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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Pain and Faith in the Wiccan World by Crystal Blanton

Pain and Faith in the Wiccan World: Spirituality, Ethics, and Transformation
Crystal Blanton
Megalithica Books, 2013
188 pages

Reviewed by Hilde

There are a lot of self-help books on how to work through and recover from grief, trauma, and pain for both secular and Christian audiences. While some people are able to utilize these resources despite the conflicts with their own faith, others may feel the need for a book that resonates with their own beliefs.

Blanton combines modern therapy techniques with the tradition of Wicca to provide a resource that is easily accessible for those who are in the midst of their struggle and those who wish to support them.

While the author gives accurate definitions and explanations on the topics of pain, growth, grief, and forgiveness, she gives these topics life by including the experiences of herself and others throughout the narrative. The additional use of quotes by other authors gives extra insight and additional valuable resources for the reader to pursue.

Each chapter is accurately titled and includes a quote at the beginning to enhance the topic. One of the things I especially liked about this book is the number of techniques the author makes available for the reader in her TIAT (Tips, Insights, Action, and Tools) section at the end of each chapter. General suggestions like journaling, questionnaires, self-care, and cognitive-behavioral techniques comfortably sit alongside candle-lighting, prayer, object burials, and other rituals.

The main portion of the book is devoted to helping the injured person, but at the end there is a section specifically tailored for the supporters. It discusses the many ways to support the person, including the importance of being objective. It also stresses the importance of self-care when assisting somebody through such a difficult time.

If a reader has read self-help books about grief, trauma, and pain this will be old territory; however, it does an excellent job in reframing these topics within the Wiccan faith.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Everyday Witch Book of Rituals by Deborah Blake

Everyday Witch Book of Rituals: All You Need for a Magickal Year
Deborah Blake
Llewelyn Publications, 2012
337 pages

Reviewed by Micheal

I’ve had this book for a few months now, and it has been taunting me from my desk; however, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to review a book of rituals. Should I use one of the rituals and report the results or should I review the content as if it was any other book? I decided against conducting one of the many rituals, lest I fail to add the needed energy to cause any of them to come to fruition.

Blake has put together a great book, as it stands, for the novice witch to begin their journey and start their grimoire construction. The rituals are categorised as either a new moon ritual or a full moon ritual and then there is one additional ritual for each month. Whilst the rituals are designed for the solitary practitioner, they can be easily adapted for a group and Blake offers advice on how to do just that.

For the more experienced witch, the rituals appear to be easily expandable and adaptable to fit almost any path. Moreover, given the range and diversity of the rituals that are included in the book makes this an ideal resource to have for those times when there is the desire to commune and do a ritual, but not the time to write one.

Additionally, the tools and items that are called for are items that are easily obtainable at any craft and metaphysical store, no need to scour the shops for mandrake root and the like.

I did find the rituals, as they stand, to be a bit more on the “fluffy” side for my liking, but I think the openness in which Blake constructed the rituals will make them easy to modify and “de-fluff'” if one is so inclined.

Given the book’s array of rituals and the flexibility they offer, I give the book:

Four pawprints out of five.

El Brujo by Thomas Gerard

El Brujo
Thomas Gerard
Self-published (Printmaker), 2007/2012
218 pages

Reviewed by Lady Anastasia

***Spoilers ahead***

“When you are following your life’s purpose, when you are doing things you were born to do, then everything becomes easy. Money flows your way. All of the things that make you happy seek you out with little effort on your part, life is abundant.” -El Brujo

Born to a Spanish father and a half breed Irish/Apache mother, Pete Mondragon was known as a coyote. The tale of El Brujo follows Pete from the age of 12 when he lost his father, leaving his ranch on the outskirts of El Rito, New Mexico, and travels to the Apache Reservation to be raised by his Uncle Jack. Uncle Jack is a charismatic man who has a special way with the ladies, and even during the tough times, has abundant cash flow. Some who live on the reservation attribute this to him being a medicine man, others to his being a witch or warlock, when asked by Pete, Jack simply tells him that he is “El Brujo”.

Pete spends the next few years learning about coyote medicine and tending to the horses on his Uncle’s ranch and going to school. Things are fairly uneventful until Jack dies shortly before Pete is 18. Pete spends his last summer between childhood and adult hood sleeping under the stars, finding himself and connecting on a deeper level with his coyote medicine. Summer over, Pete joins the army and ends up overseas.

The next interesting milestone in the book is when Pete spends a year in New Orleans with an army buddy who introduces him to Papa Legba, and American Hoodoo practitioners. There seems to be an interesting balance between Pete’s coyote medicine and the Hoodoo rites and the instances where Pete becomes possessed by Papa Legba.

The next few years of Pete’s life have him reconnecting with his Maternal Grandfather, becoming a photographer during set production and meeting his wife, Pete’s life is good. But I’ll leave the rest of his life in the book, there are other key characters.

Enter Maria Mondragon. Maria inherits some of Pete’s knowledge, and ability to use Coyote medicine, as well as some of his skill with the camera. She becomes a famous fashion photographer in NM. Without getting into too much detail at this point, I’ll admit, this is where the author starts to lose me and my interest.

When painting the picture of Maria’s photography empire, the author spends a little too much time over detailing the cost of things, and the emphasis on making money, spending money, paying employees wages and spending on extravagant things that the dollar signs actually detract from the actual story line. More than once, I felt my eyes glaze over when reading chapters that dealt heavily with financial aspects.

I will also point out that during the second half of the book and during the focus on Maria Mondragon, you are also introduced to a handful of New Age practices, including Yoga, meditation, Kundalini and a women’s group that seems to be of the Wiccan flavor. Not to be overly critical but I felt like the author was now cramming as many different spiritual paths, practices and ideologies into the book as possible.

I did enjoy the portion of the story that dealt with Changing Woman, but I think that bouncing from trad to trad also ends up detracting from the story. All in all, I will say that the first half of the book was great, I enjoyed reading about Pete and watching him grow and learn. The second half of the book, I like the character of Maria, I just wish I didn’t know down to the penny what she was spending her money on. I would recommend the book to anyone who wanted to do a little bit of light reading.

Two pawprints out of five.

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Witches Revelation by Timothy Gibbons

Witches Revelation: A Novel
Timothy Gibbons
Self-published, 2010
276 pages

The world has fallen into chaos. The human population has been devastated by a plague. The remnants of the U.S. military struggle to maintain what order they can amid attacks by a strange religious cult with entirely too much firepower. The remaining civilians do what they can to survive amid the turmoil. One young woman finds herself the final survivor of a massacred encampment, and suddenly thrust into a world tinged with esoteric symbolism–and reality.

Such is the basic plot of this first novel by Timothy Gibbons. It’s an intriguing premise, and the world-building is pretty solid. Gibbons manages to create a believable dystopic future, albeit one somewhat scant on details at times, but a rich visit nonetheless. While his characters are a bit flat, they’re interesting enough to follow through, and some development does occur over the course of the story.

Gibbons is a good writer. His description is good, but his dialogue is better. The conversations flow well, and even the internal dialogue of the characters has good life to it. Spots of humor shine amid the sober background, and there’s a lot of talent in there. And while the pace is slow sometimes, the conclusion both is satisfying, but also leaves plenty open for future books.

The book does fall prey to some common self-publishing problems. While Gibbons is a good writer, there are some areas–such as the aforementioned issues with character and plot–that a good editor could help him tighten up. And there are numerous typos through the entire thing, which got to the point of distraction. Finally, he does what a lot of esoteric fiction writers do–too much tell, not enough show, when weaving the esoteric elements into the storyline. Less exposition, more demonstration, would have helped this a great deal.

Still, for a first novel, self-published, it’s a good showing. I think with some professional editing for both style and content, Gibbons could have some truly outstanding works on his hands. As it is, it’s a good but not great read, worth a look and definitely worth finishing.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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Wiccan Shadows by Lori J. Schiele

Wiccan Shadows
Lori J. Schiele
ImaJinn Books, 2011
282 pages

I admit that ever since I read Rosemary Edghill’s Bast books I’ve been a fan of fantasy-flavored pagan-ish fiction. And in recent years, as the paranormal romance and related fiction market has exploded, authors have been quite happy to oblige my demand. Of course, the quality has varied: authors who forget that show is better than tell when working pagan material into the story, Mary Sue characters, and just plain bad writing.

Happily, Wiccan Shadows avoids these issues, which is especially impressive considering the author utilizes elements that have often hit trope territory–werewolves, for example, and a Big Bad Evil Thing that the protagonist and her coven must work against magically to save themselves and potentially the world. Schiele takes these elements of her story and weaves them into an enjoyable, well-written, and fast-paced book with just enough romance to add it into that genre, but not so much as to be overwhelming.

The story starts with the violent death of one of the coven members, and immediately we’re introduced to some of the worldbuilding that Schiele has done. Like some authors, she takes some liberties with what magic is and what being Wiccan actually means; one of the characters relies on her “Wiccan senses”, for example, and such things as communication with animal familiars and astral projection are given much more power and omniscience than in real life. It’s not overdone, though, and these things make sense in an alternate reality where spiritual beings can manifest physically. This makes it a good setting for the unfolding story in which the identity of the murderer is ambiguous at best, and the danger to the remaining members of the coven grows with every hour.

The love triangle–such as it is–seems a little forced and predictable, as the main protagonist’s current significant other becomes an increasing asshole, while Shiny New Sexy Guy–who just happens to be a werewolf–and who also happens to be an animal control officer–steps in. There’s no question as to who to root for. Still, the interactions are realistic, and just about everyone knows someone who’s been in each place in that dynamic.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that it made me curious to see how Schiele will develop this series in later books. While I felt there was closure, I got enough of the glimpse of this world to want to visit it again. Well done.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Everyday Witch A to Z Spellbook by Deborah Blake

Everyday Witch A to Z Spellbook
Deborah Blake
Llewellyn, 2010
246 pages

I’ll start this review with the caveat that I’m really not a fan of spell books. They’re one of those remnants of the 90’s ZOMGWICCA publishing boom that I wish would just fade away. It feels as though the formula is “Write the main how-to book on a given tradition/topic/etc. Then write the related spell book. And after that? Somehow tarot.

That being said, I do not constitute the whole of the esoteric and related readership. And if someone were to insist that they needed a spell book, either to work with directly or as inspiration, I’d recommend this one as a potential addition to the witchy library. I’ve generally been a fan of Deborah Blake’s writing, and I’m not surprised she managed to write a spell book that I can give a positive review.

I think a lot of it is that she came up with a really wide variety of spell ideas. There’s more than just the usual lineup of healing, protection, money and LUV ME PLEASE! There’s a spell to boost advertising in business endeavors, and another to increase the likelihood of a damaged friendship being mended in a mutually favorable fashion. There are also things that can be used to boost–but not replace–mental health treatment, such as one to decrease emotional sensitivity, and another to focus on working through mental illness in general. And, as the title suggests, these are all arranged in alphabetical order–and some of the titles, like “Jerk Avoidance” and “Shit Happens” added a bit of levity. And the spells themselves are well-written and don’t involve hard-to-obtain materials like eye of honey badger.

There are a few pages of additional information helpful to spellcasting. Along with some guides on writing and casting spells, and when to cast or not, there’s also a bit of a blurb on familiars penned (by proxy) by Blake’s feline familiar, Magic, that’s actually pretty good even in its brevity. This is a nice guide for anyone new to the concept of spellcasting, but those who seek new ideas beyond the usual stuff may find this to be a good source of inspiration.

It’s still another spell book, and I’ll admit the cover got the hairy eyeball from me. But if ya gotta have a spell book, you could do much, much worse than this creative approach.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

Daughters of the Witching Hill
Mary Sharratt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
352 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who graciously agreed to help me clean up my backlog of review books as I continue to slog through grad school.

In 1612, seven women and two men were tried and hanged as witches in Lancashire, England. Sharratt, who lives in Lancashire, has written an extraordinary fictional account of the lives of these alleged witches, the trial, and the times.
Cunning woman Elizabeth Demdike grew up in Catholic England, but when the Protestant Reformation makes her faith illegal, she still manages to use the prayers of her childhood to bless and cure her sick neighbors and their livestock. She is aided in her efforts by Tibb, a familiar spirit who loves her as her husband never did.

But Elizabeth’s best friend Anne is visited by a familiar spirit of her own, and chooses a different path than Elizabeth – one of curses and fear instead of healing and hope.

In time, Elizabeth’s granddaughter Alizon develops powers similar to her grandmother’s. Instead of learning to use them and consequently embracing the Old Religion (Catholicism), Alizon rejects her family heritage. When she has an unfortunate angry encounter with a peddler that leaves the man completely paralyzed on one side, charges of witchcraft are brought – not only on Alizon but also on her entire family and their closest friends. Alizon can only pray and not lose faith as the story reaches its tragic, inevitable conclusion.

Sharratt uses transcripts of the actual trials as the basis for the book, as well as stories and legends from around Lancashire. The result is an extremely well-written, highly detailed story that will effortlessly transport the reader to a time when James I was king and his book Daemonologie, was number one on the 17th century England bestseller list. It’s one thing to know the characters are, or were, real people. Sharrat brings them to full life, flaws and all, but without turning them into stereotypes. They could be your dotty grandmother, your annoying little sister, your childhood friend.

Which is not to say that, as a Pagan reader, this was a particularly easy read. Quite the opposite, in fact. New Pagans may feel outrage about the over-inflated “nine million” victims of the “Burning Times” but reading a detailed narrative of the arrest, trial and hanging of one young person has a much deeper emotional impact. I cried at the end. This book should be on every modern witch’s bookshelf.

Five gold paws out of five

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Dedicant by Thuri Calafia

Dedicant: A Witch’s Circle of Fire
Thuri Calafia
Llewellyn, 2008
342 pages

Note: This review originally appeared in an issue of newWitch magazine.

With the ratio of students to teachers and groups in the Neopagan community, self-directed systems for the neophyte are in demand. New author Thuri Calafia offers up the first in a planned series of books for this demographic. Similar to Christopher Penczak’s witchcraft series, Calafia’s Circles system is designed to lead the reader from the beginning, all the way through advanced material of her creation.

Much of the material is a rehash of the same standard stuff you’ll find in most Wicca/witchcraft 101 texts—there are the basic ritual tools, correspondences, Wiccan deity archetypes, and so forth. This book is simply Calafia’s interpretation and utilization of these, so it may be a good alternative for those who haven’t yet found an author they agree with.

It’s also unabashedly eclectic, and uses the “almost anything goes” definition of Wicca. If you’re more traditional about things, you’ll probably want to avoid this book. If you’re new to neopaganism, make sure that you read other perspectives along with this one.

I do have to give her credit for encouraging freedom of thought; for example, she leaves it up to the reader as to whether to utilize mild drugs in ritual work (or personal life) rather than preaching absolute abstinence. She also cites her sources with footnotes and includes a full bibliography, something I’ve noticed featured more in Llewellyn’s recent catalog.

For writing essentially a 101 text, Calafia does a great job of laying out the groundwork, and presents it in a unique, workable structure that’s easy to follow and offers a good scaffolding for self-development. Personally, I’d recommend this as a decent starting text with a few reservations, and I’m curious about what her later books will present.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Mystical Dragon Magick by D.J. Conway

Mystical Dragon Magick: Teachings of the Five Rings
D.J. Conway
Llewellyn, 2007
264 pages

Note: This review was originally published in an issue of newWitch magazine.

I’d heard this book was better than Dancing With Dragons; I’m sorry to say the mediocrity continues.

While this volume is supposed to be advanced dragon magic, it follows the poor formula found in entirely too many pagan books of skimming over a number of topics that are only loosely related. There are countless pages of the same stone, herb, and element correspondences that are found in numerous other books, and there’s additional magic 101 material—all with a few words about dragons tossed in for relevance.

Through the training in this book, one supposedly is able to become an enchanter, a warrior, a shaman, and a mystic. Yet these roles are primarily supposed to be achieved through an increasingly dazzling array of shiny ritual tools and trappings, and overly scripted guided meditations that leave little room for personal experience and exploration. If this is supposed to be more than a 101 book, I’m not impressed.

Conway’s research is seriously lacking. She doesn’t employ critical thinking in her material on Atlantis, instead choosing to take as fact anything that supports her views, no matter how sketchy. Her explanations of dragons in various cultures are overly simplistic and show an incomplete picture of extant lore. And while she has a sizable bibliography, some of the books are of questionable quality, and there are no in-text citations for tracing individual pieces of information.

To top it off, Conway is quite dogmatic in her views. While I have no doubt that this is her reality in truth, she present her own subjective experiences of dragons and the otherworld as universal fact. She perpetuates the inaccurate classifications of white, black and gray magicians, and in my review copy she states “No member of the Five Inner Rings [Conway’s dragon magic tradition] is ever called a priest, priestess, guru, master, or any other nonsense name” (22). I wonder how pagan clergy feel having their titles summarily dismissed thusly?

Between the rehashing of material from Dancing With Dragons, and the additional shallow treatment of several magical paradigms—and dragons themselves—I can’t recommend this book to any reader.

One pawprint out of five.

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