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Rigg's Cabinet of Curiosities

curated by Thornton Rigg

The Lost Words : Compton Verney

… artwork for the stunning book …

robert macfarlane jackie morris

A delightful exhibition to accompany the launch of this wonderful book, the rooms are full of Jackie‘s stunning artwork and Robert‘s delightful poems.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the full page “absence” watercolours – especially for conker  – as their lyrical beauty is slightly muted in the finished book by the inclusion of the alphabet.

Compton Verney‘s curators have once again created an enchanting space for the art to shine with thoughtful backdrops of colour and illustration inspired by the art and the occasional school desk of bird books for children to browse.

The exhibition runs until 17 December 2017 (Tue – Fri 11am – 4pm; Weekends – 11am – 5pm) and is definitely worth a visit. If you haven’t been to Compton Verney before, I urge you to go.   The exhibition space, permanent exhibitions and park are a delight and make a great day out for both art fiends, nature lovers and families.  There’s a lovely cafe, an adventure playground for children, and boardwalks and pond dipping around the lake.  Click here to be directed to their website.

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The Lost Words : Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris

… enchanting spells to conjure up nature …

kingfisher jackie morris

Hailed as one of the most beautiful books of the year, The Lost Words is a delightful collaboration between the very inspiring nature writer, Robert Macfarlane, and a supremely talented illustrator, Jackie Morris. Together they have produced a cross between a medieval illuminated manuscript and spell grimoire. The conceit behind the work is that Robert’s words have to conjure the missing animals and plants back into the world.

Each spell takes up three double page spreads. First there is a spread showing a lack: a shadow, an absence, a washed out line drawing; then comes the spell of conjuration and a full page portrait; and finally another full double page spread showing the living object in its landscape. This creates a beguiling rhythm to the procession of beautiful images across these large pages.

The poems themselves are acrostic, spelling out the plant or creature’s name using the first letter of the lines and have a Anglo-Saxon kenning quality about them. Robert twists and turns words about using alliteration and assonance to create evocative word combinations which really come alive when spoken out loud – rather like the expressive nature poems of Gerald Manly Hopkins. Jackie‘s illustrations are seductively gorgeous, making one want to linger over the pages, searching out the detail and basking in the gold leaf.

The whole book is truly delightful – full of humour, warmth and artistry.  And what’s more, there is an exhibition of their collaboration running at Compton Verney until 17th December. Further details are here.

Robert Macfarlane has established himself as one of the finest landscape writers of recent times. His wonderful book, Landmarks, (Hamish Hamilton, 2015) defends the lost language of the British countryside and is a precursor to this work. His other books include Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places and The Old Ways. I can highly recommend all of these booksHe is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and writes on environmentalism, literature and travel for publications including the Guardian, the Sunday Times and The New York Times.

Jackie Morris has created over forty books, including beloved classics such as Song of the Golden Hare, Tell Me A Dragon, East of the Sun, West of the Moon and The Wild Swans – and my personal favourite, Can you see a Little Bear? which will be re-released next Summer. She collaborated with Ted Hughes, and her books have sold more than a million copies worldwide.  Have a look at her website here.

The Lost Words was published by Hamish Hamilton in October 2017 and is my seventeenth review for the British Books Challenge 2017.

 

Imagining the Divine : Ashmolean, Oxford

… fascinating mash-ups between religions …

Imagining the Divine, Art and the Rise of World Religions at the Ashmolean in Oxford is an interesting yet somewhat frustrating exhibition. The idea behind the show is to trace the development and cross- fertilisation of visual representation in the major religions. However the curator has opted to place the five religions in different areas rather than allowing any thematic comparison by mixing the objects up. In addition, the rather sparse labelling meant that cross pollination was often eluded to rather than spelt out. The exhibits themselves are a delight and well worth your time.

persian senmurv textile silk

Always on the look out for the more unusual and quirky exhibits, I was drawn to this silk fragment from the V & A showing the fabulous creature, the sēnmurw. Part bird, part beast, the benevolent sēnmurw is a Zoroastrian figure of Sasanian Persian art. Here it is shown as a dog with a peacock’s tail. This piece comes from the same weaving as two pieces associated with the relics of St Helena at St Leu in Paris, now in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs. Relics, sometimes brought back to Europe by Crusaders, were often wrapped in precious silks. So the symbols of one religion are passed on to protect those of another.

The show also had a replica of the gorgeous bone Franks Casket from the British Museum. This intricately decorated Anglo-Saxon box’s significance is like catnip to scholars for it mixes up a Christian story with Germanic legends and Roman mythology. This detail of the front panel shows the Germanic Weyland the Smith at his forge on the left juxtaposed with the Adoration of the Magi on the right.

casket weland adoration british musuem

Imagining the Divine, Art and the Rise of World Religions at the Ashmolean, Oxford runs until 18 February 2018. 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.

Godsgrave : Jay Kristoff

… exceptional storytelling …  with dazzling fights & unexpected treachery …

kristoff godsgrave nevernight

In this book, our attention shifts from Mia‘s education in the Red Church to her training for the gladiator games at Godsgrave where her father’s murderers will be making a rare public appearance. Mia sells herself to a gladiatorial collegium and she needs to be the last fighter standing for a chance to get close enough to kill them. Accompanied by her not-cat shadow Mister Kindly and not-wolf Eclipse, Mia negotiates her way through the gladiator school finding new friends and enemies as the body count rises and glints of treachery appear.

Jay has an exceptional world building talent and in it he has placed a complex and likeable heroine. But that is not all: what I will remember most about the book is his exuberant story telling which gave me so much pleasure. The novel starts with two stories which doubles the tension; he mirrors scenes between different characters; and he is a master of a great one-liner.

Set amongst a well drawn array of secondary characters, the story has some brilliant plot twists – with some dazzling fight pieces – and a tremendous (abrupt) ending, leaving me wanting the next book – immediately.

(An aside about his footnotes: I ignored them as they slowed the pace too much for me and didn’t detract from the main narrative. Perhaps they are meant for the second or third reading.)

Apart from that, Godsgrave is a real pleasure to read and I highly recommend it.

NB: Godsgrave contains scenes of graphic sex and extreme violence and so is definitely Adult rather than Young Teen territory. 

Cover design moment : The UK cover illustration is again by the Philippines-based Kerby Rosanes and is brilliant. His website is here.  A real asset to the novel.  Well done Micaela Alcaino who designed around it (website here) and whoever at HarperVoyager for crediting them both on the back. I don’t mind the US cover version but feel this design series has more presence and, quite frankly, I could do without an artist’s impression of Mia.

Jay Kristoff is the author of the award winning Japanese Steampunk series, The Lotus War; and a second well received series, The Illuminae Files. With his work, Jay has been a winner of the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Short Fiction and a nominee for the David Gemmell  Award. For further information his website is here. His twitter feed is fun to follow. Currently he is calling himself Jay Killzurfavesoff.

Godsgrave was published by HarperVoyager in September 2017.  It follows Nevernight which was published in August 2016.

The Paintings at Upton House

… so which painting would you like to steal?

Rembrandt lievens magus

 

Upton House is another one of those gorgeous country houses with spectacular gardens and glamorous rooms; what sets it apart from a host of other National Trust properties is the quality and range of its astounding art collection.

I visited with a friend at the weekend and we played: “which would you steal for your house?” So it’s all about personal cravings, not money nor technical ability, and we spent a happy couple of hours debating and chatting to the knowledgeable guides.

My very favourite was A Magus at an Altar which is now attributed to Jan Lievens, a contemporary of Rembrandt. To my eye, the detail of the light playing on his silk robes are as exquisite as anything by his more famous contemporary.  In fact, the painting had previously been judged good enough to be a Rembrandt. Then it was relegated to “Rembrandt and his circle” and finally thought to be a just copy of some lost Lievens.

More recent analysis has revealed lots of re-worked passages proving that the work is not a copy but an original work. In fact the examination showed up so many alterations that it suggests, on balance, a Lievens’ approach working rather than a Rembrandt. There is a brief article and further links from the National Trust’s website here.

I was so pleased to be introduced to this Lievens and, after a quick internet search, I find this wonderful still life (in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) … which is a lovely combination of my two main interests: books and art.
lievens rijksmuseum

The man behind the extraordinary collection at Upton House was Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted. He was the chairman of Shell and owned M Samuel & Co. Bank. He was also chairman of the trustees of the National Gallery and the Whitechapel Art Gallery; and also on the board of trustees for the Tate. With his love of paintings and his huge fortune, he amassed one of the finest art collections in private hands during the 20th century. Walter donated the house, gardens and art collection to the National Trust in 1948.

For further information about Upton House, please follow this link to the National Trust’s page on the property.

Thornhill : Pam Smy

… perfectly paced and other worldly …

halloween ghost thornhill

This is a perfectly paced ghost story about a girl living next to a derelict orphanage.

Pam Smy carefully weaves together the stories of two girls in a beguiling mix of diary and illustration. The ghost, Mary, writes heartbreaking entries of her bleak childhood in the diary which is discovered years later by the lonely Ella, whose story is told entirely through unscripted illustrations. With no narrator to help, we are left to piece together the gaps in each story.

Pam then intersperses the diary entries and cartoon narrative with heavy black pages to represent sleep. The cumulative effect of these blanks, combined with the silent illustrations, recreates the detachedness of a lonely childhood and gives the reader delightful pause to think about and guess (deliciously) what might happen next.

The whole effect is intriguing, creepy and otherworldly by turn and builds to a terrific climax.

Highly recommended.

Pam Smy studied Illustration at Cambridge School of Art, part of Anglia Ruskin University, where she now lectures part-time. Pam has illustrated books by Conan Doyle (The Hound of the Baskervilles), Julia Donaldson (Follow the Swallow) and Kathy Henderson (Hush, Baby, Hush!), among others. This is the first book she has both written and illustrated. Pam has a blog spot here which traces some of the development of this work.

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

Thornhill by Pam Smy was published on 24 August 2017 by David Fickling Books in the UK and on 29 August 2017 by Roaring Brook Press in USA.

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

City of Blades : Robert Jackson Bennett

… kick-ass hero against rich world building …

city of blades locus awards

Sequel to City of Stairs (which I absolutely loved), City of Blades is a more sombre yet still an extremely satisfying novel with a loveable hero to follow against the incredible backdrop of Robert’s rich world building.

It is quite a challenge to produce a sequel that can stand up to a brilliant and much praised first book. Robert very sensibly refuses to repeat a winning formula and shifts focus to a secondary character from the City  of Stairs. He homes in on the very wonderful Turyin Mulaghesh, a kick-ass, troubled and almost retired General who argues and swears her way through this novel, with the grimmest determination. I adored her.

Though other main and loved characters from the City of Stairs such as Shara and Sigrud appear do, we are following Turyin, this broken, war scarred woman, as she is sent to Voortyashtan, under cover, to investigate the disappearance of another officer. There are murders and assassinations, the politics of occupation and a lot of back history to ramble through and, of course, some divine intervention to contend with.

It’s hard to categorise the genre exactly (not that I want to shove this book in a box) but I would guess it is a mixture of epic fantasy for its soaring, complete and satisfying world building combined with urban fantasy for the wonderful Turyin Mulaghesh‘s approach to life.

Recommended.

Cover design moment: The cover of UK edition is by the Soho-based KS Agency and it made the long list for the Ravenheart Award for fantasy cover art which is chosen by open vote. It features the rocky landscape of his world and hints at the divinity that lies beyond. I love the clean lyricism of  lettering which invites a second look though I think the book deserves something bolder.

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett was published in the UK by Jo Fletcher Books in January 2016. It is the second in the Divine Cities trilogy.

 

A Gathering of Shadows : VE Schwab

… an entertaining delight …

schwab shadows

A Gathering of Shadows is the second in VE Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic series following the adventures of the impetuous and very determined Delilah Bard, a brilliant protagonist who is an entertaining delight to spend time with – the opening sequence was worth the price of the paperback. Truly.

Victoria skilfully manoeuvres Lilah via a spot of piracy back to Red London to compete in the Element Games, a magical tournament, where she will face Kell, adopted brother of Prince Rhy and one of the few Antari, who can travel between other worlds.  The book had some great set pieces, new intriguing characters and a wonderful sense of place though I thought, on occasion, the story could have been pacier and every so often there was a slight sense of the architecture behind the story showing through … nonetheless very enjoyable.

Recommended.

Cover design moment: Congratulations to Julia Lloyd, Senior Fiction Designer at Titan Books for another stunning cover design. A wonderful silhouette of Delilah Bard with distinct red and black colour scheme perfectly conjuring up the feel of the book. Interestingly, the US cover by Will Staehle is also gorgeous: stylish and distinctive – and unusually for different countries’ cover both designs can be seen as a riff on each other, using the same color scheme – which is pertinent to the book’s setting.  It is really is a very close call, if I had to choose between between the two, after a long pause, I would have to say I prefer Julia’s. Will’s woodcut element is slightly less complementary to the novel; it’s more fairy tale-like and less adventure story. Whichever you prefer, both UK and US  designs for the series are some of THE best covers around at the moment.

A Gathering of Shadows by VE Schwab was published by Titan Books in the Uk and Tor Books in the USA in February 2016. It is the second in the Darker Shade of Magic trilogy.

 

Monument to Cecco di Sangro : Cappella Sansevero

… intriguing jack-in-a-box …

Naples Sansevero

One of the top sights in Naples is the group of extraordinary Baroque sculptures in Cappella Sansevero. The most famous is the Veiled Christ by Napolitan Guiseppe Sanmartino. This dramatic and technical tour-de-force depicts the dead Christ under a thin, transparent shroud. Such was its virtuosity that a legend grew about its creation: people believed that a real cloth shroud had somehow been turned to stone over the marble body. Queue up, buy the ticket and shuffle around the statue: it truly is amazing.

Veiled Christ Naples

However … the rest of the chapel is just as interesting. After admiring the main event, I wandered around, as I always do, avoiding the crowds and rebelling against the directions. This is why I do it: most of the tourists completely miss this delightful memorial to Cecco di Sangro as it is above the entrance and so you have to turn your back on the Veiled Christ to notice it.

Some background: most of the decorative scheme was devised and commissioned by Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero (1710 – 1771). He was a fascinating character: an Italian nobleman, soldier, writer, scientist, alchemist and freemason whose dangerous and heretical archive was destroyed by his family after his death.

This sculpture has attracted several intriguing stories.  According to the Chapel’s own website, the Monument to Cecco di Sangro represents a real event. Raimondo’s ancestor,  Cecco is climbing out of a chest where he had been hiding for two days, allowing him to take the enemy by surprise and capture the fort of Amiens. Alas, I haven’t been able to find any corroboration for this escapade. The subject matter has also been interpreted as the soldier being the “guardian” of this supposedly Masonic Temple.

But most delightfully, according to one legend, as told to the local philosopher Benedetto Croce, as he approached the end, Raimondo di Sangro had himself cut to pieces and closed in a coffin, from which he was supposed to emerge “hale and hearty” at a specific time; unfortunately the family opened the coffin too early and the “resurrection” lasted only a few moments … oops.

 

 

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