Les fiancés de l’hiver – Christelle Dabos

NOTE: So, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether I should review foreign language books that have not been translated into English on this blog and I’ve decided to do it. This blog (as happy as I am that people are reading it and commenting on my posts) is first and foremost a way for me to keep track of all of the books I read and to crystallise my thoughts on them. Foreign language titles make up a significant proportion of the books I read, yet they have been very neglected on this blog. Here goes my effort to change this! I’ve decided to write this review in French because it is a French book that is unlikely to be translated into English and I just don’t really see the point in rambling about it in English. My apologies to those of you who don’t speak French!

Résumé du livre:

Sous son écharpe élimée et ses lunettes de myope, Ophélie cache des dons singuliers : elle peut lire le passé des objets et traverser les miroirs. Elle vit paisiblement sur l’Arche d’Anima quand on la fiance à Thorn, du puissant clan des Dragons. La jeune fille doit quitter sa famille et le suivre à la Citacielle, capitale flottante du Pôle. À quelle fin a-t-elle été choisie ? Pourquoi doit-elle dissimuler sa véritable identité ? Sans le savoir, Ophélie devient le jouet d’un complot mortel.

Après avoir entendu d’excellents commentaires des Fiancés de l’Hiver – j’ai l’impression que tout le monde a eu un coup de coeur pour ce roman – j’en attendais beaucoup. Malheureusement, je suis ressortie de cette lecture extrêmement mitigée et triste d’avoir trouvé tant de problèmes à ce roman, alors que la plupart des autres lecteurs ne les ont pas perçus ainsi.

Ceci dit, si j’avais vraiment tout détesté, j’aurais abandonné cette lecture et alors, je vais commencer tout de même par le positif. Tout d’abord, j’ai trouvé que l’univers était très intéressant et m’a enchanté dès les premières pages. En particulier, j’ai beacoup aimé l’atmosphère du Pôle. De plus, le début et la fin de l’histoire étaient intéressants et captivants. Cependant, mis à part le début et la fin, j’ai trouvé que le roman était extrêmement lent, et je ne parvenais pas à m’intéresser à ce qui se passait. Au milieu de ce livre, il y avait donc un grand passage à vide (d’environ 400 pages) et je me suis forcée à lire. Tout de même, la fin était bonne et m’a donné envie de lire le deuxième tome (ok, pas vraiment, mais bon).

Et maintenant pour le négatif.

  1. J’ai trouvé que les personnages étaient tous caricaturaux. À mon avis, Ophélie n’a que très peu de personnalité, et elle est caractérisée de manière très enfantine tout au long du roman. Je ne sais pas si cela vient de sa “personnalité” (encore fût-il qu’elle en ait une) ou du style de l’écriture, mais je n’ai jamais eu l’impression de suivre les aventures d’une jeune fille. Son extrême naïveté et sa propension à subir ce qui lui arrive m’a profondément agacée, même si elle “résiste” à sa manière. Alors d’accord, elle a légèrement évolué en fin d’histoire, mais franchement, pas assez pour que cela n’ait un impact vraiment positif. De plus, toutes les femmes dans ce livre (mis à part Ophélie et sa tante) sont présentées comme des garces (je cite) ou des frivoles sans aucun intérêt. Beurk.
  2. Je déteste que Christelle Dabos présente toutes les femmes sauf l’héroïne et sa tante comme des adultères, en essayant de montrer à quel point Ophélie est “pure”. S’il y a quelque chose que je déteste, c’est quand on me force à apprécier une héroïne en essayant de me faire croire que sa “pureté” équivaut à ce qu’une femme se doit d’être. Non, juste NON.
  3. Quant au personnage de Thorn, ténébreux, indifférent, j’aurai franchement pu faire sans… Je comprends tout à fait qu’il a eu une vie difficile, mais je ne vois pas comment je suis supposée de l’apprécier. La partie la plus drôle reste le moment où il dit à Ophélie qu’il commence à « s’habituer à elle » et qu’elle interprète ceci comme une déclaration de son amour pour elle. MAIS SUR QUELLE PLANÈTE VIT-ELLE? Ce n’est pas de l’amour et tout ça me donne envie de vomir.

En bref, Les Fiancés de l’Hiver était une grande déception pour moi. Une héroïne qui s’oublie facilement, un monde sexiste, un personnage masculin insupportable et une intrigue qui avance à une vitesse d’escargot – tout cela m’a énnervé énormément. Cependant, ce livre avait tant, tant de potentiel et c’est cela qui me rend vraiment triste. Les animistes, le Pole, tout était là pour nous envoûter dans une histoire fantastique, mais le résultat n’était pas à la hauteur de mes espérances. 

Avez-vous lu ce roman ? Qu’en avez-vous pensé ? A votre avis, devrais-je persévérer et lire Les Disparus du Clairdelune

~Anna

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

Summary from Goodreads:

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Ugh, this book made me cry like a little baby. What is up with me choosing really sad books at the moment? First Lincoln in the Bardo and now this! I think I definitely need something light and funny to read after the heartbreaking, ugly-cry-inducing, I-want-to-hug-my-mom kind of book that is A Monster Calls. 

It is a middle grade children’s book, yes. And if I had read it as a child, I probably would have loved it. It’s got monsters, nightmares, loveable characters, scary grandmothers, and thirteen-year-old bullies – you know, the whole shebang. Little me would have loved that. But it is not just a children’s book. A Monster Calls is a book that can be read and loved by all.

Well-written and compelling, this is a book about grief, loss, and love that will resonate with readers of all ages. While Conor does confront his demons more literally than most, there is nothing didactic or forced about this. The writing is intelligent and beautifully simple, the characters are well-developed, and the whole time I was reading this, I just wanted to hug little Conor. After the first chapter, I could already feel the tears coming and by the end of the book, well, they definitely spilled.

While this book is incredibly sad, more than anything else, I felt a great deal of love while reading this. Love for Conor and his family, love for my own family and friends, and love for everyone who has ever experienced a profound loss. This is such a beautiful book, and one that will stay with me for a long time. In just 215 pages, this book will break your heart and piece it back together again, so that you can go and be present in the world as a wiser, more loving human being.

Just a little note about the illustrations: 

While the words themselves are powerful, they are complemented perfectly by Jim Kay’s magnificent and wildly expressive illustrations. If you do decide to read this book (please do), I would highly recommend getting your hands on the illustrated edition. If you’d like to learn more about Jim Kay and his work, you can find his website here.

And another little one about the story: 

The story behind this book makes it even more poignant. Siobhan Dowd, the award-winning author of numerous young adult novels, came up with the original idea and the characters, but died of breast cancer before she could put pen to paper. Patrick Ness was asked to write the book based on her idea, and he succeeded in achieving a work of fiction that both transcends its genre and painfully wrenches your heart.

Have you read A Monster Calls? What did you think of it? And most importantly, can you please recommend a book that won’t make me bawl my eyes out? 

~Anna

Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

Summary from Goodreads:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .

The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.

Oh my goodness, I haven’t had this much fun reading a book in so long! It’s like a gothic soap opera, but in the best possible way. It’s dark, atmospheric, melodramatic, and oh so decadent. Honestly, I don’t know why I only discovered this now.

From the very first sentence, which is one of the most famous opening lines ever written, I was totally immersed in the story. I got lost in the descriptions of Manderley. I wanted to walk those paths through the woods to the beach. I wanted to wander the halls and peer into rooms, long abandoned after Rebecca’s death. I wanted to touch, taste, and smell everything our heroine was experiencing. I wanted to sit by the fire in the Manderley library, watching the rain stream down the windows, and read this book until the end of time. Yes, it’s that good.

The characters in this book, especially the female characters, were utterly fascinating. Mrs Danvers sent chills down my spine and for most of the book, I found myself totally terrified of her, but then she also had these moments of incredible fragility and sadness. But just when I found myself sympathising with her, she would go back to being a manipulative hag. What a brilliant character. As for Rebecca, I could almost feel her presence in the room while I was reading. I could almost hear her malicious laughter and picture her at her desk writing her letters in her elegant, cursive script. In contrast to our timid, nameless, and ultimately forgettable narrator, Rebecca is someone who demands to be remembered, long after her death.

The book is often compared to Jane Eyre, but the dead Rebecca is much more vividly alive in Manderley than the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic ever was. In fact, she seems more alive than our little heroine, who seems to exist only to serve and appease others. Rebecca infuses every room with the strength of her personality, while our narrator flits through the house like a ghost, afraid to touch or disturb anything. Personally, I love that she remains nameless throughout the novel as it shows the extent to which her identity is subsumed by her husband’s and makes Rebecca seem all the more present.

Now I know there are a few Maxim de Winter fans out there, but I have to admit that I am not one of them. The whole time I was reading this book, I just wanted to slap him for being so condescending, brooding, and peevish. Yes, Mrs de Winter is portrayed as a sexless, child-like creature with very little personality, but that doesn’t mean that she should be treated as the human equivalent of a doormat. I mean, she is his wife after all. He asked her to marry him, not the other way around. This man who is more than twice his wife’s age never once calls her by her name, asks her how she is feeling, or gives her the freedom to form her own opinions. What a jerk. Ugh. It’s no surprise really that Rebecca turned out the way she did.

Overall, I cannot express how much I loved this book. In my opinion, it is the perfect book to read on a rainy day, while covered in blankets and sipping a hot cup of tea. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend adding it to your TBR. I just wish I had discovered it sooner.

Have you read Rebecca? Did you love it as much as I did? I would love to hear your thoughts. 🙂 

~Anna

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

Summary from Goodreads:

The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine and covers some of the most breathtaking terrain in America–majestic mountains, silent forests, sparking lakes. If you’re going to take a hike, it’s probably the place to go. And Bill Bryson is surely the most entertaining guide you’ll find. He introduces us to the history and ecology of the trail and to some of the other hardy (or just foolhardy) folks he meets along the way–and a couple of bears. Already a classic, A Walk in the Woods will make you long for the great outdoors (or at least a comfortable chair to sit and read in).

Bill Bryson is the bomb. I read this book when I was feeling a little down and stressed out, and it was exactly what I needed. It’s hilarious, full of weird and wonderful facts, and it did indeed make me long for the great outdoors (or at least, it made me want to read this book while sitting in a comfy chair overlooking some misty mountains with a cup of tea in hand). In short, it’s a typical Bill Bryson book in the best of ways.

My favourite thing about Bill Bryson is his ability to see the humour in every situation. I think he’s absolutely hilarious (although I am also the kind of person who laughs at dad jokes and thinks that Mr Bean is a comedic genius). I read a good portion of this book while sitting outside in the Botanical Gardens, and I could not stop cackling madly to myself. Needless to say, I got a few strange looks. His descriptions of the gratingly obnoxious Mary Ellen in particular almost had me crying with laughter.

I also really love that Bill Bryson has such a sense of adventure. Yes, he is a curmudgeonly old man, but he also has some serious guts. I mean, hiking over half of the AT at middle age with no real hiking experience for months at a time with a junk-food-obsessed travelling companion prone to tossing irreplaceable supplies is no small feat.

I also really don’t know how it’s possible to know so much about everything. Seriously, I wouldn’t want to have to face Bill Bryson in a game of Trivial Pursuit. Throughout the book, he painlessly inserts lessons of history, geology, entomology, and more. We learn about the changes acid rain has brought to the wild, and he recounts the stories of the southern pine beetle, the smoky madtom and wooly adelgids, and about Daniel Boone, Henry David Thoreau and Stonewall Jackson. Bryson delivers an extended geology lesson on the tectonic formation of the 470 million year-old Appalachian Mountains that palatably educates. As I said before, he is the king of fun facts.

Yes, I have some criticisms of this book, but I don’t really feel like dwelling on them. I read this book precisely because I didn’t want to have to think too much, and it did not disappoint. It made me laugh, it made me cry (with laughter), and it made me feel so much better about everything. Highly recommended.

Have you read A Walk in the Woods? Or any of Bill Bryson’s other books? What do you think of him? 

~Anna

Men Explain Things To Me – Rebecca Solnit

When I first picked up Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me, I was expecting a collection of funny stories about things overbearing men have said to the author. Oh boy was I wrong. This book is a dark and very serious collection of essays about feminism, sexism, misogyny, rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, poverty, class warfare, and the silencing of women’s voices across the globe. In short, this is pretty heavy stuff.

Yes, the first essay is funny and has been cited as the piece that launched the term “mansplaining” (you can read it here), but this is just Solnit’s hook to get you reading. The other eight essays in this book are unbelievably depressing. Solnit uses a lot of anecdotes and statistics to make her points and show just how widespread violence against women really is (and not just physical violence). Maybe it’s because I was expecting this book to continue in a similar vein to the first essay, but I really struggled to get through this one and it took me far longer than usual to read 130 pages.

While Solnit is undoubtedly a good writer (I really enjoyed Hope in the Dark, which I discussed briefly here), I thought this collection of essays was very scattered and lacked an overarching structure. The essay about Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag, although interesting, felt totally out of place, almost as if it had been added as an afterthought. Another thing that bugged me a little about this collection (especially all that Woolf/Sontag musing) was that Solnit made a lot of really tenuous links for the sake of… sounding poetic, I guess.

All in all, I wanted to like this book more than I actually did and it really did not go where I thought it would. It starts out strong, she ends on a decent note, but it meanders in the middle in a way that makes me wish it hadn’t been a book at all. It’s good writing, and the points she makes are important, but overall it was just a little, I don’t know, unfocused? Lackluster? Still, I’m glad that the issues Solnit raises are being talked about and I hope this book leads to more reading on the topic (and more social progress).

Have you read Men Explain Things To Me? Or any of Rebecca Solnit’s other books? What did you think? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

 

Sweetbitter – Stephanie Danler

“Let’s say I was born when I came over the George Washington Bridge sometime in 2006…”

Meet Tess: a twenty-two year old with a mundane, provincial past, who has come to New York to look for a life she can’t define. After she stumbles into a coveted job at a renowned Union Square restaurant, we spend the year with her as she learns the chaotic, punishing, privileged life of a “backwaiter,” on duty and off. Her appetites—for food, wine, knowledge, and every kind of experience—are awakened. And she’s pulled into the magnetic thrall of two other servers—a handsome bartender she falls hard for, and an older woman she latches onto with an orphan’s ardour.

Let me just start this review by saying that I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. I heard wonderful things about it from customers and one of my colleagues described it to me as Kitchen Confidential meets Girls. What’s not to love? Being the sucker for foodie fiction that I am, I picked this one up and was very excited to read it, but I have to say that I was a little underwhelmed. That’s not to say that I totally disliked this book! In fact, I thought it had some great moments (especially in the first 100 pages), but I think it was just hyped up a bit too much.

THE GOOD:

  • If you have every worked in hospitality, this book will definitely hit home and you will be able to relate to a lot of Tess’ feelings and experiences.
  • Danler’s descriptions of food are absolutely mouthwatering, to say the least. Word of advice: do not read this book while hungry.
  • Sweetbitter is one of the few books I have read that focuses solely on the present. We learn very little about Tess’ past – we don’t even learn her name until around page 200 – and she rarely discusses or even thinks about her plans for the future. In a world where everyone seems to be overly preoccupied with the question ‘what next?’, it was quite refreshing to read a book that is 100% focused on the present.
  • The relationship between Tess and her mentor, Simone, was quite intriguing

THE BAD:

  • I did not care at all for the romance in this book. Jake, Tess’ love interest, has the personality of her favourite food item (which is toast, in case you were wondering). Side note: how does one manage to land a job at a top restaurant if one’s favourite meal is toast with peanut butter?
  • The writing is quite pretentious and overly flowery at times. I didn’t mind this so much when Danler was describing food, but at other times, it bothered me immensely.
  • None of the characters are well-developed.
  • I thought that this book tried way too hard to be edgy and contemporary. Like, what was was with the random poems that made no sense whatsoever and were totally out of context?
  • The dialogue was totally unrealistic.
  • As a side effect of being a book solely focused on the present, this book had almost no plot. Tess describes her life as a backwaiter, makes a ton of bad decisions, does a lot of cocaine, learns about food and wine, and well, that’s about it. If you’re looking for something that will keep you up all night wondering what will happen next, look elsewhere.

All in all, I thought this book was overrated, although I did enjoy some parts of it. If you’re after a good foodie book that will make your belly ache from both laughter and hunger, I’d take Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential over this one any day.

Have you read Sweetbitter? What did you think? Do you have any recommendations for good foodie books? 

~Anna

Fight Like A Girl – Clementine Ford

Summary from Goodreads:

Online sensation, fearless feminist heroine and scourge of trolls and misogynists everywhere, Clementine Ford is a beacon of hope and inspiration to thousands of Australian women and girls. Her incendiary debut Fight Like A Girl is an essential manifesto for feminists new, old and soon-to-be, and exposes just how unequal the world continues to be for women. Crucially, it is a call to arms for all women to rediscover the fury that has been suppressed by a society that still considers feminism a threat.

I picked this book up a few months ago, read the first chapter, and then put it down again. I guess I just wasn’t really in the mood for it and it did feel a bit like reading ‘Feminism 101’. NOTE: THAT SHOULD NOT DISCOURAGE YOU FROM READING IT. A few months later, I saw it in the ‘hot picks’ section at my local library and picked it up again and I AM SO GLAD I DID.

Ford’s writing is punchy, sarcastic and incredibly accessible without dumbing down the big theoretical issues too much. In many ways this book is perfect for teenagers (I was going to write teenage girls but it’s essential that boys read this kind of stuff too) and I wish that it had been around when I was younger. If you are well-versed in feminist theory, you are unlikely to learn anything new here, but Ford’s arguments are well-summarised and she adds a personal touch to many of them by sharing her personal experiences. Importantly, Ford acknowledges that she is an able-bodied, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender white woman and that unpacking privilege is an incredibly difficult but important task. Reading this book reminded me that Ford’s particular brand of feminism is not one that all women identify with and many of the ideas I take for granted are in fact quite controversial.

My key criticism of this book is that it was a bit repetitive at times. In fact, it was written like a very long Facebook rant and I would have appreciated a little more structure. This humour-driven, rant-like style works well for short, snappy pieces online or in the newspaper, but in a longer form, it can be exhausting to read. Criticisms aside, I think it is incredibly important that people read and discuss this book and I am so happy to see that it is selling so well here in Australia. Also, on a side note, Clementine is a lovely woman who often comes into the bookstore where I work and you should support her by reading and discussing her book!

Have you read Fight Like A Girl? What did you think? Would love to hear your thoughts (even and especially those that differ from mine). 

~Anna