A black background with a drawn outline of a rocket

About the Book

Title: Life: An Exploded Diagram
Published: 2011
Swoonworthy Scale: 7

Cover Story: Double Entendre
BFF Charm: Heck Yes
Talky Talk: Proselicious
Bonus Factor: Cuban Missile Crisis, Crazy Gran
Relationship Status: Getting Serious

Cover Story: Double Entendre

I L-O-V-E this cover. It’s clean and stylish, but also cheeky. It says, “Look, I’m so grown up, reading this book that could be for grownups,” but it also says, “Haha, look! Missiles are really giant penises! I’m reading a book about penises! Haha, penis.” And it’s right on both counts.

Bonus: The book trailer is also awesome! How often does THAT happen?

The Deal:

Clem Ackroyd, startled into life by a Nazi dogfight in the sky over his Norfolk village, grows up working-class and wholly unprepared to fall in love with Frankie Mortimer, the local gentry’s bewitching daughter. As the Cold War simmers around them, Clem and Frankie race to grow up before it’s too late, and his parents — who did the same during World War II — muddle through middle age.

BFF Charm: Heck Yes

BFF Charm Heck Yes - sparklier and shinier than the original BFF Charm

I love Clem. I love the jaded, grown-up Clem telling the story more than is probably appropriate, and I love his gormless, randy 17-year-old self. He’s doing quite all right for best friends, but I’d love to be his big sister or cousin who could give him romance advice and pass messages between him and Frankie, because the kid desperately needs some benevolent female assistance.

I’d also give an honorary BFF charm to Goz, Clem’s best friend and the only other kid from their council estate to get a scholarship to the local grammar school. Goz’s cynicism cuts right through the sham of war, politics and propaganda, and I wish we had a Goz people would listen to.

Swoonworthy Scale: 7

Despite the main thrust (ha) of the plot being whether or not Clem and Frankie will Do It, the swoon meter doesn’t top out, thanks to the narration being from a male point of view. And much as I love getting inside the teenage boy psyche, Clem’s too nervous and clueless to set a 10-alarm fire. However, there are some rather intense grope-y scenes (and a surprisingly sexy naked portrait session), and there’s not THAT much difference between the basic hormone rampages of a boy and those of a teenage girl, so Clem’s fumblings (real and imagined), still bring on the butterflies.

Talky Talk: Proselicious

I think Mal Peet might be the best YA — or any level — writer we never hear about. And that’s a damn shame, y’all. He’s that gem of an author, one who just writes a gorgeous story with gorgeous words and doesn’t write for a particular audience. Adults won’t realize this isn’t marketed as an adult book, and teens won’t care. The book is sprawling, rolling back and forth between World War II and the early 1960s, jumping here and there into the first World War and up to 2001, but there’s nothing extraneous. It’s bitter and cynical, and also sentimental — but with a clear-eyed view of the madness of military might and our human inability to look beyond our little lives and the past five minutes and see trouble bubbling over.

Sentimentality and nostalgia are closely related. Kissing cousins. I have no time for nostalgia, though. Nostalgics believe that the past is nicer than the present. It isn’t. Or wasn’t. Nostalgics want to cuddle the past like a puppy. But the past has bloody teeth and bad breath. I look into its mouth like a sorrowing dentist.

Bonus Factor: Cuban Missile Crisis

An old newspaper declaring WE BLOCKADE CUBA ARMS

I wish we could have read this book in high school when studying the Cuban Missile Crisis. Haha, who am I kidding? I wish we’d studied the Cuban Missile Crisis at all, but that would have been useful. And this book only came out this year, so I guess it doesn’t matter anyway. What’s super cool is Peet’s use of JFK’s White House tape transcripts and more of that thing historians love, other primary sources. PS We really could still all blow up tomorrow.

Bonus Factor: Crazy Gran

Mama Fratelli from The Goonies

Clem’s grandmother, Win, does not get the Kick-ass Gram award. She might get the Totally Psycho Nutter Award, or the Most Likely to Wither an Erection Award, though. She’s a bananacakes end-of-times-ist, cruel and nasty and misguided, but loads of fun to read about.

Relationship Status: Getting Serious

I’m ready to go All The Way with this book, and it’s not just because there are still thousands of nuclear weapons hanging around, unaccounted for. So many times, it said exactly what I was thinking (only more coherently). I think it gets me, you know? And it’s not just trying to take advantage, either — I can tell it’s a major romantic, in for the long haul. The only things standing in the way are its brothers, Mal Peet’s other books, whom I hadn’t heard of before meeting this book and now can’t wait to meet. I feel like I should do a little more research before I commit for life. In the name of science, and all that.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my free review copy from Candlewick Press. I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). Life: An Exploding Diagram is available now.

Meghan is an erstwhile librarian in exile from Texas. She loves books, cooking and homey things like knitting and vintage cocktails. Although she’s around books all the time, she doesn’t get to read as much as she’d like.