this.

What I can say is that I feel like reading Cherryh's other titles in her Company Wars series and more broadly in her Alliance-Union universe as a history books or as non fiction rather than fiction. I want to know what happens to Pell, the Fleet, the Union, how they evolve and change over the centuries but I'm not sure I can bare another narration constantly alternating view points with characters I don't really get a chance to know in-depth. I do intend to try though so welcome any recommendations.

Cherryh's talent at world building is unquestionable and perhaps that's the reason why readers feel like they could expect more from her characterization. I do think a good proofreader was also required but then as I mentioned my edition was probably a bit dated so perhaps more recent edition do not suffer from this. At any rate, this was challenging read on more than one level and although the novel is not without its flaws, I thought it made for a nice introduction to Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe and do plan on reading more works by this author.
Title: In Great Waters
Author: Kit Whitfield
Series: Standalone
Genre: Historical fantasy/Parallel History
Originally published: 2009
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Pages: 352

This read was for the 2012 Theme Park book club, April theme: Under the Sea

*Minor spoilers ahead*

In a tense, divided court, a young princess watches her mother struggle to hold the throne. On a remote coastal estate, a scholar finds a child washed up on the shore. Anne. Henry. A Christian princess of the royal blood. A pagan bastard, groomed all his hidden, lonely life to make a grab for the crown. In this work of stunning imagination, Kit Whitfield has written a fictional history at once familiar and alien. Since the ninth century, when the deepsmen invaded Venice, an uneasy alliance has held between the people of the land and the sea. That alliance was brokered by the warrior queen, Angelica, half landsman, half deepsman, the mother of the royal houses of Europe.Now, centuries later, no navy can cross the seas without allies in the ocean - and without deepsmen guarding its shores, no nation can withstand invasion. The hybrid kings keep the treaty between both sides, protecting their people from the threat of war. The royal blood is the key to peace, and ferociously protected. The penalties for any landsman who tries to breed with a deepsman are severe; the fate of any 'bastard' child, born of such an illegitimate union, is terrible. But the royal house of England is staggering, collapsing under the weight of centuries of inbreeding. Anne prays for guidance, a way into the future without hatred or bloodshed. Henry holds with fierce certainty that only the strong survive. But if either of them is to outlive the coming conflict, they may need more than faith alone...

Not really getting better at reviewing books on time as you can tell, this being the April read of the Theme Park book club and here we are in... June. The good news is I've finished the May read so that should follow shortly. The bad news is that the book I've selected and ordered for the Around the World in 12 Books challenge for May (Cuba) has yet to arrive so that's not helping!

I finished In Great Waters several weeks ago and I generally always find it difficult to go back and remember precise details, put words on weeks old impressions for a review. Not for this novel though, it's stayed with me ever since I finished it and I catch myself thinking about Anne and Henry every now and again. A sign that I probably need to read the author's debut, Bareback.

In Great Waters' premises is fascinating. Imagine mermans (or deepsman as they are called here) coming out the sea and taking over Venice and whose half human, half merman offspring slowly grow to rule over all of Europe. I am making this sound simplistic and naive when it really isn't. Whitfield manages to make this not only plausible but believable as well. She cleverly mixes history, politics and fantasy to create this rich and vivid parallel world. Several reviewers have pointed out that the names Henry and Anne echo that of Henry VIII and his wife (well one of them!), Anne. But to be quite honest, given the extent of my historical knowledge, I can't quite see the resemblance beyond their names. 

In Great Waters should not be admired just for its world-building (although it definitely is one of its strong points) but also for the strength and depth of its characters. While Anne is a more likable character, there's something to Henry that I felt inexplicably drawn to: our rules cannot apply to him. He clearly doesn't belong to the world of men but then neither did he belong to the world of deepsmen as a young child. In the end, he manages to make a place for himself as some sort of in-between which was a relief really because the idea of Henry as king, ruling over human subjects when he struggled so much to understand them, would have been a total let down for me.

Whitfield blew me away during those first few pages when Henry is first faced with the world of humans. His incomprehension of such basic things as clothing, decorations, symbols and colors was amazingly described. The way his sight adjusts and how he grows and starts to see what humans see was illuminating. Strangely enough, I never found the fact that he was so alien, alienating.

Anne is an equally interesting and strong character and I couldn't wait for a confrontation between these two. With Anne, the tone changed a bit, echoing that of the unsaid intrigues of the court. While I found that by the end of the novel, the reader knew as much of Henry as he did of Anne, some details in Anne's story and her feelings were left to the reader's speculation, especially when it came to sexuality and abuse.

An element to the fantasy setting that I particularly enjoyed was that Whitfield's hybrids had little to do with the little mermaid. They were not beautiful, elegant creatures born to be kings and queens. Quite the contrary, Anne and Henry's legs aren't strong enough to support them on earth and in the sea, the fact that they have two legs instead of one strong fin, means that they are slower than deepsmen. I liked the idea that they were victim of limitations in both worlds and in a way, it explains Angelica's (Anne's ancestor - the first hybrid Queen) initial apparition out of the sea. As Henry rightfully points out, Angelica must have spent some time among humans before her apparition or she wouldn't speak perfect Italian and be familiar with human ways. Like Henry, Angelica had probably struggled for years in both worlds and never quite found a place in either before she saw an opportunity to bridge the two worlds and make a position for herself. 

I really enjoyed the almost biological explanations of Henry and Anne's strange bodies, how it affected their everyday lives on earth and in the sea. There are almost anthropological and sociological elements to this novel what with the way the author looks at habits, customs but also language and physical attributes, pointing out things we take for granted and never question. 

There's clearly a lot to admire in this novel. Some might be disappointed by the peaceful resolution that wraps things almost a bit too neatly but to be quite honest, I was a relieved that Anne and Henry didn't have to endure any more hardships and horrors at that stage.

Some of the reviews I read prior to reading the book referred to it as challenging, not for everyone but that if you pushed beyond the first 50-60 pages, you would find it rewarding. While I can see their point, I must say that I didn't find it difficult to get into the novel. Henry's alienness is exactly what grabbed me and made this book special in my eyes. While it takes its time, I really don't see how this story could be told in any other way. I enjoyed it immensely and highly recommend it. I didn't find it challenging because you have to bare with the first bit, not at all, it's challenging because it questions perspectives and details you've probably never questioned before. In a strange way, it does what some great scifi works do by highlighting our assumptions and what we take for granted. And that I think this is the work of a very talented writer.
So the London Book Fair has come and gone! We have also moved flats (note to self: never, ever do that again so close to LBF!). I feel like things are almost back to normal... sort of... I'm terribly behind on my reading. In fact, this is the Theme Park March read that I finished on time but didn't get a chance to review properly before now. I may be able to read but probably not review on time April's read: In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield as I had already purchased the book.

I've missed March and April reads for Shannon's Around the World in 12 Books which were Guatemala and Tanzania. I do plan on coming back to these at some point during the year as I had a few authors in mind for these countries. May is Cuba. I don't have any ideas yet but I'm looking forward to finding the right book/author.

The thing is I'm probably going to have to take another pause in those challenges in October for the Frankfurt Book Fair... anyway, we'll cross that bridge when we get there!

Title: The Monstrumologist - The Terror Beneath
Author: Rick Yancey
Series: Book 1 of the Monstumologist series
Genre: YA
Originally published: 2009
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Pages: 448

This read was for the 2012 Theme Park book club, March theme: Michael L. Printz Awards and Honors.


These are the secrets I have kept. This is the trust I never betrayed.

But he is dead now and has been for more than forty years, the one who gave me his trust, the one for whom I kept these secrets.

The one who saved me...and the one who cursed me.

So begins the journal of Will Henry, orphaned assistant to Dr. Pellinore War throp, a man with a most unusual specialty: monstrumology, the study of monsters. In his time with the doctor, Will has met many a mysterious late-night visitor, and seen things he never imagined were real. But when a grave robber comes calling in the middle of the night with a gruesome find, he brings with him their most deadly case yet.

Critically acclaimed author Rick Yancey has written a gothic tour de force that explores the darkest heart of man and monster and asks the question: When does a man become the very thing he hunts?

I am always pleased to return to YA as there's generally something cosy and familiar about it (and I don't mean this in a boring kind of way as YA is also in my mind the place where authors are allowed to be more creative in how they express ideas, more so sometime than in adult fiction), probably because I've read and enjoyed so much of it. However, there is nothing cosy about the Monstrumologist, nothing at all.

When I saw the UK paperback cover (see below), I was really expecting something along the lines of Darren Shan, and as much as I enjoyed the Cirque du Freak series, it's a nicely wrapped candy compared to what Rick Yancey delivers here! This was completely unexpected in many ways and at some point I even thought back on my days as a private tutor and asked myself if I really would have given this to read to my students... That being said I can think of one student in particular who would have appreciated but I'm not sure what his mum would have thought about it!

Back to the UK paperback cover. You think you can't possibly be scared of a monster is no head and jaws in the place of its stomach? Well think again. Rick Yancey made these creatures all too real for me and while I had my doubts upon first seeing the cover, I quickly realized that it didn't do justice to the horror these creatures unleashed (I like the US hardback much better - see above). By the time the monstrumologist was dissecting one of the creatures and explaining their living, eating and breeding habits, I wished I could have closed my eyes!

The Monstrumologist is one of those books that makes you question what truly separates YA from adult fiction? Is this categorized as YA because the main character is a teenager? Rick Yancey never talks down to his readers and while his prose is a bit wordy, the book is meant to be the journal of a man living in New England in the early 1800s so I guess in that regard it served its purpose. On top of that, I found that it served the detailed scientific explanations very well while also making the gory descriptions vivid.

Also, compared to many other YA titles, this one takes its time. It's a dense and slow book and while there's clearly a lot going on to justify its length, the characters and their relationships take a while to fall into place and in turn the reader also takes a while in truly connecting with them. The doctor in particular is a character that I have grown to understand, if not like. He is initially portrayed as this one dimensional despicable, selfish and privileged man with an over-sized ego whose work is all that matters and while this is all well, it made it difficult for me to understand why Will Henry even bothered to try and please him. Of course, their relationship is a lot more complex then this but it unravels over several hundred pages. It's a risky business for a YA novel but a well worth risk here. 

Among the elements that I really enjoyed were the setting and the general atmosphere. Perhaps I should have started by stating that I read very little horror, or rather I read very little pure horror. I guess that if you are a genre reader, chances are certain tropes, creatures and characters often specific to the horror genre creep up in a lot of your urban fantasy titles. So I'm tempted to say that this was a refreshing change for me but I'm really not sure refreshing is the word here. There was something almost oppressive about reading this novel as though I was the one trapped underground with the monsters that could come out at any second, as though I was the one that couldn't escape and wasn't left a second to rest (the author clearly suffers from the Dresden syndrom which translates as a nasty habbit of never letting your main protagonist rest, let alone sleep!).

The descriptions of some horribly gory and gruesome scenes stayed with me after I'd closed the book (metaphorically as I was reading this on my Sony Reader). But while these described the gore and ugliness of the monsters, they also served to depict the nastiness of humanity and stressing the sometimes narrow gap between the creatures and their hunters (for heaven sake, a man in a psychiatric ward is left to be eaten away by maggots!). I suppose this is quite common to the horror genre but like I said I'm a tourist here.

There were some other elements to the story that felt a bit forced to me. I am sure it's because they were merely introduced in this first book and will have their importance in coming installments but I personnally feel that the story did perfect well without them. I'm thinking for instance of Will Henry's parasite and the long life side-effect, the suggestion that one character was in fact Jack the Ripper. I felt that this character's purpose was mainly to help humanize the doctor but I am not sure how well he actually stood on its own.

But this is really me nibbling at the narration here. I really enjoyed it and was really looking forward to finding out more as I was reading it. Yet, as much as I found this engaging, I don't feel an instant urge to read the rest of the series. I would be happy to, but it's nothing quite the 'OMG I need to get my hands on the next installment NOW!' feeling that I sometimes get. I think this is because I do feel like this could be read as a standalone and I don't consider it a criticism to say so.

Overall, this is definitely a book that I would recommend but not to the fainting kind! This is not the accessible fun YA that I was expecting and was all the more enjoyable for it.
Title: The Good Muslim
Author: Tahmima Anam
Genre: Historical Fiction
Originally published: 2011
Publisher: Canongate Books
Pages: 304

This read was for the 2012 Around the World in 12 Books Reading Challenge hosted by Shannon at Giraffe Days (February: Bangladesh)

In the dying days of a brutal civil war, Sohail Haque stumbles upon an abandoned building. Inside, he finds a young woman whose story will haunt him for a lifetime to come... Almost a decade later, Sohail's sister Maya returns home after a long absence to find her beloved brother transformed. While Maya has stuck to her revolutionary ideals, Sohail has shunned his old life to become a charismatic religious leader. And when Sohail decides to send his son to madrasa, the conflict between them comes to a devastating climax. Set in Bangladesh at a time when religious fundamentalism is on the rise, The Good Muslim is an epic story about faith, family and the long shadow of war.

Even as a child, I never really found that reading a book was a challenge. Of course, there must have been the random imposed read that I didn't enjoy but overall it's never been something I had to force myself to do. And yet, reading The Good Muslim was and writing this review was equally as challenging. I was really excited about this novel, having heard the most wonderful things about the author's debut, A Golden Age. And to be perfectly honest, I don't think the fault lies with the author or the novel. I think as a reader you're meant to meet the author half-way (I'm aware that many readers will disagree with this but I really see the act of reading as a shared experience with the author; they more often than not offer you something very personal and it's also up to you to let them in and give them a fair chance - that might be a discussion for another day). So in a way I feel like I do share part of the responsibility. But if there's something to blame, I'll blame marketing.

Unfortunately, I wasn't aware of the connection between the author's two books as they seemed to be presented as standalone novels. Having now read The Good Muslim, I feel realize that I really should have started with A Golden Age. The truth is my choice was very much guided by finance and practicality: The Good Muslim was at my local library; A Golden Age was not. So again, I do share part of the blame here.

The Good Muslim takes place in the early 80s, in post-war Bangladesh, and focuses on two siblings, survivors of the war. The novel aims at rendering the country's contradictions and oppositions by describing the two very different ways the siblings come to terms with their actions and choices and the war's aftermath. Maya turns to science and decides to reconnect with her country by becoming an itinerant doctor, going from village to village to help women and children. Sohail on the other hand has turned to religion and in the light of his wife's death, decides to raise his young son in the very strict ways imposed by his faith. It is upon Maya's return to their mother's side and their native town that two siblings meet again after years apart to find that the gap between them has not closed, to the contrary.

While I found that there were a great many things to applaud in this novel and very interesting points, it somehow failed to grasp my full attention. I failed to connect with the main characters which is crucial in a novel that relies so strongly on empathy and characterization. As I said, I don't think the fault lies entirely with the novel; perhaps my mood also played in this? This did cross my mind while I was reading and I tried to put the book aside for several days to see if that could change. Unfortunately, I did not miss it like I normally do when I'm deeply engaged in a novel. I didn't miss Maya, I didn't think of the novel or only to panic at the idea that I was completely off my reading schedule (this is February's read posted at the end of March *ahem*!). Reading these 300 pages took me more time than I'm willing to admit.

There are several reasons for this, one being, as I have already mentioned, that I did not know much about Bangladesh and its history. The country as it is now is only 40 years old and emerged following a war with Pakistan in 1971. Unfortunately, not clearly being aware of all this, I failed to understand all of the characters' motivations and all of the implications. I was often confused whenever the characters alluded to the war. I wasn't who was fighting whom, for what reasons, who had been imprisoned, etc.

I felt particularly distant from Maya's character. I think the distance with Sohail's character was intended as the novel is told from Maya's perspective and emphasizes on how alien her brother has become to her. Maya's ambivalent relationship to love, marriage and religion were the highlight of the novel for me and yet, sometimes I couldn't fully understand her and it frustrated me. I felt like I was on the verge of discovering something amazing but never really got to that point where you're carried away by the plot and characters.

The whole point of this reading challenge is to learn more about foreign countries, their geographies, histories, religions and cultures and in that sense, reading The Good Muslim has helped me realize how very little I knew about Bangladesh and despite my frustrations, I did learn quite a bit. While reading I frequently googled words, events, etc. in an attempt to gain this background knowledge that I severely lacked. I grew even more frustrated when I realized that had I chosen to read A Golden Age which takes place during the war with Pakistan, I wouldn't have had to do so and I probably would have enjoyed this second novel much more, or at least given it a fair chance.

I've been putting off writing this review because I'm always a bit wary of posting a negative review. I know how much work goes into producing a novel and I respect authors too much to just go around claiming their work is crap. And it's really not that The Good Muslim is not a good novel, it's just unfortunately one that I failed to connect with for various different reasons.

This also came at a time when Shannon's cleverly summed up the ongoing debate about the legitimacy of bloggers and their rights to call their posts "reviews". I have been maintaining this blog for eight years and needless to say that the entries posted when I was 17 are very different from the ones that I'm posting now and that will probably be true in eight more years. Some bloggers change platforms regularly and like to reinvent their blogs so they fit the need of the moment. I've chosen to have the blog evolve but not the platform. I'm not terribly proud of some of those old entries and re-reading them I often wince at some of the wording I used to describe my reaction to a novel or have simply changed my mind on a given topic but they reflect who I was and what I thought at the time.

But let's not go off on a tangent as the heart of the argument is: can you call a blog post a review if you're not a professional reviewer? I've often wondered how legitimate was my opinion or anyone else's really? Does my perception weigh more because I work in publishing or because I studied literature at University? I honestly do not think so. In the end, it all comes down to reactions, sensations and feelings and explaining them. Negative reviews have never stopped me from reading a novel. I generally try to evaluate how much I have in common with the reviewer to see if the things that bothered them would affect me in the same way.

To conclude this all-over-the-place review (should I really call it that?), while I didn't enjoy The Good Muslim as much as I thought I would, I honestly don't think that should stop anyone else from reading it. In fact, I think future readers should learn from my mistakes and either do a bit of research or even better begin with the author's first novel.

I also recommend viewing the video that's available on the author's website.

So now that I'm more than a month behind on this challenge and that I have the London Book Fair coming up, it's going to be tricky catching up and I'm not really sure how best to proceed. For now, I am in need of a pause because I need to be reading as many manuscripts as I can in the next two weeks. I'll pick this up again post-fair and go from there. I had planned on reading Miguel Angel Asturias's Hombres de Mais / Men of Maize as Guatemala is March's selection. The plan was to read it in Spanish too but I think I'm being a tad ambitious there. I'm afraid I'll have to reschedule that one and perhaps read it when things get a bit more quiet at work.

Book Review: Redemption in Indigo

Title: Redemption in Indigo
Author: Karen Lord
Genre: Speculative Fiction
Originally published: 2010
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Pages: 224

This read was for the 2012 Theme Park book club, February theme: Black Women Writing Speculative Fiction.

Karen Lord’s debut novel, which won the prestigious Frank Collymore Literary Prize in Barbados, is an intricately woven tale of adventure, magic, and the power of the human spirit.

Paama’s husband is a fool and a glutton. Bad enough that he followed her to her parents’ home in the village of Makende, now he’s disgraced himself by murdering livestock and stealing corn. When Paama leaves him for good, she attracts the attention of the undying ones—the djombi—who present her with a gift: the Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world. Unfortunately, a wrathful djombi with indigo skin believes this power should be his and his alone.

Bursting with humor and rich in fantastic detail, Redemption in Indigo is a clever, contemporary fairy tale that introduces readers to a dynamic new voice in Caribbean literature. Lord’s world of spider tricksters and indigo immortals, inspired in part by a Senegalese folk tale, will feel instantly familiar—but Paama’s adventures are fresh, surprising, and utterly original.

Here's another book I'd been meaning to read since its release and it probably would have taken me a lot longer to get to if it hadn't been selected for the Theme Park book club (I need to remember this whenever I feel like I've taken up more than I can chew when it comes to reading challenges and book clubs this year... I am swamped but it's all worth it!). Karen Lord's debut novel has received and been nominated for a ridiculous number of awards (World Fantasy Award, Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, William L. Crawford Award, among many others) but really let's face it, it's mainly Nalo Hopkinson's quote that made it a must-read for me: "The impish love child of Tutuola and García Márquez. Utterly delightful."

So of course I was one happy camper when this turned out to be selection for February! And I was not disappointed.

Karen Lord's novel relies strongly on both Caribbean and Senegalese folklore, both being inexhaustible resources for speculative fiction writers that are sadly too seldom tapped into. Redemption in Indigo tells the tale of one remarkable and yet ordinary woman, her encounter with djombi, which seem to be halfway between poltergeists and skin walkers, and the choices she is consequently faced with. This short and yet dense novel is written in an uncluttered style. I don't think it holds a word too many. It's subtle, sensible and unexpectedly humorous.

Much as in the oral tradition, the novel is as much about the characters and the plot than it is about the way it is recounted. In fact, the narrator soon becomes a character in his own right. I generally find it difficult to get into written stories when the narrator is too intrusive. For some reason, it feels a bit like I'm getting a glimpse at what's taking place behind the curtain. Note that I don't have that problem with oral stories for some reason but I've not often felt that it transcribed well in the written form. It can easily sound forced and awkward. Not here though, the story is constantly tainted by the narrator, his interruptions and explanations, the unheard comments from his audience who disagree or would like him to expand on certain points. It almost felt like a work in progress, demanding the intervention of the audience. And although the narrator does not necessarily enjoy these interruptions, he does take them into account. It's something that I've previously encountered in other forms, in speculative fiction works written by black women although it's clearly not a process limited to this demographic group. But back to the novel, the process makes the novel engaging, especially because the narrator has dry sense of humor.

I always try to do a bit of research before putting together a review, I read other reviews but most of all I read bit and pieces of the author's blog (if they have one) and also interviews. I feel like they give me a better sense of what tools the author drew upon to write his/her novel, what message they were trying to convey and it's always interesting to compare all this with my own personal impressions. I guess it's my background in research showing there. Anyway, I came upon this wonderful conversation between Karen Lord and Nalo Hopkinson that I found fascinating on many levels. It's about an hour long but at some point, while discussing oral tradition, the authors mention Paul Keens-Douglas whom I hadn't previously heard of but whose performances are hilarious (there are tons on youtube if you're curious). Anyway, Karen Lord quotes him as an influence and I could really see how absolutely amazing it would have been had Keens-Douglas narrated the audio edition of the novel. At any rate, I can see why the novel would make a great audio book anyway.

Despite the importance of the narrator, Paama's character remains central to the story. Her character could easily have been the fourth of Marie N'Diaye's Three Strong Women. Paama is indeed strong and not because of the Chaos Stick. Her strength and power reside in the fact that she's managed to remain true to herself and maintain her identity despite difficult circumstances. The appearance of the Chaos Stick and the Indigo Lord challenge that of course, but it's because of her inner strength and because she keeps on believing in the importance of choosing one's path, even when one has very limited power, that in the end she turns out to be wiser than a thousand year old supernatural creature.

The novel also holds a great many other secondary characters that I'd enjoy learning more about (I believe there was talks of a sequel at some point): the Trickster of course, but also the sisters and Patience. The novel's ending comes almost too soon and I don't want to spoil it but let's just say that when some writers would probably have taken the most evident route and turned the Indigo Lord into Paama's love interest, Karen Lord has other things in mind and it works that much better.

Redemption in Indigo is a delightful little gem filled with humor and colorful characters, that weaves in Caribbean and African folklore. You're never quite sure where Karen Lord is taking you but you'll come to trust her grumpy and sarcastic narrator.

Brief Update

I had it all planned out before I went on holiday: I was going to finish reading Redemption in Indigo for calico_reaction's Theme Park book club (this is actually the only thing that I managed to do), read The Good Muslim for Shannon's Around the World in 12 Books challenge, write both reviews and also read a few things for work... well 10 days and a food poisoning later, I'm really behind and haven't even started reading The Good Muslim! I hope to get my review of Redemption in Indigo (which I greatly enjoyed!) up this week.

That's it for now but hopefully more very soon!


Book Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Title: Zoo City
Author: Lauren Beukes
Genre: Science Fiction
Originally published: 2010
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 256

French title: Zoo City
French Publisher: Eclipse
Publication date: 2011
Translated by: Laurent Philibert-Caillat

This read was for the 2012 Around the World in 12 Books Reading Challenge hosted by Shannon at Giraffe Days (January: South Africa)

Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things. But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job – missing persons.

Being hired by reclusive music producer Odi Huron to find a teenybop pop star should be her ticket out of Zoo City, the festering slum where the criminal underclass and their animal companions live in the shadow of hell’s undertow.

Instead, it catapults Zinzi deeper into the maw of a city twisted by crime and magic, where she’ll be forced to confront the dark secrets of former lives – including her own.

As many will know, Zoo City is the 2011 winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and its film rights were optioned a few months ago, but South African Lauren Beukes's novel had been the center of attention long before that. So, Shannon's reading challenge was merely an excuse to get this title at the top of my reading pile... and the very attractive price of the ebook edition on the Angry Robot ebook store finished convincing me. While it took me a while to get into it, Zoo City lived up to its high expectations!

Zinzi December lives in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, in a world very similar to ours except for the magic and/or science. I've read elsewhere that the novel takes place in near future dystopian South Africa but since the novel takes place in 2010, I suppose parallel dystopian South Africa is more accurate. At any rate, the world changed with the appearance of an "Afghan warlord and a penguin" (as Zinzi puts it), marking the appearance of aposymbiotism. Individuals who have committed various levels of crimes and misdemeanors are faced with the appearance of an animal with whom they have a special psychic connection and from which they cannot be separated. Some will be reminded of Philip Pullman's dæmons in His Dark Materials, but I suppose familiars are fairly common in speculative fiction... don't get me wrong, nothing in Zoo City is "common" or rehash. With the animal comes the threat of the Undertow and also the manifestation of a unique talent.

Zinzi has Sloth and a talent for finding lost things.... and also another talent for getting herself into shitty situations but I guess there wouldn't be a story otherwise! Aposymbiotics or zoos as they are referred to, live on the outskirts of society. While their living conditions are not exactly ideal, zoos living in South Africa are not nearly as bad off as zoos in other less liberal countries where they are openly experimented on, mistreated, tortured and killed. Still, zoos are clearly perceived as stained and once an animal is at your side, there's no turning back or even simply going on living your normal life. Accommodation will become impossible to find in certain areas, not to mention jobs.

Zoo City is a dark thriller that depicts an urban South Africa where technology intersects with magic and culture. It's fascinating in the way it mixes science fictional elements with an urban fantasy setting: voodoo in slums, magic with a scientific explanation. One example would be the sangoma that Zinzi consults at some points in the novel. This practitioner of traditional African medicine has a D&G logo on his vest and a cell phone which in case your didn't know, really comes in handy when you need to get in touch with the other side:

"I didn't know the ancestors were SMSin now."
"No, he call
s me. The spirits find it easier with technology. It's not so clogged as human minds [...] data is like water - the spirits can move through it. That's why you get a prickly feeling around cellphone towers."
"And here I thought it was the radiation."

While I've never been to South Africa, I have had the opportunity to travel to other African countries and while each was very different, one thing that struck me pretty much everywhere was this strange combination of tradition and modernity. For example, I often saw women dressed in traditional outfits, driving a scouter, a designer bag on their shoulder. Zoo City clearly illustrates these interesting multi-layered identities, these intersections between multiple cultures and it also throws in a nice bit of magic in the mix.

The existence of zoos, or rather the appearance of their mashavi (their animal) is what I found to be most fascinating. While scientists have tried to explain their origin and sudden appearance, while they have applied technical terms such as "aposymbiots", there is really no explanation for their existence. Is it a spreading virus? Has the phenomenon always existed but at a smaller scale? Is global communications responsible for its spread? Is the Undertow a black hole that swallows whole the zoos when it's their time? Or is it the hand of God that's come to punish sinners?

No real explanation is given although many interpretations, both scientific and religious, are put forth. One character ventures:

"Maybe that's all your talent is for, a distraction to keep you preoccupied until the blackness comes rushing in."

To be honest, Zinzi and the other zoos have other problems to deal with and are not too concerned with the origin of this mysterious condition. They are more concerned by its immediate consequences and how it affect every aspect of their lives, putting them in a precarious situation, regardless of their race, gender and social background. Zoo is a new class of its own.

I must admit that I first struggled with Zoo City's first person narration. Everything is so alien, you're not sure what you're stepping into. Lauren Beukes doesn't take her reader by the hand, she dumps you in Zoo City and leaves you to fend for yourself and piece together the background story. Like any new zoo, you'd better figure it out fast and by yourself in order to survive. While I'm always grateful for limited info dumps, this process can put off some readers. Should that be the case, do persevere because it's well worth it! There's a lot going on in those 256 pages, this is dense novel, nothing in there is superficial. 

Zinzi's character is not your coy heroine; she's guile, cynical and morally dubious at the best of times. But that only makes the novel's first person narration all the more witty and engaging (if you're a fan of dark humor which I am).

Context is provided by a series of interview transcripts, scientific reports and other supports that nicely complement Zinzi's story. All those elements add something raw, real and almost authentic to the novel. In a strange way, despite its parallel dystopian setting, Zoo City is very much anchored in the now. This is also helped by the bits of South African slang, the various references to contemporary musical artists and pop culture that are spread throughout the novel.This is somewhat unusual in scifi (less so in urban fantasy I suppose) which is either grounded in fandom with a lot of geeky allusions or projected so far in the future that it wouldn't make any sense to include references to pop culture.

When I started reading Zoo City, I wasn't really sure if it fully qualified for Shannon's challenge which mainly aimed at discovering or learning more about a country, its culture, history and geography. Zoo City taking place in a futuristic Johannesburg, I didn't really know how much I was going to learn about contemporary South Africa. However, Lauren Beukes's projection of Johannesburg, while subjective and somewhat pessimistic, tells a lot about the issues the country has faced in the past and is still currently facing. The lady is in her own words a "recovering journalist" and perhaps this is the reason why social awareness is such an integral part of her writing. I read in an interview that a lot of research was done on the actual inner city slum of Hillbrow, as well as interviews of immigrants, refugees and social outcasts, so I do believe that her descriptions of life in the slums fairly reflect reality.

Zoo City is not novel about the apartheid although racial issues do crop up here and there. While the treatment of zoos is clearly an allegory of xenophobia and zoos are stigmatized, forced to carry their guilt for all to see, the focus seems to be more on class than race. Like in current Western societies (post-racial societies as some call it but there's a whole other debate here, isn't there?), racism is not quite as open and transpires in more vicious ways in everyday life.

Interestingly enough, I'm currently reading the memoirs of a white Englishman who grew up in South Africa during the years of the apartheid. So this has turned out to be a very South African month for me (though I've dragged it well into February) and I'm approaching this in a somewhat backwards manner... from the future to the past and also from fiction to non-fiction. Still, while the novel's events are not in any way tied to the apartheid, the memoir is adding some nice insights into the country's history (and also making it painstakingly clear how little I actually know about the apartheid!).

Zoo City is an ambitious and audacious novel that lives up to all the buzz around it and that I would highly recommend.

One note on the covers, while my preference goes to the UK cover (black and white cover which I think is super cool), I'm quite happy that the US cover displays a character of color. I thought it worth noting after the last years' cover-fails.

Title: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Author: Charles Yu
Genre: Science Fiction
Originally published: 2011
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 256

This read was for the 2012 Theme Park book club, January theme: Genre in Mainstream.

From a 5 Under 35 winner, comes a razor-sharp, hilarious, and touching story of a son searching for his father... through quantum space-time.
Every day in Minor Universe 31 people get into time machines and try to change the past. That's where Charles Yu, time travel technician, steps in. He helps save people from themselves. Literally. When he's not taking client calls, Yu visits his mother and searches for his father, who invented time travel and then vanished. The key to locating his father may be found in a book. It's called
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and somewhere inside it is information that will help him. It may even save his life.

I'm not sure how to start reviewing this novel. To be perfectly honest, I probably wouldn't have turned to this title if it weren't for the Theme Park book club even though I'd vaguely heard positive things about it before. The title was what put me off as it gave me the feeling that it was a non fiction science fiction title, like some sort of textbook and not an actual novel. Boy was I wrong! So this just goes to prove that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover and that book clubs are good for you.

Where to start? Well, perhaps I should begin by saying that while I enjoyed this thoroughly and found it to be brilliant and original, I do think it's not a novel that will appeal to everyone. It's a bit of a non identified literary object and you have to give it a chance to blow your mind because trust me, it will... and literally at times. It's one of those novels where you need to accept that not everything is going to make sense in the beginning... not the end for that matter. It's not perfect but it is unique.

Some readers, especially non SF readers, might be put off by the scientific jargon, as it can be overwhelming in the first few pages. But this is not Jules Vernes describing in details the workings of his balloon for an entire chapter. Charles Yu's time traveling is an idea, a concept that serves the narration more than actual HG Wells time traveling. To my surprise, I found the novel to be more voice driven and introspective than plot driven, especially in the final chapters as Charles Yu (the character) desperately reminisces on his relationship with his father. But the novel's scientific concepts allow for interesting questions on determinism, memory and perception.

In that regard, I understand why the book was part of the book club's January selection which theme was "Genre in Mainstream". That is not to say that it's not science fiction, it clearly is and as it's taking place in a science fictional universe, there are various references to science fiction authors (Ursula K. LeGuin and Heinlein, for example) and science fiction universes (such as Star Wars) but also just random geeky things. It is an ode to geekism. But it's the book's intricate narrative, voice and introspection, not the science, that make it experimental and unique.

Here are few interesting quotes:

"Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward" (page 27)

"Time is a machine: it will convert your pain into experience. Raw data will be compiled, will be translated into a more comprehensible language. The individual events of your life will be transmuted into another substance called memory and in the mechanism something will be lost and you will never be able to reverse it, you will never again have the original moment back in its uncategorized, preprocessed state. It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter." (page 51)

Equally as fascinating is the fact that Charles Yu (the character) is at some point given the very book we are reading by his future self, whom he shoots, thus becoming stuck in a time loop. Before collapsing, his future self tells him that the key is in the book. Charles Yu (the character) then runs away in his time machine and slowly realizes that he has to write the book to be able to give it to his past self when we comes out of his time machine and be shot so as not to create a time paradox. Thanks to voice recording systems and various other hi tech gadgets in the time machine, a copy of the book is actually being written as Charles Yu (the character) is reading it. So that means that the very book we're reading has no real origin, it's a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, etc... as there's no way of knowing how long Charles Yu has actually been in this time loop... metafiction indeed. This leads to some interesting questionings:

"I am typing what appears to be somewhat digressive and extemporaneous rambling, all of which is starting to make me have serious doubts in terms of the whole free will versus determinism situation" (page 89)

"The book is just like the concept of the 'present', is a fiction. Which isn't to say it's not real. It's as real as anything else in this science fiction universe. As real as you are." (page 160)

I'm not even going to pretend that I got everything happening in this crazy metaphorical metafiction. The novel is short but engaging and can easily be read on several levels. I was pleasantly surprised by the emotional resonance and the description of the touching father and son relationship. Despite its unappealing title, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a strange and unique reading experience, well-worth forcing yourself in the beginning should you initially find it a bit difficult.

More reviews and discussion on this title.
Title: Trois Femmes Puissantes
Author: Marie NDiaye
Genre: Mainstream
Originally published: 2009
Publisher: Gallimard
Pages: 316

English translation: Three Strong Women
First translated: April 2012
Publisher: MacLehose Press

This read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 21st century novel.

Forty-year-old Norah leaves Paris, her family and her career as a lawyer to visit her father in Dakar. It is an uncomfortable reunion - she is asked to use her skills as a lawyer to get her brother out of prison - and ultimately the trip endangers her marriage and her relationship with her own daughter, and drives her to the very edge of madness. Fanta, on the other hand, leaves Dakar to follow her husband Rudy to rural France. And it is through Rudy's bitter and guilt-ridden perspective that we see Fanta stagnate with boredom in this alien, narrow environment. Khady is forced into exile from Senegal because of poverty, because her husband is dead, because she is lonely and in despair. With other illegal immigrants, she embarks on a journey which takes her nowhere, but from which she will never return.

There were quite a few books I wanted to read in the 21st century category. I picked this one for several reasons, one of which being that having studied African-American literature and especially African-American women writers, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at what black women were doing in France. Second of all, the author was involved in some sort of scandal (at least that's what the press called it) for having spoken her mind on Sarkozy's election. Not exactly being a fan of the man himself, I couldn't help but sympathize. Also, it didn't hurt that it'd won the Goncourt in 2009.

Marie NDiaye is a woman of color struggling with her black inheritance (if there is such a thing). The lady was born in Pithiviers which is not too far from where I used to live in France and believe me, there's NOTHING exotic about Pithiviers. Her Senegalese father returned to his native country when she was a year old and since then, she's only seen him three times. In fact, Trois Femmes Puissantes is the only novel of hers in which she mentions Africa. Was I being prejudiced when I picked this book for the reasons mentioned above? Most certainly, and I clearly wasn't the only one (not that it makes it okay in any way, mind you!) as Marie NDiaye has often had to explain her strange situation in the face of her black inheritance and has even come up with the phrase "truncated mixity" which is quite interesting: Marie NDiaye doesn't feel that she can be referred to as African or even as mixed as there was no one to pass on any "African" knowledge or culture to her as she was growing up. It's an interesting perspective that probably deserves to be debated but I guess what it basically mean is: "I may be a black woman but my books are not all going to take place in Africa, I want to be free of your expectations in that regard, free to write what I feel like writing, Africa or no Africa"... which is fair enough and really something most black women writers could relate to, truncated inheritance or not.

At any rate, Africa or no Africa, I really enjoyed reading Trois Femmes Puissantes and I'm surprised that even winning a prestigious European literary prize doesn't mean that foreign fiction will be translated into English quickly. When I see foreign publishers struggling to match US or UK publications for fear that their readers will have gone to read the English edition instead of waiting for the translation, I'm always amazed and a bit sad to see that English speaking editors clearly do not have the same concerns.

But back to the book... Marie NDiaye's prose is quite distinctive. Having only read this one title, it's hard to know if it's her usual style or just a one-time experiment for TFP. I'm quite tempted by the former explanation possibility though. Her sentences are long, very long sometimes (I had to adapt my read-as-I-walk pace!). In fact, they're not so much sentences as stanzas at times. It nicely complements the touches of magical realism spread throughout the narrative and also highlight the poetic metaphors and recurring images that travel from one section of the novel to the next (as you might have guessed there are three sections to this book). These images sometimes echo the meaning they had in the previous section, but more often than not their meaning changes subtly. I'm especially thinking about the use of that of the bird which can translate into vengeance or a harbinger of death.

TFP revolves around three main characters: Norah who's come back to Senegal following her father's request, Fanta who's left Senegal years ago and now lives a mediocre life in France with her alienated husband, and Khady, the most touching of all three, who's forced into exile by her in-laws following the death of her husband.

All three stories reveal each woman's inner strength by showing that despite past and present circumstances, they are not altered at their core. They know who they are and what they are capable of and no father, brother, husband, child or other can change this. They give, take, love, are betrayed, break down and fall, die but deep down inside they retain their humanity.

While I had clear preference for Norah's storyline (I would really have wanted to read more of it), the book's overall strength resides in its diversity. These three stories are told in very different ways. While there are strong touches of magical realism in Norah's story and she's very concerned with other people's behavior and intentions, their perception of herself and also the past, Fanta's character is solely described through the eyes of her husband Rudy, and Khady is the most self-aware and self-sufficient character of them all although her story is quite a tragic one.

I really enjoyed reading this novel and would recommend it to anyone looking for something original, something touching and poetic but also strong and determined.

This concludes the Dame de Lettres reading challenge on French woman writers throughout the ages hosted by Céline at Le Blog Bleu. It was really interesting and I'm glad to have discovered all these authors. It also made me realize how many other French author I've yet to read. It felt a bit like being back at Uni and well, if I could have stayed there and made my life one long string of masters and doctoral dissertations I probably would have.  

Other reviews for this challenge:

Mémoires de la vie d'Henriette-Sylvie de Molière de Madame de Villedieu
Adèle de Senange by Madame de Souza
La Mare au Diable by George Sand
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
Title: Bonjour Tristesse
Author: Françoise Sagan
Genre: French classics
Originally published: 1954
Publisher: Julliard
Pages: 162

English translation: Bonjour Tristesse
First translated: 1955

This read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 20th century novel.

Cecile leads a hedonistic, frivolous life with her father and his young mistresses. On holiday in the South of France, she is seduced by the sun, the sand and her first lover. But when her father decides to remarry, their carefree existence becomes clouded by tragedy. United by the theme of love, the writings in the "Great Loves" series span over two thousand years and vastly different worlds. Readers will be introduced to love's endlessly fascinating possibilities and extremities: romantic love, platonic love, erotic love, gay love, virginal love, adulterous love, parental love, filial love, nostalgic love, unrequited love, illicit love, not to mention lost love, twisted and obsessional love...

While I haven't totally completed this reading challenge I think Françoise Sagan might just be the greatest discovery that's come out of it! I instantly fell in love with her voice and style which have something airy, casual and nonchalant but are always precise and spot on. There's something effortless that transpires from Bonjour Tristesse, a novel she wrote at the age of 18 and which mainly focuses on the discovery of female sexuality in the fifties.

I read the whole think in one seating on the plane. Granted it's a short novel but I was quite literally glued to the page from start to finish.

Bonjour Tristesse is the story of seventeen year old Cécile who lives with her father, a widower for the past fifteen year and who indulges in women and alcohol. Together, they have fun, attend a number of parties and drink too much. It's now Summer; Cécile has failed her latest exams but isn't really bothered by it (neither seems to be her father). They've rented a villa in the South of France, right on the ocean, lazying in the sun and their nights clubbing. Cécile's father has brought along his mistress of the moment, Elsa. Days go by, and the trio seem happy and content. Cécile meets Cyril, a young man with whom she goes sailing. Their lazy bubble bursts upon the arrival of an old family friend, Anne Carsen.

Anne was a friend of Cécile's mother and when Cécile first came out of boarding school two years before, she spent the first few weeks with Anne who clothed her and made sure the girl knew how to behave in society. Anne is everything Cécile's father is not: balanced, classy, constant and also perhaps condescending at times. While Cécile clearly admires her, she's also a bit scared of her and knows that Anne's arrival marks the end of the Summer, or at least of her holidays.

To sum up the following events without giving too much away: Cécile's father grows clearly interested in Anne and his mistress Elsa is no competition for the mature and elegant woman. Elsa moves out, Cécile's father announces his engagement to Anne and the latter starts to meddle in Cécile's life, locking her in her room when she misbehaves and forcing her to study. Cécile then starts elaborating a scheme to rid herself and her father of Anne, manipulating her father, Elsa and Cyril, all to a tragic end. Throughout the novel, Cécile is clearly torn between her feelings for Anne and her longing for the easiness of her old life with her father and his many mistresses.

Several times, she tries to back out but is either too lazy to do so and in too deep to do anything about it.

I fear I may have already given too much away so will stop now. What I can say is that while there is a plot, it's Cécile's voice (the novel's told in the first person) that drove the entire novel. It made it intense intimate and striking. I can see how the novel's theme could have caused quite a scandal in the fifties when it was first published but there's nothing provoking about it as it merely voices what is there and is honest without trying too hard to be ground-breaking and thought-provoking. And it's perhaps for these very reasons that it is.

It's interesting to watch Cécile's growing feelings for Cyril, her inner conflicts and external conflicts with Anne who's really just trying to give her a bit of stability and balance and be the adult Cécile's father can't live up to be. Anne is also a woman, who's clearly fallen for Cécile's father like so many other women before her but hoping that this time, he will be able to commit and stick to his promises.

I think it's one of those novels that can easily be read over and over again at different stages in life and the reader will be sure to discover something new each time. I wonder how I would've perceived it ten years ago and if I would've enjoyed studying it in high school. It's one I highly recommend and I'll be sure to read more of this author in the coming years.

Other reviews for this challenge:

Mémoires de la vie d'Henriette-Sylvie de Molière de Madame de Villedieu
Adèle de Senange by Madame de Souza
La Mare au Diable by George Sand
Trois Femmes Puissantes by Marie NDiaye
Happy New Year everyone!

Here at the Honeyed Knot, 2011 has not quite come to a close as I have yet to post all my reviews of the French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge. It's good that Céline granted us challengers an extension so I have got until the end of January to post three more reviews including the one below! And then I'll start on 2012 for which I've already sign up for two reading challenges... clearly biting off more than I can chew but that's material for another post.

Title: La Mare Au Diable
Author: George Sand
Genre: French classics
Originally published: 1846
Pages: 272

English translation: The Devil's Pool
First translated: 1901

This read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 19th century novel.

This novel is one of the French classics you are meant to study in school so I am not quite sure how it happened that I had to wait for Céline's reading challenge before I got around to reading it!

La Mare au Diable can be acquired in pretty much any French bookstore from your tiny local one to the big Fnac and should not cost you over two Euros. Quite a nice change from the other books I had to track down for this challenge and it's also a nice proof (if any was needed) that Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin, aka George Sand, is a writer that has left its impact on French readers and literature.

I think many foreigners have heard of George Sand, a woman ahead of her times, if perhaps not for her literary talent, at least for her unconventional lifestyle (namely cross-dressing and extramarital affairs). In fact, I think her life is as fascinating as her fiction but that would really be the topic of another post so let's get back on track.

La Mare au Diable is a short novel, part of a series that is referred to as George Sand's "champêtre" novels, set in the countryside of her native Berry region which was dear to the author. The novel is a criticism of certain simplistic and stereotypical perception of countryside folks and clearly aims at giving a more accurate and flattering portrayal of farmers and people raised and living in rural environments. Over the course of 130 pages, George Sand depicts these people as experiencing a wide range of complex emotions, emphasizing the notions of justice and morality. It's worth mentioning that this of course ties in perfectly with George Sand's socialist views as she had very liberal political views.

The novel opens on the depiction of an engraving by Holbein and the author's reflections on the land, the balance between nature and death. The narration then zooms in on a young farmer, Germain, widower, father of three, who works hard on his father-in-law's land. Germain is a handsome fellow in his late twenties who sincerely mourns his wife, Catherine, and has so far expressed no desire to remarry. However, his father-in-law, Father Maurine, who appears as the omnipresent, god-like father figure in the novel, is always ready to strike a good deal. Father Maurice has a lady in mind, and should Germain find her to his liking, the resulting union could bring some more than welcomed assets to the family. Since Germain has no financial wealth of his own and that his three children are being raised by their aging grandmother and Catherine's sisters and sisters-in-law, he accepts to go and meet this woman, who's also a widow and who lives several kilometers away. Germain is a good natured man, quite happy to surrender to his father-in-law's keen sense of business and profit, provided the lady pleases him. He also sees how remarrying would benefit his children and release his mother-in-law and sisters-in-law of the burden of raising them. On the day prior to his departure, it is decided that Germain will also travel with sixteen year old Marie who's to start working in a farm close to where Germain is heading, as her mother and herself desperately need the money.

As they set off, events take an unexpected turn. Germain and Marie are delayed by the appearance of little Pierre, German's eldest son who is about seven years old. Little Pierre disobeyed his grandfather and run off as he was too upset at the idea of being left behind by his father. The group's progression is slowed down by the presence of this uninvited fellow and because Little Pierre soon grows hungry they stop in a tavern, adding further delay to their journey. The travelers then come across a pond and decide to stop for a rest, again on Little Pierre's account as the child now grows tired. As the boy falls asleep, Marie and Germain start chatting and the reader can only presume that the characters have reached the pond that is referred to as the devil's pool. Indeed, the landscape's changed and acquired a nearly supernatural element (veiled moon, fog, etc.). Later, as the travelers try to set off again and walk for several hours before ending up right where they'd started, at the devil's pool. As it seems best to wait for daylight before setting off again, they decide to spend the night near the pond. 

Germain spends a difficult night torn between his growing feelings for Marie, which has turned out to be very resourceful during this trip, taking care of Little Pierre, all the while putting together a decent meal when all is thought lost. Witty, clever and down-to-earth Marie appears as a nothing short of a good fairy. However, Germain's feelings appear to be one-sided as he confesses his love to the young girl. The novel takes drastic turn, while during its first half, Germain's quest seemed to be dominated by reason, the second half sees his feelings taking over.

As it is later revealed, Marie is also undergoing an inner transformation although she's trying very hard not to give in to her feelings. During this trip, Marie will grow from young girl to woman. This is perhaps pure speculation on my part as I have not read nearly enough titles published around that period to properly claim this, but it certainly feels like George Sand is somewhat feminizing the traditional quest by adding Marie's perspective and personal growth to the narrative.

By the time Germain reaches his destination (he's parted ways with Marie and left Little Pierre in her care for a few hours), his quest has clearly changed and we don't expect him to find anything where he's headed. And indeed, the widow Guérin is presented as a haughty and spoiled woman who already has quite a number of suitors. Seeing this, Germain lies about his presence there, claiming he's only in town to purchase a pair of bulls for his father-in-law. I admit that while I understand the reasons why the widow has to be depicted in a negative light so as to make the reader regret Mary, I grew slightly annoyed at what Germain's held against her. The widow Guérin is lucky enough to have a second chance at life, after the death of her husband and if we assume that her first marriage was not one of love, as it was often the case, one can certainly understand why she would be taking her time this time around, exploring all of her options. But all these reasons do not seem to make it in Germain's reflection as all his thoughts are bent towards Marie as he keeps opposing Marie's simple manners to the widow Guérin's fake sophistication.

Meanwhile, Marie is experiencing some trouble of her own. Still accompanied by Little Pierre, Marie soon flees her new employer, who clearly had other things on his mind when he hired her and who's portrayed as the devil himself. The little group is reunited again at the pond, although Marie's employer has followed them. If he is the devil, Marie appears as the Virgin and Germain as the figure of Saint George. His confrontation between the two men feels like the reenactment of the mythical between Saint George and the dragon. This marks the social elevation of Germain's character and also coincides with Marie's realization of her feelings for Germain which she'll admit at the end of the novel. At any rate, Saint George is a strong figure in rural folklore, especially for George Sand as she's taken on his name.

An old lady also makes an appearance, her description will inevitably remind the reader of that of a witch but she's the one to name the pond and explain that none will find their way away from it at night.

Once they find their way home safely, despite social obstacles, Marie and Germain find their way to one another. Thanks to Little Pierre's intervention (who on more than one occasion seems to stand for divine intervention with his angelic features) and thanks to Germain's father-in-law's kindness and understanding, their marriage is celebrated by the entire village.

La Mare au Diable includes a strange mix of pagan ideology (witches, fairies and supernatural setting) and Christian elements. In many ways, it's an idealized depiction of farmers but a very liberal one nevertheless considering the fact it was written in 1846. It's social aim is clear, so is its spiritual and mystical aim, with its strong focus on morality and pious values, and its romantic sensibility that implies that an individual can be at one with nature.

Other reviews for this challenge:

Mémoires de la vie d'Henriette-Sylvie de Molière de Madame de Villedieu
Adèle de Senange by Madame de Souza
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
Trois Femmes Puissantes by Marie NDiaye

Interview: Kersten Hamilton

For those of you who haven't started reading Kersten Hamilton's Goblin Wars series, I would urge you to go and do so, especially now that the ebook version of Tyger, Tyger, the first book in the series, is currently on sale for only $2.99. If you need a quick reminder, here are my reviews of Book 1 Tyger, Tyger, and Book 2 In the Forests of the Night. Also see below the official book trailer.

As I've now said on multiple occasions, I cannot recommend this series enough but this post is the chance to let the lovely Kersten Hamilton herself convince you! Kersten's agreed to reply to a few questions for The Honeyed Knot!


I believe your previous published works included several picture books and a series of middle grade novels. The Goblin War series seems to be your first attempt at a YA series. How did you prepare yourself as a writer to address a different age group? Is there a particular reason why you decided to turn to the fantasy genre for this new writing
project? Or is it all just a question of marketing?

It was all a question of time. I have wanted to tell this story since I was ten years old. I had to wait until my children were out of the house before I could settle into it, though. When I am writing, I am very, very focused, to the point that the rest of the world becomes a shadow land. While my children were at home I limited myself to writing picture books and MG novels so that I wouldn’t disappear from this reality completely. Even so, the children only survived because they learned to call out for pizza at a very early age.

The Goblin Wars was planted in my heart when I met Lina in George MacDonald’s book The Princess and the Goblin. Lina was a hideous creature with green eyes lit by amber fire, and a huge mouth with icicle–like teeth. Curdie, the hero of the story, could
feel the real hand of the real creature inside its flesh glove. When Lina put her paw in his hand: “a shudder, as of terrified delight,
ran through him…instead of the paw of a dog, such as it seemed to his eyes, he clasped in his great mining fist the soft, neat little hand of a child! The green eyes stared at him with their yellow light, and the mouth was turned up toward him with its constant half grin; but here was the child’s hand!”

When I read those lines I knew I wanted to pull a child out of a goblin one day.

Goblins are not generally portrayed in a positive light in fantasy so it's highly unusual to decide that your main character is going to be part Goblin. Talk about multiculturalism! The second book in the series, In The Forests of the Night, particularly focuses on the dilemma between inheritance and education, i.e. genetics versus experience. Is this a topic that's particularly close to your heart or am I just reading into your prose this dilemma that's particularly close to mine?

It is close to my heart. I’ve told the story of getting the idea for the Goblin Wars series from MacDonald’s book many times. But what I haven’t said is: I didn’t relate to Curdie, the hero in that scene. I related to Lina, the goblin beast. When I read it, I suddenly understood why the world treated me the way it did. I was at least as distressing as Lina on the outside. I was very, very poor and unkempt. I had no mother to look after me. I had crooked teeth and no health care. My father chopped off my hair and dressed me  in my brothers’ hand–me–downs. I did my own laundry in a bathtub, so I didn’t smell very nice. Add to this the fact that I am a dysgraphic dyslexic—and it was a perfect storm. When people looked at me they saw a dirty, smelly, retarded child. No one knew what was inside me. No one cared to find out.

My childhood taught me to be still and listen to people, to wait and discover what and who they are on the inside—no matter what they look like. And it gave me something to prove. I hope I never write a character who doesn’t manage to surprise readers with
something magical they have hidden inside.

One of the many things I'm enjoying in the series is the way Teagan and Finn's relationship is portrayed in a believable way. They know being together is not going to be easy, they are aware of their differences and of how little they know one another. They're also aware that Teagan's father has a say in the matter. Unfortunately, this seems to be a bit of a rarity in YA fantasy, where teenagers meet, fall in love at first sight and the whole relationship appears solely based on looks and appearances and parents are generally quickly whisked out of the way. What do you think about this trend in most YA paranormal romance series? Are believable romantic relationships between teenagers too scary or
difficult to comprehend for the reading audience?

I think the lack of family leads to shallow characters and superficial stories. Part of the reason I chose Celtic mythology was because of their sense of family as community. It is very different from our Western/American ‘loner’ meme.

In our culture, and most of our stories, we make the hero a loner and a rebel. But in the Celtic tradition, no one makes a hero’s journey alone. The Celts believed that we can only journey in companionship. Everyone needs at least one anam cara—a soul friend that you can trust with the deepest secrets of your heart—to walk with them.

Teagan has a very Celtic community, and more than one anam cara.

I’m not sure you want to get me started on romance in modern YA novels. :-)

They almost always confuse sex and sexual tension with love and romance. And even the sex they present is sometimes confused. Let me state it bluntly: a stalker is not sexy. He is sick. Abusive and
controlling relationships are not sexy. They are destructive. Obsessing about someone to the point that you lose contact with friends and family is not sexy. It is disastrous.

Romance involves growing and deepening relationships – getting to know someone in both a sexual and a more than sexual way. Sex is between the two of you. Love invites your significant other into emotional relationship with family. It includes them, and makes everyone’s life richer. If you are not lucky enough to have family, it draws them into relationship with the friends you have
gathered and trust. Your tribe. And, since they know you and love you, you would be wise to listen to their thoughts on the person you are drawing into relationship with them, because with luck, all of those relationships are going to be there for a very long time.

Do you believe there's a main theme to the Goblin War series? And if so, what would you say it is?

You can be still and listen not only to people, but to creation herself. And when you do, like the ancient Celts, you will hear the heartbeat of the Creator. You’ll find that that creation is deeply good, and the choices we make, even small choices, really do matter.

Any chance of getting your editor to release a soundtrack for the series? What role did music play in bringing this series to life?

I wish…but it will have to play in my reader’s heads and hearts.

Do you have any favorite YA and/or fantasy reading recommendations?

I am so many years behind in my reading that I’m not sure my recommendations would be helpful to a modern reader! The problem is as a teen I started out to read all of Western Literature. I soon discovered that it was impossible—but by that time I was completely hooked on old books. Do you suppose people will listen if I tell them to read Dickens? :-)

What are you currently working on? What other exciting projects do you have in store for us?

I am an eclectic writer to say the least. I am very eclectic in my reading and my writing. I have just sold a very fun steampunk chapter book The Mesmer Menace, set on the eve of the Great Mesmer War of 1901, featuring a boy inventor, President Teddy Roosevelt, evil hypnotists, robots, a lightning harvester, and a dashingly brave and loyal dachshund named Noodles. I am finishing a “Holes”–esque older MG dealing with suicide, Catholicism, immigration issues and one undead school administrator. After that, I have a TOP SECRET YA project in the works…

Thank you for interviewing me, Roxane!

:-) Kersten Hamilton

This read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 18th century novel.

Here is the second review of the five books I'm reading for the French Women Writers Throughout the Ages challenge organized by Céline at Le Blog Bleu. See below for links to my other reviews for this challenge.

Title: Adèle de Senange ou Lettre de Lord Sydenham
Author: Madame de Souza aka Madame de Flahaut
First Published: 1798

Reading this epistolary novel was a surprise in many ways. Adelaïde de Souza or Madame de Flahaut as she is sometimes known, is only given a few lines in the issue of Magazine Littéraire that inspired this reading challenge so I really didn't know what I was getting into. I'll admit that my choice was greatly guided by the fact that I could find this novel for free and in electronic version thanks to the online library Gallica of the BNF (French National Library) which makes available classics that are otherwise out of print or very expensive. So it only took a few clicks to get this 18th century novel on my Sony Reader... which I think is very cool. I was expecting a mushy love story (and you could certainly read it as such) but there's also something bittersweet about Adèle de Senange that I'm sure the author put there on purpose.

Let's start with a few words on the author. Adelaïde Filleul (1761-1836) was born at the heart of many political and romantic intrigues. Her mother was the mistress of Louis XV and some even claim that he was her father, though most seem to agree that it was a tax farmer's general in pre-revolutionary France. Adelaïde lost her parents at a young age and was raised by her older sister, Julie. She grew up in a convent and only left it upon her 18th birthday to marry a man her eldest by 36 years, the Count Charles-François de Flahaut. Adelaïde thus became the Countess of Flahaut. According to her, the marriage was never consummated. As you will see there are many similarities between Adelaïde's life and Adèle's story.

For 10 years, Adelaïde was the mistress of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand who was a priest in a previous life. Together they had a son, Charles Joseph, Count of Flahaut. But soon the French revolution was upon them and Adelaïde fled to London with her son. Her husband who had stayed in France, was executed in 1794. While Adelaïde started writing it in the early years of her marriage, her first novel, Adèle de Senange, was only published when she was in London, in 1798.

With the help of a few lovers, Adelaïde eventually made her way to Switzerland and then Germany where she met her second husband, the Portuguese ambassador in Denmark, Dom José Maria de Souza, also a widower, rich aristocrat and patron of the arts. From then on, they settled in Paris where, years later, they both died. Adelaïde published several other novels but Adèle de Senange is perhaps her most well-known work and was extremely popular upon its release.

Adèle de Senange is an epistolary novel told from the point of view of an English nobleman, Lord Sydenham, who is writing to his French friend, Henry. Lord Sydenham meets Adèle on the day she comes out of the convent where she was raised, having been ignored and neglected by her mother only cared for her two sons during all those years. Adèle is taken away from the only home and friends she's ever known to marry a 70 year old aristocrat. Of course, Lord Sydenham is immediately taken by Adèle as soon as he rescues her, following an accident of her carriage. Classic romance so far.

Here's the twist: the 70 year old man frequently visited Adèle when she was in her cnovent. He is the owner of a great fortune but has no one to inherit it. By marrying Adèle, he hopes to set her free and offer her the freedom of choice. When she will inherit his fortune, she will be able to do as she pleases. Considering the man's age and Adelaïde's own personal history, the reader can easily assume that Adèle's marriage was never consumated.

Another twist is that M. de Senange is somehow tied to Lord Sydenham's family. He fell in love with Sydenham's grandmother when he went to England in his young days. Though she was already married at the time, Lady B. (as she is named in the novel) helped the angry and impulsive young man to make peace with life and especially his father. Since then, M. de Senange seems to have acquired much wisdom and seeks to help all those he encounters. And so, he invites Lord Sydenham to join him and Adèle who grows fond of him, in their house in Neuilly. Lord Sydendham accepts the invitation and from then on becomes torn between his feelings for Adèle and his feelings for the old man he comes to regard as a father. But M. de Senange's health deteriorates and upon his death bed, he gives Lord Sydenham who's confessed his love for Adèle to the old man (though not to Adèle herself), his consent to love and eventually marry Adèle.

So the reader only assumes that the two lovers need only respect the mourning period before they can live happily ever after, but it's not quite as straightforward. Adèle's mother has other plans in mind and would like for her daughter to marry another young man who could offer her a title in French society. However, by then Adèle shares Lord Sydenham's feelings but cannot seem to stand up to her mother. Wounded, Lord Sydenham flees Paris and takes refuge in Neuilly, in the house that M. de Senange has left him. Eventually, Adèle finds him and they manage to sway Adèle's mother. However, in order for Lord Sydenham to prove that he truly loves Adèle and is not interested in her newly acquired fortune, Adèle must give up her inheritance that will go to her brothers before marrying Lord Sydenham... ah, true love... or an error of youth... the reader will never know as the novel closes when the two lovers are finally free to love one another openly.

It seems completely ironic that Adèle must give up the money that was to be her ticket to freedom as she marries her true love. Adèle is forced to completely surrender her freedom for this second marriage. In my opinion (which is perhaps that of someone completely jaded), Adèle is far worse off than she was at the beginning of the novel, marrying a 70 year old man!

Of course, the novel can easily be read as love story the likes of La Princesse de Clève but as it's written from the Lord Sydenham's point of view, there's no knowing what is going on in Adèle's mind. I can't help but think that when she is initially unable to go against her mother's wishes (her mother asks her to wait a certain amount of time before she agrees to marry either Lord Sydenham or the other young man), Adèle is aware of all that's at stake and is clearly thinking of what to do with her newly inherited freedom/money. There's no way to prove this of course since in the end Adèle does surrender everything and goes off to England with Lord Sydenham. Her inheritance goes to her brothers and here she is, aged 17 and married for the second time. There's something inheretently sad about her situation though of course, she's a lot better off than many women at the time.

Readers can also see Lord Sydenham as Adèle's eternal rescuer, but throughout the novel, he is hardly depicted as the ideal lover. Lord Sydenham is prone to fits of jealousy and anger; he doubts Adèle and her feelings on several occasions. I believe the ambiguity is deliberate on the author's part. Adèle's second wedding and the outcome of the novel can be seen as both a happy ending but also a testament to women's position in sociaty at the time. No matter what you do or how much money you may acquire, social conventions will never let you enjoy your freedom.

Another thing that must be mentioned is that while the novel was written in the midst of the French revolution, there are hardly any mentions of political events in the story which clearly takes place in pre-revolutionay France. Of course, we do encounter a florist who works to sustain his large family but everyone seems quite content with their lot and there are no talks of social injustices.

In light of all this, I found Adèle de Senange to be interesting on more than one level. It was an amazing discovery that is clearly nostalgic of the previous era, but also critical of women's position in society. Clearly, the French revolution has not done much for women...

Other reviews for this challenge:

Mémoires de la vie d'Henriette-Sylvie de Molière de Madame de Villedieu
La Mare au Diable de George Sand
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
Trois Femmes Puissantes by Marie NDiaye
My only reading challenge for this year is the French Female Writers Throughout the Ages. I guess it says a lot about what's been going on this year in RL that I've only started reading the first of the five books of this 2011 challenge in October...

Title: Mémoires de la vie d'Henriette-Sylvie de Molière
Author: Marie-Catherine de Villedieu
Genre: French classics
Originally published between 1671-1674
Publisher: Desjonquères in 2003
Pages: 272

This read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 17th century novel.

It's always with great pleasure that I take these reading journeys in the past and meet these women writers that were then perceived as eccentric, mad and severely lacking virtue when all they were trying to do was live with the freedom that was only bestowed upon men.

It reminded me of my work on the fascinatingly enigmatic Margaret Cavendish and of how much I admire these women and the way they fought against the establishment no matter the cost. I certainly envy them their strength and how they were fearless in the face of alienation.

Marie-Catherine de Villedieu, born Marie-Catherine Desjardins (1640-1683), was a professional writer, one of the first French female writers to claim so. She wrote novels, plays and letters and was a pioneer in more than one aspect as Mémoires was the first fictional autobiography of its kind.

Villedieu is a pen name taken from a lover who promised to marry her before withdrawing his promise. Although, their relationship later resumed, no marriage ever took place. In fact, the young man ended up marrying someone else before dying in battle. Marie-Catherine took his name after his death. While this was quite a bold decision, what is even more surprising is that the young man's family accepted that she did so based on the multiple promises the young man had made when he was alive.

Madame de Villedieu as she is now referred to, was not notably beautiful but she seems to have benefited from a lot of freedom from a very young age. This probably encouraged her fiery temper. She was lucky enough to have a lot of connections with the world of literature and arts and became quite famous for a poem entitled Jouissance (which can be translated as "climax" or "orgasm") when she was just 18. The poem was destined to the lover who never married her and the existence of the poem was not so shocking as the fact that it had been written by a woman. As it was often the case, it seems that her bad reputation had more to do with her free spirit and her liberty of speech than anything else.

Mémoires was published between 1671 and 1674 anonymously. I'm not quite sure why given her reputation and the fact that the book contains nothing particularly scandalous, Madame de Villedieu bothered with trying to hide the fact that she had written it. The book's success was immediate and durable though it was eventually forgotten. Like so many women writers, Madame de Villedieu greatly influenced the evolution of the novel but as she didn't follow the regular norm of conduct, her legacy was unfortunately set aside.

As previously mentioned, Mémoires is a fictional autobiography, a "roman-mémoires", the first of its kind in French literature (as far as I'm aware of anyway... which should probably not count for much...). Mémoires can be easily dated as Madame de Villedieu quotes battles, cultural and many historical events. A lot of historical figures and famous people of the time also make appearances in her tales. Yet, I wouldn't regard Mémoires as a piece of historical fiction per say. It's more an account of what life was at the time: clandestine weddings, cross-dressing, life in convents, duals and trials.As far as I know, this mix of history and fiction is quite unusual for the times. Even more unusual is the idea of a memoir for an ordinary woman and not someone famous, well at least not famous for the right reasons.

Mémoires is by no means meant to be serious but entertaining and light. The main protagonist, Henriette-Sylvie de Molière, is writing her story to a female noble person she addresses as "Your Highness". From the first sentence, it appears that Henriette-Sylvie's name has been wrongly associated with certain scandals and that she is attempting to clear her name, explaining the "innocent mistakes" of her youth. Nevertheless, the aim is to please and entertain and Henriette-Sylvie has a lot of stories to tell and she is not at all as innocent as she could be... and the wonderful thing is that she makes no apologies for it, despite the novel's initial aim.

It all begins with Henriette-Sylvie's birth which is shrouded in mystery: birth on a beach, a mother's disappearance, childhood among farmers and here comes in a duke who sees something different in this child and knows she's destined for more than this. The duke places her with wealthy friends of his who have children of their own. Henriette-Sylvie grows up to be a young woman of breathtaking beauty. The one she then believes to be her father attempts to rape her when she is thirteen during a hunt. Henriette-Sylvie accidentally shots him trying to defend herself. She is then rescued by her "mother"'s lover who also falls in love with her and that is only the beginning of her adventures...

Henriette-Sylvie is not afraid of enjoying life and its multiple pleasures. Her tale is in drastic opposition to the literary inheritance of the classical age. And yet, I'm not quite sure why Madame de Villedieu chose anonymity to write this. It's been said that those who knew her and her story could easily recognize her style and aspects of her life. Mémoires is not an autobiography (well, only a fictional one) but some elements and places frequently visited do echo ones from Madame de Villedieu's life. Henriette-Sylvie is meant to be a sort of role model for women who have been accused of not being virtuous enough for their times. Though one must admit that it is hard to believe that Henriette-Sylvie is completely innocent; she does put herself in the strangest situations, and yes, she does admit to having had lovers. If there really needs to be something scandalous about the whole novel, it's probably it's total lack of guilt, but even that is drowned by the humorous aspect. Though the novel is meant to be a clarification, Henriette-Sylvie does not make any apologies for her behavior as she often depicts what courtship and what takes place around and after passion.

I really enjoyed reading this. I'm sure I didn't get all of the humor, not knowing enough of the times' lifestyle and famous figures, but I got enough to make it worth while. And so, even if you're reading this novel on a superficial level and don't really care in what ways it relates to the life of the person who wrote it, you'll enjoy it. But if you read it bearing in mind the reputation of Madame de Villedieu's, you'll enjoy it even more. Highly recommended for entertainment but also for the historical and feminist perspectives.

Other reviews for this challenge:

Adèle de Senange de Madame de Souza
La Mare au Diable de George Sand
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
Trois Femmes Puissantes by Marie NDiaye
So yes, I'm still alive though barely... I've been reading loads but reviewing very little and almost let this blog die... In fact, all of my online activities have taken a coup recently and it's not just because of work! In fact, it has nothing to do with work and everything to do with LIFE and how it can immensely suck sometimes.

I'll spare you the drama, the flat-hunting, the dealings with letting agents and also the part where I was harassed out of flat after 5 days and it's taken me over two months to get my deposit and rent back... let also forgot about the staying with friends, the legal procedures, the stress that comes with harassment, the humiliation, the indignation (is all this happening to me because I'm a girl or just because I'm naive?) and the incapacity to focus on anything else!

Yes, please let's forget about all that and talk about books because really there's nothing nearly as good in the real world!

I do hope some of you remember Kersten Hamilton from my review of the first book in her Goblin Wars series, Tyger, Tyger. It was one of my favorite reads from last year and not only because I had the chance to read it before everyone else. I couldn't quite believe it when Kersten got in touch with me a few months ago to ask if I wanted to read an ARC of book 2... how's a girl suppose to say no? The catch is, she isn't. Hence, what follows...

Title: In The Forests of the Night
Author: Kersten Hamilton
Series: Book 2 in the Goblin War series
Genre: YA / urban fantasy / goblins
Published by: Clarion / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Date: November 2011
Pages: 288

The battle against goblinkind continues... but which side will Teagan be on?

Teagan, Finn, and Aiden have made it out of Mag Mell alive, but the Dark Man’s forces are hot on their heels. Back in Chicago, Tea’s goblin cousins show up at her school, sure she will come back to Mag Mell, as goblin blood is never passive once awoken. Soon she will belong to Fear Doirich and join them. In the meantime, they are happy to entertain themselves by trying to seduce, kidnap, or kill Tea’s family and friends. Tea knows she doesn’t have much time left, and she refuses to leave Finn or her family to be tortured and killed. A wild Stormrider, born to rule and reign, is growing stronger inside her. But as long as she can hold on, she’s still Teagan Wylltson, who plans to be a veterinarian and who heals the sick and hurting. The disease that’s destroying her—that’s destroying them all—has a name: Fear Doirich. And Teagan Wylltson is not going to let him win.

As always when continuing a series you particularly enjoyed, there's always a strange mix of excitement and apprehension. What if the sequels don't live up to the first book? Well, there's no point in maintaining any melodramatic suspens here, I loved the second book as much as I loved the first though these are two very different books.

In the Forest of the Night picks up right where we left Teagan, Aidan and Finn. It seems somewhat surreal that after journeying and surviving Mag Mell, Teagan and Aidan actually need to start their daily routines again (school, medical appointments, part-time jobs, etc.). Things are quite clear though, Tea has not given up on her dreams and ambitions despite her mother's death, the revelation that she is part goblin, her love for Finn and the diminution of her father. This is one strong and inspiring female character Kersten Hamilton has created and it's so good to see that her mind hasn't evaporated because 'Sexy Beast' (as he likes to be called) has come into the picture. Tea has her plan and she will try to fit Finn in it but they need to have their own lives and be able to stand on their own two feet before becoming an item. 

This is how book 2 differs from Tyger, Tyger. We are familiar with the characters by now, we know the background, we know the stakes. This second book contains less action than the first but then action is not what the book is about. That doesn't mean that there's nothing going on, there's actually quite a bit going on but this time, it's all about discovering new facets of the main characters, especially Teagan.

There's of course her growing love for Finn but even that is broached in a way it hardly ever is in a lot of YA novels. Generally, parents are too quickly done away with because well, they're parents and we always think we're better off without them. Plus, their deaths or disappearances also serve as good plot devices to explain the main protagonist's vulnerability... Not here, Tea does miss her mother and her father has yet to fully recover from his visit to Mag Mell but he still maintains his role as a parent. It seems in a lot of YA novels, teens end up living under the same roof due to impossible circumstances. All those hormones, someone has too keep an eye over them. John Wyllston's character is endearing, charming and witty and he makes sure that both Finn and Tea keep a foot in the real world. Love is all nice and well, but there's a lot more to it than just love at first sight. John makes Finn and Tea wonder how well they actually know one another and the answer is of course, not very much. It's interesting to see such topics raised in a YA novel, especially in a fantasy one when more often than not the story stops when the main characters run off into the sunset and the reader can only assume that they'll live happily ever after. I really appreciate this level of reality being thrown into an epic fantasy story. It's unfortunately too much of a rarity.

This is what best describes the entire novel: in Tea's image, it finds its roots into two worlds, one is that of fantasy and Mag Mell and the other is the real world. 

Tea is also face with another dilemma. She has mixed heritage and her actions will decide which part will overcome the other. Ideally, we wouldn't want it to be the goblin part, but what Tea did to make sure Aidan, Finn and herself escaped Mag Mell in book 1 has somehow tipped the balance. And her dear goblin cousins intend to make it tip yet further. This inner struggle which also has physical consequences is very interesting to withhold, especially if you analyse it through the angle of cultural diversity. Tea is convinced that she will become evil as the goblin side of her grows and matures but as Finn remarks, her new powers have not changed who she is at the core and it's really about hanging to your beliefs and staying true to yourself no matter how original and mismatched that self might be. Your identity needn't be black or white (pun not intended) but generally comes in all shades of gray and in fact, in all shapes and sizes as it shouldn't be a homogeneous whole.

In that way, despite their differences, the first two books in this series share a similar strength: excellent characterization.... okay and let's not forget witty dialogs... and references to very cool songs (I think this series should come with a soundtrack). 

Some say that the second book in a series is often the calm before the storm, that it builds up for the final chapter (the third might not be the final). The ending of book 2 will certainly makes you feel this way. There's a reason why the series is called The Goblin War, a war is coming. And it's hard to think you'll have to wait a year to know what's coming next.

I feel like there was so much in this book that I haven't touched upon (I haven't even mentioned Aidan... how I love Aidan... and the Turtles... well, they're not real turtles... and some many more). I cannot recommend this series highly enough. Not only is it original and fun, it's also clever and unputdownable. If you haven't had a taste of it yet, now's your chance to read Tyger, Tyger before In the Forests of the Night comes out this November!


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