Category Archives: Reviews

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/


The Conscientious Objector – a review

I admit I wasn’t sure how I would do with this book. I absolutely loved The Factory Girl Trilogy – review here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/05/13/the-factory-girl-trilogy-review/. Moving into a book that follows on from that but clearly wasn’t going to have my favourite character in, gave me a fair few feelings. As a younger reader I had bailed from series at times like these. Older and wiser me is more willing to have a go, and I regret nothing!

My other area of uncertainty was that this is an alternate history novel set around the First World War. It’s a period I know a fair bit about and find highly emotive. Would I be ok with WW1 re-imagined to include automata and other devices? For me, Stephen said everything that needed to be said about the grim realities of this awful war. He didn’t downplay the horrors, or sanitise anything and the bringing in of Steampunk elements did not feel disrespectful. As with The Factory Girl Trilogy, the fantastical elements were used to highlight and explore the period issues, not to write over them. And so I was as miserable in the trenches section as I needed to be.

I will freely admit that I wasn’t in the best headspace for reading anything when I read this. Normally I adore books where I have no idea what the story shape is or what’s going on. I love to be surprised. For the first three quarters of the book I had no idea where it was going, what kind of story it was, what it meant, and I flailed a bit. I think this is a book that will greatly benefit from being read in the right headspace, don’t pick it up if you want to be comforted by familiarity. However, at the three quarters mark, give or take, there is a revelation that blew me away. Suddenly the narrative crystallised, everything made sense, and I read the last quarter pretty much flat out in a state of utter delight, being frequently surprised. Read this book when you want to go on an adventure.

The underlying themes in this story are highly pertinent. This is a story about how we see ourselves, and whether we are willing to find out how others see us. This is a tale that questions the wisdom of living in an echo chamber and champions the need for different perspectives. It’s also a protest against all forms of absolutism. There are always exceptions. There should always be room for nuance and difference. When people insist there is only one truth, only one way to live, or love, or think about things, nothing good can come of it.

With war in Europe as the backdrop, this is without a doubt a book that has a lot to say about Brexit and the state of our culture, letting us view the present day from the perspective of more than a century ago.

Heartily recommended!

(And yes, that is a Tom Brown cover)


The Hidden Goddess – a review

The Hidden Goddess, by Laurie Martin-Gardner explores feminine divinity in Jewish and Christian tradition. It’s a book that looks at texts, historic practice and modern interpretations and in a small space covers considerable ground.

The book is written in a narrative style, and while there are enough references that you can get in and check things if you want to, this is not an academic text. It is immensely readable and ideal for someone who just wants to get in and explore the ideas. It’s not a book claiming to have exclusive insights or unique knowledge, but it is a bringing together of sacred femininity evidence from traditions that, superficially at least, seem to lack for that sort of thing.

For me there was a mix of the familiar and the wholly unknown here. One of the consequences of reading this book is that I feel inspired to try and read the Bible and look at this for myself. I have tried to read the whole Bible before (and failed) but to go in looking for these details might make a lot of odds.

I think this is the ideal read for anyone who has moved to Paganism from a Christian or Jewish background and who wants to find ways of balancing their old path and their new one. It will also be valuable for anyone whose ancestor work has felt difficult – seeing how the Goddess has always been present in these traditions may help bridge the divide between modern Pagans and our immediate ancestors. For Christian Druids I think it’s a must have (unless you’ve already covered this ground somewhere else!).

I found it an enjoyable read that expanded my knowledge and that may have set me on a reading adventure.

Read the first chapter here – https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/blogs/moon-books/the-hidden-goddess-chapter-one-the-quest-begins/


The Book of Babalon – a review

I first encountered Anna McKerrow when I had the opportunity to review her Greenworld trilogy. That was a glorious YA series heavy on the Paganism. Her latest title, The Book of Babalon is not for younger readers – it is resplendent with sex magic, and also digs in with the kind of abuses modern women continue to face. It’s glorious, heartbreaking, rage-inducing, enchanted stuff.

If you’re not familiar with the Goddess Babalon, this book would work as an introduction and may send you off on a journey. Do read the author’s comments at the end to see what is rooted in fact and what isn’t!

This is an unapologetically feminist book, telling a story that very much demonstrates why we still need feminism. It’s also full of the sorts of things angry patriarchs would like to shut down – sexual expression, the right to body autonomy, the right to say no. Lesbianism, witchcraft, divorce, abortion… all those things they tell us will happen if women either take up witchcraft or get into masturbation, or both!

This is a story where triggering content is handled with care. No punches are pulled, but none of the horrors are glorified or dwelt on too much. You know what’s going on. If you’ve been there… you know exactly what’s going on. Too many of us have been there. All the things women are not encouraged to talk about – the blood, and the miscarriages, the shame, the stigma, the desires and the dissatisfaction are in these pages. These are stories we need to tell each other.

It’s a powerful piece of writing, and I read it in large, intense bursts because I did not want to put it down.

The story then… Woven through this novel is text in here from an imaginary Book of Bablon, written by Scarlett Woman, founder of an organisation called Bablon. The book within the book explores her history with Bablon, and anyone whose read any 20th century occult stuff will find this familiar, especially around how women can be both ‘goddess’ and totally objectified at the same time. The story itself follows several Bablon members using magic, activism and other avenues to fight oppression and get some control of their own lives. The characters are engaging, and between them they capture a broad range of female experience.

It’s a powerful story, underpinned by substantial philosophy. If you’re already into smashing the patriarchal structures we live in, this is for you. If you think we don’t need feminism any more, this book is especially for you. We’ve got a long way to go on the road to equality.

Buy the book – https://www.amazon.com/Book-Babalon-Anna-McKerrow/dp/1890399698 


Coffee Traveller – A Review

Clink Street Publishing approached me to see if I’d like to be part of the book tour for Coffee Traveller, and so here I am!

This is an interesting book, a mix of poetry, philosophy, wisdom and romance. I read it all in one go as it’s quite a small book, but on the whole I think it’s the sort of thing you might want to just dip in and out of. There are some breathtakingly good ideas in here. There’s depth to the observation and the writer has clearly done a lot reflecting and pondering. These are writings that were not originally created with the intention of publishing a book. It will be interesting to see if Fahad Ben G goes on to do something more deliberate – this is a writer with a lot of potential I think.

My guess is that this is an author for whom English is not the first language. Most of the time this has the wonderful effect of making the familiar less so – turns of phrase, ways of deploying words, oddities of grammar that I rather enjoyed. The cadence of the writing is different, and there’s a freshness to that most of the time. I do think the book would have benefited from some sensitive editing however. It’s difficult working with more poetic language as an editor, but I can say with confidence that it is possible to edit poetry and that a dialogue with an author about intent can be very productive.

Much of this book is concerned with the aftermath of romance. Some of it is about travel and cities the author has experienced, and there’s a lot of philosophy about life and how to get on with it and what to make of it. I enjoyed the philosophy most. There is a little bit of coffee.

You can find the book here – https://www.amazon.com/Coffee-Traveller-Fahad-Ben-G/dp/1913136388