Sometimes I stop and ask myself how I can be sure that a book is good. When I am already reading it, is what I mean. If it flows easily and is exciting or romantic or whatever. Does that alone make it good?
And then along comes a book like Mal Peet’s The Penalty and there is no need to wonder, because you just know you are in the presence of greatness. Even when it’s a book – partly – about football.
This was the one I missed before, and I was wondering what to do about it when I discovered that Walker are re-issuing Mal’s older novels to fit in with the oh so gorgeous design of his new one, Life: An Exploded Diagram. I had worried in case it might be wrong to read the second Paul Faustino book last (I began with the third and then went on to the first), but it was fine.
The Penalty is a book about two things. First there is the football, featuring a new and very young star player, El Brujito. Journalist Paul Faustino happens to be in his home town soon after the player mysteriously disappears. The second topic is African style religion, which isn’t voodoo, but was probably inspired by it. The reader is introduced to the ancient slave trade, and there is a mix of the now with the then, and the setting of San Juan being the thing in common.
Neither is your ordinary YA topic, and the question here is how do we know it is a YA book? With the exception of meeting some of the characters at age 14, they are all adults. But you sort of know it’s a YA novel. Latin America, football, politics, religion, and all written in a grown-up way, but still…
It all ties together quite neatly, and the end is… well, it’s different.
I like Paul Faustino, and I like Mal Peet. This is what good is. In case I wonder again.