Book news

  • The Space Oracle by Ken Hollings review – why humans are star-struck
    PD Smith

    From astrology’s houses of the zodiac to the ‘lost cosmonauts’, this beautifully written book appraises humanity’s relationship with the stars

    At the start of this succinct survey of our undying love affair with the cosmos, Ken Hollings notes that we are all, even in this scientific age, “secretly familiar with our star sign”. His book’s 12 chapters echo the 12 houses of the zodiac. It is not a defence of astrology, though, rather, a wonderfully impressionistic exploration of how we have tried to make sense of the stars, from ancient cultures such as the Maya and the medieval idea that astronomy was an art, to the “lost cosmonauts” – the Soviet astronauts who preceded Yuri Gagarin but never returned, their capsules lost in space.

    Hollings’s beautifully written account takes the reader on some delightfully unexpected cosmic journeys. A riff on how, through polished glass, stars look like snowflakes, leads to Robert Hooke’s comparison of snowflakes and urine crystals, and ends with an Apollo astronaut describing how in space “a urine dump at sunset” was “the most beautiful sight in orbit”.

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  • Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter by Edythe Haber – review
    Miranda Seymour

    A meticulous biography unravels the life of the female Russian humorist who charmed tsars, revolutionaries – and Paris society

    Nothing dates faster than humour. The Russian writer Teffi (born Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya in 1872, the sixth child of a lawyer) had the misfortune not only to be an astringently witty and fiercely professional female author – an unusual breed in 19th-century Russia – but almost untranslatably so.

    “Miss Duncan, why go barefoot when tights have been invented?” (You’re smiling? Neither am I.)

    Haber brings into view a formidable woman who worked as hard as an entire army of scribes

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  • Fiction for older children reviews – ancestral spirits and daring dogs
    Kitty Empire

    Himalayan adventure, transformation and time travel feature in the standout stories this month

    Can you judge a book by its cover? Often, in children’s fiction. Set in the foothills of the Himalayas, Asha and the Spirit Bird (Chicken House) – the debut from Jasbinder Bilan, winner of her publisher’s children’s fiction competition in 2017 – hits you with lush tropical artwork: namaste, illustrator Aitch and designer Helen Crawford-White.

    The words do justice to the pictures. If one of the gifts of fiction is to proffer unfamiliar footwear in which to walk a while, Bilan’s story is an eye-opening adventure, with one sandalled foot in atmospheric realism and a toe-hold in the mythical. To thwart the debt collector, plucky young Asha has to find her father, missing in the faraway city. As her desperation turns to real danger (policemen, blizzards, wolves) help is on hand in the form of the powerful lamagaia bird – known less atmospherically as the bearded vulture – and a green-eyed tiger. Could these be the spirits of Asha’s ancestors?

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