A Rush of Wings – Adrian Phoenix

A Rush of Wings
Adrian Phoenix
Pocket Books, 2008
404 pages

I’m glad I started reviewing fiction, because it gives me an excuse to review entertaining vampire novels like this one. Fresh from Pocket Books, A Rush of Wings is Adrian Phoenix’ first novel. I dearly hope it won’t be her last.

Phoenix drops us right into New Orleans with a murder mystery–somebody is picking off local Goths, killing them in horrid ways, and leaving cryptic messages. Pretty straightforward, right? Toss in a strong-willed vampire/club owner/musician with an adoring following, a slightly confused FBI agent, and a host of original supporting characters, and the story starts to rise above the usual pulp. Have it written by a talented author who baits the reader with every page, and you have a recipe for a real page-turner.

One thing that I really admire about Phoenix’s writing is her ability to make me care about her characters. The setting is nice, the plot is fast-paced, and she adds just the right amount of erotica to make it tasty, but without turning it into the overflogged vampire smut that’s been going around. However, where Phoenix’s strength really lies is in her character development and presentation. Her characters feel real, even the supernatural ones. They have believable flaws, and their interaction flows naturally, rather than feeling like a bad movie script. What really hit me, though, was now much I cared about what happened to them–when a couple of the supporting characters died, I felt sad, and I could get a good sense of the grief of those who cared about them. Phoenix evokes emotions like few others.

Her world-building skills are strong, too. I’m picky about my supernatural content. However, I was impressed by how she handled vampires, as well as other supernatural entities, and I’m hoping she continues to write in this world, because I’m curious as to how she’ll develop it further. I think my only complaints are that she does fall into some patterns that have been done to (un)death. While she shows a totally different side to New Orleans than Anne Rice did, it’s still–New Orleans. (With all the French undertones–why are vampires always French?) There’s a vampire council that’s alluded to a couple of times, though she doesn’t put much development into it in this book. And her main vampire character isn’t just a run of the mill vampire–he’s a True Blood, a rarity (though he has enough flaws and believability to keep him from being a male Mary Sue). I realize it’s kind of tough to write about vampires without hitting some of the modern conventions, though, and overall I think she did a good job of writing a really good vampire novel.

I’m very much looking forward to more from this author; if you want a good read to get you through a commute, plane trip, head cold, or other instance where you can let yourself sink into a good read, this is a good choice. It’s got a lot of re-reading potential, too–I know I’ll be coming back to it every now and then.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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Secrets of Shamanism – Jose and Lena Stevens

Secrets of Shamanism: Tapping the Spirit Power Within You
Jose Stevens, Ph.D. and Lena S. Stevens
Avon Books, 1988 (newer edition available)
228 pages

This is not a book about how to be a shaman, despite the title. (The authors don’t claim it is, either.) What it is, is a book primarily made of psychological and holistic techniques that are inspired by the authors’ studies on shamanism. If you look at the book this way you’ll probably like it a lot better than if you’re critiquing it for not being a book about shamanism.

There are a lot of useful techniques in here, some of which I’ve used (or are similar to things I’ve done). Some of them I wasn’t so interested in, such as the “stretching time” exercise. However, there are some great pathworking exercises in here to help you A) identify and banish bad habits, and B) instill better habits. It’s a great workbook for self-improvement, and I can easily see ways to alter the exercises if you want less of a “shamanic” feel to them. The authors explain what it is that works about these exercises, so that you know the mechanics as well as the how-tos of them.

I did get annoyed now and then with the “shamanic” elements, like “medicine wheels” and such. There were also blatant generalizations, such as the “Native American Heyoka” which was presented as a figure to emulate for breaking bad habits. No tribe-specific cultural history was given as an explanation. Additionally, some of the fictitious stories the authors included to illustrate some of their points made some generalizations about indigenous people.

Still, overall, this book has a lot to offer, if you can overlook the mild appropriation and New Age generalization. The exercises are overwhelmingly solid and useful, and there are many good tools that modern shamans (and others) can use, with or without the shamanic trappings.

Four pawprints out of five.

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When Elephants Weep – Masson and McCarthy

When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy
Dell Publishing, 1995
292 pages

While this isn’t strictly a “pagan book”, it’s one I’ve been wanting to read for some time. As a totemist and animal magician, I believe it’s exceptionally important to study the natural history of animals as well as the more abstract mythology, lore, and UPG.

This book explores the emotions of species of animals ranging from ants to whales. Numerous anecdotes are given, particularly involving primates, cetaceans, and African gray parrots. These are used to put forth discussions and considerations of the debate as to whether or not nonhuman animals have emotions, and to what extent they share emotional states and expressions with us. We are not told what we must believe; the authors make their arguments, but they are not entirely dogmatic. Instead, they present their case, give their examples, and beseech the reader to consider what they have offered up. Responsibility is placed in the hands of the reader; we are not spoonfed the answers.

Let me make something clear: this book was not written by scientists. If you’re looking for hard scientific evidence for animal neurology and related fields, this isn’t it. One author has a PhD in Sanskrit; the other has degrees in journalism and biology. (Of course, I have a B.A. in English, so perhaps according to some I’m unfit to judge the scientific integrity of a work in my mere layman’s understanding.) However, I don’t believe science has all the answers, and the authors point out numerous places where science has perhaps been quite blind. We are called not just to think, but to feel–a more complete way of observing and considering emotions themselves. After all, it is strict adherence to left-brained thinking that justifies everything from vivisection of unanesthetized animals to extermination of entire species.

What I consider important about this book is that it can get the average person to think about how we approach animals and their emotions, and reconsider the practice of anthropomorphization. It may make you angry, it may make you cry, or it may make you nod and say “Yes, I agree with this”. But as long as you’re thinking about your position on animals as emotional beings instead of just reacting with your usual routines, I think the authors have done their job.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Aquarius Key – Keith Rowley

The Aquarius Key: A Novel of the Occult
Keith Rowley
Self published via iUniverse
284 pages

Most of the fiction I end up reviewing has a more neopagan slant to it. However, when the author of this particular gem told me that it was a story that wove in Western occultism, I jumped at the chance for something new. And I was duly rewarded, as it was a good read all around.

The premise showed a lot of potential. Two perfectly mundane, ordinary people in modern-day London have their lives entirely turned inside out by the intrusion of an occult plot that could have universe-shattering consequences. Their experiences become increasingly disorienting as they’re dragged deeper into intrigue and conspiracy in an elaborate plot to manipulate them into just the right place at the right time. This may sound a bit like a bad Satanic Panic novel; however, it’s of much higher quality than that. The author is well-versed in ceremonial magic, and weaves a lot of Thelemic and Qabalistic material into the story–and I do mean a lot.

The execution is pretty good. I will say that the first half of the book was a bit on the slow side, though I stuck it out and thoroughly enjoyed the second half, which got a lot more interesting. Rowley has a good grasp of his characters and describes their feelings, thoughts and reactions well; I had clear images in my mind of what was happening, which helped with the entertainment value.

The occult material in the book is a mixed bag. Everything revolves around a destined plot to bring about the Aeon of Horus, and there’s a ton of Thelemic material throughout the book. Rowley also draws heavily on Qabalah, particularly gematria. It’s rudimentary enough that someone with casual understanding (like me) will understand what’s going on, though it may go over the heads of those who are not magicians of any flavor. I think my main complaint with the inclusion of occult material is the same complaint I’ve had with neopagan novels that also attempt to teach basic Wiccan principles amid the story–it doesn’t blend very well. Sometimes the novel reads more like a treatise on basic ceremonial magic than a story; I understand when authors want to make their audiences clear on what’s going on, but it’s very hard to throw lessons into a plot without it coming off rather clumsily.

Still, it was a fun read, and it kept me entertained on my commute for a few days. I’m not 100% sure how more orthodox Thelemites may feel about the depiction of Aleister Crowley in this book (yes, he’s brought in as an actual character) or the rather violent interpretation of the Book of the Law, and a few readers may find the occasional sexual content (including that which essentially opens the book) to be a bit much. But if you’re looking for a decent occult-themed novel that wasn’t written by someone who thinks we all eat babies and has a good yarn to spin, this is a good choice.

Four pawprints out of five.

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The Book of Shamanic Healing – Kristin Madden – February BBBR

The Book of Shamanic Healing
Kristin Madden
Llewellyn, 2002
230 pages

I’m always happy when I get a Bargain Bin Book that gets a good review. I’m of the mind that just because a book isn’t bright, shiny and new, or even in print any more, that it isn’t necessarily worse than what’s currently enjoying fifteen minutes of shelf time at the local big box bookstore. The Book of Shamanic Healing, which first came out over half a decade ago, is definitely a great read, and shouldn’t be overlooked despite its age.

This is not a complete book on shamanism, and it’s neoshamanism (although the author was raised with traditional shamanism in her family, which does add to her perspective). What it is, is a wonderfully thorough guide specifically on what the title says–shamanic healing. If you don’t have a basic understanding of shamanism in general, you’d do well to set this book aside for the moment and read a few 101 books. Then, come back to this awesome text, and give it a go.

Madden does a wonderful job of covering a variety of techniques and tools that the shaman may use in healing patients. From energy work and crystals, to dreams and stories, and even a really good chapter on drumming as a healing tool, she offers the reader a wealth of information. Her first chapter brings us into the material by reminding us of the humbling concept that we ourselves have been and may still be wounded, and this vulnerability and experience may be one of the most valuable tools we have as healers. And she adds in a highly commendable chapter on healing through one’s own creativity.

What really sets this book apart from a lot of modern neoshamanic texts is its practicality and groundedness. You won’t get made-up “real live Indian!” teachers and gurus used to try to add validity to Madden’s teachings. Nor will you get a long ego-ridden ramble about just how great the author is. Rather, she offers her own experiences to punctuate what is a great text on the very practical, everyday considerations of having a healing practice. She reminds us of the importance of coming into a healing with a clear mind and a clear location, that not every healing will go perfectly, and she thinks of a lot of small details that might get overlooked otherwise. In short, it’s quite apparent that she’s done the work and been in the trenches herself.

She doesn’t really go into potential dangers of healing too much beyond protecting yourself from the illness you are extracting. Nor does she mention much about barriers and issues in things like soul retrieval where things may not go as planned. There’s very little about working with spirits, and considering some illnesses may be caused by malevolent beings, one would do well to not consider this quite a complete guide to shamanic healing. However, that being said, this is still a very valuable text for any shaman, especially those who may be working for those beyond their immediate family, to have on hir shelf. I know that when the time comes for me to start training as a healer, this will be an important book for me.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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Journey to Enlightenment – Ross Bishop

Journey to Enlightenment
Ross Bishop
Blue Lotus Press, 2008
248 pages

I’ll admit that when it comes to anything that’s more New Age than Neopagan, I’m a tough crowd. Ross Bishop, happily, has presented a book that got through my cynicism and gave a wonderfully balanced approach to healing internal wounds. I am quite pleased to have had the opportunity to read this book.

A good bit of Journey to Enlightenment centers on healing the traumas (no matter how seemingly small or supposedly unimportant) from childhood. It’s not just a matter of blatant abuse, but of simply not being understood, or having to deal with the bad conditioning your parents may have had that may have affected how they raised you, even if they never meant to hurt you and loved you dearly. However, Bishop also touches on a number of other issues that people may have unhealthy relationships with, such as finances and social skills.

The thing that makes this book valuable is that Bishop gently guides the reader into facing hir traumas head-on, without guilt or shame, and without too much pressure. He offers a set of thirteen principles that build upon each other as the book progresses, which form the core of a system for going into the self, confronting the issues and getting in touch with the inner child, and bring about healing for all aspects of the self, past and present. Guided meditation is used as a tool to further this process, though a lot of the book is brain food, things to get the reader really thinking about the issues, rather than a book full of rote, stock meditations and exercises. It’s a nice balance of things to think about and things to do.

If you’re expecting traditional shamanism a la Siberia and the Amazon, you won’t find it here. However, Bishop manages to bring elements of shamanic practice into 21st century postindustrial terms in a way that channels much-needed lessons and healing to an audience that can benefit from it. He never claims to be descended from eighteen Native American shamans, or attempts to frame his experiences in anything pretentious; he is down to earth, and strikes a good balance between (neo)shamanism, and healing psychology.

The writing style is pleasant; Bishop is a good writer, and conveys his concepts with thoughtfulness and depth. He has good research, too, and is well-grounded, something that more of the New Age should pay heed to. He proves that one can have a solid footing and still explore spirituality without floating off into the ethers. Other than a few typos, it’s a really good read structure-wise, and the layout far exceeds that even of some larger presses.

Five pawprints out of five.

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