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curated by Thornton Rigg

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British Books Challenge 17

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.

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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.

 

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 seventeenth 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!

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 sixteenth review in the British Books Challenge 2017.

Cover design moment: Superb UK design by Dan Smith of Bionic Graphics. 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. Dan’s website is here.

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!

 

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!

 

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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