Book Review: Beck, by Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_beckWhat a tale. The strengths of Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff merge imperceptibly in this story of a half-negro boy born on the wrong side of the sheets in Liverpool.

Beck’s early life was calm enough, but when the Influenza went through his family, his mother died, leaving him age 11 an orphan, in the ‘care’ of the Sisters of Mercy. We pick up with him as his life changes again, as he’s fed and bathed, and sent onto a ship – we soon find – to Canada, where he is taken into the care of The Christian Brotherhood. They taught him to read and write, garden and play games.

And while you can possibly predict the end at least, of that phase of his life; the telling is the pleasure of it. The showing of place is dramatic and beautiful, and yet again (after Barkskins) I want to go to the wilderness of Canada. Of a storm: “Beck stood in the narrowing space between the sunlit world ahead of him and the dark chaos behind. For a few moments, it was a kind of calm; then the wheat writhed, flattened and hissed. A wall of wind, unstoppable and full of ice, hit him, knocking him to his hands and knees.”

At the heart of this novel is the capacity of a person’s heart to change and grow, given the right conditions. There is no melodrama, no over-exaggeration; for much of this story, Beck has unforgivable challenges, but this isn’t what makes him tick. The people around him teach him to do what they need him to do, and feed him, and allow him to feel human warmth. And this is how it happens: how you grow from a husk to a person.

This is a true saga, though a relatively short book for all that. The beauty of the language is immersive, and it is a novel I can see being used within schools to talk about race, and travel, and the healing power that humans have for one another. Perhaps it will turn somebody onto the right path.

I met Mal Peet when he was living in Wellington for 6 months, teaching at the IIML. I pulled together a workshop for keen secondary school writers one Sunday, and it was magical. He was empathetic and encouraging, and his wife was also wonderful. The writing world is certainly poorer for his loss.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406331127

Book Review: Havoc, by Jane Higgins

cv_havocAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

This was an incredibly tightly-paced page-turner of a story. Havoc is the sequel to Jane Higgins’ Text Prize-winning YA book The Bridge (Text, 2012). Do read The Bridge before beginning this book, as while I had done so back in 2012, I did find it hard to jump right into the action with no full redux of the important relationships, political and personal, from the previous book.

Havoc is based, as The Bridge was, in a city torn apart by factions that are warring across racial and economic lines. The Citysiders and the Breken are the two sides, and our protagonist Nikolai Stais is the only son of the chief spy for the Breken group, a fact he only really became aware of during the adventures of the previous book. As the book opens, a ceasefire is holding briefly, which is soon shattered by Cityside launching a missile, which kills tens of Breken and re-ignites antagonism. In the aftermath of the missile, which destroys one of the bridges to Southside, Nik finds a girl who doesn’t speak Anglo or Breken, and saves her from being buried beneath rubble. She is muttering something about ‘havoc’. Soon after the missile, Cityside surrounds the Southside suburb of Moldam with barbed wire.

Nik and his (more than a) friend Lanya are dispatched to the City to try and raise the faction over there that supports the Breken’s equal rights; a group called One City. The two work with a slippery character called Sandor to get across the river, and Nik’s education on Cityside works in his favour for awhile, but the limits of his relationship with everybody close to him are tested sorely in the course of resolution.

I kept picking this book up and thinking ‘I’ll just read one chapter’, and finishing five chapters down, needing to go to sleep. It is a well-plotted, and extremely tightly written post-catastrophe story, perfect for anybody who loved Mandy Hager’s Blood of the Lamb trilogy, or Fleur Beale’s Juno of Taris trilogy.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by Jane Higgins
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781922147295

Finalist Interviews: The origins of When We Wake, by Karen Healey

Picture 074If you have ever wondered where authors get their ideas, this is your chance to find out.
We have asked our fantastic finalists all about their work, and they have been very generous in their responses!

We have previously reviewed When We Wake on this blog

Thank you to Karen Healey for answering our questions:

1. As an author, you must have a lot of ideas floating around. How did you decide to write this book?
I’ve always been very interested in fairytales,WhenWeWake_CVR_128x198x21.5_FA.indd and in fairytale retellings. The Sleeping Beauty story is fascinating – a woman whom time has passed by suddenly wakes up to a new world. That’s a great start!

But most versions end there; she wakes up, she gets married, happy ever after. Really? After a century has passed? What about her culture shock? Would she approve or disapprove of accepted ethics, fashion, custom? How would she go about fitting in and making a new life for herself?

Those are the questions I wanted to explore with Tegan, who dies and is revived into a future she didn’t entirely expect.

2. Tell us a bit about the journey from manuscript to published work. What was the biggest challenge you faced in publishing this book?
There really wasn’t one – the challenge came with the book before this. I outlined it and wrote up three chapters and confidently presented it to my editors and they (very politely) turned it down. FINE, I said, FINE I will just write my sci-fi Sleeping Beauty idea then! So I did, and, Oh good, they said, we like this much better, please sign here.

3. Can you recommend any books that you love, that inspired or informed your book in any way?
Ken Catran’s Deepwater series was massively influential on me as a kid, and I still think about the way that book deals with the idea of past-to-future life. I also really like the way cryonics is presented in Lois McMaster Bujold’s (adult) sci-fi series following the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan.

Some readers have pointed to Beth Revis’ Across the Universe as a book that might have influenced When We Wake, but I’ve actually never read it. Just one of those pleasing coincidences! I think that the more books that deal with creepy body freezing science and governmental cover-ups the better.

The biggest influence on When We Wake isn’t a book, or science fiction at all – it’s the movie Easy A. I love the way the main character narrates directly to her audience as she presents her side of the story, and I ruthlessly stole the format for the book.

4. Tell us about a time you’ve enjoyed relaxing and reading a book – at the bach, on holiday, what was the book?
Holiday? What are those?

5. What is your favourite thing to do, when you aren’t reading or writing, and why?
Probably gaming. I used to play World of Warcraft a lot, and the Mass Effect trilogy is my favourite science fiction narrative of all time but the game that’s taking all my “free” time at the moment is Marvel Puzzle Quest. I do love matching those gems. It creates a sense of order in a chaos-ridden world.

We talk to author Mal Peet ahead of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival

Mal Peet (pictured below) and his wife Elspeth Graham (who he also writes with) had been enjoying a few days of New Zealand sunshine before the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival kicks off, when I met them in Auckland city to catch up. Mal’s been a guest here before and has plenty of fans of his exciting and absorbing young adult novels, and many are not teenagers. He’s been writing books, many award-winning, for the last ten years, aimed at that youthful audience, but they enjoy a wide readership.

Photo: Justin Mcmanus

I asked Mal about what distinguishes his books as YA, a tricky and much discussed issue.
“I do sound off about this. I get very fed up with people who are more obsessed with categorising books than reading them. There are a lot of bloggy nerds out there who want to advance a rigid definition of what is teen or YA and I just think – to hell with it, it doesn’t matter. I mean I do write, in my opinion, for young adults, but not exclusively. I don’t believe that teenagers exclusively want to read about other teenagers. But there’s a very strong school of thought now, that teenage fiction should be fiction about teenagers. And I simply don’t hold to that view … which I consider entirely reductive, formulaic and silly.”

Is there anywhere you won’t go because your books are aimed at teens?
“No, not in terms of content. I think I do moderate my style somewhat, in that I just try to avoid anything that might be beyond the average well-read teenager’s reading really, so I don’t make a lot of clever literary references, and I don’t presume they know historical stuff and so on, so I either avoid it or I have to work explanation into the text.”

There is a lot of information worked into Peet’s stories, but you hardly notice that you’re learning something new when you’re so caught up with the characters. The most recent novel Life: An Exploded Diagram (Walker Books) is based in Norfolk, the countryside of Peet’s own childhood, and there are many elements from his own youth in the story of Clem, a shy boy with a love of drawing, and his rather fumbling romance with the gorgeous Frankie, overshadowed by the Cold War and its threat of nuclear annihilation.

The war itself is also full of strongly drawn characters as Peet melds together quotes taken directly from scripts on record from White House meetings before the Kennedy and Khrushchev governments finally decided not to blow the world to smithereens.

“One of the motives for writing the book was that it seemed to me that it had been almost forgotten. It seems very odd that the nearest we ever looked like we were coming to nuclear annihilation has been sort of tucked away as a footnote.

“28 October marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the Cold War and thus a great time to read Life, hoping that the knowledge and renewed awareness can help prevent such events happening again, and perhaps asking questions, as Peet does in the postscript of his book, about where all those nuclear weapons are lurking now.”

See Mal Peet at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival event ‘In the Shadow of History’ with Sebastian Barry and Jesmyn Ward with chair Paula Morris THIS SATURDAY (Saturday 12 May) 11.30-12.30. Buy your tickets now.

Mal Peet was interviewed for Booksellers NZ by Crissi Blair, editor/publisher/reviewer at Silvertone Ltd.

Life: An Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406335729

Email digest: Tuesday 21 February 2012

Meet Barbara Ewing at Marsden Books, Karori (Wellington) tonight

Fiona Farrell reads from THE BROKEN BOOK as part of the Christchurch Earthquake commemorations tomorrow

New releases
Introducing Lonely Planet’s new-look phrasebooks

I whānau au ki Kaiapoi by Te Maire Tau

A Commemorative Edition of Christchurch 22.2: Beyond the Cordon has been released

April release for The Gathering of the Lost by Helen Lowe

Book reviews/interviews
Author interview with Madeleine Tobert: The Sea on our Skin

NZSA Mentor Programme Applications close – Next Monday

From around the internet
A list of Young Adult fiction you must read- what would you add to the list? 

All I’ve ever wanted is a library with a ladder!

On the anniversary of the big Christchurch earthquake Jonathan King has coloured and posted a comic he did last year

Tuesday poem
Cardboard Crowns by Selina Tusitala Marsh