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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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Helen Irene Young – The May Queen

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Women and war.

Publisher: Crooked Cat
Pages: 214
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-539-99706-1
First Published: 25th April 2017
Date Reviewed: 28th April 2017
Rating: 3/5

May lives in the Cotswolds with her family, but one day Sophie leaves and life changes; May can’t shake the feeling that the boy she likes, Christopher, is the reason for Sophie’s disappearance. Deciding to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service, life in London results in new friends and new tragedies, but also the potential for marriage – it’s just that May can’t quite see herself married to John while thoughts of Christopher linger in the background.

There is a lot to like about this book. Looking at World War Two from the point of view of a female member of the military, Young’s research is evident and there’s much here that isn’t often discussed in fiction at the moment. You’ll take away a few things you’ve learned but it never feels as though you’re being told too much.

The story itself is good, too. Besides the tragedies, which in view of the page count do happen quite often (besides the fatalities of war), Young presents a great little study of home life. May’s relationship with her mother is fraught by criticism and what seems to be a lack of love from mother to daughter, yet at other times Ma gives much; the effect is such that Young provides you enough to really ask yourself what is going on – it’s up to you to decide the dynamics of the relationship.

Besides this, there’s a good balance of other domestic and social points – runaway sisters and illicit affairs looked at alongside the every-day of war, basement parties, being out and about when sirens could sound at any minute.

Unfortunately there is a lack of detailing in the book. The May Queen does not have any filler sections but the writing is disjointed. The book reads as an extensive plan for a novel, so you’ll have a fair sense of what’s going on but because the scenes aren’t fleshed out enough there can be confusion. The writing is bare in the same way as the detailing.

Where do the characters stand in this? Some are mostly developed, others less so. The book shines best during the second section, set in London, where the story moves with the new location, separating May from her family and allowing you to get to know her better.

This is a good look at the Wrens and the way people lived through war, just a sparse look. It will appeal most to those wanting to read about women’s roles in the war and the way life continued throughout.

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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Caroline Lea – When The Sky Fell Apart

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And the ground and the people too.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 363
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-23107-3
First Published: 24th February 2017
Date Reviewed: 8th March 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Britain leaves the Channel Islands to fend for themselves and the Nazis order surrender or else, the people of Jersey must make their decisions – evacuate or remain? Maurice feels he has no choice at this time – his wife is too ill to travel. Edith, a healer, feels the need to stay in her homeland and tend to those who require help. Claudine has no choice – her mother will not leave. Dr Carter, an Englishman, should leave but feels similarly to Edith. As the Nazis swarm in those residents who chose to remain try to make the best of the situation whilst staying low and staying safe, but, as they know from news of France, it will be nigh on impossible.

When The Sky Fell Apart is an extremely harrowing, brutal tale of Nazi occupation, a book that offers a few laughs to keep you going but stays true to its objective (assumed) of showing just how bad the war was in places not often considered. It’s a book that is impossible to say you enjoyed but is important.

On that ‘assumed’ objective it is best to comment further – whilst this is fiction, you can see Lea’s mission throughout. This book is a very, very, well crafted, structured, tale that shows what life was like. If The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society showed the aftermath of life in Guernsey, then When The Sky Fell Apart looks at the occupation – yes, a different island but similar location – at the time. Indeed if you’re at all interested in the effects of World War II on the Channel Islands, you should look at both books as each provide something different.

It’s important to remember the objective when considering the elements of writing Lea has included. This book uses many devices, in particular one near the end that is very frustrating because although Lea has provided the necessary background to allude to the possibility that the character would do such a thing – to use a vague example – you want it to be different. It’s a case that in real life it may or may not have happened but Lea has chosen the possibility that it would in order to take her story where she wants it to be. The characters are manipulated but with good reason, and it’s never a sweeping change, never not believable, just frustrating.

Of this particular plot point, the good reason is that Lea wants to demonstrate just how far people might go to save themselves and implicate others. She puts in place a couple whose lives have previously literally been saved by two other characters – those saved do not have any qualms about gaining information and harming those who saved them. There is also an element of straight out hatred.

Lea never holds back on the horrors of war, delving into it enough that it’s traumatic. There are, as said, a few laughs – very much laugh out loud, in fact – that remind you of the daily life the people were still living. They aren’t quite enough to make you feel comfortable again but they do help character development – almost all Lea’s characters feel very real. The focus on this little group of people means that you may well forget that they are living on a populated island – it’s easy to picture an almost barren land (aside from the effects of occupation) – which is unfortunate but not necessarily a drawback – to focus on a larger group or the population in general would have just diluted the horrors, made individuals into numbers, an element of war that Lea comments on.

The book does not follow the path you may have expected. It remains horrific to the end – given the subject matter it’s worth saying that this book does not follow any sort of positive outcome. We all know the eventual outcome of the war and so Lea sticks firmly to the events during.

The author stays objective when detailing troops; the horrors are numerous but like authors before her – Irène Némirovsky comes to mind on this point – she includes good people, or, more specifically one person to demonstrate, who get caught up in it. In this case there is a focus on disability among the ranks.

The text itself is solid. The book is written in the third person and whilst there are narrative sections that use very modern wording, the dialogue is authentic – instead of being jarring, the book simply reminds you that it’s historical fiction. There are times when things are repeated unnecessarily – the author’s choice of metaphors in particular – that are noticeable and there are a few times when things are explained that aren’t needed, but these don’t impact the story enough to change your overall experience.

When The Sky Fell Apart is exceptional. Its lasting images, in particular, may well haunt you for a number of days. It’s one of those books that is difficult but nevertheless important. Do not go into this when you are needing to escape, don’t read it when you’re down. This book should be approached with an attitude to study, learning, rather than any sort of literary enjoyment.

But you should most definitely read it.

I received this book for review.

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Paul McVeigh – The Good Son

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The Milkybar kid is strong and tough.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 234
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63023-2
First Published: 15th April 2015
Date Reviewed: 29th November 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

Mickey Donnelly lives in Troubled times. Northern Ireland is at war and he can’t go too far from home or he’ll end up on the wrong turf; he has to be careful of the Protestants. Living with the shadow of a new, unwanted, school in front of him he tries to get to grips with girls and with being cool, particularly as the other children believe him to be gay. And there’s always his Da upsetting his Mammy, the parent he loves most.

The Good Son is a book set some time during the 1980s and 90s that looks at the conflict but concentrates on its coming-of-age storyline, blending profound commentary with the ordinary.

It would be quite natural to expect this book to hinge on the conflict but whilst it doesn’t quite do that, there is a fair amount in it that shows how life was, how split the country. McVeigh never shields the reader from the violence and he makes it clear in the way the fighting effects Mickey, physically most often, that he’s going to be blunt. Mickey takes a lot of metaphorical and literal punches, including from his mother. McVeigh also includes raids and the British – English – actions in the conflict, the disturbance of the regular people due to the worry, often founded in truth in the case of this book, that there were weapons and IRA members around.

But McVeigh’s setting acts more as context, as the difficult background information that shows what fuels Mickey’s behaviour. Violent evenings preface run-of-the-mill days in the streets, skipping and playing chase with the neighbours. Neighbours who may be harbouring army members. Just as Mickey’s family could be.

Mickey is ten years old so there are a lot of sudden changes of scene and a lot of talking about things that he doesn’t understand. McVeigh has written the book in the first person in full Belfast dialect; it’s quite unusual especially when joined by everything else and makes the book a little like Marmite – you will likely either love this book or dislike it (‘hate’ is a bit too strong). What’s true across the board is that Mickey comes across clearly, enough that one could speculate some autobiographical elements to his character. And the rendering of a ten year old is perfect in all its minor pomposity and silliness.

The drawbacks to the book rest in the structure, that use of childhood amongst the conflict. It’s that Mickey’s story takes place during one summer and whilst there is an ending the relative shortness of the book means that it’s relatively minor. It’s more ten-year-old character study than story, the voice being superb but the plot – away from the conflict – being pretty average; whether it works for you will rest on how much more you want to hear about the social history rather than the growing up. It’s your evening television series rather than a film destined for the cinema, an apt comparison to make considering the number of then-popular cultural references included (there are enough that one could argue there are too many even if it does show Mickey’s love of television).

The Good Son is good but as is often the case in situations where labels are assigned, there are also not-so-good times. It is best to go in with few expectations so that what works will work very well.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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