Category Archives: Reviews

Quiet – a review

Quiet, by Susan Cain, reviewed by Guest Blogger Stephen Palmer

There is a difference between extrovert and introvert, but it’s not the difference most people think of when they hear those descriptions. The standard view is of party animals versus non-party animals. Dorothy Rowe explained that extroverts feel a more real outer world, and are uncomfortable with being on their own since their inner world is more insubstantial, whereas introverts feel a more real inner world, and are often uncomfortable in the hurly burly of social life. Introverts can be happy in times of solitude: extroverts alone feel a void inside themselves, and seek company.

This is one useful explanation, given by a master of the field. Susan Cain’s equivalent in her remarkable book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking is based around the concept of sensitivity, which is in the main a biologically determined quality. We all have different types of brains. Our brains, linked to our many senses, operate at various levels of sensitivity – introverts tend towards maximal sensitivity, extroverts towards the norm, or less.

“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic… They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive… They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments – both physical and emotional – unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss – another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”

When I was younger I wondered for a long time why I was so different to most of my friends and colleagues in this regard, and it all comes down to my high level of introversion. In fact I got a triple dose – one dose from each parent, plus being right-brained. That’s a hell of a lot of introversion to have to cope with.

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

Is this starting to ring some bells with you…? Then you’re an introvert, and you should stop trying to fit in with the extrovert world that we have in the West. (One of the most interesting chapters in Quiet is the one contrasting the Western ideal of extroversion with the Eastern ideal of introversion – although there is more to it than that dichotomy.) Susan Cain is strong and determined in her critique of Western extrovert standards:

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

Many people in the literary world will grasp all this; we literate types are quiet thinkers. If you feel likewise, then Quiet is for you.

The book is split into four sections. The first deals with what Susan Cain calls the extrovert ideal, and this is done mostly from an American perspective. Part two deals with the tricky subject of nature versus nurture – biology versus self, but also the role of free will in changing behaviour, and the roles of risk and reward. Examples given include the Roosevelts and Warren Buffett. Part three is a single chapter on Asian-Americans and how they deal with the American cultural standard of high sociability and constant conversation. Part four deals with strategies for the introvert, and for the extroverts who live with them.

This book is also great because it features some brilliant and pithy quotes:

“Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe”

“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”

Another crucial aspect of this book is Susan Cain’s separation of shyness and introversion, which many people use as interchangeable concepts. But they’re not:

“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.”

In a nutshell, for anybody who has gone through social hell or even just anxiety, and who wonders why they feel exhausted at the end of a whirl of socialising – even if that’s spending time with friends or family in the most relaxed of circumstances – this is the book for you. It made a big difference in my own life, as I was finally able to explain a few of my own puzzling character traits. Understanding introversion is the first step on the road to coping with it. I spent a long time not coping, but, luckily, now I do.

“Now that you’re an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much”, a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral. Or maybe there’s another word for such people: thinkers.”

This was for me one of the most inspirational of books. It was given to me completely out of the blue by a friend of mine. I still thank him for that kindness when occasionally I see him.

 

 

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The Weight of Expectation – a review

This is a very small, very powerful comic. Writer Oli Williams and illustrator Jade Sarson explore how stigma associated with bodyweight and size impacts on people. The visual storytelling here is brilliant, and gives a real sense of an experience that is felt in the flesh.

I did not find this an easy read, and at the same time, I found it enormously helpful. I’ve dealt with fat shaming and body loathing my whole life. I saw something of my own experiences reflected here. That was both painful and cathartic. At the moment, I’m about the smallest I’ve ever been, and as someone small enough to buy regular high street clothes I know that I effectively have more thin privilege than not. But at the same time, like some of the characters in this comic, the words of fatness are written into my flesh through years of struggle, and I cannot look at my own body without seeing that.

One of the things I really love about Jade’s work here, is her ability to depict large people without making them grotesque or ridiculous. The idea that people are intrinsically loveable, that human bodies are loveable and acceptable is a theme I see reoccurring in her work and I am deeply glad of it.

More about The Weight of Expectation here – http://teahermit.co.uk/


Girls who are too good for this world

In the last few weeks, I’ve read two books, quite accidentally, with some similar themes. They were, The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy, and The Queen of Love, by Sabine Baring-Gould.  The Constant Nymph was published in 1924, The Queen of Love was published in 1894, and I think the dates are important because the options for young ladies with complicated romances in their lives were pretty limited – you married them, or they ruined you, or you were forever alone.

Both novels feature a young lady who is wild and original and lives on her own terms and to her own standards. Both of these young women fail to please or appease the people around them, who are revealed as hypocrites by contrast. The young ladies are authentic, passionate, wholehearted and fundamentally good. The people who think ill of them are mean spirited, obsessed with social appearances, and oblivious to the true value of what’s in front of them.

In one of these books, the young lady dies. I won’t say which one, because it’s the only way I can talk about this and avoid spoilers. She dies, because there’s really no way out for her that allows her to remain true and good, aside from death. The girl who lives does so because there are some good people around her, not just the mean spirited hypocrites. The good people shelter her, and she is able to build on that. The girl who has no friends, has no options. They really are girls, too. One is fifteen by the end of the book, the other is seventeen during most of the action.

I think characters like these are ancestors of the manic pixie dream girl. They’re too good for this world, too pure of heart for the impure interpretations of those around them. All too often, people who create such characters cannot imagine a viable future for them, or a way of life in which they might get to be happy and secure. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a similar figure – a woman who is inherently good in herself but betrayed by all the key people in her life. Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth offers another in the same vein.

Older books tend to punish fallen women by killing them. Women are not allowed to come out of love affairs unscathed – even the most innocent love affairs (with all due regard to The Mill on the Floss). Women who give too much of themselves and do not pay enough attention to social norms, are punished for it in much of our older literature. We seem to have replaced this wild, social misfit with new, similar figures who also have no future, and no imaginable life. They come into stories to shake men up, to re-enchant and re-inspire and then they slip away – they don’t die as often as they used to, certainly, but they do still die. And yes, I’m still angry about Bridge to Terabithia.

It makes a pleasant change to read an older novel in which a girl who is both wild and good, comes out on top in the end. The prejudice of those who judge her is revealed for what it is. The true virtues of the girl shine through, and she is not killed to protect the hypocrisy of people who consider themselves better than her. I wish there were more stories of this shape. I think these are stories we need, in which wild women are allowed to live on their own terms. Women who are allowed to be passionate, and sexual, and true to themselves, and who are not crushed by society for being as they are. Alongside that we need the room for actual women who are actually wild and unconforming and I know from firsthand experience how much judgement and prejudice remains in the world for women who don’t behave in just the right way.


Hopeless Maine Sinners – a review

Rather than me writing a book review this week, I thought I’d send you over to a review for my most recent graphic novel, Hopeless Maine – Sinners. It would be fair to say that this isn’t a review from a neutral and objective source.

Meredith is a contributor to The Hopeless Vendetta  she performed on stage with us last year when we were involved in Stroud Book Festival, she’s been a test player for the game and is going to more involved in Hopeless things in the future. She’s one of the people I write for.

There’s always a certain amount of urge to like a friend’s book, and to review it kindly. However, there’s also a different process, where we come to love people because we love their work. If you enter into a relationship with anyone else’s creativity, that will inform how you talk about what they do. To be neutral and objective is to be on the outside of a story, and maybe that’s not the best outcome.

You can read Meredith’s review here – https://meredithdebonnaire.wordpress.com/2018/07/12/book-review-hopeless-maine-sinners-by-tom-and-nimue-brown/


Tommy Catkins – a review

Tommy Catkins is the new novel from Stephen Palmer, whose Factory Girl Trilogy I was very taken with. It’s a story that mixes history and fantasy, and does not encourage you to feel confident about what’s real, and what’s delusion brought on by trauma.

The central character – Tommy – is a massive enigma. The odds seem good that his name is not really Tommy Catkins at all. He’s lied about his age. He doesn’t remember a lot of what happened to him. He doesn’t know if he’s mad, or too afraid to go back to the trenches. He doesn’t know if what he sees in the puddles and river are real, or manifestations from his own broken mind. In some senses he’s an everyboy, all the kids who signed up to fight in the First World War, and who paid with their minds and bodies. There are hints about a personal background, but we’re never allowed to see it, we can only wonder. The story keeps us very much on the outside of his experiences, which of course we are bound to be, because we weren’t there, and we don’t understand.

For me what was most interesting about the story is the way is catches shifts in mental health understanding. Up until the First World War, mental anguish was often treated as a female issue – hysteria – and not taken very seriously. The impact of shell shock on officers and men alike changed public and medical attitudes to the issue of trauma. We went from shooting men for cowardice to taking their broken nerves seriously. The novel explores some of the appalling methods that were attempted as ‘cures’ and the pressure to get sick men back to the front. The idea that mental anguish in face of experience might be the root cause, not a physical reaction, is something the book explores.

This isn’t a comfortable read. It’s a haunting and deeply uneasy book that won’t offer you tidy solutions. If you’re looking for uncomplicated escapism, this isn’t it, but it is a book that can speak in some unsettling ways to that urge for escapism.


Marhime – a review

I do not come to this book as any kind of neutral reviewer – my name is mentioned in the dedication. I’ve read many of these stories and poems in parts and in whole as they were developing. One of them goes back to the collection that brought Lou Pulford into my life some years ago. Lou was a gift from the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, who sent me an anthology to review. We got talking, we’ve kept talking, she’s a wonderful person to have in my life. For this book, she’s writing as Penny Blake.

So, here’s a confession that relates very much to Mahrime. I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a monster. I’m the intolerable, the excessive, frightening, unacceptable thing to be chased out of your village with pitchforks. When Lou came into my life, I’d not long escaped from a pitchfork incident, and was feeling awful about myself and unable to deal with people. And Lou said yes, I know what kind of monster you are. Let me dry those monstery tears and tell you a story. (Some poetic license has been taken in writing this for the blog, but only for brevity).

This is beautiful writing, haunting, soulful difficult, alive with feeling and incredibly powerful. It will be too much for some people; too difficult, too raw. But if you are too much, too difficult and too raw it will be a lot like coming home. There is solace here, and also hope.

Mahrime means outcast. This is a collection of stories and poems for a certain kind of monster. Those of us who are on fire. Those of us who have swallowed the dragon we should have cared for. Those of us who have written our stories in our own blood and used our finger bones as tools to carve what we had to say into the walls. This is a collection for people who have ached with wanting a tribe and never having found a tribe. It turns out it isn’t just me. If you are a person who needs to read these stories, and cry over them, and burn too much with empathy and recognition, then get this book now. Go.

Go here, in fact – https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07FLSRPVR


The Land Girl – a review

I really enjoyed this novel. Set around the First World War, it follows the trials of Emily, a young lady of middle class background who wants to be a Land Girl and do her bit. It’s a novel that stays away from the front, although characters are very directly affected by the fighting. It shows the perspective of women remaining at home while war is waged. There’s a conscientious objector – and we see what kind of treatment was normal for them. There are soldiers home recovering from wounds, there’s shell shock, and shortages, and sexism and suffragettes. It is, all in all, a very rich depiction of the period.

What I particularly liked about this book, was the handling of central character – Emily. It’s all too easy to write historical novels and give characters from the past modern sensibilities. This book explores the rise of women wanting a say, wanting work and fair pay for their work and the scope to make a life on their own terms. We see women from a range of class backgrounds coming at this issue from all kinds of angles. The passion of women who believed that real change was possible is captured here, but so is the reality of living with grinding sexism.

Emily wants to run a farm. The workers on the farm are mostly land girls, but getting them to take her seriously as an authority isn’t easy. Running male workers is even more challenging, and Emily knows that her chances of being taken seriously by any man – even a man who has seen what she’s capable of – are pretty slim. She knows this is how the world works, and while she wants things to be different, her confidence fluctuates. Her mother calls her a nuisance, and other family members find her ridiculous and embarrassing, and she deals with all of this as best she can.

Allie Burns has written a book that deals with all kinds of relationships – romantic, familial, the relationships between people and the land, the relationships between people of different class. The relationships within a village and within a farm. It’s interesting to watch how the pressure of war erodes some of those traditional boundaries, and how rapidly some people push back to get things as they were once the war is over. What seems like progress to some seems like a dangerous problem to others. It’s not a battle we’ve stopped fighting. There are still plenty of men who despise female authority, assume that male work is automatically better and worth more, and who think that women should stay home. A hundred years on, we’ve made some progress, but not nearly enough.

More about the book here – https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780008310097/the-land-girl/


The Word for World is Forest

The Word for World is Forest is a short novel by Ursula Le Guinn. It deals with themes of colonialism, dehumanising the other, toxic masculinity and the cost of fighting oppression. It’s a beautifully written, deeply engaging, entirely heartbreaking sort of book. When you have to take up arms to protect a peaceful culture, you have already lost a part of what you wanted to protect. There’s no way round that.

Sometimes the only choice is between fighting and dying. Sometimes only forceful resistance will deal with violent abuses. History is full of examples. The current world is full of examples. How do you fight back without becoming a version of that which you fight against?

I think it’s good, in face of such questions to be uneasy and uncomfortable. That is perhaps the only line of defence against being gung-ho. In times of conflict we turn to ideas about heroism, fighting the good fight, and celebrating the winners. One of the things I like about The Word for World is Forest is that victory is full of grief and uncertainty. There is no sense of triumph. The person who might have been a hero is not a hero, only a damaged consequence of the violence.

This is a story about doing what is necessary. This is a story about what happens when what is necessary is abhorrent. It is a story that suggests that afterwards, there is a high price to be paid for doing what has to be done. I am inclined to feel that in the current climate, this is very much the sort of story we need.


The League of Lid Curving Witchery – a review

This is a new book from Phil and Jacqui Lovesey, whose Matlock the Hare books I have reviewed before on this blog. Set in the magickal dales, this volume focuses on the history of the league of lid curving witchery – the witches who inhabit this strange and lovely landscape. While the first three Matlock the Hare books were illustrated prose, things clearly took a bit of a turn with the previous title – Upon a Tzorkly Moon – which was hard cover and densely illustrated in colour.  The new one is more in this style.

Here we have stories and illustrations, and a physically very beautiful book. It’s imaginative, and engaging. I’ve been pondering this for a while and I think the best way to describe it is to say that this is a children’s book that has been written for adults. Maybe that makes it an inner children’s book. It’s pretty dark in places – violence against those perceived to be outsiders is a reoccurring theme, and as these are witches, boiling other creatures in your cauldron is a popular choice. It’s probably not suitable for most children (if in doubt, buy it and read it first).

The underlying theme of the story is about how we square up to our differences and rise above them. Tzorkly (it’s a parlawitch word in case you were wondering) means ‘to rise above’ and this book is absolutely an invitation to do just that. It delivers the message without being smug or preachy.

One of the things I find especially interesting about the Lovesy’s work is how they handle death. This is an animist reality, everything and anything can have feelings and a voice. Everything creaturey eats. Sometimes what is eaten, protests. Everything will die eventually, and the deaths of main characters are very much part of the stories. This book focuses on three witches, and all of them die, and that’s absolutely fine. It doesn’t even feel like a spoiler mentioning this, because it’s about life. They live, and therefore they die. The human desire to extend life for as long as possible, is not helping our species or our planet. We need different stories about what death is and how it fits into our lives, and this book is just that sort of thing.

As a household, we’ve had terrible trouble with the title for some reason. Tom first misnamed it as the league of wood carving lechery, we’ve also had witch carving lechery, and last night I inadvertently called it the league of witch curving and then had no idea what the last word could be. We’re a bit splurked, and we haven’t the oidiest extrapluff as to why.

Find out more about Phil and Jacqui’s work here – https://www.matlockthehare.com/

See inside the book here – https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/584650624/a-book-the-league-of-lid-curving


Painting the Tales – a review

Katherine Soutar has created many of the covers for History Press’s Folk Tales and Ghost Tales books. Painting the Tales gives you (by my reckoning) 83 book covers plus commentary. It’s a hefty volume, which is great because the art is far bigger than any book cover versions you may have seen. The images themselves are beautiful.

Katherine uses watercolours, pencils and inks in her work and because she works on paper, you can see the effect of the materials in the finished piece. As a colourist working on paper (but nothing like as good) I’m fascinated by how she harnesses the idiosyncrasies of her tools. So much illustration seems to be digital now, and there’s a smooth, clean unrealness to it, often. I like the more substantial and unpredictable qualities of a more physical process.

In her images, Katherine mixes realism with stylisation and symbolism. There’s a sense of constant flow and experimentation here, and an urge to find the precise mix that conveys the story, rather than adherence to a specific way of working. I like that too. I’ll be staring at these book covers a lot, trying to learn things.

I was fascinated by the commentaries as well. With each image comes a page of text – which may be about the folklore, or the process of finding the image, or method used to create the image, or combinations thereof. I picked up a lot of folklore fragments reading this book, and for someone who wanted a folklore taster, it would be an excellent place to start. Folk tales and ghost tales alike are mostly sorted by county – although a few aren’t. Here you can get a flavour for the books beneath the covers that might help you decide what else to pick up.

This is a book to dip in and out of – I read it fairly quickly because I got a review copy, and months of dreaming over a book can be frustrating for author and publisher alike. But ideally, you want to leave this somewhere and dip in and out of it. An ideal read for someone who enjoys folklore. Also idea if, for whatever reason, you have limited time and attention. You can read a single page, gaze at an image, and that be a complete experience in itself. It doesn’t matter how long passes before you come back for the next one.

More about the book here – https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/painting-the-tales/9780750986014/