The Last Circle by Gretchen Blickensderfer

The Last Circle
Gretchen Blickensderfer
Self-published 2013
486 pages

Reviewed by Amanda Fisher

This is a rather long but very compelling thriller, set in a near-future American dystopia. What could happen if all of the fundamentalist Christian wing-nuts got it all their own way politically? This, like the very different Handmaid’s Tale, shows a version of the results, and why we need to take their sometimes ridiculous rhetoric seriously. I know this is a political comment, and I make it because the politics of the book are unavoidable. If you are sympathetic to the extremes of right-wing political rhetoric and its aims, you will hate this book.

It’s very focused on the action, which is fast moving with strong tension- so much so that I finished it in 2 days, even though it’s almost 500 pages! (Don’t be too put off by the length; it moves very fast, plus the type size is large and the line spacing very open.) The plot is very twisty, too, and primarily character-driven… which leads to one of its problems. The characters of the Bad Guys, especially Shelby, are more like caricatures. They’re definitely sociopathic, and possibly (especially Shelby) literally insane. I do not see how a pragmatic, if sociopathic, leader like Stephen Palmer would allow someone as basically unhinged as Shelby into the top circle of power. But then, we don’t see enough of him to know if he’s also psychotic; he may be, and just hides it better.

The Good Guys are better drawn- generally sympathetic, but flawed and they quite often irritate both each other and the reader. The main problem I had with them is that they did not seem consistently flawed. Sometimes their attitudes and responses didn’t seem coherent to what had gone before. However, compared to the kind of action story in which all the Good Guys seem to be of one mind and always in accord, this is refreshingly realistic. I also did enjoy reading a thriller where modern Pagans were definitely the Good Guys!

I liked the way the setting addressed the idea of what the USA would look like if extremist fringe of the right wing got their way. This was pointed up by the quotes that start each chapter- actual quotes from actual public figures, cited at the end of the book- though I wished the cites had been included with the quotes themselves, and think that would have made a stronger point that people are really talking about doing these things, here and now.

Dystopias tend to be exaggerated, and that’s true here. I really don’t think that the USA would slide into becoming a nation of fanatics in 5 or so years, especially not to the degree depicted.
Mostly people are far too apathetic for that…and if they were going for the apathetic as well as the “unbelievers”, they would not have much popular support- especially after they took away all the raunch in the media! I could be wrong about this, but very much hope I am not.

My final quibble has to do with the writing style, especially some of the word choices. They were odd in their rhythms and connotations. For example: “…[Texas] closing its borders to all but the most loyal paramours of Jesus.” (pg. 454) “Paramours” implies a far more carnal relationship than I think the author meant! Similarly, “She was screaming in berserk agitation as a third [agent] hammered a baton onto her gunshot wound.” (pg. 362). The nuances of neither “berserk” nor “agitation” really seem to fit the described scene. Also: “All were tacitly organized and, under Lilyan’s covert direction, assuaged their outraged guilt…” (pg. 377) It’s really awkward, since the adjectives do not match up well with the nouns they’re paired with. These are three examples, but this dissonance permeated the book. It’s as if the author used a thesaurus to find a fancier word with an arguably similar meaning, rather than choosing a plainer word that fit the sentences more comfortably.

I got this book for reviewing for paganbookreviews.net and I’m glad I did. I enjoyed it a lot despite its flaws, and would be interested in more from
Blickensderfer.

3.5 pawprints out of five.

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Voice of the Mother Goddess by Patricia Della-Piana

Voice of the Mother Goddess
Patricia Della-Piana
Self-published, 2010
401 pages

Reviewed by Ser/Ket

I received a copy of this book from the Goodreads Giveaway, which was pretty amazing given that I also won the contest for the previous volume, The Goddess Book of Psalms! As such, I was excited to receive and read this book, and wasn’t let down.

I read this book a bit faster than the previous; instead of reading one or two a night, it felt natural to read a handful of psalms as they flowed together like poetry. Since I became familiar with her work after reading Psalms, I could sense a definite change from her natural writing voice to the style used in Voice of the Mother, and I believe her genuine when she states she was channeling.

These are all psalms full of beauty and positive energy – I can envision coming to this book after a bad day, full of frustration, and letting the love in these words push the anger away.

The variety of psalms is greater even than that of The Goddess Book of Psalms. There is a wide range of formats used, some psalms use aretalogies, some focus heavily on repetition or sensory details, and others are reassuring reminders.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and would recommend it and it’s companion to anyone seeking meditative psalms and mantras to try out in their practices.

Four pawprints out of five.

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The Goddess Book of Psalms by Patricia Della-Piana

The Goddess Book of Psalms
Patricia Della-­Piana
Lulu.com, 2008
190 pages

Reviewed by Ser/Ket

I received a copy of this book from the Goodreads Giveaway. Thank you!

I was thrilled to be the winner of this giveaway, and have the opportunity to read some of Patricia Della-Piana’s work. It has taken me a while to review this book only because I didn’t want to rush through the psalms; instead, I would read one or two a night as I felt the urge to.

Della-Piana’s psalms are numerous and beautiful, obviously written straight from her heart. So many of these I can envision becoming important parts of a practitioner’s daily prayers, and the name of a particular deity switched with “Goddess”.

I enjoy the variety of psalms included – some psalms follow a format, a general rhythm. Then in the midst of these will be a format-breaking, attention-grabbing piece that suggest an alternative format of meditation. In particular, I can see using the psalms with embedded questions for meditative writing practices, and the psalms with “I Am” statements to summon forth my own reflective aretalogies.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone looking to add some beautiful words and imagery to their spiritual practice!

Four pawprints out of five.

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Llewellyn’s 2010 Sabbats Almanac – Various

Llewellyn’s 2010 Sabbats Almanac
Various
Llewellyn, 2009
312 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who graciously agreed to take on some of the extra review copies I had when I decided to go on semi-hiatus.

I am honored to be a guest reviewer for Lupa’s book review blog, eager to read something closer to my “field” than the erotica and science fiction I normally critique for a national book review magazine. I bravely told her to “send me anything” only to receive the most random collection of Pagan books I’ve ever seen!

First on the stack was Llewellyn’s Sabbats Almanac: Samhain 2009 to Mabon 2010. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say upfront that I am a relatively new member of the Llewellyn author family. That being said, this latest addition to the Llewellyn annuals (Witches’ Spell-A-Day Almanac, Witches’ Companion, etc.) is, I think, a useful and worthy one. I may not feel comfortable pulling out a Llewellyn Witches’ Datebook out of my backpack when scheduling my next dentist appointment in this small Kansas town, but the Sabbats Almanac is something I will likely refer to from time to time throughout the year – in the comfort of my own home, of course.

Contributing authors to the Almanac include a deliberate mixture of relatively new writers and Pagan “celebrities”; Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, Kristen Madden, Ann Moura, Dan Furst, Raven Grimassi, Michelle Skye, and Thuri Calafia (plus others) all add their expertise and voices.

The history of each sabbat is thoroughly discussed, including an astrological section by Fern Feto Spring. I would have liked a little more explanation of astrological terms for the zodiacally-impaired reader. Kristen Madden provides seasonal recipes for an appetizer, main course, dessert and beverage for each holiday far beyond the usual “bread at Lammas, apple pie at Samhain” fare. Every sabbat section ends with a holiday ritual that can either be done as a solitary or with a group (except Mabon, which definitely requires several people).

In further interest of full disclosure, I’ve never once opened any of the Llewellyn Almanac series until Lupa sent me this one. If the Sabbats Almanac is any indication, I’ve been missing out on a basic, useful source of inspiration and ideas. The Sabbats Almanac, at least, may just become a permanent addition to my holiday book-buying binge.

Four and a half paws out of five!

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Women and Religion in the West edited by Aune, Sharma and Vincett

Women and Religion in the West: Challenging Secularization
Edited by Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma and Giselle Vincett
Vermont/England: Ashgate Publishing Company
230 pages

Note: This review was originally published in the first issue of Thorn Magazine, which I reviewed here.

Women and Religion in the West, far from being a feel-good “we are all sisters” text, is an ambitious project that focuses on the female interpretation of religion and religiosity in the West. It is set within the context of a world that is becoming increasingly secularized, and whose discussion of secularization is also often male-dominated. Additionally, it avoids the common practice of approaching Christianity alone; while that religion is explored, Islam and new religious movements are given ample coverage as well. Each religious category receives its own section of the book, with four essays per section.

All twelve essays in this book are solid. While each essayist has a unique interpretation of the theme, there are a few that particularly stand out.

–“Religious Change in the West: Watch the Women” by Penny Long Marler: Are women the longtime “secret weapon” of organized religion? Marler makes a convincing argument that while men may have been the primary figureheads of Christianity, it is the women who have been the cohesive congregation that made the religion possible. She details demographic and social changes since industrialization, as well as the effects of the defection of women from organized religions to more free-form spiritualities. While the roles of women have often been relegated to the background, the “pink-collar” occupations and volunteer stations within Christianity have created the backbone of the religion. Particularly noteworthy is the adept approach to the nuclear family—and the current disintegration thereof—in conjunction with trends in the Christian religion. As the social structures that rely primarily on the nuclear family are replaced by more flexible ones, the roles of women shift as well. Marler points out research showing that in the Western world, while women may take the role of only homemaker, or only career woman, the majority have a foot in each world, able to adapt as necessary. The pink-collar roles within traditional Christianity have relied on the stay-at-home mother who is a staple of the nuclear family; as that particular structure has become less common, so has adherence to traditional religious structures. Beyond the church, though, there are implications in these changes even for industrial-capitalist economies, and male-dominated society, which Marler discusses to some extent.

–“The Soul of Soulless Conditions: Paganism, Goddess Religion and Witchcraft in Canada” by Sian Reid: While there is a modern trend to perceive secularization as the most advanced stage of cultural religious development, Reid counters with the fact that numerous women continue to find meaning through belief—albeit through spirituality rather than organized religion. She particularly focuses on pagan religions in Canada, as well as on the importance of the feminine Divine to many female pagans. I was particularly struck by research that noted that female and male neopagans may approach the Goddess in different manners: “…while women are inclined to speak of Goddess spirituality in terms of larger gender inequalities and as a means of obtaining ‘self-validation by having a female image of the divine with which to identify’…men are less likely to make reference to patriarchal social structures, and tend to discuss the Goddess ‘more as an expressive or nurturing force that aided one’s immediate self’” (127). This and other general statements may lead to some hearty debate among practicing pagans, and make the essay well worth reading. Reid’s ultimate conclusion, though, is that while traditional religions may be losing adherents, Canadian women are still finding outlets for belief—to include a mirror of themselves in Deity, and the structure of modern pagan religious systems that allow for more flexibility and personal expression.

–“Being Seen By Many Eyes: Muslim Immigrant Women in the United States” by Garbi Schmidt: Schmidt opens this essay by emphasizing some of the basic stereotypes and misunderstandings associated with Islam and Muslim women in particular, but this is just the beginning. The meaning and politics behind such things as the hijab, the veil that is so strongly associated with Muslim women; the specific roles and niches occupied by women within Islam; Muslim women as sexual beings; and other controversial topics are discussed in depth. Schmidt offers an excellent balance between exposing the stereotypes that exist, and denying those stereotypes power through counter-arguments and contrary examples from real life. She shows how faith is a source of strength for Muslim women, even with the negative aspects and assumptions, and it’s a truly eye-opening essay. What’s particularly remarkable is the discussion of Muslim women using differences to their benefit, rather than as a source of stress. While this is not a universal practice, Karima, one of Schmidt’s interviewees, turns the role of being Other into an advantage. Schmidt remarks, “Rather than choosing a strategy of retreat, she stresses the very elements that make her different. Difference becomes a powerful way of marking identity in public spaces. The identity and political position she chooses to take within the United States equally compels her to position herself towards and even against other localities, for example the region her parents came from. Within these diverse contexts, Islam becomes a means for protest and reform” (209). This theme of activism continues through the experiences of women in Schmidt’s essay, and counters the stereotype of the Muslim woman as a hidden, trapped figure.

Pagans should not make the mistake of shying away simply because some of the essays involve monotheistic religions. There is much to learn from all of the essayists regardless of their stance. Additionally, those who were curious, incensed, or puzzled about Kristin Aune’s claim that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is convincing thousands of women to leave church every year may want to get a more solid feel for Aune’s research on women and Christianity. It’s not about pop culture, so much as it is about the state of being a single woman within religious communities, and how this is a state of non-normativity (compared to the state of being married, which according to Aune “continues to hold sway as the normative status in contemporary Britain” (67).

The tone of this book may come across as being fundamentally against traditional religious structures, as the majority of the material concerns women who are defecting from those structures to more free-form spiritualities. One particular exception is Maria Trzebiatowska’s “Vocational Habit(u)s: Catholic Nuns in Contemporary Poland”, a discussion of women entering into a deeper relationship with traditional religious structures despite secularization and criticism by peers. Christianity, however, seems to get the brunt of the theme of anti-religiosity.

Additionally, the relatively limited scope of religions discussed may beg the question of how these themes apply to women in other religions. Judaism is a glaring omission, for example; how might modern Jewish women approach secularization, as well as traditional (particularly orthodox) structures within their religious communities? There is plenty of ground left unexplored, and it almost would have been better to release a series of books, each focusing on a particular religion, to bring more depth to the topic.
Overall, though, this is a much-needed discussion about the state of religion in the world today, with the added benefit of breaking the male-dominated mold too often found in religious studies. Even those not of a particularly sociological bent will find the material to be informative and applicable to everyday religious and spiritual interactions and experiences.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Walking An Ancient Path by Karen Tate

Walking An Ancient Path: Rebirthing Goddess on Planet Earth
Karen Tate
O Books, 2008
394 pages

Much has been written in recent decades about Goddess spirituality. Some of it has been horrific, full of historical claptrap and stereotypes about both/all sexes. Others have been creations of beauty, allowing for Goddess spirituality to be its own entity without trying to prove or disprove others. This is definitely one of the latter texts; while I personally do not agree with every single thing the book offers, overall I find it to be a valuable addition to texts on this subject.

A large portion of the material throughout the book is dedicates to Tate’s anecdotes of her experiences. She is able to make pilgrimages that most of us wouldn’t be able to afford, going to all sorts of places around the world where the Divine Feminine has been revered throughout history. Lest you think that this makes the text inaccessible, think again: not only does she make these far-away places seem real and relevant to those who remain at home, but she also brings forth some home-grown examples of living Goddess spirituality. The anecdotes show her absolute wonder and reverence for the Divine Feminine, and it’s quite clear what is most sacred to her.

I also really enjoyed how Tate divides the book up by the five modern elements—Spirit, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Each section includes information and practices that resemble these elements, as well as discussing goddesses who are related to them. Sometimes the order of the individual subsections seems a little random, and chapters don’t always segue well from one to the next. Still, the book taken as a whole is a delightful journey through many possible modern manifestations of Goddess spirituality.

I would definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in, or currently practicing, Goddess spirituality. There are numerous ideas for honoring the Divine Feminine, all wrapped up in the passion and joy of a talented author.

Five pawprints out of five.

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