Category Archives: Reviews

The Wolf of Allendale – a review

Hannah Spencer approached me recently to review her novel, The Wolf of Allendale, which I knew about from Twitter and was aware had a basis in folklore, so I cheerfully dived in. It’s a great read and I very much enjoyed it.

There are two time frames in this book – Iron Age Celts dealing with Roman incursion, and industrial age Britons dealing with the incursion of railways and factories all in the same landscape. The parallels between the two timeframes are striking. One sees the pressing of the Roman road into the wild moorlands, the other sees the laying of train tracks. Both timelines question the cost of progress.

At the centre of the book is the wolf of the title – and without giving too much away, this is an ephemeral but deadly being. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that the narrative set in the 19th century involves direct descendants from the Iron Age experience of the wolf. This put me very much in mind of the work of Alan Garner – especially Boneland and The Stone Book Quartet, and things revealing in the Voice That Thunders. This is about the survival of oral tradition, the importance of ancestry and connection to the land and the way in which the last hundred years has severed those ties is very much raised by the tale.

Author Hannah Spencer clearly has a deep love of landscape and writes from a place of intense connection to the land and all that lives on it. I loved this aspect of the book, and the way in which these details root the narrative and give a solidity that helps hold the more magical and supernatural elements of the tale firmly in place.

I will admit that in recent years I’ve taken to avoiding novels about the Druids. Most of the Druid fiction I’ve read at best disappoints me and at worst annoys me. Much to my surprise and delight, what The Wolf of Allendale offers is a historical Celtic setting, complete with Druids and followers of the Druid path, that totally worked for me. It’s not contemporary Druidry projected into the past, there’s a strong shamanic aspect, and the whole thing is rooted in the author’s clear understanding of the period, the culture and the land. It may not be ‘truth’ in a historical sense but it rings true in a way few Celtic-set novels ever have for me.

This is a beautifully written book with a large cast of compelling characters, an engaging story arc and a lot of depth. I think the odds are if you’re a regular to my blog, you’re going to love this book, do consider picking up a copy. It’s widely available, here;s an Amazon link – https://www.amazon.com/Wolf-Allendale-Hannah-Spencer/dp/0062674617


Ballad Tales – not exactly a review

 

Last summer I was approached by Kevan Manwaring to contribute to an anthology titled ‘Ballad Tales’.  The premise was that people with a background in folk – be that as musicians, storytellers or enthusiasts, would re-write traditional ballads as short stories. I cheerfully dived in. So I can’t write you an unbiased review of this book! There are 19 stories, 18 authors. I knew most of the authors and most of the original material before I started reading.

The collection runs a broad range of interpretations. It opens with a faithful retelling of Tam Lin, from Fiona Eadie. Kevan Manwaring’s Thomas the Rhymer is largely faithful, but plays with the unreliable narrator in some inventive ways. Chantelle Smith takes on the Selkie of Sule Skerry. The Marriage of Gawain by Simon Heywood is also a largely familiar retelling.

Richard Selby places the song The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter in a landscape, and takes us into the realms of making these stories more specific. Ballads are often scant on details of time and place, and of course as soon as you pin them somewhere, that act of placing them in a time and location changes them. David Phelps has a version of a song I know as The Bonny Labouring Boy, which works in a similar way.

Pete Castle tackles some of the holes in ‘Willie’s Lady’ which I know as ‘King Willie’. Ballads often skate over the details of how we got into the crazy situation to begin with and what motivates characters who do strange, darkly magical things. Malcolm Green’s take on ‘The Laidly Worm of Spindlestone Heugh’ (Kemp Owen to me) also picks up these themes.

In The Droll of Ann Tremellan, Alan M Kent gives us a Cornish take on Barbara Allen – resplendent with Cornish language, which I loved. We also have a retelling of the ballad Barbara Allen by Mark Hassall which gives the story a contemporary setting. Both tackle the issues of how and why characters are on their deathbeds, one switches the genders around, and between them they demonstrate something of the scope for re-imagining every tale in multiple ways.

Eric Maddern’s take on ‘The Flying Cloud’ has a fascinating personal angle to it. There’s often an anonymity in ballad writing – obviously someone wrote an original and others have re-written songs down the years, so it’s interesting to get a song where there are also stories to tell about the authorship.

The aforementioned stories are either wholly faithful to the original, or mostly faithful, and largely concerned with the business of putting flesh on bones – Mark Hassal being the exception. Other stories in the collection have played fast and loose with the originals, re-imagining them into settings from the 20th century onwards, playing with themes, reinventing, subverting and so forth. These were without a doubt my favourites, but then, it’s also what I chose to do! As someone steeped in folk I found it more exciting encountering familiar stories in entirely unfamiliar forms.

The Ship Carpenter’s Love to a Merchant’s Daughter by Laura Kinnear sets the classic tale of a young lady following her beloved to sea in the twentieth century, demonstrating that some things never really change…

I was really excited by Karola Renard’s radical re-imagining of Sovay – I don’t want to say anything about it to avoid spoilers, but it manages to both hold the original and do something entirely unfamiliar with it all at the same time.

Kirsty Hartsiotis’s gangster ‘Famous Flower of Serving Men’ is a remarkable piece of writing, I think this is the most intense story in the book, heartbreaking and brilliant.

Mermaid in Aspic (best title, for my money) re-imagines the tale of the two sisters – there are many versions of this song, I sing one of them. Chrissy Derbyshire tackles the issue of taking out the supernatural whilst at the same time keeping the magic.

David Metcalfe’s interpretation of The Three Ravens/Twa Corbies is an inspired piece of crafting, and if you know the originals, you’ll read it with your heart in your mouth. Terrible, terrible dramatic irony, beautifully done.

Anthony Nanson’s future set King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid nearly made me cry – not because it’s tragic, but because there is an element of hope in it that seems so rare right now. It’s an incredible idea, pulled off with considerable style.

The collection finishes with the tale that can fairly be described as being furthest out, in all senses. Kevan Manwaring takes on the two magicians – a shapeshifting song that exists in several forms. An incredibly imaginative re-working, which keeps faith with the original whilst taking it in a really wild direction.

My own contribution is a mash up of Scarborough fair and the unquiet graves songs, told in first person and allowing me to play a bit with the sympathy and complicity a first person narrator can easily generate, in order to do terrible things!

You can buy the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ballad-Tales-Anthology-British-Ballads/dp/0750970553


Forest Rain – A review

Michael Forester, the author of Forest Rain is a facebook friend, and offered me his book to review. It’s an unusual piece of spiritual writing, mixing poetry, short story and autobiography.

I’ll admit that in the introduction I had a brief panic as Michael talked about life plans. I’m very much a maybeist, but I have problems with the life plan idea because it makes everything feel so predetermined. Why bother playing it out if you’ve already worked out the plot? I worry that it can be used for victim blaming and avoiding responsibility for others. But, it turns out that the book goes many places and barely touches on this again, so I was very glad that I kept reading.

The author has evidently spent a lot of time exploring different religions, and has no qualms about using terms from many paths. I enjoyed the eclecticism, which seems to come from a place of appreciation, not simple cherry-picking. I suspect Michael of having maybeist leanings himself, happy to explore what any path has to offer, willing to learn from anything and to say maybe to any substantial idea that comes his way.

Poetry is often the best way of getting metaphysical without getting bogged down in it, and I enjoyed the poems in the book.

The autobiographical content is fascinating if you enjoy seeing the world through someone else’s eyes – which I do! The author is one of the wealthy, privileged few who has come to see how empty that kind of materialism is, and has largely turned his back on it. Fascinating to see that process from the other side, having always been a pauper myself. Much of the writing explores the kind of life experience many of us will encounter from middle age onwards – the death of parents, the loss of physical capabilities, the changing nature of relationships. The author simply presents his experiences and reflections much of the time. Some sections are written to someone – and as the reader it’s interesting to see how you position yourself in response to this.

I enjoyed the book. I think the intended reader is someone in the second half of their life who may be questioning the choices they made in the first half of their life and looking for something with more depth and substance. It’s the ideal gift for someone showing signs of spiritual crisis, especially people with no strong religious affiliations. Being a broadly spiritual book, it is pretty accessible regardless of what the reader may believe.

More about the book here – http://michaelforester.co.uk/books/forest-rain


Labrys and Horns: review

Labrys and Horns by Laura Perry is an introduction to practicing modern Minoan Paganism. The Minoans were are culture on Crete who existed before the Greeks. They were a much more egalitarian society, and while there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge about them, much can be inferred from the art and archaeology. This is not an academic-style book so there’s not much detail about how the author comes to her conclusions, but there are plenty of other books listed in the references so anyone who wants to dig deeper knows where to start. You can also pick up her other title, Aridane’s Thread, which goes into more detail on history and Minoan life.

I came to this out of curiosity rather than any intention to practice. It is a book worth reading from that basis. The relationship between the Minoans and the Greeks has much to tell us about the later culture, too. There’s a wealth of insight here about the ancient world as a whole, and much to ponder about the way sacred myths evolve and change depending on who is telling them and why.

I’m guessing that most people come to Minoan Paganism either through an attraction to the art, or via one of the deities. Ariadne, the minotaur and the labyrinth seem like the most obvious way in. If you’ve encountered the Greek story, and felt drawn but found it inadequate, this is no doubt for you. If you like aspects of the Greek myths but find the rapey patriarchal content unpalatable, you may want to check out the Minoans.

The book includes line drawings based on Minoan art and artefacts, I found this really helpful for getting a sense of the culture and concepts. In its original form, it’s a really attractive art style, with brightly coloured frescos and Laura has captured the flow and feel of it in her drawings.

This is a very readable book, author Laura Perry writes with warmth and clearly speaks from broad and long term experience of bringing an ancient culture into her life. Her writing is permissive and encouraging rather than dogmatic, it’s very much a book about how to go about finding your own path, and where to start. There’s enough material here on rituals, symbols, deities and devotionals to enable a person to start experimenting.

 

Find out more about the book here – http://www.lauraperryauthor.com/labrys-and-horns


The Bastard of St Genevra: A Review

 

I was approached to see if I’d like to review this title as a consequence of another book I’d reviewed here. Author Diane Gallagher lured me in with the promise of magical realism, healing ancestral lines and a story that revolves around the lives of women. I was not disappointed. As if often the case with good books, it is tricky to talk about the story without spoiling bits of it. What I can safely say is that this story occupies two time frames, one runs from the late twentieth century through to the present day, and the other is concerned with events in the twelfth century. It’s a charming book, highly readable and engaging with thoughtfully rendered characters.

I was especially taken with the way in which the author is able to meet the magic and mysticism of 12th century Catholicism on its own terms. Her historical characters occupy their beliefs and superstitions, the world they inhabit is full of the scope for miracles and divine intervention, ill wishing, cursing, and so forth. It all feels very real and there’s no sense of modern judgements getting in the way. It really makes clear what a magical reality Catholicism was part of in its early days. Coming at this as a Pagan, I found the religious and mystical aspects of the book highly readable and enjoyable.

This is a book about the lives of women – there are three main female characters, and a whole cast of other complex women surrounds them. There are of course men as well, but the action takes place firmly in the female sphere and relates to female life experience. I really enjoyed that. We see everything from the royal courts down to the lowliest peasants, it’s very rich reading.

I greatly appreciated the way love is handled in this book. There are love affairs, relationships, marriages – these are part of life and are explored with care and treated with importance. But, they don’t define the shape of the story, it isn’t ‘a romance’ it’s a weave of life in which love has a significant role to play. It’s rare to get a book with a strong feminine focus that explores love but does not succumb to the romance genre.

I think the biggest take-away for me is the way in which this book has prompted me to re-think the concept of martyrdom. Regulars to the blog will know that I’ve commented repeatedly that there’s no place for martyrdom in Paganism. I’ve previously thought about martyrdom as something that is done to a person, that it is about violence and oppression, and not something to celebrate. There is a martyrdom in this story that entirely defied my expectations and assumptions. The power of the character in question to choose her path, to face her mortality and pain to transform herself is fascinating. For a while there, I was thinking instead about the cruelty inherent in this kind of religion, but as the story plays out, it becomes clear that this martyrdom is a lot more like Odin hanging in the world tree than ever it is the story of a victim. And it struck me that perhaps what makes martyrdom significant is not the horrible death aspect, but the way in which the person on the receiving end refuses to have their spirit broken by it.

The Bastard of St Genevra should be out on the 30th May, you can find out more on the author’s website – https://dianegallagherwritings.com/published-works/novels/the-bastard-of-saint-genevra/


Across Great Divides

I recently put a hand up to be more involved in blog tours because it’s a good way of encountering new, less prominent fiction. With its themes of fascism and struggle, Across Great Divides seemed like a timely story. It begins as fascism rises in 20th Century Germany and tracks one Jewish family, and their friends, as they attempt to escape persecution. The family in question have the money and the connections to get out – so it’s not as harrowing a tale as it might have been, which on the plus side makes it considerably more readable. The tales of the less fortunate are there in the background – we see a little of concentration camps, disappearances, cattle trucks… Issues of class and wealth are there to be considered.

There were a number of things I found especially interesting about this book. Firstly is the way in which it tackles hypocrisy as an issue. The young man of the family is, from his teens involved with groups resisting Hitler. His family feel threatened by this, but it is the work he does, and the contacts he makes that gets them out. In the escape, we see plenty of ordinary people willing to risk their lives to help Jewish people flee to safety. When our Jewish family find themselves in South America, faced with the hideous poverty there, they see it, but do little. When finally they move to South Africa, young Max (very much the hero of the tale for me) gets straight into protesting against Apartheid, much to the horror of his parents, who seem to have forgotten that their lives were saved by his courage, and by the courage of others prepared to stand up for them. We see the daughters of the family pull out from beneath parental disapproval to make their own, more domestic stand for racial equality.

It’s a book that makes the important point that being oppressed doesn’t automatically make you more enlightened than those around you when it comes to responding to the oppression of others. Fear makes us cautious, and fear is a great enabler of oppressors. The courage to put what’s right ahead of what’s personally safe is a rare trait. We might think we’d all be heroes, but a look around at our current situation shows us that we’re still not standing up to Nazis, still turning a blind eye to oppression, all too often. This book is a call to stop and look at our own fear and complicity.

The author writes from a place of family insight, and has a keen sense of location – the writing about places I found the most engaging aspect of the book. Monique Roy’s own family background has something of the fictionalised experience in it – how much is hard to say, but from the notes at the end, this is clearly a tale rooted in lived history. The narratorial voice is quite naive – mostly this worked for me because much of the story follows the young female characters. The author has the charming and unusual habit of including footnotes in the text – translations and historical details the reader probably won’t know are dropped in, held by brackets. It does break the flow of the fiction, while shedding light on it, and is a constant reminder that you’re reading fictionalised history, which I found a really interesting experience as a reader. Some may find it a bit of a jolt. There are sections that read more like non-fiction – I found that helpful but it may not suit everyone.

I think the ideal readership for this book is the YA audience, and people who really don’t know much about 20th century history and need a palatable crash course in what fascism looks like in practice.

Find the book here – https://www.amazon.com/Across-Great-Divides-Monique-Roy/dp/0615846688


Review: The Shadow Crucible

I was approached to review this book because the author – T.M. Lakomy –  found me online and thought I would like it! I love it when people do that, especially when they’re right – as in this case.

When I started reading The Shadow Crucible, I thought I knew what I’d got. The set-up looked like a straightforward Christian fantasy with angels, demons, Templars, and the such. I was reminded of Constantine, and Tom Sniegoski’s Fallen, only with a mediaeval setting. The male lead is cold, remote, firm. The female lead is wild, beautiful, dangerous and seems a bit petty – A Scarlet O’Hara with a retinue of orphans. And for a little while there I was afraid that this would be one of those romances where the cool controlling guy breaks and tames the wild woman. But, the fascinating world building and the writing style kept me reading, and I’m very glad I stayed with it.

Then, around page 57, the plot shape started to change, and I realised I was not reading some kind of historical romance. Page 73 pulled the rug out from underneath everything I thought I knew about this book. No one, it turned out, was as they seemed in those opening pages. What I thought was going on was not happening. I had been fooled, misled, overconfident… and I was very excited by this!

Thereafter, what the story keeps doing, is taking a step back every now and then to let you see a bigger picture than you could before. In the context of the bigger picture, what you thought you knew looks rather different, each time. With each step back, the world expands, the implications of the story get bigger, the stakes rise, the magic becomes even more wild and wonderful, the philosophy becomes even more persuasive…

Whilst trying to avoid spoilers, this is a book that is very much in opposition to dogma and blind faith. It’s a story to challenge organised religion and question the motives of anyone who uses religion as a power base. All of the characters go through radical changes. One way or another, they are peeled of their surface pretences and small selves to reveal the larger presence beneath. I came to love characters who, in the opening pages, I felt no attraction to. I came to feel sympathy for other characters I’d not really liked at the start. And some, when peeled back, where entirely horrifying. There’s not a vast amount of horror in the book but when it comes… it really is very dark indeed.

I think for most people, the writing style will make or break this book. This is an author relishing their deliberately archaic language. It is wordy, with turns of phrase that sound profoundly un-contemporary. If you’re the sort of person who only likes stark, pared down language, considers ‘said’ the only acceptable speech tag, and skims paragraphs of description, this is not for you. If you enjoy wilfully wordy books, I fully expect you’ll enjoy this. I found it difficult to put down, and was enchanted by the unconventional story-shape.

Buy the book here (or pre-order it, it’s not out at time of posting the blog) https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Crucible-Blind-God/dp/1590794141


Mustering Magic

A review by Frank Malone

The latest book by Philip Carr-Gomm is Lessons in Magic: A guide to Making your Dreams Come True.  I always look forward to his publications as Philip is also a psychologist, and shares a common quest: for a spirituality that is more psychological and a psychology that is more spiritual.  Highly accomplished, amongst other things, he is head of The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids – the world’s largest order of Druidry.  Psychology and Sprituality meet in the book, which displays Philip’s considerable skill at integrating the two.  Similar to the Pagan Portals series from Moon Books, this is one of those brief works (52 pages) that manages to boil down a lifetime of developed wisdom on a specific subject.

In his introduction, Philip states that, “real magic, powerful magic, good magic is concerned with serving something more than yourself, as well as yourself.  Real magic helps you make a difference in the world.”  From psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut’s Self Psychology perspective, this view of magic could be said to meet the selfobject idealization need.  This universal need begins in infancy and persists throughout the lifespan.  It is the need to feel part of something bigger than oneself.  Further, to “make a difference in the world” is one of the indices of growth that we look to see in our patients in psychoanalytic treatment.  I had not thought of it in these terms before reading this book: psychoanalysts anticipate that our patients will become magicians.

I appreciate the personal style which Philip deploys in the text, including history material from his childhood.  Of course that is gratifying to my psychoanalyst self, and the part of me that loves personalia about inspiring people.

Asserting that “magicians give birth to dreams” Philip organizes the treatise into five sections.  The Arrow of Darkness concerns finding your dream.  Nourishing the Seed considers how to suckle the dream.  Here he wisely teaches us to “focus on being first.  Seek contentment, fulfillment, inspiration, and wonder first.  Then focus on doing what you love.”  Jumping Off the Cliff and Finding You Can Fly shows us how to ask spirit friends for help.  The Daring Adventure is an excellent discussion of how to think about objectives and obstacles.  He notes that psychological studies of highly self-actualized people show them “to use both their cauldrons and their wands – their abilities to be both open and focused.”  The Harvest reflects on how to live our dream in a way that facilitates a flow of further inspiration.

Lessons in Magic achieves Philip’s aim to seamlessly blend psychology and ancient wisdom.  It is recommended with enthusiasm to anyone who wishes to dip into the subject of magic, regardless of spiritual path.

Find out more about the book here – http://www.philipcarr-gomm.com/book/lessons-in-magic/

 

(I’m always open to guest posts, and providing a platform for people who don’t have blogs.)


The Knowing – a review

I’ve written some reflections of this book already, here, but felt it deserved a proper review, so, here we go…

The Knowing is a fantastic novel, with a lot of different threads weaving through it. The main story follows the adventures of Janey – a young musician trying to sort her life out, dealing with her romantic issues and trying to make sense of her ancestral baggage. Janey’s ancestral baggage is however, far bigger and more dramatic than most of us have to contend with. Janey is also dealing with unprocessed grief from a tragedy of some years before, and with a psychic gift that she doesn’t really want. So, this thread of the narrative is modern, contains modern romance and magical realism elements, and is an engaging tale of personal discovery, healing, growth, friendship and coming into your own power.

Janey’s ancestral baggage gives us the second major thread. The main character works her way back along her female line of descent, discovering the tales that have shaped her family down the centuries, and the influence her ancestors have had on her. There’s a wealth of history here, especially the kind of women’s history that doesn’t normally get much attention. It covers lives of wealth and privilege alongside lives of graft and poverty.

Janey’s ancestral line reaches back to Robert Kirk – a historical figure and the author of The Secret Commonwealth – a key text on the folklore of faeries. Kevan Manwaring has skilfully woven the known history of Kirk and the speculations about him into this tale, breathing life into a very strange piece of history. But he doesn’t stop there, because the landscape Kirk came from is also the landscape of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer – two of the most famous faerie stories out there. Out of the faerie folklore comes a third narrative thread that is steeped in tradition but also full of fantasy and comes as a powerful contrast to Janey’s magical realism narrative.

I’ve read this book twice now, in different orders, and I loved it both times. It is rich and rewarding, highly imaginative, and totally engaging.

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


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/