Category Archives: Reviews

Kingdom of Clockwork – review

Kingdom of Clockwork is, you realise after just a few pages, not set in the past as it first appears, but set in the future, after the fossil fuels run out. It’s a steampunk novel in a speculative era when coal powered steam is not an option. The story is driven by political machinations, as clockmaker Nielsen finds himself lured into the plots and schemes of his king. The king in question may in fact be mad.

The story itself rattles along to good effect, taking the reader in directions I think most people won’t anticipate. The surprises are delights rather than feeling like rabbits out of hats. Each new twist and turn builds a greater sense of how this future world works. The main character and first person narrator, Nielsen, is an innocent out of his depth, and thus able to take the reader with him easily. He’s also a clockwork geek. Now, I’m not a technically minded person and if asked, would have said that the fine details of clockwork would not intrigue me. However, the clockwork in the story I found totally engaging and it really drew me in. It’s very well written.

Charming though the plot and characters are, what made this book a standout for me is the way the author uses the future to speak to the present.

In this imagined future, much information has been lost about the Age of Electricity. The way in which the history is talked about, re-imagined, feared, mythologized and misinterpreted is wonderful. There’s lots to think about here in terms of how we imagine the past – a very Steampunk concern as well.

Billy O’Shea is able to look at our present from a perspective that is truly alien to it – a real feat of the imagination. It enables him to write about how things are now in a way that casts it all in a very different light. His future people do not share our ideas, values and beliefs, but they are influenced by them, and living in a civilization that follows ours. I can’t say too much or there will be spoilers, but I thought this aspect of the book was total genius.

This is a story you can read for the plots, devices and epic adventures – it has much to offer on that score. If you’re the kind of reader who loves layers and extra things to ponder, this is a good book to get your teeth into. I shall be reading the rest of the series if I can – this one stands alone, but it opens up plenty of possibilities for future tales.

Here’s the book on Amazon –  



The writings of Jonny Fluffypunk – reviewed

Jonny Fluffypunk is one of the many strange, colourful (and in this instance, stripey) contributors to Stroud being such an awesome place to live. I’ve seen him live repeatedly, and have finally got my hands on his published work.

The Sustainable Nihilist’s Handbook mixes poetry with short prose pieces. The poetry has the energy you’d expect from someone who does a lot of performance. Most of it is funny, but without becoming trivial. Surreal, surprising, uneasy. Mr Fluffypunk is the master of too much information, with confessions from his youth which may or may not be true but will leave you with some startling mental images. It’s a small book and does not take long to read, but unlike many poetry collections, it is the sort of thing you can just sit down and read cover to cover in one go.  I can heartily recommend it.

More here –


Poundland Rimbaud is Jonny’s second collection and like the first, it contains a mix of poetry and prose. Unlike the first, it also has a steady supply of footnotes. Some of these add context and insights, some whip the rug out from under a poem’s metaphorical feet (I could get a joke about meter in here, but I’m resisting it). Again there’s the kind of comedy that comes from discomfort, over sharing, and a keen eye for the inherent ridiculousness of human beings. The last section of this book is a full script, with production notes for the one man show ‘Man up, Jonny Fluffypunk’. Having seen the show, I found this fascinating, but have no idea how it would read for someone innocent of the experience. In the printed version, the author lays bare the methods by which the audience is to be emotionally manipulated, and its not just about long, uncomfortable silences…

I thought the whole thing was brilliant, and highly readable – as with the first book I devoured it over a couple of sittings.

More here –

Jonny Fluffypunk talks in his work about poetry being dangerous, and about being personally dangerous. I can vouch for this, having mistakenly sat in the front row at one of his shows, and consequently had all of the poetry relating to unrequited teenage love directed towards me. She was plump, greasy, not conventionally attractive, and largely oblivious. I was considerably older and there was no scope for obliviousness. There’s been no point in my life when anything like that happened in a real way – it could only happen as a joke, requiring me to look into some personal voids I generally try to ignore. Live art is inherently risky, you never know what a poet might decide to do to you.

Short reviews for magic-laden fiction

The Naked Witch

This is a charming witch lit novel. The main character – Lizzie – is a single mum to a teenage daughter and a practicing witch. As the book opens, she’s dealing with a relatively new job, and may have some romance entering her life – so far so chick-lit. What follows is a modern set story with all the plot twists and power games of a gothic novel! I had no idea where it was going – a quality I greatly appreciate in a book. It’s not the magic the provides the drive for the strangeness, either. Magic is what Lizzie does to cope, stay sane and hold on to a sense of self. Communing with nature and performing rituals are part of her life, but there’s no impossibly magical solutions to life problems here. She’s a very plausible actual Pagan dealing with some bat shit crazy real life issues. I rather liked that as a mix. It was a very entertaining read, and quite the page turner with a lot to say about relationships between people.

More here –



The Axe, the Elf and the Werewolf – volume 1

I’ve read a fair bit of paranormal and urban fantasy, and all too often what it does is to disenchant. In worlds where faeries show up at the office and your best friend is a werewolf, it’s all too easy to wind up with something a bit banal, and to lose the magic. Alexa Duir has written a book full of paranormal beings in the mundane world, and it is truly magical writing. It no doubt helps that Alexa has a deep understanding of myths and folklore. Bringing heathenry into werewolf culture is genius and works incredibly well. Magical characters hold onto enough mystery to stay magical, even though the story takes us into a murder mystery, and a world of arcane bureaucracy and politics. There were times, I admit, when I wondered if some of it was a metaphor for The Pagan Federation… A really entertaining read, I had trouble putting it down.

Buy the book here –







Mirror Dead

This is an unusual ghost story to say the least. It involves ghostly siblings who haunt the bodies of their surviving twins. The central ghost – Gray – is very much your hungry ghost. He’s entirely toxic and seems determined to ruin his host’s life. Host Simon is a mess, living on painkillers, alcohol, weed and Valium,  full of grief, pain and fear caused by his history with Gray. Of course there are times when you wonder if it is all Simon, and if all the voices in his head are entirely his own. However, as Simon struggles with life and flirts with death, another narrative line unfolds with a set of potential rescuers who might turn out to be more problematic than the ghost himself. This an intense story, dark, violent and yet often funny in a twisted sort of way. The author has a brilliant way with words, with lots of neat and insightful turns of phrase that made me chuckle as I went along. The story is utterly engaging. The characters are flawed, failing, sometimes terrible, but aside from Gray are never completely irretrievable or preposterously grotesque. It’s a story that demonstrates the scope for human compassion and warmth even in situations of utter shit and misery. There’s hope here, but nothing so straightforward as redemption. A great piece of paranormal writing that will keep you guessing right up to the end. Highly recommended.

Buy the book here – 

Ancient Spellcraft – a review

Laura Perry’s Ancient Spellcraft is a really interesting read, regardless of whether you’re a spellcaster. Let me start by clarifying that I do not work spells in any kind of witchy style, so I’m certainly not the person for whom the book is intended – it is written for people who want to use it to do magic. I find books about magic fascinating, however, and as a consequence have read quite a few such along the way.

Ancient Spellcraft is one of the most interesting spellbooks I’ve ever read. Author Laura Perry draws on what we know of a number of ancient Pagan cultures, to create a way of working that is likely a much better reflection of ancient practice than anything else you’ll find in modern witchcraft.

For most of our ancestors, life was not compartmentalised in the way it is today. Healing, magic, religion, luck, and so forth were all interconnected. Divination comes from the same word roots as divine – because it is the business of the Gods. Equally, all forms of magic were an appeal to divine powers for assistance. The lines between magic and prayer were not distinct. Who you might call upon, and how, and to what effect is an interesting area to explore, which this book does well.

The concerns of our ancient ancestors were not so very different from our modern concerns, in essence. Protection, security, love, sufficiency in the basics of life and a sense of what might be coming are things people have always wanted to know about. I like how this book gives us that sense of connection with our ancestors and puts our concerns into historical context.

The spells in this book draw on historical insights, but have been adapted to be suitable for the modern practitioner. I would have loved more details about the sourcing, and the adaptation process, but that would have resulted in a very different book, probably less useful for anyone who wants to work spells.

Laura Perry has put together something readable, accessible and fascinating. If you want to develop a deity-orientated magical practice, this would be the ideal place to start.


More about the book here –

The Dillen Doll – a review

I’ve been aware of Jez Lowe for many years – he’s a singer-songwriter working very much in the folk tradition. The Dillen Doll is his first novel. I was not even slightly surprised to find that the word crafting and capacity for empathy that drives his songwriting translates very well indeed into longer pieces.

The novel’s title – The Dillen Doll, comes from a song. It’s a well known song and I’d just assumed it was one of those nonsense folk choruses. Dolly the dillen dah – is what I thought it was. Dillen, it turns out, is a Newcastle on Tyne word meaning runt. It turns out there’s a whole set of songs I’ve known most of my life that also come from Newcastle. What Jez Lowe has done in this book is draw on those folk songs, and brought them into a narrative. The songs are evoked in the text and if you aren’t familiar with them, there’s a CD that you can get alongside the book.

This is a story about people living in poverty in Newcastle. Sandgate, Byker Hill, Walker Shore, the waters of Tyne, the keelmen. There’s a long, hard look about what the press gangs meant, and the implications of war for those who may be stolen away against their will to fight for king and country.

This is a setting that gives us precarious employment for minimal wages, homes that do not need to be fit for human habitation, lack of care for the sick and injured, and those with power and money rigging the system to line their own pockets. It all sounds eerily familiar.

The story follows the adventures of young Dolly Coxen – the dillen doll of the title, whose song is written by a blind fiddle player. She works in a pub, and scavenges barely edible veg from the local market. Her man is a person of mystery with a story she does not, initially, know. Her story is about doing whatever it takes to save him as his past catches up with him. She’s a woman with agency in an era where women had very little power. She’s physically disabled, and a singer of traditional songs.

This is a celebration of a time, a place and a people. At the same time it isn’t sentimental and there’s no sense of a rosy glow being added to the past. Times were hard, hunger and privation were constant, conditions squalid – if you were poor. There’s an incredible sense of place and attention to detail that left me with the strange feeling that the author had simply time travelled to do his research.

I really enjoyed this book. You can find out more about it here – 

Old Haunts – a review

Old Haunts is the second Alan Shaw book by Craig Hallam– I reviewed the first one here. Book two takes the same sort of format as the first instalment, with a series of action orientated stories with a distinctly steampunk vibe. There’s fiendish devices aplenty, unspeakable magic (often combined with the fiendish devices) Lovecraftian monstrosities, flying machines and steam powered everything.

The main character, Alan Shaw, is clearly an adrenaline junkie, and volume two sees him taking jobs as a privateer, sometimes doing despicable things for Queen and country. Alan isn’t keen on British Imperialism, but he likes being paid to not quite get himself killed, so this is a moral dilemma he’s trying to navigate.

He’s a considered dismantling of the macho hero archetype, and this particularly interests me with Craig’s writing. The classic action hero fights his way through, and may be the last person standing at the end of the book or film. Lovers, comrades, employers and enemies are all there to provide backdrop in the normal scheme of things. It is this habit of thought that the Alan Shaw stories particularly subvert. People don’t die all the time to give the hero motivation. He co-operates, he doesn’t kill people all the time and when he does occasionally kill, he feels it keenly. His life is full of consequences and responsibilities, he has relationships with people. This is key, for me. Action heroes don’t really have substantial relationships in the normal scheme of things. Alan Shaw does, and he feels his attachments keenly and they shape his life.

The underlying themes for me were very much about consequences. What the main character does, for good and ill, stays with him. Sometimes it follows him around, wanting help, or revenge, or explanations. He doesn’t get to blow things up and move on to the next story, all possible baggage burned away before the next round starts. He’s not a man alone, he needs friends, lovers, family. Sometimes he needs rescuing and looking after. Background characters don’t have to be daft, or weak or vulnerable to make him look good, either.

I like this book greatly because the hero is not your standard issue cool and capable man alone, but a far more interesting and complex human.

More on the author’s website –

And you can buy the book here –

The Princess in the Mound – a review

I first encountered Linda Raedisch through her folklore-orientated non-fiction work. So when this novel came to my attention, I was keen to read it. It isn’t a big book – 98 pages of not especially dense text, but my Gods! So much happens.

I was really excited by the way this book has been written. The subtitle is ‘A Visitor’s Guide to Alvenholm Castle’ and that is the form the book takes. We begin with a note on the artist in residence, an overview of the castle and its upkeep fund, then short sections on history, architecture and haunting. Then we step into the entry hall and make our way around the rooms and gardens.

As the guide book takes us from room to room, a story unfolds. It is not a straightforward story, and various versions of it and glimpses into it are offered as we go along. The reader is obliged to draw their own conclusions, choose which stories to put together and what shape to give them. I like ambiguity in books, and I like being asked to become an active participant in making sense of a story. To a degree, all stories do this, and often the real magic of a book comes from the author’s ability to shape gaps for the reader to play in. These shaped gaps have the delicacy and complexity of lace. Technically speaking, it is a stunning piece of work.

The story itself explores the interplay between what we think we know about history, and what we think we know about fairy tales. The swan maidens of fairytale and myth are very much at the heart of this book. As a folklorist, the author has a keen appreciation of how events transform into stories, and stories colour events, and fragments from ancient history linger in folk memory. She’s able to put rationalisations into some character’s mouths and wild, magical thinking into the mouths of others, and sit these varying takes on things alongside each other. It’s not an entirely neutral telling – I certainly felt I was being steered towards the magical and supernatural interpretations, but then, that might be reader bias!

This is a book that also deftly explores the roles of women as wives and mothers, sisters and daughters, as keepers of the castle, and workers in the laundry. Women as figures you will empathise with and women who will make you uncomfortable. Women who are all too banal and of this earth, and women who seem touched by otherness. It’s splendidly rich in this regard.

Linda Raedisch offers a view of the modern world that still has plenty of room for magic and mystery in it. A world alive with stories, rich with deep history, and rooted in landscape. This is a book of enchantment. You need to read it.

Buy the book here –

Short reviews for entertaining stories

Thunder Moon, by the looks of the blurb, is a romance novel. It is certainly a novel with a romance in it – and an erotic romance at that. However, I experienced this as a story where magic, rather than attraction, is the main driving force. The three main characters – Thea, her best friend Ellie, and Ellie’s brother Marc, all have magical capabilities. It’s not big Harry Potter style magic, but it’s also far more potent than anything your real life witch is likely to do. I liked that – fantastical, but not totally out of reach. Dealing with the magic, and the impact the magic has on the romance, is the real story here, which made it a less predictable read than a lot of romances. As the character list suggests, it’s a book about three people without being the classic love triangle. It’s as much about how everything impacts on the female friendship as it is about the romance. I found it entertaining, it’s ideal for a bit of escapism, the people are engaging and sweet but not so sweet that you hate them. There are a lot of adorable dog moments. It’s written with warmth and a keen sense of how people are shaped by the landscapes they inhabit.

More here –






The Necromancer’s Apprentice by Icy Sedgewick. At 30k this is a small book with a hefty fantasy setting in it. I was really impressed by the skilful world building that creates so much sense of place and history so deftly in such a short book while not skimping on story or character. Jyx is a working class boy from the underground city who has managed to get a scholarship to a magical academy in the city above. However, being clever and ambitious isn’t necessarily a virtue. Determined to get ahead and sure that his teachers have no good reason for holding him back, Jyx leaps from student life to frying pan to fire. It’s a very entertaining read – especially if you have a slightly dark sense of humour.

More here –


Brother’s Ruin, Emma Newman – part one of a series. This is a gaslight novel – corsets and crinolines, magic and politics. It’s set in an alternative Victorian London with a powerful magical society and a very oppressive approach to magic users. The young female protagonist, Charlotte Gunn is hiding her magical abilities, but helps her brother pass himself off as a magician of greater potential than he really is. Alongside this, Charlotte is investigating a threat to her father, and hiding the fact that she’s a successful illustrator. This is a story about being a powerful and capable woman in a world that doesn’t have any room for that and just wants you to stay home and make babies.


Buy the book here –


Weaver’s Lament, by Emma Newman – the sequel to Brother’s Ruin. Where the first book investigated gender politics, this one takes us into class politics. It’s a story about exploitation of the workers and attitudes to the poor – both in a steampowered historical setting, and with many implications for the present. Again there’s the mix of magic and adventure, as the stakes rise for our young heroine. There’s also a forbidden romance on the boil. As Charlotte becomes more able to stand in her own power, her very existence calls into question some of the things she considers fundamental to how the world works. Not least, her relationship with her brother. Clearly there are going to be more of these and I will be picking them up – an excellent balance of thoughtfulness and entertainment.

Buy the book here –


The Path to Celtic Buddhism – a review

When I offered to review The Path to Celtic Buddhism by Dru, I assumed it would be a book approaching Buddhism from a Celtic perspective, because I’ve seen that before. I was entirely surprised by what this book is and where it took me.

It turns out that there is a Celtic Buddhism movement that comes from the Buddhist side – specifically Tibetan Buddhism. This is because Tibetan Buddhism has its root in Bon, an older, animistic religion that I am now eager to learn more about! Tibetan Buddhism considers it important that a person understands who they are and where they come from in order to meaningfully engage with Buddhism, because culture and background shape us, and shape what from a Buddhist perspective, are our illusions. And so a movement has emerged to look at a grounding in European identity for people of a European background wanting to explore Buddhism. This makes a lot of sense to me.

The author – Dru – tells the story of his own curious life path. Having spent time as an angry punk in his teens, he went on to spend 21 years in Trappist monasteries. As part of his monastic experience, he spent time in a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery. Dru explains his transition from Trappist to Celtic Buddhist and shares some of his understanding of spiritual life. It is a fascinating read, there’s a clear sense of a man who hasn’t got a lot of ego and who is living in a profoundly spiritual state, and grappling with language to try and get the sense of that across to those of us who are not living it.

This is not a how-to book, it offers no rules or dogma, but it does gift the reader with insights and possibilities. Dru’s path is his alone, and has clearly brought him a lot of insight, but the odds are no one is going to read this and want to take exactly the same route. I like that about this book. It’s an invitation, not a guide.

I really enjoyed reading it. This is quite a raw text, it clearly hasn’t had a professional editor on it. I noticed it but did not find it a barrier to reading. This is the kind of book conventional publishers don’t do – too niche, too personal. I think there’s a lot to be learned from non-dogmatic personal testaments of experience. I don’t think this is a book for everyone, but if it sounds like your sort of thing, do check it out.

More information here –

The Soil Never Sleeps – a review

This is a poetry collection like nothing I have ever read before, and I’ve read a fair amount of poetry over the years. Poet Adam Horovitz visited pasture farms through the seasons. There were four farms in different parts of the UK, and the visits were in spring, autumn, winter and then summer, which is reflected in the structure of the book. This is poetry that goes far beyond the usual picturesque treatments of landscape. This is nature writing that goes far beyond what nature writing normally does. Intense, personal, specific and powerful, this is a truly remarkable book and one of those rare texts I think everyone should read.

The pasture farms in question all seek to work in harmony with the land, the soil, the grass, and as a consequence these are landscapes full of wildlife as well as the sheep and cows the farms focus on. It’s a demonstration of what small scale, responsible animal rearing means. This was entirely beyond my experience, and I learned a lot in practical terms. We don’t have a pristine landscape untouched by humans here in the UK, we have a landscape informed by thousands of years of human activity – including grazing herds. It’s something that can be done well, and there are many species that have evolved to exist in our meadows and pastures, if we don’t force them out.

There’s nothing preachy about these poems. Adam tells stories of life on the land, creatures encountered, experiences in landscapes, stories of soil and grass and bramble. Those stories invite us to see the pasture in an entirely new way, and that’s really exciting. It’s an eye opener.

Adam is certainly one of my favourite poets. His work is lyrical, emotionally affecting (but never heavy handed) reflective, and engaging. He’s always accessible. You don’t need to have read anything else, or studied anything. I’ve been in the fortunate position of hearing some of these poems read out loud, and they can be absorbed in a single hearing. You don’t have to sweat over the page to make sense of them. At the same time, the poems reward repeat encounters, opening up to you as you revisit them, as a friend might. It’s beautiful work.

I really appreciated the way in which these poems are so absolutely specific to time and place, to people and to creatures who emerge from the text as distinct individuals. This isn’t nature as backdrop. Nor is it nature or landscape as some kind of metaphor for inner human experiences. These are songs of soil and sheep, of cows and seasons, and as they unfold, they teach you why it is not enough to see landscape as backdrop and wildlife as metaphor. It’s a powerful, magical act of re-enchantment and of re-engagement with the world.

Adam has a rare knack for taking the language of the every day and making it sing, putting depth and meaning into words we may have become complacent about. Showing us how our own, every day language might be imbued with grace and substance.

The final section of the poems is the most overtly political, reflecting on the poet’s experience of land and farming, and the wider world. I think that’s vital at the moment. We can’t separate the personal from the political, or the land from the lawmakers intent on ravaging is as a resource. It is so easy to get demoralised about these thing, but Adam chooses to uplift and inspire, and we need more of this.

Listen to a poem here – 

Buy the book here (and other places!)