Sunday, March 16, 2014

Book Review: The Glassblower of Murano

The Glassblower of Murano is a tale of intrigue, betrayal, love and politics. It tells of Leonora (Nora) Manin, whose failed marriage drives her to return to her native Venice and to a new career as a maestra of glassmaking. She is echoing the life of her famous ancestor Corradino Manin, who was once acknowledged as the finest glassmaker in the world, famed for creating the biggest, brightest, clearest mirrors and the most delicate candelabri. She has one direct link to the man in the form of a glass heart, made for his illegitimate daughter - also called Leonora - and handed down to her across 400 years..

The story spans those four centuries as Nora, now calling herself by her full Venetian name, lives and works in the same squares, alleys and factories as her ancestor, and suffers from the same schemes and jealousies that he faced. Throughout the intertwined stories the true heroine is Venice herself, La Serenissima: beautiful, compelling, and treacherous for the unwary.

The stories twist and turn in a pattern as complex as the island city's streets, with as many promising routes for its characters that lead only to blind alleys, forcing them to retrace their steps and find an alternate way to tackle life's challenges. Both have to deal with the officials of their times, although the consequences of error for Leonora are only disappointment and heartbreak, while Corradino risks an assassin's knife. Both have troubled love lives, and both are threatened by the jealousy of those close to them.

My knowledge of 17th century Italian history is insufficient to comment on Marina Fiorata's accuracy, although her descriptions are convincing. Her details of early glass making methods also seem well researched. But it is her evocation of the glorious city that is the most entrancing.

The book will leave you wanting to visit Venice - or at least to eat a bowl of pasta and drink a cold beer.

The Glassblower of Murano
Marina Fiorato
Beautiful Books, London

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Thursday Extracts: Maureen Johnson, on not taking drastic measures

"What you don't realise at the time is that you're not seeing the full picture," Peter went on. "You don't think about the fact that things will change. Things always change."

The Boy in the Smoke
Maureen Johnson
Hot Key Books, London

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Review: The Boy in the Smoke

Stephen suspects his parents dislike him, and his fears are confirmed when they fail to pick him up from boarding school at the end of term. He contacts his elder sister Gina, who whisks him off to London for a self indulgent spree of spending and over-eating that reveals her own severe problems as a troubled teen. When their parents finally arrive, Gina is banished from the house, and Stephen is packed off to Eton, where he has already earned a place through his academic ability.

Some time later, the only bright spot in Stephen's life is extinguished when his sister dies from a drugs overdose, leaving him to lead an increasingly successful but depressed existence at school. At an open day in his final year Stephen tries to discuss his sister's death with his parents but they are unsympathetic and even try to blame him for the tragedy.

That removes his last trace of hope, and he goes off to the boathouse where he slings a rope over a beam and tries to hang himself. He immediately regrets it, and is surprised to find that someone is there in time to rescue him, take the noose from his neck and look after him. And so begins a series of strange events in Stephen's life.

It would be wrong to reveal more of the plot. This is a ghost story with a twist and telling too much would spoil the tale. Whether it is because Maureen Johnson's The Boy in the Smoke was written for young adults, or because of the narrative itself, is hard to say, but it is an uplifting book. It would certainly be a great recommendation for anyone who is feeling depressed.

It was released for just £1 a copy in time for World Book Day last week, or you can download it as an ebook here:

It's only 86 pages, but easily worth a pound of anyone's money. 

Thursday, March 06, 2014

World Book Day

Today is World Book Day. Unlike its counterpart World Book Night, which will be held in April, this event seems mainly aimed at encouraging children and young people to read. Schools allow their pupils to turn up dressed as a book character. And Asda had books for sale at £1 each. So I picked up one called The Boy in the Smoke, by Maureen Johnson, which turns out to be a teen-aimed ghost story.

I'm still reading it so I can't tell you much yet, but I'm pleased to say that, while it covers young adult themes, it is well written and engaging enough for this grown-up to be enjoying it.I'll let you know more when I finish it.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Maybe the Moon by Armistead Maupin

Poignant. That's the best way to describe Maybe the Moon. I guess with a title like that, and Armistead Maupin for an author, I should have expected nothing less.

It's a vivid tale about the seamier side of Hollywood and the movie business back in the late 20th century. And it's important to remember that it was published in 1992. Things have changed since then, or at least it is to be hoped they have.

Thirty one inch tall Cadence (Cady) Roth is an actress, or is trying to be, but her one big role was 10 years ago, in the second biggest movie of all time, where she was the legs beneath a rubber and animatronic elf. The character, Mr Woods, turns up in the back yard of a young boy's home, at a time when he needs a friend, and helps the kid through troubled times. Everyone loves the elf, but nobody knows Cady's face. In fact she has been forbidden to discuss her part because the director believes it would spoil the 'magic' of the story. It appears that, far from her talents as an actress, it was her size as the second smallest person in the world that earned her the part. The studio just needed someone small to fit inside the suit.

If you have spotted similarities with 'ET' here that is no surprise. The book was rumoured to be an homage to Tamara de Treaux, a female dwarf who brought that character to life, from inside a heavy and uncomfortable latex-coated contraption. Indeed, Cady spends much of the novel resenting how everyone is unaware that it was a woman inside the Mr Woods costume. As if she didn't have enough emotional problems from dealing with her height, she is also plagued by the constant use of the pronoun 'he' in association with her career. You might also have noticed a recurring theme of 'second best' here too. In fact the book is filled with 'almosts' and 'not quites'. As I said: poignant.

Being Armistead Maupin in the Nineties it is also filled with several politically correct causes. Beyond the central question of acceptance of Cady as a person, rather than a dwarf, there is also the topic of mixed race relationships, when Cady finds herself a tall, good-looking, black boyfriend. And there's a homosexual friend who happens to meet Cady's young boy co-star, now grown-up and cruising in a well-known gay pick-up spot. The child star is making a come-back in an action movie and of course the studio wants to keep his sexual preferences a secret.

The book explores what a bottom-line, image-is-everything place Hollywood can be, or at least was in the 1990s. It's a product of its time, but it's still worth tracking down