“Dublin Folk Tales” by Brendan Nolan (2012)

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dublin“It is very hard to be a storyteller in Dublin for everyone has a story to tell if you will but listen.”

Earlier this year I read Sussex Folk Tales, which was exactly what it said on the tin. About this time last year I was in Dublin and picked up this addition to the series because, well, I like a story.

As in the Sussex book, it lists a number of stories that have survived down through the ages that took place in and around Ireland’s capital. Most of them seem to take place more recently than those from Sussex and are far more focused on people than on fantastic creatures. Granted, there are a few about ghosts, pig-faced women, and monstrous creatures that stalk and kill through the streets at night, but the vast majority look at some of the city’s more eccentric residents.

Some of the characters here are well known, like Molly Malone, and it seems Dublin has hosted numerous famous people from the annals of history such as St Valentine and Little John, of Merry Men fame. Most of them, though, are just ordinary people. There’s Bang Bang, a simple-minded man who would pretend to shoot city residents with a key, delighting when they joined in and shot back or pretended to die. There’s the unsolved murder of Sarah Kirwan who may or may not have been drowned by her husband, the tales of headless coachmen who came to claim the bodies of the dead, the legend surrounding the famous Ha’penny Bridge, and the story of the coal that seemed to produce a miracle, and the Devil’s personal visit to the city’s Hellfire Club.

The stories aren’t ordered by area or age, but form a mixed bag of stories both entertaining and interesting. Dublin is a beautiful, colourful city and it is tales like this that will ensure it remains so. Just a short review today, but if you like Ireland, tall tales or spooky events, give this a go.


“Sussex Folk Tales” by Michael O’Leary (2013)

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sussex folk“When I was asked to tell stories at a place called Gumber Bothy, I thought it must be somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.”

I suppose that most people have a fondness for wherever they were brought up. Or, at the least, a fondness that means they can insult it but heaven help an outsider who tries. I happen to hail from Sussex, as far as I’m concerned, the most beautiful and interesting county (or rather, pair of counties, as it is divided into East and West) in the British Isles. Home to Rudyard Kipling, Simon Cowell, Virginia Woolf, Sir Patrick Moore among others, it also holds the claim to originating thirty variety of apple, and being the last place Lord Lucan was seen before he disappeared.

But Sussex is old, being one of the first places colonised in the British Isles as it used to be linked to the continent. It’s where the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 (near the town of Battle, not Hastings), and where the Home Guard of Dad’s Army were ready to fight on the beaches in World War Two. It has had a long history of mystery, magic and a fair bit of smuggling. Over time, stories have laced the landscape, from Gatwick Airport in the north and Brighton in the south, from West Wittering in the west, to Rye in the east. This book fills us in on those stories.

Moving around the county in a widdershins direction (anti-clockwise), O’Leary tells us many strange legends and myths. He is a professional storyteller by trade and argues that he’s not a folklorist, so cannot give explanations for anything that happens; he’s just interested in the stories themselves. He’s clearly passionate about his subject too, and constantly professes to us that he isn’t lying, because what would he have to gain from that? I’m prepared to accept all the stories as true.

It’s hard to say how many of them are well known to the wider world, but being from around here, I knew of a few of them. There’s Devil’s Dyke, a valley dug by Satan himself in an attempt to flood the county’s churches. He was bested by Old Nan, an elderly woman who lived in Amberley Swamp and turns up in numerous tales. She tricked him into fleeing before he’d finished, leaving behind an unfinished furrow and clods of Earth that became the South Downs and the Isle of Wight. Old Nan was known to be too, as I live near Nan Tuck’s Lane, a forested road where her shade still haunts and there’s a patch of ground among the trees where nothing ever grows. I was also aware of the Piltdown Man, who is not only a famous archaeological hoax, but also a strange Frankenstein-like creature who can catch you unawares as you drive through the village of Piltdown.

But there were so many other stories I had no knowledge of. There’s Lord Moon, the creepy moonlight trickster who leads people to their doom; Elynge Ellet, the frog-like demon who lives in marshland and steals your favoured possessions; Daniel Ratcliffe, the King of the Cats who walks on his hind legs and has no time for humans who are stunned by his ability to speak. And that’s before we get into the numerous knuckers (dragons) and pharisees (fairies) that seem to populate every lake and hill respectively within the county borders.

O’Leary also gives details on other stories that are well known but perhaps not usually linked to Sussex. The legend of the Flying Dutchman, the ship doomed to never arrive at shore, begins in Sussex when a man who killed his brother is sent to sea for penance, and Little Bo Peep is said to have originated somewhere in East Sussex. We learn why the Long Man of Wilmington is lacking in the private department (and why the Cerne Abbas Giant seems to be packing spare), what lives down in the Mixon Hole, and discover that folklore is still developing and growing with the new legend of Trevor’s Boots.

I may be biased, but when I stood last week looking out across the South Downs from atop the Seven Sisters cliffs (they’re probably the ones you mistakenly think of when you think of the White Cliffs of Dover) I find it impossible to not love Sussex, and this book brings home some of the magic therein. I’ve you’ve not been before, pop down and have a look round. I’ll get the beers in.

“Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes” by Cory O’Brien (2013)

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zeus“So everybody knows Zeus is the king of the gods right?”

Some people look at the myths and legends of old and go, “I can’t believe anyone used to believe that!” But be wary, because two thousand years from now the people of the future could well be saying that about the religions we’ve currently got going on.

Most people have some knowledge of a couple of the myths of old, because they’re still with us all over. Two major film characters at the moment are called Thor and Loki; the Mayan calendar messed everybody up a few years ago (how’s the end of the world going, by the way?) and the names of Greek and Roman gods are on pretty much everything – we even named our planets after them. But the reason they’re still not common knowledge to all is, I think, because in their original style and language, they aren’t exactly accessible. Enter Cory O’Brien and Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, a fully modern update of some of the more famous tales of world mythology.

O’Brien takes us through a whistle stop tour of the myths of many cultures including Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Mayan, Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Japanese, African, Chinese, Sumerian, Native American and even those that the modern USA have already invented for themselves. I will also say at this point before anyone turns against the book for assuming, say, “African mythology” is one single thing, O’Brien notes that there are many, many mythologies of Africa, and he’s just picked the stories he likes best.

But these are very, very modern retellings. They’re full of swearing, slang, tangents, modern references and sheer insanity. He laughs at names like Uranus, calls out characters on their stupidity, and isn’t afraid to get filthy quickly. For example, Zeus is introduced as “just cruisin’ around, right, pickin’ mortal women to bone”, and Loki is referred to as “the god of being a needless prick all the time”.

The story titles are also wonderfully descriptive. How spider god Anansi beat Death has the clickbait title, “Local Father Discovers Immortality with This One Weird Tip!”; the Greeks get stories like “King Midas is: GOLDFINGER” and “Narcissus Probably Should Have Just Learned to Masturbate”, and I don’t think I even need to describe the content of, “Noah Is on a BOAT”.

The final chapters bring it right up to date, with tales of America’s founding fathers, Scientology, and the current scientific theory of how the universe began.

Probably the most interesting thing about it is simply that you quickly realise that a lot of the early mythologies have a surprising amount of things in common. Both the Greek and Japanese tales involve a woman getting trapped in the underworld after eating pomegranates, trees of life are plentiful, and most of them have a great flood at some point or another. Are these coincidences, or was there early contact? Or, perhaps, there is some truth in what is said…

The style is fun, but the novelty wears off fairly quickly, although I must admit that all the creation myths are pretty interesting, and it’s fun to compare and contrast. It’s also great to see some of the lesser known mythologies like Sumerian and Mayan be played with. Also refreshing is the inclusion of Judeo-Christianity, showing both that it is merely a mythology and, particularly when written in this style, just as insane and unbelievable as what the Greeks came up with.

A fun and peculiar introduction to world mythology that is definitely not safe for anyone with a nervous disposition. But, then again, the myths never really were.

“Antigoddess” by Kendare Blake (2013)

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The gods are dying...

The gods are dying…

“The feathers were starting to be a nuisance.”

Long time readers and friends of mine will know that I’ve got a bit of a thing for the myths of ancient Greece. If, at gunpoint, I had to choose a religion to go for, it would be Hellenism. I like the idea that the gods are just as flawed and messy as humans, because surely only a flawed being (or race of beings) could create a world as conflicting and conflicted as ours. Initially wary, however, that an author was moving these well established characters of myth to the young adult genre, I was curious enough about the concept and the portrayal of the gods, so decided to plunge in.

This time round, however, the gods are dying, something that until now they thought was impossible. The story opens with Athena (choking slowly to death on feathers) and Hermes (body wasting away from the inside out) searching a desert for what remains of Demeter, who is now just a thin sheet of skin stretched out for miles on the desert sand, bracing herself for the day she rips apart. She warns that the gods are going to war again and they need to seek help from the prophetess of old, Cassandra.

She, however, has long since been reincarnated and is now a high school student with vague psychic powers that she sees as a mere fluke of brain chemistry. With no idea of who she once was or that gods are real, she has few worries greater than homework or getting grounded by her parents. But her boyfriend, Aidan, will go to the ends of the earth to protect her, especially when he realises that the gods are coming aftter her and he has to reveal his true nature. Athena and Hermes, however, are on a mission to find her and must first seek the help of the last of Circe’s witches and Odysseus, the hero of Troy, also reincarnated, to get a clue as to Cassandra’s whereabouts before the rival gods seek her out and use her for their own means. It’s a race against time as each day brings every god one step closer to their final breath.

Young adult fiction takes a bashing from critics (including from myself), but as with Patrick Ness, when it’s written well and doesn’t patronise the audience, it can be great. Refreshingly, there’s no love triangle here (although, given the nature of the Greek gods, I don’t doubt the sequels will have one or two) but there is an obsessive boyfriend. The best characters are the gods, and it’s nice to see some different ones take their position at front and centre stage. Hermes, Aphrodite and Apollo are all fairly standard in these sort of stories, but for once Zeus is nowhere to be found, Demeter gets the part of a supporting character (she’s usually lucky if she even gets named) and the main character is Athena, who I’ve only ever seen as a background character. Even more excitingly, the book emphasises that she is the goddess of battle, making a change from the fact she’s usually just seen as the goddess of wisdom.

It’s also nice to see how it includes the heroes of the time, such as Cassandra herself and Odysseus, as well as the descendants of the witches, who now run a high-end escort service and provide assistance in both the boardroom and the bedroom for anyone rich enough to afford them.

Some of the imagery is pretty powerful – Athena pulling feathers out from the roof of her mouth is actually quite vile – and it’s fast paced, perhaps slacking a little in the middle, but generally racing towards the dramatic (and surprising) conclusion. It uses the same old theme of morality – how there’s no black and white,  just shades of grey – but mixes it up by showing how the gods change sides over the centuries, and that everyone has their own reason for doing what they do; no one is the villain in their own story.

The book is billed as a trilogy but the second one is only out in hardback, so I’ll wait until the paperback release. However, I probably will return here, as I like the interpretations of the characters and am curious as to how and why gods would die.

To read my take on the nature of gods and witches, head to Amazon, iTunes, SmashWords or any other ebook retailer and find my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, where the two factions come together, somewhat against their will.


“The Gospel Of Loki” by Joanne M. Harris (2014)


gospel-of-loki[1]“All of us came from fire and ice.”

I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I’m a mythology nerd. I love the myths of old, and the idea that maybe the stories of our time will be myths for those distantly in the future. I even like to take concepts from them in my own writing, be they Greek, Egyptian, Celtic or Christian. The Norse myths are some of those that I’ve taken a passing interest in, but never settled down to study in any particular depth, so this was my chance. Another present from my editor friend and, by this time, I know that anything she selects for me will be a winner.

This is a retelling of the Norse myths from the point of view of Loki, the trickster god who caused more drama than delight in the days of old. As it turned out, I knew more about the Norse myths than I thought I did, but there were still amazingly wonderful surprises within.

Loki comes from Chaos. He’s been there for ages, but one day decides to escape and see what the other Worlds have to offer. He meets Odin, Allfather, who swears allegiance to him, an offer which means that Loki is now tainted and cannot return to Lord Surt in the Chaos. Not that he especially wants to, and if he tries, he won’t last an eyeblink.

Now he has to try and win the favour of the gods, phenomenal characters like dim-witted Thor, caring Sigyn, irritating Honir, and Freyja, who is unable to walk past a mirror without having a look at her own beauty. The book unfolds almost like a series of short stories, which I suppose myths generally are, so each time we see Loki struggling to deal with a new situation. They are all classic stories that we’ve come to expect from gods – someone is promised something insanely expensive or impossible, or a mortal is challenging the gods to a battle of some kind. Loki becomes known as a liar and a tricky customer, willing to trade the safety and well-being of his friends to achieve his own ends, and yet they keep him around simply because they know he can talk them out of anything. He’s a demon with an answer to everything. But then things go too far and he finds himself cast from Asgard as a prophecy begins to worry the others…

A superbly clever book, it isn’t the first to take a story and turn it on its head and show the events from the villain’s point of view (Gregory Maguire has done it on a number of occasions, and Maleficent is about to show the other side of Sleeping Beauty) but that hardly matters. It’s always interesting to see – especially when it’s done well – because, after all, every antagonist is the protagonist in his or her own story. The characters are all wonderfully interesting and as flawed as all the classical gods are – it’s the big thing the classic myths have going for them against Christianity and the like: the gods are all so human – you can’t help but feel a certain warmth for them, even, or rather especially, Loki.

Norse mythology appears to be undergoing a tiny resurgance at the moment, thanks mostly to the Marvel films and The Avengers in particular, which feature Thor and Loki in big parts, but that’s not a complaint because mythology is always welcome. Those films are so ubiquitous now, that it’s all but impossible to not imagine Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston reprising their roles in your mind for the novel. Again, not a complaint, as they’re perfect in those roles.

This is a stunning book and if you have even a passing interest in mythology, it’s definitely worth looking at. Hell, even if you don’t, it’s a hugely entertaining read with some of the most fascinating characters in history.

“Dionysus” by Walter F. Otto (1965)



Welcome to the cult.

“All of antiquity extolled Dionysus as the god who gave man wine.”

Mythology is something that has always interested me, in particular the Greek myths. I’ve read a few stories about them, and I’m writing one too, so I thought it was about time I did some research and looked up the history behind one or two of them. At least, that’s what ended up happening – I didn’t quite plan it like that.

I bought this book under the assumption that it was about the myths and would tell me all the wacky adventures that my second favourite Greek god Dionysus (Hermes, in case you’re wondering) had got up to. He was the god of madness, hedonism and wine, after all, so there were bound to be some stories. What I instead got was basically a textbook that was more suited to someone reading classical studies.

I’m not going to even suggest that the book is a laugh a minute, but it actually turned out to be pretty interesting. Dionysus appears to be a late addition to the pantheon, although no one’s quite sure where he came from. He only became one of the Twelve Olympians because Hestia gave up her seat for him. He was actually half-mortal, the son of Zeus and human Semele, and was actually born from Zeus’ thigh. (Don’t ask.) Surrounded all his life by women, he threw parties and gave people the gift of wine to that they could let loose and forget their inhibitions. However, he was also the god of insanity, being insane himself, and provoking in his female followers an animalistic nature that caused them to eat their own sons.

He is associated with the bull, snake, panther and goat, and was notable for once entering the Underworld, finding his mother and bringing her back out again, a feat that no other god ever seemed to pull off. He was a symbol of life and death, and there exists a constant duality around his personality. Some believe that he and Hades were actually one and the same.

The book is intriguing and goes into some detail that I would otherwise never have found out, but at the end of the day, it is a textbook and so there are some very dry passages and also far too many untranslated Greek terms. Still, if you’re really into your mythology, it’s worth a skim.

This has been a niche post. Carry on.

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