Tag Archives: book review

The Other Life of Charlotte Evans – a review

I picked this book up as part of a Neverland blog tour. It isn’t the sort of thing I normally review – because from the cover it looks like chick lit, and it’s published by Harper Collins, while I normally focus on small publishers and self publishers.

Reading The Other Life of Charlotte Evans got me thinking about how women’s writing is marketed to readers. The colour choices of the cover say to me that I should not expect real surprises or much depth. The blurb goes “A heartrendingly beautiful novel about love, family and finding your own path to happiness.” It all sounds warm, and safe and easy. I didn’t find it to be any of those things.

At the outset, Charlotte is eight weeks away from marrying her man. She’s twenty five, has her own dance studio and a massive mortgage and there’s a five year plan. They’ve got it all figured out, and are in the final stages of pinning down all those little wedding details. However, Charlotte turns out to have a lump in one of her breasts, and suddenly the rosy view looks a good deal more troubled.

What happens after that isn’t gentle, heartwarming feel good. It’s a serious exploration of the fear that comes with facing mortality in this way. There’s a hard look at the kind of strain illness, and the threat of illness puts on relationships. People struggle to understand. Charlotte no longer knows herself, her needs and priorities have just had a seismic upheaval, and all bets are off.

What further complicates things for Charlotte is that, as an adopted child, she knows nothing about her birth family, and as a consequence, nothing at all about her hereditary risks. Asking those questions is dangerous, and takes her into territory she feels guilty about and that threatens to further rock the foundations of her life.

In the eight weeks from the start of the tale to the wedding, many of the people involved in the story make mistakes and handle things badly. Fear and shock do that to a person. Communications become strained. People trying to protect each other end up shutting each other out. Suspicions grow in the silent spaces. In the harsh light created by possible sickness everything and everyone looks different, and the drunken hen weekend planned for Amsterdam looks less fun by the moment.

There were times when the author managed to make me angry with the characters – especially the finance – over their reactions. I was surprised by how much I was willing to invest in Charlotte’s predicament,  and how much it mattered to me when characters started getting things right. The ending wasn’t neat and wholly comfortable, and that was excellent because it felt so much more real for being that way.

Which takes me back to how we present women’s writing. When women write about family things, health and the domestic sphere, it’s so often trivialised and treated as light weight. This is an emotionally powerful book dealing with serious issues, really it isn’t that much about the pretty pink ballet shoes at all. It makes me wonder how many other profound and powerful books are out there hiding behind fluffy looking covers, and whether I need to poke round a bit more to find them.

More about the book here – https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780008221614/the-other-life-of-charlotte-evans

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What Goes Down – a review

I picked this title up as part of a Neverland blog tour, tempted by a blurb that described a psychological story. It’s a really good book, delving deep into the impact of bipolar disorder over two generations in a family.

This is a book that explores how choices play out over generations. Laurel falls in love and makes some dramatic decisions to get out of her middle class backwater life. It’s the late eighties, her gay brother is dealing with how little the world is willing to accept him. Single mothers are generally frowned on.

We see Laurel’s story juxtaposed against her daughter’s experience. The daughter who, aged twenty seven, has just found out the man she calls Dad is not her dad.

Seph is an artist with a big show coming up, at the start of the book she’s getting over a panic attack of epic proportions and stressing about her work. The revelations about her real parentage send her entire life into a spin. It’s a tale that becomes ever more tense as it goes along, with the breakdown of Laurel’s relationship mirroring the breakdown in Seph’s mind.

This book is a challenge to the toxic myth that it’s ok for creative people to behave in certain ways. The artist who paints for two weeks, barely sleeping or eating might not be challenged at all because it’s what so many of us think artists do. That kind of creative fever is incredibly dangerous, as are the desperate plunges into depression that tend to go with it. History is full of bipolar creatives, but being bipolar can be a real obstacle to creating in a sustainable way, and it ruins lives. The idea of the crazy creative person, whose creativity makes the craziness ok, needs challenging, and this book does so, head on.

Artist Seph is a character I really related to, and I don’t get to say that very often. Anxious, unsure of herself, but also driven and living by her art, she’s dealing with personal turmoil I found very familiar. Obsessive, never happy with her work, overthinking – this is a portrait of a mind I entirely recognised and empathised with. I’m not bipolar, but I experience depression and I used to get those wild, creative highs.

What touched me most about this book was the way in which Seph’s family supports her. They make a lot of mistakes, because they’re realistic people, but they are always trying to be there for her. They don’t blame or shame her for what she’s going through. She is taken seriously, and there’s real concern from the first panic attack onwards. I’m so used to real life stories in which mental health problems are ignored, hidden, treated as an embarrassment or a failing on the part of the sufferer. It is a wonderful thing to read a book in which people really care and really try to help.

You can find What Goes Down on Amazon.


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/


New Goddess Book

 

 

I’ve been a fan of Karen Tate’s work for some time, and her new anthology, Goddess 2.0 turns out to be entirely brilliant. It’s an anthology walking its talk by offering a diverse array of voices and opinions – not all of which fit neatly together. Being able to come together without having to have total agreement is one of the core tenets of this new work.

The anthology brings together some powerful voices, including Carol P Christ and Starhawk, along with others I hadn’t heard of before. The essays range from the personal through to large scale political insight. Some look back at history, recent and ancient, to track the route Goddess thinking has taken, some look forward to consider where we are going next. There’s much to chew on.

I don’t self-identify as a Goddess worshipper, but the vision of a world inspired by the divine feminine is one that appeals to me. I love the way that this book moves past much of the vague language of patriarchy to talk in terms that are broader and more human. The issue of how one person having power over another, or over some other part of the natural world, is inherently problematic, is a recurring theme. Co-operation must replace competition. Any ideas about any group of people having power by default over any other group of people has to go. It’s a simple enough idea, and gets to the heart of the problems we currently face.

There are many things we might do as individuals to help change things for the better. This book is full of ideas and observations. I found it uplifting and encouraging to read, and came away with a clearer sense of why things are currently as they are, and how I can help create change for the better.

More about the book here – http://www.karentate.com/Tate/Book-Goddess2.html 


Hope and Matlock the Hare

This autumn I undertook to re-read the Matlock the Hare trilogy – I proof-read the third volume earlier in the year, and that’s not the optimal reader experience. Plus, I wanted to read the series as a whole from a position of understanding what it’s really about.

Book 1 of the Matlock series introduces Matlock the Hare, on his quest to solve a riddle to become officially more magical. As a magical hare, he’s got three such tests to do, and the reader can be forgiven for thinking this sounds like wizard school for hares. But it isn’t. As Matlock sets out in book 2 on trial number 2, it’s increasingly obvious that the glorious magical world he inhabits is beset by problems. When you get to book 3 it becomes evident that the story you were reading is not really the plot at all, which is all I am going to say on the subject.

Re-reading the trilogy, it struck me how clever the whole thing is – the apparent main plot line distracts you from a whole other story that’s being woven right under your nose, and becomes visible only towards the end of the third book. The re-reading process is full of new surprises and delights as you start to see how the real story was there all along, hiding in plain sight.

What struck me most on the second time through was the mix of political satire, and hope. Making dark comedy out of modern politics is in many ways a natural reaction, but usually there’s a quality of despair to it. To poke the heaving mess that is modern politics while remaining warm-hearted, and able to encourage people to hope for the best, is an incredible achievement. We need more of this sort of thing.

On the second read, the third volume had me in tears. Not over the overtly sad bits, or the twizzly bits, but over a long passage about the importance of hope and how to live well. Life at the moment can feel like a desert where hope is just a dead thing whose bones you can see. But, in the Magical Dales, hope is alive and well, and waiting to be found.

Commercialmass is looming as I write this blog. If you need to gift someone with something good, do consider getting this set – it’s beautiful stuff, with gorgeous illustrations, giggles/chickles (did I mention a language to learn?) the routine puncturing of officious pomposity, crumlush creatures, and hope. Lots of hope. It is a series you can read repeatedly, and that stands up to close inspection, without tidying itself up too neatly – I always feel a bit cheated by that. The books leave you with plenty to wonder about, while also providing a very satisfying sort of read.

More here about Phil and Jacqui Lovesey’s Matlock the Hare  – http://www.matlockthehare.com/


Shapeshifting into Higher Consciousness

 

I must confess this is a book I’ve known about for ages and not picked up because I assumed it would be too New Age for me. However, reading bits of articles from Llyn Roberts, and hearing some of her youtube videos, I realised I’d very likely made a mistake. So I spent the weekend reading this one.

Shapeshifting, is essentially a magical way of talking about change. Changing ourselves, our outlook, our perspective and changing what we do and how we are in the world as a consequence. Llyn offers an array of tools from Shamanic cultures to help the reader do this. It’s a very readable book, the exercises are very usable – you can pick out odd ones, or work with them as a more deliberate project.

There are a number of things I particularly liked.

Firstly this is a book full of interesting meditation work. I get bored silly, and frustrated, when meditation is presented just as emptying your mind and observing your thoughts. I like creative approaches, and this has them in abundance. There are some really innovative guided meditations here, and the kind of work that can take a person from meditation into true journeying. There’s also guidance for facilitating the meditations for groups, which is rare and valuable content.

Secondly, the author draws on shamanic traditions from all over the world, and does so clearly from a basis of having studied with many indigenous teachers. However, the result is not some kind of single amalgamated shamanism – Llyn places practices within cultures and traditions, points out differences of world view as well as similarities, and paves the way for a reader to go on and read other titles or follow up in other ways. It feels very respectful, and is certainly rich with insights, mixing more conventionally teacherly material with anecdotes from personal experience.

The third thing that really struck me is how far the core ethos of the book is from New Age thinking. It’s not about personal enlightenment, or personal gain or using your will to get everything you want. This is a book about being a conscious and responsible inhabitant of the Earth. It’s a book that supports activism, ecological and social responsibility. While there’s every encouragement to dream big and manifest your intentions, it’s also very clear that we all have a duty to do that in sustainable ways that don’t have a ghastly price tag on them that someone or something else will be obliged to pay.

I can entirely recommend this book for offering meditation material I’ve not seen anywhere else, and a responsible but also inspiring outlook on how we might all do a better job of managing our place in the world.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/shapeshifting-into-higher-consciousness


The Broken Cauldron

 

Very occasionally, a book comes into my hands that is so brilliant, so jaw droppingly, mind alteringly good that I barely know how to talk about it. This is one of those.

Lorna Smithers is a poet, and blogger. My instincts are to call her an activist and revolutionary, but this is not how she self identifies – Awenydd is the word she uses. I’ve been following her for years at Signposts in the Mist and very much enjoyed her first poetry collection Enchanting the Shadowlands.

The Broken Cauldron is a mix of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, and pieces that blend these forms. Here, myth meets literal truth, and poetic truth speaks from the past to the future. It’s a book that must be experienced, no description could do it justice.

Lorna is steeped in the mythology of the British Isles, but she comes to it with a radical perspective that will shake up what you thought you knew. There’s re-imagining of Arthurian and other mythology here that recasts the myths in a whole new way and speaks to contemporary life in ways that are startling, and disconcerting. If you don’t know the myths, I think this is still entirely readable and may be a really good place to start.

Lorna has an amazing knack for retelling these ancient stories in a way that makes them contemporary, and also gives a new perspective on the tale. Her activism and deep love of land sings through the work, her grief, rage and frustration at how we keep playing out the same toxic archetypes are powerful forces.

It’s a small book, but a mighty one. It will stay with me, it has impacted on how I think about all sorts of things, not least on reimagining what a bard might be *for* in this day and age.

Cover art by my other half, Tom Brown of copperage.deviantart.com

More information about The Broken Cauldron here – https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/publications/the-broken-cauldron/


Rhuna, The Star Child

rhunaRhuna, The Star Child by Barbara Underwood

I love the scope the internet gives me to have totally random encounters with authors and their books. I knew nothing about Barbara Underwood, or her Star Child series, but saw a shout out for bookbloggers on Twitter, and here we are and I’m part of a book tour. The book tour, you should know is  doing a giveaway. It’s for a $20 or equivalent in currency Amazon Gift Card and you can find that here – https://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/bf633057100/

Diving into a series is never going to be the ideal way to start. However, Rhuna, The Star Child was an entirely readable book and the author drip feeds backstory in a way that helps someone in my position get orientated, without (I think) annoying a reader who already knows what’s going on.

I think in essence this is New Age fiction – its historical fantasy set in ancient Egypt with an idealised culture called the Atlans floating about doing strange magical and technological things. I infer that Atlans will turn out to be Atlantians. All the glorious crazy Atlantis ideas work so much better in fiction than in the MBS section, and makes for great escapist speculative reading.

There are a number of things that particularly appealed to me. The main character – Rhuna – is mixed race, and a mum. She has a small child and a teenage child. So she’s trying to save people and thwart evil plots and be part of a household, and this is great. She’s not an exception, either – although this is a culture with definite gender divisions in it, women are active and able to participate in meaningful ways. This is a world in which people seeking power is a major problem, but we’re given a heroine who does not want to use her unique powers and skills to advance herself. I’m excited to see this more egalitarian thinking in a story.

At the outset, the story seemed like one of those straight down the middle good versus evil setups. To my delight, as the tale progresses, it becomes more complex, more uneasy. Bad guys turn out to have good qualities. Good guys turn out to be more ambivalent figures than we’d first thought. The idealised Atlan state may be a lot more colonial and dictatorial than is really a good idea. Attitudes to race, power, identity and culture sneak into the mix, and what looked idyllic starts to seem hypocritical and suspect. It leaves a lot of room for the story to develop in future books.
If you’re looking for alternative speculative fiction, and a plot that isn’t about people seeking power, check it out.

Here’s some blurb:  This thrilling sequel to Rhuna: Crossroads is set in mystical Ancient Egypt where Black Magic was developed by the followers of the legendary villain, The Dark Master. As strange and frightening curses plague the population, Rhuna discovers the underground organization that performs this uncanny new magic, but she can only combat it with the help of her long-lost father. Having learned from her father amazing new skills to empower her on the Astral Plane, Rhuna once again strives to preserve peace and harmony in the idyllic Atlan civilization. Far more challenging than fighting powerful Dark Forces, however, is Rhuna’s personal anguish when her daughter becomes involved with the leader of the Black Magic movement, and the once-perfect Atlan society based on utopian principles begins to crumble all around her. Shocking events escalate Rhuna’s world to a breathless climax as she and her family undergo a momentous upheaval, and she is forced to make great personal sacrifices for her loved ones.

Website: http://www.rhunafantasybooks.com/-the-books.html

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01ANDQ73W/ref=series_rw_dp_sw

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30301577-rhuna-the-star-child

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/609503


The stories that keep hold

There are a number of stories about stories so powerful that they echo through time. Such tales speak to our belief in the power of myth, and our willingness to believe that a tale closely associated with a place, or events rooted in the distant past, can keep a hold that influences the present. Alan Garner’s ‘The Owl Service’ is one such tale, where Welsh myths keep replaying themselves in the same valley, drawing in new people to take on the three leading roles, usually with tragic consequences.

Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Castle D’Or’ does something similar with the Tristan and Isolde myth, capturing two young people in the same story, such that it overpowers their lives, and destroys them. These tales are distinctly different from updates and retellings, which play out the themes in different contexts. What’s important here is the way landscape and story combined are able to recreate themselves – perhaps because the original protagonists are fated to reincarnate in the same spot and keep playing it out, or because the story and place draw new players in.

Elen Sentier’s new novel – Owl Woman – makes a fascinating addition to this kind of tale. The characters in her story live in a village that is both protected and defined by some rather curious stories about where the water comes from. Here, the people are aware of their story, and are, for the greater part, active participants in a process of keeping the myth happy and well behaved. When that balance is lost, some of the darker and more dangerous parts of the story start to replay themselves, and there’s a real risk that it will take a number of deaths to restore the balance. Despite what the title may suggest, this is not a Blodeuwedd related myth, but something unique to the landscape in which it is set.

There’s a power in stories that are tied to landscapes in this way. What Elen’s novel suggests to me is that these stories exist because they represent something of how we are supposed to interact with the land. If we remember the stories about how to live in a place, we can live peacefully there. If we forget those stories, or ignore them, we can set off the cascade of bad things that happen when you don’t respect the place.

As a relevant aside, I listened to Neil Gaiman talking (on youtube) about experts trying to figure out how we could keep nuclear waste sites safe for the tens of thousands of years it would take for them to stop being dangerous. The verdict, was myths. The most enduring thing we might use to help distant descendants whose culture and language is not the same as ours, to deal with the dangers we leave, is to leave them stories. That said, given the total disinterest most modern humans have in stories about what it is a really bad idea to do, I’m not sure this would work.

Owl Woman is a really engaging tale with a large cast of characters, both heroic and less so. I greatly enjoyed it. On one level it’s a mug of cocoa and cold winter’s afternoon sort of book. On another level, it’s a passionate case for ancestral wisdom, for respecting what’s handed down and respecting the land you live on.


Journey Back to the Great Before

This book came to me with the request that I review it for the blog, so, here we go… It’s a children’s book, 400 plus pages with charming illustrations, so more for your advanced reader than a cautious one.

My thoughts as I started reading, were about how much I would have loved this book as a child. I struggled to find things to read – rapidly too good a reader for books that were allegedly age appropriate, but not really equal to the emotional content and assumptions about knowledge that go with more adult books. This is a clever, wordy, book, emotionally pitched to be suitable for children. So if you’ve got a clever kid who still needs space to be a child, this is for them.

In terms of themes, the book handles our relationship with the rest of the natural world. It does this through an adventure story with talking animals in it. On the whole, it’s closer to Animal Farm, Watership Down and Matlock the Hare than to the fluffy animal stories that dominate children’s literature. That creatures eat creatures is not ignored. It’s a book about re-enchantment, and about getting over human arrogance to re-establish a more healthy and realistic relationship with the natural world.

Along the way, the tale is funny, surreal, magical, charming, full of unexpected things, and generally entertaining. It provokes some serious thinking, without being preachy, and the characters – human and animal – are well rounded.  Once I got into it, I had trouble putting it down.

The story features one thing I tend to find annoying – a prophecy. At the beginning it is pretty much laid out as to what the family are going to have to do. Initially, this put me off. However, the challenges they face are unexpected even though we’ve been told what’s coming – it’s the shape and nature of the challenges that really matters here. Even though it’s fairly obvious where the plot is going, how it gets there is not, and as a consequence, it’s very readable. Younger readers may be reassured by the way in which the apparent peril is flagged up as not being entirely fatal ahead of time. My child self would have been spared many an anxious and restless night by this.

It’s a particularly good book for Pagan children, who will no doubt enjoy the magical possibilities, and the underlying philosophy. Put it on your reading list after Narnia, and before Lord of the Rings.