Category Archives: Reviews

The Burnt Watcher – a review(ish)

I won’t claim any objectivity on this one. This is Keith Healing’s first novel. I know him personally, and he is the bloke behind the Hopeless Maine role play game. I proof read for him on this book because he’s a lovely chap and I want to support him.

The Burnt Watcher is set in a dark future where there are nasty supernatural things, and people whose job it is to try and keep that under control. The Burnt Watcher of the title is one such person, who is dealing with a legacy of injury from the work. So, this is a book with a disabled main protagonist, which is something we just don’t see often enough. There’s also a kickass young lady in the story, which I really appreciated.

The story is really engaging, dark, sometimes a bit funny. I very much enjoyed it. There will be a sequel, which makes me very happy indeed. Excellent writing and elegantly put together. I thought the structure of it, and how the author plays with your belief, disbelief and sense of how this world works, was really good.

From a pagan perspective, there’s some rather splendid magical stuff going on. The Watchers use rune based magic and deal with the wyrd. Keith really knows his stuff, and it shows. There’s a lot of joy in a magic system with such substantial roots, written by someone who knows what they are talking about.

For anyone local, there’s also the joy that is having Stonehouse as a place of evil activity and eldritch horror. I love reading stories set in places I know, and especially books set in Gloucestershire. I am delighted by this future Gloucestershire full of gothic ruins, terrible threats and monstrous beings. We all need to see ourselves reflected in what we read, and having our locations reflected is certainly part of that.

As with all good speculative fiction, this is a book with plenty to say to the present moment. About what kinds of deals we make, and what we think is in our best interests, and what we do when we gone off the rails…

You can find the book here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Burnt-Watcher-Fear-Book-ebook/dp/B08964Q14H/

and here – https://www.amazon.com/Burnt-Watcher-Fear-Book-ebook/dp/B08964Q14H


Persephone – a review

Pagan Portals – Persephone: Practicing the Art of Personal Power by Robin Corak is a new title from Moon Books.

I picked it up because there are a number of things that interest me about Persephone. I’m not Hellenic and this isn’t a Goddess I identify with especially. So, to be clear, I am not the intended audience for this book. It’s written for someone who want to follow, work with or otherwise devote themselves to Persephone. If that’s you, this is a good place to start with an array of meditations, historic insights rituals and tools to help you build a relationship with this Goddess.

One of the things this book offers is a re-reading of Persephone’s story. This was one of the things I was particularly looking for. Conventionally, Persephone is presented as an innocent girl who is kidnapped and raped by Hades, rescued by her mum – Demeter – but tricked by Hades so she has to go back to him for a part of each year. However, there are other ways of telling her story, and I’m interested in how different women are doing this. Robin has a Persephone story for us that is about the journey from innocence to experience, and about finding your own way when you seem to have only limiting, binary choices.

Persephone is most assuredly the Goddess of not being limited by narrow identity stories. She is both the spring maiden and the Queen of the underworld. What meaning you take from her story depends a lot on how you relate to two key scenes from it. Do you see her as the abducted victim, or do you see her seeking adventure and opportunity? And do you see her as force fed the pomegranate seeds that keep her tied to the underworld, or do you see her taken them of her own free will because there is no going back to her child-life?

Find out more here – https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/blogs/moon-books/persephone-practicing-the-art-of-personal-power/

 


Woodland Revolution – a review

This may be exactly the right book to read at this point in time. Stephen Palmer’s Woodland Revolution starts out seeming very simple. The main characters are a young wolf, and an older dog who lives feral in the wood. It has a mythic feel, and reads like a classic fairy story.

As a consequence I found it easy to fall into and my tired, troubled mind was soothed by the mythic cadence. The story is set in The Wood which sometimes feels like a specific location, but mostly feels like the spirit of woodland and wildness. The Wood has rules. The two characters we follow are questioning those rules and want to at least understand life in The Wood. As they go along, they become ever more in conflict with the way the rules are interpreted, and the lack of clarity. What starts out as a simple, mythic quest becomes an epic philosophical journey.

The real genius of it is that the book acts on you, it happens to you and you end up being the creature who takes the journey, not simply a reader.

Anyone who has read other fiction by Stephen Palmer will be used to the way he puts stories within stories. The stories we use to inform and guide our lives are re-occurring themes in his work so it’s really interesting to see him take this on as the main thrust of the story, not the underpinning for something else.

A fascinating read, more information here – http://www.stephenpalmer.co.uk/


Wild Spinning Girls – a review

Wild Spinning Girls is the latest novel by Carol Lovekin. It’s contemporary set and I consider it to be witch-lit – there’s magic, ghosts, a witchy character, and a world view Pagan readers will certainly relate to. It’s also a story about grief and loss – the wild spinning girls of the title have both lost their parents and are struggling to make sense of life. Heather is 17, Ida is 29 and they are unexpectedly thrown into each other’s lives as a consequence of that bereavement.

One of the things that really struck me about this book is that it is dominated by women, and none of those women could be called ‘nice’. There’s one female character whose wisdom, compassion and generosity really shines through. Everyone else is, to some degree, a mess. Hurting, flailing, angry, resentful, making bad choices, and otherwise struggling. Women who say what they think, not what they think the other person wants to hear. Women who are trying to sort their own lives out and who are not, for the greater part, focused on trying to save someone else.

It struck me how unusual this is. To have a big cast of female characters who are allowed to be selfish and self involved and living their own lives and doing their own things. By the end of it, none of them have been pressured into becoming more willing to serve others. Several of them have become better at asking for and receiving help, and you can see how this might soften them in the future.

I love the haunted, gothic qualities of this book, the sense of place and landscape and the magic that permeates it. I found the grief arc hard – that’s really a matter of timing I think. If you’re looking for catharsises and a text that gives you opportunities to have a bit of a cry, this could be helpful right now. If you’re already feeling too raw, put it on your to-read list and come back when you’re more resilient. It’s an excellent book and well worth your time.

 

You can get it as an ebook, which is no doubt the safest and quickest way to pick up new books at the moment – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wild-Spinning-Girls-Carol-Lovekin-ebook/dp/B083PZXDQN/ 


Libation, a review

Libation is a beautiful collection by Earl Livings – mostly poetry and some poetic prose. The writing conveys a sensual experience of the physical world that I think any Pagan or Druid could connect with. As someone who is not very good at belief, I found the way this book mixes the spiritual and the rational really powerful.

This isn’t a big review because I’m struggling at the moment. It is a book that deserves a much deeper contemplation of its many merits. It was gifted to me by the author with no expectation of a review, and came in on what had been a desperately bad day. Reading it gave me respite during a week that remained really difficult, and I am profoundly grateful.

More information here – https://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/store.php?product/page/1792/%2A+Earl+Livings+%2F+Libation

Available as an ebook https://www.amazon.com/Libation-Earl-Livings/dp/1760416150 

 


Broken Skies – a review

Hannah Spencer’s novel Broken Skies is an epic book and unusual in many ways. Although it’s not explicit in the text, the story is set around Gobekli Tepe in Turkey – perhaps the first temple in the world. It’s a really compelling pre-historic site and if you aren’t familiar with it, I recommend looking it up.

The story follows the conflict between the Irin – who built the temple and the Annunaki who want it destroyed. There’s a third people – the clans, who the Irin and Annunaki treat as inferior, but who have a much older relationship with the land. There’s a huge cast of characters with complex relationships between them and a story playing out over a long time frame. This is a complicated read that will require your full attention. Ideal if you want to totally immerse in something, not ideal if your concentration is poor.

This book captures ways of life, modes of thinking, daily activities and perspectives on relationships that seem rooted and realistic. I’m no pre-history expert, but I have a little insight and was totally persuaded of the breadth and depth of the author’s knowledge. The people depicted make sense as individuals, but at the same time are so removed from contemporary experience and thinking as to be surprising. I was impressed by this.

The characters in this book inhabit a shamanic reality. There’s no difference between life and spirituality, no separation of belief from any aspect of life. They live their magic, their reality is an intrinsically magical one. However, while it is a shamanic reality, it doesn’t retrofit modern thinking. These are not familiar approaches – there’s tapping into myth in all kinds of effective ways, but it isn’t a re-writing of myth. Modern Pagan fiction can be prone to projecting modern Pagan thinking onto the past – Hannah doesn’t do this at all. I’ve never encountered anything like it in terms of where she takes us.

There is conflict at the heart of the story. Every single character involved in the conflict thinks that their understanding is right, and everyone else is to some degree, wrong. Every character believes they are the one who really understands the spiritual implications of what they are doing. All of them are persuasive and most of the time it is difficult to decide who, if anyone, is right. This is brilliant. The truth is too big for any one character to grasp. If you’re tired of lazy fights between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ you’re going to love this.

It wasn’t an easy read. I found it emotionally intense. Being dropped into an unfamiliar culture I was sometimes a bit lost and I had to work to stay with it – but that in many ways supports the story. This is not an easy culture, the underlying logic is that you should expect to pay to have anything worthwhile.

More about the book here – https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/historical/broken-skies/ 


Stroud Poets: Rick Vick – a review

Yew Tree Press is a Stroud publisher putting out small poetry booklets featuring local poets. Often these take poets in sets of three, but Rick Vick has a collection to himself. His recent death is no doubt the main reason for this.

I first came into contact with Rick Vick through the Stroud Short Stories competition. Rick was a frequent participant and I edited his work for the first Stroud Short Stories anthology. I can’t say I ever knew him well, but he was someone who would acknowledge me in the street. He was clearly an interesting chap who had lived fully and with passion and who thought about things a lot. It came through in both his prose and his poetry.

The poems in this collection are all short, intense pieces. I really like the clear, everyday language – I don’t enjoy poetry that you have to figure out like some kind of cryptic puzzle. Rick Vick demonstrates beautifully that simple language has immense poetic power. He has a knack for picking out details that evoke, and suggest. The work is often emotional, poignant without falling into sentimentality. It’s rich with observation and understanding and a great deal is communicated in a very small space. These poems are human, accessible and well worth your time.

Find out more on the website – https://www.yewtreepress.co.uk/


Lanny – a review

My first encounter with Lanny, by Max Porter, was at Stroud Book Festival 2019. I was working at a venue, flipping through the program during a quiet bit and realised that in the evening we’d got Max Porter – author of the beautiful, heartbreaking book, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers.

It was a surprising evening – a mix of music, performance and reading that conjured up a strange village with a green man sort of character. I was enchanted.

Lanny is a contemporary set novel, with the action occurring in a village near London. The village has a folkloric figure – Dead Papa Toothwort – and we see quite a lot from his perspective. Lanny is a young boy. His mother is a former actress, his father still works in the city. The tension between the historic village and the money moving into it is one of the many threads.

It turns out that the performance version was an exceedingly effective way to capture a text that isn’t like a normal novel. Some of it is layered, as you encounter multiple voices of villagers. It put me in mind of Under Milkwood, only with the voices crowding each other, talking over each other and seldom to each other. Much of it is better read with your poetry head on rather than being approached like regular prose. Much is ambiguous. Some narrators are really unreliable. It is dreamlike, sometimes terrifying, laced with folk horror and full of real magic.

There was so much here that I felt keenly. I’ve been the mother whose fiction writing is assumed to mean something about her parenting – something Max Porter captures uncomfortably well. I’ve been the mother of the long haired, odd boy and I’ve seen what happens when professional scrutiny is brought to bear on all of that, and when people judge you for difference. I wasn’t a wealthy incomer to the village, I was a pauper with some roots there. There are so many things Max nails here that I’ve experienced even though the overall  story shape is a long way from anything I’ve been through. I find his writing deeply emotive and gripping, and I read the entire book in a day because I had to know what happened.

Anyone worried about triggering based on all of this is welcome to contact me and I’ll spoiler in private if you need me to. If you can read it without any detailed content warnings, it will be more powerful that way, and although I was truly frightened by this book, and it was certainly difficult along the way, it was not, ultimately, a traumatic read.

 

Find out more about Max Porter on his website – https://www.maxporter.co.uk/ 


On Brighton Streets – another review

Tom reviewed this book as a guest blogger last year. https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2019/12/15/on-brighton-streets-a-review/

I’ve finally got round to reading it. I’ve been slow because I’ve not had much to spare emotionally and I thought it would get to me – and it did. It would be fair to say that Nils Visser is a total bastard when it comes to writing books that will break your heart. He creates emotionally engaging characters and gets you to care about them and puts them, and therefore you through the grinder. Co-writing with Cair Going has in no way changed this. It’s a powerful book and ultimately hopeful, but not easy.

The two main characters are girls in their first year at secondary school, dealing with bullying, and volunteering for a homeless project in Brighton. It brings them into contact with the brutal unfairness of the adult world, and there a lot of tough lessons for them both along the way.

While the book is fiction and contains some fictional elements, much of the context is real. It’s based on the first hand experiences of the authors working as volunteers in Brighton, and draws on The Invisible Voices of Brighton & Hove project as well. The reality of homelessness, the politics, inaction, profiteering, and the innate cruelty of all that are here to be encountered. Even if you’re passably aware, there’s much here that may surprise you, and not in a good way.

Homelessness is not the fault of the homeless. It is the inevitable consequence of so many systems being under pressure that people drop through the widening cracks in increasing numbers. When homes are unaffordable, and there’s little council housing, when work is insecure and most of us are only a few paychecks from disaster, there is bound to be homelessness. Rough sleeping is only part of it, and the people living in cars, vans, boats and caravans aren’t always so visible, nor are the couch surfers, or the people exchanging sexual favours for a night’s shelter. Add to this the total lack of provision for people in mental health crisis, an increasingly cruel benefits system, loss of shelters for folk escaping domestic abuse and cuts to all resources for young people, and you start to wonder how anyone from a low income background avoids being pushed over the edge like this.

Find out more here – https://nilsnissevisser.co.uk/invisible-voices-of-brighton-and-hove-(books-stories-and-poems)


The Crows – a review

Last year, author C.M Rosens approached Tom for internal illustrations for The Crows. Tom is the sort of illustrator who reads the book. And so he read the book, and he kept telling me as he went along that I absolutely had to read it. He was right, of course, and I’ve just had the experience of reading a novel that could have been written for me. This doesn’t happen to me very often.

Carrie is a domestic abuse survivor, recently escaped. She’s bought a gothic ruin and blown all of her money on doing it up. She is in love with the house. It may be mutual. The house is an hour’s walk from Pagham-on-Sea which initially appears to be all of the nightmares of small minded little England combined. Only it turns out to be much worse than that, and much more interesting.

Here’s a little summary from the author herself, which I have stolen from Twitter:

“THE CROWS -sentient house (100% Haunted, probs cursed)

-funny working class women who take no shit

-Gothic tropes oozing from every page

-Emotionally unavailable eldritch monster bois”

Emotionally unavailable eldritch monster bois are so my thing. Monster romances are also so my thing. There was an intensely erotic scene in which one character touched another character’s second mouth. Also, there’s polyamoury, and queer characters, ghosts, magic, zombies, and a story in part about living with the consequences of your ancestors’ enthusiasm for eldritch horrors.

I loved it utterly.

There was a time when I dabbled in writing romance and erotica fiction. The trouble is, that I can’t write girl meets boy, mild setbacks are experienced, everyone lives happily ever after stories. I tried. Girl meets boy. Girl has a severed head in a bag. Girl meets monster. Girl turns out to be even more scary than the aforementioned monster. Monster turns out to be strangely fragile and vulnerable in some way.

Finding someone doing such an awesome job of writing the kind of stories I was trying to write makes me enormously happy. Finding that it’s not just me who craves the twisting together of love and horror, comedy and gore. Hitting those perfect turns of phrase that are both funny and ghastly all at once, and feeling like I’ve come home. This book made me so very happy.

Find out more about C.M Rosens over here – https://cmrosens.com/