MY NAME IS LEON by Kit de Waal

Scramble the letters and you get LONE - the underlying theme of this book being the loneliness and isolation perpetrated on a child unwittingly thrust into the arms of the social welfare system. But don't let this put you off, because it is a really good read. Good story, great character in little Leon and written with such love and tenderness.

Leon is nine years old. He lives with his drug addict mother Carol and baby half brother Jake. Carol is white, Leon's absent father is black, Jake's married father is white, also absent. A mess of mammoth proportions in the making. Carol is increasingly incapable of caring for the children and Leon is thrust into the role of parent until, unsurprisingly, everything falls apart. Jake and Leon are taken into care, to the most wonderful arms of Maureen, long time foster parent with expert intuition in caring for damaged children such as Leon. Unfortunately for Leon, no one wants to adopt mixed race 9 year old boys, but a white year old baby boy is a different story, and it isn't long before, tragically, the two children are separated. For Leon, life goes from bad to worse, angry, confused, alone, completely lost and distraught. By chance he finds an allotment in the neighbourhood and befriends a number of the people who garden there. His new friends have their own problems and he slowly finds himself drawn into their world, without really understanding what it is all about. Leon is a most endearing child, intelligent, wanting to please, loving and responsive - just a normal average little boy wanting to live in a family with a mum, dad and brother. Such a simple want, so impossibly hard to achieve.

Set in the early 1980s, against the background of Charles and Di's wedding, suburban race riots, Margaret Thatcher's economic policies, and a social welfare system simply unable to cope with what it is tasked with, this book will break your heart. Told entirely from Leon's point of view, he is trying to make sense of the turns his life takes - losing his brother, unable to understand what is wrong with his mother, hating the social workers controlling his life, but unable to escape it. His story will be similar to the stories of many, many other children.

The author writes her story with plenty of first hand experience of being mixed race herself, growing up in a household where her Irish mother fostered many children, working in social services for a time where one of her jobs was to look at the experiences of black children who had been fostered to white foster parents, and the foster system as a whole. Apparently separating siblings was very common in the 1980s.  I wonder how many tears she cried while writing this, although the book is written with an undertone of anger and rage at the system.

This book should be absolutely compulsory reading for anyone involved in the care of children and families in the social services/justice system. Written with such insight, compassion and tenderness, it puts the child at the top of the care model. From what is in the media on an almost daily basis, it would appear not much has changed in 30 plus years. 


The Devil Wears Prada was a massive hit for the author, and of course turned into the marvellous movie with Meryl Streep and Anne Hattaway. Ambitious young woman in the big city, looking to break into high energy world of fashion, journalism, PR. Over time finds job not quite what was envisaged, loses herself and her friends in her new world, crisis time, leaves the business, finds new and better direction in life, refinds self and friends. Amen.

Crikey, why not try that formula again in another novel! Be onto another winner. Maybe....  Set in New York (again), Bette is unhappy in her banking job, dumped by her boyfriend, best friend just engaged to the worst possible man, all first world problems. In a moment of madness she chucks her job, and after spending time moping around feeling sorry for herself, her high profile journalist uncle introduces her to a PR wonder woman, big cheese of her own PR company that does stuff for 'everyone worth knowing'. Bette is immediately thrown into the world of the very rich, the very upwardly mobile, celebrities, socialites, wannabes, mostly unpleasant bitchy backstabbing wastes of space. Yet somehow Bette is a resounding success in this new job, somehow manages to avoid the drug taking that everyone else is doing, doesn't have any sex, falls in love with a bouncer, and remains a nice person. Gee whiz, that sounds like real life!

She has plenty of obstacles to face - New York's sexiest man, a gossip columnist who won't leave her alone, a boss who wants to keep seeing her in said gossip column, keeping her sleep quota up, upgrading her image - so many challenges! The crisis, when it comes, is complete and utter chaos, almost as good as giving Meryl Streep the brush off in Prada! But with Hugh Hefner and bunny girls instead. Really all quite hilarious, very contrived, perfect pool side holiday reading which is where I read it!

But way better than the book are the online reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. Don't people love to trash and tear things apart! I know it isn't prize winning literature, but there are way worse books out there than this one. And who doesn't like a bit of chick lit to giggle over and lose oneself in.

Try this for size - "If you thought Devil Wears Prada was insipid, wait until you read this vomitous waste of valuable wood pulp, time, eyestrain and anxiety (the latter due to agitated anticipation of the novel's anticlimactic denouement)."

Or this one - "One of the worst books I've ever read. Stereotypical characters, dull plot, predictive and anticlimactic ending and superficial world building. The dialogues were unrealistic and immature. And don't even let me start describing this dull and pathetic excuse for a "love story" or spectacular failure of love triangle. Everything is horrible about this book."

Just the best reading of all really.

A LITTLE LIFE by Hana Yanagihara

It is really quite difficult to put into words the raw power of this novel. It is not just the utterly brilliant writing, mesmerising and completely engrossing, the author's  incredible insight into human nature, the mind, emotions.  It is also the story, in all its horror, tragedy and human-ness, of a life, not so little as it turns out, of Jude, and his lifelong friends who all meet each other while teenagers at boarding school - Jude, JB, Malcolm and Willem. There are also a few other characters pivotal to Jude's existence - his doctor Andy, his parents Harold and Julia and neighbour Richard. It becomes apparent very early on that some awful things have happened to Jude as a child, and with meticulous timing through the course of the 800-odd pages, Jude's early life is revealed. It is hardly surprising the legacy this abuse leaves on Jude as he grows to adult hood, desperately trying to ignore and hide his early life, and how this affects his relationships with those who love him, and who he so heavily depends on.

It is utterly compelling, horrific, confronting and heartbreaking. There were numerous times that I had to put this book down for short periods, it is so overwhelming in its writing and its content. Plus I had some very peculiar and vivid dreams over the course of the week that it took to read it. Not the usual reaction one would have to a novel! I loved the characters, for their goodness and their badness, their human-ness, their very existence and deep deep love not only for Jude, but also for each other. I do have to say that it is probably too long, about 200 pages too long, and numerous other on line reviewers have made the same comment. At times it is exhausting to read because it is so challenging, but it is so absorbing that once you have come up for air, you just have to dive back in and keep going. A little life that leaves a huge footprint on the lives of others. 

THE MALICE OF WAVES by Mark Douglas-Home

A few months ago I read the first novel in this series of Cal McGill, the Sea Detective. I liked it very much. Cal McGill is a most interesting character - an oceanographer with a good back story who uses his skills and knowledge of the sea and weather to solve murders, washed up or missing bodies, parts thereof. There were a number of plots happening in the story, which came together nicely at the end, very well interwoven with a cast of diverse characters and situations tightly held. It was great.

This one, number three in the series, for me, something is missing. I didn't feel that great connection with the story or the characters. Which is disappointing. This is actually more about the community that Cal finds himself in, rather than Cal himself, this really different type of detective and interesting person to boot. And so I think something has been lost in this shift. Perhaps there is just too much going on, too many threads to hold together.

Great opening, with Cal in a boat off a small island (fictional) in the Outer Hebrides - yes, the physical setting is still very awesome - undertaking bouyancy experiments with Millie who is a dead pig. Gross really, but as pigs are similar to humans in their physiology, very useful to Cal in his area of work. He is actually in the area looking into the disappearance on the island five years earlier of fourteen year old Max Wheeler, who was on a boating trip with his father and sisters. No body had ever been found, and now Cal has been called in by the father's lawyer to see if his knowledge of ocean currents, winds, storms could shed some light on where the body, if there is a body, may have gone. A mystery - was it murder, accident, suicide, abduction? So great start.

The father, David Wheeler, has never come to terms with the disappearance of his son. His purchase of the island created considerable conflict with long time users of the island which continues into the present. The issue just never goes away mainly due to the bitter and angry Wheeler returning to the area every year on the anniversary of his son's disappearance, which is what is about to happen in the story. There are huge tensions simmering throughout the story, not just between the Wheelers and the locals, but also amongst the local residents themselves. Cal's presence, on Wheeler's behalf,  is further fuel to the fire.

Over the course of the book, what happened to young Max does eventually come out. But surprisingly, it is not all due to Cal and his knowledge of the seas. The focus of the story is really on the local community, in particular Bella, who owns and operates the local cafe, the hub of this small coastal village. Bella takes on all the dramas of the community, is guardian for her niece, and looks out for a number of other people, mostly young. This leads her into a murky and dangerous alliance with a peculiar man who collects rare birds' eggs, and whose arrival in the area probably contributes more to the eventual solving of the mystery than Cal's expertise.

It is a good read, but with numerous sub plots going on, it did jump around a lot, becoming disjointed in parts. I really wanted to have more of Cal solving the mystery using his unique knowledge and skills, and more of him as the lone, slightly off beat detective character he was in the first novel.  Although Millie did pop up again during the story, which was interesting!