Category Archives: Reviews

Miserere – a review

 

Miserere, by Teresa Frohock is a fantastic fantasy novel. At risk of a little bit of spoilering, I’d like to explain what happened to me as I read the first few chapters…

Chapter one… ah, Catholic mediaeval fantasy with angels and demons and Latin, and prayers as spells and all that.

Chapter two: Why are we in the present day? Is this a portal story? Then where/when were we before? This is not what I thought it was.

Chapter three: This world building is very exciting.

And from that point I had a great deal of trouble putting it down.

There were a number of things I particularly liked about this book. I immediately loved the fact that of the four main characters, three are middle aged. They’ve already lived and loved and made terrible mistakes and done problematic things to each other and they are messy and flawed and very real. As a middle aged reader, it’s rather pleasing to have some middle aged fantasy action.

Of the four main characters, three are women. Two are middle aged women, and one is a child. They all kick ass.

There’s some wonderful background content about religious diversity. That made me very happy.

Horses have names. People care about them. They are not disposable modes of transport.

The writing is excellent – this is an author with a strong and distinctive voice, able to craft powerful turns of phrase, to capture scenes in a few lines and to quickly give a sense of character. The pacing is excellent.

I shall be seeking out more books from this author, she offers the blend of escapism and relevance in her work that I crave. The fantasy side is suitably fantastic, the human and emotional side of the story is potent and full of truth.

You can find out more about Miserere here – https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Miserere/Teresa-Frohock/9781597802895

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Ecolinguistcs, a review

 

Ecolinguistics is an academic book by Arran Stibbe, exploring the way in which language underpins how we treat the natural world. I think it’s a brilliant book and heartily recommend it. However, it is expensive, so you might want to look at co-owning one (an ideal solution for study groups and groves). Unfortunately, the ebook version isn’t much cheaper than the paperback. If you can’t afford £30 for a book, there is a free online course that covers much of the same material, but not in the same depth. http://storiesweliveby.org.uk/ I got lucky and picked up a copy during an online sale.

Ecolinguistics is a detailed exploration of how we use language to talk about the world we live in. It’s quite a technical approach, and at times hard work for the non-academic reader. I found I mostly had to take it in small bites. There’s a density of ideas here, too. If you like pondering the intricacies and nuances of language, this a marvellous thing to read. It dissects how different people use language and the effects it has. It gives us the tools to use language differently and to more compassionate ends. This is a deconstruction of how the language of economics, particularly, breeds greed and self interest.

Humans are storytelling creatures. That’s not just about books and tales, but about how we communicate with each other. We tell each other stories about our experiences. Adverts tell us stories, so do newspapers, politicians, think tanks, pressure groups, and the PR teams for big business. The language we are exposed to is part of our environment, and we are all influenced by what we’re exposed to – to some degree. Expose people to the calculating language of animals as stock, landscape as resource, trees as biomass, and we become colder, less caring, less willing to take care of what’s around us.

However the flip side of this is that when we use inclusive language, when our stories place us in a community of beings and in relationship with the land, we become more compassionate. When we tell each other stories of belonging and involvement, we become more generous and open hearted, able to care and to get involved.

For me, this is absolutely what Druidry should be about right now. This is a path that’s always held a balance of human culture and wider nature. Story telling is part of what we do. For me, this book was a massive encouragement to see what a Druidic approach can do. This book gives a person the tools to move from an intention to an evidenced way of working, and the reassurance to know that this kind of approach works. We can make a difference with the stories we tell, and the language we use.

I found Ecolinguistics to be an incredibly inspiring book that has promoted me to do some serious thinking about what I do, how I do it and what value it might have. I’m planning to come back and blog about specific language use that might be interesting to fellow Pagans – ideas about how we talk about the world. I’m also aware of having had my poetry influenced by reading this book, and a clearer set of intentions for that line of writing has come to me as a consequence of it. More of this as it develops.


The Pre-Programming – a review

I read and reviewed The Automation – part one of the Circo del Herrero series back in the summer. Volume 2 is now out and honestly it blows the first novel out of the water. I really enjoyed the first book, but volume 2 achieves whole new levels. It’s also nigh on impossible to talk about the plot without spoilers for the first book.

This is a modern set fantasy in which Vulcan (the God) has automata running around in the human world causing trouble and adventure. You do not need to know your Greek or Roman Gods to get in here and enjoy the tale. You can’t start with volume 2 though. You really have to begin and the beginning with this series or you will be utterly lost. This is a complicated reality with a lot of ideas in it, and you need to get in and appreciate some of those ideas before you have them taken apart for you.

Volume 2 picks up the plot threads from volume one, laughs at you, and runs off in a whole selection of new directions. Nothing makes me happier as a reader than a well crafted story that I cannot predict. This is one of those. Twisty doesn’t begin to describe it. I was entirely surprised, repeatedly. Plot shapes suggested by volume 1 crumbled. Characters died. Agendas were revealed to be other than expected. No one was quite who I thought they were. By the end of book 2 it looks like the real plot has emerged, and now we know what’s going on. I expect we’re being set up for even more massive rug pulls when volume 3 comes out.

There was one line in the FAQs at the start that stuck out for me “Because the author of this series grew up in the Bible Belt, is of indigenous descent and has a lot to say (sub-textually) in response to colonialism and literature like American Gods, for instance.” It struck me that this series (at the moment) is well worth considering as a response to American Gods and that looking back at American Gods with this in mind, I now feel quite uneasy. And also happy to feel uneasy in retrospect.

I heartily recommend this series, it is knowing, funny, provocative, full of surprises. I wait impatiently for the next instalment. Find out more at circodelherreroseries.com


Mountain

Last night the local film club put on a film called ‘Mountain’ – 72 minutes of mountain footage directed by  Jennifer Peedom with a script by said director and Robert McFarlane. If you enjoyed his book ‘Mountains of the Mind’ it’s a natural accompaniment. It deals (in far less depth) with all the same issues – obsession, our need for wild places, the way perceptions of mountains have changed. For someone like me, who does not go up mountains the footage of places I could never properly imagine, was most welcome.

The take-home line for me came as the film (narrated by Willem Dafoe) considered the relationship between colonialism and mountains. “Replacing mystery with mastery.” It struck a chord. This urge to get to the top of mountains is one I’ve always found a bit odd. I love mountains, I love looking at them, but the language of ascent and conquest makes me uneasy.

What is it that gives some people a desire for extreme experiences? Why can some people only feel truly alive while staring death in the face? The mountain climbers in the film where overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) affluent white men. You only have to look at the kit to know this is not a hobby for the poor. It is the people with the most control and the least risk in their lives apparently who feel the need to get out there and seek risk. And I have to question what they do to landscapes in their quest for thrills.

The footage of long lines of people under supervision, following the established ropes up Everest demonstrates that what we do with wilderness is try to tame it. The urge to conquest destroys the very wildness that was attractive in the first place. When you consume landscape in this way – building roads and base camp and ski lifts and whatnot, the very thing you were chasing, is driven out of reach.

Walking back home afterwards, through a chilly winter’s night, we reflected (Tom and I) that this was as cold as we wanted to get while walking. We wondered about the kind of life that sends a person chasing such risks. I find I do not have to be staring death in the face in order to feel alive. I generally feel alive. I feel alive in all my encounters. Being able to feel alive and present in my day to day life, I do not need to shock myself with danger or overwhelm myself with enormous things in order to break through my own apathy or indifference.

I wonder how much of it stems from a loss of mystery and meaning.


Practical Magic

 

Like many people with witchy sympathies, I have seen the film Practical Magic, more than once. I own a copy, even. It’s charming if a bit overblown. I only found out recently and by accident that there is a book. And a prequel. This is not exactly a review.

 

 

I am so glad I saw the film before I read the book, because I’ve enjoyed the film for what it is. Had I read the book first I suspect I’d have hated the film for being so far off the mark. Much of the magic in the book is subtle. There’s more of it in the background than there is deliberately enacted by the characters. The book is a complex, subtle, fascinating thing, and the youngest generation are teenagers and people in their own right and it makes a world of difference. The backstory with the curse and the accused ancestor is a good deal more complicated as well.

 

 

The prequel is called The Rules of Magic, and is lovely, and sad and thoughtful. What author Alice Hoffman does in both these books is to square up to how love and grief and relationship play out across a lifetime. It’s powerful stuff. And of course when you tell the longer story, inevitably, everyone dies. What you love, you lose, because that’s the essence of life. The understanding that the answer to this is to love more, is deeply affecting.

There are two things I particularly loved about these books. Firstly is that magic is ever present; a permeating force that creates possibility. It’s just there, around and between people, and creatures, and places and stories. I’d much rather have more of this kind of magic, and less of the spellworking we see in the film.

Thing number two is technical. The book Practical Magic is pretty much all ‘tell’ and little ‘show’. There’s a bit more ‘show’ in the prequel, but still not as much as is fashionable. This makes me really happy. This is a story told in its own way, on its own terms and as it has a lot of ground to cover, just telling you what happened is much more efficient and effective. We don’t have to play out every key scene with dialogue and let the reader come to their own conclusions. The narrator will tell you what to think. Sometimes the narrator will turn out to be wrong, or misleading and that adds to the charm.

You can’t tell multi-generational stories about love and relationship if you have to show every key scene, and that makes certain kinds of stories impossible. Writing in a way that supports the kinds of stories you want to tell, is essential.


Gatherer of Souls – a review

Gatherer of Souls, by Lorna Smithers, is a collection of poetry and short stories about Gwyn ap Nudd that offers a radical re-think of Arthurian mythology. Physically speaking, this is a small book – 114 pages – but what it covers is both vast and important.

Lorna has been studying Arthurian mythology for some time, going into older texts, and reading in more detail than most of us do. What she’s unearthed – and followers of her blog will already know about this – is the questionable nature of Arthur’s activities. We’re been sold Arthur as chivalric hero, protector of Britain, once and future king… but get into his stories and it’s all slaughter and theft. He’s a personification of patriarchy, and a killer of old mysteries and magics.

This is a book that assumes its readers have probably read some of the Arthurian material and aren’t basing all their knowledge on modern, pop-culture representations. I suspect that without at least an awareness of the older material, this would be a challenging read.

The Gatherer of Souls referred to in the title is Gwyn ap Nudd – a character whose story is interlaced with Arthur’s in legends. It seems likely that he is a far older figure. He is the ruler of Annwn – the realm Arthur plunders for treasures. He’s associate with faery, with otherworlds, underworlds and the dead. He is the enigma at the centre of the book, and even though Lorna gives us some pieces in his voice, he remains beyond us, essentially unknowable.

The use of voices in this collection is fascinating – across time, they speak of experiences and encounters that connect with Arthurian versions but recast them from different perspectives. The voices of those who have no voices in the usual versions of the tales. Often these are figures whose deaths are a brief interlude on the way to some victory or another. In telling these other tales, Lorna deconstructs the way Arthur as patriarch abuses wildlife, women, and anything magical or other.

It’s a very intense book, and I found I had to read it slowly and make time for digesting before I tried to move on. I’m confident it’s a book that will reward re-reading because there’s so much going on here that one read doesn’t do it justice. I find these are stories I needed. Arthur has been in my life as long as I can remember. I first became uneasy about him as a figure when failing to plough through Le Morte D’Arthur, struggling with the absence of real enchantment. It came into focus for me while working on a graphic novel of the same book and seeing again how empty and uneasy I find this supposedly chivalric dream.

I’ve been following Lorna’s blogs for some time, and I’ve learned a great deal from her work on Arthurian myths. I find the creative responses she’s shared in this book answer a need in me. A hunger I didn’t know I had for some other, wilder, and not-kingly take on things.

I heartily recommend this book. You can buy it here – https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/publications/gatherer-of-souls/ 


In SatNav We Trust – a review

One of the great things about being a reviewer is when authors come back to share their new adventures in life and publishing. Back in 2013 I reviewed Jack Barrow’s The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil. Now he’s back, with something completely different!

Over a period of six weeks, Jack toured every county in England – the historic ones, not the modern metropolitan areas because he was camping and no one in their right mind wants to camp in a metropolitan area. This is an adventure that from my perspective, involves alarming amounts of driving, but, there’s a lot of good in it, so, I’m going to focus on that.

Taking in a county a day is of course just a ruse. It allows the author to have experiences and reflect on life, landscape, free will, identity, and rationality. It is the philosophical process that really engaged me, more than the often surreal exploration of England. For anyone who enjoys some non-academic philosophy, this is a great read – it’s all totally accessible and highly relevant to how we live and think.  Ideas about rationality and the place of the irrational in our lives are probably going to stay with me in perpetuity.

All too often, adventure writing is about the antics of privilege – it’s usually for the well off and well resourced. Adventure is usually portrayed as ‘away’ in some distant, exotic place. Adventurers so often go looking for pristine landscapes to adventure in, away from other humans – In SatNav We Trust is a glorious rejection of all of that. Jack goes to camp sites. He camps in places that anyone could camp in, and while his adventure format isn’t for everyone, he signposts the scope for much more affordable adventuring. The book demonstrates that a person can have interesting experiences without having to sleep on the side of a mountain, or having to dig holes to poo in!

I can probably forgive Jack for the miles he clocks up on this tour, simply because he demonstrates how we can have adventures where we live. Every county has plenty to offer. There’s history, landscape and fascinating people to be found everywhere and anywhere. It’s ok to be a small scale adventurer, finding joy and excitement in the little discoveries along the way.

The book is written with wit and self awareness. It’s entertaining, and thoughtful, and easy to dip in and out of. It may well be the sort of book people end up buying as a gift for Father’s Day. It’s also an invitation to plan your own mad tour on whatever terms you like. A tour of places that have given their names to cheese rather appeals to me.

Taking the adventure one step further, Jack Barrow is publishing with Unbound. For those of you not familiar with this, it’s an unusual publishing company that raises subscriptions and then publishes once a book is funded. Historically, a lot of houses used to do this, often depending on rich patrons to get a book moving. These days of course crowd funding allows us all to get involved. You can get a copy of this book by pledging now, and then when it funds, everything moves and you get a copy. As with other crowdfunding arrangements, if you want more than just a book, there are options – do saunter over to the website and have a look! https://unbound.com/books/in-satnav-we-trust/

And there’s more information about the book over here – http://jack-barrow.com/travelogue-in-satnav-we-trust/ 


Daughter of Light and Shadow – a review

At the surface, this is an erotic romance novel with magic in it. There is a lot of very sexy fairy content, and great fun it is, too. But that’s not really what the book is about. This is a novel about a young woman coming into her own power, dealing with why she is, what she is, where she comes from and, seeing all of that, starting to make deliberate choices about her life. The sex might be wild, but it certainly can’t save her. The love is there in her life, but it isn’t the magic answer to everything. And as for the magic – until she deals with her own shadow self it is as likely to trip her up as it is to help her.

There’s a nice balance here between escapist, folklore-based fantasy, and concepts a person can get their teeth into. If you like your fantasy well rooted, this is the business. The fairy side is steeped in folklore and tradition, giving us fairies who are cold, other, unreasonable, fickle, charming and exceedingly dangerous. These are more like the fairies from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell than the pretty things of standard modern urban romance. The magic has a strong elemental component to it, and again there’s folklore in the mix as well as material drawn from modern Paganism. There are the witchy ancestors who so often a feature in witchlit, and there’s the question of ancestral wounding.

I’ve seen this come up a few times in various novels now. Anyone writing a modern witch with a witchy ancestry immediately hits the issue of historical persecutions. This book tackles the issue of ancestral wounding head on, while making clear that many of the people persecuted for witchcraft historically were victims who had nothing to do with witchcraft but were vulnerable in some way. It’s nicely done.

If you’re looking for fairy romance, this probably isn’t the book for you because it doesn’t uphold the habits of the romance genre very well. If like me, you prefer stories that surprise you, this is much more interesting. If you’re looking for stories about love and sex that don’t make them the only considerations in a young woman’s life, then Anna McKerrow is an author I can very much recommend. If you want passionate, full blooded witch lit with magic you can relate to and characters who live in the real world at least some of the time, this is a good book to pick up.


Faery Godmother Oracle Cards – a review

I was sent Flavia Kate Peter’s Faery Godmother oracle cards to review. I’m fond of oracle cards, although I’ve noticed over the years the whether they work depends a lot on whether they chime with your life stage. I reviewed a set elsewhere last year that assumed the total spiritual inexperience of the user and I didn’t find much of any help in those! Figuring out who a set is for, and whether you are that person is often the challenge.

I’ve been using these cards for a few weeks now, pulling one of an evening and seeing what it gives me. They’ve been remarkably predictive. I usually take oracle cards as an opportunity to look inside my own head, but these have, unexpectedly, been flagging up things to come in the day or two after reading them.

These are cards for a person who is trying to figure themselves out. I think they’re most relevant for someone going through a life change. I think they’re ideal for teens for that reason. As an often confused menopausal life form, I found them relevant, and good food for thought.

Mostly what these cards do is invite you to look at how you interpret what you experience, and how you choose to behave. There’s guidance here to steer you towards self knowledge, recognition of what you could be, kindness to others, and ways of being a better sort of human.  That’s another reason to put them in the hands of teenagers. I like the underpinning belief that we have a lot of control over our thoughts and actions and that we can indeed choose the people we want to be by choosing to change how we think and act.

 

 

If art is key in your oracle card choices, you’ll need to look at the images to decide. Helpful flip through here –

 

I can’t say the art really did it for me, but I enjoyed using the cards nonetheless. When I pulled the card ‘wishes’ and the text asked me what I really wished for, I had a moment of realising that for all that faery godmother oracles are charming, what I really want, is to be able to get in there and be a faery godmother for other people!

More about the cards here – https://www.barbarameiklejohnfree.com/product/new-faery-godmother-oracle-cards/ 


Lord of the Wyrde Woods – a review

Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrde are two books but between them are one story so I’m reviewing them as a pair – their collective title is Lord of the Wyrde Woods. You have to read them in the right order and the first one doesn’t stand alone.

It’s been a while since an author has so completely captured my imagination. Neverland is a rundown area, with a facility for young people who have already fallen through the cracks. Narrator Wenn is one such young person. She’s had an awful life full of monstrous betrayals and setbacks, and she is as bitter and angry as you might expect. One of the threads in this book is the story of her learning to trust again and open her heart. It is the woods that she first lets in, and then the people associated with the woods. The story about learning to become a fully functioning human when reality has beaten you down, is a powerful one.

Going into the woods offers Wenn respite from the miseries of her daily life. What she finds there is enchantment. Most of this is the kind of enchantment any of us could find by getting out into greener places around us. There were obvious parallels to be drawn with Mythago Wood, but where Holdstock’s vision tells us the magic is largely unavailable, Nils Visser does the opposite. He invites us to see our surroundings in these terms, too. These novels are an invitation to magic, and to personal re-enchantment.

The story itself weaves folklore and history together around a series of locations. There’s a fair smattering of radical politics, and a fair amount of paganism, too. The story places human narratives in a landscape, and does so to powerful effect. The tale itself is full of magical possibility, but it’s also startling, sometimes devastating, haunting and full of surprises. If you enjoy the kinds of things I blog about, these books are for you and I think you’ll find much to love in them.

This is a story about how important it is to have stories about your landscape. It is through stories that we stop seeing places as so much scenery and start to have a more involved relationship with them. Those can be mythic and folkloric stories, they can be historical, and they can be personal. They can also be the stories we imagine of what would happen somewhere like this.  The process of learning and creating stories, and storying yourself into a landscape is a powerful one, beautifully illustrated in this novel.

I loved these books so very much. I heartily recommend them.

You can find Nils’s work on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nils-Nisse-Visser/e/B00OK5RMSY