Rigg's Cabinet of Curiosities


young adult

Blade and Bone : Catherine Johnson

… a thrilling adventure set in Revolutionary Paris …

9781406341874In this sequel to Sawbones (published in 2013), Catherine moves her characters from c18th England to c18th France and we follow the young surgeon, Ezra McAdam, to Revolutionary Paris.  Here, the English are the enemy and Citizen Renaud is anxious to involve Ezra in his reanimation experiments for which the “National Razor” is creating a steady supply.

In this dangerous city of harsh poverty and unpredictable violence, can Ezra find and rescue his friends: the impetuous Loveday and high handed Prince Mahmoud?

Blade and Bone is a thrilling adventure involving complex, believable characters with an intriguing background of c18th fact.  Catherine has a lightness of touch and she deploys her considerable knowledge to colour the story without weighing down the narrative.  I particularly enjoyed the dashing Lieutenant Colonel Dumas  of the American Regiment – a  real person and, as Catherine explains in her epilogue, still today the highest ranking soldier of African descent in any European army.  She has written more detail about the man here, in The History Girls blog.

Highly recommended.

Cover design moment: I loved this cover with its old engraving style and the clever use of colour to create a Tricolour impression.  The wonderful illustrator  is Royston Knipe.  His website is here.

Blade and Bone was published on 6 October 2016 by Walker Books.  

The Call : Q & A with Peadar O’Guilin

I was asked for a review and Q & A with Peadar for a brilliant new feminist website called EtymNews.  Here’s the thought provoking result:

The Call by Peadar O’Guilin: the next Hunger Games?

Looking for another The Hunger Games or Divergent?  Here’s a brilliant Young Adult novel set in a dystopian Ireland.  Imagine living in a country where every single teenager gets “The Call”.  Without warning, you are transported to the baroque horrors of the Grey Lands where the vengeful Sidhe hunt you for sport, killing you or worse.  Much worse.  The odds of surviving this ordeal are improving through intense training in special colleges and now perhaps one in ten teenagers make it back alive.  Nessa is the girl least likely to succeed with her legs twisted by polio yet she is absolutely determined to be the very best she can be.  Tension builds as we learn the horrific fate of other students as they are “Called”.  But who will be next and can Nessa and her friends make it through?

The Call was inspired by the beautiful northwest of Ireland where he grew up but now Peadar O’Guilin lives just outside Dublin.  He has written plays, published short stories, and performed as a stand-up comedian whilst holding down a day job. I tracked him down to ask him a couple of pertinent questions about the book …

Q: Why did you choose to make your main character a girl not a boy? 

A: When I first started reading, female protagonists spent their lives peeping out from between the covers in the romance section of the bookshop. Now and again, a few would make the journey over to the SF shelves, especially if the writer were somebody like C.J. Cherryh or the late, great Tanith Lee. I loved those books, but took no particular note of the character’s gender, except to think, well, the authors are female, so naturally that’s the type of character they’re going to use.

My own short-stories had a few female protagonists, but only when the story really needed one. My default, even for the bit-players, was “standard” straight, white male.  And then, one day, the internet exploded with talk of “diversity”. Back in the beginning, the definition was so limited, it was almost enough for a book to pass the Bechdel test. But even then, the debate looked to me like a lot of angry people shouting at each other and I didn’t want to be involved.

However, beneath all the passion were a few arguments that made me question what I was doing. The main ones were: 1) The world is diverse, if your stories are not diverse, you are not reflecting reality. 2) Everybody likes to see themselves in a story, so, why shouldn’t they? 3) Every book that adds to the overwhelming mass of “standard” characters lends credibility to the idea that only one type of story is valid.

At that point I decided to reverse my previous default. I would always start with a female protagonist unless the plot demanded otherwise.   And that, dear friends, is the story of how Nessa came out of the aether with two X chromosomes…

Q: Many reviewers appreciate that there’s no predictable “love triangle” in the story – though there is plenty of romance. Did you deliberately set out to break the formula?

A: I didn’t set out to break the formula. I generally don’t read the type of book that has love triangles in it. I am always more interested in the life and death tension of a story, rather than the will they/won’t they tension. It’s not that I dislike romance. I am a human being who has tender feelings now and again. When I write romance into a story, it’s usually a fantasy I’m creating for myself, that I want to believe in. Love triangles only confuse my simple soul.

Q: Did you find yourself drawing on your own experiences as a teenager as you were writing the book?

A: Very much so! I went to a boarding school when I was Nessa’s age. I took a smelly bus from the same station as hers, following much of the same route. Obviously, the idea of a refectory, of classes and a dorm, are extremely familiar ones to me as a result. I also read some dodgy love poetry and wrote lines that were far, far worse than anything she quoted!

 Peadar O’Guilin

Q: The world building includes an Ireland being shut off behind an impenetrable barrier; a terrifying yet wronged enemy; and hard choices children have to make when they are far too young.  Were you ever conscious when writing of exploring your country’s recent past, or are the roots all in Irish mythology?

A: I am very conscious of history.   We Irish have seen both sides of colonialism. We were colonised, but in Scotland, and in North America, we were also colonisers. The famous US general, Sheridan, often misquoted as saying “The only good injun’s a dead injun”, was of Irish stock. Almost every human being alive today lives where they do because their ancestors drove out somebody else. The fact that the concept is right there in the Book of Conquests is just a reflection of how long we have been doing this to each other.  Ethnic cleansing is a horrible practice that I hope we are starting to grow out of. But the consequences live on a long time after the crimes, and in a way, that’s what my book is about.

Peadar O’Guilin has written an intense and thrilling story which is definitely my favourite Young Adult novel of the year so far.  With a deft touch, Peadar builds very genuine, complex characters with a great deal of humour and humanity. I loved Nessa: her unfailing determination, her unflinching honesty about her condition, her fierce friendships and, ultimately, her strength of purpose which shines through at the tremendous climax.

So, with the nights drawing in … why not treat yourself to a fresh, thought provoking, and really scary story?

David Fickling Books; 01 Sep 2016; Hardback; £10.99

The King’s Revenge : Philip Womack

… exhilarating quest, resonating myth and rich characters  …

This is the concluding part of Philip’s fantasy trilogy, The Darkening Path.  Simon and Flora have saved their siblings and now the four children and their companions are in a desperate race to reverse the Broken King’s trap which has severed the connection between the worlds.

8727446Set in the mysterious and fantastical Silver Kingdom, the quest rattles along at a tremendous pace and is studded with some marvellous scenes (joining a Roman legion, anyone?) and characters (the huge bat-crab creature is a favourite).  It has a exhilarating conclusion with an unexpected, yet satisfying, twist.

Philip’s deft use of mythic images sets strong themes resonating throughout the novel whilst the delicate interplay of the different characters, and their gradual character development, keeps the emotional side of the story alive with possibility and significance.

Definitely to be recommended for lovers of fantasy, The King’s Revenge is pitched at 11+ readers and was published in paperback on 16 June 2016 by Troika Books.

Many thanks, Troika Books, for the review copy.

The Graces : Laure Eve

graces… brilliant thriller of claustrophobic relationships and dark magic …

This is a brilliantly constructed thriller of claustrophobic teenage relationships interwoven with dark magic.  It is written from the point of view of River who comes to live in a Cornish town and slowly, inextricably, gets drawn into the allure of the beautiful, self-assured Grace family.

I particularly liked the extremely well drawn character development of River.  She is not an entirely sympathetic figure – there are hints about her past – but River grows into a courageous teenager with a dogged self belief: “we can fix this, right?”

Laure has an intense, fluid narrative style which gets the reader very close to River’s hopes and anxieties whilst keeping the plot racing along through a thicket of lies and deceit to an intense climax  – definitely one of my favourite reads of 2016.

I only have one quibble: there was an elemental strand which didn’t mesh very tightly with the rest of the story and was an unnecessary distraction.  I also feel the book has a weak cover design – the US cover is slightly better.  (But cover designs in general may be a topic for a completely different post … !)

The Graces will be published in September 2016.  The writer has a background in YA publishing; her first novel, Fearsome Dreamer, was longlisted for the Branford Boase Children’s Prize and Waterstone’s Children’s Prize.   On the strength of The Graces, I’m now off to buy it.

NB: I would say this is firmly older YA with descriptions of rebellious British teenagers, ie a bit of swearing and quite a lot of underage drunkenness.

Chasing the Stars : Malorie Blackman

… love story, whodunit, psychological thriller in space …

This is a great read.  It’s a love story, a whodunit and a psychological thriller set on a space ship fleeing across28693621 enemy territory.  The narrative races away from the start with a splendid jeopardy piece showing the protagonist, Vee, as a very determined and compassionate girl – and the pace rarely slackens.   Sudden “accidents” and personal tensions amongst the desperate crew grow to a satisfying conclusion – and the hint of a sequel.

The story is told through the entwined narratives of the main characters, Vee and Nathan.  This approach gives the reader delicious insights, and humour, into the many misunderstandings  of their love affair.

I also enjoyed Malorie’s light referencing of multi-ethnicity, the class divisions and her take on marriage!

NB: There are some sex scenes – not too graphically  biological …but definitely a Young Adult book.


Kindred Spirits : Rainbow Rowell

A brilliant firecracker of a read …

I don’t usually venture far into straight Young Adult territory but picked this slim World Book Day story up whilst I was helping out at Emily’s bookshop (@afestivalofbook) and, as it happenskindred to be the 4th May, it seemed appropriate to post this short review .

When Elena joins the queue outside the cinema waiting for the new Star Wars film, she really thought she would be part of a big excited crowd of fans.  But there are only three of them waiting and sleeping on the pavement for the four days before opening: Troy, Gabe and Elena. Is her Mum going to pick her up?  Can she really pee in a cup?  And what is it with Gabe?

A real blast and a great advert for her longer novels.


The Shepherd’s Crown : Terry Pratchett

Please note : This review includes a couple of spoilers.

… brilliant cast and astute humanity

I wanted to add a couple of things to the many reviews of Terry’s elegiac last Discworld novel.  What stands out for me always in his books is his brilliant cast and his astute humanity.

9780857534811Lord and Ladies, his reinterpretation of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, is one of my very favourite DiscWorld novels and so I was delighted by the Elves’ return.  I love his reversal of this race with their unprincipled, vicious glamour so akin to modern celebrity culture; and his parallel championing of the strong minded honest folk: midwives, shepherds, blacksmiths over the weaker kings and queens.

After focussing for so long on strong women in his latter books, it is also lovely to be introduced to Geoffrey, the apprentice witch with his unique calm-weaving ability; and Mr Sideways and the magic of the man-shed.

As Antonia Byatt mentioned in her Guardian review :“Something I came to love about Pratchett was his inability to go on disliking either a character or a race.”  It was fascinating to watch Tiffany carefully teaching Nightshade, ex-Queen of the Elves, why is matters to be kind and thoughtful; and I was delighted, though not entirely surprised, by the sudden bravery of the irritating Letice Earwig.

I was also going to point out Terry’s art of not saying too much about some of the characters, for example: You, the enigmatic white cat, which adds to the reading pleasure. However I have since learnt that there is a story behind Granny Weatherwax’s familiar.   Back in August 2015, Neil Gaiman’s revealed a plot layer that was never included because time ran out.  Click here for a link to this article if you are interested … which I suggest you read after reading the book.




The Call : Peadar O’Guilin


… thrilling novel which is very difficult to put down …

Imagine a world where every teenager gets The Call.  Without warning, you are transported to the baroque horrors of the Grey Lands where the vengeful Sidhe hunt you for sport, killing you or worse.  Much worse.

Nessa is the girl least likely to make it with her twisted legs yet she is absolutely determined to be the very best she can be.  In the Boyle Survival College, where they are all drilled with mock hunts and with fragmentary reports of the Sidhe, Nessa refuses to let herself be distracted by handsome Anto, her best friend and bolshy Megan, or bully boy Connor.

The tension builds as we learn in separate chapters of the fate of other students as they are Called.  Each desperate chase lasts for a day in the Grey Lands but only 3 minutes and 40 seconds in our world.  The horrors are truly disturbing and so this book is Young Adult rather than a Pre-Teen choice.  The odds are improving through the intense training and now perhaps one in ten teenagers survive.  But who will be next and can Nessa and her friends make it through?

This is an intense and thrilling novel which is very difficult to put down once you’ve started.  With a deft touch, O’Guilin builds very genuine, complex characters with a great deal of humour and humanity.  I particularly liked the febrile, hothouse atmosphere of the Survival College with its friendships, rebelliousness and romance.   And most of all I loved Nessa: her unfailing determination, her unflinching honesty about her condition, her fierce friendships and, ultimately, her strength of purpose which shines through at the tremendous climax.

I look forward to its sequel, The Cauldron, with impatience.

Bullet Catcher : Joaquin Lowe

getimage_195_300_c1_center_center_0_0_1 (1)If there’s a debt to be paid, it’s to oneself.

Imma’s parents are dead and her beloved brother, Nikko, has run from the orphanage; now she must find her own way.  Imma becomes entangled in a world of obligations, betrayals, and no second chances.   Through the harsh deserts and mean water parched towns, she learns how to catch and deflect bullets  … and she learns much, much more: about life and honesty, about the desert and death.

If all of this sounds a little heavy, Imma’s searing honesty and determination made me really want her to succeed and the plot twists and turns like a rattlesnake to a satisfying climax.  There’s a well drawn cast of secondary characters including the mentor, the Bullet Catcher; an old Gunslinger, Hartright; the beloved Nikko and his friend, Cloak.

The book is full of beautiful descriptions and deftly worded images which makes it a pleasure to read.  I enjoyed being absorbed into the Bullet Catcher’s world where a girl learns what it is to decide between hard choices and where Imma finally realises: If there’s a debt to be paid, it’s only to oneself.

Out in paperback 4 Feb 2016 published by Hot Key Books.

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