invention

Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll

Sprung from The Big Idea Competition, and Neal Jackson’s story idea ‘The First Aeronauts’, Emma Carroll’s latest historical fiction sees her entering the world of France in 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers launched the first hot air balloon flight over Versailles. Carroll has woven their story seamlessly with a wonderful adventure narrative that manages to be fresh and modern, incorporating ideas of gender politics, science, identity and social class. Although Sky Chasers is fiction, Carroll writes with an acute sense of history, with huge attention to detail and period.

Carroll’s novels are all well put together, but this one in particular is as brilliantly executed as the guillotine. The protagonist is Magpie, an orphan girl, who pickpockets and thieves to make her way in the world. The book uses the Magpie nursery rhyme: One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, to delineate the sections of the book, and not only does usage of this version of the rhyme fit the gender play of the story ‘three for a girl, four for a boy’, it wonderfully ties into the theme of birds, because the first living beings to fly in a basket hitched to a hot air balloon were a duck, a rooster and a sheep:

Magpie can’t believe her eyes when she sees a boy dancing in the sky. When she realises that he’s ‘flying’, hanging onto a rope from the prototype balloon, she knows she wants a part in it. Of course, it’s not that simple for an orphan girl, especially when the boy is the son of Joseph Montgolfier, and she’s already been inside their house – thieving!

Integrated in the plot of how Magpie, her rooster, the boy Pierre, and his duck end up in the first balloon flight over Versailles are all sorts of elements, including pistols at dawn, suspicion of English spies, and mistaken identity. Carroll has great fun bringing in period details and playing with historical character – the reader first meets Marie Antoinette eating cake at Versailles.

There is also the wonder of science and invention. The Montgolfier brothers have made headway by the time Magpie arrives, but Carroll plays with Magpie’s powers of observation allowing her to spot details they might have missed. She has the idea for lift from undergarments drying in the kitchen for example. These ‘accidental’ details feed into the invention of balloon flight, and bring science down to a basic, and yet exciting level. Invention, quite often, comes about by accident.

A baddie lurks in the background of the novel too, underpinning the suspense – difficult sometimes to conjure in historical fiction where the outcome is already known. But here, the baddie is not all as she seems – indeed there are many cases of mistaken identity within the novel, both good to bad, boy to girl, which makes the reader think carefully about each character’s motivation, intention and ambition. Carroll has also pinned down the Montgolfier brothers quite spectacularly despite her brevity, as in this story they are but secondary characters to the children.

Add to that a profound sense of alienation and belonging, be it nationhood, social class or family, and the reader sees that this is an adventure novel with multiple layers. Carroll is a master of historical fiction, painting a vivid picture of the time with colour and period detail, but also bringing in themes, such as belonging, that still resonate today.

But above all, it is the wonder of flight that pulls in the reader. In fact, reading the fantastic description of flight, one can see how this melds into the view an author might have of their novel – as Magpie sees the gardens of Versailles and fields beyond laid out beneath her like toys, so the landscape of a book enables the author and reader to garner a larger world view, an encompassing picture of who they are compared to history.

The power of possibility is held aloft in this soaring novel. As it is sent wind borne into bookshops, you can catch your own here.

Impossible Inventions: Ideas That Shouldn’t Work by Matgorzata Mycielska, Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski

Impossible InventionsOne of my favourite Homer Simpson lines is: “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

Impossible Inventions is a fabulous non-fiction book that explores inventions which are sometimes crazy, sometimes inspired and sometimes just plain weird, but what they have in common is that they all failed. The point is that they are all somewhere on the path to real discovery and invention, even if the road is rather long and winding. And some of the historical inventions featured were thought up by historical figures (Da Vinci, Tesla) who we know and recognise for inventions that did work.

The book features such weird and wacky inventions as a concentration helmet, a transport cloud, a steam horse and a bubble messenger. Each invention is afforded a double page, with full-colour illustrations and accompanying text and captions, and then a second double page with a large cartoon exploring the practicality of the invention, with cartoon bubble speech. It’s both funny and informative.

The illustrations complement the wackiness of the ideas, not only in their cartoon-like style but in the bold block colours and strong outlines, which feel both fresh and creative, and are drawn with a unique quirkiness that we’ve come to expect from Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski of Maps fame.

The book introduces the concept of invention and innovation, describing that all inventions begin with a dream or a need, and each invention takes imagination, commitment and courage. Mycielska talks about the point of patents too, and sets out the limitlessness of possibility. This book points to the power of the imagination, and the understanding that what may seem challenging or even downright peculiar at one time, may turn out to be useful and necessary – sometimes many years later.

The inventions are shown in a random order – in actual fact the contents are at the back of the book, and the placement of each invention plays to the randomness of ideas. Imagination doesn’t necessarily work in a linear fashion.

This is a wonderfully fascinating and humorous book, which teaches a great lesson in engineering and science – that not everybody will succeed every time, but each step is part of the learning process. And if you don’t try, you definitely won’t succeed. You can buy it here.