Tag Archives: review

The Dirigible King’s Daughter – a review

When Alys West guest blogged with me recently about living tradition (https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2019/06/13/referencing-the-tradition-by-alys-west/) she mentioned a Steampunk novel, so I asked for a review copy.

The Dirigible King’s Daughter is a steampunk romance and I liked it as a romance because it deviates from the usual story shape in some interesting ways. We know from early on that the protagonists are in love with each other – it’s never really in doubt, but it’s more a case of whether love is enough and what it might cost them. This is a question I’d like to see asked more often- I think the assumption that love will always be enough is a harmful one that needs challenging.

On the steampunk side, there’s enough action, adventure, dirigibles and other technology to cheerfully tick all those boxes. There’s also (which is really important to me) a political aspect to it. It’s not all titled people having jolly adventures. Alys has things to say about class and the way in which wealth impacts on how people are treated. She also has a lot to say about gender politics, both historical and by implication, contemporary.

What really caught me off guard though was the emotional intensity of the book when it came to the main character’s backstory – which you slowly piece together heading towards the reveals near the end. No spoilers from me! There turned out to be a number of difficult subjects in this book, handled with empathy that resulted in something both moving and engaging.

I usually don’t pick up books in which a female protagonist is defined in the title purely in relationship to a man. I made an exception for this one, and I’m glad I did, because the story is very much about dealing with the implications the central character – Harriet – has to deal with from having been defined to herself and others by her father’s actions. This is a story about a young lady taking control of her life and emerging from beneath the long shadow her father has cast, it is about becoming someone other than The Dirigible King’s Daughter, and I very much liked that about it.

You can read the first 2 chapters here – https://alyswest.com/the-dirigible-kings-daughter/tdkd-sample-v2/

Or find the book on Amazon –  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dirigible-Kings-Daughter-Alys-West/dp/0993288677

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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


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


Faery Godmother Oracle Cards – a review

I was sent Flavia Kate Peter’s Faery Godmother oracle cards to review. I’m fond of oracle cards, although I’ve noticed over the years the whether they work depends a lot on whether they chime with your life stage. I reviewed a set elsewhere last year that assumed the total spiritual inexperience of the user and I didn’t find much of any help in those! Figuring out who a set is for, and whether you are that person is often the challenge.

I’ve been using these cards for a few weeks now, pulling one of an evening and seeing what it gives me. They’ve been remarkably predictive. I usually take oracle cards as an opportunity to look inside my own head, but these have, unexpectedly, been flagging up things to come in the day or two after reading them.

These are cards for a person who is trying to figure themselves out. I think they’re most relevant for someone going through a life change. I think they’re ideal for teens for that reason. As an often confused menopausal life form, I found them relevant, and good food for thought.

Mostly what these cards do is invite you to look at how you interpret what you experience, and how you choose to behave. There’s guidance here to steer you towards self knowledge, recognition of what you could be, kindness to others, and ways of being a better sort of human.  That’s another reason to put them in the hands of teenagers. I like the underpinning belief that we have a lot of control over our thoughts and actions and that we can indeed choose the people we want to be by choosing to change how we think and act.

 

 

If art is key in your oracle card choices, you’ll need to look at the images to decide. Helpful flip through here –

 

I can’t say the art really did it for me, but I enjoyed using the cards nonetheless. When I pulled the card ‘wishes’ and the text asked me what I really wished for, I had a moment of realising that for all that faery godmother oracles are charming, what I really want, is to be able to get in there and be a faery godmother for other people!

More about the cards here – https://www.barbarameiklejohnfree.com/product/new-faery-godmother-oracle-cards/ 


Quiet – a review

Quiet, by Susan Cain, reviewed by Guest Blogger Stephen Palmer

There is a difference between extrovert and introvert, but it’s not the difference most people think of when they hear those descriptions. The standard view is of party animals versus non-party animals. Dorothy Rowe explained that extroverts feel a more real outer world, and are uncomfortable with being on their own since their inner world is more insubstantial, whereas introverts feel a more real inner world, and are often uncomfortable in the hurly burly of social life. Introverts can be happy in times of solitude: extroverts alone feel a void inside themselves, and seek company.

This is one useful explanation, given by a master of the field. Susan Cain’s equivalent in her remarkable book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking is based around the concept of sensitivity, which is in the main a biologically determined quality. We all have different types of brains. Our brains, linked to our many senses, operate at various levels of sensitivity – introverts tend towards maximal sensitivity, extroverts towards the norm, or less.

“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic… They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive… They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments – both physical and emotional – unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss – another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”

When I was younger I wondered for a long time why I was so different to most of my friends and colleagues in this regard, and it all comes down to my high level of introversion. In fact I got a triple dose – one dose from each parent, plus being right-brained. That’s a hell of a lot of introversion to have to cope with.

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

Is this starting to ring some bells with you…? Then you’re an introvert, and you should stop trying to fit in with the extrovert world that we have in the West. (One of the most interesting chapters in Quiet is the one contrasting the Western ideal of extroversion with the Eastern ideal of introversion – although there is more to it than that dichotomy.) Susan Cain is strong and determined in her critique of Western extrovert standards:

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

Many people in the literary world will grasp all this; we literate types are quiet thinkers. If you feel likewise, then Quiet is for you.

The book is split into four sections. The first deals with what Susan Cain calls the extrovert ideal, and this is done mostly from an American perspective. Part two deals with the tricky subject of nature versus nurture – biology versus self, but also the role of free will in changing behaviour, and the roles of risk and reward. Examples given include the Roosevelts and Warren Buffett. Part three is a single chapter on Asian-Americans and how they deal with the American cultural standard of high sociability and constant conversation. Part four deals with strategies for the introvert, and for the extroverts who live with them.

This book is also great because it features some brilliant and pithy quotes:

“Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe”

“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”

Another crucial aspect of this book is Susan Cain’s separation of shyness and introversion, which many people use as interchangeable concepts. But they’re not:

“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.”

In a nutshell, for anybody who has gone through social hell or even just anxiety, and who wonders why they feel exhausted at the end of a whirl of socialising – even if that’s spending time with friends or family in the most relaxed of circumstances – this is the book for you. It made a big difference in my own life, as I was finally able to explain a few of my own puzzling character traits. Understanding introversion is the first step on the road to coping with it. I spent a long time not coping, but, luckily, now I do.

“Now that you’re an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much”, a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral. Or maybe there’s another word for such people: thinkers.”

This was for me one of the most inspirational of books. It was given to me completely out of the blue by a friend of mine. I still thank him for that kindness when occasionally I see him.

 

 


The Weight of Expectation – a review

This is a very small, very powerful comic. Writer Oli Williams and illustrator Jade Sarson explore how stigma associated with bodyweight and size impacts on people. The visual storytelling here is brilliant, and gives a real sense of an experience that is felt in the flesh.

I did not find this an easy read, and at the same time, I found it enormously helpful. I’ve dealt with fat shaming and body loathing my whole life. I saw something of my own experiences reflected here. That was both painful and cathartic. At the moment, I’m about the smallest I’ve ever been, and as someone small enough to buy regular high street clothes I know that I effectively have more thin privilege than not. But at the same time, like some of the characters in this comic, the words of fatness are written into my flesh through years of struggle, and I cannot look at my own body without seeing that.

One of the things I really love about Jade’s work here, is her ability to depict large people without making them grotesque or ridiculous. The idea that people are intrinsically loveable, that human bodies are loveable and acceptable is a theme I see reoccurring in her work and I am deeply glad of it.

More about The Weight of Expectation here – http://teahermit.co.uk/


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/


Ghosting for Beginners – a review

Ghosting for Beginners is a poetry collection by Anna Saunders. I first encountered Anna about a month ago when she read at Piranha Poetry in Stroud. So I put up a hand to review her new anthology.

There’s great delicacy and precision in Anna’s writing. I very much like that about her work. If she talks about a walk, a day, a bird, it doesn’t seem like a generic one conjured up to make a point, but something specific and individual. She writes a lot about encounters between humans and nature, or humans in the context of nature.

There are a lot of ghosts in the collection. The title of the anthology comes from a poem of the same name about the modern oddity that is ghosting – when people disappear out of other people’s social media lives, usually in a dating context. It’s not the bravest way of breaking up with someone. Many of the other ghosts are more traditional hauntings. These, set alongside poems about extinction and climate change meant that for me, the collection had threads of loss and grief all the way through it. I read it as a deeply haunted piece of work – and I think the title of the collection is an invitation to do just that.

There’s also just a whisper of humour running through these poems. A ghost of a smile, if you will. A feeling that this is an author who can laugh at themselves and who has a keen sense of the absurdity in many situations.

If you hop over to the publisher’s website – http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/anna-saunders-gfb/4594255832 – you can read a selection of poems from the collection. What’s here is a good representation of the book as a whole, and if it speaks to you, you can dive right in and buy a copy. Which I can certainly recommend you consider doing.


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


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.