Category Archives: Reviews

The lies we tell ourselves

I’ve recently finished reading The Wheel of Osheim – the third book in Mark Lawrence’s trilogy The Red Queen’s War, and while anything published by Harper Voyager is normally too famous for my book hipster standards, I like Mark. And, I knew him before he was famous. I liked him before he was cool.

Mark Lawrence is an author who can write tales that work on a lot of levels. A fast paced adventure trilogy, with witty dialogue, action, shagging, demons, magic and all the things you’d expect from a popular fantasy series. But alongside that, there are themes and concepts to chew on, and that’s why I find these books so engaging. It’s not just surface amusement.

For me, the major theme of the Red Queen’s War trilogy, is the impact of the stories and lies we tell ourselves, and each other. The central character, Jalan, has a big story about how he’s a coward and a man with no morals worth mentioning. But he gets caught up in other people’s stories, other people’s ideas about who and what he’s supposed to be and ends up doing all sorts of heroically out of character things.

We all assemble our lives out of stories. We tell ourselves things about who we are, and what we’re doing and why. We do that to justify actions that maybe aren’t justified at all. We do it to excuse shortcomings, to explain poor choices and mistakes. We tell stories about how other people impacted on us, the ones who saved us, the ones who are our enemies… and we tell these stories so well and so often and with such conviction that we often forget they are stories, and that other versions of events exist.

At the same time, we can talk ourselves into other roles and story-shapes, if we want to. We can talk each other into being braver and honest, into trusting instincts and following our inspiration. We can tell each other stories that help us get through the day, or get things done.

So, if you’d like a story that will entertain you, but that may also give you a bit of an existential crisis, do check out Mark Lawrence. And while you’re doing it, ask yourself what story you are telling about your own life and nature.

Find Mark here – http://mark—lawrence.blogspot.co.uk/


The Knowing

The things that get passed down through our family lines, the stories, and demons, the things that are part of us because we’re playing out historical dramas, have been a fascination of mine for a long time. How we break free from all that, or work with it, or make peace with it… There’s a modern tendency to see ourselves as self-made people, products of now, of our immediate environments and education, and not to go poking into how generations of experience might have had a hand in shaping us. Yet here in the UK, land ownership still owes a lot to the Norman invasion. Inequality has deep roots.

Stories pass down family lines. Obvious ones are anecdotal or about descent and history. Less obvious ones just say things like ‘that’s not for the likes of us.’ In singing families, songs pass down through generations as well, and tradition bearers of this sort have done a lot to keep folk alive. I don’t have that depth of ancestry – my grandmother came to folk during the sixties folk revival, but I do have songs I learned from her singing them, and with luck a grandchild or great grandchild of mine will be able to feel that they have a musical lineage.

There aren’t many authors I’ve run into who explore the magical possibilities of music – Charles De Lint, obviously. I guess part of it is that the character breaking away from roots and tradition seems more inherently exciting than the character who is steeped in or reconnecting with their family traditions. Dramatic change is the stuff of conventional fiction, especially speculative fiction. Deep rootedness seems at odds with that.

These are some of the many thoughts sparked by reading Kevan Manwaring’s The Knowing. It’s a speculative novel deeply rooted in faerie folklore and traditional stories. The central character, Janey, comes from a line of women who are song bearers, and the magical power of song is critical to her journey. Drawing on the tales of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, and on the curious history of Robert Kirk, and on the folklore in the landscape of both Scotland and the Smoky Mountains, this is a story with deep roots. It’s also a story set very much in the here and now, full of unexpected turns and twists.

For most of human history, song and storytelling have been intrinsic to our lives. It’s only really post industrialisation than the majority of us have been uprooted from our traditions and encouraged to accept mass produced entertainment instead. What used to be a shared culture has been replaced by economic ventures. But, I also see these same modes of communication being used to reclaim tradition and breathe new life into it. With a background in storytelling, Kevan is well placed to bring old enchantment into the world in new forms. It’s not the means of delivery that matters most, but what it is that we have to deliver.

Find The Knowing here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Knowing-Fantasy-Kevan-Manwaring-ebook/dp/B06XKKFGFV/


Bards of the Heath

Imagine, if you will, a fantasy situation in which some scholar of mediaeval music discovers a whole collection of overtly Pagan songs from the period. If that notion appeals to you, keep reading. It occurred to me because it best sums up how I feel having listened to two albums from Bards of the Heath.

Mix’t Blessing and Moonpathways are albums full of original, contemporarily written music, but most of the songs have a timeless quality. This is music with deep roots. Leading the proceedings is the distinctive voice of John Goodluck, earthy and expressive. The musicians are Jo Arcand, Pete Gosling, Bill Johnston, Des Hart, Janine Batchelor, Graham Tilt, with extra support from Rob Lummis, Andy Mappleback, Richard Edmondson, Sheila and David Haskins. That at a glance makes it clear that Bards of the Heath are as much a tribe as a band, with deep community roots.

This is music rooted in a deep understanding of the folk tradition – arrangements, instruments, tunes, all evoke folk even when they are wholly new. There’s a deep rooting also in the folklore of the land and in contemporary Pagan traditions. Listening to the lyrics, it’s also clear that these songs are written from a place of long relationship with the cycles of the seasons, the festivals and the wild world.

All of this comes together in a sound that is fundamentally uplifting. The subject matter isn’t always light and cheery, but the music always holds hope, and a feeling of possibility. It’s very danceable (event organisers take note!).

Find out more at http://johngoodluck.webs.com/bards-of-the-heath


The Life & Times of Algernon Swift

The first time I met Bill Jones was in the Stroud High Street, where he tried to sell me a pun. The pun in question was on a postcard. Since then, I’ve followed Bill round a fair bit – well around Stroud at any rate. He gigs more widely but I’m not an especially dedicated stalker. He does performance misery that often turns out to be strangely amusing. And now, this. The Life & Times of Algernon Swift.

This is a small novel, so heavily illustrated and possessed of word balloons that it is classified as a graphic novel. The illustrations are all black ink, which works well for all the comments about colour in the landscape. Bill is very good at catching moods – gloom, anxiety, perplexedness, worry… as Algernon Swift nervously makes his way through a cloudy world.

The cover warns that the book contains over 200 puns. Readers of a delicate disposition need to be aware of the dangers. I hurt myself reading this book – my sides, mostly. Some peculiar and unexpected noises came out of my face while reading – hooting, snorting sounds of amusement, and a fair sprinkling of punished groans. (For reasons of decency I am limiting myself to just the one pun in this review, and that was it.)

If you like whimsy and wordplay, and have a decent tolerance level for double meanings, and were not viciously bitten by a pun at a tender age, this may be just the thing for you.

You can find it here on amazon, and no doubt other places as well.


By Wolfsbane & Mandrake Root

One of the things I particularly like about author Melusine Draco is her willingness to look at the darker side of things. There can be a tendency to try and airbrush Pagan history, to sanitise us for reasons of both personal comfort and wider public presentation, despite all the evidence that the human history of magic is not all peace, love and rainbow unicorns.

Poisoning and witchcraft have long been linked, and one of the things the book does is to explore those connections and whether it’s a fair point.

Wolfsbane & Mandrake Root explores the use of poisons in magic and in healing. Often plants with the capacity to heal are potentially poisonous as well – with much depending on the quantity deployed. It’s something of an antidote to amateur herbalism as it really demonstrates how easily a person can get this wrong, and some of the anecdotal tales about herb use recommended by the internet is truly hair-raising!

This is not a book designed for people to use it as a herbal workbook. It’s a good reference book, and because it’s what I do, l read the whole thing flat out, cover to cover. It was surprisingly entertaining and readable for a text clearly designed for the greater part to be dipped in and out of. If you like this sort of thing, it’s exactly the sort of book to read. If you firmly believe that all herbs are benevolent and that nature is kind, this book is going to give you some serious headaches.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/pagan-portals-by-wolfsbane-mandrake-root

If you like peering into the darker side, I can also recommend Melusine’s By Spellbook and Candle (hexing and cursing) – http://www.moon-books.net/books/pagan-portals-by-spellbook-candle


New Goddess Book

 

 

I’ve been a fan of Karen Tate’s work for some time, and her new anthology, Goddess 2.0 turns out to be entirely brilliant. It’s an anthology walking its talk by offering a diverse array of voices and opinions – not all of which fit neatly together. Being able to come together without having to have total agreement is one of the core tenets of this new work.

The anthology brings together some powerful voices, including Carol P Christ and Starhawk, along with others I hadn’t heard of before. The essays range from the personal through to large scale political insight. Some look back at history, recent and ancient, to track the route Goddess thinking has taken, some look forward to consider where we are going next. There’s much to chew on.

I don’t self-identify as a Goddess worshipper, but the vision of a world inspired by the divine feminine is one that appeals to me. I love the way that this book moves past much of the vague language of patriarchy to talk in terms that are broader and more human. The issue of how one person having power over another, or over some other part of the natural world, is inherently problematic, is a recurring theme. Co-operation must replace competition. Any ideas about any group of people having power by default over any other group of people has to go. It’s a simple enough idea, and gets to the heart of the problems we currently face.

There are many things we might do as individuals to help change things for the better. This book is full of ideas and observations. I found it uplifting and encouraging to read, and came away with a clearer sense of why things are currently as they are, and how I can help create change for the better.

More about the book here – http://www.karentate.com/Tate/Book-Goddess2.html 


For the love of God, Marie!

Some books are not easily described, so as I fumble my way towards a review, let me start by clarifying that this is a brilliant, surprising sort of book and I really liked it.

For the love of God, Marie! is a graphic novel by Jade Sarson. Page by page it is indeed a comic, but there’s a lot of it and a proper novel shape, so ‘graphic novel’ seems the right term. The main character, Marie, starts out in the 6th form of a Catholic school in the 60s, and we follow her through her trials and adventures into the 90s.

It’s a beautifully drawn book. There are some manga influences, so for the less manga literate odd things (like being able to see where a person’s eyebrows are regardless of where their hair is) may cause confusion. You have to trust the artist and trust that what she’s showing you is more important than a literal representation. I found it a visually accessible book, although Jade does challenge you to keep up with the action sometimes and doesn’t spell everything out. She uses a fairly limited pallet to remarkable effect and she really, really knows what people look like.

I knew before I got the book that it had a significant amount of erotic content. I’d expected it to be a romp, but once it gets going, the story I found touching through to heartbreaking. Marie sets out to love everyone, especially the people deemed least loveable. There’s an innocence to her, an obliviousness to the idea of sexual sin. However, as a Catholic schoolgirl, with Catholic parents, she’s subjected to continual humiliation and slut shaming because she loves too much. Misunderstood, she doesn’t get any easy time of it, and fate plays some cruel tricks on her.

Representations of polyamorous folk in literature are few. Promiscuous men (and that’s not the same thing) aren’t so unusual, but women who are plural in their loving, don’t show up much. This is the least erotic book I’ve encountered with a polyamorous lead; a bisexual character and a woman whose life and sexual identity don’t stop in response to motherhood or becoming middle aged. I wish there was more of this sort of thing.

There’s a naked woman on the cover of the book. If naked people having a good time offend you, then you won’t like it. We live in a culture that fears sex, is horrified by it, doesn’t want people under the age of 18 looking at it but will cheerfully show them depictions of war and murder. This has always confused me. But then, I found a lot to empathise with in Marie, and I’d rather live in a world where no one is condemned for loving too much.

More about the book here – http://www.myriadeditions.com/books/for-the-love-of-god-marie/


Hope and Matlock the Hare

This autumn I undertook to re-read the Matlock the Hare trilogy – I proof-read the third volume earlier in the year, and that’s not the optimal reader experience. Plus, I wanted to read the series as a whole from a position of understanding what it’s really about.

Book 1 of the Matlock series introduces Matlock the Hare, on his quest to solve a riddle to become officially more magical. As a magical hare, he’s got three such tests to do, and the reader can be forgiven for thinking this sounds like wizard school for hares. But it isn’t. As Matlock sets out in book 2 on trial number 2, it’s increasingly obvious that the glorious magical world he inhabits is beset by problems. When you get to book 3 it becomes evident that the story you were reading is not really the plot at all, which is all I am going to say on the subject.

Re-reading the trilogy, it struck me how clever the whole thing is – the apparent main plot line distracts you from a whole other story that’s being woven right under your nose, and becomes visible only towards the end of the third book. The re-reading process is full of new surprises and delights as you start to see how the real story was there all along, hiding in plain sight.

What struck me most on the second time through was the mix of political satire, and hope. Making dark comedy out of modern politics is in many ways a natural reaction, but usually there’s a quality of despair to it. To poke the heaving mess that is modern politics while remaining warm-hearted, and able to encourage people to hope for the best, is an incredible achievement. We need more of this sort of thing.

On the second read, the third volume had me in tears. Not over the overtly sad bits, or the twizzly bits, but over a long passage about the importance of hope and how to live well. Life at the moment can feel like a desert where hope is just a dead thing whose bones you can see. But, in the Magical Dales, hope is alive and well, and waiting to be found.

Commercialmass is looming as I write this blog. If you need to gift someone with something good, do consider getting this set – it’s beautiful stuff, with gorgeous illustrations, giggles/chickles (did I mention a language to learn?) the routine puncturing of officious pomposity, crumlush creatures, and hope. Lots of hope. It is a series you can read repeatedly, and that stands up to close inspection, without tidying itself up too neatly – I always feel a bit cheated by that. The books leave you with plenty to wonder about, while also providing a very satisfying sort of read.

More here about Phil and Jacqui Lovesey’s Matlock the Hare  – http://www.matlockthehare.com/


Along the Way: A review

 

Author Simon Cole comes from a counselling background to the subject of meditation, and the result is a small book which I can wholeheartedly recommend. I’ve never seen an approach to mediation quite like this before!

How the book works is that you get a section of philosophy, pondering the kind of broad life issues that most people will be able to relate to. Then you get a short meditation that allows you to take those ideas further on your own terms.

This is very much a contemplative approach to meditation. There’s quite a lot of the ‘just noticing’ that I’ve seen in meditations that claim a Zen-approach, but again Cole’s book is not like anything I’ve seen before. Noticing becomes a deliberate process of engaging with a series of things – perhaps in your body or your immediate environment. It’s an invitation to engage with the world in a non-judgemental way, and to see what arises from that.

It’s a beautifully non-dogmatic little book, with invitations aplenty for the reader to go their own way, come to their own conclusions and hold their own beliefs.

The sections are short, making it ideal for people who need a pointer for a brief meditation – an ideal book to keep to hand for when you need a prompt or a focus. These are great exercises for busy minds, and for the kinds of people who want to take the stillness of meditation and do something with it.

I thought it was great, I’ll definitely be reading his most recent title soon.

Along the way on amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Along-Way-themed-meditations-living/dp/1539065308/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1477315631&sr=1-1&keywords=along+the+way%2Csimon+cole


Shapeshifting into Higher Consciousness

 

I must confess this is a book I’ve known about for ages and not picked up because I assumed it would be too New Age for me. However, reading bits of articles from Llyn Roberts, and hearing some of her youtube videos, I realised I’d very likely made a mistake. So I spent the weekend reading this one.

Shapeshifting, is essentially a magical way of talking about change. Changing ourselves, our outlook, our perspective and changing what we do and how we are in the world as a consequence. Llyn offers an array of tools from Shamanic cultures to help the reader do this. It’s a very readable book, the exercises are very usable – you can pick out odd ones, or work with them as a more deliberate project.

There are a number of things I particularly liked.

Firstly this is a book full of interesting meditation work. I get bored silly, and frustrated, when meditation is presented just as emptying your mind and observing your thoughts. I like creative approaches, and this has them in abundance. There are some really innovative guided meditations here, and the kind of work that can take a person from meditation into true journeying. There’s also guidance for facilitating the meditations for groups, which is rare and valuable content.

Secondly, the author draws on shamanic traditions from all over the world, and does so clearly from a basis of having studied with many indigenous teachers. However, the result is not some kind of single amalgamated shamanism – Llyn places practices within cultures and traditions, points out differences of world view as well as similarities, and paves the way for a reader to go on and read other titles or follow up in other ways. It feels very respectful, and is certainly rich with insights, mixing more conventionally teacherly material with anecdotes from personal experience.

The third thing that really struck me is how far the core ethos of the book is from New Age thinking. It’s not about personal enlightenment, or personal gain or using your will to get everything you want. This is a book about being a conscious and responsible inhabitant of the Earth. It’s a book that supports activism, ecological and social responsibility. While there’s every encouragement to dream big and manifest your intentions, it’s also very clear that we all have a duty to do that in sustainable ways that don’t have a ghastly price tag on them that someone or something else will be obliged to pay.

I can entirely recommend this book for offering meditation material I’ve not seen anywhere else, and a responsible but also inspiring outlook on how we might all do a better job of managing our place in the world.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/shapeshifting-into-higher-consciousness