A beautiful and quirky journey

This book is a thing of beauty. It stands out being an oversized hardback and invites you to pick it up and look inside … whereupon you’ll see all the intricate illustrations, sidebars and marginalia. Then reading the blurb, you’ll find out that it is the story of a 12 year old genius, Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, how he gets to be invited to go to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC and his journey to get there. Totally captivating already without reading a word.

TS, as he likes to be known, lives on a remote ranch in Montana. His father is a taciturn cowboy, his mother is a talented scientist totally obsessed with studying rare beetles, his sister is a typical teenage girl. His brother, Layton we soon find out died a few months previously. His is not a typical household, and TS is not a typical boy.

He loves nothing more than to understand the world by mapping it – drawing illustrations, diagrams, and making lists. His mentor Dr Yorn submitted some of his work to the Smithsonian, not telling them he was only 12. So when they call inviting him to come and accept a prestigious award, TS sees his chance to escape Montana and make a pilgrimage to the home of learning, so he runs away and jumps a train hobo-style.

Having grabbed one of his mother’s notebooks, he starts to read it on the train, and is surprised to discover it’s not one of her beetle books, but the draft of a biography of one of his ancestors on his father’s side, who went on to become the first woman professor of geology. Eventually after many adventures, he arrives in DC. To his surprise, (but not ours), the museum sees that it can capitalise on their prize-winner being only 12, and the media circus starts leaving TS homesick and missing his family, and where for the first time, we see him as just a boy.

I really took to TS. He’s a loveable geek and an independent spirit. He struggles to understand his parents, especially since the death of his brother though. Throughout his journey, we share his confusion, his grief and need for space. In the boredom of the long train ride, through reading his mother’s manuscript, he begins to understand his heritage and to find his place in the scheme of things. The middle section on the train did slightly drag (intentionally I would wager), but the imagery (and TS’s maps) of the locomotive gradually thackety-thacking its way through the American mid-west are fantastic.

“I willed the landscape to stop, for the miniature men to stop cranking the scenery across my vision with that little landscape machine of theirs. Alas, the landscape continued flowing past with what seemed like an increasingly sadistic determination.”

This is a totally charming book. I loved everything about it – especially all the diagrams and footnotes. Also wonderful is the masterful way the author has teased out the story of the Spivet family – by the end of the novel we care about them all deeply. TS’s realisation, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that there’s ‘No place like home’ and his subsquent rescue may have the merest hint of schmaltz but is actually a truly satisfying ending to an amazing tale. (10/10)

Moviewatch – Coraline (3D)

I read Neil Gaiman’s wonderful children’s novel Coraline last month and blogged about it here, knowing the movie was out this month. Given a choice, I prefer to read the book and then see the movie. So yesterday my daughter and I went to see the film…

It was also our first movie in 3D. At Easter we went to see Monsters v Aliens. The cinema had it in both 2D and 3D; Juliet was wary of the glasses, so we opted for the 2D (which was cheaper too). Fortunately for us, Coraline was only on show in 3D this time, and despite the slightly uncomfortable glasses it was worth the difference.

The new system uses polarized light to produce steroscopic images – ie what each eye would see. The two images are projected in alternate frames with a higher than normal frame rate, and the polarized glasses then ensure that each eye sees its intended picture only – but its fast enough that it seems continuous and the brain combines them to get the full picture. If you don’t have the glasses, a scene with a large and detailed depth of field will seem blurred. But enough of the science – on to the film!

Just as in the book, Coraline is a very practical and independent young girl, not much phases her. So when she discovers the passage into an altenate world where her other mother and father can’t do enough for her, compared with her too busy parents in the real one, she enjoys herself. But when her other mother says she can stay but only if she lets her replace her eyes with black buttons, (here the needle and thread come straight at you in 3D), she’s only scared for a moment, and talks her way out of it and solves the other problems then put in her path steadily. That’s the only problem really – it is a dark story, but in the film she’s not scared enough. Maybe this was a deliberate ploy to protect the sensibilities of young children, but it did dampen down the action, and the evil other mother seems rather easily defeated in the end.

Visually – it is totally stunning. Stop motion has never looked so good, made with hundreds of precision models as opposed to Wallace and Gromit’s homely ‘Claymation’ style. The 3D effects have been used brilliantly throughout. The old ladies (voiced by French and Saunders) were grotesquely funny – and made us laugh with their half-naked vaudeville act.

One recommendation – if you see the film – do visit the website http://coraline.com/ afterwards – it’s rather fab with loads of things to do including see what you look like with buttons for eyes – you have been warned!


There are so many good books arriving at the moment, here’s a few I’m particularly looking forward to reading…

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters – the eagerly awaited ghost story that we’re all looking forward to reading. It’s a classic country house tale set shortly after the end of WWII.

Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig – the sixth novel from one of my favourite novelists and a masterful book reviewer. It is set in London and follows the intersecting lives of five totally different people. Dovegreyreader recently interviewed Amanda, and the result was a fascinating insight into her inspiration for this novel which makes it an absolute must read soon for me. It was lovely to hear that Craig is back on her feet after a long illness too.

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor. Many have recommended this author to me, and I couldn’t resist – especially as Virago are reissuing many of her novels with stunning covers – isn’t that photo wonderful? I hope that I’ll love her books as much as everyone else does, and when I’ve read a few, I’ll turn to Nicola Beauman’s biography of her.

At the House of the Magician by Mary Hooper. This is a novel for older children/young adults set in Elizabethan times. It features a young maid who works in the house of Doctor Dee, court magician and alchemist, and she uncovers a plot to assassinate the queen. Hooper has written a handful of historical novels for this age group which all get brilliant write-ups – I hope she is another great discovery.

Snoop by Samuel Gosling. As someone whose first action whenever I go into anyone’s house is to look for the bookshelf (discretely of course!), I think I’ll really enjoy this book of pop psychology on what your stuff says about you..

And last but not least If I Stay by Gayle Forman. This, a children’s book was another recommendation by Dovegreyreader who loved it and gushed about it but couldn’t really write about it without giving the plot away. So I rushed out to order it as it sounds brilliant. Thanks dgr.

One of the best book quotes …

Hunting out a book to lend to a friend, I stumbled over Melvyn Bragg’s excellent biography of Richard Burton Rich: The Life of Richard Burton.

This in turn reminded me of a wonderful quote of Burton’s I read in the newspaper absolutely ages ago.  Apparently the Burtons didn’t travel light – Richard always took a trunk of books and when asked about his love of reading said:

Home is where the books are.

… Need one say more!

This novel snaps, crackles and pops with electricity

The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt

This Orange prize short-listed novel has had some mixed reviews. To be honest, it’s a bit of a mixture itself, refusing to be easily genrified being: part fictionalised biography of mad physicist Nikola Tesla, part love story, part time-travel SF/fantasy, and part mainstream novel set in New York during WWII.

Although it’s not perfect, I loved all of it. When I was a teenager and at university, I read virtually nothing but science fiction and fantasy. I don’t read many mainstream SF novels these days, but my love of the genre has matured into a particular liking for speculative fiction set in the recent past through to near future, (I’m thinking Ishiguru’s Never let me go and The Time Traveller’s Wife here – both books I adored reading). Although I’m a physics-based scientist by training, I find I am able to escape into these sorts of novels – ignoring the impossibilities and improbabilities and enjoying the ride without quibbling over the science.

This escapism is only possible though when backed up by good research and quality writing, which luckily is in evidence here. Samantha Hunt has chosen well, for Nikola Tesla is the very epitomy of the mad scientist – a craftsman as a trained engineer, and a true innovator living mainly in his head, and full of quirks.

The novel is set in 1943 during the last weeks of Tesla’s life, when he was living in a hotel room in New York; broke and a recluse with pigeons as his only friends left. His mind is still full of plans for fantastic wireless electrical devices including a controversial death ray which just reinforced people’s view of him as a mad scientist. Earlier, he was never able to really capitalise on his development of AC systems which overtook Edison’s lesser DC ones. He let go of his ideas for radio too and Marconi leapt in to steal the limelight.

As a counterpart to his story, we meet Louisa, a chambermaid at the hotel. Louisa’s mother died in childbirth, but she is very close to her father, also an engineer and pigeon fancier. Her first encounter with Tesla is when he causes a power-cut in the hotel:

The door opens.
To see God would have surprised Louisa less. From inside the room just down the hallway, power, electricity, whirling motion, and glowing bright as the sun spill out into the dark. The porter and manager each raise a hand to cover their eyes. And there in the aura of this wonder is man most unlike other men. A slender frame, terrific height, silver hair that reaches down his forehead in a peak. Louisa notices the dark hollows of his cheeks and even the fine length of his fingers on the doorjamb. He is lovely. Louisa catches her breath. Her mouth hangs open at the hinge. He is stunning, like Dracula grown old, like cold black branches covered with snow in the winter.

So we compare and contrast the two men through Louisa – her father and his friend Azor who thinks he’s built a time-machine; and the scientist most likely get there first if only he wasn’t 86. I got swept up in the romance of the whole thing and would heartily recommend it. But if you like your science more cut and dried – you’ll miss out on the magic of this book. (9/10)

Another interesting review of this fascinating novel can be found on dovegreyreader‘s blog.

Slipping down the list – oops! – Sorry

A couple of months ago I won this book in a draw from Librarything‘s Early Reviewers programme – winners are asked to read and review the books won. Vilnius Poker by Ricardas Gavelis is a novel new in translation by Open Letter Books – I’m told by a Lithuanian Librarything user that it is considered a modern classic in his country.

The blurb made it sound really interesting: “Considered to be the “turning point” of Lithuanian literature, Vilnius Poker depicts the mental dissolution of Vytautas Vargalys, a survivor of the Soviet labor camps who works an absurd job at a library and feels like Lithuania is being crushed by a mysterious “Them.” “They” might include the aptly named Lolita, a young girl who comes to work for the library and starts an affair with Vytautas…”

When it arrived though, it was obviously a chunky novel, 485 pages to be precise, and the type is small. Now I’ve got my new lenses in my reading glasses, small typefaces are no longer a problem, but I’ve read the first few pages a few times and promptly fallen asleep. I promise I will read it and I’m sure if I can get a way into it, it’ll be worth it. The problem is that loads of really exciting books keep appearing all over the place – and I can’t resist them.

What did mother do in the war?

The Spy Game by Georgina Harding

The direct gaze of the woman sipping a cup of tea on the dustjacket of the UK hardback really caught my eye – a spendid cover and evocative title too. Reading the blurb, I fully expected an espionage story straight out of John Le Carre, but this thoughtful and slow-burning novel is something completely different.

Set in the post-war years of the Cold War, Anna’s mother goes out in the car into the fog, and she never sees her again. The same day, a spy case involving people who were very ordinary breaks in the news. This leads Anna’s brother Peter to wonder if his mother was a sleeper, a spy in deep-cover waiting to be called into action. He can’t believe she just died in a car accident – he’s sure she’s alive somewhere with a different identity.

Their mother was a refugee from eastern Germany – with no family left – that’s all they know about her; their rather distant father prefers to disappear into his garden. This allows Peter to obsess about an alter ego for her – who she may have been meeting, what she may have been involved in. Anna is confused and feels her mother’s loss strongly, but goes along with her brother’s game. Eventually Peter goes off to boarding school, but he’s still haunted by his imaginings. The children grow up, grow apart and start families of their own. When Anna’s father dies, she feels a need for closure with her mother too, and plans to visit Konigsberg where she was born …

This profound and subtle novel explores loss and letting go. You feel a little of what it was like to be a ‘German’ or Eastern European in England after the war, with that slight strangeness and not quite fitting in to the quintessentially English countryside, that led Peter’s imagination into overload. Beautifully written, it takes its time getting to its conclusion, concentrating on the motherless siblings seen from Anna’s perspective, and how her disappearance affects their lives. At times, it was almost too slow-burning, but overall it was a powerful and thoughtful read. (8/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Spy Game by Georgina Harding, pub 2010 by Bloomsbury, paperback.

Dear, oh dear, oh dear …

Did you see the Apprentice last night? The teams had to pick products to sell at ‘The Baby Show’. Mercifully both teams had the good sense not to choose the baby stilettoes on offer.

What were the designers of this product thinking of when they came up with these? They’re crib shoes for teeny, tiny babies of up 0-6 months for heavens sake. They make their wearers … no scrub that … they make whomever dresses their baby up in them look total bloomin’ idiots in my opinion. Nuff said!

An evening with Marina Fiorato

Last night, we were treated to an Italian evening at Mostly Books in Abingdon to celebrate the publication of Marina Fiorato’s second novel which I blogged about here, her first novel having been a hit with us. We had antipasti, biscotti, amaretti, and plenty of Amaretto to wash it all down. I’ve only had Amaretto in puddings before – drinking it on its own was delicious, (I think it’ll be lovely with ice too!).

The Madonna of the Almonds was inspired by the story of the liqueur’s invention, and Marina produced an original 1970s Amaretto box which has the legend on the back. It was drinking the contents and reading the box that got her started. Due to the success of her first novel, she could afford a research trip to Italy and visited Saronno, Pavia from Milan. The frescoes painted by her hero Bernardino Luini in Saronno and Milan were all of the same lady with a beautiful luminous face.

She went on to tell us about her next novel The Botticelli secret due out next March, which features a Florentine whore and a monk who decipher the symbolism in Botticelli’s masterpiece ‘Primavera‘ – a giant canvas which now hangs in the Uffizi in Florence. I can’t wait.

When friendship is put to the test …

The Spare Room by Helen Garner

Helen’s old friend Nicola is coming to stay with her for three weeks while she undergoes an alternative cancer treatment – everything is ready for her. When Nicola arrives, it’s immediately clear that she’s in a really bad state and that even though she won’t admit it, she hasn’t that long to live. Helen has to cope on two fronts – having to be her friend’s carer, and also she’s full of anger at the useless yet expensive treatment Nicola’s receiving – it doesn’t help at all, and Helen is left to pick up the pieces.

This short novel, written after a friend of the author died from cancer, is the brutally honest story of a friendship that is tested to the limit, and the straws people will cling to in the belief that it’ll do them good. Told from Helen’s point of view, you’ll laugh, cry and get angry with her all the way through, and it gives a real glimpse of what it’s like to be a carer – even if only for a short while.

If you’d like to read more, a short interview with the author and excellent review can be found on dovegreyreader scribbles. This novel was fully expected to make the Booker longlist last year but, inexplicably to many, didn’t appear – maybe its brevity got it held back. There was a lot of discussion about whether On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan was a novel or novella the previous year. On a final note, don’t you think the original hardback cover (top right) says a lot that the new paperback cover (top left) doesn’t? (Book supplied by Librarything Early Reviewers programme)