Rigg's Cabinet of Curiosities

curated by Thornton Rigg


cover design

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.


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.


Quentin Blake : Inside Stories : Compton Verney

… full of inspiration, creativity and generosity …

quentin blake compton verney exhibition illustration

This exuberant exhibition is full of inspiration, creativity and positively glows with Quentin Blake‘s joie-de-vivre and generosity of spirit.

It features a huge range of finished illustrations, working drawings and crossed out snippets showing his process including sketches for Roald Dahl’s The Twits, BFG and Matilda, The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams, and his tremendous series of illustrations to accompany Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. (And the outline Rosen emailed to his publisher entitled: Is this a Book?)

The show includes over 140 original works, as well as some of his artists tools and a couple of short films in which Quentin demonstrates his techniques.

Excellent. Couldn’t stop smiling all the way round.

The exhibition runs until 17 December 2017 (Tue – Fri 11am – 4pm; Weekends – 11am – 5pm) and is definitely worth a visit. The marvellous The Lost Words exhibition is running at the same time. If you haven’t been to Compton Verney before, I urge you to go.   The exhibition space, permanent exhibitions and park are a delight and make a great day out for both art fiends, nature lovers and families.  There’s a lovely cafe, an adventure playground for children, and boardwalks and pond dipping around the lake.  Click here to be directed to their website.

Quentin Blake: Inside Stories is a touring exhibition from the brilliant House of Illustration. This charity, based in London, is the UK’s only public gallery dedicated to illustration and the graphic arts was founded by Sir Quentin Blake in 2014. To learn more about their splendid work visit their website here.

Illustration © Quentin Blake

The Lost Words : Compton Verney

… artwork for the stunning book …

robert macfarlane jackie morris

A delightful exhibition to accompany the launch of this wonderful book, the rooms are full of Jackie‘s stunning artwork and Robert‘s delightful poems.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the full page “absence” watercolours – especially for conker  – as their lyrical beauty is slightly muted in the finished book by the inclusion of the alphabet.

Compton Verney‘s curators have once again created an enchanting space for the art to shine with thoughtful backdrops of colour and illustration inspired by the art and the occasional school desk of bird books for children to browse.

The exhibition runs until 17 December 2017 (Tue – Fri 11am – 4pm; Weekends – 11am – 5pm) and is definitely worth a visit. If you haven’t been to Compton Verney before, I urge you to go.   The exhibition space, permanent exhibitions and park are a delight and make a great day out for both art fiends, nature lovers and families.  There’s a lovely cafe, an adventure playground for children, and boardwalks and pond dipping around the lake.  Click here to be directed to their website.

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.

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!

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.


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.


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