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British Books Challenge 17

The Lost Words : Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris

… enchanting spells to conjure up nature …

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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.

 

Blackwing : Ed McDonald

… tremendous addition to the grimdark genre … 

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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!

 

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 …

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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.

 

Gilded Cage : Vic James

… absorbing and compelling ..

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Imagine a Britain ruled by an elite where ordinary folk – you and me – are condemned to choose ten years of slavery to keep the economy going. Teenager Abi has a perfect plan to keep her family together by working for the Jardines, a family Skilled in magic.  Only something goes terribly wrong and her brother, Luke, is sent to a grim Northern slavetown.  This split allows reader to follow both Abi and Luke in their different worlds: the luxurious yet dangerous country house of Kyneston and the brutal factory complex of Millmoor.

The differing stories of Luke and Abi, and the lesser chorus of four other viewpoints, threw me for a while, as I do like to invest in one lead character.  However Vic uses this technique to great effect and her compelling narrative and clean prose style makes for a smooth, fast read.  Add some sparkling secondary characters including Renie-rhymes-with-Genie; the pitiful Dog; and the  menacing Silyen; mix with a little romance and Vic has created a highly enjoyable adventure which rather catches the zeitgeist of an elite rich with a drone underclass  …

My only slight quibble is that the ending was rather ragged.  By that I mean consequences of the story’s climax are only briefly played out in this book with obviously much more to come in the second, Tarnished City.

Vic James is a current affairs TV director and Gilded Cage is her debut novel. She has twice judged the Guardian‘s The Booker Prize, has made films for BBC1, BBC2 and Channel 4 News, and is a huge Wattpad.com success story. Under its previous title, Slavedays, her book was read online over a quarter of a million times in first draft. And it went on to win Wattpad’s ‘Talk of the Town’ award in 2015. Vic James lives and works in London … which means – HURRAH – she can be counted as the seventh review in my British Books Challenge 2017.  Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.

Cover design moment:  The cover design is by Joanna Thomson, a senior designer in the Pan Macmillan Art Department – and she is credited on the back.  (Second HURRAH.) I loved the curly magical font and the strong, embossed silhouette of the cage.  I wasn’t entirely sure of the relevance of the black bird (a crow?) and feathers apart the overall sinister implication but hopefully it will become clearer as the trilogy progresses.  Further examples of her work can be found here.

Gilded Cage by Vic James was published by Pan Books on 26 January 2017.   It is the first in the Dark Gifts Trilogy which will also include Tarnished City and Bright Ruin.

 

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