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Fly Girl's Cabinet of Curiosities

curated by Thornton Rigg

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British Books Challenge 17

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!

 

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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!

Beetle Queen : M G Leonard

… evil fashionista Lucretia Cutter is back …

Beetle Queen

I thoroughly enjoyed Beetle Boy, a sparkling and inventive story with lots of beetles. This sequel, Beetle Queen, moves the adventure and friendships on, as the three children, Darkus, Virginia and Bertolt, try to work out what Lucretia is up to whilst fending off unwanted parents and saving and /or capturing beetles, aided by Uncle Max . The pantomime villains, Pickering and Humphrey, break out of jail and they all end up in LA for the Film Awards.

I loved the way MG has developed the various friendships and the tensions between parents, children and, of course, beetles. I was particularly drawn to Novak, Lucretia’s lonely daughter, and her beetle, Hepburn. They play a vital role in the splendid climax at the LA theatre.

MG Leonard worked as a freelance Digital Media Producer for various theatres. She spent time in the music industry and managing bands, most notably The Divine Comedy. She trained as an actor, directing and producing as well as performing, before deciding to write her stories down. MG lives in Brighton with her husband and two sons.

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

Cover design moment: Beetle Boy‘s outstanding design from the Brighton based, Helen Crawford-White, inspired me to add my “Cover Design Moment” to each book review. Having so many books pass through my hands these days, it becomes increasingly apparent how important excellent design is.  This second cover carries on the bold colours and delightful whimsy of the first with quirky interior illustrations by Karl James Mountford and beetle illustrations by Elisabet Portbella. (It is shame that the acid yellow beetle fore edge couldn’t be on the paperback – but I’m guessing it costs a lot to produce.) Further examples of Helen’s work can be found at her Studio Helen website here.

Beetle Queen by MG Leonard was published by Chicken House Books on 6 April 2017. It was lent to me by Emily who runs Emily’s Bookshop in Chipping Campden. Thanks, Em!

 

Lost for Words : Stephanie Butland

… quirky and attractive first person narrative …lost for words
No doubt the hook for many will be the bookshop setting, but it’s the reclusive and intense Loveday Cardew which held my attention throughout this quirky and attractive first person narrative. Finding refuge in the second hand bookshop owned by the lovely Archie – who rather reminded me of Simon Callow in Four Weddings and a FuneralLoveday negotiates her way through a romance with the understanding poet and magician, Nathan, whilst trying to drop the damaged Rob. Stephanie manages the three timelines and poetry with a deft touch and the story flows along to a satisfying climax and ending.

Stephanie Butland lives in the North east of England. When she’s not writing, she trains people to think more creatively. Apart from this, she has written How I Said Bah! To Cancer: A Guide to Thinking, Laughing, Living and Dancing Your Way Through and Thrive: The Bah! Guide to Wellness After Cancer. She is my tenth review in the British Books Challenge 2017.  Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.

Cover design moment:  The design is by the freelancer, Nathan Burton, and he is credited on the back. (HURRAH.) I love his covers. In fact, I’ve even bought a book Radiance by Catherynne M Valente on the strength of his design. (He won the Academy of Book Cover Design Award for SciFi & Fantasy 2017 for it.) Further examples of his work can be found on his website here. However, I was a bit “meh” about this design. I can entirely understand the thinking behind it: girl reading in the shadows of a bookshop; chick lit approachability of the cream background and the funky lettering. It will sell the book – which is what it is all about, right? And yet, I would have liked something a little more spiky, a little more Loveday Cardew … but perhaps that’s just me.

Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland was published by Zaffre Publishing on 20 April 2017.   It was recommended to me by Emily who runs Emily’s Bookshop in Chipping Campden. Thanks, Em!

Norse Mythology : Neil Gaiman

… whiff of the mead hall …the sinews of something more …

neil gaiman

I was Sweden bound last week and so I picked up an airport paperback edition of Norse Mythology as suitable reading matter for the Uppsala burial mounds.

I have never really got into these myths, having tried them on several occasions in the past. To my embarrassment and frustration, I have often found Norse sagas lacking in emotional depth and far too beardy masculine for my liking. Nothing was ever explained to my satisfaction. So I hoped Neil‘s magic wand would wave some life into them

His playful re-telling of the stories with likeable characterisation and quick dialogue certainly makes the tales whizz by – and I laughed out loud at times which was unexpected. So I would definitely recommend this collection of fifteen stories to anyone who wants to know why these are loved so much.

Reading Neil‘s approachable version, almost in one sitting, I think I got closer to understanding why the stories are so resonant. Obviously, there is the romantic whiff of the mead hall and the long winter nights: a simple life where the main concerns are fire, food, death and sex. This does appeal. Yet the trials of strength, boasting and trickery feel like Viking “locker room” talk rather than anything more substantial.

However, on reading together, the collection grew in my mind to evoke a smoky, brutal atmosphere and I began to feel that these tales are the sinews of something more: a substantial body of imaginings which lie tantalizingly just out of each. Like true mythology, these stories don’t give definitive answers but prompt the reader/listener to more questioning and visions beyond the bones of each simple plot. So now I understand their allure to storytellers such as Neil: they appear to me to be a springboard for creativity rather than a completed work of art.

Highly recommended.

Cover design moment: The artwork of Thor’s hammer and glittering background for Norse Mythology was created by Sam Weber, an American artist, for WW Norton.

Norse Mythology was published in hardback on 7 February 2017 by Bloomsbury in the UK and WW Norton in USA. There will be an illustrated edition coming out for Christmas 2018.

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts : Christopher de Hamel

… 12 rich slices of history …

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707

With this book, Christopher de Hamel introduces us to twelve fabulously beautiful illuminated manuscripts describing not only their historical context but also the collectors who have handled them and the libraries they are now in.

Christopher certainly doesn’t talk down to the reader, even going into the technical “collation” or order of pages of each book, though he does try to avoid using too much jargon.  He explains in his introduction Christopher wanted “the challenge of trying to convey to a wider audience the thrill of … intimate contact with major medieval manuscripts”.

Like a rich slice of fruit cake, each chapter is studded with nuggets of history, encounters with library staff and expert musings on provenance.  It’s a book to be enjoyed slowly by a winter’s fireside.

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts won The 2016 Pol Roger Duff Cooper Prize (for non-fiction writing) earlier this year.  In his speech of thanks, Christopher de Hamel remarked that many medieval scribes ended the arduous business of copying a book with the words, “Explicit hoc totum, Pro christo, Da mihi potum“; which he translated as ‘Here ends the whole thing, For Christ’s sake, give me a drink’ – words that raised much laughter, and many champagne glasses.

Highly recommended.

Biography: In the course of a long career at Sotheby’s Christopher de Hamel has probably handled and catalogued more illuminated manuscripts and over a wider range than any person alive. Since 2000, he has been Fellow and Librarian of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The Parker Library, in his care, includes many of the earliest manuscripts in English language and history. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Historical Society.

Cover design moment: The dust jacket must have been delightful for  Jim Stoddart, the  Art Director at Penguin Books, to play with.  Which images to choose from so many gorgeous illustrations? He shows a mastery of design by selecting a plate from The Morgan Beatus.  It is a charming tree full of birds, some feeding their chicks cupped in their nests which are balancing somewhat precariously on prickly branches.  They look just right for copying in a doodle or two and thus his choice exacts suits the approachable and chatty style of the text.  He adds a lovely detail to the top of the design: worn and slightly foxed page edges to hint at the many manuscripts contained within the one book.

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

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts was published in hardback by the Allen Lane imprint of Penguin Random House on 22nd September 2016.

 

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