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Fly Girl's Cabinet of Curiosities

curated by Thornton Rigg

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17th century

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.

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Vasa Museet, Stockholm

vasa museum

… brilliant museum built around a C17th war ship …

Well, I could have spent the whole day in the Vasa Museet. This Swedish museum houses the only almost fully intact c17th century ship that has ever been salvaged and it’s an extremely well laid out and thoughtful museum with plenty to see for the casual and more historically minded visitor. There are the finds cases describing life on board and a film detailing history of the modern salvage operation; and there are recreations of the colourful (even gaudy) wooden carvings decorating this Royal ship and contextual models and displays explaining the history surrounding the disaster.

The 64-gun warship Vasa sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. It was simply too tall and too unstable to withstand a powerful gust of wind. It capsized after only 1,300 metres. In a letter to King Gustavus II Adolphus, the Council of the Realm wrote …“she heeled right over and water gushed in through the gun ports until she slowly went to the bottom …”

I particularly liked the c17th salvage display showing the technique used to bring up the valuable guns. “The diver was entirely clad in leather and had double leather boots. He stood on a platform of lead hanging under the diving bell,” reported a fascinated Italian priest in 1663.

vasa museum diving bell

The recreations of the extraordinary sculptures decorating this royal ship were also fascinating.

seventeenth century sculpture

So, if you are considering a Nordic trip, pick Stockholm! It has a lovely old city centre with lots of Viking gold in the National Museum, great Swedish design, very friendly people – and the finest c17th century warship in the world.

For further information, here’s the link to the Vasa Museet website.

The Hypocrite : The Swan RSC

… fabulous cod C17th comedy …

mark addy

After the success of his One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean has returned to his native Hull, reprising the dilemma of a man serving two masters.  This time he has adapted the true story of Sir John Hotham charged with holding the city’s arsenal during the Civil War. Which side should he declare for: Parliament or the King? He is doing his best to be seen supporting both.

With frenetic slapstick and volleys of wit, it’s a great vehicle for a very likeable Mark Addy. He and Caroline Quentin battle and scheme their way around each other and his impossible situation. There’s a strong Hull accent and many affectionate local and Shakespearean references. The supporting cast had some brilliant scenes including the almost show-stopping, Ben Goffe, as both King Charles, a child ghost and an executioner; also, Jordan Metcalfe and Rowan Polonski, as the Prince of York and Prince Rupert respectively.

rsc

It was such a pleasurable evening: a fabulous cod C17th comedy – and you really can’t have too many of those.

Highly recommended.

As part of the UK City of Culture 2017 celebrations, this is a RSC co-production with Hull Truck Theatre. Its first performance was on 24 February and it transferred to Stratford on 31 March.  Limited ticket availability can be found here.

A Griffin, a Fire Demon and a Monster.

… C17th extravaganza …

ommegriffinThere’s a side to C17th Europe which fascinates me: the Courtly emphasis on masquing and processions.  These theatrical displays employed the finest painters, writers and architects, cost fabulous amounts and, being largely ephemeral, can only be caught via hasty sketches, terse descriptions and the occasional commissioned painting or engraving.

In London’s V&A we are lucky enough to have The Ommeganck in Brussels on 31 May 1615: The Triumph of Archduchess Isabella. It was commissioned by the Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella to celebrate an Ommegang. This was an important civic procession honouring Isabella as Queen of the procession and the scene shows the ten pageant cars that formed the most spectacular element of the parade.

These must have been the equivalent of the big budget movie extravaganzas of their time with fantastical beasts, special effects and royalty on display.

There’s huge unicorns and griffins made from wickerwork and painted canvas; special effects like this demon who holds a fire club, a fizzing hollow reed packed with charcoal and gunpowder;

ommefire

and a scary backwards monster waving a bladder (?) to amuse the crowds.

ommeback

The V&A has a marvellous interactive programme of the work where you can zoom in, roam around and read details about various elements of this large painting.  The work and the computer display can be found in the Europe 1600-1715 Galleries but can be overlooked as it’s in a low lit corner.

There’s another scene of this festival in the Prado.  It appears they got the boring religious procession whereas we’ve got the lighter side of the affair. Huzzah.

Best of 2016 : 3 books & an exhibition

Looking back over the 32 book reviews I have posted in 2016, I’ve had a brilliant reading year : so much imagination; so much wit and adventure; scenes and characters that linger long after the books close.  If you follow my blog, you will know that I only publish reviews for books I would recommend and so my “Best of 2016” is really ALL my reviews.  Obviously.

However, if someone forced me to narrow it down, I would chose (in no particular order):

The Australian Urban Fantasy,  Vigil by Angela Slatter, for its dazzlingly inventiveness of plot and character combined with smart as a whip one liners.  My original post is here.

The intense, thrilling Nevernight by Fantasy virtuoso, Jay Kristoff, for delving so gloriously into the dark side of the genre.  The full review is here.

The fast paced and scary The Call by Peadar O’Guilin for its kiss-ass heroine and seat of the pants race to the end.  Here’s a link to my review post.

Although I didn’t plan it this way, they all have strong female leads and dark Fantasy backgrounds.  Whether it’s my preference or some 2016 zeitgeist, who knows?

And my very favourite visit of 2016 was to the extraordinarily inspiring Lost Library of John Dee at the Royal College of Physicians, a fascinating exhibition, crammed full of gorgeous exhibits and helpful explanatory notes.  I could have camped out there.  My full review is here.

I started this blog just over a year ago to share my love of books and to create an aide memoire for myself.  It’s great fun to write and I find the quality of my reading (and visiting) has improved with the focus of this blog.   I particularly want to say a big THANKS to Emily at Emily’s Bookshop in Campden for giving me so many ARCs and book suggestions.

Wishing you all a productive and creatively filled 2017.


 

 

 

 

The Tempest : RSC Stratford

… stunning effects bring Shakespeare’s masque to life …

the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_-press-call_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207563-tmb-gal-670

Masques, as Gregory Doran explains in his introduction, ” … were the multimedia events of their day, using innovative technology … to produce astonishing effects, with moving lights, and stage machinery that could make people fly, and descend from the clouds”  and with this stunning production, he succeeds in bringing the wondrous spectacle of a C17th masque into the c21st theatre.

The stage is an enormous ribbed carcass of a ship set stark and glowering against a changing backdrop which is used to great effect to complement the action with extraordinary skies and gorgeous apparitions.  In the centre, gauzes are dropped and raised showing drowning sailors, tree trunks and ghostly visitations; and amongst it all,  Ariel appears as multiple ethereal projections echoing his stage presence.  All of this is the result of a two year collaboration between Intel, Imaginarium and the RSC and it is a truly ravishing experience.

Unfortunately, I felt the director’s more unadorned approach to the acting of the play meant that the cast struggled to live up to their grand surroundings.  Simon Russell Beale came across more as a truculent and querulous Dad than a magisterial magician, though I must say, other reviewers found him outstanding.  Michael Billington in The Guardian, for instance, talks of  “his haunting portrait of culpable negligence and comprehensive mercy. ”  Read the rest of his comments here for a much more appreciative review of Beale’s performance.

I enjoyed the comedy of  Simon Trinder as a clownish Trinculo and Tony Jayawardena as the drunken butler, Stephano; and will certainly remember the opera singers, Samantha Hay and Jennifer Witton, playing the goddesses Ceres and Juno, for their spectacular entrances in the masque within the play.

I thoroughly enjoyed  this Tempest and I hope Gregory Doran‘s visionary use of technology will be the start of a new chapter at the RSC.  Ticket availability can be found on their website here.

 

Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee

… fascinating  books and doodles make a great browse around one of the C16th’s finest minds …

deeThe Royal College of Physicians holds the largest single collection of John Dee’s books in the world.  This enigmatic Elizabethan was a mathematician, an astrologer and advisor to Queen Elizabeth.   As an occult philosopher, he devoted much of his life to the study of alchemy, divination and Hermetic philosophy and built up one of the finest libraries of 16h century England. Unfortunately, whilst travelling, Dee left his library in the care of his brother-in-law, who sold or “caused (…) to be carried away” most of the books.  A large number passed to a book collector, the Marquis of Dorchester, whose family presented them to the RCP after his death in 1680.

The books displayed here include some of his student text books with lovely annotations and sketches,dee2 including this rather fabulous ship found in the corner of a page of Cicero’s Opera.  Other works show the ingenuity of c16th printing making with foldout paper diagrams in The Elements of Geometrie, Euclid, and a manual on writing in code with “Volvelles” or wheels which still spin around to jumble the letters.  Alongside books from their collection, the RCP have managed to borrow various objects from the British Museum, the Ashmolean, the Science Museum and the Wellcome Institute.   These include John Dee’s obsidian Scrying mirror and crystal ball; and various paintings and engravings of the man.

This is a fascinating exhibition.  It is small yet perfectly curated, crammed full of gorgeous exhibits and helpful explanatory notes.  It is a great browse around one of the C16th’s finest minds and I urge you to go!

There is a great introductory video by the rare books librarian, Katie Birkwood, and some other interesting articles on the RCP’s own website which you can access here.

The Royal College of Physicians is a short walk from Great Portland St Tube station.  The show continues until 29 July 2016, Monday-Friday only, 9am-5pm. FREE ENTRY

 

Why I Love Old Science

I write in an alternative c17th world, researching into the history of inventions and occasionally pulling technology back into that space from later centuries.  Why?

It is fun.  It is accessible.

It recreates a sense of wonder and creativity – the sheer exhilarating Romance of scientific discovery and invention.

I grew up with a very scientific older brother who seemed to grasp instantly the detail of incomprehensible particle physics and who revelled in all the  logical-Mr Spock- shiny white sterile laboratories it seemed to entail.

Whereas I have always wanted simple, mechanical explanations that I could visualise.  I want dirt and grime and the smell of grease on hot metal. It is more tangible and emphasises the work-in-progress feeling.   It makes me remember that scientific theory is a collection of ideas about how to explain the world.  It may not be right but it fits.

And to celebrate that fact here is Solomon’s House, a fictional institution in Sir Francis Bacon’s utopian work, New Atlantis, published in 1627.

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