Category Archives: Reviews

Amster Damned – A review

Amster Damned, by Nils Nisse Visser is a steampunk novel and clearly the start of a series. The author and I were recommended to each other by a fellow reviewer. I love how this stuff works.

The main action in this tale takes place over a very short time frame, as private detective’s assistant Miss Kittyhawk is in Amsterdam on a missing person’s case. We’re offered an initial setup that looks mysterious enough – the case of the missing botanist – but as a few days of plotting and dramatic escape unfold, it turns out there’s a lot more to it.

Now to try and review without spoilering!

As the main drama plays out, we get details of Miss Kittyhawk’s back story, and she is certainly not as she first appears. There’s smuggling in her family background, and social unrest in her social background and rebellion against the state in her heart, but the state seems to be trying to recruit her, so that’s clearly all going to go well in future books!

The world building around the action-orientated part of the plot is superb, as a large and complex reality emerges. This is a world in which time travel is a criminal offence that will get you executed if you don’t have the right paperwork. This is a world where the skies hum with many different kinds of craft, and the scope for adventure, and misadventure, is vast.

I have one fairly small niggle over the level of description and technical information – this however is mostly a matter of personal taste. I know for some steampunk readers, the details of dress and technology are really what makes the genre, so for some people this is going to be a distinct asset, not an irritation. Less description would have been more, for me.

What really made this book for me, was the startlement of getting a little way in and going “Hang on, I KNOW THIS PERSON!” I’ve since discovered that the author is in the habit of recruiting real life Steampunks into his fiction, which adds a really interesting extra dimension, to my mind.

I also really appreciated that this is a story whose main characters all come from the back alleys and slums, and who are not enchanted by the great colonial, industrial machine, nor are they profiting much from it – well – smuggling aside! There’s an explicit critique of the ways those in power see and treat the masses, and plenty of real life relevance in that mix.

On the whole, a charming and entertaining read with the potential to develop into a really good series. I’ll be looking out for the next one.

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What Goes Down – a review

I picked this title up as part of a Neverland blog tour, tempted by a blurb that described a psychological story. It’s a really good book, delving deep into the impact of bipolar disorder over two generations in a family.

This is a book that explores how choices play out over generations. Laurel falls in love and makes some dramatic decisions to get out of her middle class backwater life. It’s the late eighties, her gay brother is dealing with how little the world is willing to accept him. Single mothers are generally frowned on.

We see Laurel’s story juxtaposed against her daughter’s experience. The daughter who, aged twenty seven, has just found out the man she calls Dad is not her dad.

Seph is an artist with a big show coming up, at the start of the book she’s getting over a panic attack of epic proportions and stressing about her work. The revelations about her real parentage send her entire life into a spin. It’s a tale that becomes ever more tense as it goes along, with the breakdown of Laurel’s relationship mirroring the breakdown in Seph’s mind.

This book is a challenge to the toxic myth that it’s ok for creative people to behave in certain ways. The artist who paints for two weeks, barely sleeping or eating might not be challenged at all because it’s what so many of us think artists do. That kind of creative fever is incredibly dangerous, as are the desperate plunges into depression that tend to go with it. History is full of bipolar creatives, but being bipolar can be a real obstacle to creating in a sustainable way, and it ruins lives. The idea of the crazy creative person, whose creativity makes the craziness ok, needs challenging, and this book does so, head on.

Artist Seph is a character I really related to, and I don’t get to say that very often. Anxious, unsure of herself, but also driven and living by her art, she’s dealing with personal turmoil I found very familiar. Obsessive, never happy with her work, overthinking – this is a portrait of a mind I entirely recognised and empathised with. I’m not bipolar, but I experience depression and I used to get those wild, creative highs.

What touched me most about this book was the way in which Seph’s family supports her. They make a lot of mistakes, because they’re realistic people, but they are always trying to be there for her. They don’t blame or shame her for what she’s going through. She is taken seriously, and there’s real concern from the first panic attack onwards. I’m so used to real life stories in which mental health problems are ignored, hidden, treated as an embarrassment or a failing on the part of the sufferer. It is a wonderful thing to read a book in which people really care and really try to help.

You can find What Goes Down on Amazon.


Snow Sisters – a review

This is the second Carol Lovekin novel I’ve read, and I love it. As with Ghostbird, I picked Snow Sisters up as a review copy.

This is a ghost story, and the young woman who does the haunting died young for reasons, and the reasons are awful. Be warned, there is enough detail to break your heart, anyone worried about possible triggering, feel free to comment and I’ll email you the relevant spoilers.

That said, this is not overall a grim or dark sort of book. Haunted, yes. Troubled, yes. Challenging, yes. But also intensely beautiful and ultimately hopeful.

The Snow Sisters are Meredith and Verity, teenagers in 1979, living in a remote house in Wales. Their mother, Allegra, is an artist, and allows herself free rein where artistic temperament is concerned. The house belongs to grandmother Mared, who is in London caring for her brother. This is very much a book about relationships between women, about mothering, and not mothering, about what it means to be sisters. The characters are all complex, flawed, human and fascinating. There are reasons to feel sympathy for all of them – although some more than others. We mostly see events unfold from Verity’s perspective, and while Verity does not think well of herself, she comes over as a very sympathetic person.

I admit I found the first few chapters a bit disorientating and had to re-read a few sections to properly get my bearings. There is a third person narration around the events of 1979. We also get first person narration from Angharad  the ghost, and present time first person narration from Verity. I think what also threw me was that I assumed Angharad would be part of Verity’s family tree, and she isn’t. The connection between the living girls and the dead one is all about the house.

That said, there are some interesting parallels in their lives around attitudes towards education. For some – Verity, Mared and Angharad, education is the way out, the route to freedom, adventure and self determination. For Allegra and Meredith, education looks like a trap. For Allegra’s father and Angharad’s father, education is wasted on girls.

For me, there’s an underlying question in this book about the degree to which women’s lives are shaped by men. For the historical figures, it seems this is the only way, and only Angharad has a sense that things could be different. Nonetheless, her life is entirely shaped by the men in it, and it is only in death that she’s able to connect meaningfully with other young women. Allegra’s life has also been shaped by her father, by a lost love, and in the end by a failed relationship with a man. She’s a person who doesn’t seem to know how to be a person in her own right without reference to masculine influence. We never really find out where Mared stands with all of this, but we do see something of what the snow sisters do to make their own lives on their own terms.

There’s a lot of Pagan content here, too – Mared and Meredith are both spell workers. There’s an inherently animist feel to the story – the house is definitely a character, there’s a garden that is also very much a character, and an attitude to nature and wild things that Pagan readers will find resonant.

This is a book I will be reading again. It’s a book I want to put into the hands of other women who are grappling with family legacies. It’s certainly a book I want my son to read. It’s beautifully written, full of wisdom, compassion and a deep understanding of the human heart at its best and worst. Highly recommended.

You can get it anywhere that sells books, and direct from the publisher here – http://www.honno.co.uk/dangos.php?ISBN=9781909983700

 


The Dandelion Farmer – a review

Mathew McCall’s The Dandelion Farmer is an extraordinary piece of steampunk writing. It’s set on Mars in the 1800s (there are reasons, but they are a fair way into the book, so, no spoilers). So we have steam trains, guns, airships, and telegrams, in what would more normally be a high tech, futuristic kind of setup if you’re used to reading sci-fi. Retro-Mars is dealing with all the issues of empire and colonialism that beset the Victorian era. Exploring those issues in such an imaginary context is brilliant because it allows the author to raise issues and express the breadth of attitudes – from the abhorrent to the enlightened – without it being too uncomfortable.

There’s a definite wild west vibe when the book opens. An unscrupulous man is trying to make a land grab, and sends thugs to terrorise a farming family – the dandelion farmer of the title. The dandelions are being farmed for biofuel. Gun fights, chases, corruption and heroism duly ensue.

From there we get into unravelling the back story of Mars, seen from various perspectives. The plot moves forward around a quest to make touch with the apparently vanished Aresian people. There’s a fine example of the kind of thinking going on in this book. People who have come from Earth to colonise Mars, are Martians. To distinguish them from original peoples, the former inhabitants are called Aresians, for Ares, the older god associated with the planet. Earth people are Tellurians. However at the outset there are a lot of names for groups of sentient beings and there’s a lot of fun to be had figuring out, who exactly, is what.

The narrative emerges from ephemera – reports, telegrams, letters, diaries, text books. It means the story is told through multiple voices, and I found those voices consistent, identifiable and engaging. The possible downside is that often you see the same events two or three times from different angles. Either you’ll love this, or you won’t. I really enjoy the way characters emerge in this process, and doubt over what, precisely happened at key moments, can develop from the differences.

The politics are really interesting. There are female characters trapped in Victorian standards and modes of behaviour. There are also female characters striking out and breaking the rules and finding varying levels of support for doing so. While most of the main characters have titles, there’s plenty of attention drawn to the poverty and exploitation that goes alongside colonialism and empire building. There’s also an underlying theme about corporate power that speaks to modern issues and pulls no punches in doing so. The author asks explicitly what happens when democracy is for sale to the capitalist with the most money, and the real-world parallels are obvious.

In terms of world building, this book is vast and epic, setting up for what I hope is going to be a series. It stands alone, but certainly left me wanting a lot more, because I was so fascinated by what happens in The Dandelion Farmer. I want to know what happens to these characters. I’m an occasional sci-fi reader, and it felt to me as though Matt has read every book imagining Mars and somehow distilled it all down into this uber-text. As though all other writers had glimpsed facets, and he’s somehow seen the whole. It’s impressive. This is a Mars unlike any I’ve seen before (I haven’t read everything, mind) yet it seems familiar. The book is full of nods to other writings, some of which I laughed over when I realised what they were. It’s clever, funny, knowing, and rewarding.

On top of that, the book explores questions about what it means to be alive, to be human, to be not-human. No answers are offered at this stage and these, I suspect, will be key issues in future books.

You can find The Dandelion Farmer here – https://www.amazon.com/Dandelion-Farmer-Mathew-McCall/dp/1549539140


New books for Druids

Australian Druidry, by Julie Brett comes out this month, while Reclaiming Civilization by Brendan Myers has just been released. Both titles are highly pertinent to anyone following the Druid path and as I’ve read both I thought I’d review them together.

Brendan Myers is a philosopher and academic with a really accessible writing style. I’ve been following his work for a long time. In this most recent book he explores the concept of civilization. Inevitably this means a fair bit of looking at the ideas of our ancient Pagan ancestors. It also means exploring what people think civilization is, and flagging up all the things that aren’t hard wired, or inevitable, and could in fact be changed. For anyone hankering after a different sort of society, this is an uplifting book, and there’s enough in it about how we live as individuals to help any one of us, alone, to start pushing more deliberately towards better forms of civilization. I highly recommend it.

Julie Brett’s title at first glance has no obvious relevance to Druids outside of Australia. But, I want to make the case that this is a book for Druids everywhere. It is to a large extent an exploration of the seasons and the landscape. Now, mostly what Druidry works with is based on solar events and known Celtic festivals. Our wheel of the year was not ancient history, most groups that we know about celebrated some, but not all of the festivals with the equinoxes probably the least celebrated of the lot.

The wheel of the year makes sense (a bit) in relation to the British and Irish agricultural year. However, for the international Druid, there may not be hawthorn in May. Imbolc may well not be the time of first flowering. There may be no harvests between Lammas and the autumn equinox. There’s plenty of information out there for Druids wanting to work with their ancestors of tradition, but not much guidance for Druids who want to work with their own seasons and landscapes.

In this book, Julie shares the methods she used to establish an Australian wheel of the year. In doing so, she’s created a road map that any Druid, anywhere can use to begin working with the seasons on their own terms. Reading it some time ago when the book was still in development, I realised that even here in the UK, there isn’t always a tidy match and that there had not been enough of my landscape in my practice.


Review: The Book of Air

This one came to me as a review book, having put a hand up to participate in a blog event Clink Street Publishing are running. Score one for uncanny book intuition, because this novel was absolutely brilliant. It is one of those books where too detailed a review of the story would inevitably be full of spoilers.

Set not very far in the future, following a massive disaster for humanity, The Book of Air offers two intertwining time lines, in slightly different periods. The plotting is brilliantly done, unravelling multiple interconnecting narratives. The two strands of the tale shed light on each other, creating a whole that is far bigger than its parts. The characters are intriguing. The unravelling of the back story to the massive disaster is fascinating, and compelling.

This is a book with a lot to say about what books are, and what we do with them. There are implications here for religious texts, for how humans mythologize and what we do as story making creatures. There are reflections on the human desire for ritual and tradition that I think Pagan readers will find especially resonant, if uneasy.  There are a lot of ideas about power, social structures, ownership, and the way we construct ourselves politically. It’s also a story full of love, regret, mistakes, massive and unfixable mistakes, loss, grief… there’s a lot of breadth and depth here.

The book blurb flags up, so I feel safe to mention that one of the timelines involves a community that has built its entire social structure around Jane Eyre. There are four books in all owned by, and inspiring this community, and making sense of what the other three are, and their implications, is both rather funny and a bit heartbreaking.

Too often what a book offers is either action or introspection, these being the boundaries between genre and literature. I’ve always wanted both. It’s a delight finding a novel that delivers both, without either compromising the other. A great deal happens, some of it is incredibly tense and dramatic. Characters reflect on their experiences, and wonder about what’s going on, and try to make sense of things.

I can heartily recommend The Book of Air. Joe Treasure has created an extraordinary piece of work, beautifully crafted and full of gems.

Find more on the author’s website http://www.joetreasure.com/


The Adventures of Alan Shaw: A Review

Craig Hallam’s The Adventures of Alan Shaw is in many ways everything a person might expect from a steampunk novel. Set in something much like Victorian London, there’s lots of anachronistic technology – the monorail, dirigibles, automatons, some with ‘Babbage inside’ (I giggled about that, and about many other things). There’s also magic, crime, an inevitable event at The Great Exhibition, and a freak show. However, it is the ways in which Craig pushes out from those steampunk standards into unusual territory that makes this book such a good read.

Alan Shaw is a series of short stories, in chronological order. In many ways it functions like a novel, there are story threads that weave the tales together but each adventure is also a standalone. The main character is unusual because he’s a pauper. Steampunk can be a bit too fond of titles for my liking, so I really enjoyed seeing a proper filthy urchin taking the lead. At 11, young Mr Shaw is as dirty as he is disreputable. He’s also trying not to starve or freeze to death in a London that does not treat orphans kindly.

Although rescued from his sordid beginnings, Alan Shaw does not transform, Cinderella style into a handsome prince. He remains a misfit, no longer really working class, certainly not a proper fit for high society. He’s a young man with something to prove, and precious little sense when it comes to proving it.

There are all kinds of social issues laced through the adventures, and this is done with a light touch so it never feels like a lecture. Issues of what moral choices look like when you’re starving. Issues of class, and how society still works even now, advantaging some and crushing others. This is a London in which menial jobs are going to automatons. What are the poor to do? No answers are offered, but it parallels our own loss of employment to cheaper labour from machines. There’s some good subversion of gender norms, as well.

Colonialism is a big issue for anyone interested in reclaiming bits of Victorian spirit. I greatly appreciated the way in which Craig tackled this head on, with the final story of the book set in India. He manages the delicate balance of exploring some of the Victorian colonial mindset without ever letting the reader feel comfortable with it.

The book is laced through with humour, and written with considerable style. Craig has a real knack for working out which sense to draw on to convey a scene quickly. As a person whose thinking isn’t mostly visual, I appreciated having smells, sound and sensation as part of the descriptive mix. Plots bound along at a cheerful pace, characters are always rounded enough to engage, disaster is narrowly avoided. If you want to balance wild escapism with the option of dwelling on the implications, this is a very good read.

Alan Shaw on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Adventures-Alan-Shaw-Craig-Hallam/dp/1908600322/ref=tmm_pap_title_0


Lost Islands

Those of you who know me will know that I’ve been a fan of Kevan Manwaring’s work for the best part of a decade. And if you’ve been reading the blogs for a while you may also have picked up that one of the things I do is write a graphic novel series set on an island that is cut off from the rest of reality.  Hopeless Maine, as Walter Sickert put it is ‘an island lost in time’.

It’s a terrible thing to have to admit that I’ve only just got round to reading Kevan’s Lost Islands book. I read it in July because I’m thinking about writing more in the Hopeless Maine setting and I knew it would help me think around that.

One of the things I love about Kevan’s work, taken as a whole, is that he doesn’t sit tidily in a single, neat marketing definition, and seeing him do that has helped me take a similarly unboxed approach. Kevan writes poetry, non-fiction, fiction, he’s a performer, teacher and storyteller, and all of this feeds into any given book. Lost Islands brings together that breadth of experience and insight. This is a book of myths and history, geography, geology, politics, pop culture, literature, personal experience, speculation, science, and even a bit of fiction for good measure! It’s the sort of book that would sit well next to a Robert McFarlane title.

Lost Islands offers a lot of thoughts about physical islands – those that were imagined, may have existed, have definitely disappeared and those that are just very hard and dangerous to get to. It’s also a book that explores the idea of islands in the broader sense – things cut off and surrounded by something other. The driving narrative of the book explores the human desire for the pristine, Eden, and the way in which our search for it destroys not only those pristine environments, but piles on the environmental damage for the world as a whole. There are too many nature writing books out there that encourage us to run off looking for unspoiled nature, and thus to spoil it, so it’s really pleasing to see a book tackle this issue head on and pull no punches about the implications of getting away from it all.

For me, reading Lost Islands generated some fertile lines of thought about how I might map and chart something I’ve set up to be unchartable. Kevan’s recent blog posts have been all about long distance walking, so I’ve been thinking about that, too. I’m thinking about the issue of utopias and dystopias and the desire for something that is not those things. A playground, where you can gleefully run wild but may fall on your face, or be eaten by monsters.

It’s not an easy book to find, your best bet appears to be Speaking Tree


Upon a Tzorkly Moon: Review

Upon a Tzorkly Moon explores the world of Winchette Dale, home of Matlock the Hare. I’ve enthused about those books in the past, you can find out more at (https://www.matlockthehare.com/). Upon a Tzorkly Moon is both a new thing and familiar, as it focuses on art associated with the Dales, and is written by the artist half of the team – Jacqui Lovesey. For fans of Matlock, it’s a must. If you’ve not encountered this work before, you could dive in here.

This is a book very much dominated by the art, and includes full colour images of illustrations from the novels. Previously we’ve only seen them printed in black and white. Jacqui’s colour use is warm and gorgeous, so it really adds another dimension getting to see the pieces as they were intended.

The book is a wander through the world of the magical dales, showing landscapes, and inhabitants. There are accompanying notes about what you’re seeing, and those are charming to read. It’s a warm, uplifting sort of book, easily nibbled in small quantities, so ideal for a person who is world weary, whose attention is shot or who is short of time and needs to be able to dip into something gentle and generous.

I was struck by a number of things as I sauntered rather slowly through this book over a period of days. Firstly, this is the reality I want to live in; richly animist, full of life and presence. Secondly, I really want to live in the kind of house that looks like Jacqui imagined it. Thirdly the world needs more lush and gently uplifiting creativity in it, critically that which does not patronise, sugar coat or dumb down. Fourthly, I really, really want to make a book this lovely.

So, thanks to Matlock the Hare I am pid-padding into the world of interior colour printing, asking questions about book design, making outrageous demands of my artist/husband Tom Brown, and plotting how to do something along these lines. The story is written, and if it’s half as cheering as Upon a Tzorkly Moon I shall consider it a job sufficiently done.

In the meantime, seek out this book! https://www.matlockthehare.com/project-02

And here’s a guest blog Phil Lovesey did for me a while back – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2014/05/20/matlock-the-hare/

 


Did you whisper back? A Review

I picked up this psychological novel by Kate Rigby through my involvement with Neverland blog tours. What a wonderful find! I read it over an afternoon and evening – it’s not a huge book, but it was also something I found I just couldn’t step away from. I had to know.

This is in essence a book about how ancestral choices can play out in the lives of later generations without them having any idea what’s underpinning things. The central character, Amanda, is both withdrawn and clearly a bit irrational, and we see this early on as she makes some troubled leaps of logic as part of a quest to find her missing twin sister. The book blurb reveals that the missing twin isn’t real and that Amanda is heading for mental breakdown, so, no spoilers from me in saying that much.

The questions of how and why the young woman at the centre of this story has become so unhinged from reality takes us on a journey into her past. As someone who has done a lot of work on ancestry and how it impacts on descendants, I can heartily recommend this novel as a representation of how things get passed down.

The writing is incredibly paired down and intense, full of depth and precise observations of both wider life, and the world inside Amanda’s head. This is an exquisite exercise in telling rather than showing. I’m not a big fan of the modern fad for ‘show not tell’ because it limits where you can go. When it comes to psychological issues, ‘show’ often won’t do it, and ‘tell’ can take us in deeper and far more effectively. There’s no page space wasted on playing everything out. We’re allowed instead to grapple directly with the meat of the story, and with the ghosts haunting it.

I loved this book, I think it’s a fantastic, gem of a novel. It isn’t comfortable or easy reading, but it is profound, intense and provocative.

Buy the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Did-You-Whisper-Back-disturbing-ebook/dp/B0077E2M26