The One with the Four or Five Sisters

Malika Ferdjoukh, Cati Baur, Quatre Soeurs. Tome 1: Enid (2011). Tome 2: Hortense (2014)

les5verdelaine-731877A few weeks ago when I said that I was stressed out and in a bookish rut, Stefanie suggested a graphic novel, and she was right! I grabbed the second part of Cati Baur’s graphic adaptation of a French middle-grade bestsellers “Four sisters” like I would grab a comforting blanket and a hot cocoa. Then I realized that somehow I hadn’t blogged about the first tome, which I discovered by chance last December, and it’s high time that I correct this oversight.

To be honest I wasn’t even aware that these were bestsellers in France, I was only attracted by the cute, watercolor-style designs, but the librarian soon convinced me that there are actually throngs of Sisters fans who have read it in novels (it’s a series of 4 books for each season) and who were eagerly waiting for the graphic version to be released. Don’t go imagining something like Hunger games or like a girly Manga. There is some  supernatural involved and some romantic cuteness, but Four Sisters is very French.

Who are these sisters and how many of them are they exactly? Like the Three Musketeers who are actually 4, these Four Sisters are really 5. You could find parallels with the famous March sisters, but Ferdjoukh’s characters are so endearing and girly and modem that it would be a shame to deny their originality.

There’s Enid (9) who loves solitary adventures in the garden or near the sea, and has a sweet spot for animals that are despised. There’s Hortense (11) who never goes anywhere without her secret diary. She’s shy but in this volume she’s challenged to take drama classes. There’s red-headed Bettina (14) who’s lovely except when she gets on everybody’s nerves. She has 2 BFFs and spends her time plotting with them. There’s Genevieve (16) with highly developed homely and mothering instincts. She’s so sweet and takes care of everyone, but her way to let off stream is to take secret thai boxing classes. There’s Charlie (23) who has dropped out of med school when their parents died in a car accident to become the bread-winner and head of the family.

The five “four sisters” live by themselves in a derelict mansion by the sea, in a place that looks like Brittany or Normandy. They are orphaned, but their parents still visit them as friendly ghosts. The little world created by Ferdjoukh is also full of friends, relatives, boyfriends and pets (even if only the house rat).

What clicked with me was the language. It’s hard to describe here, but Ferdjoukh uses original metaphors and funny names that are so endearing that I couldn’t wait to read all these dialogues. It’s poetic and light and witty and was perfectly suited with the graphic treatment, these four red-cheeked, wavy-haired, round girls with pointed noses and pastel watercolors. Although I have never read any of Ferdjoukh’s numerous middle-grade novels, what I discover here reminds me of Susie Morgenstern or Judy Blume.

I can’t wait to read the two remaining tomes, and also to discover more of Malika Ferdjoukh’s novels!

The One for Old Bookshop Lovers

Anne Perry, The Scroll (2011; French 2014)

The French title is quite misleading, as it means “Mystery on High Street”, and I got the idea that it was a crime short story set in London.

All wrong! It’s a supernatural short story set in Cambridge. But it doesn’t really matter because I got over my disappointment soon enough: it’s a short read that you can finish under half an hour, an easy, entertaining read. Not the book you’ll remember in a few years, but still nothing to be ashamed of.

I was surprised to see Anne Perry venture into supernatural stuff with heavy religious undertones à la Da Vinci Code. The mystery centers on a scroll dating from Jesus’s time, found among old books and containing earth-shattering secrets.

To be honest the earth-shattering secret wasn’t that innovative, it was more a sketch rather than a fully-drawn plot. The best part is the atmosphere. Anne Perry manages to convey the threat of darkness, the sudden change in the quality of silence, in only a few sentences. Then the mystery dispels itself as suddenly and as easily as it came, just like a summer storm.

The One with the Shenzhen Chicks

Lijia Zhang, Lotus, 2017

Thanks to the publisher Henry Holt and Netgalley for sending me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

The book is set in China’s fastest developing industrial city of the South, Shenzhen, between Canton and Hong Kong, in the early 2000s, which is exactly the time I lived there (in Hong Kong and Beijing). Shenzhen had the reputation of an eldorado, a place where fortunes could be made, a place where laws didn’t really apply. Millions of young people from the countryside, destitute and without much opportunity at home, were attracted to Shenzhen with the dream of making it in the big city, only to find themselves stuck in low-paying jobs akin to slavery (living in dorms, locked-up in dangerous, unsanitary workshops). Many young women saw in prostitution an easy way out, a way to send more money back home too. They are the infamous ji (hens/chicks).

Lotus is one of those many girls working in “massage parlors”. It’s notable that the novel bears her name as if to focus on her personal history and her character, while the Chinese government prefers turning a blind eye to these girls, whose business is strongly linked to corruption and to the “entertainment” industry, or periodically cracking down on the girls without giving them any other perspective. To male businessmen who frequent those girls, it doesn’t really matter who they are.

It is a novel full of social criticism, almost a documentary disguised as a novel, but the main characters, Lotus the prostitute and Bing, the photographer with a political conscience, are not entirely clichés. Lotus is not entirely an innocent victim, and the importance of her Buddhist faith in her trajectory is an interesting, new angle, because the rest of her background story is not fully original. Bing is a middle-aged man torn between ambition and his youth’s political idealism. Bing was in Beijing in June 1989, escaping the military crackdown only because his wife gave birth of their daughter. Bing’s wife is ambitious enough for them both, they have divorced because of her manipulative tricks and because Bing’s journalistic immersion into the world of low-class prostitutes was shocking and offensive, but now that he has won prizes and recognition for his work, she’s willing to reconnect, not only for herself but for their 12-year-old spoilt daughter. Bing’s motivation, a sort of romantic idealism without any apparent sexual attraction, is not quite explored in the book.

I was bracing for a tale of misery and a tragedy at the end, or a kind of unrealistic happy end à la Pretty Woman, but the ending was more subtle than that, even if it doesn’t tie every bow nicely. The book is rather straightforward in its writing and there are some language clichés that feel a bit annoying, but it’s worthwhile to get past these weaknesses to learn more about these women.

The One with the Twisted Neighbors

Cass Green, The Woman Next Door (2016)

This one is a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”, those kinds of sad love stories where it could have worked, should have worked, but for circumstances, bad timing or missed opportunities.

I think I heard of this book through Marina Sofia, and I bought it on Amazon Kindle for a song. The premises are just right up my alley: two neighbors with different life circumstances and dark secrets of their own, get embroiled together in a suspenseful journey.

The book is built around alternating points of view between the young and wealthy Melissa with her perfect house and perfect husband and her dowdy, bitter, lonely, creepy old neighbor Hester. The thing is, it’s a slow burner and both women aren’t really likeable. I could have been interested in other circumstances, but these days, I need either likeable characters, or a good pace to keep focused on the page.

Moreover, we have had some dispute with our own neighbors recently (again, who hasn’t?) and I’m not feeling particularly neighborly these days. I reached 40% of the book, but the pace didn’t seem to pick up so I called it a day. It doesn’t mean that plenty of people may find it perfectly alright!

The One with the Fukushima Girls

Reiko Momochi, Daisy (2 volumes, Japan 2012; French 2014)

I stumbled upon this two-volume manga at the YA & Children library. It was in the kids’ manga shelf and belonged clearly to the Shojo genre: the one for young girls, with cute design, big-eyed, long-limbed heroines whose primary concerns normally revolve around boyfriends, BFFs, pop culture idols and pets (from my adult perspective I guess). It has a pink cover and a flower’s title. But it is not what it seems.

This one is indeed different, since the four heroines, Fumi, Moe, Aya and Mayu, are high-school seniors in Fukushima, where in March 2011 the tsunami caused the nuclear plant to explode and contaminate the whole area. Set at the end of 2011, they struggle with the aftermath of the catastrophe. Not only do they have exams looming and university choices on their mind, but anxiety, displaced or separated families, radioactivity, prejudice and feeling of powerlessness. Not your typical shojo indeed.

Reiko Momochi is a manga artist who is not afraid to address big subjects, and she has visited several high-school classes in Fukushima to prepare the manga. She has chosen four ordinary girls, not victims or refugees themselves, but Momochi’s political denunciation of the situation is all the more chilling and moving. The invisible threat of radioactivity lurks everywhere and gnaws at every family,  every person. Small kids are forbidden to play outside, but how long can they live this way? The older refugees miss the homes they won’t ever return to. Those who leave the region feel as if they are letting down their neighbors and friends. Yet when they are outside of their province other Japanese people look at them with distrust, they refuse to accept them, to buy food grown in the area, to marry women from the area. And the government says everything’s fine.

I challenge anyone to read both tomes with dry eyes. It’s the first time I read such a political manga and I can imagine (and hope) that it’s very effective to transform young people’s attitudes and make them understand with nuance other people’s hardships. Even while talking about deeply tragic and complex situations, the manga still manages to be positive and hopeful.

The One with the Locked-in Ballerina

Nova Ren Suma, The Walls Around Us (2015)

Unreliable narrators, switching viewpoints, double plot-lines, all these are not usually YA fiction’s trademark, because YA is supposed to be “easier”: more linear and straightforward. It’s supposed to be cleaner and safer. It’s supposed to be more about plot and action and less about characters and psychology. But I think that now YA has blurred the lines and gone up a notch or two. At least, that’s what I felt reading The Walls Around Us.

The Walls Around Us tells of Amber, a girl convicted for her stepfather’s murder and living in a juvenile detention center with 40ish other female inmates. It tells of Violet, a young ballerina who will soon leave her small town to study ballet at Juilliard. It tells of Orianna, who used to be Violet’s best friend but ended up in the same detention center as Amber. We hear Amber’s voice and Violet’s voice, and both are kind of dark and disturbing, but we never get to hear Orianna’s.

Disclosure: I have followed Nova Ren Suma’s blog, Distraction 99, since… well, over a decade now. It was one of the first blogs I read, and at that time she hadn’t yet published a single novel. How far she has gone! I bought this one on Kindle during a special Amazon offer (which extended to Amazon France!, a rare occurrence)

Ballerinas are a bit clichéd when it comes to YA literature. They’re the perfect type-A dressed in pink tutus, and most people know they are supposed to be good, but are also very competitive. This book reminded me of the movie Black Swan, that presented the dark side of ballerinas, both neurotic, self-centered and dangerous.

It’s a Gothic tale with bleak moments, but I didn’t find it too shocking, because surprises are anticipated with clever clues (that a YA reader might miss or pick up, I’m not sure). Both closed worlds, the ballerinas world and the prison world, with their own quirks and mentality, are very well painted. There is some supernatural, but not too much, so that it makes for a much-needed engrossing read.

The One about the Two Salomes

Colombe Schneck, La Réparation (2012)

I have read this book quite soon after finishing “Dix Sept Ans” (Seventeen) last fall. This second book by Colombe Schneck, read in close succession, confirms that she likes to pack a lot of emotions, controversial questions and heavy subjects in not many pages and with an apparently breezy writing. She seems a bit superficial and egocentric, but she’s really not.

This time it’s the Shoah, or more precisely Schneck’s research on what happened to her grandmother’s sisters and their family during the Second World War. Schneck’s maternal family comes from Lithuania, a well-to-do, respected Jewish family who thought that they had nothing to fear. How wrong they were! Her grandmother’s sisters survived “somehow”, but their spouses and children didn’t. They remarried and had other children, and the first children were not talked about in Schneck’s family during her childhood.

After decades of silence, and not many questions, Schneck wants to discover what hides behind “somehow”. More precisely, she wants to discover the fate of little Salome, a 6-year-old girl who died during the Shoah, and who has the same first name than Schneck’s daughter, a name chosen at Schneck’s mother’s request years before. Schneck’s mother never explained anything to her and remained stuck in the trauma of the past. She is a character I would have loved to learn more about, yet she remains in the shadows. On the contrary, Schneck’s grandmother and her sisters are alive on the page and seem quite formidable women, each in her own style.

It’s hard to read this book in one setting. It’s hard to read this book sequentially, going from one page to the next just as the writer has planned it, because the subject is so heavy and the emotions so raw. I prefer taking a few pages here and there. There is a turning point in the middle of the book that will take your breath away, but I guess it wouldn’t be fair for me to reveal it, although the book hasn’t been translated to English.

It’s easy to compare this book negatively to Daniel Mendelsohn’s Lost. Schneck’s book isn’t as deeply researched, and many things are left unsaid, perhaps to respect the family’s privacy. The part where Schneck goes to Lithuania seems weirdly anticlimactic, but still the courage and the authenticity of the project makes the reading worthwhile.

The One that Shouldn’t have Come First

Guillaume Prévost, Cantique de l’Assassin (2016)

I have just written a post about Eve Schaub’s Year of No Clutter, for which I’d received an ARC through Netgalley, and just before posting it I realized the publisher has requested that we’d wait for the publication date (March 1st) to post reviews. It’s the first time I have seen such a request, and while I obliged, it felt weird, especially as I got the book 3 months ago, read it in November and I already thought I was a bit late. Did anyone of you have such a request?

So instead of posting what I intended (the post is now scheduled for March 1st, thanks to WordPress fancy options), here’s a short-short note on a book that only took me days to finish.

I have received Le Cantique de l’Assassin (the Murderer’s Hymn) as a present the day after Christmas, and I was done with it on January 1st. The first book completed in 2017! Yet I doubt it will leave a long impression on me. It’s a mystery set in France in 1920, but the main drawback is that it’s the fifth book in a series… that should be read in order. I guess that if I had started with the first book (La Valse des Gueules Cassées, with a title referring to the aftermath of World War I and the millions of mutilated vets with no resources or no perspectives) I would probably have warmed up to his recurring hero-detective François Claudius Simon.

But by the fifth tome, being introduced to this guy so full of back stories and mysteries, I felt as if I’d been thrown right into a Dumas serial swash-buckling saga at a random page in the middle. It was hard for me to care, and the amount of twists and turns and revelations and attacks was too much for me (perhaps I’d had too much to eat over the holidays, but I wished I could put the book plot on diet). It was a fast read, but it was soon put on the giveaway pile.

 

The One with a Danish Ghost (but Not Hamlet)

Birgit Lorentzen, Cykose (Danish 2011, French 2013)

Recently I went looking for Harper Lee’s To kill a mockingbird in the YA area of our neighborhood children library, and I discovered that our library doesn’t have it: much to my surprise, this book is not well-known over here in France, but I want to read it in 2017, so I will probably buy it… or maybe go to an adult library branch because I just can’t believe that the book is nowhere to be found.

Instead of Lee, I went for Lorentzen (the writer next up on the shelve), because I was intrigued by the idea of a Danish ghost story for teenagers. It seems quite improbable for a small press to venture into such an improbable project. And yet, I hardly could drop the book, because it was suspenseful and fresh and creepy!

Luisa would be a typical 15-year-old with a father fan of sports, an annoying little sister and a mother who hasn’t got her bearings with her daughter yet, if only she could sleep at night! Every night, a young girl visits her and terrifies her. The ghost seems so real, but Luisa is the only one to see her… until another student from her high-school, Thomas, reveals that he can see her too! Luisa isn’t sure what to do: she isn’t really into supernatural stuff, and Thomas is a weirdo everyone makes fun of, as he is in a special class for kids with mental health issues. She doesn’t want to be associated with him, and yet he seems to be the only one who can help her getting rid of the ghost. Thomas is charming and has a sweet spot for Luisa, but tracking the ghost also seems to unbalance his mental health even further, and puts his life at risk.

I enjoyed this quick read quite a lot in the last days of December. I love the way that the supernatural is weaved into real teenagers’ life, and there’s nothing woo-woo about it. It reminded me of the book with the shop that sells memories, which was targeted for middle grade readers, although this one is for readers a bit more mature. I love the way the adults around Luisa and Thomas are not bad people, but not doing a great job at parenting either. Of course, Luisa and Thomas develop some kind of relationship, but there’s nothing mushy-gushy about it either, especially in the ending. It’s great that characters, even secondary ones, get that much depth within not so many pages.

No-nonsense Scandinavian YA magical realism, I call it. If it’s a real thing, let me know, I want to read more of it! (In fact, this book is the first of a series, so I *will* probably get more of it!)

The One with Chinese Millenials in Nepal

vent-1-768x556Golo Zhao & Bao Jingjing, Au gré du Vent (French 2016) / Up in the Wind (China, 2014)

I know there’s no sense in trying to finish every book started before New Year’s eve (I’ve given up) and I know that there’s no more sense in trying to finish every book post I’ve started drafting in here… but I’m still trying. It feels good to start the year with a clean WordPress slate, and by Dec. 20 I still have the impression that I can meet this goal.

Just for the sake of trying, I want to mention an intriguing graphic novel I read a while ago, a movie tie-in apparently (I’m not clear which one came first because I haven’t seen the movie anyway), and a Chinese manga (a.k.a manhua), a genre I’ve rarely tried.

“Up in the Wind” is the story of two Chinese people traveling to Nepal, the land of happiness. But it’s not a tourist trip in the general sense, because they haven’t chosen the trip nor the destination. Yumeng, a young Chinese woman who works as a journalist in the very competitive and superficial environment of a lifestyle magazine in Beijing (or is it Shanghai?) has been sent to Nepal to write a travel report on why Nepal’s happiness index is so high despite poverty. She had hoped to be assigned to Tuscany and feels short-changed. An ambitious girl and a social climber, she still hopes that this trip and her article will land her a big professional success, but local difficulties of Nepal derail her plans. Instead, she gets a self-awakening of sorts, when she has to face who she is, her fears and her doubts.

Alongside Yumeng is a lanky young man, Wang Can, who is essentially a spoilt, arrogant rich kid, who has to travel to Nepal if he ever wants to come back into his father’s good graces after he jilted his bride-to-be at the altar.

The manhua was quite weird. On the one hand, you have the frustrations of this ambitious young woman who is often humiliated by richer and higher-ups (her boss in the big city says to her: “It’s your job to write as if you’re living it up on 25k a month, when you are just a 2k-earning nobody.” As conventional stories go, she has this coming-of-age experience of discovering deeper meaning beyond money and success, especially at the end of the book when she fails to meet her deadline and loses her job.

On the other hand, you have a conventional romantic comedy storyline where Yumeng falls for Wang Can after much bickering and many disputes. But not for one instant did I believe that those two would make a durable couple, nor did I believe that the change undergone by Wang Can would be more than superficial and short-lived. The ending was quite opened and vague, and added to the uneasiness.

On one hand, it wants to show Nepal as a more spiritual place where people are friendlier and have deeper relationships, but on the other hand we only see clichés about Nepal and the story tells more about Chinese millenials than about Nepalese people.

I liked very much the design and colors by Golo Zhao. The landscapes especially are breathtaking, even if it’s only a backdrop. I wonder which storyline the author Bao Jingjing wanted to push forward and how much of this mixup is due to editing and formatting for the big screen. It was an interesting, if not totally convincing reading experience.