Category Archives: Reviews

The Adventures of Alan Shaw: A Review

Craig Hallam’s The Adventures of Alan Shaw is in many ways everything a person might expect from a steampunk novel. Set in something much like Victorian London, there’s lots of anachronistic technology – the monorail, dirigibles, automatons, some with ‘Babbage inside’ (I giggled about that, and about many other things). There’s also magic, crime, an inevitable event at The Great Exhibition, and a freak show. However, it is the ways in which Craig pushes out from those steampunk standards into unusual territory that makes this book such a good read.

Alan Shaw is a series of short stories, in chronological order. In many ways it functions like a novel, there are story threads that weave the tales together but each adventure is also a standalone. The main character is unusual because he’s a pauper. Steampunk can be a bit too fond of titles for my liking, so I really enjoyed seeing a proper filthy urchin taking the lead. At 11, young Mr Shaw is as dirty as he is disreputable. He’s also trying not to starve or freeze to death in a London that does not treat orphans kindly.

Although rescued from his sordid beginnings, Alan Shaw does not transform, Cinderella style into a handsome prince. He remains a misfit, no longer really working class, certainly not a proper fit for high society. He’s a young man with something to prove, and precious little sense when it comes to proving it.

There are all kinds of social issues laced through the adventures, and this is done with a light touch so it never feels like a lecture. Issues of what moral choices look like when you’re starving. Issues of class, and how society still works even now, advantaging some and crushing others. This is a London in which menial jobs are going to automatons. What are the poor to do? No answers are offered, but it parallels our own loss of employment to cheaper labour from machines. There’s some good subversion of gender norms, as well.

Colonialism is a big issue for anyone interested in reclaiming bits of Victorian spirit. I greatly appreciated the way in which Craig tackled this head on, with the final story of the book set in India. He manages the delicate balance of exploring some of the Victorian colonial mindset without ever letting the reader feel comfortable with it.

The book is laced through with humour, and written with considerable style. Craig has a real knack for working out which sense to draw on to convey a scene quickly. As a person whose thinking isn’t mostly visual, I appreciated having smells, sound and sensation as part of the descriptive mix. Plots bound along at a cheerful pace, characters are always rounded enough to engage, disaster is narrowly avoided. If you want to balance wild escapism with the option of dwelling on the implications, this is a very good read.

Alan Shaw on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Adventures-Alan-Shaw-Craig-Hallam/dp/1908600322/ref=tmm_pap_title_0


Lost Islands

Those of you who know me will know that I’ve been a fan of Kevan Manwaring’s work for the best part of a decade. And if you’ve been reading the blogs for a while you may also have picked up that one of the things I do is write a graphic novel series set on an island that is cut off from the rest of reality.  Hopeless Maine, as Walter Sickert put it is ‘an island lost in time’.

It’s a terrible thing to have to admit that I’ve only just got round to reading Kevan’s Lost Islands book. I read it in July because I’m thinking about writing more in the Hopeless Maine setting and I knew it would help me think around that.

One of the things I love about Kevan’s work, taken as a whole, is that he doesn’t sit tidily in a single, neat marketing definition, and seeing him do that has helped me take a similarly unboxed approach. Kevan writes poetry, non-fiction, fiction, he’s a performer, teacher and storyteller, and all of this feeds into any given book. Lost Islands brings together that breadth of experience and insight. This is a book of myths and history, geography, geology, politics, pop culture, literature, personal experience, speculation, science, and even a bit of fiction for good measure! It’s the sort of book that would sit well next to a Robert McFarlane title.

Lost Islands offers a lot of thoughts about physical islands – those that were imagined, may have existed, have definitely disappeared and those that are just very hard and dangerous to get to. It’s also a book that explores the idea of islands in the broader sense – things cut off and surrounded by something other. The driving narrative of the book explores the human desire for the pristine, Eden, and the way in which our search for it destroys not only those pristine environments, but piles on the environmental damage for the world as a whole. There are too many nature writing books out there that encourage us to run off looking for unspoiled nature, and thus to spoil it, so it’s really pleasing to see a book tackle this issue head on and pull no punches about the implications of getting away from it all.

For me, reading Lost Islands generated some fertile lines of thought about how I might map and chart something I’ve set up to be unchartable. Kevan’s recent blog posts have been all about long distance walking, so I’ve been thinking about that, too. I’m thinking about the issue of utopias and dystopias and the desire for something that is not those things. A playground, where you can gleefully run wild but may fall on your face, or be eaten by monsters.

It’s not an easy book to find, your best bet appears to be Speaking Tree


Upon a Tzorkly Moon: Review

Upon a Tzorkly Moon explores the world of Winchette Dale, home of Matlock the Hare. I’ve enthused about those books in the past, you can find out more at (https://www.matlockthehare.com/). Upon a Tzorkly Moon is both a new thing and familiar, as it focuses on art associated with the Dales, and is written by the artist half of the team – Jacqui Lovesey. For fans of Matlock, it’s a must. If you’ve not encountered this work before, you could dive in here.

This is a book very much dominated by the art, and includes full colour images of illustrations from the novels. Previously we’ve only seen them printed in black and white. Jacqui’s colour use is warm and gorgeous, so it really adds another dimension getting to see the pieces as they were intended.

The book is a wander through the world of the magical dales, showing landscapes, and inhabitants. There are accompanying notes about what you’re seeing, and those are charming to read. It’s a warm, uplifting sort of book, easily nibbled in small quantities, so ideal for a person who is world weary, whose attention is shot or who is short of time and needs to be able to dip into something gentle and generous.

I was struck by a number of things as I sauntered rather slowly through this book over a period of days. Firstly, this is the reality I want to live in; richly animist, full of life and presence. Secondly, I really want to live in the kind of house that looks like Jacqui imagined it. Thirdly the world needs more lush and gently uplifiting creativity in it, critically that which does not patronise, sugar coat or dumb down. Fourthly, I really, really want to make a book this lovely.

So, thanks to Matlock the Hare I am pid-padding into the world of interior colour printing, asking questions about book design, making outrageous demands of my artist/husband Tom Brown, and plotting how to do something along these lines. The story is written, and if it’s half as cheering as Upon a Tzorkly Moon I shall consider it a job sufficiently done.

In the meantime, seek out this book! https://www.matlockthehare.com/project-02

And here’s a guest blog Phil Lovesey did for me a while back – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2014/05/20/matlock-the-hare/

 


Did you whisper back? A Review

I picked up this psychological novel by Kate Rigby through my involvement with Neverland blog tours. What a wonderful find! I read it over an afternoon and evening – it’s not a huge book, but it was also something I found I just couldn’t step away from. I had to know.

This is in essence a book about how ancestral choices can play out in the lives of later generations without them having any idea what’s underpinning things. The central character, Amanda, is both withdrawn and clearly a bit irrational, and we see this early on as she makes some troubled leaps of logic as part of a quest to find her missing twin sister. The book blurb reveals that the missing twin isn’t real and that Amanda is heading for mental breakdown, so, no spoilers from me in saying that much.

The questions of how and why the young woman at the centre of this story has become so unhinged from reality takes us on a journey into her past. As someone who has done a lot of work on ancestry and how it impacts on descendants, I can heartily recommend this novel as a representation of how things get passed down.

The writing is incredibly paired down and intense, full of depth and precise observations of both wider life, and the world inside Amanda’s head. This is an exquisite exercise in telling rather than showing. I’m not a big fan of the modern fad for ‘show not tell’ because it limits where you can go. When it comes to psychological issues, ‘show’ often won’t do it, and ‘tell’ can take us in deeper and far more effectively. There’s no page space wasted on playing everything out. We’re allowed instead to grapple directly with the meat of the story, and with the ghosts haunting it.

I loved this book, I think it’s a fantastic, gem of a novel. It isn’t comfortable or easy reading, but it is profound, intense and provocative.

Buy the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Did-You-Whisper-Back-disturbing-ebook/dp/B0077E2M26

 

 


The Wolf of Allendale – a review

Hannah Spencer approached me recently to review her novel, The Wolf of Allendale, which I knew about from Twitter and was aware had a basis in folklore, so I cheerfully dived in. It’s a great read and I very much enjoyed it.

There are two time frames in this book – Iron Age Celts dealing with Roman incursion, and industrial age Britons dealing with the incursion of railways and factories all in the same landscape. The parallels between the two timeframes are striking. One sees the pressing of the Roman road into the wild moorlands, the other sees the laying of train tracks. Both timelines question the cost of progress.

At the centre of the book is the wolf of the title – and without giving too much away, this is an ephemeral but deadly being. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that the narrative set in the 19th century involves direct descendants from the Iron Age experience of the wolf. This put me very much in mind of the work of Alan Garner – especially Boneland and The Stone Book Quartet, and things revealing in the Voice That Thunders. This is about the survival of oral tradition, the importance of ancestry and connection to the land and the way in which the last hundred years has severed those ties is very much raised by the tale.

Author Hannah Spencer clearly has a deep love of landscape and writes from a place of intense connection to the land and all that lives on it. I loved this aspect of the book, and the way in which these details root the narrative and give a solidity that helps hold the more magical and supernatural elements of the tale firmly in place.

I will admit that in recent years I’ve taken to avoiding novels about the Druids. Most of the Druid fiction I’ve read at best disappoints me and at worst annoys me. Much to my surprise and delight, what The Wolf of Allendale offers is a historical Celtic setting, complete with Druids and followers of the Druid path, that totally worked for me. It’s not contemporary Druidry projected into the past, there’s a strong shamanic aspect, and the whole thing is rooted in the author’s clear understanding of the period, the culture and the land. It may not be ‘truth’ in a historical sense but it rings true in a way few Celtic-set novels ever have for me.

This is a beautifully written book with a large cast of compelling characters, an engaging story arc and a lot of depth. I think the odds are if you’re a regular to my blog, you’re going to love this book, do consider picking up a copy. It’s widely available, here;s an Amazon link – https://www.amazon.com/Wolf-Allendale-Hannah-Spencer/dp/0062674617


Ballad Tales – not exactly a review

 

Last summer I was approached by Kevan Manwaring to contribute to an anthology titled ‘Ballad Tales’.  The premise was that people with a background in folk – be that as musicians, storytellers or enthusiasts, would re-write traditional ballads as short stories. I cheerfully dived in. So I can’t write you an unbiased review of this book! There are 19 stories, 18 authors. I knew most of the authors and most of the original material before I started reading.

The collection runs a broad range of interpretations. It opens with a faithful retelling of Tam Lin, from Fiona Eadie. Kevan Manwaring’s Thomas the Rhymer is largely faithful, but plays with the unreliable narrator in some inventive ways. Chantelle Smith takes on the Selkie of Sule Skerry. The Marriage of Gawain by Simon Heywood is also a largely familiar retelling.

Richard Selby places the song The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter in a landscape, and takes us into the realms of making these stories more specific. Ballads are often scant on details of time and place, and of course as soon as you pin them somewhere, that act of placing them in a time and location changes them. David Phelps has a version of a song I know as The Bonny Labouring Boy, which works in a similar way.

Pete Castle tackles some of the holes in ‘Willie’s Lady’ which I know as ‘King Willie’. Ballads often skate over the details of how we got into the crazy situation to begin with and what motivates characters who do strange, darkly magical things. Malcolm Green’s take on ‘The Laidly Worm of Spindlestone Heugh’ (Kemp Owen to me) also picks up these themes.

In The Droll of Ann Tremellan, Alan M Kent gives us a Cornish take on Barbara Allen – resplendent with Cornish language, which I loved. We also have a retelling of the ballad Barbara Allen by Mark Hassall which gives the story a contemporary setting. Both tackle the issues of how and why characters are on their deathbeds, one switches the genders around, and between them they demonstrate something of the scope for re-imagining every tale in multiple ways.

Eric Maddern’s take on ‘The Flying Cloud’ has a fascinating personal angle to it. There’s often an anonymity in ballad writing – obviously someone wrote an original and others have re-written songs down the years, so it’s interesting to get a song where there are also stories to tell about the authorship.

The aforementioned stories are either wholly faithful to the original, or mostly faithful, and largely concerned with the business of putting flesh on bones – Mark Hassal being the exception. Other stories in the collection have played fast and loose with the originals, re-imagining them into settings from the 20th century onwards, playing with themes, reinventing, subverting and so forth. These were without a doubt my favourites, but then, it’s also what I chose to do! As someone steeped in folk I found it more exciting encountering familiar stories in entirely unfamiliar forms.

The Ship Carpenter’s Love to a Merchant’s Daughter by Laura Kinnear sets the classic tale of a young lady following her beloved to sea in the twentieth century, demonstrating that some things never really change…

I was really excited by Karola Renard’s radical re-imagining of Sovay – I don’t want to say anything about it to avoid spoilers, but it manages to both hold the original and do something entirely unfamiliar with it all at the same time.

Kirsty Hartsiotis’s gangster ‘Famous Flower of Serving Men’ is a remarkable piece of writing, I think this is the most intense story in the book, heartbreaking and brilliant.

Mermaid in Aspic (best title, for my money) re-imagines the tale of the two sisters – there are many versions of this song, I sing one of them. Chrissy Derbyshire tackles the issue of taking out the supernatural whilst at the same time keeping the magic.

David Metcalfe’s interpretation of The Three Ravens/Twa Corbies is an inspired piece of crafting, and if you know the originals, you’ll read it with your heart in your mouth. Terrible, terrible dramatic irony, beautifully done.

Anthony Nanson’s future set King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid nearly made me cry – not because it’s tragic, but because there is an element of hope in it that seems so rare right now. It’s an incredible idea, pulled off with considerable style.

The collection finishes with the tale that can fairly be described as being furthest out, in all senses. Kevan Manwaring takes on the two magicians – a shapeshifting song that exists in several forms. An incredibly imaginative re-working, which keeps faith with the original whilst taking it in a really wild direction.

My own contribution is a mash up of Scarborough fair and the unquiet graves songs, told in first person and allowing me to play a bit with the sympathy and complicity a first person narrator can easily generate, in order to do terrible things!

You can buy the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ballad-Tales-Anthology-British-Ballads/dp/0750970553


Forest Rain – A review

Michael Forester, the author of Forest Rain is a facebook friend, and offered me his book to review. It’s an unusual piece of spiritual writing, mixing poetry, short story and autobiography.

I’ll admit that in the introduction I had a brief panic as Michael talked about life plans. I’m very much a maybeist, but I have problems with the life plan idea because it makes everything feel so predetermined. Why bother playing it out if you’ve already worked out the plot? I worry that it can be used for victim blaming and avoiding responsibility for others. But, it turns out that the book goes many places and barely touches on this again, so I was very glad that I kept reading.

The author has evidently spent a lot of time exploring different religions, and has no qualms about using terms from many paths. I enjoyed the eclecticism, which seems to come from a place of appreciation, not simple cherry-picking. I suspect Michael of having maybeist leanings himself, happy to explore what any path has to offer, willing to learn from anything and to say maybe to any substantial idea that comes his way.

Poetry is often the best way of getting metaphysical without getting bogged down in it, and I enjoyed the poems in the book.

The autobiographical content is fascinating if you enjoy seeing the world through someone else’s eyes – which I do! The author is one of the wealthy, privileged few who has come to see how empty that kind of materialism is, and has largely turned his back on it. Fascinating to see that process from the other side, having always been a pauper myself. Much of the writing explores the kind of life experience many of us will encounter from middle age onwards – the death of parents, the loss of physical capabilities, the changing nature of relationships. The author simply presents his experiences and reflections much of the time. Some sections are written to someone – and as the reader it’s interesting to see how you position yourself in response to this.

I enjoyed the book. I think the intended reader is someone in the second half of their life who may be questioning the choices they made in the first half of their life and looking for something with more depth and substance. It’s the ideal gift for someone showing signs of spiritual crisis, especially people with no strong religious affiliations. Being a broadly spiritual book, it is pretty accessible regardless of what the reader may believe.

More about the book here – http://michaelforester.co.uk/books/forest-rain


Labrys and Horns: review

Labrys and Horns by Laura Perry is an introduction to practicing modern Minoan Paganism. The Minoans were are culture on Crete who existed before the Greeks. They were a much more egalitarian society, and while there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge about them, much can be inferred from the art and archaeology. This is not an academic-style book so there’s not much detail about how the author comes to her conclusions, but there are plenty of other books listed in the references so anyone who wants to dig deeper knows where to start. You can also pick up her other title, Aridane’s Thread, which goes into more detail on history and Minoan life.

I came to this out of curiosity rather than any intention to practice. It is a book worth reading from that basis. The relationship between the Minoans and the Greeks has much to tell us about the later culture, too. There’s a wealth of insight here about the ancient world as a whole, and much to ponder about the way sacred myths evolve and change depending on who is telling them and why.

I’m guessing that most people come to Minoan Paganism either through an attraction to the art, or via one of the deities. Ariadne, the minotaur and the labyrinth seem like the most obvious way in. If you’ve encountered the Greek story, and felt drawn but found it inadequate, this is no doubt for you. If you like aspects of the Greek myths but find the rapey patriarchal content unpalatable, you may want to check out the Minoans.

The book includes line drawings based on Minoan art and artefacts, I found this really helpful for getting a sense of the culture and concepts. In its original form, it’s a really attractive art style, with brightly coloured frescos and Laura has captured the flow and feel of it in her drawings.

This is a very readable book, author Laura Perry writes with warmth and clearly speaks from broad and long term experience of bringing an ancient culture into her life. Her writing is permissive and encouraging rather than dogmatic, it’s very much a book about how to go about finding your own path, and where to start. There’s enough material here on rituals, symbols, deities and devotionals to enable a person to start experimenting.

 

Find out more about the book here – http://www.lauraperryauthor.com/labrys-and-horns


The Bastard of St Genevra: A Review

 

I was approached to see if I’d like to review this title as a consequence of another book I’d reviewed here. Author Diane Gallagher lured me in with the promise of magical realism, healing ancestral lines and a story that revolves around the lives of women. I was not disappointed. As if often the case with good books, it is tricky to talk about the story without spoiling bits of it. What I can safely say is that this story occupies two time frames, one runs from the late twentieth century through to the present day, and the other is concerned with events in the twelfth century. It’s a charming book, highly readable and engaging with thoughtfully rendered characters.

I was especially taken with the way in which the author is able to meet the magic and mysticism of 12th century Catholicism on its own terms. Her historical characters occupy their beliefs and superstitions, the world they inhabit is full of the scope for miracles and divine intervention, ill wishing, cursing, and so forth. It all feels very real and there’s no sense of modern judgements getting in the way. It really makes clear what a magical reality Catholicism was part of in its early days. Coming at this as a Pagan, I found the religious and mystical aspects of the book highly readable and enjoyable.

This is a book about the lives of women – there are three main female characters, and a whole cast of other complex women surrounds them. There are of course men as well, but the action takes place firmly in the female sphere and relates to female life experience. I really enjoyed that. We see everything from the royal courts down to the lowliest peasants, it’s very rich reading.

I greatly appreciated the way love is handled in this book. There are love affairs, relationships, marriages – these are part of life and are explored with care and treated with importance. But, they don’t define the shape of the story, it isn’t ‘a romance’ it’s a weave of life in which love has a significant role to play. It’s rare to get a book with a strong feminine focus that explores love but does not succumb to the romance genre.

I think the biggest take-away for me is the way in which this book has prompted me to re-think the concept of martyrdom. Regulars to the blog will know that I’ve commented repeatedly that there’s no place for martyrdom in Paganism. I’ve previously thought about martyrdom as something that is done to a person, that it is about violence and oppression, and not something to celebrate. There is a martyrdom in this story that entirely defied my expectations and assumptions. The power of the character in question to choose her path, to face her mortality and pain to transform herself is fascinating. For a while there, I was thinking instead about the cruelty inherent in this kind of religion, but as the story plays out, it becomes clear that this martyrdom is a lot more like Odin hanging in the world tree than ever it is the story of a victim. And it struck me that perhaps what makes martyrdom significant is not the horrible death aspect, but the way in which the person on the receiving end refuses to have their spirit broken by it.

The Bastard of St Genevra should be out on the 30th May, you can find out more on the author’s website – https://dianegallagherwritings.com/published-works/novels/the-bastard-of-saint-genevra/


Across Great Divides

I recently put a hand up to be more involved in blog tours because it’s a good way of encountering new, less prominent fiction. With its themes of fascism and struggle, Across Great Divides seemed like a timely story. It begins as fascism rises in 20th Century Germany and tracks one Jewish family, and their friends, as they attempt to escape persecution. The family in question have the money and the connections to get out – so it’s not as harrowing a tale as it might have been, which on the plus side makes it considerably more readable. The tales of the less fortunate are there in the background – we see a little of concentration camps, disappearances, cattle trucks… Issues of class and wealth are there to be considered.

There were a number of things I found especially interesting about this book. Firstly is the way in which it tackles hypocrisy as an issue. The young man of the family is, from his teens involved with groups resisting Hitler. His family feel threatened by this, but it is the work he does, and the contacts he makes that gets them out. In the escape, we see plenty of ordinary people willing to risk their lives to help Jewish people flee to safety. When our Jewish family find themselves in South America, faced with the hideous poverty there, they see it, but do little. When finally they move to South Africa, young Max (very much the hero of the tale for me) gets straight into protesting against Apartheid, much to the horror of his parents, who seem to have forgotten that their lives were saved by his courage, and by the courage of others prepared to stand up for them. We see the daughters of the family pull out from beneath parental disapproval to make their own, more domestic stand for racial equality.

It’s a book that makes the important point that being oppressed doesn’t automatically make you more enlightened than those around you when it comes to responding to the oppression of others. Fear makes us cautious, and fear is a great enabler of oppressors. The courage to put what’s right ahead of what’s personally safe is a rare trait. We might think we’d all be heroes, but a look around at our current situation shows us that we’re still not standing up to Nazis, still turning a blind eye to oppression, all too often. This book is a call to stop and look at our own fear and complicity.

The author writes from a place of family insight, and has a keen sense of location – the writing about places I found the most engaging aspect of the book. Monique Roy’s own family background has something of the fictionalised experience in it – how much is hard to say, but from the notes at the end, this is clearly a tale rooted in lived history. The narratorial voice is quite naive – mostly this worked for me because much of the story follows the young female characters. The author has the charming and unusual habit of including footnotes in the text – translations and historical details the reader probably won’t know are dropped in, held by brackets. It does break the flow of the fiction, while shedding light on it, and is a constant reminder that you’re reading fictionalised history, which I found a really interesting experience as a reader. Some may find it a bit of a jolt. There are sections that read more like non-fiction – I found that helpful but it may not suit everyone.

I think the ideal readership for this book is the YA audience, and people who really don’t know much about 20th century history and need a palatable crash course in what fascism looks like in practice.

Find the book here – https://www.amazon.com/Across-Great-Divides-Monique-Roy/dp/0615846688