Category Archives: Reviews

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/

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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/ 


It’s Only a Clockwork Moon – review

It’s Only a Clockwork Moon is the second story in Billy O’Shea’s Kingdom of Clockwork series. I think you could jump in here, but it would definitely be better to start with Kingdom of Clockwork, which I’ve already reviewed.

This is a story that unfolds in a distinctly steampunk future where coal is rare and everyone uses clockwork. Clockmaker Nielsen is a bit of a genius for devices, but incredibly naive when it comes to dealing with people and politics. And so he is soon lured into another crazy scheme cooked up by the king, and adventure and mayhem ensue. It’s a very entertaining story.

What particularly interested me about this instalment, is that while Nielsen is at the heart of the story, he’s mostly just reacting to other people. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that it’s the women in his life, and women in the wider world who are really moving the action along. We see more of the politics of the wider world here, and it puts our more familiar characters into an interesting new perspective.

Before I started reading this series, I would have told you that I wasn’t the sort of person to get excited about devices in books. It’s an aspect of steampunk that usually does nothing for me. And yet, as the opening pages dealt with entirely human concerns, I realised I wasn’t as in to the story as I had been in the first book. And then, as the device building got underway, I rejoiced! This came as quite a surprise. I love how Billy O’Shea writes the process of creating machines. I’m truly impressed that he’s managed to make me care about this.

More about the book here – https://www.amazon.com/Only-Clockwork-Moon-Kingdom-Book-ebook/dp/B016SC5L6Q


The Automation – a review

From the very cover of this book, you know it’s going to play with you. “By” BLA & annotated “by” GB Gabbler,’ it announced, with [anonymous] at the bottom. Two pen names for probably one author, it kicks down the fourth wall in the acknowledgements section, which is essence a conversation between these two. And I was hooked.

From that description, I realise this sounds like a book at high risk of being full of pretentious literary twaddle. My impression is that the author behind the pen names has read (quite possibly under duress) a great deal of ‘literary’ fiction and is now taking their revenge upon the literary genre. And a very funny revenge it is, too. It manages to deconstruct as it goes, while at the same time creating a fascinating story in which a great deal of happens and people think about it to only a reasonable degree!

Central character (possibly) Odys Odelyn witnesses a suicide, and as a result of which finds he has inherited the dead man’s automaton, a sexy girl-like entity made by the God Vulcan, and not the only one of her kind. He’s drawn into a world of old Gods, modern conspiracies, weird existential issues and apparent threat. There’s enough story here to keep anyone busy.

The narrator claims both God-given omniscience, and absolute truth for the story. While mostly acting as a third person narrator, it’s clear that this voice considers itself a character within the story. Gabbler disagrees with the narrator a great deal, and while it seems to be for reasons of trying to make a better book, I have a growing suspicion that Gabbler knows far more than they are letting on. Book two may clarify this – which is out in July 2018, so I don’t have too long to obsess over it.

This book gave me something I really appreciate in fiction – things to chew on and wonder about. There’s so much it didn’t clarify even as it was telling an excellent tale. I can’t imagine where this is going, and that makes me enormously happy. The narrator encourages you to think the tale is going one way, and then takes it off somewhere entirely different on a number of occassions.

A little way in, I started to worry that it was going to be a too-clever book, and thus too cold and that I would end up feeling sad and jaded when I’d read it. I have had this problem with ‘proper’ literary work on more than one occasion. Many of the characters are grotesque and outrageous. Most of them have done terrible things, none of them are, according to the narrator, quite who they want us to think they are. But even so, I came to like some of them and care about some of them in a way that allowed me to invest in the story.

I wait impatiently for the coming of volume 2.

More about The Automation, and The Circo Del Herrero series here – http://circodelherreroseries.com/


Ghosting for Beginners – a review

Ghosting for Beginners is a poetry collection by Anna Saunders. I first encountered Anna about a month ago when she read at Piranha Poetry in Stroud. So I put up a hand to review her new anthology.

There’s great delicacy and precision in Anna’s writing. I very much like that about her work. If she talks about a walk, a day, a bird, it doesn’t seem like a generic one conjured up to make a point, but something specific and individual. She writes a lot about encounters between humans and nature, or humans in the context of nature.

There are a lot of ghosts in the collection. The title of the anthology comes from a poem of the same name about the modern oddity that is ghosting – when people disappear out of other people’s social media lives, usually in a dating context. It’s not the bravest way of breaking up with someone. Many of the other ghosts are more traditional hauntings. These, set alongside poems about extinction and climate change meant that for me, the collection had threads of loss and grief all the way through it. I read it as a deeply haunted piece of work – and I think the title of the collection is an invitation to do just that.

There’s also just a whisper of humour running through these poems. A ghost of a smile, if you will. A feeling that this is an author who can laugh at themselves and who has a keen sense of the absurdity in many situations.

If you hop over to the publisher’s website – http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/anna-saunders-gfb/4594255832 – you can read a selection of poems from the collection. What’s here is a good representation of the book as a whole, and if it speaks to you, you can dive right in and buy a copy. Which I can certainly recommend you consider doing.


Aspecting the Goddess – a review

I really like Jane Meredith’s books – I’ve previously read Aphrodite’s Magic, and Journey to the Dark Goddess. While I can find a lot of Goddess writing alienating or difficult to connect with, I never have this problem with Jane’s work. She writes about Goddess in a way that I can relate to.

Part of what makes her writing so great is that she tries to avoid assuming anything too much about the reader. You can come to her work as a devout Goddess worshipper, sure. But if you’re more interested in archetypes and psychology, that’s fine too. If you’re ambivalent, uncertain, even if you find gender issues difficult, there’s room here.

Aspecting the Goddess offers the reader a range of ways for working with Goddess. This goes from how to make the most tentative explorations through to drawing down a Goddess in ritual. There’s a wealth of detail here the like of which I’ve not seen before. At every turn, Jane offers multiple approaches and possibilities, methods she’s tested, and permission to explore and experiment. While it’s a book that goes confidently into some really woo-woo territory, it does so in an utterly grounded way, with wisdom and good sense and regular reminders that just because things can get magical, doesn’t mean they always will.

Alongside the practical insights, Jane tells stories of her own experiences working with Goddesses in different contexts. There’s an array of deities from different pantheons, and experience that is personal, for community ritual, that which is sought and that which is unexpected. And again, the clear voice of a woman with both feet on the ground, who is not turning her Goddess experience into dogma or personal power, who shares the awkward bits, the anxious bits, and the things that did not go as planned. It’s ultimately a very human, very relatable body of work.

This book is a beautiful piece of writing, full of ideas and stories to engage with. Anyone interested in Paganism and Goddess will find treasure here.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/aspecting-goddess 


A Stranger Dream – review

I don’t dabble that much in colouring books, in part because I frequently end up colouring for work purposes. However, I was asked if I’d review this, and I said yes, for the simple reason that creator Sarah Snell-Pym is a very lovely person. She’s also got what I can only describe as a unique mind, and as a consequence what she’s made is a truly unusual colouring book.

The front cover describes it as ‘a non-linear visual poem about identity… in an adult colouring book.’ The poem is embedded in the images and you have to find the words, some of them are more obvious than other. That calls for a deep engagement with each page, and it gives a strange coherence to the book as a whole.

The art is only on one side of any given sheet of paper. This means that by colouring in one image, you don’t mess up another one – especially an issue if you want to use pens or inks.

There’s a lot of variance in terms of how much of the page you are offered for colouring. Some pages have a lot of open space, encouraging you to do your own thing. Some pages have a lot of black on them, so you don’t need to do much to get the whole image. I like this. It creates room to decide what you’re equal to.

Sarah’s art style is playful, and easy to get into. One of the things that stuck out for me is a reoccurring image of two unhappy blobby beings who merge in the middle. A personification of dysfunctional co-dependency, I thought. Two beings with no proper boundaries, or one identity being subsumed by the other. They connect with the relationship and identity angles in the poem. if you look closely, you can see them co-blobbing at the bottom of the book cover.

More about the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stranger-Dream-Love-Sarah-Snell-Pym/dp/1530078490


The Factory Girl Trilogy – review

I picked up a review copy of Stephen Palmer’s first book in The Factory Girl trilogy to review, and ended up reading the whole set. It was obvious by about two thirds through the first book that this isn’t a trilogy of separate books, it’s more like one huge book published in three volumes. Fortunately, all three books are now out there so you won’t get to the end of the first one and have to wait! This is Steampunk fiction.

 

Book one introduces Kora, and Roka – two girls inhabiting one body, and appearing on alternate days. Kora is rescued from Bedlam by a doctor, Roka of course only finds out about it the next day. The Doctor is intent on solving the mystery of Kora’s two souls. He believes that her father is responsible. Kora’s father runs the biggest automata factory in the world, and he wants his daughter kept safely hidden away. It soon becomes evident that other people are interested in Kora, and probably don’t have her interests at heart. Can she solve the mystery of herself and stay relatively free?

Kora’s mother is black, her father is white. She experiences racial prejudice, and sexism. Roka gets involved with politics and activism, accompanied by an automata called AutoRoka. Book one has a lot of politics in it and a look at the way in which causes can clash – socialism, suffragettes, communism, rights for automata…

 

Book two sets out for Africa, and there’s a lot more adventure in it, while book three brings us back to the UK for a lot more action. More than that I don’t think I can say without massive spoilers. Overall the plot is unpredictable, engaging, challenging and will make you think.

There are a lot of really interesting themes played out in this story. The entire tale hinges on the question of identity. Do we have souls? Are Kora and Roka really two souls in one body? What does it mean to be alive? Can machines have souls? What kinds of stories do we tell about who matters and who doesn’t, who has a soul and who doesn’t?

 

There was one device that I particularly loved, so I’m going to talk about that because I can do so without spoilers! Kora keeps a book in her pocket. The book is a children’s story about a girl called Amy going through a series of gardens and having encounters. Amy also has a book in her pocket and reads from it at relevant moments. Amy has a little sister called Alice, and there’s clearly a jam on Alice in Wonderland going on here, only I liked this story a lot better and I think we get the whole of that little book inside the trilogy. Inside the book inside the book there is a tedious chameleon who will not disguise itself as anything other than a chameleon. This was one of my favourite things.

My other favourite thing was the automaton who becomes a Marxist. This, in the context of a story that is very much about a production line, has massive charm.

Although the main characters are in their teens, I don’t think this is a YA novel particularly. I like that about it. The assumption that we only want to read about characters who are of an age with us needs challenging. Younger folk could read it, but it has clearly been written with adults readers in mind. It’s a fascinating book(s) and I very much enjoyed it.

Find out more here – http://www.stephenpalmer.co.uk/