I saw a bunch of news stories today about Puffin's 70 best-ever children's book list. I couldn't figure out why none of them linked to said list - then I realised you had to go to the Puffin site, navigate to their anniversary sub-site, go to Downloads, and then open a (slow-loading in NZ, just a warning) Flash file to read what is actually an entire, and rather wonderful, book that covers babies to teenagers. So, my Friday gift to you ... The Puffin Handbook (open with care, and whatever you do, don't click the circle beside the left-hand arrow, it takes you back to the homepage).
One of the nice things about the book is the way it mixes classics and recent publications, and the small recommendation lists. [YAY! The Guardian has published the list as a list]
I read a lot of YA, but I tend to read classics, or stuff that falls into the fantasy sci/fi category. I think I do this because YA set in this everyday world is often shallow, or modeled on the same dreary stuff that adult fiction is - so what's the point?
But I'm trying to self-medicate, and I'm starting with Mal Peet's Exposure. You might argue it's fantasy, but I don't care.
Exposure is the third in Peet's series of books about football (that's soccer to us NZers), set in a imagined South American country with one continuous character, leading sports journalist Paul Faustino.
This third book is a retelling of Shakespeare's Othello. Othello is a superstar soccer player, bought in from the North for fifty million dollars to play for Rialto. 'Born in the North, and famously proud of his African heritage', Otello comes to Rialto at the cost of the transfer of one of their white players, doesn't endear him to his team mates. All hell to break loose when Otello and americana (white) pop-star Desmeralda fall in love and marry - especially with Desmeralda's rich, powerful father, who is also a part-owner of Rialto, who objects to the colour of his new son-in-law's skin. Throw in Iago in the form of Otello's janus-faced manager Diego, and boom - you're off.
The story of Dezi and Otello - of paparazzi, charity auctions, and controversial product endorsements - is intercut with that of three street kids, living under the threat of the 'Rat-catchers' (government employees clearing the streets prior to an election campaign) and vague rumours of deaths and disappearances. There's something about the narrative structure that reminds me of the tv series The Wire - slices of society that rub up against each other almost unknowingly, but whose actions have flow-on effects, sometimes immense. And awash, of course, with corruption and emotion.
My favourite review of the book was a no-stars write-up on Google Buzz, with the reader complaining that "The story is improbable". Well - duh. Shakespeare is. People fall head over in heels in love after two sentences and a bit of merry gender confusion. With Exposure, you just need to accept it - of course two young hot kids from different side of the social divide are going to fall drastically in love - and then roll with it.
Exposure is a rollicking good tale. But the quality of the writing sets it apart. I'm half-way into the book and I know we're about to enter the 'murder mystery' storyline, and the slightly hard-boiled tone of the writing is perfect. One of my favourite passages so far:
Walking back to his car, Diego smiles. It's like walking on eggshells, talking to Otello about drinking. Diego likes the way they crunch beneath his feet.
So, sport. And life, death, love, and betrayal. If you want an equally gripping non-fiction take on all this, I highly recommend H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, about high-school football in Odessa, Texas, and the origin of the terrific (and scandalously badly-programmed) tv series of the same name.