Category Archives: Reviews

Gatherer of Souls – a review

Gatherer of Souls, by Lorna Smithers, is a collection of poetry and short stories about Gwyn ap Nudd that offers a radical re-think of Arthurian mythology. Physically speaking, this is a small book – 114 pages – but what it covers is both vast and important.

Lorna has been studying Arthurian mythology for some time, going into older texts, and reading in more detail than most of us do. What she’s unearthed – and followers of her blog will already know about this – is the questionable nature of Arthur’s activities. We’re been sold Arthur as chivalric hero, protector of Britain, once and future king… but get into his stories and it’s all slaughter and theft. He’s a personification of patriarchy, and a killer of old mysteries and magics.

This is a book that assumes its readers have probably read some of the Arthurian material and aren’t basing all their knowledge on modern, pop-culture representations. I suspect that without at least an awareness of the older material, this would be a challenging read.

The Gatherer of Souls referred to in the title is Gwyn ap Nudd – a character whose story is interlaced with Arthur’s in legends. It seems likely that he is a far older figure. He is the ruler of Annwn – the realm Arthur plunders for treasures. He’s associate with faery, with otherworlds, underworlds and the dead. He is the enigma at the centre of the book, and even though Lorna gives us some pieces in his voice, he remains beyond us, essentially unknowable.

The use of voices in this collection is fascinating – across time, they speak of experiences and encounters that connect with Arthurian versions but recast them from different perspectives. The voices of those who have no voices in the usual versions of the tales. Often these are figures whose deaths are a brief interlude on the way to some victory or another. In telling these other tales, Lorna deconstructs the way Arthur as patriarch abuses wildlife, women, and anything magical or other.

It’s a very intense book, and I found I had to read it slowly and make time for digesting before I tried to move on. I’m confident it’s a book that will reward re-reading because there’s so much going on here that one read doesn’t do it justice. I find these are stories I needed. Arthur has been in my life as long as I can remember. I first became uneasy about him as a figure when failing to plough through Le Morte D’Arthur, struggling with the absence of real enchantment. It came into focus for me while working on a graphic novel of the same book and seeing again how empty and uneasy I find this supposedly chivalric dream.

I’ve been following Lorna’s blogs for some time, and I’ve learned a great deal from her work on Arthurian myths. I find the creative responses she’s shared in this book answer a need in me. A hunger I didn’t know I had for some other, wilder, and not-kingly take on things.

I heartily recommend this book. You can buy it here – https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/publications/gatherer-of-souls/ 

Advertisements

In SatNav We Trust – a review

One of the great things about being a reviewer is when authors come back to share their new adventures in life and publishing. Back in 2013 I reviewed Jack Barrow’s The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil. Now he’s back, with something completely different!

Over a period of six weeks, Jack toured every county in England – the historic ones, not the modern metropolitan areas because he was camping and no one in their right mind wants to camp in a metropolitan area. This is an adventure that from my perspective, involves alarming amounts of driving, but, there’s a lot of good in it, so, I’m going to focus on that.

Taking in a county a day is of course just a ruse. It allows the author to have experiences and reflect on life, landscape, free will, identity, and rationality. It is the philosophical process that really engaged me, more than the often surreal exploration of England. For anyone who enjoys some non-academic philosophy, this is a great read – it’s all totally accessible and highly relevant to how we live and think.  Ideas about rationality and the place of the irrational in our lives are probably going to stay with me in perpetuity.

All too often, adventure writing is about the antics of privilege – it’s usually for the well off and well resourced. Adventure is usually portrayed as ‘away’ in some distant, exotic place. Adventurers so often go looking for pristine landscapes to adventure in, away from other humans – In SatNav We Trust is a glorious rejection of all of that. Jack goes to camp sites. He camps in places that anyone could camp in, and while his adventure format isn’t for everyone, he signposts the scope for much more affordable adventuring. The book demonstrates that a person can have interesting experiences without having to sleep on the side of a mountain, or having to dig holes to poo in!

I can probably forgive Jack for the miles he clocks up on this tour, simply because he demonstrates how we can have adventures where we live. Every county has plenty to offer. There’s history, landscape and fascinating people to be found everywhere and anywhere. It’s ok to be a small scale adventurer, finding joy and excitement in the little discoveries along the way.

The book is written with wit and self awareness. It’s entertaining, and thoughtful, and easy to dip in and out of. It may well be the sort of book people end up buying as a gift for Father’s Day. It’s also an invitation to plan your own mad tour on whatever terms you like. A tour of places that have given their names to cheese rather appeals to me.

Taking the adventure one step further, Jack Barrow is publishing with Unbound. For those of you not familiar with this, it’s an unusual publishing company that raises subscriptions and then publishes once a book is funded. Historically, a lot of houses used to do this, often depending on rich patrons to get a book moving. These days of course crowd funding allows us all to get involved. You can get a copy of this book by pledging now, and then when it funds, everything moves and you get a copy. As with other crowdfunding arrangements, if you want more than just a book, there are options – do saunter over to the website and have a look! https://unbound.com/books/in-satnav-we-trust/

And there’s more information about the book over here – http://jack-barrow.com/travelogue-in-satnav-we-trust/ 


Daughter of Light and Shadow – a review

At the surface, this is an erotic romance novel with magic in it. There is a lot of very sexy fairy content, and great fun it is, too. But that’s not really what the book is about. This is a novel about a young woman coming into her own power, dealing with why she is, what she is, where she comes from and, seeing all of that, starting to make deliberate choices about her life. The sex might be wild, but it certainly can’t save her. The love is there in her life, but it isn’t the magic answer to everything. And as for the magic – until she deals with her own shadow self it is as likely to trip her up as it is to help her.

There’s a nice balance here between escapist, folklore-based fantasy, and concepts a person can get their teeth into. If you like your fantasy well rooted, this is the business. The fairy side is steeped in folklore and tradition, giving us fairies who are cold, other, unreasonable, fickle, charming and exceedingly dangerous. These are more like the fairies from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell than the pretty things of standard modern urban romance. The magic has a strong elemental component to it, and again there’s folklore in the mix as well as material drawn from modern Paganism. There are the witchy ancestors who so often a feature in witchlit, and there’s the question of ancestral wounding.

I’ve seen this come up a few times in various novels now. Anyone writing a modern witch with a witchy ancestry immediately hits the issue of historical persecutions. This book tackles the issue of ancestral wounding head on, while making clear that many of the people persecuted for witchcraft historically were victims who had nothing to do with witchcraft but were vulnerable in some way. It’s nicely done.

If you’re looking for fairy romance, this probably isn’t the book for you because it doesn’t uphold the habits of the romance genre very well. If like me, you prefer stories that surprise you, this is much more interesting. If you’re looking for stories about love and sex that don’t make them the only considerations in a young woman’s life, then Anna McKerrow is an author I can very much recommend. If you want passionate, full blooded witch lit with magic you can relate to and characters who live in the real world at least some of the time, this is a good book to pick up.


Faery Godmother Oracle Cards – a review

I was sent Flavia Kate Peter’s Faery Godmother oracle cards to review. I’m fond of oracle cards, although I’ve noticed over the years the whether they work depends a lot on whether they chime with your life stage. I reviewed a set elsewhere last year that assumed the total spiritual inexperience of the user and I didn’t find much of any help in those! Figuring out who a set is for, and whether you are that person is often the challenge.

I’ve been using these cards for a few weeks now, pulling one of an evening and seeing what it gives me. They’ve been remarkably predictive. I usually take oracle cards as an opportunity to look inside my own head, but these have, unexpectedly, been flagging up things to come in the day or two after reading them.

These are cards for a person who is trying to figure themselves out. I think they’re most relevant for someone going through a life change. I think they’re ideal for teens for that reason. As an often confused menopausal life form, I found them relevant, and good food for thought.

Mostly what these cards do is invite you to look at how you interpret what you experience, and how you choose to behave. There’s guidance here to steer you towards self knowledge, recognition of what you could be, kindness to others, and ways of being a better sort of human.  That’s another reason to put them in the hands of teenagers. I like the underpinning belief that we have a lot of control over our thoughts and actions and that we can indeed choose the people we want to be by choosing to change how we think and act.

 

 

If art is key in your oracle card choices, you’ll need to look at the images to decide. Helpful flip through here –

 

I can’t say the art really did it for me, but I enjoyed using the cards nonetheless. When I pulled the card ‘wishes’ and the text asked me what I really wished for, I had a moment of realising that for all that faery godmother oracles are charming, what I really want, is to be able to get in there and be a faery godmother for other people!

More about the cards here – https://www.barbarameiklejohnfree.com/product/new-faery-godmother-oracle-cards/ 


Lord of the Wyrde Woods – a review

Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrde are two books but between them are one story so I’m reviewing them as a pair – their collective title is Lord of the Wyrde Woods. You have to read them in the right order and the first one doesn’t stand alone.

It’s been a while since an author has so completely captured my imagination. Neverland is a rundown area, with a facility for young people who have already fallen through the cracks. Narrator Wenn is one such young person. She’s had an awful life full of monstrous betrayals and setbacks, and she is as bitter and angry as you might expect. One of the threads in this book is the story of her learning to trust again and open her heart. It is the woods that she first lets in, and then the people associated with the woods. The story about learning to become a fully functioning human when reality has beaten you down, is a powerful one.

Going into the woods offers Wenn respite from the miseries of her daily life. What she finds there is enchantment. Most of this is the kind of enchantment any of us could find by getting out into greener places around us. There were obvious parallels to be drawn with Mythago Wood, but where Holdstock’s vision tells us the magic is largely unavailable, Nils Visser does the opposite. He invites us to see our surroundings in these terms, too. These novels are an invitation to magic, and to personal re-enchantment.

The story itself weaves folklore and history together around a series of locations. There’s a fair smattering of radical politics, and a fair amount of paganism, too. The story places human narratives in a landscape, and does so to powerful effect. The tale itself is full of magical possibility, but it’s also startling, sometimes devastating, haunting and full of surprises. If you enjoy the kinds of things I blog about, these books are for you and I think you’ll find much to love in them.

This is a story about how important it is to have stories about your landscape. It is through stories that we stop seeing places as so much scenery and start to have a more involved relationship with them. Those can be mythic and folkloric stories, they can be historical, and they can be personal. They can also be the stories we imagine of what would happen somewhere like this.  The process of learning and creating stories, and storying yourself into a landscape is a powerful one, beautifully illustrated in this novel.

I loved these books so very much. I heartily recommend them.

You can find Nils’s work on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nils-Nisse-Visser/e/B00OK5RMSY


Quiet – a review

Quiet, by Susan Cain, reviewed by Guest Blogger Stephen Palmer

There is a difference between extrovert and introvert, but it’s not the difference most people think of when they hear those descriptions. The standard view is of party animals versus non-party animals. Dorothy Rowe explained that extroverts feel a more real outer world, and are uncomfortable with being on their own since their inner world is more insubstantial, whereas introverts feel a more real inner world, and are often uncomfortable in the hurly burly of social life. Introverts can be happy in times of solitude: extroverts alone feel a void inside themselves, and seek company.

This is one useful explanation, given by a master of the field. Susan Cain’s equivalent in her remarkable book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking is based around the concept of sensitivity, which is in the main a biologically determined quality. We all have different types of brains. Our brains, linked to our many senses, operate at various levels of sensitivity – introverts tend towards maximal sensitivity, extroverts towards the norm, or less.

“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic… They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive… They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments – both physical and emotional – unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss – another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”

When I was younger I wondered for a long time why I was so different to most of my friends and colleagues in this regard, and it all comes down to my high level of introversion. In fact I got a triple dose – one dose from each parent, plus being right-brained. That’s a hell of a lot of introversion to have to cope with.

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

Is this starting to ring some bells with you…? Then you’re an introvert, and you should stop trying to fit in with the extrovert world that we have in the West. (One of the most interesting chapters in Quiet is the one contrasting the Western ideal of extroversion with the Eastern ideal of introversion – although there is more to it than that dichotomy.) Susan Cain is strong and determined in her critique of Western extrovert standards:

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

Many people in the literary world will grasp all this; we literate types are quiet thinkers. If you feel likewise, then Quiet is for you.

The book is split into four sections. The first deals with what Susan Cain calls the extrovert ideal, and this is done mostly from an American perspective. Part two deals with the tricky subject of nature versus nurture – biology versus self, but also the role of free will in changing behaviour, and the roles of risk and reward. Examples given include the Roosevelts and Warren Buffett. Part three is a single chapter on Asian-Americans and how they deal with the American cultural standard of high sociability and constant conversation. Part four deals with strategies for the introvert, and for the extroverts who live with them.

This book is also great because it features some brilliant and pithy quotes:

“Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe”

“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”

Another crucial aspect of this book is Susan Cain’s separation of shyness and introversion, which many people use as interchangeable concepts. But they’re not:

“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.”

In a nutshell, for anybody who has gone through social hell or even just anxiety, and who wonders why they feel exhausted at the end of a whirl of socialising – even if that’s spending time with friends or family in the most relaxed of circumstances – this is the book for you. It made a big difference in my own life, as I was finally able to explain a few of my own puzzling character traits. Understanding introversion is the first step on the road to coping with it. I spent a long time not coping, but, luckily, now I do.

“Now that you’re an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much”, a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral. Or maybe there’s another word for such people: thinkers.”

This was for me one of the most inspirational of books. It was given to me completely out of the blue by a friend of mine. I still thank him for that kindness when occasionally I see him.

 

 


The Weight of Expectation – a review

This is a very small, very powerful comic. Writer Oli Williams and illustrator Jade Sarson explore how stigma associated with bodyweight and size impacts on people. The visual storytelling here is brilliant, and gives a real sense of an experience that is felt in the flesh.

I did not find this an easy read, and at the same time, I found it enormously helpful. I’ve dealt with fat shaming and body loathing my whole life. I saw something of my own experiences reflected here. That was both painful and cathartic. At the moment, I’m about the smallest I’ve ever been, and as someone small enough to buy regular high street clothes I know that I effectively have more thin privilege than not. But at the same time, like some of the characters in this comic, the words of fatness are written into my flesh through years of struggle, and I cannot look at my own body without seeing that.

One of the things I really love about Jade’s work here, is her ability to depict large people without making them grotesque or ridiculous. The idea that people are intrinsically loveable, that human bodies are loveable and acceptable is a theme I see reoccurring in her work and I am deeply glad of it.

More about The Weight of Expectation here – http://teahermit.co.uk/


Girls who are too good for this world

In the last few weeks, I’ve read two books, quite accidentally, with some similar themes. They were, The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy, and The Queen of Love, by Sabine Baring-Gould.  The Constant Nymph was published in 1924, The Queen of Love was published in 1894, and I think the dates are important because the options for young ladies with complicated romances in their lives were pretty limited – you married them, or they ruined you, or you were forever alone.

Both novels feature a young lady who is wild and original and lives on her own terms and to her own standards. Both of these young women fail to please or appease the people around them, who are revealed as hypocrites by contrast. The young ladies are authentic, passionate, wholehearted and fundamentally good. The people who think ill of them are mean spirited, obsessed with social appearances, and oblivious to the true value of what’s in front of them.

In one of these books, the young lady dies. I won’t say which one, because it’s the only way I can talk about this and avoid spoilers. She dies, because there’s really no way out for her that allows her to remain true and good, aside from death. The girl who lives does so because there are some good people around her, not just the mean spirited hypocrites. The good people shelter her, and she is able to build on that. The girl who has no friends, has no options. They really are girls, too. One is fifteen by the end of the book, the other is seventeen during most of the action.

I think characters like these are ancestors of the manic pixie dream girl. They’re too good for this world, too pure of heart for the impure interpretations of those around them. All too often, people who create such characters cannot imagine a viable future for them, or a way of life in which they might get to be happy and secure. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a similar figure – a woman who is inherently good in herself but betrayed by all the key people in her life. Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth offers another in the same vein.

Older books tend to punish fallen women by killing them. Women are not allowed to come out of love affairs unscathed – even the most innocent love affairs (with all due regard to The Mill on the Floss). Women who give too much of themselves and do not pay enough attention to social norms, are punished for it in much of our older literature. We seem to have replaced this wild, social misfit with new, similar figures who also have no future, and no imaginable life. They come into stories to shake men up, to re-enchant and re-inspire and then they slip away – they don’t die as often as they used to, certainly, but they do still die. And yes, I’m still angry about Bridge to Terabithia.

It makes a pleasant change to read an older novel in which a girl who is both wild and good, comes out on top in the end. The prejudice of those who judge her is revealed for what it is. The true virtues of the girl shine through, and she is not killed to protect the hypocrisy of people who consider themselves better than her. I wish there were more stories of this shape. I think these are stories we need, in which wild women are allowed to live on their own terms. Women who are allowed to be passionate, and sexual, and true to themselves, and who are not crushed by society for being as they are. Alongside that we need the room for actual women who are actually wild and unconforming and I know from firsthand experience how much judgement and prejudice remains in the world for women who don’t behave in just the right way.


Hopeless Maine Sinners – a review

Rather than me writing a book review this week, I thought I’d send you over to a review for my most recent graphic novel, Hopeless Maine – Sinners. It would be fair to say that this isn’t a review from a neutral and objective source.

Meredith is a contributor to The Hopeless Vendetta  she performed on stage with us last year when we were involved in Stroud Book Festival, she’s been a test player for the game and is going to more involved in Hopeless things in the future. She’s one of the people I write for.

There’s always a certain amount of urge to like a friend’s book, and to review it kindly. However, there’s also a different process, where we come to love people because we love their work. If you enter into a relationship with anyone else’s creativity, that will inform how you talk about what they do. To be neutral and objective is to be on the outside of a story, and maybe that’s not the best outcome.

You can read Meredith’s review here – https://meredithdebonnaire.wordpress.com/2018/07/12/book-review-hopeless-maine-sinners-by-tom-and-nimue-brown/


Tommy Catkins – a review

Tommy Catkins is the new novel from Stephen Palmer, whose Factory Girl Trilogy I was very taken with. It’s a story that mixes history and fantasy, and does not encourage you to feel confident about what’s real, and what’s delusion brought on by trauma.

The central character – Tommy – is a massive enigma. The odds seem good that his name is not really Tommy Catkins at all. He’s lied about his age. He doesn’t remember a lot of what happened to him. He doesn’t know if he’s mad, or too afraid to go back to the trenches. He doesn’t know if what he sees in the puddles and river are real, or manifestations from his own broken mind. In some senses he’s an everyboy, all the kids who signed up to fight in the First World War, and who paid with their minds and bodies. There are hints about a personal background, but we’re never allowed to see it, we can only wonder. The story keeps us very much on the outside of his experiences, which of course we are bound to be, because we weren’t there, and we don’t understand.

For me what was most interesting about the story is the way is catches shifts in mental health understanding. Up until the First World War, mental anguish was often treated as a female issue – hysteria – and not taken very seriously. The impact of shell shock on officers and men alike changed public and medical attitudes to the issue of trauma. We went from shooting men for cowardice to taking their broken nerves seriously. The novel explores some of the appalling methods that were attempted as ‘cures’ and the pressure to get sick men back to the front. The idea that mental anguish in face of experience might be the root cause, not a physical reaction, is something the book explores.

This isn’t a comfortable read. It’s a haunting and deeply uneasy book that won’t offer you tidy solutions. If you’re looking for uncomplicated escapism, this isn’t it, but it is a book that can speak in some unsettling ways to that urge for escapism.