Saturday, 24 May 2014

Review: The Tin Snail by Cameron McAllister

This is the story of a brave little car that helped to win a war.

In the 1940s world of elegant, luxury automobiles, the Tin Snail is no beauty. But it's facing a tough challenge: to carry a farmer and his wife, a flagon of wine and a tray of eggs across a bumpy field in a sleepy French village - without spilling a drop or cracking a shell.

And then an even bigger challenge comes along - staying hidden from an officer of the occupying Nazi army, who is bent on stealing the design for the enemy!

The Tin Snail tells the story of Angelo Fabrizzi, who at the start of the book is living in Paris with his Italian parents. Angelo's father is a car designer going through a drought period as far as inspiration is concerned, until one morning Angelo makes a comment that causes the metaphorical light bulb above his father's head to light up like a supernova. Unfortunately for the Fabrizzi family, the car's unveiling at the 1938 Paris Motor Show does not go as planned, and the fall out puts even more pressure on Angelo's parents' already strained marriage. His father decides he needs to get away, and he and Angelo head off to the countryside for some breathing space. Before long they are working on improving their design for a people's car, using the meagre resources available in the rural location.

Initially, the local villagers view the Fabrizzis with mistrust, feelings that escalate as the war in Europe starts and then escalates as the Nazis invade France, given that Italy has allied itself with Germany. However, work progresses on the car, but rumours of Fabrizzi's have reached the German High Command, and they descend on the village in search of any prototype they can steal away to deliver to their own car designers. What was just a simple engineering project in a rural French barn becomes a local symbol of Gallic honour and the struggle against the German invaders.

Earlier this year I attended another of Random House's brilliant blogger brunches. As far as my blogging and reading life is concerned these are always definitely up there as some of the highlights of my year, as RHCP always have a fab list of books to tell us about, and even more importantly the team who give up their Saturday morning to welcome us so warmly are among my very favourite book-world people. Like many of the publisher events I attend, the focus was more on YA than 'middle grade' books, but as a lover of MG there were two books in their presentation that totally grabbed my interest more than any others. The first was Django Wexler's brilliant The Forbidden Library, and the second was this little beauty.

I'm always on the look-out for books like this: well plotted middle grade stories with great characters and plenty of typically British humour (yes, it is set in France, with Italian and French characters, but the writing is undeniably British). The publishers make mention of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Dad's Army in their blurb, which covers the car aspect, the WWII setting and, to a degree the comedy, but this book is much more than that (and I am a lover of both of those). The humour is never slapstick or farcical (so no allusions to 'Allo 'Allo here whatsoever): it is subtle, heartwarming and intelligent and readers will find themselves grinning from ear-to-ear without even realising it.

The story itself is a fabulously well-plotted character driven piece, that uses action set-pieces and the tension of the villagers' anti-German 'resistance' to add to keep the pace moving and readers turning pages. It is one of my favourite books of 2014 so far, and Cameron McAllister writes with a voice that is reminiscent of the likes of Frank Cottrell Boyce and David Walliams. In fact, much as I am a great lover of Walliams' stories and their TV adaptations, if I had to choose it would be The Tin Snail that I would much rather see adapted for TV at Christmas this year.

Another great plus about this book is the 'is it fact, or is it fiction?' feeling that you get when reading it. At no point in the narrative does the author mention Citroen or the 2CV, but as readers we know there is only one car that is being designed by Angelo and his father. In his author's afterword McCallister gives us a very brief explanation about the event that inspired him to write about this special car, and as a reader who knows nothing about the history and development of the real Citroen 2CV, I loved the fact that at no point was I able to distinguish between what was a product of the author's imagination and what was something rooted in historical fact. Young car lovers will probably do exactly what I did on finishing this book - read up on the real history behind the development of such an iconic car.

I can't finish this review without also mentioning the wonderful black and white illustrations of Sam Usher that accompany each chapter heading, and also the lovely overall effort that the publishers have put into packaging this book. The Tin Snail comes as a lovely hardback edition, sans dustwrapper, and makes for a very attractive and enticing present for a reader, young or old. Yes, this is one of those rare books that will delight readers from 8 up to 80 and beyond, and deserves to become a much read family favourite in the future. My thanks go to the ever-wonderful Lisa Mahoney at Random House for sending me a copy to read.    

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