Book Reviews

Bitter Greens

By Kate Forsyth            Vintage Books 2012             Adult fiction

Score: 8.5/10                Genre: Historical Fiction & Dark Fairytale Retelling

Charlotte-Rose de la Force has been exiled to an austere nunnery by Louis XIV. The story follows her recollections of her journey from French country nobility to the decadence of the King’s court at Versailles. Charlotte-Rose is neither beautiful nor rich but gains admiration through her quick wit and storytelling abilities. Scandalous love affairs and accusations of witchcraft damage her reputation. Finally, she finds her true love but obstacles of different faiths and status conspire to force them apart.

The Rapunzel-based tale is a story within the story. It is told to Charlotte-Rose by an old nun, Soeur Seraphina while they work in the garden. La Strega is the youth-obsessed witch of the tale and Margherita, the beautiful girl who she abducts and imprisons in a high tower.

This is an ambitious novel blending genres of fairytale fantasy and historical fiction. Forsyth uses a backdrop of real historical figures and events. The settings of 16th century Venice (La Strega’s domain) and 17th century France are described in vivid detail – from the festivals of Venice, to the squalor of the Bastille to the ridiculous fashions of the French court -it is obvious all facets of French and Venetian life of the periods have being meticulously researched. The story of Charlotte-Rose (based on a real writer) could have stood alone as an historical fiction novel but the added fairytale strand inject magic and romanticism.

I wavered between preferring the Charlotte-Rose story and the Rapunzel story but I worried most of the way through about how the plot strands would come together in the end. Rest assured they do. The resolution of this story was satisfying and complete.

This wasn’t a page turner for me. Perhaps it was the inappropriate circumstances in which I read the novel (see below) or perhaps it was the sometimes confusing parade of French noble names or maybe the complexity of the plot didn’t allow enough room to relate intimately to the main characters. Strangely I admired this story more after I finished it than when I was in its midst.

A note about the cover: The quote from the The Age on the front cover says ‘A darkly compelling novel which simply seethes with sex scenes.’ There are sex scenes in this novel some passionate, some violent however to put this as a prominent main descriptor is, I think, a misrepresentation. It is more historical fiction than erotica.

Recommended for: Historical fiction lovers and those who are nostalgic for fairytales. Particularly recommended for those who have travelled or are planning to travel to Venice or France. Take this as a holiday (or post-holiday) read. It will add a level of magic to your view of historical landmarks and the countryside. I read this during a tour of Australian country towns and it just didn’t feel right.

Use for writers: Historical fiction writers – read this book and weep. The rich detail and the historical authenticity is hard to live up to. I believe Kate Forsyth when she says that she read many, many biographies and history books in the course of her research. She also travelled to Venice and France to immerse herself in the environment of the novel.

Writers could also learn a lot from the ending. The concluding chapters tied up all strands of the complex plot and left me, not only satisfied, but somewhat relieved. Like long matted tresses that are magically untangled and tied neatly in a snood.

The Nature Lover's Log

An adventure in spider identification


Without looking at the bottom of this post – Can you identify the spider in the pictures below?

My Seven Days of Wonder photo challenge re-ignited a passion for natural classification and identification. As a child my quirky pastime was classifying eucalypts, later, when I took up scuba diving marine invertebrates became my passion. Classification not only makes us feel clever because we can put a name to a particular living thing but it also puts that living thing in an evolutionary region which often explains their physiology, behaviors and adaptations.

Besides that, it’s a lot of fun. I like puzzles. I like nature and I like testing my observational skills.

My previous forays into classification were before the era of Google. Now I imagined, classification would be dead simple. Just put a description into google images and voila problem solved. Anybody could be a taxonomist now. No expertise required.

I searched Australian spiders with the terms like white hairy spider, spider with red band or folding spider. I couldn’t find an image that matched my picture. I scoured identification charts – which, as it turns out are of mainly venomous spiders. It appears most people only want to identify those that could potentially kill them (or at least make them very sick).

I didn’t have the luxury of looking at the underside of the critter and as it turned out I was a little misled by the circumstances of its discovery. This arachnid was found by my husband in a rusty handle of a wheelbarrow which had been lying on the ground. So I wrongly supposed this was a ground spider like a wolf spider or a funnel web. Although I knew it wasn’t the latter. That is one deadly spider I am very familiar with having grown up on the Central Coast of NSW where they are common. When my father dug out under our house to build a rumpus room we found dozens. The neighbours had a rockery and fish pond which we, affectionately, but not jokingly, called The Funnel Web Farm.

So what do you do when you are stumped? Dial a friend, of course.

I am lucky to have one of my writerly friends who is just as enthusiastic but more expert on everything creepy crawly and she not only relies on google but has those ancient but wondrous reference sources called books. So I asked Pat if she could help me out. After a few days she came back with an answer – by the way Pat only had the first picture – the one on the left to go by.

She suggested it was, a Garden Orb Weaver Spider.

She sent me a picture of a rather more chunky brownish spider. But importantly she also relayed a sentence from a book which said ‘Males have more spindly legs’.

I thought Pat was right but I wanted to be sure. I could now look at google with a specific search on the Male Garden Orb. I didn’t actually find a spider that looked exactly like ours but some similar. I learned that sometimes words are more important than pictures when it comes to identification. Apart from the ‘spindly leg’ sentence the following words on spider sites sealed the identification or Eriophora transmarina (Garden Orb Weaver Spider).

  • Garden Orbs Spiders play dead when threatened (Second picture. I’d called it folding previously – hence no hits)
  • Garden Orbs vary can vary greatly in shape, colouration and size. Apparently they can change with each moult to camouflage with their surrounds. Colours ranging from whitish(mine) orange, brown and black. From patterened with stripes to no pattern (there is a faintly distinguishable pattern on my second picture)
  • A garden Orb hides in leaf litter or bark during the day (It wasn’t a stretch for mine to hide in a wheelbarrow handle – probably more waterproof)
  • Garden Orb Weavers can be identified by the intricate rounded web – of course this was no help at all because I hadn’t seen the web but it made me feel a lot better about failing to identify this tricky shape/colour shifter.

I found only one site that referred obliquely to the Garden Orbs ability to flash red when in danger. The site showed a picture of a spider which had the same red band as mine around the middle. If this was only a temporary feature, no wonder I didn’t see it in many photos. If anybody can confirm this capability I would love to hear from you. Is there any other spiders that flash warning colours? How fascinating.

This has been a true adventure. With red herrings, sleuthing accomplices and an elusive adversary which tried its best to elude easy classification. I’m glad it wasn’t easy. I am thankful that Google images doesn’t always reveal the answers immediately. I like a bit of detective work.





The Nature Lover's Log

SDOW done and posted

These last few days it’s been wonderful seeing the posts of others as they load their seven photos for the Seven Days of Wonder, nature photo challenge. I have marvelled at different views of my home region – the Illawarra. But have also seen vistas from of the deserts of Dubai and the beaches of the Gold Coast. Have been challenged trying to identify spiders and even a snake. Have seen artistic SLR photography and equally as interesting phone shots. Have discussed the correct names of bushes and birds.

My proposal for Seven Days of Wonder was always an experiment. A shot in the dark. I didn’t know if anybody would take it up. There was always a possibility that my facebook and writerly friends would think I am crazed greenie with a strange idea (I suspect some do but at least they didn’t say so). So I was pleased when the photos started trickling into my facebook feed. However, I got no takers from twitter or blogs. I blame myself entirely. I set up the challenge on impulse without thinking how to interact with a wider audience. I don’t regret that, as I have learnt a lot about the logistics of the challenge without failing on the big stage.I have to go away and really think about what I want to achieve now if I am to continue issuing the SDOW challenges. My biggest problem is, not the concept (I am still passionate about that), but how to go forward regarding social media.

Should I set up a public facebook site?

What are the implications for administrating a page where anybody can post?

Is their copyright issues?

How do I get children involved?

How do I encourage people to contribute their own expertise and experience using comments.

Do I even want it to become bigger? (I have enjoyed being able to study all the posts)

I really don’t want SDOW to become a photography challenge as there is plenty of those. I want it to be an observational and educational challenge. There is a lot to consider and technical issues to negotiate. Even with the small scale of this first challenge I encountered issues with sharing settings that didn’t allow friends of friends to view the posts. Ah ! nothing is ever simple but then I didn’t expect it to be.

Thank you to those who supported my crazy idea. Above I’ve posted a selection of Illawarra photos (mine and others) taken during the challenge.

SDOW has achieved one of my selfish motivations and reignited my passion for backyard biology. It has spurred me on to create another blog stream which I am going to call the Nature Lovers Log. This won’t be entirely at odds with my creativity/writerly blog as much of my inspiration (and others far greater than me) comes from nature. Come to think of it, most of my writer friends are also lovers of the outdoors and/or gardens and animals. Maybe there is a connection there.