Tag Archives: novel

Miserere – a review

 

Miserere, by Teresa Frohock is a fantastic fantasy novel. At risk of a little bit of spoilering, I’d like to explain what happened to me as I read the first few chapters…

Chapter one… ah, Catholic mediaeval fantasy with angels and demons and Latin, and prayers as spells and all that.

Chapter two: Why are we in the present day? Is this a portal story? Then where/when were we before? This is not what I thought it was.

Chapter three: This world building is very exciting.

And from that point I had a great deal of trouble putting it down.

There were a number of things I particularly liked about this book. I immediately loved the fact that of the four main characters, three are middle aged. They’ve already lived and loved and made terrible mistakes and done problematic things to each other and they are messy and flawed and very real. As a middle aged reader, it’s rather pleasing to have some middle aged fantasy action.

Of the four main characters, three are women. Two are middle aged women, and one is a child. They all kick ass.

There’s some wonderful background content about religious diversity. That made me very happy.

Horses have names. People care about them. They are not disposable modes of transport.

The writing is excellent – this is an author with a strong and distinctive voice, able to craft powerful turns of phrase, to capture scenes in a few lines and to quickly give a sense of character. The pacing is excellent.

I shall be seeking out more books from this author, she offers the blend of escapism and relevance in her work that I crave. The fantasy side is suitably fantastic, the human and emotional side of the story is potent and full of truth.

You can find out more about Miserere here – https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Miserere/Teresa-Frohock/9781597802895

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The Pre-Programming – a review

I read and reviewed The Automation – part one of the Circo del Herrero series back in the summer. Volume 2 is now out and honestly it blows the first novel out of the water. I really enjoyed the first book, but volume 2 achieves whole new levels. It’s also nigh on impossible to talk about the plot without spoilers for the first book.

This is a modern set fantasy in which Vulcan (the God) has automata running around in the human world causing trouble and adventure. You do not need to know your Greek or Roman Gods to get in here and enjoy the tale. You can’t start with volume 2 though. You really have to begin and the beginning with this series or you will be utterly lost. This is a complicated reality with a lot of ideas in it, and you need to get in and appreciate some of those ideas before you have them taken apart for you.

Volume 2 picks up the plot threads from volume one, laughs at you, and runs off in a whole selection of new directions. Nothing makes me happier as a reader than a well crafted story that I cannot predict. This is one of those. Twisty doesn’t begin to describe it. I was entirely surprised, repeatedly. Plot shapes suggested by volume 1 crumbled. Characters died. Agendas were revealed to be other than expected. No one was quite who I thought they were. By the end of book 2 it looks like the real plot has emerged, and now we know what’s going on. I expect we’re being set up for even more massive rug pulls when volume 3 comes out.

There was one line in the FAQs at the start that stuck out for me “Because the author of this series grew up in the Bible Belt, is of indigenous descent and has a lot to say (sub-textually) in response to colonialism and literature like American Gods, for instance.” It struck me that this series (at the moment) is well worth considering as a response to American Gods and that looking back at American Gods with this in mind, I now feel quite uneasy. And also happy to feel uneasy in retrospect.

I heartily recommend this series, it is knowing, funny, provocative, full of surprises. I wait impatiently for the next instalment. Find out more at circodelherreroseries.com


Lord of the Wyrde Woods – a review

Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrde are two books but between them are one story so I’m reviewing them as a pair – their collective title is Lord of the Wyrde Woods. You have to read them in the right order and the first one doesn’t stand alone.

It’s been a while since an author has so completely captured my imagination. Neverland is a rundown area, with a facility for young people who have already fallen through the cracks. Narrator Wenn is one such young person. She’s had an awful life full of monstrous betrayals and setbacks, and she is as bitter and angry as you might expect. One of the threads in this book is the story of her learning to trust again and open her heart. It is the woods that she first lets in, and then the people associated with the woods. The story about learning to become a fully functioning human when reality has beaten you down, is a powerful one.

Going into the woods offers Wenn respite from the miseries of her daily life. What she finds there is enchantment. Most of this is the kind of enchantment any of us could find by getting out into greener places around us. There were obvious parallels to be drawn with Mythago Wood, but where Holdstock’s vision tells us the magic is largely unavailable, Nils Visser does the opposite. He invites us to see our surroundings in these terms, too. These novels are an invitation to magic, and to personal re-enchantment.

The story itself weaves folklore and history together around a series of locations. There’s a fair smattering of radical politics, and a fair amount of paganism, too. The story places human narratives in a landscape, and does so to powerful effect. The tale itself is full of magical possibility, but it’s also startling, sometimes devastating, haunting and full of surprises. If you enjoy the kinds of things I blog about, these books are for you and I think you’ll find much to love in them.

This is a story about how important it is to have stories about your landscape. It is through stories that we stop seeing places as so much scenery and start to have a more involved relationship with them. Those can be mythic and folkloric stories, they can be historical, and they can be personal. They can also be the stories we imagine of what would happen somewhere like this.  The process of learning and creating stories, and storying yourself into a landscape is a powerful one, beautifully illustrated in this novel.

I loved these books so very much. I heartily recommend them.

You can find Nils’s work on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nils-Nisse-Visser/e/B00OK5RMSY


Book excerpt – The Bed

Today, an excerpt from Laura Perry’s Novel, The Bed, which I have previously reviewed on this blog – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/witchlit-and-spiral-nature/

“I don’t know,” Liz said in a tired voice as she ran her fingers along the rim of the trunk. “I guess I was hoping for something more exciting. You know, secret treasure.” She looked around at the mess that filled her small living room. “I guess we should clean up now.”

She hefted a stack of books and rose up into a half-squat to put them back into the trunk, but her fatigued body refused to cooperate. She lost her balance and ended up flinging the pile roughly into the trunk as she fell sideways onto the floor.

“You need food,” Olivia intoned. “We should stop for lunch. It’s past noon.”

Liz nodded in agreement, glad for the opportunity to distance herself from the bizarre books and papers and the uncomfortable feelings that went with them, if only for a few minutes. But as she heaved herself up off the floor to head for the kitchen, she glanced into the trunk and stopped short. The stack of books she had thrown in now sat askew in the container, pressing down on one end of the trunk floor while the other end stuck up at an angle.

“Oh shit, I broke it.” She stooped to examine the damage and saw that the base of the trunk was, in fact, unharmed. When the books slammed into the trunk, they tilted a false floor that revealed a hidden compartment beneath. “Would you look at this!”

Olivia pressed next to her and leaned over the trunk. “And you were complaining that you hadn’t found anything exciting.” She elbowed her friend then began to lift out the tattered volumes Liz had just tossed in, setting them on the floor nearby.

With renewed energy, Liz knelt next to the trunk and pulled the false bottom out. The two women sucked air. Filling the no-longer-hidden compartment was a collection of small items of many different shapes and sizes, all neatly wrapped in white fabric.

Liz reached for the objects then drew her hand back. With narrowed eyes she gazed around the room at the jumbled piles of books and papers, then looked at her friend. “Do you really think this stuff is black magic?”

Olivia folded her arms across her chest. “I can’t believe Liz Summons is scared of a bunch of old crap in a trunk. This thing belonged to a university professor, not some wild Voodoo priest. You’re supposed to be the adventurous one, remember?”

Without thinking, Liz glanced toward her bedroom then back at the trunk, twisting her ring all the while.

“You know,” Olivia said, her voice tense, “you could take that off if you want.”

Liz stiffened, let go of the ring, and turned back to the trunk. “Let’s see what this stuff is.”

It took them just a few moments to lift all the fabric-covered objects out of the trunk and set them side by side on the floor.

More information about the book here – http://www.lauraperryauthor.com/the-bed


Tommy Catkins – a review

Tommy Catkins is the new novel from Stephen Palmer, whose Factory Girl Trilogy I was very taken with. It’s a story that mixes history and fantasy, and does not encourage you to feel confident about what’s real, and what’s delusion brought on by trauma.

The central character – Tommy – is a massive enigma. The odds seem good that his name is not really Tommy Catkins at all. He’s lied about his age. He doesn’t remember a lot of what happened to him. He doesn’t know if he’s mad, or too afraid to go back to the trenches. He doesn’t know if what he sees in the puddles and river are real, or manifestations from his own broken mind. In some senses he’s an everyboy, all the kids who signed up to fight in the First World War, and who paid with their minds and bodies. There are hints about a personal background, but we’re never allowed to see it, we can only wonder. The story keeps us very much on the outside of his experiences, which of course we are bound to be, because we weren’t there, and we don’t understand.

For me what was most interesting about the story is the way is catches shifts in mental health understanding. Up until the First World War, mental anguish was often treated as a female issue – hysteria – and not taken very seriously. The impact of shell shock on officers and men alike changed public and medical attitudes to the issue of trauma. We went from shooting men for cowardice to taking their broken nerves seriously. The novel explores some of the appalling methods that were attempted as ‘cures’ and the pressure to get sick men back to the front. The idea that mental anguish in face of experience might be the root cause, not a physical reaction, is something the book explores.

This isn’t a comfortable read. It’s a haunting and deeply uneasy book that won’t offer you tidy solutions. If you’re looking for uncomplicated escapism, this isn’t it, but it is a book that can speak in some unsettling ways to that urge for escapism.


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/


This Fragile Life – a review

This is an incredibly emotionally intense novel. It’s contemporary, set in the real world and is not fantastical in any way. It’s a book that explores the human heart and psyche with a mix of razor sharp insight and compassion.

Martha, after five rounds of failed IVF treatment is coming to terms with the idea that she is never going to have children. Martha is a successful business woman with a classy flat and a nice husband and from the outside she looks like she has it all. High School friend Alex didn’t get (or want) the snazzy college place or the high powered job – she works in a cafe part time and teaches art to disadvantaged kids. She has no money, no healthcare, and a tiny home. Alex is pregnant, and Alex does not think she has what it takes to be a decent mum. And so how could she refuse Martha’s suggestion that she give her baby to her friend?

Nothing, it turns out, is that simple. This is a tough story, and while avoiding spoilers, I will say that it made me cry, a lot.

There are lots of themes here. Poverty and privilege. What makes a good parent. What giving birth looks like when you’re dealing with private health care and have no insurance. What success means and what good relationships require. No one in this story is how they first seem. Some of them act terribly, or think really awful things. As you find out more about who they are and where they come from, many of those things make more sense. This is a story about how wounding is passed down through families and how hard it is to break out of family patterns of behaviour. It’s a story that makes clear that we do all have the power to choose and that none of us are obliged to keep repeating the things in our histories.

Events in this story bring out the best and worst in people. It’s a tale that demonstrates our capacity to grow and change, that we can all decide to be better than we were and that we may all have qualities we won’t know about until tested. Do we pull apart under stress, or prop each other up?

If you’re feeling fragile, this may not be a book for you – but it may also be cathartic. It’s well written, and it has a great deal to offer.

 

 


Grey Sister – review

Grey Sister is the second book is a fantasy series by Mark Lawrence. If you’ve not already read Red Sister – the first book, I strongly recommend starting there.  (You can get it all the places that do books, here’s one of them https://www.bookdepository.com/Red-Sister-Mark-Lawrence )

This is a narrative that revolves around a group of young women training to be nuns. Some of them will be warrior nuns – Red Sisters, and some of them will be Sisters of Discretion (I leave you to imagine) some will focus on magic, and some will do religion. This story plays out on a freezing world whose sun is dying. A technological moon reflects what sun there is, in order to keep a narrow band at the equator ice-free. The moon is falling, people are fighting over the scraps and dreaming of miracles.

This is a world that has been imagined in great detail, but you will never be bogged down in those details. It is a world in which women are powerful agents for change, and the story itself revolves around the actions and adventures of a handful of young women. I absolutely revelled in this; it’s so rare to read high fantasy in which women get to dominate the pages like this. Mark Lawrence’s women are allowed to be all things. Some are heroic, some political, some nasty and plotty, some mean and spiteful, some kind and generous. Many are complex people with multiple motivating forces acting on them. None of them exist as prizes to be won. They rescue each other.

However, the thing I love most about this setting is how the magic works. Too often, when fantasy magic is described in other books, it becomes dull and mechanical. There’s often no mystery in fantasy magic, no sense of awe, or wonder. The magic in Grey Sister builds on what we encountered in the first book. It is wild and unruly magic. It does have rules, but it reminds me a bit of learning about physics. You start out at school with gravity and pressure and things that make sense and you can relate to. Then you advance into more disorientating territory. This is what magic in Grey Sister is like. We did the basic magic physics in the first book, now we’re doing things that are like the way space time blurs and quantum and string theory makes most of us confused. Whole new levels of reality are revealed to us.

Except the magic also isn’t at all like this because it is felt and breathed and lived and alive and in everything and makes intuitive sense and sings to my animist heart.

Mark Lawrence is an author of rare skill. His characters are complicated, well rounded, engaging people. This is an author who understands people – at their best and worst – and knows how to create scenarios that naturally would bring the best and worst of people to the surface. His world building is vast and well considered and full of glorious detail, while never turning into history or geography lessons. We learn about this world by seeing people trying to live in it. His prose is snappy and sharp and laced through with humour. He knows how to keep you turning the pages. But then at the end when you look back, you’ll see the richness of it. Too many page turners leave me feeling hollow at the end. This is not one of those. He’s one of my favourite authors.

Now I have to wait for the next one, and that’s going to be the difficult bit.

More Grey Sister here – https://www.bookdepository.com/Grey-Sister-Mark-Lawrence/


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 – https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00LXGSP8Y/ref=series_dp_rw_ca_1  

 


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 – http://www.jezlowe.com/products-page/