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Fly Girl's Cabinet of Curiosities

curated by Thornton Rigg

Raphael: The Drawings : Ashmolean, Oxford

… intimate and exhilarating …

Raphael sketch

I don’t know about you but I often prefer sketches to finished paintings. They are more intimate, more approachable and, ultimately, more engaging than a finished work. The fragments, smudges and re-worked lines get me closer to the artist’s creativity than the varnished perfection of an oil or fresco. And I have, I confess, always found Raphael a little too perfect to love.  But I was bowled over by this exhibition. His virtuosity is breathtaking and his experimentation truly exhilarating.

The Ashmolean has brought together a stunning exhibition of 120 sketches. Fifty works come from their own collection, the largest and most important group of Raphael drawings in the world and loans from other international collections including the Louvre, the Uffizi and the Queen’s Private Collection.

There’s also a very good short film running through the different techniques and media used : charcoal, chalks, metal point and ink.

The show is crowded so to avoid shuffling along, try to go at the edge of a day. I would also recommend a tactic which works particularly well at the Ashmolean where visitors want to linger over the detail of every single picture. I walk straight through the exhibition to the last of the three rooms and work backwards. This final room is always the least crowded as gallery fatigue sets in for many people at the end of the second room … when they see the exit sign (and a coffee beckons).

Raphael: The Drawings at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford runs until 3 September 2017. The show will now be open on Monday 14 and Monday 21 August (the museum is not usually open on Mondays) as well as being open until 8pm on Friday 25 August and Saturday 2 September. Usual opening times for the Ashmolean are 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday, and Bank Holidays. For further details about the museum and the exhibition, follow the link here to their own website.

Corpse Light : Angela Slatter

… great fun urban fantasy with a kick-ass female lead …

urban fantasy brisbane

Verity Fassbinder is half Weyrd and half norm – a status which makes her well placed to police the blurred lines between the normal and the shadowy in the city of Brisbane. When an insurance company gets troubled by an “Unusual Happenstance, Verity is called in and the threads of the situation unfurl to coil around her friends and her family, and ultimately Verity herself.

Angela writes with great style and economy. The story line is fast and furious with lots of fabulous characters and relationship twists but, most of all, I’ve waited all year to spend time with Verity again. She is loud mouthed, full of heart and this time, she’s very, very pregnant.

Recommended.

Angela Slatter is an award-winning author of short story collections for which she has won the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award and five Aurealis Awards. Vigil, the first Verity Fassbinder book, was her first solo novel. Angela lives in Brisbane, Australia.

Cover design moment: The illustration of a Kitsune (fox) assassin is by Rory Kee, who is name credited on the back and appears to work for Quercus quite a bit – though unfortunately I can’t find a website for her.

Corpse Light by Angela Slatter was published by Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus, on 13th July 2017. This is the second in Angela’s Verity Fassbinder series. Restoration, the third, is hopefully out next year.

A Skinful of Shadows (Extract) : Frances Hardinge

… deliciously atmospheric …

frances hardinge costa lie tree

Frances Hardinge‘s next novel is a thrillingly dark tale of witchcraft and possession set during the turbulent Civil War of the C17th. I have been given a First Five Chapters promotional extract by my indie bookseller, Emily, at Emily’s Bookshop. Thanks, Em!

The fierce Makepeace feels friendless and awkward. She is no more than a servant in her Uncle’s house. Her distant mother frequently locks the girl in a disused chapel at night.  “You need to stay here and sharpen your stick.” For the woman knows there are ghosts that will try to invade Makepeace’s mind. Out on the marshes one day, she tries to rescue a dying animal, and the creature’s spirit becomes part of her. As a “by-blow”, she is sent to live at Grizehayes, her grandfather’s house, and this is where the adventure really begins …

… and I can’t wait to read the rest of it!

Frances has conjured up another passionate, caring outsider in Makepeace. Her character alone would make me read on. But this girl combined with the C17th and witchcraft is my idea of heaven. As always, her turn of phrase is sparkling: the terrifying minister whose preaching contains “love like a cold white comet”; and her pacing of the exposition is spot on, trailing just enough clues for the reader to guess at what’s to come.

Highly recommended.

Cover design moment: The gorgeous cover, reminiscent of mille fleur tapestry patterns, is by the very talented Romanian illustrator, Aitch. More of her work can be found here.

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge will be published by Pan Macmillan on 21st September 2017.

Collecting the World : James Delbourgo

… enjoyable, fascinating history …

sloane history british museum

Hans Sloane, the eighteenth century doctor, plantation owner and natural historian was wealthy and committed enough to amass the largest collection of artefacts in England, if not the entire world. After his death, the collection went on to become the foundation stones of the British Museum.

Entertaining and informative, James Delbourgo‘s biography, Collecting the World. The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane is a delightful read. James is a Professor of Science History at Rutgers University and his enthusiastic and thoughtful style is just right for such a complex and fascinating history as this. James steers his way through the social niceties of who was allowed to see (or even taste!) his collection to the harsh realities of the slave trade, from the vast and complex network of correspondents to Hans’ dream of a universal knowledge of God’s creation.

My only slight quibble was the lack of detail over his marriage to the wealthy widow, Elizabeth, their children or his extended family.  These were only mentioned in relation to the collection and I would have liked to know a little more to complete the picture. As the focus is on the man and his collection, I suppose this side of the story could be justifiably dropped.

Given my fascination with Wunderkammer, I was particularly interested in the opening section where James lays out the history of these Curiosity Cabinets – the generous footnotes and references should keep me going for the Summer!

Highly recommended.

If your appetite has been roused, I’ve come across an online exhibition: Voyage to the Islands, Hans Sloane, Slavery and Scientific Travel in the Caribbean in which James Delourgo uses items from John Carter Brown Library based in Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA.  Click through here for a browse.

This is my fifteenth review in the British Books Challenge 2017.  Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.

Cover design moment: The beautiful and satisfying design using period engravings is by Richard Green, who is name checked on the flyleaf. A selection of his brilliant work can be found here.

Collecting the World. The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane by James Delbourgo was published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, on 15th June 2017.

Strange Magic : Syd Moore

… great fun, witchy mystery …

fantasy book review witch magic

A chase across England after the bones of Ursula Cadence, a C16th witch, before the ghost of her son does something extreme.

Syd’s deft writing establishes the protagonist, Rosie Strange, as the new owner of the run down Essex Witch Museum whilst smoothly setting up the working (and love/hate) relationship between her and the museum curator, Sam Stone.

The relaxed breezy style and numerous Essex jokes belie the amount of research that obviously went into the novel’s background.  These details add depth and thoughtfulness to an otherwise lightweight read. This isn’t a criticism but more of a comment on an interesting juxtaposition between the constant froth of Essex humour against the dark witchcraft subject matter. This contrast is further highlighted by the fact that in her acknowledgements Syd explains she has tried to get funding for a witchcraft museum – and still hopes one day to achieve this dream; and yet the novel’s by-line on the cover is “The only way is witchcraft” – a reference to the popular British reality soap, “The Only way is Essex” which full of love triangles, fake tans and hair extensions. There’s a lovely 5 minute Youtube clip of Syd Moore explaining the 1980s prejudice, comparison between witches and Essex girls, and her revisioning of them both here.

A thoroughly enjoyable holiday mystery and I am looking forward to the next in the Essex Witch Museum series.

Syd Moore lives in Essex.  She has been a lecturer and a TV presenter before becoming a writer.

This is my fourteenth review in the British Books Challenge 2017.  Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.

Cover design moment: Superb design by James Jones: clear, vibrant, stand out from shelf kind of work.  Lovely to see that this Art Director of One World name checked on the back and mentioned by Syd Moore in her acknowledgements for the “gobsmacking Oh-my-god-I-love it so-much jacket design”. Bravo!  A selection of his brilliant designs can be found on his Tumblr feed here.

Strange Magic by Syd Moore was published by Point Blank, an imprint of One World, on 4th May 2017. A sequel, Strange Sight, is due to be published in October 2017.

 

 

Godblind : Anna Stephens

… brilliant grimdark fantasy …

grimdark fantasy

Exciting and well written, Godblind proves that debut novelist Anna Stephens can handle a multiple narrative epic with flare and skill. Roughly in the same field as George RR Martin‘s Game of Thrones series, there’s much intrigue, fighting and moral ambiguity with some charismatic personalities including Dom, the reluctant seer; Rillirin, the escaped slave, and Captain Crys Tailorson. Anna is a fantastic story teller and the novel packs enough twists amongst the battles and assassinations to keep the pages turning fast.

Having 10 characters’ view points was a challenge for me.  I would recommend choosing a moment when you can read a substantial amount in one sitting to establish as many of the characters’ story lines as possible.  In her blog, Anna reveals that her editor asked her to take four more strands out.  Thank you, Natasha the Editor.

As this is grim dark, there are some gruesome scenes including one particularly nasty sacrifice to the Red Gods  … so not for younger readers.

Recommended.

Anna Stephens works in corporate communications for an international law firm.  She has a BA (Hons) in Literature and a Diploma in Creative Writing, both from the Open University.  She has a chatty and entertaining website here where she reveals inflatable guitar playing at her wedding.

This is my thirteenth review in the British Books Challenge 2017.  Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.

Cover design moment: As this is an ARC, it’s a riff on the final cover and there are no credits for the designer yet. If I do find more details, I’ll update the review. In short, I like it!  It sets the tone for the book: bold, epic and intriguing. With red and black tones and messy background,  it clearly positions the book as grimdark.  Whilst searching for the creative, I happened on this lovely “Cover Reveal” interview over at Fantasy Faction.

Anna has been in touch.  The cover design is by Dominic Forbes, the Managing Designer at Harper Collins UK. This means he commissions and art directs others as well as finding the time to design.  A small selection of his own work can be found here.   

Godblind by Anna Stephens will be published by Harper Voyager, an imprint of Harper Collins, on 15th June 2017 in the UK. Sequels are due for publication in 2018 and 2019. 

It was lent to me by Emily who runs Emily’s Bookshop in Chipping Campden. Thanks, Em!

 

Snowshill Manor

… fascinating collections and beautiful gardens …

Snowshill Cotswolds

Snowshill Manor is rather like a over stuffed toy box.  There are simply too many things, too many rooms, for anyone to take in on a single visit. This is not a criticism but take my advice, don’t try a studious approach and examine every last cabinet and corner, your brain will start to protest and you’ll be there for hours. Instead roam around, ignoring much and stopping only where your fancy wills. Believe me, you’ll thank me after the 21 rooms over 3 floors crammed full of THINGS.

Charles Paget Wade was rich and whimsical.  His eclectic collections are theatrical and fascinating. There’s the gloomy, atmospheric Green Room stuffed with Samurai armour and the attic of A Hundred Wheels, full of carts and bicycles; a small landing full of Dolls’ Houses and Ann’s bedroom of C17th furniture.

Cotswolds Arts and Crafts Garden

One of my favourite architects, Baillie Scott, designed the small and intricate Arts and Crafts style garden which emphasizes garden rooms over sweeping lawns.  As Wade put it : “a delightful garden can be made … by using effects of light and shade, vistas, steps to changing levels, terraces, walls, fountains, running water, an old well head or statue in the right place, the gleam of heraldry or a domed garden temple.” This pretty much describes the formal part and there are also orchards and vegetable plots to prowl around. Wade’s collections spill out over the gardens with a model village, Wolf Cove, set around a pond; agricultural machinery in a byre; and statues, clocks and inscriptions artfully positioned to maximum effect. My favourite garden historian, Tim Mowl, warns it is  “outrageously, loveably twee, a fantasy game of mock medievalry … carefully contrived nookery … ” and, in my view, is therefore the perfect place to spend a Summer’s afternoon.

Snowshill is a National Trust property. For more details about opening times and special events, here’s their website.

Quotations from : Historic Gardens of Gloucestershire by Timothy Mowl. Tempus Publishing, 2002.

Cockneys in Arcadia : Court Barn Museum

… beautiful Arts and Crafts hedgehogs …

hedgehog button

 

My local Arts and Crafts museum, Court Barn, is in its tenth year. To celebrate this anniversary, it is showcasing CR Ashbee‘s work from his time in Campden. This Romantic idealist uprooted his East End craftsmen and brought them to the Cotswolds in search of a simpler, healthier and more fulfilling life. The experiment only lasted six years but some of his men stayed and the craft legacy lives on in the town. This exhibition curated by CR Ashbee experts, Alan Crawford and Mary Greensted, is a beautiful collection of work and includes pieces not seen by the public before. I particularly liked these set of six enamelled hedgehog buttons from a private collection, c1904.

So, if you are in the North Cotswolds, do check out this wonderful little Arts and Crafts museum in Chipping Campden. The exhibition runs until July 9 and the Court Barn’s website for further information is here.

S.T.A.G.S : M A Bennett

… cracking page turner…

maze runner

 

“I think I might be a murderer.” STAGS starts out at a cracking pace and never lets up until the end.  Told in the first person, MA creates the very likeable Greer MacDonald, a scholarship student at an elite boarding school.  Full of arcane rituals and costumes, Greer is lonely and desperate for approval until the invitation arrives for a long weekend away with Henry de Warlencourt, the most popular and wealthy boy in the school, and his friends. The action then moves to Henry’s country house in the Lake District for a weekend of hunting, shooting and fishing. With no telephones and no parents around, Greer gradually realises Henry’s ulterior motive to her inclusion.

MA builds tension and great empathy in S.T.A.G.S by choosing a close first person narrative. By keeping the locations tight, just the school and the house, she also leaves herself ample space to expand and explore the various relationships in this quite short book. A very readable story in the hands of an experienced writer.

Recommended.

Just a couple of kisses and very little actual violence, make this suitable for lower end YA or upper end MG.  US readers should be aware that the 18 year olds drink, sometimes to excess.

MA Bennett is the pen name of Marina Fiorato,  who has written a series of historical novels including the best selling The Glassblower of Murano. She is half-Venetian, born in Manchester and raised in the Yorkshire Dales. She is a history graduate and since worked as an illustrator, actress and film reviewer. She also designed tour visuals for rock bands including U2 and the Rolling Stones. Further information about these historical novels can be found at her website here. There doesn’t appear to be a separate MA Bennett website yet.

 

This is my twelfth review in the British Books Challenge 2017.  Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.

Cover design moment: As this is an ARC, there are no details of the designer. The mottled dark brown background reminds me of worn leather – and therefore suggests a country house feel – whilst the eye catching golden stag’s head illustration possibly has a nod towards Harry Potter’s Patronus.  I would have preferred either a stained glass window of St Aidan or a tapestry hunting scene but that maybe off putting for some YA readers.

S.T.A.G.S by MA Bennett will be published by Hot Key Books, an imprint of Bonnier Zaffre, on 10th August 2017 in the UK and Delacorte Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, will publish the novel in the US in 2018. Feature film rights have already been bought.

It was lent to me by Emily who runs Emily’s Bookshop in Chipping Campden. Thanks, Em!

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