Summary and book reviews of Life by Mal Peet

Life

An Exploded Diagram

By Mal Peet

Life
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2011,
    416 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2013,
    400 pages.

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Book Summary

Can love survive a lifetime? When working-class Clem Ackroyd falls for Frankie Mortimer, the gorgeous daughter of a wealthy local landowner, he has no hope that it can. After all, the world teeters on the brink of war, and bombs could rain down any minute over the bleak English countryside - just as they did seventeen years ago as his mother, pregnant with him, tended her garden. This time, Clem may not survive. Told in cinematic style by acclaimed writer Mal Peet, this brilliant coming-of-age novel is a gripping family portrait that interweaves the stories of three generations and the terrifying crises that define them. With its urgent sense of history, sweeping emotion, and winning young narrator, Mal Peet's latest is an unforgettable, timely exploration of life during wartime. (Ages 14+)

1.
Norfolk, early March, 1945

Ruth AckRoyd was in the garden checking the rhubarb when the RAF Spitfire accidentally shot her chimney-pot to bits. The shock of it brought the baby on three weeks early.

"I was expectun," she'd often say, over the years. "But I wunt expectun that."


She'd had cravings throughout her pregnancy, ambitious ones: tinned ham, chocolate, potted shrimps, her husband's touch, rhubarb. Rhubarb was possible though. Ruth and her mother, Win, grew it in the cottage garden. They forced it; which is to say they covered the plants with upended buckets so that when new tendrils poked through the soil, they found themselves in the dark and grew like mad, groping for light. Stalks of forced rhubarb were soft, blushed and stringless. You could eat them without sugar, which was rationed, and Ruth wanted to. So she'd waddled out into the garden on a rare day of early-spring sunshine to lift the buckets and see how things were doing. See if there ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. While Clem is the main character in the book, with the majority of the novel related from his point of view, large sections of the story are also given over to histories of his father, George, his mother Ruth, and his grandmother Winn. Why do you think Peet has chosen to include their stories? How important is family history in shaping a character's identity? In what ways has Clem been shaped by the experiences of his family?
  2. "It's not easy keeping history in line. Herding cats by fog is easy by comparison." Peet uses a non-chronological narrative structure, which shifts back and forth between the past and present. Why do you think Peet has chosen to use this structure? Think particularly about its role in creating suspense ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Mal Peet manages to convince readers, just as Clem and Frankie are convinced, that the force of young love is every bit as powerful as the forces that can destroy - or preserve - the world. So is Peet's novel for adults or for teens? In the end it doesn't really matter. This novel - about the patterns of war and peace, about the forces that propel humans to wage war or to pursue reconciliation, about the impulse to create as well as destroy - will speak, like any good story, to perceptive, thoughtful readers, whatever their age.   (Reviewed by Norah Piehl).

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Media Reviews
The Guardian (UK)

Life: An Exploded Diagram is a real book, a rare treat for thoughtful readers of any age. Read it yourself. Then, if you can think of a young person with the wit to appreciate it, pass it along.

The Independent (UK)

Peet moves us effortlessly through time. His book jumps in chronology and shifts in scale: one paragraph begins with the ship Granma bound for Cuba carrying Fidel and Che, and ends with Brian Woods throwing Clem's cap on to the back of a passing lorry. And it does so with pin-sharp humour.

Kirkus Reviews

Sophisticated teens and adults will appreciate this subtle yet powerful exposition of the far-reaching implications of war.

Publishers Weekly

There are some sharply observed scenes involving Clem and his parents, though the dialogue is written in a regional British vernacular that readers may find difficult to parse.

School Library Journal

The horrific ramifications of war are implicitly stated, but not in a heavy-handed way. Recommend this memorable novel to mature teen readers, and if you can wrest away a copy, read it yourself.

Booklist

Starred Review. It is a world that demands deep examination and thought, and Peet has done a splendid job of creating it.

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The Cuban Missile Crisis

For thirteen days in October 1962, the world was on the brink of nuclear war. U.S. spy planes had detected what appeared to be nuclear missile sites being built on the island of Cuba, just ninety miles off the coast of Florida. Soviet ships, originally designed to carry cargo such as lumber or food, had been outfitted to transport nuclear warheads to their ally in the Caribbean.

John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev President John F. Kennedy was caught between two groups of advisers: the Hawks, who advocated making an immediate and aggressive strike against Cuba, and the Doves, who recommended taking a less antagonistic approach. Kennedy, who was younger and less experienced than his senior advisers, chose an unpopular plan: to set up a blockade, or "quarantine," ...

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