Beck : Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff

BeckBeck by Mal Peet

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m catching up on my Carnegie reading for this year and Beck was always going to be near the top of my list. From its story of production where Mal Peet passed away whilst writing and Meg Rosoff finished the manuscript, through to its critical reception, Beck is an eyecatching novel. I was never going to start anywhere else. Mal Peet was a remarkable writer and I could talk for days about his work (see here for reviews of Tamar and Life…). Peet wrote about faith and hope and big, sprawling stories of life. I loved them. I am so sorry that he is no longer with us.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t like Beck. Not at all, really.

The titular Beck is an orphan born of an encounter between his mother and an African American soldier. Left alone in the world, he is shipped to Canada and the supposed care of a group of Catholic Brothers. It won’t leave much to the imagination if I tell you that Beck does not receive anything remotely approximating to care. It also won’t leave much to the imagination if I tell you that this involves abuse. It is important to read this yourself to fully understand the nature of this but it is written very barely, very plainly, and rather horrendous through its banality. Searing is one way to describe it. Beck moves on, scarred and restless. Another time, another place, the hope to connect. He moves from circumstance to circumstance, some good, some bad, all the while trying to find his place in the world.

It was, as Goodreads somehow delightfully phrases it, just ok.

My dislike didn’t come from the graphic content, though I do recognise how this problematic for some and I would recommend reading it yourself before working with it. Tonally, Beck reminded me a lot of The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks and I wonder if this does win the Carnegie, whether there will be a conversation to have about the evolving tone of children’s literature and what we consider as meritable in the field. Is meritable a word? I don’t think it is, but I think its appropriate.

I got Beck yesterday afternoon (A library open on a sunday? Imagine!), gleeful after my reservation came in early, and I finished it that same day. And all I had was a glorious sense of disconnect. A book that should have meant something to me, really sort of didn’t.

Beck is a beautiful told story, but it’s a story told at a distance and whilst some of that is incredibly justified and thematically appropriate, there’s very little chance to connect. It’s like sitting on a train and seeing beautiful scenery beyond the window but the train never stops. I couldn’t pinpoint the precise moment where Rosoff took over from Peet’s unfinished manuscript but I could tell a tone shift in the final quarter or so. The book becomes something quite different and problematic. Do I mean problematic? Yes, I think I do. I can’t comment on the representation of people in this book, and would direct you towards other and own voices to seek that veracity, but I can comment on structure and plot. And I found it problematic. The book sort of burns towards a point where you kind of think it will go off and do its own thing – a defiant unwillingness to conform – and I wanted that.

But then the fire goes out. Wet twigs on a smoking fire.

And that’s relevant for the story told here, but it doesn’t make a book. It really doesn’t.

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Tamar : Mal Peet

TamarTamar by Mal Peet

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A story set over two timelines, one in 1945 and the other in 1995, Peet introduces us to Tamar and her grandfather and a group of Dutch resistance fighters in World War Two – one of whom is codenamed Tamar. It’s not until the end though that we realise the connection between the two timelines – and the role Tamar’s grandfather played in both.

Gritty, powerful, and heartbreaking, Tamar is outstanding. I have written before of the wonders of Peet and his quietly immense epics and when he writes these sorts of books, it is a thrilling thrilling thing to witness. He has a skill to balance the very small moments of life, the love and loss of everyday existence, against massive world-shifting events – and to do so without losing the impact of each. It is ridiculously exciting to read a world into existence and that’s what you do with this book.

There are some similarities with Life : An Exploded Diagram in that both books are intense, dense novels. Tamar in particular requires some reading into, but it’s an effort that pays off with some stunning rewards.

(Now, if somebody could clear up just how to pronounce Tamar for me, that would be perfect!)

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An esoteric and distinctly biased list of 50 children’s books you probably really should read (part one)

Artichoke Hearts – Sita Brahmachari

Brahmachari stormed into publication with this stunning tribute to life, love and growing up. Told in first person by the engaging Mira Levenson, Artichoke Hearts covers some difficult topics but does so with such warmth and love that it’s hard not to fall in love with this rare gem of a book.

Similar to : Itself.

Jasmine Skies – Sita Brahmachari

The sequel to Artichoke Hearts, Jasmine Skies sees Mira exploring her heritage in India. Kolkata and India are intensely drawn with a lush richness that is gorgeous to read. Mira faces some difficult decisions and, in a way, completes the ‘coming of age’ story began in the previous novel.

Similar to : Artichoke Hearts (ha, sorry but it really is!)

Who’s afraid of the big bad book – Lauren Child

Both a stunning treatise on the book as object, the act of reading and also a metatextual treatment of fairytales, this book is superb. Plus it’s really, really very funny. I adore this.

Similar to : Revolting Rhymes

Beowulf – Gareth Hinds

Adapting an epic poem into graphic novel form is no mean feat (have you seen a graphic novel version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for example?) but Hinds does it with brilliant skill. His book has dark, macabre artwork that is so vital that it practically sings from the page.

Similar to : The Odyssey (Gareth Hinds)

Unhooking the Moon – Gregory Hughes

Another book which deserves to be a classic, this is the story of Bob and his sister ‘The Rat’ on their way to New York to meet their long lost Uncle. If you’ve not read this, you’re missing out on one of the greatest female characters this century: The Rat. She’s adorable, gorgeous and heartbreaking.

Similar to : Jack Kerouac meets Willy Wonka.

A Little Love Song – Michelle Magorian

This is one of Magorian’s lesser known titles, this is the story the summer where Rose fell in love, A Little Love Song is one of – and perhaps – her greatest. Set in the middle of the second world war, and featuring the ‘holiday’ town from Goodnight Mr Tom, it is a stunning achievement.

Similar to : I Capture The Castle

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

What to say about this stunning multi-award winning book? It is devestating, stunning, and deserves to be a forever classic. Based on an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd and ultimately written by Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay, Conor faces the unfaceable in the shape of a monster who visits him at night and forces him to confront the worst things in his life.

Similar to : Neil Gaiman (His ‘Sandman’ series in particular)

Life : An Exploded Diagram – Mal Peet

Sometimes we need a book to just go giddy and revel in what it is. Life : An Exploded Diagram is such a book. Stretching majestically over countries, lives, and years, this book is vividly human and alive. Alive. It’s an interesting thing for a book to be, but this one is.

Similar to : Brideshead Revisited, Flambards, Where the Wind Blows

Claude on Holiday – Alex T Smith

This is probably one of the only books which has transferred the ‘saucy British seaside’ aesthetic into a witty, astute and very very funny picture book suitable for all ages. Claude, and his best friend Sir Bobblysock, go to the seaside and naturally hijinks ensue. This book is gorgeous.

Similar to : That postcard your Nan sent you from Southend

Dead Man’s Cove – Lauren St John

Laura Marlin deserves to be on the national curriculum. A funny, brave, Buffy-esque heroine (without the actual violence!), she’s sent to the seaside to live with her mysterious Uncle and rapidly discovers there’s mysteries in her new home.

Similar to : Nancy Drew meets the Famous Five

Tune in next time for part two! It’ll be a picture book / graphic novel special 🙂

Life : an exploded diagram : Mal Peet

Life: An Exploded DiagramLife: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Life : an Exploded Diagram is transcendent. It is beyond. It is a book that should not be shelved under YA fiction, it is not a book that should be read solely by one demographic. In a very quiet way, this book is one of the best I’ve read this year.

But it’s not easy. It is reminiscent of Brideshead Revisited and Flambards and When the Wind Blows, with a plot that sprawls cinematically through a good few years, countries and perspectives and because of that self-aware scope, it’s not easy to get into. But oh my God, once you’re into it, you’re locked into it.

There’s a very lovely warmth in Peet’s writing all through this book. From the startling juxtapositions between massive world-shattering events and that moment where a boy meets a girl; it’s just so damn good. And he’s right. It doesn’t matter what’s happening in the world, the biggest of things may be happening, sometimes it doesn’t matter when you’re locked in a maelstrom of your own. I love his writing. I love how, on every page, there’s a fragment of the most beautiful images I’ve ever witnessed. The last pages in particular blew my mind more than a little. I howled. I’ll admit that right now, I howled.

This book took me from breath to breath, happiness to sadness and back again, and I was hook-caught every step of the way.

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