A(nother) Review: Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell-Boyce

There are some writers who when you pick up their books, you think “I really should have read this guy/gal before”.


Never more so does this happen than in bookselling where people, both in and out of the industry, assume you have read all the important books and writers. The truth is, we’re all so busy that unless we read those in school, we probably haven’t read them.


I can tell you the names of the last fourteen James Patterson titles, and I can tell you exactly what happens in about a million books you won’t have heard of before, nor will ever again, but I can’t tell you anything about Sylvia Plath, or even spot the difference between Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.


I went to a public school in Swindon in the late nineties, I read The Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm and maybe two or three Shakespeare plays. I didn’t study English at college, and I sort of stopped reading between the age of thirteen and eighteen, so my book knowledge only really began in circa 2003, when I read (following a 3 for 2 in my local WH Smith) The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Shadow of the Wind and Cloud Atlas and fell head over hells in love with reading again.


I can’t wait until I’m ninety when I will be one of the most well-read people, having read all the obscure classics, and no one will ever know I only have a passing acquaintance with Jane Austen. Until then, I’ll continue to bluff my way through while slowly building up my reading backlist.


In the frame this week is Frank Cottrell-Boyce – one of those names you’ll know, but not sure why. He wrote the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics as well as the award winning novel Millions. I’ve not read it, but I enjoyed the film a lot.


After reading John Boyne for the first time last week (I know, I know, I haven’t even read The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas), I was looking forward to reading Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth


And I wasn’t disappointed.


Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is first and foremost, a children’s book, but it deals with some quite heavy stuff. Prez is a young carer who’s granddad suffers from dementia. One summer, his granddad gets arrested, and Prez has to live at the Temporary.


Before long, he gets the opportunity to stay with a family who live on a farm, and it’s here where he meets Sputnik. Sputnik appears to everyone else as a dog (although a different dog to each person), but to Prez, he is an alien from outer space, who has come to look after Prez, and help him save the Earth from destruction.


To do so, they must find ten things that make the Earth unique, and they set off on an adventure together, each of them with very different ideas as to what will make the list.


It’s a fun romp (and I do appreciate the opportunity to say – or write – the word romp), through prison breaks, gravity surfing and explosive birthday parties – but there’s also an incredibly touching side to this novel, which will leave even the hardest heart softening a little.


It is perhaps a little unfair to compare it to the film Millions, but that’s what I’m going to do as it’s my only other point of reference for Cottrell-Boyce. There is a similar vein of ridiculousness running though both, but Sputnik feels a little more cartoonish, which does dampen the emotion slightly.


Of course, it IS a kid’s book, so it is likely highly intentional. Perhaps I need to go back and read Millions now?


Or maybe I should get a move on and finally try some Sylvia Plath.


(SPOILER: I did neither)

Two Rules for Life

A great man once said:

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

Do you remember the name of the man who said that? Did you ever know it?

I know I don’t.

But that’s my point – our words and our actions have a life beyond us, long after we’re forgotten.

Our lives are shaped and influenced by so many memorable historical figures. Shakespeare, one of the greatest influences on modern culture was born 450 years ago.

John Lennon, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela will also likely never be forgotten for their impact on the world

Then there are those that only a few people will remember, and their names might not last more than a generation or two. Big Fat Ron from next door, Miss Follett, my first teacher in infants school, my gran.

There are hundreds of historical figures, and if we tried to name all the important ones now we’d be here for quite some time – but there are even more names that have been forgotten.

Millions. Billions. Millions of billions.

Let’s take a look at Eurovision – bear with me, I’m trying to be topical.

Tonight in Denmark there will be a huge gathering of people from right across the world, all of them are there to celebrate music, to celebrate the unity of a continent in (relative) peace. How many of the people there, both in the audience and on stage will become historical figures?

How many of them are the progeny of historical figures – and how many of them aren’t? Without the mass of nameless forgettable people, there might only be a small handful of people assembling in Copenhagen.

It’s ok not to be famous, not to be remembered, because even if you never produce offspring of your own, you will have shaped the future in someway. You will have an impact on the world.

It is your choice if that’s a good impact or a bad one.

Even the smallest of our actions can inspire and influence others. A perceived slight can generate bad feeling, while holding a door open for someone can cause a smile. That bad feeling or the little smile will ripple on and could one day be the thing that starts a war – or stops it.

You might not be remembered, but your actions will.

Be nice.


(Oh, and to all you boys out there in Denmark – have a great time, but pop a condom on it, yeah?)

Seeking Immortality

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a writer when I grow up – apart from a brief period when I wanted to be car salesman, because I thought you got to keep all the money from each sale, and therefore, why wouldn’t you want to sell cars for a living? You could sell one, and then take a couple of months off. Seemed relatively simple to me. And I purposefully said when I grow up, because I can assure you, at 26, I’m nowhere near grown up yet. Although I’m old enough to have had to double check how old I was.

Asking myself now why I want to do that, though, it’s tricky to think of the answer. It’s been a part of me for so long, it’s like asking would I prefer to be called Alex, or Sebastian.

I’ve always liked the name Sebastian, and I think if I met a bloke called Sebastian, I’d probably be instantly attracted (and then start singing ‘Under The Sea’ at him) – but it’s not me. It’s not who I am.

Being a writer, wanting to write, is as much a part of me as my name is.

I remember thinking quite a while ago, that the reason I wanted to be writer was so that I could leave my mark on this world. You see it a lot in futuristic TV shows and films where Captain Picard is reading Shakespeare, and I think, how phenomenal would that be? To do something so brilliant, to achieve something so amazing that people are still talking about it eight hundred, nine hundred years later?

It’s the closest thing to immortality we have.

I find it hard to believe, though, that five year old me was concerned with such things, so there must have been something else.

I love language, I love the structure of language, and the composition of stories. There are famously, only seven basic plots, but look at how language can be used to tell these same stories over and over again in so many different ways, and still feel fresh and engaging. But I think this love of language, again has developed over time, it’s not origin of my love of writing, it’s a side effect.

All I can really put it down to is that growing up and reading Matilda, Scribble Boy and Mercedes Ice was fun. It was fun to read these books, and I soon learnt, it was fun to tell people stories.

A well put together story can give pleasure to so many different people, and the storyteller, gets a pleasure from seeing people enjoy their words.

That’s why I want to be a writer. That’s why I am a writer. It’s fun.