The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet is a unique coming of age story with beautiful design - the ideal gift book released just in time for the holiday season.
Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is the cartographically-obsessed child of a cowboy and an entomologist. Growing up in rural Montana, he fills his hours (and his notebooks) by mapping everything he can find - from shucking corn to the Continental Divide. Fortunately for the reader, the book is littered with his work - maps, doodles and footnotes clutter the margins of every page.
Although many books try to make the footnotes critical to the story's appreciation, generally it winds up being a distraction. (Two notable exceptions being Stroud's Bartimeaus trilogy and Clarke's Jonathan Strange, both of which do a wonderful job merging footnotes into the narrative). But in this case, Larsen goes well beyond footnotes. As well as text, it seems like every point - key or mundane - is illustrated with charts, diagrams and, most of all, maps. Just flipping through the book is a joy.
As a cartographer, Spivet is an undeniable success - so much so that the Smithsonian want him to represent them for a year (not realizing his true age of 12). Unfortunately, when it comes to the intangible and the unmappable, Spivet has a much harder time. He's still in shock from the traumatic death of his older brother, he can't talk to either of his (strange) parents, and his "conventional" older sister doesn't have time for him.
Against all odds, Spivet decides to take the Smithsonian appointment - and with the clatter of pens, he hits the road. Although Spivet crosses the entire country, the real journey is inside his own head. Trapped in a railroad car for days, he has nothing to do but reflect, draw, and read his mother's journal. By the time he gets to Washington, he's in a very strange place (pun intended, I suppose).
Oddly, the book's one flaw is an occasional and inelegant demand for action. While Spivet is a wonderful protagonist, and his family are some of the most interesting characters I've ever read, the random bursts of high-octane activity (especially once Spivet arrives in Washington) seem out of place. Spivet wanders into secret societies, anarchist plots and all sorts of strange cloak-and-dagger affairs. If the goal is to prove that the rest of the world is just as odd as Spivet, it succeeds. However, none of this is as interesting as a quiet five minutes with Spivet, his maps, and his thoughts. With a character this brilliant, I want more of him. Slightly-cinematic plot twists and turns are less interesting, and only divert the spotlight from where it belongs.
Still, this is a small flaw in a big, wonderful book. I highly recommend this as a gift for just about anyone. And I certainly recommend it for any well-stocked bookshelf. It is beautiful, infinitely re-readable, sensitive and fun. One for the ages.
From a slightly 'meta' standpoint, this is one of those books that blurs the boundaries between 'literary fiction' and 'science fiction'. Or, to be more precise, it is science fiction, but for the sake of sanity and sales, no bookstore will shelve it as such. Spivet encounters wormholes, time travel and secret anarchist societies. And, most importantly, it is about stretching the conventional boundaries of science as the vehicle to tell a story (one could call that 'science... fiction'). That, however, will be overshadowed by the coming of age story, Americana and family tragedy aspects. We all know that 'genre' fiction can't address serious topics, so this book will invariably be categorized away from the rest of SF.
Not that I'm bitter.