Category Archives: Reviews

Darkest Part – a review

Darkest Part is a ten track album by Madeleine Harwood. Madeleine won Bard of Hawkwood last year, and has gone on to do all sorts of exciting things since – this album being one of those.

Darkest Part is a really unusual piece of work. The songs are all original, and are sung unaccompanied. There aren’t many people who could pull off an entire album of unaccompanied singing, but Madeleine makes this absolute focus on voice and words work for her.

I’m not confident saying what kind of genre of music this is. There’s a folk influence, there’s also blues, jazz, gospel, and moments that put me in mind of many different female singer songwriters who don’t play by the rules. This is something unique, which has grown out of roots music. It is music as art, but it isn’t like contemporary art music. It is voice as instrument, but the words aren’t secondary. The tunes are powerful, soaring, making use of Madeleine’s vast range and vocal power. They are also earworms, I find they follow me around and snatches of song replay in my head at unexpected moments.

In terms of the lyrics, again this is really unusual stuff. The Darkest Part that the title refers to, is being bi-polar. A number of the songs are very much about living with mental health problems. It is intense, beautiful stuff, and there’s much in what’s said here about depression and anxiety that really resonates with me. There’s also a gorgeous overtly Pagan song about Bablon, which gives me goose bumps every time I hear it. The lyrics are in the CD case so you can read them separately – and they certainly reward the person who does that.

I’ve known Madeleine a long time. We were at school together. I was reading her poetry when we were in early adulthood, and I loved her work then, and I love it now. I’ve been fortunate enough to sit with her in pub back rooms and heard some of these songs when they were first written. The amazing voice that emerges from the CD is simply how she sounds any time she sings. You can hear when you listen that this is a voice presented naturally, because nothing needs tinkering with. If you get a chance to hear her singing live, I heartily recommend that you do.

You can find Darkest Part lots of places, here’s the Amazon link – https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B074Y9CKJ8/

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Wild Fire – a review

Wild Fire is the third book in Anna McKerrow’s awesome Greenworld trilogy. That’s a tricky reviewing setup right there, because reviewing the third book without spoilering the first two means I can’t talk about the story much at all. Further, you don’t want to start here, you want to start with Crow Moon which I reviewed here – eco-pagan-mythmaking/ and then read Red Witch – reviewed here ways-to-live-a-trio-of-reviews/

The Greenworld is in the southwest of the UK, a small country led by witches, hived off from the rest of the world as said rest of world plunges into fuel wars, environmental degradation and chaos. A little bit of utopia set against a very dark background. Except that, like most utopias, it is held together by things that don’t work so well for everyone. Book one – Crow Moon introduces us to the Greenworld through the eyes of Danny, and Danny isn’t a fan. His journey into becoming a witch opens up the setting. I liked book one, I enjoyed having so much Paganism in a novel, and ecotopian thinking is a good thing.

 

 

 

When I read book two – Red Witch, I thought it blew Crow Moon out of the water. New book, new perspective, and time inside the head of Melz, one of the young witches we first met in Crow Moon.  Melz rocks. Melz is the sort of person teenage me wanted to be, and wasn’t. She’s complicated and brilliant and learning to stand in her own power. The story takes her out into Redworld, and casts everything I thought I knew from the first book in an entirely different light.

 

 

 

Then along comes book three, Wild Fire, and a new perspective (and I can’t tell you who without spoiling some things for people who haven’t read book one yet!). I love this narrator – flawed, romantic and cynical at the same time, painfully self aware… This is in part a story about forgiveness, and when it needs doing and when it doesn’t. Wild Fire takes the small UK scene of the first two books and blows it open onto the world stage. Things that had been background details before – like the fuel wars – suddenly become a good deal more important and in the foreground.

There’s a message in all of this, and it is that we cannot hive ourselves off from the world and build little private bubbles. We all of us have to deal with the totality of what’s going on. It will not go away if we ignore it. We will be affected whether we choose to engage or not. It’s an essential message for our times. I spent much of the last few chapters of Wild Fire crying, because it had hope in it, and I honestly did not expected that.

All three books have a serious pace on them. There’s no mucking about – events come thick and fast, with the scale of the action increasing at every turn. The characters are messy, complicated, often confused. They make mistakes, but they build on what they learn from their mistakes. They learn to forgive themselves, and each other, and the adults who have never been enough. They learn who not to forgive as well, and that’s important. These are stories about what we do in face of fear and difference, who we include and who we shut out when banding together to overcome difficulties.

It’s really, really good stuff. Engaging, hard to put down and likely to stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.

These books are ideal for Pagan teenagers, and for anyone else who is happy to have Pagan teens as the main characters in a series. Highly reccomended.

find out more about Anna McKerrow’s work here – annamckerrow.com/books.html


The Other Life of Charlotte Evans – a review

I picked this book up as part of a Neverland blog tour. It isn’t the sort of thing I normally review – because from the cover it looks like chick lit, and it’s published by Harper Collins, while I normally focus on small publishers and self publishers.

Reading The Other Life of Charlotte Evans got me thinking about how women’s writing is marketed to readers. The colour choices of the cover say to me that I should not expect real surprises or much depth. The blurb goes “A heartrendingly beautiful novel about love, family and finding your own path to happiness.” It all sounds warm, and safe and easy. I didn’t find it to be any of those things.

At the outset, Charlotte is eight weeks away from marrying her man. She’s twenty five, has her own dance studio and a massive mortgage and there’s a five year plan. They’ve got it all figured out, and are in the final stages of pinning down all those little wedding details. However, Charlotte turns out to have a lump in one of her breasts, and suddenly the rosy view looks a good deal more troubled.

What happens after that isn’t gentle, heartwarming feel good. It’s a serious exploration of the fear that comes with facing mortality in this way. There’s a hard look at the kind of strain illness, and the threat of illness puts on relationships. People struggle to understand. Charlotte no longer knows herself, her needs and priorities have just had a seismic upheaval, and all bets are off.

What further complicates things for Charlotte is that, as an adopted child, she knows nothing about her birth family, and as a consequence, nothing at all about her hereditary risks. Asking those questions is dangerous, and takes her into territory she feels guilty about and that threatens to further rock the foundations of her life.

In the eight weeks from the start of the tale to the wedding, many of the people involved in the story make mistakes and handle things badly. Fear and shock do that to a person. Communications become strained. People trying to protect each other end up shutting each other out. Suspicions grow in the silent spaces. In the harsh light created by possible sickness everything and everyone looks different, and the drunken hen weekend planned for Amsterdam looks less fun by the moment.

There were times when the author managed to make me angry with the characters – especially the finance – over their reactions. I was surprised by how much I was willing to invest in Charlotte’s predicament,  and how much it mattered to me when characters started getting things right. The ending wasn’t neat and wholly comfortable, and that was excellent because it felt so much more real for being that way.

Which takes me back to how we present women’s writing. When women write about family things, health and the domestic sphere, it’s so often trivialised and treated as light weight. This is an emotionally powerful book dealing with serious issues, really it isn’t that much about the pretty pink ballet shoes at all. It makes me wonder how many other profound and powerful books are out there hiding behind fluffy looking covers, and whether I need to poke round a bit more to find them.

More about the book here – https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780008221614/the-other-life-of-charlotte-evans


Memoirs Of A Clairvoyant: A Review

When I saw the full title for this book – Memoirs Of A Clairvoyant: Unforeseen Circumstances – I knew I was likely to get on with it. It takes a certain kind of humour to offer yourself to the world as a psychic and go straight in there with the unforeseen, and this very much sets the tone for the book.

Colette Brown tells the story of her life, from clairvoyant experiences in childhood, through growing up, finding her path, getting on TV, trying, and frequently failing to make a living as a psychic, and growing as a spiritual person. It is a very down to earth book, full of pitfalls and mistakes, and predictions that only make sense in hindsight. Alongside this are some startling and touching stories about when it did work out in a meaningful way. It all feels very real, and not the kind of self aggrandizement you normally find in New Age writing. It cheered me greatly to see clairvoyant work portrayed in such a human way.

I’ve read Colette’s work before (although it took me an embarrassingly long time to remember what I’d read!) I interviewed her on the blog four years ago – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/antidotes/  I read and I’m pretty sure I reviewed “Maybe the Universe Just Isn’t That Into You!” But where I reviewed it I cannot recall. Reading the Memoir I happily re-encountered the mix of reverence and irreverence that runs through Colette’s work. She knows when to take something seriously, and when to laugh at it, when to offer herself as someone to take seriously, and when to laugh at herself. It’s a skill many of us could do with – myself most certainly included.

I think this book would be an ideal read for a younger person starting out on the clairvoyant path and wanting some sense of how it goes. This is not a life story of endless ease and success, this isn’t a person whose experience of spirit looks an awful lot like an experience of privilege – Colette has faced all the sorrows and challenges of a normal life, plus some. Her path hasn’t made things easier for her, but it has given her the tools to deal with the tough times. I suspect it has also inclined her to wade into trouble when others might have slipped away and taken an easier path.

It is good to be reminded that we are magical and mundane, that we can be very normal people and very spiritual people at the same time. It’s also good to be reminded that the better you are at putting your intent into the world, the more careful you have to be about the wording!

I enjoyed reading this book, it was very accessible and I found it affirming and encouraging.

More about the book here – amazon.co.uk/Memoirs-Clairvoyant-Circumstances


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.


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/