An unexpected adventure in sustainable living

From mid-July to October, my life is temporarily shifting gear a bit. We were asked to use up excess leave at work. Usually, this leave would be preciously cached for school holidays. I’d use it to look after my children in the summer holidays or family trips to see our loved ones who are overseas. Things are of course very different in 2020.

Whilst I could usually easily fill the time with house chores, cooking, D.I.Y., reading novels and walks to wild places, I have also been facing a new health challenge since March this year. It means that I really don’t know how much physical work I’ll be capable of over the next few months. I’m immunocompromised and my physical abilities have fluctuated over the last few months. Things may get worse before they get better. I know it’s time to be serious about it and to properly respect my limits. I start a journey of seeing specialists next week and I have really no idea about what this will involve.

To tackle a period of uncertainty like this, I just need a plan. At the core is something to keep my mind engaged, with a bonus if my body will allow me to do anything practical.

Frugally hedonistic retro suburban sustainable living (!)

Mind-bending. I’m starting the University of Tasmania Diploma of Sustainable Living distance course.

Two particular books will also be my inspiration for the next few months:

  1. RetroSuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a resilient future by David Holmgren
  2. The Art of Frugal Hedonism: a guide to spending less while enjoying everything more by Annie Raser-Rowland with Adam Grubb

I’ll be setting goals based on my learning experiences and aiming to write regularly to keep myself motivated and to share the learning adventure.

My steps may be small and slow, but I feel like I am taking new leaps into something I started a few years ago with the Living Smart sustainable living course and Geoff Lawton’s permaculture design certificate course.

Perhaps my focus will be mostly about how to take our current front-yard and back-yard farming approach just even further into the realms of permaculture and self-sustainability.

To me, this seems like a particularly basic but brilliant use of the most precious resource of all – time.

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A magical potting shed – The Burrow

Creating a magical potting shed

Back in February 2020, my husband converted the bespoke kid’s cubby house at the bottom of the garden into a roomier version that would be a potting shed for me. The kids had outgrown it and he achieved the transformation by dropping the floor height and cutting a larger door and patching up the floor.

I had never had my own shed before. I decorated the inside with things that I have had forever and leftover paint. I probably got slightly carried away, because The Burrow became something far more than I imagined.

The front of the potting shed showing a stone plaque of a green man and a handmade sign 'The Burrow'
A green man I’ve had for years from the UK. I made the sign from scrap wood

Potting sheds for practical magic

I didn’t imagine how important having a potting shed would be. I didn’t imagine loving a shed.

The front of the wooden potting shed showing a wooden door with a dragonfly knocker.
The door is recycled from an old house, split to form a barn door. The door handle from a different old door, the door knocker was a gift.

It is practical for gardening, because it makes seed keeping and sowing easier. I can now always find my tools and access things to keep my chickens happy.

Inside the potting shed with garden tools hooked onto spaces on the walls.
Places for some simple tools

But also, on another level, because I made it a place of whimsy, it’s just a quirky little space, a sanctuary where I can just have a cup of tea for five minutes. Where I feel connected to growing, the garden and permaculture thinking.

A few simple tools

I can fit regular small-scale seed sowing in more easily to life because it is an organised space. The kids have used the potting shed too, planting radishes and drawing art for inside it.

A panoramic photograph of the wooden bench in the shed.
Practicality – a potting bench with storage underneath

There is just something about it that feels…otherworldly. Looking at it, and stepping inside is strangely comforting. It’s real magic.

Reusing and upcycling

What I loved about this project was that we reused and recycled what we could. We bought the minimum items needed where we could not source second hand. My husband found an incredible old door for sale nearby and converted it into a half-opening barn door.

A photo of the potting shed with evening sun lighting the door.
Evening sun on the beautiful reclaimed door

Inspiration for “The Burrow”

Our chicken coop is called “The Bothy” so I needed a name for my potting shed. It felt right to call my potting shed “The Burrow” – a name borrowed from the Harry Potter series.

The window of the potting shed looking out to a young lemon tree.
The southern window, peeking out to the lemon tree

“The Burrow” potting shed is inspired by the quirky Weasley family home in the Harry Potter novels with a twist of Newt Scamander’s shed from Fantastic Beasts (alas, without the suitcase entry!). It’s also a bit of a Hobbity place somehow and a bit Beatrix Potter.

All fantastic worlds collide in my head, and my shed!

Looking in through the window, with cobwebs and a solar light inside.
Solar lights in a jar for a little light inside, cobwebbed windows encouraged
A leaf-shaped plate with the words of W B Yeats inscribed "The world is full of magic things patiently waiting for our sense to grow sharper".
A quirky plate with a quote from my favourite poet, W.B. Yeats
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
Seeds organised in old shoe boxes, flower presses
Saved Black hollyhock seeds with a bit of imagination and a broken but beloved mug.
An insect hotel made from bamboo sticks, attached to the outside of the potting shed.
Open to all fantastic mini-beasts – the insect hotel
A Beatrix Potter window decal.
Mixing in a bit of a Beatrix Potter

I used anything I had in the house – like a teapot that I loved but being clumsy, I had dropped it and broken the handle. Perfect for a bit of fun in the potting shed…

Mr Todd in a teapot. Peter Rabbit is on the shelf below.

Gardening like farmer, farming like a gardener

With a green man keeping a watchful eye on the outside of the burrow, it seemed right to have one on the inside. Who better than the source of inspiration for all my gardening adventures in Australia, but Costa Georgiadis!

I had a magazine page (from Earth Garden magazine) that I had stuck onto an old baking tray with a quote from Costa Georgiadis…

“And at the end of the day, it’s all about gardening like a farmer and farming like a gardener”

Costa Georgiadis
The potting shed wall with a portrait of Costa Georgiadis by Adelaide artists Joan and Rose.
A magazine page (Earth Garden) stuck onto an old baking tray
with a quote from Costa Georgiadis…

My brother and sister in law know I am a Costa Georgiadis fan and had bought me this beautiful art by local artist Joan and Rose. It just felt right to have Costa as a green man in the potting shed and I’m fairly sure it’s why the chickens love visiting the shed so much.

I had an epiphany learning how to build soil through his series ‘Costa’s Garden Odyssey’. Having Costa as the Southern Hemisphere green man of the inside of my potting shed seems right and I hope he doesn’t mind.

The potting shed wall with a portrait of Costa Georgiadis by Adelaide artists Joan and Rose.
Beautiful art by local artist Joan and Rose.

On a sunny day I can brew water for tea in my Sun Rocket solar camping kettle. The potting trolley (“Any plants from the trolley?”) was our second child’s baby change table, which my husband converted into a moveable potting table.

A Sun Rocket solar kettle outside the potting shed.
Sun Rocket solar camping kettle and the potting trolley.
A chicken sitting on the open barn door of the potting shed.
The chickens know that there is a chamber of secrets – a tasty cache of sunflower seeds inside.
Looking out from the potting shed in autumn.
Late autumn from inside the potting shed – the plum tree just losing its leaves
The Burrow, nestled at the bottom of the garden.
Our block is 874m2.

During the project, I kept a Potting Shed Pinterest board with images that were inspiration for the inside.

I hope sharing this modest little potting shed, “The Burrow” will give some of you some inspiration to pursue your own idea of a little magical upcycled potting shed.

You never know when you might need a little space for some spells of green magic in your life.

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The turn of the year

Although months later than usual, today I did one of my favourite annual rituals of taking a yield of beautifully scented wood from the Vitex agnus-castus known along the ages as Chaste Tree, Abraham’s Balm, Monk’s pepper amongst other mysterious names.

History of The Chaste Tree

Chaste Tree has an ancient history, with its use referenced in literature and poetry. It is still used today in herbal medicine practices.

In a medieval poem The Floure and the Leafe which was written anonymously in Middle English, a beautiful lady in white wears a crown of Vitex agnus:

“On her head, of leves fresh and grene,
So wele wrought, and so mervelously,
That it was a noble sight to sene.
Some of laurer, and some ful pleasantly
Had chapelets of woodbind, and sadly
Some of Agnus castus were also
Chapelets fresh. 

According to its effect on the human body, if Chaucer’s characters for example, had ingested this herb more, let’s just say that The Canterbury Tales would certainly have less rudey-bits and rumpy-pumpy! This herb could have saved me from SO MUCH blushing as a Medieval Literature student when having to read Chaucer aloud!

Harvesting Vitex agnus

I have written about this annual task before because of how seasonal the task feels as a ritual. I only began to value it in this way, as a recurring seasonal task after spending six months with my head in a permaculture course. I discovered that the actual yield is not about measuring the yield of wood…which is quite small.

It’s more about connection to the cycle of seasons. Thinking about the ancient history of this tree, valued enough to be in poem and story. A sensory trigger from the feel and scent of the beautiful wood.

You can cut Vitex down to ground level and you can grow it as a single trunk tree or shrub.

The Wood

What I love about this task is the scent of this wood. It is really unique and hard to describe. It reminds me of patchouli wood perhaps mixed with pine but far more distinct. When dried it retains its scent and burns sweetly.

The Floure

Stunning blooms of Vitex agnus

The white spikes of summer flowers are very similar to Buddleia and attract many butterflies, bees and hover flies. I’ve observed that native Australian blue-banded bees seem to find the white flowers fascinating, even though their preference is for blue hues.

Vitex agnus is just one of those quiet plants that I don’t see often, but is a special, brilliant and appreciated part of my small permaculture inspired garden.

Removing spindly flower tops

The start of a little scented stick pile which becomes a small armful.

The first phase, now ready for each branch to be taken.

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Cloud hypnosis

I was lucky enough to spend a few months wandering wild places and towns in England, Scotland and Wales in April and May with my little family.

With little time for writing, it is probably all going to emerge in bits and bobs and scratched together from hasty notes and reflections.

….

My first 6am cup of tea in the very early morning outdoors in the mountains of Scotland was magical. It is a time to listen and watch, so I fight the urge to photograph, and just try to etch mornings like these in memory.

Although tempting to gaze south-east at the stunning Ben Nevis range, which I certainly did photograph (above), I turned my back on such well-known beauty, clutched my tea and crunched through frosted grass to the edge of the western boundary. From there, the edge, I could watch the cloud transform the smaller mountains to the North and West, where the sun and cloud were playing.

I have no words for the morning. There was bright and complex bird song in the forest. Birds I can’t yet name. The light on the mountains was salmon-pink and sherbert-orange. I stood still and saw cloud spilling down the hillside, creating almost the sense of a rainbow as it played with sunlight on slopes. I heard the wings of birds in the stillness. Nearby, below the grassy slope, I heard the soft tread of sheep.

Wispy and slow, cloud came curling down towards me, brushing the tips of pine trees, before quietly and secretly seeping through every branch. Dampening everything from birdsong to vision, there is nothing more gentle in nature that steals away so much beauty, creating a new beauty of its own. It was hypnotising, leaving nothing but a veil of white in its wake. The gentlest wave.

Tea in cold dregs, I turned around to go back to the cottage to find the cloud had also been creeping down my neck behind me.

All was cloud and cloud was all, and that is all. For now.

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Epic authors: Charles de Lint

I discovered Charles de Lint books when I really needed to.

A bookish life

It was 1995. I was an undergraduate uni student, studying librarianship and majoring in literary studies. I had never imagined going to university. No one in my family had been. I was shy and scared of people. I felt a sense of awe and terror that I was actually studying James Joyce and Chaucer in heritage listed buildings in the city. I also felt very so very out of place there. I thought someone was going to wake me up and tell me there had been an admissions mistake. I even began to have panic attacks on the way to Middle English literature tutorials because I didn’t feel good enough to be there.

Struggling financially to afford textbooks,  living at home and travelling into the city each day to study books felt like a fanciful luxury. An income would have been preferable to help our household. I needed work to stay in uni, at a time when part-time jobs were hard to find in Adelaide.

I had always dreamed of working in a bookshop.  I could be brave in writing, so I wrote to all the bookshops in the city and told them how much I wanted to work there. I received lots of rejections.

However, for one shop, the timing had been perfect. I met the bookshop owner and soon had my own set of keys to the shop in my first job! It was an hour on the bus which gave me plenty of time to read two novels a week. I had taken on an extra literature subject at uni so that I could study more genres.

Every minute of the day was about books!

The bookshop dream

The book shop I worked in itself wasn’t fancy. It had bright red carpet, trestle tables stacked with books and chipboard shelving around the edges. It was a small business in the city, run by a mother and father who had a baby daughter. It was partly a remainder book shop. The owner would sometimes travel to the UK to buy remainders and bring them back to Adelaide to sell. Our collection is what made us. If you could look beyond our lack of high-brow atmosphere, you could find sought after quirky titles, gorgeous art books and hard to find gems. We had a loyal band of customers ranging from bargain hunters, people just waiting on a bus, to those who knew what they were looking for. Our word of mouth trade was amazing.

The shop also had a few small shelves of full price novels.

Moonheart

It was at those shelves, in my first week there that Moonheart written in 1984 by Charles de Lint cast its spell. It fell onto the floor at my feet. Whilst this wasn’t unusual with our packed shelves, I still get an odd feeling when I think about that moment. As if this book actually wanted to be read. The cover art by David Bergen was undeniably part of the enchantment.

Moonheart by Charles de Lint Cover art by David Bergen, Pan Books, 1990.

Finding Charles de Lint

The funny thing about finding Charles de Lint was that in 1998, Charles de Lint was impossible to find in Adelaide in other bookshops.  I know because I tried. We stocked them even though our fantasy section was incredibly small.

I was allowed to read a little in the shop, if it was quiet. I think we sold more Charles de Lint books by having them noticed on the counter. The magic of those David Bergen covers. As I had so much other reading to do for my studies, this is how I read de Lint. In snatches of time, in the in-between places. Late night buses home.

It may have been the cover that grabbed me, but it was Charles de Lint’s writing that owned me.

The mythical and magical woods

After that one book, Charles de Lint catapulted to be being my favourite author.  I read Greenmantle, SpiritWalk, The Little Country, everything, until we ran out of de Lint paperbacks. De Lint stories taught me something that changed the way I looked at the world. I found a way to celebrate always feeling like a misfit at a time when I was in a place where I felt that I didn’t really belong.

Urban fantasy

Charles de Lint’s urban fantasy stories are rich with relatable folk musicians, bikers, creative thinkers, fringe dwellers, down to earth and relatable female characters and wild gods that walk in urban neighbourhoods. They are true-hearted everyday dreamers and artists. Urban places in countries far away are linked to the magical mythologies of others. In Moonheart, that began with modern downtown Ottawa to the wild mythology of Wales.

The sound of reading

Charles de Lint also included references to celtic folk music, a love that spawned in my 20s. Characters tapped their toes to real bands like Silly Wizard in the text. In the Author’s notes he cited other musical influences the book was written along to.

Greenmantle and Yarrow, Pan Books. Cover art David Bergen.

Those stories helped me see the magic in everyday little things, wherever I was. They also helped me overcome my shyness. At the time, I learned to value the interesting wanderers who would come into the shop on Sunday afternoons especially. Those who wanted small talk with their books. My favourite became a bearded wizardly gentleman who I secretly affectionately called ‘Merlin’. He would come in on the weekends and there would be conversations about some very esoteric philosophy. He could have walked right out of a de Lintian novel as an echo of ancient Taliesin.

Newford and Tamson House

A series of Charles de Lint books is known as The Newford series. They are all set in a fictional version of Ottawa which straddles the Otherworld, with characters that return throughout the series.

Newford, although fictional became part of my inner cache of imaginary geography. Tamson House, an immense artist share-house with three towers and a “sense of Gothic” still feels like a real place years after reading these books. I would love to wander in the four acre wild garden in the middle, filled with fruit trees, ivy, birch and oak trees and vegetable beds accessed by cobblestone paths.

I’m wasn’t alone in my enchantment with Tamson House. 1998 was the dawn of the graphical web. I found other fans running a mailing list based on the fictional house in the books, Tamson House mailing list (viewable but most hyperlinks are dead)

Someone has now even mapped the theoretical location of Tamson House in Google Maps.

De Lint taught me that hectic urban everyday environments, have their own gentle undercurrent of magic and mystery. You just need to notice it. Sometimes I would even imagine that our humble shop might also magically straddle the Otherworld too. Perhaps the shop would lead right into the Merry Dancers Old Bookshop and Emporium from de Lint’s books. Charles Vess has created a very beautiful illustration of that shop it in the 20th anniversary illustrated edition of Moonheart. One day, I hope a copy falls at my feet in a bookshop.

Some twenty years later

Ouch, that’s a lot of time. In 1998 you couldn’t just order books online easily. I couldn’t find them in my local library either, so it would be a few years before I moved to the UK and had enough disposable income to continue to explore Charle de Lint’s incredible output.

Now I have a modest shelf of Charles de Lint books, including some special editions I have bought over the years. How I see the world is still influenced every day by these stories that showed me the wonder and wild of everyday magic. A reminder that there is always some way of belonging exactly where you are.


The Wild Wood Charles de Lint. Cover art Stephen T. Johnson Orb Books, 1994.

 

Seven Wild Sisters by Charles de Lint. Illustrated by Charles Vess. Little, Brown and Company. 2014.

 

Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint. Cover art Mike Dringenberg. Subterranean Press, 2009.

 

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint. Illustrated by Charles Vess. Little, Brown and Company. 2013.

 

Charles de Lint has given readers decades of stories that have a power far beyond what he might have ever intended to send out into the world. They reached a young girl, living in a council house with her mum and brother and stepfather in the suburban outskirts of a city in Australia. They made the feeling of being an outsider, that feeling of being from the wrong side of the tracks, something to be proud of. I learned to tap deeply into those dream trees growing all around me. I understood how to grow other people through writing.

If I ever met Charles de Lint, I would try feebly to say how lucky I am that those stories came to me in my 20s. I would not be a wisp of the person I am today, without them.

Find out more about Charles de Lint’s magical writing at charlesdelint.com

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Mythopoeia

I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

Tolkien – Mythopoeia

I can remember the first time I discovered my favourite word, over twenty years ago.

I had never heard of it before. It was like a spell and a word that I have revisited in wonder, trying to understand it.

mythopoeia

I didn’t discover this word in a place that made me feel connected to something else.

It wasn’t when I was standing in the ancient forest of Broceliande.

Or The Old Library in Trinity College.

Or when a gilt title of a book glinted out of the corner of my eye in a bookshop in Edinburgh’s Old Town.

Or among the stones of the Ring of Brodgar on the Orkneys .

Or in a thunderstorm at the tomb of Newgrange in Ireland.

Or when a dragonfly landed on my hand, when I had just asked it to.

Or the moment in the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland when I realised I had come to in Rivendell-on-earth.

Not even in the dawn, as the sun rose on the raw red rock face of the rugged outback landscape that I was born surrounded by.

No. It was in an unexordinary discount city-centre bookshop in the city of Adelaide,  rummaging through the sale bin.

There, I found a book. Just one copy. In 1998.

A word jumped out at me

mythopoeia

The book was The Magical World of the Inklings by Gareth Knight, about J RR Tolkien, C S Lewis, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield written in 1990.

The preface is titled On Mythopoeia and Magic.

Mythopoeia as I first understood it, standing in that bookshop, is a word that Gareth Knight equates to the word magical in the introduction.

Writers who were “capable of creating a ‘magical world’…a way of evoking the creative imagination of the reader to participate through story and landscape and characters in a deeper level of truth or reality.” (p.4 Gareth Knight)

This treasured book helped me understand the deep power of storytelling, the power of language and how some writers quest to create a sense of myth and legend in imagined worlds.

It is a word on the tip of my tongue in every landscape that moves me as I grapple to find words for what feeling is. It is the love and the longing to explore literary landscapes.

In more recent years, the word mythopoeia has been conjured through reading mythologist and storyteller Martin Shaw’s books, particularly Scatterlings (which I will one day write an entire post about!)

For the last 20 years I’ve been taking people out into the wild places, the few remaining wild places in Britain. And also that to a certain curiosity into where does wildness still reside in language itself? Could there be places witin stanzas, within stories, within poems where old gods still reside? And so quite naturally I’ve been brought back into story as a way of articulating wild information. Information from the ages.

Martin Shaw – Storytelling from the edge

I still don’t understand what I mean when I say mythopoeia, or try to describe it. I do know what it feels like.

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D.I.Y. Harry Potter accessory on a budget: make your own Monster Book of Monsters (with optional interactivity)

I love when I get a chance to mix books with coding. Particularly using free software like Scratch or low-cost technology like Makey Makey. I would love to share more of this and it’s a passion that I fit into my spare time around work and volunteering. I try to use these little maker projects in the Code Club I volunteer in so that kids can enjoy hacking them too!

This post explains how I made a DIY version of the The Monster Book of Monsters by Edwardus Lima on a budget. This furry textbook first features in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Affordable Hogwarts school study supplies

As we know, at the start of the year, students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry stock up on school supplies from shops in Diagon Alley. I’m willing to speculate that the required magical textbooks costs as much as Muggle textbooks! This also doesn’t include working your way through Hermione Granger’s recommended reading list.

What is a young budget-concious student wizard to do?

Well, why not save your precious wizarding galleons to spend on sweets at Honeydukes or tankards of Butterbeer in The Three Broomsticks?

Save money on textbooks by transforming any old hardcover book into a do-it-yourself version of the essential textbook for Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures third year class, The Monster Book of Monsters.

I converted an 1800’s (already damaged) Latin book into my very own monstrosity. I used some air drying clay and a $2 blanket I bought from a charity shop.

My creation wasn’t perfect. My teeth sculpting skills are a bit naff. I took this book out to Harry Potter events, mostly embarrassed by it. To my amazement, lots of people wanted to pat, stroke and cuddle it. Many loved that it was a real book. Perhaps I do have a career in magi-orthodontics ahead!

But, something was missing. In the Harry Potter stories and films, The Monster Book of Monsters is an untamed beast of a book. It constantly attacks anyone who comes near. I soon began to imagine how wonderful it would be if my book could made a sound in response to Muggle touch.

An effective guardian for your beloved Harry Potter editions, but inanimate!

A book that bites the hand that reads it.

“Hasn’ — hasn’ anyone bin able ter open their books?” said Hagrid, looking crestfallen.
The class all shook their heads.
“Yeh’ve got ter stroke ‘em,” said Hagrid, as though this was the most obvious thing in the world. “Look —”
He took Hermione’s copy and ripped off the Spellotape that bound it. The book tried to bite, but Hagrid ran a giant forefinger down its spine, and the book shivered, and then fell open and lay quiet in his hand.
“Oh, how silly we’ve all been!” Malfoy sneered. “We should have stroked them! Why didn’t we guess!”
“I — I thought they were funny,” Hagrid said uncertainly to Hermione.
“Oh, tremendously funny!” said Malfoy. “Really witty, giving us books that try and rip our hands off!

Chapter 14 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Hooking the book up to Makey Makey and Scratch so that anyone could make their own monsterous sound effects play when the book was stroked, was the next evolution for this old book.

Adding a hidden pressure switch inside, attached to Makey Makey and a laptop or computer running Scratch will play sounds when anyone gently pats your Monster Book of Monsters.

Background about the project

Read more about the background of the project here in my AACE Review article: Of Monsters and Tech: Making an interactive book with Scratch and Makey Makey.

Video of the interactive Monster Book of Monsters

This video shares the lovely monster sounds that the kids, teachers and librarians created, when I took my Monster Book of Monsters into the Code Clubs I volunteer in. (turn sound on)

Makey Makey Labz Guide

To see the project broken down into steps, see the Makey Makey Labz guide I put together here: Interactive Monster Book: Makey Makey and Scratch.

There are so many ways that this project could be extended and bettered!

Let your imagination go wild! Oh, and a final word of warning…

The Monster Book of Monsters can behave very unpredictably….

The Wild Librarian
A distressing snapshot of The Wild Librarian
being nibbled by her wild creation.
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Book Review: A Darkness of Dragons (Songs of Magic #1) by S. A. Patrick


This is a personal unsolicited review of a public library copy of S. A. Patrick, A Darkness of Dragons (Songs of Magic #1), Usborne, November 2018, ISBN 9781474945677 

What sorcery is this?

I first stumbled upon A Darkness of Dragons by S. A. Patrick through the Waterstones Book of the Month list for November 2018. The stunning cover illustration by artist George Ermos was part of an instant appeal to seek out this book. It’s a truly magical looking paperback and I’ve found a new fantasy illustrator to follow. A Darkness of Dragons went straight onto my list of books that my eleven-year-old dragon-mad daughter might want to read. She is an avid reader of Tui Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series.

We walked into our tiny local library on Christmas Eve, and in a serendipity that felt magical in itself, there, on full display on top the children’s shelf, was A Darkness of Dragons! As my daughter had a huge tower of books, I begged her to let me read this first while I had a gap between deadlines for reviews of other books…

Be still my heart, this is one of the most achingly engaging fantasy adventures I have recently read.

Although I am supposed to be purchasing fewer books, I’m afraid this is going straight to my must- purchase pile after reading it.

Sincerely this:- if you love tales of fantasy adventure, this book should be your next read.

I’m sorry that my review of this book is quite long, but I need to say all of this, even if it is just for me to capture the feeling of reading it for the first time. If you are short on time, don’t waste time reading my words, just go out and read this book now!

However, if you need convincing, I’m going to try and write clearly and sensibly…actually…nope… I’m not, this is going to come right from the heart…

Conjuring echoes

In A Darkness of Dragons, S. A. Patrick takes me back to the feeling I got when I began reading some of my most loved series. Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter,  Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings. Most recently, the same with Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor. This story has a dark edge a bit like Alan Garner’s books. A spookiness of Robert Holdstock. A darkness of Susan Cooper. Within a few chapters A Darkness of Dragons earned a permanent place in my inner cache of imagined fantasy literary worlds that I can call on when doing mundane tasks like hanging washing. (I hope everyone has one of these inner caches, otherwise forget I just mentioned this!)

An epic imagined landscape

Just pines and mountains in Scotland
(or…is this resting on route to the Gemspar Mountain Range? on the edge of the Dragon Territories? or the Islands of the Eastern Seas?)

The story opens in the village of Patterfall, clad with pines, mountains, snow and forest. There is no map in the book, but there could be. (Maybe in Book #2??) The story traverses landscapes of mountains, forests, seas and vividly described vistas with names that remind me of imaginary childhood adventures, lying awake in Australia listening to the exotic names of the BBC shipping forecast at midnight on the radio and dreaming of adventures beyond my town. (Again, ignore this if it’s abnormal).  It’s difficult to describe the feeling of a new fantasy world that feels so very plausible and believable. The laws and ways things are, are unreal, but in a way that does not jar with possibility. It’s actually very hard to cast such a spell with an imagined world with so many characters this quickly, but S. A. Patrick does it. What really excites me is that it feels so very richly mythopoeic, even having its own language, Merisax. Patrick’s world of Patch Brightwater and his friends is instantly habitable, and yet it also has some incredibly biting edges too. I could feel the darkness creeping in chapter by chapter. This contributes to the absolute compulsion to carry this book everywhere with me so that I could snatch a read at any opportunity.

Kangaroo Island, South Australia (or the Dragon Wastes?)

Three friends on an adventure

Patch Brightwater is an instantly likeable, imperfect 13 year old. (Note: some descriptions say Patch is 12, but there are multiple specific references in the book to Patch being 13, the same age as his friend Wren). On the surface, his recent illegal acts make Patch a criminal. However, Patch’s compassion, acts of kindness and charity, truly challenge us to think about how the judgement of good and bad deeds are made. Patch’s friends, Barver the dracogriff (half dragon, half griffin) and Wren, a girl who is cursed by a sorcerer to live as a rat are inspiring, brave and wonderful characters. They are complex and believable as friends. I developed a soft-spot for Barver’s personality quirks. S. A. Patrick has created a believable half dragon, half griffin who interacts seamlessly with a diverse spectrum of primary and secondary characters. This isn’t easy writing territory! The dialogue emerges from diverse characters ranging from salt-of-the-earth personalities through to the cruel and deranged. We meet powerful and imposing law keepers, dragons, rats, sorcerers, witches, monks and more, all who feel so very genuine.

A dark spin on a terrifying folktale

At first, the idea of a retelling of the “fairy tale” of the Pied Piper of Hamelin didn’t immediately appeal to me. I thought I already knew how that story would go, because my own childhood had rather sugar-coated versions of this story. Although I love folklore, not knowing the depth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story, I was a bit concerned that this might be tame tale territory. I urge you to let the title lead you. There is a terrible darkness in the original folklore of the Hamelin Piper, a German folk story dating back to around 1284. Various versions evolved, based on real events, twisting branches from the original story. S. A. Patrick has a gift in conjuring an ancient evil from the roots of the story. It will thrill young adults and grown-ups alike.

There be dragons…and music!

Another ancient piper .

Although Songs of Magic as a series will undoubtedly attract fans of dragon-based tales, there is another theme accompanying the fantasy. The magic of making music. S. A. Patrick’s ability to weave in the art of piping, whistling and playing music through Patch as a young piper, should pull at the heartstrings of anyone who has ever trembled because of a piece of music. Patch’s description of piping skills led my thoughts to the ghosts of my grandfather and those before him as traditional Scottish pipers. I remember my failed childhood attempts at trying to cast a single note on a bagpipe chanter, and then watching spellbound as my grandpa produced songs from the chanter, his fingers waving and moving as if conjuring magic. The passages describing Patch’s playing took be back to these childhood moments. For younger readers, Patch as a thirteen-year-old discovering his own music is so relevant for readers in this age group. Afer all, music is often the first time we can find a way to express the complexity of what we hold inside us, that words sometimes can’t muster.

Dragons at arm..chairs

The real magic

This is S. A. Patrick’s first novel for younger readers, but under his name as Seth Patrick, he has a series of horror for grown-ups (The Reviver trilogy) if you are so inclined.

I also had a moment of enlightenment on reading that Seth Patrick has a game programming and mathematics background. This makes a lot of sense! I can begin to understand where his power as a writer and scaffolder of imagined worlds emerges from. In A Darkness of Dragons, Patrick is beautifully demonstrating my belief that computer coding and computational thinking have elements transferable to creative writing. I wonder if this is the secret ingredient that I can’t quite explain as to why this imagined world works its enchantment so quickly. Patch’s world unfolds with a structural efficiency, a necessary underlying logic and a sequence needed to lay good strong foundations for a first-in-series fantasy novel. Yet, whilst staying true to the conventions and rules of a novel, there are still so many surprises, unexpected results and lingering questions for our minds to ponder. Although there is structure, there is space made for big hearts to feel things keenly, and amusing comments and asides to explain context so that everything feels naturally unfolding. There is a perfect tension of order and chaos, compiled with enough complexity to keep you turning pages.

Songs of Magic – the series

I truly can’t wait for Patch Brightwater’s next adventure with his friends. I hope some small snippet of my raving enthusiasm encourages you to read it and also purchase this novel to support an incredible author of young adult stories, S. A. Patrick.

In the meantime, if you find yourself in need of friendship, magic and courage, head to the Usborne website, there is a Song of Magic for recorder that you can listen to and learn to play.

S. A. Patrick, A Darkness of Dragons (Songs of Magic #1), Usborne, November 2018, ISBN 9781474945677 

And finally, just because reading the book conjured a song for me…

If this book was a song!

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