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Fly Girl's Cabinet of Curiosities

curated by Thornton Rigg

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!

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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.

 

 

Blackwing : Ed McDonald

… tremendous addition to the grimdark genre … 

grimdark fantasy

 

Ed McDonald‘s debut novel Blackwing is tremendous pacey thriller with a beguilingly flawed hero. The story has a collection of vivid side characters, believable gods and Hieronymus Bosch type monsters. Ed also has the rare ability to maintain the terrific pace right through the novel.

Most of all I loved Captain Ryhalt Galharrow: a flawed, wounded man hiding behind drink and a flippant approach – yes, not exactly a new character – but Ed really does write so well that I was more than happy to spend time with him.

A tremendous addition to the grimdark shelves and definitely one of my top five of 2017. I am really looking forward to the next in the The Raven’s Mark series.

Ed McDonald lives with his wife in London and works as a university lecturer. His notes say: “When he’s not grading essays or wrangling with misbehaving plot lines he can usually be found fencing with longswords, rapiers and pollaxes.” His very entertaining blog is  here It includes some great posts on writing and the publishing journey. And longsword technique.

This is my fifteenth review in the British Books Challenge 2017.

Cover design moment: Superb UK design by no idea. As I have an Advanced Reading copy, there’s no hint of the designer but perhaps it’s by Blacksheep Design? I’ll report back. Compared to the more traditional US design – which includes heavy block type and a hooded, wind whipped cloak silhouette – the UK cover has a looser, more painterly feel which is just right for the story. The UK edition also has cool black fore edges – surely a must for grim dark fantasy from now on.

Blackwing by Ed McDonald was published on July 27th 2017 by the Orion imprint Gollancz in the UK, and in the United States it will be out in October 2017 via the science fiction publisher Ace. It is the first part of The Raven’s Mark trilogy.

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

 

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.

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