Circle of Stones by Judith Duerk – May BBBR

Circle of Stones: Woman’s Journey to Herself
Judith Duerk
LuraMedia, 1989
70 pages

I initially picked this book up because it had the same main title as one of my favorite books, A Circle of Stones: Journeys and Meditations for Modern Celts by Erynn Rowan Laurie, and occasionally I’ve had people mistake the two in conversation. So I was curious as to what this other text was all about, since it had gotten favorable feedback.

This Circle of Stones is a lovely little text on women’s mysteries and connecting to the Divine Feminine, including that within. Rather than being an academic text or how-to book, it’s a veritable stream of consciousness filled with philosophies and advice for coming more fully into one’s identity as a woman. Much of it hints at a different society where there’s not millenia of sexism and worse oppression towards women, and what that might look like. I’m generally somewhat cynical about “herstory”, but I liked this as an alternate concept of what could be.

Because of this, I think my favorite parts of the book were the meditations beginning “How might your life have been different…”. They’re short meditations on what might have happened if, for example, women-only spaces that weren’t based on shutting women away, and how that might affect a woman’s development over her lifetime. Rather than telling the reader what to think, the author simply invites contemplation and personal consideration.

I will warn those who are intent on historical accuracy that there is a bit of revisionism, particularly at the beginning, to the tune of “There used to be matriarchies before the patriarchies took over”. However, this is minimal, and most of the book–including the practical material–is not based on this premise.

Overall, a lovely read, and I understand why others have spoken well of it.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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Sepulchre – Kate Mosse

Kate Mosse
Berkeley, 2007
566 pages

I’ll admit I waited until I had a significant chunk of time to start reading this hefty novel. I was surprised at how quickly I devoured it! For being well over 500 pages, Sepulchre is a quick read (relatively speaking)–but definitely not a lightweight one.

Mosse has skillfully created two parallel storylines in this book, both centered around the same small region in France. The first, set in the late 19th century, follows Leonie and her brother Anatole as they visit an aunt-by-marriage they’ve never met before, who lives in a peculiar estate in the countryside. The second, set in 2007, features Meredith, an American graduate student working on a book about Claude Debussy. Two seemingly unrelated stories, and yet Mosse manages to weave them together in a believable manner–using a deck of tarot cards.

I was a bit uneasy about the potential for a more mainstream novel to use tarot cards as a plot device in a manner that resembled an eighties horror flick. Happily, this is not the case. While there are associations with the demonic in the storyline, more is said about human nature than the supernatural in the end. Additionally, Mosse has a good understanding of the symbolism of the tarot, particularly the Major Arcana, and uses the symbolism to good end in her writing. While the story revolves around a fictional deck, she did a marvelous job of fleshing it out.

I would recommend this book to my readers, particularly (though not exclusively) tarot aficionados. It’s a great book for a long plane or train ride, or for curling up on a rainy afternoon. I found myself continually trying to find spare moments of time where I could steal a few more pages, and it definitely kept my interest all the way through. Good stuff!

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Amulet Manual – Kim Farnell

The Amulet Manual: A Guide to Understanding and Making Your Own Amulets
Kim Farnell
O Books, 2007
134 pages

Note: This review was originally written for and published in newWitch magazine.

Most Pagans, once they have some experience, prefer to create their own rituals, spells and magical objects. The Amulet Manual is a basic guidebook to making amulets, magical objects aimed at drawing a particular sort of energy, influence or entity.

The first part of the book deals with the history of amulets in various cultures, and gives brief overviews of common amulets found everywhere from South America to ancient Egypt. The author also explains the difference between an amulet and a talisman, and provides a basic ritual for creating and charging your newly created amulet.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to magical correspondences that may come in handy when making amulets. The usual suspects—herbs, stones and planetary energies—are covered, though Farnell also covers sigilization (classic and Chaos magic). Her research is good and there’s a good bit of information in these pages. If you already have several books of magical correspondences, though, you may find much of the material redundant. In fact, the best audience for this book is the Pagan who has the basics down and wants to test the waters of amulet magic, but can’t afford a lot of books. It’s compact, though it shouldn’t be taken as the do-all and end-all of correspondences.

I do wish she would have cited her sources, or at least provided a bibliography. There’s a lot of information quite clearly taken from third party sources, and she doesn’t give credit for any of it. Additionally, it would be nice to know where she got her historical information.

If you’re still a relative beginner and want a good introductory text to the theory of amulet creation, this is a good start. There’s no practical how-to information on the actual creation of amulets, but this gives you basic building blocks.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Gargoyles – Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker

Gargoyles: From the Archives of the Grey School of Wizardry
Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker
New Page Books, 2007
240 pages

Note: This review originally written for and published in newWitch magazine.

This started out to be a really interesting book. The author gives a lot of really detailed information on the history and construction of gargoyles, as well as the origins of certain designs and themes found in this unique stone critter. I enjoyed reading about the cultural and religious influences that contributed to the design of gargoyles (including modern pop culture), as well as the stories behind specific gargoyles, such as those at Notre Dame. The material is accented with some lovely black and white illustrations, which really add to the book.

Pesznecker has a great writing style, with an open, friendly tone, and a concise manner of conveying the information. While it was a relatively quick read, the book offered a lot of good information in a small space. Additionally, some of the information from outside sources was backed up with in-text citations (very much appreciated!) as well as a hefty bibliography.

However, when the book veered into modern magic, I started finding a lot more filler. I realize that the book was partly written as a training manual for Grey School students, but do we really need yet another 101-level explanation of ritual tools, the elements, and how to construct and cast a spell? Additionally, a lot of the practical magical information was only tangentially related to gargoyles. And her “Magickal Safety” section (136-137) asserts that “Most magickal practitioners” believe your magic comes back threefold, and that “The best way to study magick is with an experienced mentor or a respected magickal school”. Non-Neopagan magicians and happy solitaries might look askance at these.

Overall, it’s a great idea; this is a subject I really haven’t seen broached in Neopaganism. There were some really creative possibilities here, but it seems like the book just sort of sputtered out in the last 80 or so pages. Get it for the solid research on historical gargoyles, but supplement the practical material.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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Toltec Dreaming – Ken Eagle Feather

Toltec Dreaming: Don Juan’s Teachings on the Energy Body
Ken Eagle Feather
Bear & Company, 2007
256 pages

Note: This review was originally written for newWitch magazine.

I really tried hard to like this book. Unfortunately, I’m just too skeptical of the author’s claim that he met don Juan Matus, Carlos Castaneda’s teacher of questionable existence, in the flesh. Additionally, saying that don Juan told him to learn from Castaneda’s books because don Juan’s English wasn’t good enough is suspect and sounds like an excuse for not using more reliable sources. The bulk of the source material is Castaneda’s works, which have been highly questioned in both anthropological and modern shamanic fields—and labeled as plastic shamanism by American Indian tribes in Mexico and elsewhere. Rather than backing up the shaky research with more solid sources, his bibliography is littered with more New Age fluff.

Poor scholarship aside, the techniques in the book are pretty good. It’s a heterogenous mixture of Eastern philosophy and New Age practices, aimed at helping the reader become a more effective dreamer. Awareness of the energy body, meeting with Death, and lucid dreaming are just a few of the topics covered. Eagle Feather is an excellent writer, and provides a good array of techniques to help build one’s dreaming ability. As a practical guide to dreamwork and related practices, this is a decent choice. And the author’s writing style is easy to read, punctuated by anecdotes that illustrate the material. Regardless of source, there’s some good, usable material available in these pages.

It’s just a shame that the questionable “Toltec” material wasn’t backed up by direct sources other than Castaneda. If you’re looking for good dream techniques or if you’re a fan of Castaneda’s works, this may be the book for you; however, take a huge lick of salt with it. If you’re looking for genuine indigenous shamanic practices, look elsewhere.

Two pawprints out of five.

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Real Energy – Phaedra and Isaac Bonewits

Real Energy: Systems, Spirits and Substances to Heal, Change and Grow
Phaedra and Isaac Bonewits
New Page Books, 2007
288 pages

Note: This review originally written for and published in newWitch magazine.

When I first picked up Real Energy I was expecting a work on energy manipulation and healing techniques. There is some of that in there, but the Bonewits duo came at it from a totally different angle than I expected. Not that I’m complaining, of course.

The authors cover a variety of esoteric topics ranging from spirits and other entities to elemental correspondences, all with an emphasis on the energies inherent within these systems. The book is basically a thorough introductory guide to the energetic model of how magic works. Some of the information may already be familiar to more experienced practitioners, but if you want a detailed analysis of the energetic model, this is it.

Real Energy also features one of the better weavings of magic and quantum mechanics I’ve seen. The Bonewits even manage to get a physicist who’s also an initiated witch to put in his two cents on the matter, which makes for a particularly unique perspective. Along the way we also get plenty of supporting evidence from both ancient and modern source materials, complete with endnotes, additional reading, and a healthy bibliography. Rather than sticking to traditional Western occultism, various paths and subcultures are touched on, from Theosophy to the Otherkin community.

If you like Isaac’s general style of writing—detailed, researched, and with a good dose of humor—you’ll enjoy reading this book. However, Phaedra displays her talents as a writer too, which makes me hope that there’ll be more from her in later works.

This would be a good read for those who have heard of energy in the magical sense, but aren’t quite sure what it is, as well as anyone who wants to work more within an energetic paradigm. I applaud this Dynamic Duo for offering up a well-researched, well-written work on a popular topic.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Sacred Sin – Estevan Vega

The Sacred Sin
Estevan Vega
PublishAmerica, 2007
218 pages

I’ve been enjoying going through the fiction end of my review shelf as I’m on my break between semesters, and The Sacred Sin is my latest read. The second novel published by Vega, it’s a psychological horror tale that takes an ordinary murder mystery and literally demonizes it.

Jude Foster, L.A. detective, has a lot on his plate. In addition to an unwanted replacement for his former partner (and would-be murderer), he has persistent psychological traumas stemming from the demons within–and takes on a murder case that ends up turning up the demons without as well. But how do you deal with a killer who not only takes people’s lives–but their souls as well? Not easily, and not without things getting incredibly messy.

Unlike so many characters which often seem indistinct and more than occasionally end up being confused with each other in my mind, Vega’s creations are memorable and interact in a believable manner. Jude, his main protagonist, makes an excellent focus for the story, though the scenes without him offer excellent fleshing-out of the story. Rachel Cragin, his new partner, is likable enough, though the irritation–and then later shifts in their relationship–is clear in their interactions. Together they maneuver through a world full of gritty realities and terrifying supernatural phenomena, and I kept on with the book in part because I wanted to know what happened to them next.

The ride along to the climax of this novel kept me distracted from…well…all sorts of other things I should have been doing–but it was well worth the distraction! Vega is a superb writer; his writing is descriptive enough to clearly illustrate what’s going on, but avoids being overly wordy. And his pacing is excellent; I was never bored while reading this book, and I didn’t expect the ending to go quite the way that it did. He takes a good number of liberties with occultism–but then again, it is a work of fiction.

My only real complaint with the book is the scattering of typos throughout. Granted, this happens with most publishers, but there were a few more than I normally see in a work of this length. Still, the book’s quite readable, and admittedly I tend to notice typos more than many readers.

Overall, if you’re looking for a quick but thoroughly enjoyable read, this would be a good choice. Oh, and little tidbit of trivia–the author was eighteen years old when this was published. Good work for an author that we’ll hopefully be seeing a lot more from.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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Animal Reiki to Go – Mary Caelsto

Animal Reiki to Go
Mary Caelsto
The Lotus Circle, 2009
128 pages plus keychain charm and drawstring pouch

There are several books and other resource that cover reiki for animals, either as the entire book or as part of a broader work. However, this one’s nice “to go” as the title says, as a pocket-sized kit for the reiki practitioner. Just a note to start off with–I only got the book to review, not the keychain or pouch, so the review’s only for the book.

I think the best target audience for this book would be people who already have a basic knowledge of reiki, and want to expand that to nonhuman animals. While the author does give a very basic summary of reiki for contextual purposes, I wouldn’t want to use it as my only source (a bibliography/recommended reading section would have been a bonus in the back, but is sadly missing).

That being said, if you already are a reiki practitioner, then you’ll find some great analogues between human and nonhuman animal treatment. Caelsto does a good job of showing just how simple it is (sometimes!) to transfer knowledge of practice on humans and transferring it to other animals. For example, she shows where the seven primary chakras are on other animals, and explains how best to work on them. This includes some incredibly valuable practical and safety issues–some animals simply do not like being handled, while others are shy around certain parts of their bodies, such as the head. Information on distance healing with reiki comes in very handy.

Caelsto also adds in some uses besides straight healing. She explains how to use reiki to protect a certain population of animals, such as an endangered species, or a herd of deer living near a busy road. Having done a good bit of activist magic myself, I had to applaud this quite a bit. (Though after reading the sentence “Don’t set traps, send reiki” from page 16, there’s part of me that totally wants to set up a reiki-based pest control service with that as the ad line!)

No, this isn’t the longest book on the subject, and as mentioned I would suggest it for people who already have the basic knowledge of reiki down. However, it’s concise and packed full of a lot of good, practical, hands-on (no pun intended) information on the topic at hand. Caelsto does a great job of explaining what to do, why to do it, and adds in some anecdotes to show some of the possible effects. She’s an effective teacher through writing, and while I would have liked more references, it’s a good book for what it was intended to be. Good either as part of the kit, or as a standalone text.

Four and a quarter pawprints out of five.

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The Fires of Shalsha – John Michael Greer

The Fires of Shalsha
John Michael Greer
Starseed Publications, 2009
242 pages

I’ve always enjoyed John Michael Greer’s nonfiction writing; I’ve read several of his books, and given them all good reviews. However, it just so happens that he’s a talented fiction writer, too. The Fires of Shalsa is Greer’s first published novel, and it’s one of the better sci-fi books I’ve read in a good long while. (Small press, too, which I always appreciate.)

Greer has created a world apart from Earth, where refugees from our planet several centuries post-exodus have settled into a series of small communities held in order by six laws prohibiting undue violence and powermongering. These laws are enforced by a neutral body of warrior mystics, the Halka, and are strictly punishable by death. Despite this, someone has enabled illegal war technology and killed hundreds of people. It’s up to the Halka and their colleagues to figure out what happened–but the only witness left alive has a severe case of amnesia. How will they prevent another attack with limited information?

The storyline alone is well worth the read. However, what I really appreciate about Greer’s writing is that it’s streamlined. Some authors take pages upon pages to simply describe the world they’ve built, the cultures within it, and so forth. Greer instead manages to work small details and implications about the culture in a quickly-moving story; we’re given the six laws before the story even starts, which goes a long way in setting a foundation for understanding his world here, and all else is fleshed out in the course of the storytelling.

For example, even before the story really gets underway, one can assume that some major war or other tragedy caused the six laws to be put into place; the details about the way the communities live help to support that over time. Additionally, it’s pretty obvious that nature is very important to the people, as the way characters observe and describe the world around them, activity within it, and their thoughts on it makes frequent references to natural phenomena, from flowers to the weather. Greer didn’t have to do some long explanation about how people loved nature, and why, and how they lived in harmony. It was simply apparent in their day-to-day interactions.

Greer imbues his characters with a certain amount of psychic ability. It’s more along the lines of telepathy than, say, pyrokinesis. It’s a nice touch that doesn’t make the characters too out there, but does make for a great plot device. It’s woven well into the rest of the story, but without negating the challenges the characters face, especially with their limited mechanical technology.

This is a quick read, and yet a very rich tale, too. The twist at the end is a nice touch, though I wasn’t too surprised by the resolution that occurred after. Still, I’d definitely recommend this to any sci-fi reader, any of Greer’s fans wanting something creatively different from him, and those who may have been disappointed by the overly idealistic utopian views of Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing but liked the general concept of a back-to-nature future.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Hawaiian Oracle – Rima A. Morrell

The Hawaiian Oracle: Animal Spirit Guides from the Land of Light
Rima A. Morrell (art by Steve Rawlings)
New World Library, 2006
144 pages plus 36 cards

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a totem deck/book set. I’ve had this one sitting in my personal collection for a while, and figured it was about time to take a break from my review stacks. I also wanted to give myself a fresh look at it, because someone I respect as a totemist gave it a pretty scathing review last year, and I didn’t want that biasing my approach.

There’s good and bad in the set, so I’ll give you some details in list form:

The Good:

–The author emphasizes interconnection and responsibility to nature in the book. There are some valuable lessons for postindustrial cultures who often take the environment and its denizens (includes humans!) for granted. It’s obvious that she’s passionate about being a caretaker, and while she doesn’t include it quite to the extent that, say, Susie Green does in the Animal Messages deck, it was a nice touch. (In addition, she walks the talk, having set up a charity and refuge for rescued animals of various sorts, for which I give her major kudos.)
–Morrell has a Ph.D. in Huna, a New Age mix of Hawaiian mythology and other elements. She’s pretty familiar with Hawaiian mythos, and includes mythological information on each of the animals along with her interpretations, to flesh out the meanings and give people more to ponder when working with each animal.
–The cards themselves feature some of the most beautiful artwork by Steve Rawlings (who sadly only gets mentioned on the copyright page and the acknowledgement in the back of the book, instead of on the cover of the book or box). A lovely blend of realistic depictions of animals and brightly colored environments, the pictures make working with this deck extra delightful!

The Bad

–One of the first things that stuck out was the author’s dogmatic adherence to vegetarianism even in the face of historical facts. I’ve no problem with vegetarianism in and of itself; however, Polynesian cultures are not and never have been vegetarian, and they did not simply begin eating meat because of contact with the Europeans. Yet she asserts this very idea on the first two pages (6-7) of the introduction.
–Lemuria and Atlantis: Arrrrrrgh. This is New Age stuff, pure and simple. Yet, like so many New Age authors, she tries to connect these fictional, completely unproven, conveniently lost continents to Hawaiian indigenous culture.
–Related to my last point, her book is based on the aforementioned Huna–which is not traditional Hawaiian religion. It’s a creation from the latter half of the 19th century when spiritism and other such things were all the rage, and while it (and this book) dabble in Hawaiian religious and cultural elements, they are not synonymous. The author (who as I mentioned has a Ph.D. in Huna gained from University College in London, U.K.) claims to have spoken to indigenous Hawaiian practitioners of this, but she doesn’t give any indication of what status they have in their indigenous culture(s) or where they learned their material. Given that even indigenous cultures can have their frauds (being indigenous in genetics does not automatically confer full understanding of indigenous culture if you are primarily white in culture), I have to question how verifiably indigenous her information really is. This looks more like cultural appropriation than indigenous Hawaiian religion and culture.
–“Land of Light”? This idealization of Hawaiian culture (and it’s definitely not limited to the subtitle) smacks of the Noble Savage stereotype.

Honestly, I’m leaning towards setting aside the book and keeping the cards. Unless you’re brand new to animal card divination and don’t yet feel you can interpret the cards based on your own observations (and the study of a species’ natural history, from whence its lore ultimately springs), it’s really not necessary. The information that is provided on cultural and other contexts is spotted with questionable content. Read through the book to get an idea of the author’s perspective and intent for creating the deck, but take it with a huge lick of salt.

Two pawprints out of five (though I give the art a five!)

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