Archive for Reviews

‘Intuitive Magic Practice’ by Natalia Clarke

There’s so many books out there on ‘how’ to explore your own magic. What made this one stand out to me was the word ‘Intuitive’ – which is pretty much how I’ve worked for many years now!

Natalia speaks honestly and clearly about how to ‘reclaim your voice’. From discovering how your intuition feels, to allowing yourself to be guided by it, she uses anecdotes and advice from her own experience – not telling the reader what to do, but encouraging them in what they may have already been doing! People speak of ‘returning’ to Paganism, and this absolutely reinforces practices that you may have played with as a child – listening to birdsong, carrying a favourite stone, being aware of the turning of the seasons and moon phases.

So much modern-day learning is intellectual that it can be hard to let yourself go and simply trust yourself and your own intuition – but that’s precisely where the magic lies. This is an excellent wee guide to reinforce a burgeoning magical practice, and simply living as a practical Pagan in a magical world.

‘Intuitive Magic Practice’ is available now as paperback or ebook here.

Visit the author’s website here.

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‘Mask of Silver’ by Rosemary Jones

After enjoying Aconyte’s previous adventure in the Arkham universe, I was keen to see what would come next. This series really does seem to be going from strength to strength, and – I’m very pleased to say – takes the work of HP Lovecraft and expands on it in ways that would probably make him retreat to his room with smelling salts.

This tale is one of 1920s-era Hollywood and our narrator is Jeany Lin, a sought-after costume designer and makeup artist for a troupe of horror movie makers. Oh, and she’s half-Oriental. And the female script-writer for their latest movie has a girlfriend. Who is – gasp! – a successful actress! Out of the way, Mr Lovecraft, the twentieth century has arrived!

Right away, Jeany is endearing to her readers. Despite the horrors that she’s seen, she is clever, exceptionally pragmatic and aware of the ‘otherworldliness’ of Hollywood compared to the realities of post-War life. She loves what she does, and the almost Repertory-theatre-like group that she works with make a close-knit family that we’re rooting for from the start.

Famous horror director Sydney Fitzmaurice is taking the group to his ancestral home just outside Arkham to work on a passion project that promises to be the scariest film of his career. Is this just studio hokum or something darker? Of course it’s the latter, but the book takes time establishing the characters and their history together, as well as the unique mood of Arkham itself and its residents. By the time doors start slamming and the cast’s nightmares affect their reality, we can no more leave than they can.

The issues of discrimination are touched upon realistically rather than heavy-handedly, and the general theme of ‘other-ness’ winds through the narrative as the uncanny events begin to ramp up. Jeany has to create the titular Mask, but most of the cast seem to wear their own just to survive anyway. The insidious magic of their location easily works its way into the monstrous movie, and we’re genuinely not sure who’ll make it out alive.

‘Mask of Silver’ is absolutely gripping, and although it’s considerably longer than any Lovecraft tale, it takes its time as needed and I was sorry to see it end. I had my favourite characters, suspicions on who was behind the devious activities, and wish to see more of the Arkham natives – who may well appear in other books in this series (I hope).

I absolutely do recommend this, for the mood of Golden Age silent movies combined with ancient unknowable evils. Magic of all kinds, and regular folks trying to survive in many ways.

I loved ‘Mask of Silver’, and am very much looking forward to the next title in this excellent series.

‘Mask of Silver’ is out now in paperback and ebook editions.

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‘Home Before Dark’, by Riley Sager

This was an interesting novel. Not least because I’d read and enjoyed some of the author’s work in the past (particularly his debut, ‘Final Girls’), but because I’d already seen a lot of good things from other reviewers. Riley Sager clearly has a love for the horror genre, so when I heard he was writing a haunted house tale, inspired by ‘The Amityville Horror’, I was keen to see his take on the theme.

Our primary narrator is Maggie, whose author father has recently died as the story opens. He wrote what she refers to as ‘The Book’ – and we soon begin to see excerpts from it, and to see why she is both affected and haunted by that overarching work.

Because Maggie is a grown-up version of the little girl from The Book itself, a ‘based on true events’ story of a family escaping from a lethal haunted house. She’s travelled through life with what became a best-seller hanging over her; it’s hard to meet anyone who doesn’t know her own story better than she does.

When she learns that she’s inherited that very house, she resolves to put her past demons to rest – and we’re off and running.

This was an enthralling read. We see Maggie exploring the house as an adult, seeing its effect – and that of The Book – on the nearby town, as well as the constant thread of basically trying to figure out if her father was telling the truth or not. Is the house haunted? What about the multiple deaths there over the years, the mysterious staff members and their daughters, and the previous living residents of the house itself?

Maggie’s explorations in the present day are interspersed with chapters from The Book, letting us ‘see’ what actually happened. Except her father may be an unreliable narrator. Or is that Maggie’s memory playing tricks?

Before I knew it, I had sped through the majority of the book (this one, not The Book) and was entering the end zone. Which is sadly where it lost me.

I felt very let down by ‘Home Before Dark’. The twisting plot-threads were excellent, but the multiple fake-outs were not. Everything is tied in a neat bow as the story closes, but that actually felt disappointing after so many mysteries; almost as if I’d have preferred the final door remained closed.

I’m actually reminded of the debate over ‘The Blair Witch Project’ original movie. Would you rather see the monster, or leave that to your own imagination?

Ultimately, for me, trying to figure the puzzle out was far more fun than what happened when the Scooby Doo villain’s mask was pulled off. I know some people will be happy with that, but after a kind of supernatural whodunnit, it was frustrating to be told that the reader had been mislead (in a manner of speaking) as much as the characters.

I doubt I’ll be rereading The Book again soon. But I bet it’ll make a great movie.

Available now from all physical and electronic bookshops.

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‘In Darkness, Shadows Breathe’, by Catherine Cavendish

NetGalley kindly provided a review copy of this book, but my opinions are my own.

Spooky hospitals seem to be their own trend in recent horror. From ‘The Ward‘ to ‘American Horror Story: Asylum‘, we’ve seen so many protagonists fight their way free of institutions that are supposed to be helping them. Perhaps timely in this crazy year?

This book takes the best of such tropes and combines them into a modern gothic tale that gripped me immediately with its spooky atmosphere, despite being set in a very mundane world – at least at first.

We initially follow Carol, a down-to-earth supermarket worker who’s flat-sitting in a posh apartment complex. But it’s adjacent to a hospital that was refurbished from a building with a much darker purpose… and soon this very 21st-century lady is being drawn back in time.

About halfway through, the action jumps to Nessa, a patient in the hospital undergoing a pretty intense operation. From the easy familiarity of Carol’s life, we suddenly find ourselves with a woman going through a traumatic fight with cancer. It’s a bit of a jarring leap, but we quickly find out what they have in common – besides strange dreams (memories?) of a filthy secret corridor echoing with screams.

I don’t want to give any more away, but a thread of uncertainty runs through the book as to whether our protagonists are hallucinating due to medication, going actually mad, or somehow really experiencing supernatural horrors that are tied up with the hospital’s history.

I enjoyed the start of this book. A brief prologue reminded me of Dennis Wheatley somewhat, before settling down into ultra-normality. Once we relate to the character, strange things start to happen, making it easy to ask what we would do in her situation. So far, so good.

The writing is beautiful and an absolute pleasure to read, with the transition from modern renal ward to Victorian squalor (or reality to Otherworld) being almost tangible.

However, the leap from one character to another is sudden and, for me, rather awkward. Nessa’s cancer treatments are focused on quite closely, and that’s a very different type of horror. When we see Carol again, I was left wondering what happened during the time we weren’t with her – because something certainly had.

The book demands a bit of work on the reader’s part, I think, to keep up with what’s going on in several deliberately confusing scenarios. Hospital staff don’t seem to act rationally, and the dreamlike quality of the ghostly scenes draws you along. It all seems to be heading for some sort of dramatic crescendo, as you think the characters have broken free to safety…

And then the book stops.

I don’t think this is a cliff-hanger, but it was shocking in the worst way. Nothing was resolved, I was left wondering what would happen next, and the commitment to both Carol and Nessa’s battles seemed wasted. It’s almost as if the author wanted a ‘Seven’-like twist, but couldn’t quite manage it.

I did enjoy the majority of this book, but it left me wanting more. I found myself making up ‘head-canon’ for the characters, because I genuinely did like them and I wanted more than the author gives. The final part of the novel appears to have vanished.

Do check this out if you like a bit of modern gothic on a dark winter night. Personally though, it left me feeling that the protagonists had checked out of the story early, as well as the hospital.

Available to pre-order on Amazon, for release mid-January 2021.

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‘Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire’, ed: Nicole Givens Kurtz

NetGalley kindly provided a review copy of this book, but my opinions are my own.

‘Slay’ is a vampire anthology unlike any I’ve read – and I’ve read quite a few! It focuses on black protagonists, with stories divided into sections based on which country they take place. This is neither all-white or all-UK/American, and is refreshingly contemporary.

This book arrived just as I was about to start a month of hospital treatments, so it became my companion every day. It’s a good-sized book, but I usually read a story or two at a time – because I often had to pause between each tale to think on what I’d just read!

The majority of these stories are excellent, really A+ writing for their original settings and memorable characters. These are far more than black caricatures; most protagonists have fully-realized histories, motivations, families and friendships sketched excellently over their limited pages. This book has a lovely undercurrent of community, with each tale managing to share space in both the supernatural world and that of the real.

At first, I actually began to not quite believe my eyes – was this an anthology with no ‘bad’ stories? The first third were all remarkable, and I’ve made notes of their authors to follow up.

But then I found a couple of chapters that seemed to have (oddly) missed out on an editor. The storylines seemed interesting, but I couldn’t get past the errors or writing style. This may be an issue with this being a review copy, but it was a shame nonetheless.

Stephen King once said that while novels were akin to a relationship, short stories were a loving kiss from writer to reader. These are kisses that I’ll remember fondly and gladly revisit.

Huge thanks to the editor who made this all happen, and the authors who shared their worlds with this jaded old vampire fan – and reminded me why I love this genre all over again.

Definitely recommended.

‘Slay’ is available now, from Amazon and all good booksellers.

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Review: ‘Dark Goddess Oracle Cards’

Dark Goddess

I’ve been an explorer in the world of divination for a fair few years now, with my favourite Tarot decks usually nearby at home, as well as Norse Runes and Celtic Ogham. I’ve had a bit of a hit-or-miss relationship with ‘Oracle Cards’ in the past, though, as they sometimes seeem a bit random or difficult to connect with. So when I was asked to take a look at this deck, while I trust the creators as friends, I was a little nervous. Nobody likes to give a bad review!

I needn’t have worried. These beautiful cards seemed to jump out at me as I ‘tested’ them, pulling cards here and there for willing friends to see how well they ‘worked’.

Now the thing to remember with divination sets is that when I say ‘worked’, I don’t mean empirically: turn light-switch = bulb brightens, for example. I mean that the cards resonate with both seer and querent, connecting as required to provide effective and useful guidance.

This is most easily measured in the response to the image on the card – often a gasp, as relevance is immediately found (rather than ‘Well, I don’t understand that.’)

These cards hit the mark every time, without exception. That’s rare.

The images are lovely. Not necessarily all depicting each Lady as I’ve encountered Her, but you can certainly see the relevance – and how difficult is it to photograph a Goddess and capture every aspect of Her?!

Photo 23-08-2018, 12 09 19

Barbara and Flavia have used their considerable experience to create images to help inspire deep thoughts in those using the cards. Each also has a key word on the front… which I confess, I didn’t actually notice initially, as I was so caught up in all of the drama in each picture! I’ve found that my own experiences of each Lady has helped understand the connection for those coming to me with questions; the keyword is useful, but as it’s hard to capture a full image with every meaning of each Goddess, so one word can never do Her justice. The words are a useful guide, however, as is the handy and thoughtful book which is included in the pack.

I would say that this deck works at the level appropriate for the user. They may just be pretty pictures, with a word to help; or the images may spark something much deeper. It’s not simply about the figure, after all, but what’s going on within the picture, in context of you asking for aid or guidance.

I look forward to continue using this cards in the future, as and when they call to me. Although my main complaint is simply that Barbara and Flavia haven’t included themselves in the imagery! Two beautiful and clever witches who definitely deserve to be visited if you ever get the chance, either at events around the UK or at Arnemetia‘s in Buxton, Derbyshire.

This pack is available on Amazon or at most reputable book/alternative shops.

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Druidry – Ancient & Modern

I’m currently busy formulating the upcoming Druidry Workshops that I’ll be running over the next year (see the ‘Workshops’ page on the right for specifics), with a brief taster session this coming week. And so naturally I’ve got to thinking over that original question that is the jumping off point for all others I get: ‘What IS Druidry?’

Specifically, what is this thing that I do – and can I really call it ‘Druidry?’ After all, nobody really knows what the ancient Druids got up to, do they?

I’ve heard so many answers to this. From ‘no, we know nothing really, because the Roman records are all propaganda’ to ‘we know far more than you think, because there’s been a secret, unbroken line of oral knowledge from the ancient teachers’… so Richard Dawkins-esque debunking to Da Vinci Code conspiracies. And none of it terribly helpful to either answering the original question or to everyday lived practice.

The lovely Bryn then sent me a book review this morning, for Ronald Hutton’s book, ‘Blood & Mistletoe‘. It sums up very succinctly both the problem and a suggested solution:

‘Putting everyone in their context, from classical writers onwards, what Hutton makes clear is the rather depressing fact that we don’t know a great deal. There are many tantalising possibilities, many details that might of course be true but the odds are we will never prove any of it conclusively. What Hutton also illustrates is a long history of appropriation, as all kinds of people have borrowed the ancient Druids and dressed them up in their own agenda.

There were points reading this book when I felt very depressed indeed. On the whole I would rather be honestly depressed than clinging to illusions. I came away from this book with a number of thoughts. One, that we probably have to embrace the not knowing. Two, that every ancient faith out there finds itself at odds with definitive historical records. Three, that inspiration may be more important than hard fact, and four, that what we do with this will be the measure of us, not what we can ’prove’ about what ancient druids got up to.

I think there are a number of issues modern druids need to consider, in terms of how we position ourselves in relation to the past. What of the ancient writing about the druids do we choose to accept and what do we decide to reject? Do we believe that the mediaeval ‘celtic’ writings represent a valid source for modern druids? What of the inspiration from the eighteenth century onwards do we want to keep claiming, and what, if any, is too dishonourably crafted to serve us further? I very much doubt we’re all going to settle on one definitive answer here, which is probably as well.’

To my delight, Damh the Bard has just interjected his own explanation via MP3: ‘Some people don’t understand when I say “These are the things I believe.”‘ (From ‘The Hills They Are Hollow, used without permission but with grateful thanks!).

As I’ve said before, ‘Druidry’ is a term that I (and many others) use to roughly describe a particular ethical and spiritual practice. There are, we believe, parallels with that ancient faith that we know so little about, but ultimately we don’t practise anything in the same manner as our ancestors two millennia ago – nor should we, as by now it would be largely irrelevant. While human truths about life and death still stand, our ways of living are very different.

So, in this world of deified science, political correctness and equality, isn’t it in fact amazing that people are still interested in spirituality at all? Isn’t it irrelevant? I don’t think so.

While the context has changed, the quest for answers goes on. For every solution science throws up, more questions appear – and that’s part of the wonder of life, the universe and our place in it. This, for me, is where my Druidry comes in.

We are PART of the universe. Like it or not, we are not above all other life-forms, somehow apart and superior – we’re part of the big scheme of things, the chaos of natural disasters and the order of the food chain. The realization that in this ‘modern’ world of computers, DNA and international information networks, we are still subject to anything can be extremely uncomfortable.

This spirituality I call Druidry does not provide easy explanations that I must take on blind faith. Yes, I have faith – in the Nature that I see all around me. As I do things it probably doesn’t understand, so it returns the favour!

As we move forward into the ‘advanced’ 21st Century, more and more we are waking up to knowledge of our own ignorance – hence looking back for answers that we may have forgotten. Historical validation seems to be important to the newer Pagan faiths, but rather than a form of desperation, it  can be seen as re-realizing that our ancestors were working just as hard to understand the world they lived in as we are… and their words have value if we truly listen.

Being part of Nature is not just a geographic experience, but a temporal one as well. Shamanic teaching holds that all time is relative and can be experienced as circular, rather than linear – as any child who watches ‘Dr Who’ knows, we can do our best to understand our ancestors, past and future, through imagination and visualisation. As adults, we can learn from investigation and greater understanding of humanity and our own families, and from spiritual exploration (if we know how to look).

My Druidry is being a Priest of the Land. Working with it, on it and beside it, being curious and loving in relationship. Aware that as a human being, I will make mistakes, fall and get up again, with the ground always there to meet me… hopefully knocking some sense in through experience!

Who can truly say that they understand what’s going on in life – with the world, even with our own species? It’s an endless quest, but striving for greater understanding of our interconnected relationship as a sacred responsibility in life helps to keep me grounded and moving on this path.

I’m also endlessly glad that so many others are with me.

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