Rigg's Cabinet of Curiosities

curated by Thornton Rigg


book review

The Ghost A Cultural History : Susan Owens

… a fascinating book to curl up with … 

ghost supernatural spooks halloween

The Ghost is a thoroughly fascinating book which traces the development of ghosts from warnings from the afterlife, through escapees from purgatory and then the devil’s playthings and finally to delicious, terrifying entertainment purely from the imagination. This history is complemented by the shifts in the images of ghosts from skeleton to a shrouded, bare footed figure to the cotton sheet.

There are old favourites such as the well known Ghost of a Flea by William Blake and new favourites including the beautiful and eerie three works by Paul Nash. Susan reminded of the extraordinary spiritualist painter Georgiana Houghton and introduced me to writer and essayist Vernon Lee (Violet Paget).

The book is furnished with detailed references should you wish to follow up a line of enquiry, a thoughtful selection of colour plates and a great bibliography.

Highly recommended.

Susan Owens studied English at Oxford and European art at the Courtauld, gaining her PhD from the University of London. She was Assistant Curator at University College London and then worked for the Royal Collection as Assistant Curator of the Print Room at Windsor Castle. From 2007 to 2013 she was Curator of Paintings at the V & A, where she was responsible for oils, watercolours and drawings from 1800 to the present day. She is now a freelance curator, writer and art historian, who publishes and
lectures widely on British Art.

Cover design moment : The alluring cover design is by Anvi Patel and I think she strikes the right balance between spooky – the chalky wisps and wonky lettering – and academic – the old style font. You can see more of her work here. The lovely typesetting carries on through the book with elegant lay outs and wisps for section breaks.

The Ghost A Cultural History by Susan Owens was published by Tate Publishing in October 2017.


The Book of Lost Books : Stuart Kelly

… deliciously anecdotal & splendidly erudite …

book review lost books

Deliciously anecdotal and splendidly erudite, Stuart Kelly has written a crash course in the Canon via an Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read. From Greek plays praised in passing to the possibility of Sylvia Plath‘s second novel, from the celebrated Mystery of Edwin Drood to the fabulous Yongle Encyclopaedia ,Stuart’s charming and witty scholarship lets you muse upon what might have been. Perfect for bedtime reading.

I have no idea why I hadn’t heard of it before! Highly reccommended.

Stuart Kelly is the literary editor of Scotland on Sunday and a freelance critic and writer.

The Book of Lost Books (New Expanded Edition) by Stuart Kelly was published by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd in 2010.

The British Countryside : Are you Rustic or Lyrical?

Another trend I’ve spotted from my favourites reviews of 2017 is the artists and writers’ response to nature.

basic nest architecture poems seren

Are we down in the terrifying muddy ditches of the Cumbrian badlands with Jacob Polley‘s sparkling poems about Jackself : “By head-lice powder, Paraquat / snapdragon’s snap and rat-tat-tat / who’s at the door / of the door of the door / it’s Jackself in his toadskin hat?” ? (Every Creeping Thing in Jackself : Jacob Polley.) And dying, sodden and foolish, from wearing Italian walking gear in a collection of ephemera created by Rebecca Chesney‘s Death by Denim. (Creating the Countryside : Compton Verney) ?


Or are we celebrating the lyricism in nature along with Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane in their stunning The Lost Words – a beguiling mix of illuminated manuscript and spell grimoire? And reflecting how nature can enrich our lives with Alex Preston and Neil Gower in the delightful birder’s book As Kingfishers Catch Fire. ?

Of course it’s both – but the oscillation between the two sides I find do fascinating.

I am also intrigued to find that most of these meditations on nature are through illustration and poetry  – as if the elusive quality of our responses cannot be tied down in prose. As Polly Atkins writes: “All I can do / is believe you will keep on being the warm / vaulting life, ravelled round mine, / although I may never hold you.” (Rabbit in morning in Basic Nest Architecture)

Wishing you all a very happy New Year.

2017 : The Year of Grimdark Reading

… fighting, moral ambiguity, death – what’s not to like? …

I hadn’t really heard the term “grimdark” until a couple of years ago and, as a relatively new term the definition is still fairly flexible. Wikipedia currently has this:  Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction that is particularly dystopian, amoral or violent.  I guess what sets grimdark apart from horror is that the supernatural element can usually be controlled by characters or is treated as a force to be channelled by these characters rather than being some nameless inhuman horror.

Three of my favourite reads this year have been set squarely in the grimdark field: their protagonists are not very noble, their worlds are dystopian with dark forces at work and the deaths are generally gruesome.

Strangely enough I don’t like horror. Never read the stuff. So why did I enjoy these books?

After much thought I think it’s a combination of the pace, the unpredictability and the black humour of this genre I love so much. Looking back over my reviews, I use phrases such as: tremendous pacey thriller, a beguilingly flawed hero, exuberant story telling and enough twists amongst the battles and assassinations to keep the pages turning fast.

Two other favourite reads of 2017 could almost be grimdark for their flawed protagonists, black humour and dark forces.  The urban fantasy Corpselight by Angela Slatter with an excellent detective, Verity Fassbinder, set in Brisbane and the Young Adult novel, The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilin which will be out next year. It is a delicious mixture of folklore, fantasy and horror.

Godblind by Anna Stephens was published by Harper Voyager in June 2017 in the UK. My review can be read here and her twitter account is @AnnaSmithWrites

Blackwing by Ed McDonald was published in July 2017 by Gollancz in the UK. My full review is here. Ed’s very entertaining blog is here It includes some great posts on writing and the publishing journey. And longsword technique. He is on twitter @EdMcDonaldTFK

Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff was published by HarperVoyager in September 2017.  My review is here. For further information on Jay, his website is here. His twitter feed is fun to follow @misterkristoff

Corpse Light by Angela Slatter was published by Jo Fletcher Books in July 2017. My full review can be read here and her twitter account is @AngelaSlatter 

The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilin will be published by David Fickling Books in March 2018. My review is here and his twitter account is @TheCallYA 

As Kingfishers Catch Fire : Alex Preston & Neil Gower

… deep joy from looking up and writing down …

birds kingfishers poetry

A gem like collection of reminiscence, poetry, description and birding facts, Alex Preston has teamed up with the brilliant graphic artist Neil Gower to produce a wonderfully engaging commonplace book – perfect for Winter reading and musing.

In 21 chapters from Peregrine to Nightingale, Alex weaves his personal history around a wide ranging collection of poetry and descriptions of birds. Each chapter is illuminated by Neil’s art. Their enthusiasm spills over into some delightfully discursive end notes and beautifully designed end papers. If you like Robert Macfarlane‘s works such as The Old Ways this is definitely for you.

As Alex says in his introduction : “This book is, above all, a history of the deep joy that comes from looking up and writing down.”

Highly recommended.

Alex Preston is an award-winning novelist. He writes for magazines as well as monthly fiction reviews for the Observer. He is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Kent. He is @ahmpreston on Twitter.

Over the past 30 years Neil Gower‘s clients have included most major publishing houses in the UK & US. He spent 10 years as Contributing Artist to Conde Nast Traveler in New York. He runs a delightfully engaging website which includes his background notes to creating this book here. Neil can also be found on twitter here.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire was published by corsair, an imprint of Little, Brown on 13 July 2017 and is my twentieth review for the British Books Challenge 2017.

The Invasion : Peadar O’Guilin

… addictive mix of wild savagery and messy emotions …

young adult fantasy

Peadar is a master of combining thrilling horror with thoughtful characterisation, creating an addictive mix of wild savagery and messy human emotions. As with The Call, he drives The Invasion‘s plot forwards at a tremendous pace whilst adding just the right amount of intimate scenes for the reader to become very attached to his cast – an incredibly difficult balancing act to achieve. I guess it’s something to do with his Irish folklore heritage.

Peadar’s mixture of horror and tragedy is highlighted by the deformed S’dhe animals made up of tortured humans including the centaurs apologising as they scythe through people and, my particular favourite, the tiny winged Fr Ambrosio who craves eyeballs.

The Invasion‘s story is spread across three different viewpoints: between Ness, the main character in The Call, her boyfriend, Anto, and Aoife, a student from their Boyle Survival College. I was keen to find out how he could make their predicament even worse than the first book. Well, Peadar doubles the pressure by making the beleaguered government believe Ness to be a S’dhe spy.  They lock her up in prison research establishment whilst sending her beloved Anto to the front line of the Sidhe invasion. Can Ness use her S’dhe given powers to defeat the invasion and be reunited with her beloved Anto? The plot races to a satisfying final battle and conclusion.

With his tightly written story telling and deft characterisation, Peader is one of the finest YA novelists around. The Call was on the shortlist for The Bookseller’s YA Book Prize 2017. My review of it is here. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Highly recommended.

Notice: The horrors are truly disturbing and there’s a little discreet sex so this book is definitely a Young Adult rather than a Pre-Teen choice.

Cover design moment:  The striking cover is by the award winning Blacksheep design team. It’s not black! HURRAH. Proving images can be sinister and intriguing with being black. Further details of their work can be found here.

The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilin will be published by David Fickling Books in March 2018.

Basic Nest Architecture : Polly Atkins

… haunting evocations of nature …

basic nest architecture poems seren

This haunting collection makes me pause and remember that the poetry I love is just like good architecture. Polly creates the scaffolding of an idea and then she leaves enough space between the words to allow my thoughts to hang around her ideas and then flow out and into that indefinable space of imagination.

I particularly liked the poems of her magical encounters with wild animals : rabbit, fox and deer which reminded  of Rilke‘s Unicorn Sonnet; and her Jack Daw description which, like Robert Macfarlane, seems to conjure the bird alive.

Other more lengthy reviews can be found on the publisher’s website here.

Highly recommended.

Polly Atkin lives in Cumbria. Her debut poetry pamphlet bone song (Clitheroe: Aussteiger, 2008) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award, 2009. Her second poetry pamphlet Shadow Dispatches (Seren, 2013) won the Mslexia Pamphlet Prize, 2012. In 2014 an extract from Basic Nest Architecture was awarded New Writing North’s Andrew Waterhouse Prize. Polly has taught English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University and the Universities of Strathclyde and Cumbria.

Cover design moment:  The amazing cover features a still life of an exploded nest and bird parts by the wonderful Mary Jo Hoffman. She posts photographs of natural objects found usually around Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, on her website here. I am so glad I have discovered her site!

Added 20/11 Polly says: “The powers of the internet! I was looking for images that tied together bodies, nests & a sense of structure & found her …” When asked whether she had designed the whole thing, she said that Seren were ” … definitely responsible for putting it together so beautifully though & bringing the egg pattern into the lettering. Great design work!” All of this was via a Twitter exchange I had with Polly @pollyrowena

Basic Nest Architecture by Polly Atkin was published by the Welsh independent Seren Press on 27 February 2017 and I bought in from the lovely Artworks, gallery and shop, in Aberdyfi. If you are in the area the shop is well worth a browse.

This is my nineteenth review for the British Books Challenge 2017.


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 eighteenth review for the British Books Challenge 2017.


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.

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