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Life: An Exploded Diagram

3.7  ·  Rating Details ·  1,396 Ratings  ·  317 Reviews
Carnegie Medalist Mal Peet ignites an epic tale of young love against the dramatic backdrop of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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 rai
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published October 11th 2011 by Candlewick Press (first published June 2nd 2011)
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Lola Well there is quite a big focus on sex, I first read it a while ago when I was maybe twelve and I thought it was really rude but looking back (I'm…moreWell there is quite a big focus on sex, I first read it a while ago when I was maybe twelve and I thought it was really rude but looking back (I'm sixteen now) the focus on sex is more to do with the character's emotional development and is kind of symbolic, there are no actual sex scenes, just lots of references. There is also a few chapters about the political side of the cold war which I found quite heavy reading when I first read it. I'm not sure about a specific age to read the book but for me I wouldn't recommend reading it at age twelve. Hope this helps!(less)
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Mock Printz 2012
24th out of 50 books — 285 voters
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Battle of the Kids' Books 2012
8th out of 22 books — 17 voters

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Community Reviews

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This book sounded fascinating and I thought the idea was interesting and innovative and something I have never read in a YA novel.
But then… eh.
I’ll start with the things I liked. As Clem told the story of his grandma, his mother and father and then himself, the narration was dripping with delightful colloquialisms, humorous anecdotes and was, all in all, quintessentially British. In these sections Clem was a great narrator, telling his story of growing up with hindsight and peppering it with nu
Breaking my Book Review Silence to say that I love this book, and also that it has made me sob a lot during the last 20 pages, making a change from making me laugh a lot for the greater part of the book.

I love this book for many ridiculous and possibly wrong reasons, thusly:

Mal Peet and I share the distinction of having our books Life: An Exploded Diagram and Code Name Verity named as the two Boston Globe - Horn Book Award Honor Books in the fiction category this year (the overall award winner
Before I begin I must first quote Clem and ask you to “bear with me while I describe it. Or try to describe it. My hobbling and pigeon-toed prose can’t do it justice, I know that.

Now, to the review:

Norfolk, 1962. It’s a hot summer during the Cold War.
Clem, a working-class boy from a council estate, and Frankie, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, are conducting a furtive and high-risk relationship.
Meanwhile, the world’s superpowers are moving towards nuclear confrontation.
With the Cuban Mi
Check this review out and others on my blog: Get Real.

This one started off interestingly enough but rapidly disintegrated during the second half in a trajectory not unlike the nuclear fallout feared by the characters in this book. Good historical fiction focuses on the human condition (whether universally or within the context of the time discussed), using a particular time or event as a backdrop (See Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt). Bad historical fiction reads like a surreal text book, dry and i
Sep 07, 2013 Trickey rated it really liked it
The front flap says this is Mal Peet's most ambitious project yet, and it's true, this book is ambitious. It covers over 100 years of history, attempts to clarify one of the more confusing experiences of the Cold War, mixes in some misplaced religious ecstasy, shoots us forward to the defining moment of this century so far, all the while focused on two kids who just want to have sex.

If you can stick with it, it's worth it. I get that this is classified as a young adult novel, but it's one of the
Tom Pollock
Dec 15, 2014 Tom Pollock rated it it was amazing
A working class boy and an upper crust girl fall in love in the shadow of the Cuban Missile crisis.

In between chapters of Clem and Frankie racing to get their rocks off before the bombs start falling, and hilariously acute looks at Soviet and American strategic command, this book hares off down threads of lives connected to the leads, showing what was really at stake from a nuclear apocalypse.

A masterpiece, and I don't say that a lot.
Sara  (
Jan 29, 2015 Sara ( rated it really liked it
I have stated before that I dislike historical fiction that packs too much factual information - like it's trying to disguise the fact it's trying to teach you something - within the story of characters and their relationships and emotions.

This book seems to gleefully do just this. There are substantial sections, maybe a quarter or more of the book, are accounts of WWII officers, and later and more importantly of Kennedy, Kruschev, and their staff dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis. But I re
Oct 15, 2013 jo rated it it was ok
Shelves: great-britain, kids
i read this book because Elizabeth Wein told me to. she says in her blog that this book is much like Code Name Verity and if you have paid any attention at all to my reviews and updates in the last few months (no reason why you should have, but just in case), you know that Code Name Verity is my current and sole obsession.

this book was unengaging to me until about half way through. it's brilliantly written and fabulous in all sorts of ways (including its sense of place, so, if you are english an
Aug 23, 2015 Bachyboy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I just loved this. As a young child in the 60s I had a plan in my small rural NZ village to hide in my wardrobe if the Russian soldiers came. I remember trying to understand the seriousness of the Cuban Missile Crisis and this book captures it beautifully. I know it is supposed to be for young adults but I think this book delivers equally to adults. There are so many strong, real characters and although one could argue that the extended history lessons, albeit told through the eyes of Clem, the ...more
Deborah Bright
Jun 29, 2016 Deborah Bright rated it it was amazing
Wow. This one had me at "Ruth Ackroyd was in the garden checking the rhubarb when the RAF Spitfire accidentally shot her chimney pot to bits" (the opening sentence), tightened its hold with "Washing blew on the line: tea towels, Ruth's yellowish vests, her mother's bloomer ballooned by the wind, their elasticated leg holes pouting" (p. 2), and didn't let go until that final, breathtaking, impossibly amazing moment. Which I will not describe to you because you should read this book. Cannot wait t ...more
Jul 02, 2011 Anne rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kindle
Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Tamar, I was eager to read Mal Peet's latest. The writing is just as crisp and sharp, a wonderful depiction of Clem's young life and his first love, and the wonder of discovering sexual attraction against a backdrop of wartime rural Norfolk and vividly drawn schooldays. There's a good measure of humour, and aching moments of sadness. Then the "exploded diagram" brings in the world situation with a look at JFK and other protagonists during the Cuban missile cris ...more
Jul 05, 2011 Sya rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Life: An Unexploded Diagram is not a book that is not necessarily easy to get in to. The beginning is gripping, the writing flawlessly beautiful and the story fascinating yet it takes time for the book to unfold as a complete work. The narrative structure can seem clunky at times and the plot takes a while to come together. However, Mal Peet has created one of those rare stories where, while enjoyable throughout, it is impossible to see the true genius of the work until you turn the last page – ...more
Afton Nelson
Mar 10, 2012 Afton Nelson rated it really liked it
Shelves: young-adult
It had the kind of writing I loved to savor. The story was deep and layered and quietly explosive. Coupling a love story with the Cuban Missile Crisis was the sort of ballsy genius few could pull off. bringing together these opposites, forbidden young love and a potential world annihilation, seems thoroughly random. But then Peet beautifully, simply and astonishingly draws the parallels that, once revealed, are so obvious, you wonder how you never made the connection before.

To be frank, this sto
Feb 23, 2012 Maggie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There are good story tellers, there are eloquent writers and sometimes there are those few who have the talent to deliver both. Mal Peet has the ability to grasp the most complex concepts and distil them into a form that is immediately understood but not dismissed. Peet’s turn of phrase and descriptive narrative is to be savoured and the unfolding story he tells is thought provoking and full of so many unexpected twists and turns that the reader is constantly wondering what is going to be around ...more
Courtney Johnston
Our small, intimate, precisely-known and closely-bounded lives play out against the massive sweep of history - that filtering of the everyday that pulls some events and personalities into a narrative that gets passed onwards.

Every so often, we feel our little lives play out against, intersect with, even shape, that narrative. We might be involved in the events; we may even be those personalities. Sometimes, we suddenly notice history happening: we can't rip our eyes away from the tv screen as a
May 05, 2015 Richard rated it it was amazing
I thought this would be a long way from 5 stars when I began the story. But I was captured by the painful and beautiful teenage love story of Clem and Francoise (Frankie) and how hard it was to be alone in 1962! Mal Peet mangages to interweave their story with that of Kennedy and Kruschev and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Clever, wistful and moving.
Sep 06, 2014 Zora rated it it was ok
Shelves: mismarketed-ya
Well. So that's how you want to write your book, eh? (shakes head). Ohhhhh-kay. 2.5 stars (Vague spoilers ahead.)

This is the story of a life (lived 1943-2001, plus some genealogical background) and it's an anti-war book. It follows on the one hand, Clem, and on the other hand, the Cuban Missile Crisis--in the main--and various other wars and their effects. And it cheaply ends on 9/11, which really, you probably shouldn't do.

I kept thinking, gee, these two story lines are going to intersect in so
Janet Foxley
Jun 25, 2012 Janet Foxley rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The most enjoyable book I have read this year. I wouldn't classify it as Young Adult, it is just a cracking novel, written in language that is a delight to read.
Jennifer Bell
Oct 15, 2014 Jennifer Bell rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best books I've ever read. It is both simple and deeply complex. The backdrop of the unfolding nuclear confrontation between Russia and America in Cuba acts as a metaphor for Clem and Frankie's relationship. By training my/ the reader's eye on the potential apocalypse, I felt Clem and Frankie's closeness - that their relationship was this hugely big thing, on par with apocalypse. And that is how I remember feeling when I was a teenager in love - like we'll explode at any momen ...more
Champaign Public Library
Jan 25, 2013 Champaign Public Library rated it it was amazing
Shelves: staff-recommends
An outstanding coming-of-age/retrospective story set in post WWII England and framed by the Cold War, specifically the Cuban Missile Crisis. The novel spans over 60 years and shows the myriad implications of war, though the main plot takes place in the early 1960s. Clem, the artistic and intelligent son of working-class parents falls for Frankie, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. Granted, this in itself is nothing that hasn’t been covered again and again, but this novel is so much more than s ...more
Kirsty (overflowing library)
Life: An Exploded Diagram is a coming of age story set in rural North Norfolk during the Cold War. These two things alone made it a bit of a must read for me. Having never read an Mal Peet I wasn't sure what to expect but I can honestly say I really enjoyed it.

Life is one of those books you can devour in a matter of hours despite its size (at just about 400 pages long it is a bit of a monster). I was totally engrossed and found myself just wanting to read more and more to find out what happened
Feb 02, 2012 Kendra rated it it was amazing
I absolutely loved this book and was sad to be finished with it last night. The writing is really amazing, and I found myself rereading sections just to appreciate the words and ideas over again.

Although I loved it completely, it may not be for everyone. I think the main problem younger readers might have with this is the British dialect. The story begins during WW2 in an English village, and when the characters converse, it's with a heavy local dialect. I could almost always discern what they w
Victoria Whipple
I decided to read this book after seeing it go several rounds in SLJ's Battle of the Kids Books. Judging from the other books in the running, I thought it would be more of a "kids" book, but this one is definitely YA...and I'd say older YA at that. Still, and excellent book, just out of my usual age range. The reader meets Clem Akroyd as a baby, as well as learning the circumstances of his conception, birth and family history. Clem was born towards the end of WWII, which has him coming of age in ...more
Mar 26, 2012 Katie rated it liked it
- Several generations of loveless (or at least romance-less) marriages
- Star-crossed young lovers
- The Cuban Missile Crisis
- Our world on the brink of destruction
- A look at the role both politics and religion play in the end of the world
- Some pretty life-changing explosions

Oh, what to say about Life: An Exploded Diagram...
It has received all kinds of glowing reviews.
It bested Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls in the first round of the BOB.
Author Mal Peet excelled in revealing a very
I decided to read this book because my Mum had been bugging me to read it for about a million years. I was on holiday, I was bored and I desperately wanted something to read.
I had tried to open the book and begin to read a couple of times, but was always distracted or found I had something else to do. I thought for some strange reason this book would be boring (maybe it was the cover?) I was so, so wrong.
The category this book completes is "a book recommended by a member of your family." I am
Oct 29, 2011 Bridget rated it did not like it
Shelves: 2011
I liked Tamar by the same author well enough, but Life: An Exploded Diagram read like a very bad The Book Thief. It's too bad, because the premise - young love during the Cuban Missile Crisis - is quite good. But I didn't care about any of the characters. They were oddly drawn and underdeveloped and did not inspire sympathy. The story was dull and cloudy and muted, like I was trying to read it underwater.

Plus, I am so tired of books (YA ones, especially) reaching outside of their purview to incl
Jan 10, 2013 Anna rated it really liked it
Well, this one's going to be a bit tricky to write. and not because I hated, or I loved it. But possibly both. At the same time. All at once. Let me explain....

When I first read about this one, well, to say I was intrigued was an understatement. Code Name Verity had given me an appetite for some more exquisitely written twentieth century historical YA fiction and the political angle of this one got my attention, being in the possession of a politics degree myself (although I have never actually
LH Johnson
Nov 25, 2011 LH Johnson rated it it was amazing
Shelves: young-adult, perfect
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 ge
Alicia Papp
Dec 15, 2015 Alicia Papp rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book - and read it in one sitting. Mind you it is 40 degrees outside, so reading is the only option! It plays like a Thomas Hardy novel - I had to remind myself at times that it was set (mainly) in the 1960s. So, beautifully written, evocative and I adored the bumbling, well-meaning and restless Clem. And the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis was handled very well - even riveting at times (considering it happened over 50 years ago). A lovely read, lots of fascinating historical ba ...more
I liked this book a lot--definitely going to check out more of Peet's stuff, very well-written. It was interesting to have the back & forth between Clem & Frankie's story and JFK & the Cubans, especially as there was never any real interaction between the two. I loved watching the romance evolve and it felt v. true to that all-overwhelming "this is the only thing that matters" that happens in teenage relationships.

The things that make it a 4 instead of a 5 for me are 1)
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Mal Peet grew up in North Norfolk, and studied English and American Studies at the University of Warwick. Later he moved to southwest England and worked at a variety of jobs before turning full-time to writing and illustrating in the early 1990s. With his wife, Elspeth Graham, he had written and illustrated many educational picture books for young children, and his cartoons have appeared in a numb ...more
More about Mal Peet...

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“Sentimentality and nostalgia are closely related. Kissing cousins. I have no time for nostalgia, though. Nostalgics believe 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.” 8 likes
“instead of being in history he was in love” 7 likes
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