Category Archives: Reviews

A Stranger Dream – review

I don’t dabble that much in colouring books, in part because I frequently end up colouring for work purposes. However, I was asked if I’d review this, and I said yes, for the simple reason that creator Sarah Snell-Pym is a very lovely person. She’s also got what I can only describe as a unique mind, and as a consequence what she’s made is a truly unusual colouring book.

The front cover describes it as ‘a non-linear visual poem about identity… in an adult colouring book.’ The poem is embedded in the images and you have to find the words, some of them are more obvious than other. That calls for a deep engagement with each page, and it gives a strange coherence to the book as a whole.

The art is only on one side of any given sheet of paper. This means that by colouring in one image, you don’t mess up another one – especially an issue if you want to use pens or inks.

There’s a lot of variance in terms of how much of the page you are offered for colouring. Some pages have a lot of open space, encouraging you to do your own thing. Some pages have a lot of black on them, so you don’t need to do much to get the whole image. I like this. It creates room to decide what you’re equal to.

Sarah’s art style is playful, and easy to get into. One of the things that stuck out for me is a reoccurring image of two unhappy blobby beings who merge in the middle. A personification of dysfunctional co-dependency, I thought. Two beings with no proper boundaries, or one identity being subsumed by the other. They connect with the relationship and identity angles in the poem. if you look closely, you can see them co-blobbing at the bottom of the book cover.

More about the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stranger-Dream-Love-Sarah-Snell-Pym/dp/1530078490

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The Factory Girl Trilogy – review

I picked up a review copy of Stephen Palmer’s first book in The Factory Girl trilogy to review, and ended up reading the whole set. It was obvious by about two thirds through the first book that this isn’t a trilogy of separate books, it’s more like one huge book published in three volumes. Fortunately, all three books are now out there so you won’t get to the end of the first one and have to wait! This is Steampunk fiction.

 

Book one introduces Kora, and Roka – two girls inhabiting one body, and appearing on alternate days. Kora is rescued from Bedlam by a doctor, Roka of course only finds out about it the next day. The Doctor is intent on solving the mystery of Kora’s two souls. He believes that her father is responsible. Kora’s father runs the biggest automata factory in the world, and he wants his daughter kept safely hidden away. It soon becomes evident that other people are interested in Kora, and probably don’t have her interests at heart. Can she solve the mystery of herself and stay relatively free?

Kora’s mother is black, her father is white. She experiences racial prejudice, and sexism. Roka gets involved with politics and activism, accompanied by an automata called AutoRoka. Book one has a lot of politics in it and a look at the way in which causes can clash – socialism, suffragettes, communism, rights for automata…

 

Book two sets out for Africa, and there’s a lot more adventure in it, while book three brings us back to the UK for a lot more action. More than that I don’t think I can say without massive spoilers. Overall the plot is unpredictable, engaging, challenging and will make you think.

There are a lot of really interesting themes played out in this story. The entire tale hinges on the question of identity. Do we have souls? Are Kora and Roka really two souls in one body? What does it mean to be alive? Can machines have souls? What kinds of stories do we tell about who matters and who doesn’t, who has a soul and who doesn’t?

 

There was one device that I particularly loved, so I’m going to talk about that because I can do so without spoilers! Kora keeps a book in her pocket. The book is a children’s story about a girl called Amy going through a series of gardens and having encounters. Amy also has a book in her pocket and reads from it at relevant moments. Amy has a little sister called Alice, and there’s clearly a jam on Alice in Wonderland going on here, only I liked this story a lot better and I think we get the whole of that little book inside the trilogy. Inside the book inside the book there is a tedious chameleon who will not disguise itself as anything other than a chameleon. This was one of my favourite things.

My other favourite thing was the automaton who becomes a Marxist. This, in the context of a story that is very much about a production line, has massive charm.

Although the main characters are in their teens, I don’t think this is a YA novel particularly. I like that about it. The assumption that we only want to read about characters who are of an age with us needs challenging. Younger folk could read it, but it has clearly been written with adults readers in mind. It’s a fascinating book(s) and I very much enjoyed it.

Find out more here – http://www.stephenpalmer.co.uk/


Black Box – a review

Black Box is a science fiction novel from Kevan Manwaring. It is a text poised to be unleashed upon the world and I think it’s exactly the kind of story we need right now. Set against the backdrop of a dying Earth, the story manages to both square up to the disaster we are unleashing upon ourselves, while refusing to give up all hope. It is, in every possible way, a journey into utter darkness. As the story leads us to gaze into the abyss, it reminds us how brightly small lights can show at such times.

This is a very hard book to review without spoilers. Not least because the plot revolves around some serious uncertainties about what is real and what isn’t. Kevan handles this with absolute style, requiring you to read the story, aware that multiple explanations may exist. The story calls upon the reader to navigate between what they fear may be true and what they hope is happening, making you feel like you are an active participant – that you are the observer whose very act of observation might somehow change everything.

I spent the first third or so of the book lurching back and forth between possible explanations. In the middle third I really felt the pull of disparate realities, incompatible truths and ways of being and seeing. I spent the final third of the book trying, and failing to guess where it was going and wondering how on earth, or for that matter in space, the whole thing could possibly come together in a coherent way. It did. By the end I felt that my brain had been pounded to mush and my heart squeezed through a mangle. It is a story that will make you feel things.

What holds it all together, I think, is a fine thread of humour – dark humour often. Sometimes the humour is so self-conscious that it dissolves the forth wall and reminds you that you are engaging in a story, not a reality. As this is a story that is very much about navigating between possible stories, these moments of deliberate dislocation through humour have all kinds of effects. And of course the darkness is more effective when it’s not relentless. We can get used to anything. We can be ground down in misery. Laughter will keep you human and keenly feeling, which of course means the author can keep cranking up the intensity.

This is an incredibly imaginative book, full of surprises and strangeness. It explores what ‘alien’ means, and alongside that, what human means, at its best and worst. It asks ‘what of us will survive?’ a question not just for this piece of speculative writing, but for humanity as a whole. We are not yet obliged to plunge into the abyss, other options exist for us. Highly recommended.

Black Box is with Unbound and coming out via a subscription publishing method. What this means is that you can dive in now and put down the cash for a copy, and when enough people have done that, the book happens. Please do that thing if you can – this is a book that deserves to be out there. Hop over here and look at the options in the right hand column, and pick your level… https://unbound.com/books/black-box/


The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion – a review

I’m no Arthurian scholar, although my wide ranging reading habits and interest in folklore and mythology mean that I’ve run into King Arthur and the grail from all kinds of perspectives already. I was interested to see what Simon Stirling would do with the idea. I don’t feel qualified to comment on this as a piece of historical writing, but I found it in many ways persuasive.

In this book, Simon makes the case for King Arthur being Scottish. I found this argument compelling. To establish his case, Simon draws on mediaeval writing, period history (such as it is) place names and the names of known historical figures. He also explores why we have a southern Arthur and how that benefitted the church.

I found the exploration of texts and history to be especially interesting. One of the things this book does especially well is to look at the relationship between history making and myth making. These things are deeply related to each other. We tell stories to reinforce our sense of history. We use history as propaganda. We reinvent our stories to reinvent ourselves. Arthur has been used repeatedly in this way, and I found the exploration of the mechanics to be really helpful.

One of the other things that stuck out for me is the way language changes over time. The poetic sources Simon deals with are full of kennings, allusions and metaphors. It represents a world view rather different to our own. There’s a blurring of edges created by word play and pun, and resonance that may easily be lost to a modern reader. There’s no knowing how literally our ancestors took any of this – whether we’re dealing in straightforward symbolism where Bran = raven, or whether in some sense ravens are Bran, and Bran is ravens… How much mythology could be grown from a misunderstanding of poetic language? For me, this raises more questions than it answers, and I am very glad to have them raised.

I do not emerge from this book confident that I know what the Grail is. The case Simon makes is fascinating and I very much enjoyed reading it. It is a pleasing addition to my sense of what the grail might be, and might have been, but I’m not one for definitive answers. I’ve certainly learned a lot about how different people have perceived the grail. For anyone looking for a non-Christian take on the elusive artefact, this is a good book, I think regardless of whether you find the central argument persuasive.

For me, reading this was like investigating an ancestral dream world. Simon draws on sources from all over the world to explore ideas about what it means to be human, because in many ways, the quest for the grail is always a quest for something fundamental about humanity. This take on the grail is very much the warrior poet, masculine grail, and it has most to say about male mysteries around what is often taken to be an innately feminine object. It often reminded me of reading The White Goddess – this is not a wilfully obscure book, but it has that same sense of being a hairsbreadth from absolute truth, while never enabling me to completely grasp it. As I appreciate that sort of mythic, deep dreaming experience in a book, I really enjoyed reading this. I suspect different readers could have radically different experiences of this book, depending a lot on what you know and believe already.

Mote about it here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/grail


Welcome to Night Vale – a review

I started listening to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast about three months ago, and am about 90 episodes in at time of writing. Night Vale is an imaginary small town somewhere in a desert that exists in some kind of vague relationship with America. The podcast brings us Night Vale’s community radio station, and through that we become complicit in the life of the town.

Night Vale is a strange and troubled place, full of weird magic, inexplicable science, sinister rituals, and a vague yet menacing government agency. Learn about the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home, learn to fear wheat, and wheat by-products, learn where the badly hidden microphone in your house is in case you ever need to contact the secret police. If you can appreciate the humour of this sort of thing, Night Vale is a good place to conceptually take up residence.

The book of Welcome to Night Vale – written by Joseph Fink and Jeffry Cranor, who also write the podcast –  is just as prone to twisted whimsy as the podcast. It is odd, endearing, largely absurd and I very much enjoyed it. I was very aware, reading it, that this is a book which got into print because the podcast was already successful. It is hard to imagine an unknown writing team pitching a project like this and getting it picked up. Night Vale in book form breaks pretty much every writing rule I’ve ever seen written down, and probably a great many more that I haven’t. But, because it shares tone and style with the internationally popular podcast, it hasn’t been edited into conformity. It hasn’t been rejected as too weird, too difficult to market. Bean counters have not tutted over how hard it is to pitch something like this where there’s really no obvious audience…

Welcome to Night Vale is a triumph of creativity over the banality haunting ‘creative’ industries. It demonstrates that people with real ideas and imagination can find listeners and readers, and that the buying public does not simply want things that look pretty much like the things it already has. They’ve built something amazing here, and they’ve built it with love, and grass roots support, and it cheers me greatly to find that this is possible.

Night Vale makes me think a bit of strange, medieval tarot cards. (Bear with me). You look at the cards, and the things people are doing on said cards, and it all seems preposterous. This may in itself entertain you. However, pause for a moment, and think a little bit, and all kinds of relevance starts to appear. Because there’s something in the nature of it that allows you to project onto it, and see aspects of yourself, your life, your town, your country reflected there. What you make of that is very much up to you.

More about Night Vale here – http://www.welcometonightvale.com/

 


This Fragile Life – a review

This is an incredibly emotionally intense novel. It’s contemporary, set in the real world and is not fantastical in any way. It’s a book that explores the human heart and psyche with a mix of razor sharp insight and compassion.

Martha, after five rounds of failed IVF treatment is coming to terms with the idea that she is never going to have children. Martha is a successful business woman with a classy flat and a nice husband and from the outside she looks like she has it all. High School friend Alex didn’t get (or want) the snazzy college place or the high powered job – she works in a cafe part time and teaches art to disadvantaged kids. She has no money, no healthcare, and a tiny home. Alex is pregnant, and Alex does not think she has what it takes to be a decent mum. And so how could she refuse Martha’s suggestion that she give her baby to her friend?

Nothing, it turns out, is that simple. This is a tough story, and while avoiding spoilers, I will say that it made me cry, a lot.

There are lots of themes here. Poverty and privilege. What makes a good parent. What giving birth looks like when you’re dealing with private health care and have no insurance. What success means and what good relationships require. No one in this story is how they first seem. Some of them act terribly, or think really awful things. As you find out more about who they are and where they come from, many of those things make more sense. This is a story about how wounding is passed down through families and how hard it is to break out of family patterns of behaviour. It’s a story that makes clear that we do all have the power to choose and that none of us are obliged to keep repeating the things in our histories.

Events in this story bring out the best and worst in people. It’s a tale that demonstrates our capacity to grow and change, that we can all decide to be better than we were and that we may all have qualities we won’t know about until tested. Do we pull apart under stress, or prop each other up?

If you’re feeling fragile, this may not be a book for you – but it may also be cathartic. It’s well written, and it has a great deal to offer.

 

 


Grey Sister – review

Grey Sister is the second book is a fantasy series by Mark Lawrence. If you’ve not already read Red Sister – the first book, I strongly recommend starting there.  (You can get it all the places that do books, here’s one of them https://www.bookdepository.com/Red-Sister-Mark-Lawrence )

This is a narrative that revolves around a group of young women training to be nuns. Some of them will be warrior nuns – Red Sisters, and some of them will be Sisters of Discretion (I leave you to imagine) some will focus on magic, and some will do religion. This story plays out on a freezing world whose sun is dying. A technological moon reflects what sun there is, in order to keep a narrow band at the equator ice-free. The moon is falling, people are fighting over the scraps and dreaming of miracles.

This is a world that has been imagined in great detail, but you will never be bogged down in those details. It is a world in which women are powerful agents for change, and the story itself revolves around the actions and adventures of a handful of young women. I absolutely revelled in this; it’s so rare to read high fantasy in which women get to dominate the pages like this. Mark Lawrence’s women are allowed to be all things. Some are heroic, some political, some nasty and plotty, some mean and spiteful, some kind and generous. Many are complex people with multiple motivating forces acting on them. None of them exist as prizes to be won. They rescue each other.

However, the thing I love most about this setting is how the magic works. Too often, when fantasy magic is described in other books, it becomes dull and mechanical. There’s often no mystery in fantasy magic, no sense of awe, or wonder. The magic in Grey Sister builds on what we encountered in the first book. It is wild and unruly magic. It does have rules, but it reminds me a bit of learning about physics. You start out at school with gravity and pressure and things that make sense and you can relate to. Then you advance into more disorientating territory. This is what magic in Grey Sister is like. We did the basic magic physics in the first book, now we’re doing things that are like the way space time blurs and quantum and string theory makes most of us confused. Whole new levels of reality are revealed to us.

Except the magic also isn’t at all like this because it is felt and breathed and lived and alive and in everything and makes intuitive sense and sings to my animist heart.

Mark Lawrence is an author of rare skill. His characters are complicated, well rounded, engaging people. This is an author who understands people – at their best and worst – and knows how to create scenarios that naturally would bring the best and worst of people to the surface. His world building is vast and well considered and full of glorious detail, while never turning into history or geography lessons. We learn about this world by seeing people trying to live in it. His prose is snappy and sharp and laced through with humour. He knows how to keep you turning the pages. But then at the end when you look back, you’ll see the richness of it. Too many page turners leave me feeling hollow at the end. This is not one of those. He’s one of my favourite authors.

Now I have to wait for the next one, and that’s going to be the difficult bit.

More Grey Sister here – https://www.bookdepository.com/Grey-Sister-Mark-Lawrence/


The Enchanted Life – a review

Sharon Blackie’s The Enchanted Life is a non-fiction book about enchantment and re-enchantment. It’s written for people who are suspicious that there are fundamental things wrong with life that they need to fix. The book offers stories, the author’s experiences and useful exercises to help you recognise your disenchantment and do something about it. It includes a solid analysis of how we collectively got into this mess in the first place – the beliefs, values and philosophy that brought us here – and how to rethink that.

It’s a very readable book, it ambles round subjects with the leisurely grace of a wild river and it has a lot to offer by way of insight and inspiration. I think it would be a good book for anyone just starting out on the Druid path as well as for anyone feeling the first yearnings for re-enchantment in their life. For the person a bit further along this road, it offers affirmation, and ideas and may well prove useful.

Most of the time, the assumed reader seems to be middle aged, middle class and winning at life by conventional standards – they’ve got the house, the job, the busy life, the generally accepted signs of success. Many of the people whose work the author draws on seem to fall into this category. They have it all, and then they take a massive risk and jump into another, more authentic, simpler and happier way of being. There’s not much here about how you go the other way – from the pressures and miseries of abject poverty and insecurity towards this more liberated way of life. How do you do it if you don’t have personal resources, or skills? Going self employed calls for a massive skill set, you have to do all the things a company does – the legal and financial obligations, the marketing and building a client base as well as doing the work. It’s not, I think, something everyone could do.

There’s also an underlying assumption here that you are an able bodied person who can walk every day, and sit outside every day. Now, as disability goes, I’m at the not so afflicted end, and I cannot go for a walk every day, and sitting outside in cold weather would cause me considerable harm. I’d like to see re-enchantment work that doesn’t assume an able body.

Sharon Blackie has a lot to say about the rise of stress, depression and anxiety in our culture and the relationship between that and our working lives. I’m very glad to see this getting properly explored and discussed. However, much of the book focuses on solitary, personal re-enchantment, and while that’s a good place to start, I wanted her to go further. I wanted more about how we enable re-enchantment in each other, how we build communities of mutual support. I think one of the big problems in our culture is that we make problems personal that should be seen as collective. How disability and mental health impact on us are fine cases in point.

What can I do, as a person who has broken out to a fair degree, to help someone who is stuck in the consumerist machine still? What can I do to support the people who can’t easily get out and connect with nature? How can I be part of the solution for other people, not just myself?

My guess is that the cover and title will appeal to readers who are already exploring this path. Folk who are reading Robert Macfarlane, and slow movement books, people interested in the Transition movement, permaculture, people who are already looking at sustainable and low stress lifestyles. Probably the people who most need to read this book are actually the ones who don’t yet consciously know they are in trouble. So, here’s my suggestion. If you are the sort of person to be automatically attracted to this book, buy it, read it, figure out who you know who would most benefit from it, and press a copy into their hands.

More about the book here – http://sharonblackie.net/the-enchanted-life/


Heart Vision – a review

Heart Vision by Michael Orlando Yaccarino is a tarot book designed to go with the Rider-Waite cards. I’m not a tarot user at all, (and was very clear about this when offered the book for review) but divination has been a significant part of my life.

I learned in my teens that fortune telling feels like a game, or too real, and either way it makes me uncomfortable. What I like to do with divination is use it as a tool to figure out where I am and what’s going on for me. Most divination tools open us up to our own hidden thinking- the unconscious, the shadow, and the motives we’re in denial about. This approach to tarot makes self-reading the centre of the process and explores it in some interesting ways. the book includes all the images from the tarot so it is possible to work contemplatively without having a card set.

The section I found most engaging was working through the major arcana as the Fool’s journey. It was surprisingly narrative, and also offered the kind of spiralling, circular pattern I like in Taoism – the idea that when you’ve been through it and mastered all the things you become a novice again and go back to the start, and round you go again. There is no end point of perfection, there is only the journey and how it changes you.

For each card in the pack – and not just the major arcana – the author provides ways of thinking about the cards. They focus on things that can be within a person more than situations a person can be in. Ways of being in the world, ways of acting and thinking, what we carry with us, what we aspire to. Alongside this are the veiled aspects – the self defeating, the destructive cycles, the learned behaviours that don’t serve us. There’s a vast array of human experience here, and a depth of perception about how the same energies can, with only slightly varying how we manifest them, do us harm or good. Every description struck me as relevant, and as I read through I found myself constantly thinking about the ways I could apply it to me own life.

The end of the book offers an array of spreads that are designed for reading yourself rather than the future.

This is an excellent tool for contemplation and developing self awareness. If you’re looking for ways to reflect and gain insight, and I think especially if you’re engaged with shadow work or trying to find your authentic self amidst everything that’s been put on you, this will be a good resource to use.

I read it cover to cover over a few days – this is clearly not the right way to use the book. If you’re inclined to get it, get a Rider-Waite tarot deck at the same time, and work with the content. Do the little exercises – they look really good. Explore the narrative possibilities of the cards, and work with the spreads. I suspect it would work a lot better to take the cards day at a time, reading their individual meanings and giving yourself time to contemplate them. However, that would have taken me months, which didn’t seem the best response to having been sent a review copy.

I find myself at the end of this book seriously considering getting a Rider-Waite pack and going back to the beginning.

More about the book here – http://marchesacasati.wixsite.com/heartvisiontarot 


Kingdom of Clockwork – review

Kingdom of Clockwork is, you realise after just a few pages, not set in the past as it first appears, but set in the future, after the fossil fuels run out. It’s a steampunk novel in a speculative era when coal powered steam is not an option. The story is driven by political machinations, as clockmaker Nielsen finds himself lured into the plots and schemes of his king. The king in question may in fact be mad.

The story itself rattles along to good effect, taking the reader in directions I think most people won’t anticipate. The surprises are delights rather than feeling like rabbits out of hats. Each new twist and turn builds a greater sense of how this future world works. The main character and first person narrator, Nielsen, is an innocent out of his depth, and thus able to take the reader with him easily. He’s also a clockwork geek. Now, I’m not a technically minded person and if asked, would have said that the fine details of clockwork would not intrigue me. However, the clockwork in the story I found totally engaging and it really drew me in. It’s very well written.

Charming though the plot and characters are, what made this book a standout for me is the way the author uses the future to speak to the present.

In this imagined future, much information has been lost about the Age of Electricity. The way in which the history is talked about, re-imagined, feared, mythologized and misinterpreted is wonderful. There’s lots to think about here in terms of how we imagine the past – a very Steampunk concern as well.

Billy O’Shea is able to look at our present from a perspective that is truly alien to it – a real feat of the imagination. It enables him to write about how things are now in a way that casts it all in a very different light. His future people do not share our ideas, values and beliefs, but they are influenced by them, and living in a civilization that follows ours. I can’t say too much or there will be spoilers, but I thought this aspect of the book was total genius.

This is a story you can read for the plots, devices and epic adventures – it has much to offer on that score. If you’re the kind of reader who loves layers and extra things to ponder, this is a good book to get your teeth into. I shall be reading the rest of the series if I can – this one stands alone, but it opens up plenty of possibilities for future tales.

Here’s the book on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00LXGSP8Y/ref=series_dp_rw_ca_1