here, now: a good book


I don’t read nearly as much fiction as I used to. In high school and university, sometimes even as a Ph.D. student, I would read (at least) one book per week. I’ve been known to read an entire book in one day, in one great feast. A few years ago I started keeping track of the books I read each year, and you can see those lists on the Bibliophile page.

Now that I am a college writing instructor, however, most of my reading takes the form of student assignments and essays. Often when I come home I am too mentally tired to read a book. These days I get most of my story-telling from television series on Netflix (I’m currently on a British police drama kick). When I read, it comes in bite-sized chunks at the end of the day. If the book is good, I stay up too late and am tired the next day; if the book isn’t gripping enough, I’ll go days without touching it. Short story collections are a good choice in this situation. During Spring Break, however, with no schedule to keep or classes to teach, I indulged myself.

Last December I received a Barnes & Noble gift-card as remuneration for giving a talk at the public library about Greek myths and fairies. I decided to order a few books that I had been coveting for years, and that no one had bought off of my Amazon wish-list. One of these books was Cybele’s Secret by Juliet Marillier, the sequel to Wildwood Dancing.

Wildwood Dancing caught my eye on book table at a fantasy writers’ conference a few years ago. The cover art is by Kinuko Y. Craft, who also creates the cover art for Patricia A. McKillip, another of my favourite authors. I will admit that I first thought it was a McKillip book and lighted on it immediately. Finding that it was a “new” (to me) author, I hesitated only slightly before buying it. As soon as I began reading it, I couldn’t put it down: it is a wonderful retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses and the Frog Prince set in 16th-century Transylvania. It is also one of those rare books that made me turn back a few chapters and reread the ending, a couple of times, because it came together at the end that well. I was excited to hear that a sequel was on it’s way.

So I waited, and waited, and being a poor graduate student and now a poor adjunct, I didn’t buy Cybele’s Secret, even when it came out in paperback. It was my first choice when I received the B&N giftcard. Because the semester had just started when it arrived, I set it aside to save as an especially good treat. And I was not disappointed.

Cybele’s Secret follows one of the other sisters as she goes to Istanbul with her father, a merchant. I don’t know if Marillier was retelling another folktale–if she was, I didn’t recognize it. Even so, her descriptions make me want to go to Istanbul again, to spend more time there, and to also explore other regions of the Mediterranean and Black Seas. I read the second half of the novel in one sitting today, and once again I found myself rereading the last chapter or two. I didn’t want it to end–I could have kept going with Paula for a long time yet.

But, all books must end, even the really good ones. When I finally set the book down, I knew that Spring Break was over. It will be at least another day before I pick up another book as my mind continues to swirl in the exciting adventures set in Istanbul and the Other Kingdom. If you enjoy young adult fantasy, then I encourage you to read Wildwood Dancing and Cybele’s Secret!

Grown-Up Magic

‘”You can’t argue with something that’s written down,” she said, stroking the red locks of hair on the cover. “If the heart of my fate is a book, there’s nothing for it. Once it’s written, it’s done. All those ancient books always say ‘so it is written’ and that means it’s finished and tidied and you can’t say a thing against it.”

Oh, but September, it isn’t so. I ought to know, better than anyone. I have been objective and even-tempered until now, but I cannot let that stand, I simply cannot. Listen, my girl. Just this once I will whisper from far off, like a sigh, like a wind, like a little breeze. So it is written–but so, too, it is crossed out. You can write over it again. You can make notes in the margins. You can cut out a whole page. You can, and you must, edit and rewrite and reshape and pull out the wrong parts like bones and find just the thing and you can forever, forever, write more and more and more, thicker and longer and clearer. Living is a paragraph, constantly rewritten. It is Grown-Up Magic. Children are heartless; their parents hold them still, squirming and shouting, until a heart can get going in their little lawless wilderness. Teenagers crash their hearts into every hard and thrilling thing to see what will give and what will hold. And Grown-Ups, when they are very good, when they are very lucky, and very brave, and their wishes are sharp as scissors, when they are in the fullness of their strength, use their hearts to start their story over again.’

-from The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Catherynne M. Valente

Right now I am tired and weak and not feeling very lucky, but this is one of the many reasons I read fiction. Someday my wishes will be sharp as scissors again, and I will cut and rewrite and edit to my heart’s own choosing.

And don’t worry, I didn’t give anything away. Did September hear the narrator? Well, you will just have to read Valente’s Faiyland books to find out.

To tournament!

Today is my viva. For fun, I’m listening to the playlist I made for my Pooka novels — which were loosely inspired from my Ph.D. research. I’m going into the Viva with black owls with yellow eyes — the Pooka, surely, is going to help me with the task ahead.

This song is about the Pooka, of course. Commonly in the form of a black horse, but don’t forget to look for its gold eyes…

Off I go!

Forgiveness in ‘Melusine’

One of my favourite scenes from the Middle English Melusine comes just after Raymondin has been convinced by his brother to break the promise he made to his wife to never see her on Saturdays. Melusine has been cursed to turn into a half-serpent on Saturdays and she can only attain salvation if her husband agrees to never see her or to denounce her in public.

Up until this time she has been a model of virtue, overseeing their lands with justice, supporting the Christian community by building churches and monasteries, and raising their ten sons well. But one Saturday, Raymondin’s brother passes on a rumour that Melusine is having an affair and in a fit of jealousy Raymondin goes to see her. He makes a hole in the door to her chamber and sees her in the bath, serpent tail and all.

What do you expect at this point? Shock? Horror? Revulsion? But no, Raymondin is instead immediately struck with remorse. He banishes his brother from the castle for causing him to betray his wife, and then laments, ‘Alas, Melusine, of whom all the world spake well, now have I lost you for ever. Now have I found the end of my Joy… Farewell all my joy, all my comfort, and all my hope.’ He is so distraught that he spends the night in anxious grief.

And yet, Melusine returns to him at dawn on Sunday as usual. She knows he has seen her, but she knows also his remorse and repentance. When she gets into bed he sighs with ‘great suffering of heart’. Melusine holds him and asks, ‘My lord, what aileth you, are you sick?’ and then comforts him, saying, ‘Worry not, for if it please God you shall soon be whole.’

Raymondin answers, ‘By my faith, sweet love, I feel much better for your coming.’ You can almost hear the relief in his voice.

You might not think love is rare in medieval romance, and it isn’t, but it is unusual to see it in married couples. Medieval romance tends to focus on the lovers before they get married, rather than afterward, and often the woman in the couple is already in a loveless marriage. In Middle English romance the married couples who stand out who are still in love with each other are Sir Orfeo and Heurodis (in Sir Orfeo) and Melusine and Raymondin (in Melusine). Rarer still is the level of tenderness seen here in Melusine, both here and later when the curse takes Melusine away from her family. After Melusine has been cursed to stay in the form of a dragon until Judgement Day, Raymondin retreats to a hermitage, where he spends the rest of his days praying for Melusine’s salvation.


The Fairy Queen points out five roads to the Otherworld in Thomas of Erceldoune: heaven, paradise, purgatory, hell, and ‘ȝone es my awenne’. She gives no name for her country, but in Sir Orfeo it is once referred to as ‘lond off fairi’. What then do I call it in my chapter on Otherworlds, including the fairy otherworld?

Not ‘Fairyland’. That sounds like a playhouse sold by Mattel or Disney. ‘Land of Fairy’ is cumbersome and will rack up my wordcount. I had originally thought to call the place simply ‘Fairy’; yet to do so risks confusion between Fairy the concept and Fairy the place. There needs to be a technical reason for whichever term I choose, because I am writing an academic thesis, not a popular nonfiction book.

Do not suggest I use ‘Avalon’, for part of this chapter will determine whether Avalon functions as a type of fairy otherworld in the first place.

So I turn to the Middle English Dictionary. It offers ‘The country or home of supernatural or legendary creatures; also, a land of such creatures’ as the first definition for ‘fairie’ and its variants, but now, then, which spelling to choose?

Just a sampling of the thoughts that pass through this PhD student’s mind…

The Faerie Glen

The Faerie Glen in Skye is a small area of conical hills and ridges formed by long-ago landslides and glaciation. It’s out near Uig in a sheep pasture. There isn’t really a prescribed walk around it (though here is a suggested route), so we just spent the day wandering around, with me climbing up as many ridges as I could.


Pictures don’t really capture the enchanting beauty of it, but I tried. Here is a sampling. (As always, click photo to enlarge.)


As you can see, there were plenty of occasions for climbing and clambering. The glen was just so green. The only sounds were that of sheep and the wind; it was so quiet that you could hear the distant waterfall across the valley.


I carried a sprig of rowan in my pocket, because one can never be too careful. And on the path to the glen there was a fence with one of the posts reverting back to nature.

Isle of Skye

For our family holiday, my parents and I went to the Isle of Skye. (I’m late posting this. I know.) We took the bus to Dundee, another bus to Perth, the train to Inverness, and a bus to Portree, on Skye. The Highlands were all green and covered with heather, wreathed with cloud and bathed in sunlight. It was raining as we arrived on Skye, and the water rushed down the hillsides, cascading waterfalls everywhere you could see. My first impression of Skye was that it is a land abundant with water.

The next day we took a short boat trip from Portree to go wildlife spotting. We saw a sea eagle and some porpoises, as well as some wonderful views.

We went for a walk after lunch. First we found a hidden waterfall, up which I clambered and found a swing…


And then we eventually made it to the Scorrybreac circuit, which may or may not have included climbing up a very steep hill. (And involved more clambering out to the Black Rock, a tidal island.)


For our second day, we went to Dunvegan Castle, home of the Chief of Clan McLeod. We spent much of the day exploring the extensive gardens around the castle, as well as the castle itself. Most of the plants in the gardens were labeled. I think our favourite tree was the Monkey Puzzle Tree, or ‘the swingy ouchy tree’, because the branches were spiky and fun to swing. (I probably wasn’t supposed to tug on the branches. But it was fun.)


Our last full day in Skye, we went to the Faerie Glen, but I’ll post about that later…

Favourite things

A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Castle:

Though, considering the setting, perhaps would have more aptly been titled, A Midwinter Night’s Dream? Temperature: 53 F/12 C (‘Feels Like’ 48 F/9 C); misty, drizzly, rainy; 20mph NNE wind, with 35mph gusts. Yes, this is Scotland in summer.

Even so, the play was thoroughly enjoyable. As a medieval fairyologist, I do tend to be annoyed with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because it was Shakespeare who made fairies small and gave them names like Cobweb and Peasblossom, but I can’t help but love Puck. (He is related to the Pooka, after all.) Puck was wonderful and camp and Scottish and played the violin. The picture above was taken just before Oberon (far right) woke Titania (on the steps with Bottom) and removed the love spell that had made her fall in love with a mortal (and a donkey).

Tomorrow I am going to see Romeo & Juliet performed by the same actors, in the same setting. With any luck it will be less wet, but at least I will be prepared!

The Wee Free Men

Opening line: ‘Some things start before other things.’

Strange things are happening on the Chalk. Monsters rise out of normally quiet streams, the baron’s son disappears in the forest, horse and all, and when her little brother disappears too, nine-year-old Tiffany Aching has to do something. Armed only with her wit, a frying pan, and an army of pictises, the Nac Mac Feegle, Tiffany crosses into Fairyland and into the land of dreams to steal her brother back from the Queen.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett was a charming book to read. It is geared for a younger audience than I’m used to reading, as its protagonist is only nine years’ old. Independently from each other, two of my friends recommended this book to me upon hearing that I wasn’t a fan of Terry Pratchett. I mean, I enjoyed Good Omens (co-written with Neil Gaiman) and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, but the only other Discworld novel I had read was Mort, with which I was rather unimpressed. And yet it seemed almost wrong of me not to like Terry Pratchett, considering that several of my friends most vehemently did. So I checked out The Wee Free Men from the public library and yes, it was enjoyable to read. I’m still not head-over-heels for Terry Pratchett, and I’m not going to go out and read every Discworld novel there is, but at least I now know that I might like some Discworld.

My favourite thing about The Wee Free Men was, of course, the Nac Mac Feegle. They spoke in Scots with a thick Scottish Brogue and I could hear it in my heid. Er, head. ‘Nae king! Nae quin! Nae laird! Nae master! We willna be fooled again!’

My other home

After researching in London I went to Oxford for the Romance in Medieval Britain conference. I arrived two days before the conference so I could do some more research in the Bodleian and spend time with my travel-partner-in-crime Chris R. — of Portugal and Cyprus fame — and Oxford is our ‘home base of operations’ so to speak. As usual, we saw a play: Hamlet, performed by Creation Theatre, but otherwise we were both working. We walked into town together through the fog before parting ways at University Parks.

Whereas Chris went on to Wycliffe, I went to the Bodleian Special Collections. After walking around the outside of the Radcliffe Science Library, wandering through the maze, trying to get the change machine to work (and only having a £20-note, oy), and getting my bag stored in a locker at last, I went into the reading room, committed my name to paper and gave my Bod card over for ransom, and in return was handed the remaining printed fragments of the 1510 edition of Melusine.

(Yes, I did receive permission to take these photographs.)

I was expecting only two fragments… but there were six! I took as many notes as I could, and the Bodleian Special Collections will be seeing me again, once I have a better idea of what it is I’m looking for. Can’t you see why I love my job? How couldn’t you love a woodcut illustration of Geoffray with the Great Tooth fighting the giant Guedon? Continue reading