Tag Archives: book

Hopeless Maine Sinners – a review

Rather than me writing a book review this week, I thought I’d send you over to a review for my most recent graphic novel, Hopeless Maine – Sinners. It would be fair to say that this isn’t a review from a neutral and objective source.

Meredith is a contributor to The Hopeless Vendetta  she performed on stage with us last year when we were involved in Stroud Book Festival, she’s been a test player for the game and is going to more involved in Hopeless things in the future. She’s one of the people I write for.

There’s always a certain amount of urge to like a friend’s book, and to review it kindly. However, there’s also a different process, where we come to love people because we love their work. If you enter into a relationship with anyone else’s creativity, that will inform how you talk about what they do. To be neutral and objective is to be on the outside of a story, and maybe that’s not the best outcome.

You can read Meredith’s review here – https://meredithdebonnaire.wordpress.com/2018/07/12/book-review-hopeless-maine-sinners-by-tom-and-nimue-brown/

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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/


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/


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


Welcome to Night Vale – a review

I started listening to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast about three months ago, and am about 90 episodes in at time of writing. Night Vale is an imaginary small town somewhere in a desert that exists in some kind of vague relationship with America. The podcast brings us Night Vale’s community radio station, and through that we become complicit in the life of the town.

Night Vale is a strange and troubled place, full of weird magic, inexplicable science, sinister rituals, and a vague yet menacing government agency. Learn about the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home, learn to fear wheat, and wheat by-products, learn where the badly hidden microphone in your house is in case you ever need to contact the secret police. If you can appreciate the humour of this sort of thing, Night Vale is a good place to conceptually take up residence.

The book of Welcome to Night Vale – written by Joseph Fink and Jeffry Cranor, who also write the podcast –  is just as prone to twisted whimsy as the podcast. It is odd, endearing, largely absurd and I very much enjoyed it. I was very aware, reading it, that this is a book which got into print because the podcast was already successful. It is hard to imagine an unknown writing team pitching a project like this and getting it picked up. Night Vale in book form breaks pretty much every writing rule I’ve ever seen written down, and probably a great many more that I haven’t. But, because it shares tone and style with the internationally popular podcast, it hasn’t been edited into conformity. It hasn’t been rejected as too weird, too difficult to market. Bean counters have not tutted over how hard it is to pitch something like this where there’s really no obvious audience…

Welcome to Night Vale is a triumph of creativity over the banality haunting ‘creative’ industries. It demonstrates that people with real ideas and imagination can find listeners and readers, and that the buying public does not simply want things that look pretty much like the things it already has. They’ve built something amazing here, and they’ve built it with love, and grass roots support, and it cheers me greatly to find that this is possible.

Night Vale makes me think a bit of strange, medieval tarot cards. (Bear with me). You look at the cards, and the things people are doing on said cards, and it all seems preposterous. This may in itself entertain you. However, pause for a moment, and think a little bit, and all kinds of relevance starts to appear. Because there’s something in the nature of it that allows you to project onto it, and see aspects of yourself, your life, your town, your country reflected there. What you make of that is very much up to you.

More about Night Vale here – http://www.welcometonightvale.com/

 


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 – http://burningeye.bigcartel.com/product/the-sustainable-nihilist-s-handbook-by-jonny-fluffypunk

 

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 – http://burningeye.bigcartel.com/product/poundland-rimbaud

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.


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 – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Path-Celtic-Buddhism-initiation-forgotten/dp/1978178077


Pagan Prayer

This is an excerpt from When a Pagan Prays. I started out exploring prayer as an intellectual idea, and discovered that the only way I was going to make any sense of it was by doing it. The book was a result of more than a year of exploration. It was a really interesting process that had a huge impact on me. It also made me realise that I didn’t want to continue shaping my personal practice around things I might later be able to write a book about.

“First and foremost, to stand before the unknown is to recognise the existence of the unknown. That which is bigger than we are. That which transcends our understanding. Prayer is an act of opening awareness that puts our small lives into important perspective. Most of the time we need to protect these fragile, human minds by not letting them be swamped with how much there is outside of us. We tune out far more sensory information than we allow into our conscious awareness. However, it benefits us to drop that defence now and then, to consider the terrifying, glorious enormity of it all. Death. Infinity. Eternity. You might call it deity, you might not. Of course our human natures want the enormity to wear a friendly face, pat us gently on the head and say, “Well done, keep up the good work.” Of course we want mystery to be on a manageable, human scale. This is why we like to give bits of it names, beards, clothing preferences and stories. Religion is all about making the unimaginable possible to engage with. Prayer is all about letting go of those stories again to try to encounter what we cannot hope to
comprehend,

I cannot tell you what it means to stand in that place of awareness for a few seemingly bright seconds. I’d love to say it’s like this familiar thing, or that other thing you do, and bring it down to a more mundane level. If I did that, I wouldn’t be telling you what it is like. We go there for ourselves, or not at all.

I’m conscious that I am barely skimming the surface of mystery and that many others will have gone far deeper in their quests. I have only deliberately worked with prayer for about a year now. I have an advantage in that nearly two decades’ worth of meditation work have given me some mental discipline and I know how to open my mind a bit. I can be still and quiet. It also helps that I can shift fairly easily from dealing with the mundane, to states of mind appropriate for ritual and trance. I find those same sorts of mental states are necessary for prayer.

What I struggle to do, is to remain in that place of openness to mystery for more than very short bursts. My psyche simply cannot maintain it, and I recognise there may be very good reasons not to go too far, anyway. Practice is no doubt key here, returning over and over to a deliberate opening up, and listening, to glimpse some fleeting thing and fall away again. It feels very much as though I am breaking my mind open. Perhaps if I managed to do this all at once, my reason would not survive the experience. I am here to live in this world, not to gaze continuously at something else. It is absolutely essential therefore that I crack myself open gently, slowly and with care. Not just to avoid madness, but because I think there are other processes happening here and I suspect time is needed for those.”

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/when-pagan-prays


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


The Life & Times of Algernon Swift

The first time I met Bill Jones was in the Stroud High Street, where he tried to sell me a pun. The pun in question was on a postcard. Since then, I’ve followed Bill round a fair bit – well around Stroud at any rate. He gigs more widely but I’m not an especially dedicated stalker. He does performance misery that often turns out to be strangely amusing. And now, this. The Life & Times of Algernon Swift.

This is a small novel, so heavily illustrated and possessed of word balloons that it is classified as a graphic novel. The illustrations are all black ink, which works well for all the comments about colour in the landscape. Bill is very good at catching moods – gloom, anxiety, perplexedness, worry… as Algernon Swift nervously makes his way through a cloudy world.

The cover warns that the book contains over 200 puns. Readers of a delicate disposition need to be aware of the dangers. I hurt myself reading this book – my sides, mostly. Some peculiar and unexpected noises came out of my face while reading – hooting, snorting sounds of amusement, and a fair sprinkling of punished groans. (For reasons of decency I am limiting myself to just the one pun in this review, and that was it.)

If you like whimsy and wordplay, and have a decent tolerance level for double meanings, and were not viciously bitten by a pun at a tender age, this may be just the thing for you.

You can find it here on amazon, and no doubt other places as well.