Beck – Mal Peet

This is the second offering that I have read from the Carnegie short list for this year. I am struggling to find one that I like at the moment but, I have read Tamar and Exposure by Mal Peet and liked those so thought I’d give it a go.

This is Mal Peet’s last book and he didn’t manage to complete it before his death so it’s finished off by another YA author, Meg Rosoff. Peet knew he was dying and asked Rosoff to finish the book if he died before he managed to write it all. It was a promise that she wasn’t expecting to keep and the gap is seamless. You can’t really tell where Peet’s voice  finishes and Rosoff’s begins. Both are exceptional writers and were great friends so it kind of adds to the quality of the book. And it is quality.

Ignatius Beck is born in Liverpool in 1907. His mother was poor and sometimes had sex for money to make ends meet and support her parents and disabled brother. Ordinarily this may not have been a problem as one more child in a poor neighbourhood wouldn’t have made much difference, but the father of Beck was a merchant seaman, in port for one night, and black.

Growing up in Liverpool in the early part of this century and being black is going to be tough, and it is. Beck is orphaned at seven and sent to be looked after by the nuns. When he is twelve he is chosen to go to Canada as part of a programme by the UK to send young children over there to be adopted. Beck has never seen a car or a boat and is picked with some other boys from his orphanage. The voyage is tough and not all the boys make it. Beck ends up in a Catholic home in Montreal. The  home is run by some priests and let’s just say that if his life was tough before, it gets even worse.

He is then sent to work on a farm for some truly horrible people, or a horrible woman and her not quite so horrible husband and eventually runs away. Bear in mind that by the time this happens he is probably about fifteen years old. Beck spends most of the book running from something and this time he is picked up by some bootleggers who are running whisky over to America. He falls in with them and lives with Bone, another black man and his partner, Iris. Things go wrong and for me, this is the saddest part of the book. For the first time Beck experiences love, and how other people can love each other for themselves. It is something that he has never seen.  Each time he finds people that he could love something happens that destroys the life he has and he begins to harden his heart against it. Eventually he meets Grace. A half Red Indian (according to her grandmother) and half Scottish woman who has inherited money and owns her own land. The land is also a  gathering place for her Indian family and her grandmother is one of the elders of the family. She is older then him and struggles against her feelings for him. He doesn’t understand his feelings for her. Both don’t see reason.

What I loved about this book….  it was hard-hitting, beautiful, heart-warming, heart-breaking all at the same time, and infinitely confirms that love and time can heal everything.  I’m not sure whether it should be on the Carnegie as it deals with some fairly graphic subjects which younger readers will struggle with. Especially the first 60 pages or so. The catalogue of abuse that Beck suffers, and not just because of his colour, is horrendous and will leave some readers not able to continue. Try and push through this bit though because ultimately this book is about redemption.

I loved it, can you tell?

Further reading: Tamar by Mal Peet, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.

For the older ones amongst you: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy

Dumplin’ is otherwise known as Willowdean Dickson. She is a little larger than the average girl so her mum invented the nickname Dumplin’ and it has stuck. Her mum is also the main organiser of the town’s local Beauty Queen Pageant: The Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant, the oldest beauty pageant in Texas.

Willowdean lives in small town America and  the pageant is the biggest thing to happen in the town every year. If you are a previous winner, even if you’re old, you are celebrated as a town success story. Her mum wears the same dress to the ceremony every year and during the weeks running up to the pageant, their house is full of things associated with it. Dumplin’ lives with her mum and, until last year,  her aunt Lucy. Her father seems to be some guy passing through town. Lucy was also large and, at a young age, had a heart attack and died. She was also a massive Dolly Parton fan and took more interest in bringing up Dumplin’ then her mum. Dumplin’ misses Lucy – lots.

But, there is more to life for Willowdean and she has never even considered entering the pageant. She works at the local fast food place, Harpys and spends most of her time with her best friend Ellen and Ellen’s boyfriend Tim. At the beginning of the book all is well. Dumplin’ is working and hanging out with Ellen, who may be just about to sleep with Tim, life is going on as normal. Except that she works with the gorgeous, brooding Bo. A private school boy who is the restaurants chef. Bo starts making a move on Dumplin’ but, although she is confident about the way she looks, she’s not sure why anyone would like her. Bo makes a move but it’s all a secret and, in the end she decides that he is destroying her confidence by not being open about what he wants, and finishes it. She also finds out that he is starting at her school after the summer holidays. He didn’t tell her.

In the meantime, Ellen and Tim have done the deed but Ellen has a new friend at the skinny girls store that she works in, Callie, and Dumplin’ feels that they are growing apart. Callie is not a nice girl. To protest at the way that ‘not normal’ girls are never entered in the pageant, Dumplin decides to go for it, along with some other  friends who are not pageant material, and here’s were all the drama starts. Add in some Dolly Parton drag queens, some unrequited love and this is a great book! Millie, Emma and Amanda are also great characters that will have you rooting for them.

I liked her other book, Side Effects May Vary and this one is also good. A nice mix of fun, the underdog and sassy girls thrown in means that this is a quick and fun read that will have you rooting for fat girls everywhere ( know I used the f word but it’s used a lot in the book so…). I did feel a bit sorry for poor old Mitch though – but I loved the fact that even though Willowdean was not your average beauty queen, she still gets the guys and, hopefully, lives happily ever after.

An uplifting read that you will enjoy.

 

 

My Brother Simple – Marie-Aude Murail

This book is written by a French author and is one of the most popular young adult books in France. It follows the story of Kleber and his brother, Simple. Kleber is 17 and his brother Barnaby/ Simple is 22. Simple has the mental age of a three year old and carries around a stuffed rabbit called Mr Babbit. Mr Babbit has his own voice in the book which can sometimes be confusing.

Simple has been living in an institution called Malicroix near where their father lives. Their mother is dead and their father has married a younger woman who is now pregnant. He is not very interested in his boys. Simple hates living in Malicroix and Kleber knows it, so he decides to take Simple out of the home and takes him to Paris to live with him. But first he needs to find somewhere to live. They start off by living with a great aunt but Kleber is desperate to live somewhere else and be more independent. After a few false starts he finds two rooms in a flat share with some university students. They are Aria and her boyfriend Emmanuel, who are medical students, Corentin, Aria’s brother and Enzo, Corentin’s best friend. Even though they are sceptical about taking on Simple, they eventually grow to love him. Enzo is also in love with Aria and, although she knows, she tries to ignore it.

Kleber meanwhile is having romance problems of his own. At college he meets a beautiful redhead called Beatrice and quickly falls in love. In the background is Zahra, another student on his course who he becomes friends with. Zahra falls in love with Kleber but he realises that he will have more luck with Beatrice and starts dating her. Simple goes around in his own little world and they all start to settle in to a routine. Simple is really good at messing up situations and making things awkward for Kleber but he perseveres. Eventually though, things come to a head and, after a series of misunderstandings, things start to go wrong. Kleber and the housemates need to rescue Simple after realising what a positive influence he is in each of their lives.

This book is lovely. Simple is such a great character and makes you feel more positive about life. Kleber is so young but loves his brother and wants to make his life better. Essentially it’s a story about the love that the brother’s have for each other and how one sacrifices his life so that he can look after the other. A really great book about love and redemption and France…

Life on the Refrigerator Door – Alice Kuipers

Some of you have probably read this book, it was published a while ago but always seemed to be out of the library when I wanted to read it! My daughter wanted me to get a copy and she read it in an hour so I thought I’d add a quick read to my reading list and give it a go.

The premise of the book is that Clare and her mum are really busy people and leave each other notes on the fridge. The author said that she got the idea after her boyfriend left her a note and she realised that someone who read it would know quite a lot about them from just reading that one note. So the book is written entirely in note form.

Clare lives with her mum, who is a midwife. Her parents are divorced and her mum works really long hours. So to communicate they leave notes for each other. Just simple things like shopping lists or when to clean out Peter, their guinea pig/ rabbit. Then things start to get a bit more serious. Clare is only 15 and starts mentioning boys and friends and staying out. It is also obvious from the notes that she has a strong relationship with her dad and spends some time with him. It’s a lot to take on at 15 but Clare seems to do a lot around the house and the bulk of the shopping and cooking.

One day, her mum leaves her a note telling her that she has found a lump in her breast. She had been trying to arrange a time to tell her face to face but they keep missing each other. The notes then take a more emotional, and sometimes angry tone. Clare is scared and angry and still trying to be 15. She starts a relationship with an older boy called Michael and her mum is worried that it may not be appropriate. Gradually we learn that her mum has a mastectomy and starts chemo. Clare struggles to deal with this and spends more time with her dad.

This book is such a great concept. The notes mean that we have an insight in to their lives without becoming too involved. We know that Clare spends a lot of time with her friend Emma but we never meet her. Clare and her mum seem to have a strong, loving relationship but never seem to see each other.

If you are looking for a quick read that you will invest in but not too much, they try this one. It will make you realise that you should spend more time with he people that you love and less  time worrying about stuff because who knows how long you will have with that person? That sounds depressing but it’s actually quite life affirming.

Enjoy.

Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice – Natasha Farrant

Ok, hands up who has read the classic Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen? That doesn’t include watching the BBC adaption with Colin Firth in it, or the film with Keira Knightley….

Well, if you haven’t read it or seen the film or TV show then I will give a brief outline of the plot. Mr and Mrs Bennett live in Longbourne. They have five daughters and need to get them all married off. The oldest daughter, Jane, falls in love with their new neighbour Mr Bingley who is super rich. The second oldest, Lizzie, is pursued by Mr Darcy even though he thinks that she isn’t good enough for him (he’s a bit arrogant but also mega rich) then there is Mary, Kitty and lastly, Lydia who turns 16 during the course of the novel. The book is set in Georgian England and it is about the time that England is fighting the French. Their village is overrun with soldiers, one of whom is Mr Wickham, who has history with Mr Darcy. There is a silly vicar called Mr Collins who is a cousin of theirs and he will inherit their house when Mr Bennet dies unless one of the girls marries  him and secures it for all of them. Mr Collins also happens to be the local vicar for Mr Darcy’s aunt,  who is a Lady. Mr Collins is also really creepy but sets his sights on Lizzie.

Everyone is obsessed with class and money and whether people have good reputations. Mrs Bennet is certainly obsessed with making sure that all her daughters make good marriages with rich husbands so that the family won’t have to worry about being thrown out on the street. I may have just butchered a classic there but that’s a broad outline of the story!

In the original book Lydia is silly, vain and obsessed with dances and dresses and being pretty.  She doesn’t read and isn’t interested in being educated. She follows the soldiers around in their lovely red coats and loves flirting. During the course of the book she befriends the Major’s wife and, when the soldiers are moved down to Brighton she goes with and hopes to bag a husband while having as much as fun as possible.

In this book, she is keeping a diary which was given to her by her sister, Mary. Mary is the clever one who likes reading and playing the piano. The first section of the book follows the storyline of the original and gives us a fresh perspective on the Bennet’s life. Lydia gets on with her sister Kitty the best but respects Jane and Lizzie and feels a bit left out by them. She is a minor role in the original book until the end where she is integral to the ending but, in this her personality comes through. Things really start to get interesting when she arrives in Brighton. In Georgian times, Brighton was the place to go and Lydia soon fits in. She goes to balls at the Ship Assembly Rooms (I’ve been there!) and goes to the theatre where the King may also be attending. She also starts to swim in the sea. During the time, if you wanted to swim in the sea you have to be pulled in a carriage in which you got changed. Everyone was obsessed with their reputations and not exposing themselves to ruin. Other people seeing you in your swimming costume would ruin you!

Anyway, Lydia is on the beach with Harriet (the Major’s wife) when she sees a very glamorous redhead. She learns that this lady is a Comtesse and has  fled France after the revolution. A Comtesse in like a Countess to us. She also learns that she has a brother, Alaric, who is a Comte. She is enthralled by the idea of meeting real life royal French people and sets about engineering a meeting with them. Helped by the dashing but dodgy Wickham. Wickham is already in trouble because he keeps trying to marry  rich women (including Darcy’s sister when she was about 13!). The Comte and Comtesse are living with  a relative who, it turns out, is pretty rich and eligible and Wickham decides to try his luck with her. Lydia in the meantime falls in love with Alaric and hopes to marry him and live in India where his stepfather has a tea plantation.

The book has a good twist at the end which I wasn’t expecting and it is obviously more accessible than the original. It is also of the period so will give you a good idea of the original storyline and why everyone behaves the way they do. It also made me very glad that I didn’t live in that time!

Lydia is a likeable character and you will want her to make a success  of things in the end. The only problem is that I didn’t really feel there was enough time spent on the romance to make it believable that she would do what she did, and there is a few little bits that are a little hard to believe. A nice spin on a classic though, you will enjoy it whether you have read the original or not.

Wild Boy – Rob Lloyd Jones

This is a book that I read a couple of years ago and enjoyed, and have just read again for a book group. For me to re read a book is very rare and very annoying because I just sit there thinking of the time I could be spending reading something I haven’t read before so, this is a big commitment for me!

Wild boy is a freak. At least, that’s what he has been told his entire life. Abandoned as a baby at the workhouse, he has been kept locked in a room for most of his life. The other boys are afraid of him and the workhouse owner makes money from exhibiting him to curious people. One day, a man called Finch comes to the workhouse and offers the owner a deal; he will pay to take the boy off his hands. He wants him to join his circus in the freak show. Wild Boy notices some things about Finch that Finch wants to keep hidden, and we start to see that Wild Boy is not just strange looking (his body is entirely covered in hair), but has a unique ability to see things that other people cannot. He decides that life in the circus has got to be better than life in the work house and he agrees to go. Thus, his new life begins.

The next time we meet Wild Boy he is living in a caravan with a man called Sir Oswald. Sir Oswald lost  both of his legs fighting at the battle of Waterloo and is another inhabitant of the freak show. He spends most of his time mending the caravan and looking after Wild Boy. Through a series of mishaps, Wild Boy is out wandering the circus one night when he witnesses a murder after overhearing a conversation about a mysterious machine. He is then embroiled in a fight and accused of being the murderer. He  teams up with another kid from the circus Clarissa, who he meets on top of a caravan – they hate each other but soon realise that the only way to solve the murder is to work together. Clarissa is the daughter of the trapeze act and can jump and escape from the most dangerous places, her mother runs the circus but hates her daughter because she looks like the husband who abandoned her. Together they team up to try and solve the murder and work out what the machine is. They meet several strange men who are part of a secret society and begin a game of cat and mouse with the real murderer who is also after the machine and thinks they can lead him to it.

Wild Boy and Clarissa both have unique skills to bring to the table and, together they set about solving the murder and saving London. There is a great twist at the end when we discover who the murderer is and the way is set for a sequel with the two heroes. This is a little bit like Sherlock Holmes. Wild Boy  can detect things about a person just be looking at tiny clues that a normal person would not be able to see.

The book is set in Victorian London and has some grimy sewer scenes as well, it’s very atmospheric. A great thriller that will keep you guessing who the golden mask man is, who’s the murderer, and what the machine can do. Also look out for the sequel, The Black Terror, I’m not sure if there will be any more but I hope so.

Kids of Appetite – David Arnold

Kids of Appetite is a split time and split narrative book told from the perspectives of Vic Benucci and his girlfriend, Mad. It’s set in a place in America called Hackensack which I think is near New York!

Vic has Moebius Syndrome. It is a rare neurological disorder that affects the sixth and seventh cranial nerves which causes facial paralysis. Basically, he can’t move his face in any expression and is unable to blink or smile. He has to use eye drops all the time and has a problem with swallowing. He sleeps with his eyes half open (my brother also does this, it’s weird!)  and spends a lot of the  book wiping his face because he has problems swallowing too. Vic has been dealt some bad cards.

Vic’s dad has died and his mum has got a new boyfriend. At the beginning of the book we meet mum and boyfriend and the boyfriends two sons. The sons are not very nice. Just as they finish dinner, Frank (the  boyfriend) pulls out a ring and gets down on one knee. Vic freaks out and runs away. While walking out the door he takes his fathers ashes that have been sitting in the hallway. Vic hasn’t been able to touch them as he is still so unbearably sad about his dads death. While wandering around he decides to go and scatter the ashes in the river. Here he meets Mad, she is also a runway and introduces him to a group of other kids who have all run away from home. She offers to give his somewhere to spend the night and he accepts. He fancies Mad you see.

Because of the way the book is written, we know from the beginning that Vic and Mad have been involved in a murder and are currently being questioned at the Hackensack Police Station. The book is a series of flashbacks where we learn what they have done (or not done) to end up there.

The head of Mad’s little family is called Baz. They also live with his brother Zuz who doesn’t speak but clicks his fingers, and a feisty 11 year old red head called Coco. Baz is writing a book about people that they meet and pick up, while saving to start his own cab company; Renaissance Cabs. All the kids who join their group are called Chapters, and they have to agree to appear as a chapter in Baz’s book and say that they need help before Baz will help them out.  Baz and Zuz are from the Congo and have seen their parents and sister killed in the civil war.

When they open Vic’s dads ashes they find a note inside with a series of wishes of where he wants his ashes scattered; they are a bit cryptic so they need to figure out the  clues and then go and scatter the ashes. Vic also has an obsession with racehorses…

I haven’t read anything else by this author, Mosquitoland looks good too so that has gone on my reading list! This book is a bit quirky, the characters are all a bit out there but I liked the way that you are drip fed the story. You know that something has happened and the book is written in a series of flashbacks and this can sometimes be confusing. I also kept forgetting to check who was narrating so had to go back and check, it was a bit difficult to follow sometimes.

It was enjoyable though, and kept me going right to the end. I eventually managed to work out who had been murdered but not how or why, and there is a clever twist at the end about who the actual murderer is! A good thriller which will keep you guessing with a few storylines to keep you interested. I think that Vic didn’t really need to have a disability though, it felt a little unnecessary and was really only there so that he got bullied by a group of kids once or twice!

‘Kids of Appetite – they lived and they laughed and they saw that it was good.’