Review – Picnic in Provence

Picnic in Provence – Elizabeth Bard

HarperCollins, 2015

It’s been about a decade since Elizabeth Bard was swept off her feet by a handsome Frenchman and moved to Paris. In that time she’s learned the correct way to communicate with cheese mongers and how to wheedle recipes out of her in-laws, but when she and her husband spontaneously decide to move from a Parisian apartment to a historic rural cottage – while she’s pregnant with their first child – it opens a whole new set of questions. How do you talk your neighbours into sharing the secrets of mushrooming? What’s a successful blend of American heritage and French upbringing? What’s the trick to making artisan ice cream? And how do you figure out motherhood when your own mother is on the other side of the world?

This is the sequel to Elizabeth Bard’s first book, Lunch in Paris, a light-hearted memoir/recipe collection exploring her first years in France. Picnic in Provence leans more heavily into memoir territory, with candid details into family conflicts and her struggles with parenthood, but Bard’s love of food and her (mostly) fond exasperation with French culture lead to lots of culinary experiments too. As a vegetarian, not all of those were enjoyable for me to read! And of course, as an Australian, American cultural expectations are just as surprising to me as the French ones, but her anecdotes are interesting and sweet. For more of her work, her website is here.

An Update at the Crosspost

It’s that time again! That is, that time when I look at my blog and realise there is a significant thing I’ve failed to write about, which this time means Contact. Which happened around a month ago. Better late than never!

To have a big speculative fiction convention in Brisbane was a delight to me, and to have the Aurealis Awards ceremony somewhere I could attend it in the same year I was shortlisted for two categories was an incredible piece of luck. I ended up winning neither category – take a look at the list of amazing winners here – but I got to sit next to Juliet Marillier and talk about history and fairy tales and scary landscapes, and meet editor extraordinaire Tehani Wessely in person for the first time, and so many other incredibly clever people. I am running out of superlatives for how much fun I had.

In fact, during the one day of Contact I was able to attend, there was a LOT of talking. I attended most of the panels and had a fantastic time listening to interesting people discuss everything fandom – there was even a woman with a harp playing filk, including a ballad about a witch who might have been a centaur? I don’t know and don’t care, it was brilliant.

Also in March, my baby niece went on her first Easter egg hunt, which was unutterably adorable.

Lately I’ve been reading Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as research for ‘Ladies of Legend’, which has been a huge eye-opener – how did the Arthurian legends ever get reduced to ‘knights in shining armour saving damsels’ when so often, the damsels save them? How did I never find out until now that Morgana had a crew of sorceress queens to hang out with, and that Guinevere and Isolde were penpals? Anyone who stands still long enough in my general vicinity is sharing in my discoveries.

If you follow me on Tumblr, you’ll know this has led to my fangirling over armour and lady knights. I don’t actually post much of my own work on Tumblr, but as I’ve only recently started ‘Ladies of Legend’, I’ve decided to cross-post them. A Lady will go up each Friday until I catch up to the main blog, beginning tonight with Fair Janet.

Oh, and I almost forgot: thanks to my much more technologically literate siblings, my computer disaster has been resolved and I now have reliable internet access, which is driving home to me just how long it’s been since I’ve had reliable internet access, and I might be revelling a little bit.

Review – To Say Nothing of the Dog

To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis

Bantam Books, 2015

Originally published in 1998

When the power-brokers of the 21st century realised it was physically impossible to ransack history for its treasures, funding to the time-travelling historians of Oxford suffered a sharp decline – until the billionaire Lady Schrapnell commandeered the whole department to help her rebuild a ruined cathedral down to the very last detail. On a mission into the Victorian era, historian Verity Kindle manages the impossible: she rescues a cat and brings it into the future, where it has no business to be, thereby setting off a chain of events that might or might not destroy the universe as we know it, but maybe not if her colleague Ned Henry can return the cat in time. The question is…which time?

This is a cheerful caper that draws on 1930s mystery novels, Tennyson’s poetry and an enormous number of historical anecdotes all woven together with some pretty fascinating ideas about time-travel. There are also cats. It’s fun but dense, with huge chunks of exposition that slow down the action. More frustrating to me, the Victorian setting and 1930s inspiration come with a pervasively limited approach to the female characters. The Taming of the Shrew references, in particular, are one hundred percent guaranteed to get my hackles up. So I have mixed feelings about this book, but I liked the slant Willis gave time-travel and loved the conclusion.

 

Review – Lady Midnight

Lady Midnight (The Dark Artifices No.1) – Cassandra Clare

Simon & Schuster, 2016

Emma Carstairs was born into a world of monsters, and she has spent most of her life killing them. As a Shadowhunter, it is her duty to protect mundane society from demons, rogue vampires and werewolves, the malice of Faerie and every other danger that the rest of humanity doesn’t believe exists. It is not an easy life. Her parents were both murdered five years ago and Emma is willing to move heaven and earth to find who – or what – was responsible. When an opportunity comes her way not only to get answers, but also to help protect her best friend Julian’s family, Emma leaps at it. There is something ugly hidden at the heart of Los Angeles. And Emma is not the only one looking for revenge.

This is not so much the beginning of a series as a good jumping on point for anyone interested in Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books. She introduced her world in City of Bones, the first book in the Mortal Instruments sextet, and fleshed it out further in the prequel trilogy The Infernal Devices (opening with Clockwork Angel). There are spoilers for both previous sets of books in Lady Midnight and it will mean more if you’re familiar with the older characters – having read all the previous books, it was particularly interesting for me to see the effects of choices made in the last one – but The Dark Artifices has a fresh cast in a new location.

Emma is a dynamic protagonist and the domestic realities of her day-to-day life with the Blackthorns added welcome depth. I am a sucker for stories about sprawling families and ones that focus on the relationships between siblings, so I particularly liked that aspect Lady Midnight. The support cast contains characters who are LGBT, POC and neurodiverse, and there are several gender tropes that get firmly flipped. I am not a huge fan of ‘forbidden love’ romances, so I didn’t enjoy that part of the plot as much, but I do like all the characters involved in Lady Midnight’s romantic tangles. The Dark Artifices continues with Lord of Shadows, slated for release in April 2017.

Review – Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel – Sara Farizan

Algonquin, 2014

Leila has so many questions. For instance, how does her sister Nahal effortlessly achieve perfection while Leila fails at the basics of science, sport and self-esteem? What should she say to Lisa, her childhood best friend, who seems to be retreating so deep into her shell that no one can follow? How is she supposed to tell her friend Greg that no, she doesn’t fancy him, because actually she has a crush on the glamorous new student Saskia…who maybe, just maybe, likes her? And is there ever going to be a good time to tell her parents she’s gay? There should be a manual for these things, but the only way for Leila to get answers is to take a chance and hope she’s right.

I saw this book recommended on Tumblr, and it was just as adorable as promised. Leila is awkward, uncertain and lovable; all the supporting cast were well-shaped and there were some unexpectedly hilarious moments. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel has its drama, but this isn’t an angsty book. While Leila’s sexuality is of course a big part of the plot, this being a coming of age story, it is not the sole focus and there are a variety of LGBT characters. This is Sara Farizan’s second novel. Her first is If You Could Be Mine.

Ladies of Legend: Etain

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, Irish Folk & Fairy Tales Omnibus (Time Warner Books, 2005) by Michael Scott, Celtic Myth and Legend (Newcastle Publishing Co. Inc., 1975) by Charles Squire, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr Alice Mills

Celtic myth and legend brims over with tragedies. Whether the story of Etain is one of these depends on the perspective you choose to take. Also known as Edain, she was either the lover or the second wife of Midar, king of Ireland’s fairy folk, the Tuatha dé Danaan. His first wife Fumhnach/ Fuanach hated Etain – and probably Midar – so much that she cast a particularly vicious enchantment on the unfortunate girl. According to The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Etain was turned first into a pool of water, which became a worm, which became a beautifully scented fly. In Irish Folk & Fairy Tales, she is transformed directly into a butterfly.

The circumstances around this curse are similarly up for debate. Fumhnach acts alone in the Encyclopaedia and Irish Folk & Fairy Tales, with Angus (Irish god of love and Lord of the Birds) as a rescuer in the latter version, taking in the butterfly girl after seven years of her wandering lost in the world. He even manages to crack the curse enough that she can take her human shape by nights, and encases her in a guarded crystal casket by day so that her more fragile form won’t be harmed. This is because he has developed a largely unrequited passion for her and doesn’t wish her to leave. But, being quite resourceful, she breaks the casket’s lock and leaves anyway – only to be blown into a goblet and swallowed with the ale.

Angus plays a much less generous role in Celtic Myth and Legend’s version of events, in which he kidnaps Etain and she escapes him with the aid of an unnamed rival for Midar’s affections (presumably Fumhnach) who then turns her into a fly and blows her away deliberately. Etain catches no breaks.

The upshot of all this being, Etain ends up in the stomach of a human woman – the queen of Leinster, in one story, the wife of a king’s vassal called Etair in another – whereupon she is soon reborn as a baby girl and called Etain (ironically, after herself). She grows up with no memory of her previous life. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty, she meets the high king Eochaid and becomes his queen. It’s only now Midar catches up with her. As she does not have any recollection of her former love, he approaches Eochaid as a Mysterious Stranger. They play chess for stakes that will be decided by the winner, and at first that is Eochaid, who demands and receives useful miracles. But Midar is the true expert. When he wins, he claims Eochaid’s beautiful wife.

Eochaid wins my approval by disregarding all questions of honour and point-blank refusing. A wife is not a possession! She cannot be gambled away! All Eochaid’s guards, however, are no match for Midar’s bewitching harp music and he spirits Etain home to his own kingdom. In Michael Scott’s version, she remembers her past life at Midar’s first kiss – Celtic Myth and Legend chooses to focus on Eochaid’s reaction instead. Because unlike Midar, he manages to track down his wife’s abductor and throws every ounce of force in his not inconsiderable arsenal into getting her back. He sets his men to digging up Midar’s fairy hill. In a desperate ploy, Midar sends fifty fairy women to the surface, each identical to Etain. Eochaid is not fooled. He does not stop his attack until Midar finally gives up the real Etain.

By all accounts, she is happy with Eochaid, giving birth to a daughter who is also named Etain and living to an astonishing old age. Midar never makes another attempt to reclaim her hand or heart. In fact, in the Illustrated Encyclopaedia’s version, the whole aspect of butterflies and past lives is completely erased from the story and Midar is simply a very talented kidnapper – the moment she sees Eochaid, the fairy king’s enchantment falls away and Etain returns willingly to her true love.

The Midar of Celtic Myth and Legend never forgives Eochaid. Etain, her daughter and granddaughter Messbuachallo are all left in peace, but Eochaid’s first male descendant is destined for a violent death.

Each version shows Etain’s feelings for Midar is a different light. From a forgotten love to a remembered one, to a man she never really loved at all, her story becomes tragedy or victory depending on which angle you believe. She could be seen as a victim, but that’s not how I look at it. Outside of any romance, Etain is a survivor.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Review – Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries No.2) – Dorothy L. Sayers

Chivers Press, 1988

Originally published 1927

It has been a source of much embarrassment to Gerald, Duke of Denver, that his younger brother, Lord Peter Wimsey, can’t help dabbling in detection. When their soon-to-be brother-in-law is discovered dead, however, and suspicion falls heavily on Gerald, a detective in the family is suddenly urgently necessary. Lord Peter must read between the lines of each witness’s testimony to discover the truth of what happened…even if he increasingly doubts that he wants to know the truth.

I find it difficult to separate the period-typical issues of an old book from the story itself. That was a particular problem reading Clouds of Witness because chunks of the plot required you to see certain things are either acceptable or unalterable, and both left me very frustrated. As such I’ve included a spoilery trigger warning in the paragraph below. The actual mystery is intriguing, if a bit messy, but the ending didn’t make an enormous amount of sense. The Lord Peter series continues with Unnatural Death.

(SPOILER: This book contains a domestic violence situation and a completely inadequate reaction from the protagonist. It may be true to social norms of the 1920s that Lord Peter doesn’t get involved until he wants something from the woman in question, and that he then expects her to risk life and limb in order to assist his brother, but it made me like him considerably less than I did before and may be very triggery for some readers.)