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Kit De Waal – My Name Is Leon

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My Name Is Leon (Penguin) has been shortlisted for the British Books Awards 2017. The winner will be announced today.

Family lost and found.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 262
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-97338-7
First Published: 2nd June 2016
Date Reviewed: 7th May 2017
Rating: 5/5

Not long after Leon’s brother Jake is born, the children are sent to a foster carer. Leon is confused – he’s been looking after his brother and mother Carol very well and doesn’t know why strange people had to come break up his family. He isn’t sure if he likes Maureen and when baby Jake is taken away by a young couple he vows to see him again.

My Name Is Leon is a stunning story about the British foster care system and adoption, the effects of big changes on children. Set in the 1980s, it’s full of cultural references that will delight many a reader and through small studies of a couple of big moments in the 80s and 90s, looks at the prejudices in the system where mixed race families were concerned.

De Waal is a master of writing. The author has chosen to tell her tale in a way that speaks to Leon whilst showing the target readership – adults – what’s really going on. It’s a fantastic writing style that’s in many ways very easy to read but full of depth, a style that might appeal to children if it weren’t so geared to adults. The writing is what makes the book so profound, so moving; de Waal’s ton of personal knowledge of the foster system, of court, and of these issues across the years means that she packs a lot of punch in ways you really have to read to believe.

Talking of punches, there is a lot of hope in this book, but Leon’s life is never rosy (aside from, perhaps, his allotment) and there are things that will never happen because they didn’t and don’t happen in such situations in real life. Whilst some things are incredibly neatly tied, others are not and cannot be tied. This is a book that truly brings tears.

Leon gets the short end of an already short straw – not only does he end up away from his mother (a woman you will see as neglectful) but he looses his brother. He looses his brother because his brother is white, but Leon is mixed-race, so not only did he stand less chance of adoption due to his age but his skin colour means that either the couple did not want to adopt him or the social workers believed they would not. Yes – it’s horrible. It’s an absolute sod to read but so important.

Leon’s time with Maureen’s sister, Sylvia, coincides with the time of what appears to be the Brixton riots, when black Brits protested against police brutality in the country. The novel deals only with Leon’s early life, he is on the periphery of these protests due to friendships with adults he meets, so the accounts are short, but they hit hard. Do they add a lot to Leon’s story? No, not exactly – what they do is put Leon’s ‘inability’ to be adopted in a wider context. Were the people that could have adopted both white and mixed-race brothers thinking of racial riots whilst they made their decision? Likely not, but de Waal’s themes enable her to explore, for us, problems that were all wrapped up together, if, seemingly, loosely. (Of course the parental candidates for Jake may well never have known much about Leon or even been ‘offered’ him by the social workers, but even if that was the case – we don’t know – it still shows the problems with race in the social services’ system.)

Leon’s friendships lead to one of the more objectively pleasant aspects of the novel – gardening. The book is full of seeds, flowers, vegetables, containers, and it’s wonderful because not only do you get a fair outline of bedding seasons, you get to see how young lives can be changed with the right support, in this story combining with Leon’s foster mother and her sister.

And what about all these characters, this child, the foster parents, the friends? They are very well developed, which considering the writing is quite a feat. As in everything else, de Waal enables the reader to see more than Leon can so you get a delightfully rounded picture of everyone and who they are both to Leon and to the world. De Waal’s characters are great people who lift the novel from its themes. They are a major reason the book remains happy despite all that goes on. Even the more murky characters in this respect, the social workers, are well drawn to the same extent, even if by the very nature of the narrative they come across more neutral than good. (De Waal delves rather well into the thinking behind Leon’s placement and the decisions made for him.)

This is one of the finest novels published, both last year and for many years. Everything about it is just so good and the level of care taken surpasses most else. It is an incredible book that makes quick yet never rushed work of an important subject. It gives a voice to situations we don’t hear about enough by someone who really knows their stuff.

I received this book for review.

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Harper Lee – To Kill A Mockingbird

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And question society.

Publisher: Arrow Books (Random House)
Pages: 307
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-75263-7
First Published: 11th July 1960
Date Reviewed: 30th March 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

It’s the 1930s and Scout and Jem live with their father, Atticus, a lawyer in a small town in Alabama. Scout is just starting school and finding her way around things she doesn’t understand including subjects Jem seems to know a lot about. As she grows a little older she understands more about her father’s work and when Atticus is employed to defend a black man against a charge of rape, the family will have to deal with people heavily prejudiced against black people and the whites who support them, and Scout will come to learn about the variety of people in a country starting to move towards equality.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a semi-autobiographical novel inspired by Lee’s experience in a similar role to Scout, the child of a man in a similar role to Atticus. It’s a rather quiet book that makes its points with aplomb.

There are many fine elements in this book – the look at race, of course, but also the use of location in a way separate from that, the characterisation, and the general feel of it. It’s a book that if published today would likely be called literary fiction and it’s one that benefits from reading it considering a few viewpoints. How might it have been received if published in the day it was written? How would it have been received in its day? And what value does it have for us today? (That last one can be partly found in the answers to the other two questions.)

The plot meanders between strong, hard-to-put down chapters and easygoing scenes that in another book might make you wonder how much it was worth it – this is where the characterisation comes in. Lee’s strength in developing characters means that you want to keep reading and has that wonderful effect of making the characters feel real. This is of course likely due to the autobiographical element but beyond that it’s just pure talent; no matter how major or minor a character they are given what’s needed to make the book read as pure reality. Scout doesn’t understand much of what she hears, but Lee provides enough for the reader to comprehend it all. What’s lovely about Lee’s choice of narrator and narrative style is that you still get a complete picture of the other characters. There’s quite a bit of humour and a lot of love.

Lee’s look at racism and the burgeoning idea of equality is interesting. The book revolves around it but Lee never lets it take over the text itself – there’s the sense that she wants to make her point but in a way that means you get a positive experience alongside the bad, a good experience of the south of the time in both general life and the way many people supported black American rights, and in order to stay true to her narrator. The impact it may have today may not be as much as it would have been – this is where you need to consider the context in which it was written because as a look at what had been happening earlier in her life, the book is very powerful.

Lee incorporates various social circles into the story, mixing them together. Not too much – the book stays true to reality – but in ways that further support what she’s trying to do, such as Scout and brother Jem sitting with the reverend of the black church when in the court room – for Scout she’s sitting with friends, for the author it’s an extra show of support for the defence. (On that ‘not so much’ I’m thinking of the lack of time given to Tom Robinson directly – he says very little in the book, the focus there is more about how the white, privileged, people are helping him, which of course puts across the idea of tolerance in general and the way in which things had to change.) Lee’s fictional community includes people of many backgrounds and by the end a number of economic and social issues have been covered. Most of note, perhaps, is the story the children construct in regards to Boo Radley and the ultimate revelation of who he is, a well-crafted few segments that display childhood thoughts and kindness with a lot of heart.

The overall quality of the book is evident from early on, but it’s one that’s good to mull over because the more you consider it, the more you see.

I’m keeping this short – there’s only so long one can carry on in review form about a book that has been studied for years, especially when it’s their first read – but suffice to say To Kill A Mockingbird is a very good book.

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Samanta Schweblin – Fever Dream

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Be prepared to never be prepared.

Publisher: Oneworld
Pages: 151
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-786-07090-6
First Published: 2014; 10th January 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 21st March 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Spanish
Original title: Distancia de Rescate (Rescue Distance)
Translated by: Megan McDowell

Amanda’s in hospital. David, the peculiar child of someone she knows, seated somewhere near her, is telling her she’s close to death; she has to keep talking, work out what has happened, why she’s there. It’s difficult; it’s hard to think, she can’t see very well, and David keeps telling her to move on to other things that are more important. She won’t.

Fever Dream is a novella full of circular thinking, warped perceptions, and few concrete answers – they are sometimes there but Schweblin defiantly remains vague. It’s an easy read, a small book without chapters, that asks a lot of your attention but for that it rewards you with the reality of unreality and a fair amount to think about.

The original title is probably a good place to start – a lot of the narrative revolves around Amanda’s concept of ‘rescue distance’, the maximum physical distance between herself and her small daughter at any one time that will result in immediate result in case of accident. Amanda’s ill health makes her even more paranoid and obsessive so that the distance lengths and shortens – most often the latter – over the course of the book. Her time with her daughter is detailed solely as a flashback, the report she gives David as she lays ill in bed, but gets discussed by them in the present every so often. Alongside this constant consideration are other repetitions – Carla’s gold bikini, for example – that further illustrate what Amanda, perhaps erroneously, is focusing on.

Flashbacks. Are they? Aren’t they? Schweblin never tells you the exact times when Amanda is thinking of the past and talking directly to David – it’s generally obvious but not always. This adds to the feeling of confusion for the reader, very much intended, and gives you more of an idea of the situation at hand. It is also difficult to work out the time line of what has happened in Amanda’s story but in this Scheweblin does provide an idea of what you’re meant to be thinking, as a reader, when she presents a definite dream sequence. This dream shows the topsy-turvy construction of our real life dreams, whether feverish or in good health, that confirms for you the feeling that you’re not necessarily meant to be working everything out.

David’s almost changling status is eerie. Supposedly, this child of Amanda’s friend – this child/now adult (who knows?) who is in Amanda’s room – is not the same as he was before. (In years gone by a woman said that in order to save a feverish David’s life, a switch of bodies would have to take place, David’s spirit moving on to another body and David’s body becoming inhabited by a different soul. It’s the different soul/same body that Amanda is supposedly talking to.) David’s actions are seen as strange, haunted, and whereas we can assume that some actions might have been normal in reality, some clearly aren’t. The character of David is very much up to you, the reader, to figure out.

Fever Dream is a short book; you wouldn’t want it to be longer due to the confusion and the relentless and repetitive nature of David’s questions. It’s a book you can enjoy even if you can’t quite explain it, and at times it’s the very idea of not having to understand it that allows you to enjoy it more. And with its relatively small number of pages and a narrative that doesn’t deviate, with its lack of chapters and easy language, it’s the perfect choice if you want to pick up something challenging but very accessible.

I received this book for review.

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Zadie Smith – Swing Time

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Pa pa Americano.

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)
Pages: 453
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-14415-2
First Published: 15th November 2016
Date Reviewed: 21st December 2016
Rating: 4/5

Our nameless narrator has struggled through life, feeling in the shadow of her best friend – someone who often hates her – being uncomfortable living with a mother who, in trying to better herself, has always pressured her daughter to be someone she’s not, and working for a performer who has many demands and idealised projects. She recounts her days in these contexts and in the context of song and dance, two things that have always had their place in her life.

Swing Time is a book with a lot of promise and at times sensational writing that unfortunately doesn’t achieve much.

Smith’s writing is wonderful. She has a lot to say – though, as many have noted, too much at once this time around (the book could have done with being trimmed in the subjects department) – and in general she says it very well. Situations and characters, both good and bad, leap off the page; everything feels very real. She’s opted again for familiar settings and thoughts but she does it so well it really doesn’t matter.

In regards to that ‘in general’, there are some occasions where the writing misses the mark in ways it didn’t in Smith’s previous, NW, that look directly to current trends. Phrases needlessly hyphenated – ‘brand-new’ – and descriptions that are exactly the same as what everyone else is using right now – ‘gunmetal grey sky’ – that suggest editorial input rather than the original words. But Smith’s style is so winsome you can’t help but carry on reading.

Because this book is a page turner. The page count is daunting but Smith knows when enough is enough, using short chapters when it fits, and expanding the sections later on as the book gets to the weightier subjects. It’s a case of if you’ve liked her before you will most certainly enjoy this book no matter the flaws.

Smith hasn’t really covered any new ground with her many subjects but they remain interesting. Race is explored – being black and being mixed-race in the 1980s and beyond, the differences as time goes on. Class is explored – the narrator and her friend Tracey were born and bred on a run-down council estate and the narrator’s mother is working to often extreme lengths to prove that she’s better than that. (As such, childhood emotional and psychological problems and abuse is explored, the lectures hammered into the narrator about her ‘no good’ friend, as well as the emotional and physical abuse meted out to Tracey by her father.) The problem we have wherein famous white people go out to Africa to ‘help’ – this is something that we’re really starting to acknowledge now so whilst Smith’s text is timely she is unfortunately only regurgitating what we already know, and it’s really down to the individual reader as to whether that’s okay or not. (Smith does go a fair way here, first exploring the problem of idealisation, ‘let’s go build a school for girls because that will help… and we’ll completely neglect to look at what the residents actually need right now, including the fact the girls can’t go to school because their parents need help with the crops’. Then she looks at the absurdity of publicity that makes the western celebrity look beloved in that country whereas all the people following her vehicle are doing so because it’s a novelty. And so on – it’s regurgitation but it’s on point, ending with an exploration of money and overseas adoption.) And she looks at jealousy and the effects of childhood on mentality, personality. Of those with power and those without.

Our nameless narrator seems to have been used in order to shine a light on every other character, because the woman herself is unremarkable. She rarely has anything positive to say but then again she has had a lot of pushback – being in her head all the time it can be difficult to see when her personal problems are due to her negativity and when they are due to people putting her down, though there is a lot to be said for her childhood. But, yes, the light this allows Smith to shine on everyone else is excellent. We get to explore the impact of Tracey’s early life and choices on her growing up in a way that often provides a commentary – much more subtle than the comments about celebrity and ‘Africa’ (that’s another point, that which country is chosen is irrelevant, it’s just got to be ‘African’). Smith shows well, in the way that your thoughts of Tracey will move back and forth between pity, like, and dislike, these effects. The plight of the narrator’s mother too – her lecturing her daughter on politics, on how Tracey is below her because she, the mother, is trying to be a politician, is working on a degree when everyone else is ‘happy’ to remain where they are; her tireless work to be somebody – shows both the effects of selfishness on children and also the difficulties of social mobility. Through the mixed-race and ‘African’ characters – Smith doesn’t often repeat the name of the place celebrity Aimee makes her school, which may be a point in itself – Smith shows disparities, issues of identity, the differences in perspective, and again, that celebrity focus comes back in the form of appropriation of both culture and individual people.

‘And the dance and music?’ you may ask, ‘the swing time of the title?’ There is commentary on it, in particularly the difficulties of black Americans to gain stage and screen space, and included in this is a whole heap of information and references that have been largely skipped over by western history – this book is a resource. However, the inference of the title that this will be a book about dance is, as you will have noted by the fact I’m only just writing about it now after reams of other subjects, wrong. This book minors in dance.

On these topics it must be said the book is not at all linear. It’s not quite experimental but the narrative does dart all over the place and it can take a few lines to get your bearings each chapter because both time and location are mixed up. Why Smith chose to structure the book in this way is not clear – it does allow the subjects to be dealt with in blocks but by their very nature they are not completely confined by these blocks.

So a problem with this particular output from Smith is that she’s chosen a character who may have experienced a lot but never looks at things in a different way, never really attempts to change things, instead going along with what others tell her to do, and whilst that’s not an issue per se, it is an issue when you’ve 453 pages to spend on it with no real conclusion. The story never goes anywhere, meaning that the ending, if it can be called so, is incredibly unsatisfying. You may have enjoyed the book on the whole immensely, but the end is so incredibly disappointing that when it arrives you may feel that your previously fairly fun reading experience was for nought.

It is difficult to recommend Swing Time outright but it is equally difficult to say that this book isn’t worth reading. If the experience of reading it is of merit – as a prime example let’s use the release date of mid November, assume you got it around that time and then read it beside the Christmas tree (it’s perfect for that) – then it passes with full colours. (‘Passing’ is another subject looked at, and I know I’m going all over the place with my paragraphs; it should give you an idea of how it is to read this book!) If writing, then it’s pretty great, you will most likely be swept up by this book and find it hard to put down. If story, look elsewhere. Characters are somewhere in between.

It’s best to look at what is important to you and then combine that with the overall atmosphere, which is pretty awesome. For here I will say it’s worth a read and to really enjoy it whilst you’re deep into it because the ending is disappointing but isn’t quite bad enough to warrant it not being read.

And if that’s confusing, well, welcome to Swing Time.

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Margaret Laurence – The Stone Angel

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Be a bit nicer.

Publisher: Apollo (Head Of Zeus)
Pages: 301
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-97769-6
First Published: 1964
Date Reviewed: 15th January 2017
Rating: 4/5

Hagar Shipley is in her nineties and her time is coming to an end. Living with her son and daughter-in-law she has had time to reflect on life and has been able to live with a modicum of independence, but Marvin is not her favourite son, his wife Doris is too religious, and both now want her to live in a home. Hagar has other plans.

Originally published in 1964 the reprinting of The Stone Angel by Apollo now is timely as it fits the current trend of books about older people. But it has a twist – the woman here grew up in the 1800s, a bit earlier than our contemporaries.

This book is a difficult read and it takes a while to work out what’s really going on, where fault really lies and so on. (This will be aided if you’ve read more recent novels in a similar vein.) Hagar is not completely forgetful, but she forgets enough that you learn to read between the lines and base your opinion of the other characters on the dialogue they speak. (There’s a chance, of course, that Hagar reports conversations wrongly but one can only go so far as the reader.)

So you go through a brief period at the start where you’re questioning who might be the ‘bad guy’ if such a person exists, and then you start to see what’s been in the background all along. Hagar is not a pleasant character by any means. Through the pages that pass by you can see her open favouritism – her favourite son is not the one who looks after her and through the reactions of Marvin and Doris you can see plainly that they’ve had that beaten into them. Hagar nags, belittles, and is critical 90% of the time; she may well have a personality disorder. She has seen herself as above so many people that she’s had few friends; very snobbish. She’s made bad choices but remained rigid in her views. Toxicity is a big feature of this book as while you feel for Hagar’s plight, her not wanting to be put in a home, you can also see how much emotional pain she has caused those who have looked after her for years. And Marvin and Doris aren’t young themselves – whilst Doris’ relentless devotion to converting Hagar to her own religion is a bit much, it’s impossible not to feel for this couple who have looked after a woman so ungrateful.

A difficult book at times, then, but not a bad one. There are a few drawn-out sections, which means it’s a good book to read in terms of its cultural status – it’s considered a Canadian classic – as well as all the things Laurence says, but it may not ‘wow’ you. Despite its character it is an easy, comfortable read, that has a lot of value nowadays for its social context and historical content. It also demonstrates how a strict upbringing can affect a person as well as showing what is important, even if what’s important may seem obvious – Hagar doesn’t get it.

You know from the start where this story is headed but its not a sad book. Hagar’s views and personality mean that she’s very open and confident so whilst she’s not particularly nice she does break through some of the social barriers in place during her younger years. The father who sees himself highly. The husband who was different but that different proved too much. The children much too like their awful father. The people one should not associate with. And Laurence’s 1960s take on it all can be fascinating.

One to read and love in places, perhaps fiercely dislike in others, The Stone Angel is one for contemplation. Where Hagar is loud, you’ll find yourself seeking quiet. It may not be fun – the lady is not for changing – but it’s memorable, interesting, and rather important.

I received this book for review.

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