Book 57: My Name Is Leon, Kit de Waal (2016)

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img_2884.jpgLocation: The Stable for “Tuck in Tuesday” —nice place, good pizza, though the door’s pretty hard to find…

Theme: Books set in Birmingham

Chosen by: Lorna

As a Birmingham-based book club, it seemed only right to review a book about Birmingham at some point. However, finding one was easier said than done! It seems that not many books are based in Birmingham, so our shortlist was, well, short. Thankfully, we found My Name Is Leon, written by former social worker and Brummie Kit de Waal. Despite not naming the city as Birmingham, we recognised many of the road names, and some of us even remember the riots described in the book.

Set in early 80’s Birmingham against a backdrop of racial tension, this is the story of 9-year-old mixed race Leon and his white, blonde-haired baby brother Jake. When their mother becomes ill and fails to look after them, Leon takes care of Jake until they are put into foster care. After a few months, the brothers are separated when Jake is adopted by a young white couple. It’s easy to imagine how this would be difficult to understand for a young boy, and as Kit de Waal worked in social care for many years and adopted children herself, she saw this effect first-hand. Her personal knowledge of this area shines through, as the novel is entirely believable throughout.

Told from Leon’s perspective, Kit de Waal is masterfully subtle in portraying Leon’s situation—unlike other child-perspective narratives (such as Emma Donoghue’s Room), which often feel overdone. The result of this is sad and heart-breaking at times, without being overly harrowing, and she does well to avoid the common trap of making the book downright depressing. The simplified language makes it easy to get into Leon’s head and see how he misconstrues half-overheard conversations—believing he is not wanted by his foster carer and will be abandoned.

For the most part, the book is driven by the fascinating interactions between well-drawn characters—particularly in how the other characters react to Leon. Many of the adults in the novel, such as social workers, fail to really listen to him. As a result, they misunderstand his behaviour and see him as difficult. However, Leon’s interactions with Tufty, who has a local allotment, and Maureen, his foster carer, are particularly heart-warming, showing that love, friendship, and family comes from many unexpected sources.

The book isn’t plot-heavy, though the action sections are well-written, particularly when Leon is caught up in the tense atmosphere of the riots. The book is relatively short, covering around a year in Leon’s life, and most of us were disappointed when the book ended—only because we wanted more of it. As Kit de Waal’s debut, we could see why the book was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2016. There was really nothing we had to criticise about this novel—we just want more of it please Kit!

Score: 9

If you’ve read My Name Is Leon, feel free to score it out of 5 using the star rating above.

IMG_2885(As an aside, I really wanted to like this book as I managed to get hold of a signed first edition, and was surprised to discover that Leon and I share a birthday, a hometown, and are both mixed race with a mother named Carol—it was surely a sign!)


Book 53: Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)

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Location: 1847 – wonderful veggie food, as always.

Theme: Christmas

Chosen by: Ameesha

We always struggle to choose a “Christmas” themed book—it seems like they’ve all been read to death—but Eileen, with its wintry cover, captured our attentions. It wasn’t exactly Christmassy, with its alcoholism and digestive discomfort, and it was as a far a U-turn as we could have made from the previous happy-ever-after Readers of the Broken Wheel Recommend. Yet … it made an impression on us. Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel seemingly made a big impression elsewhere too, being shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and garnering much critical acclaim.

As summarised succinctly by the Washington Post, “You have never read anything remotely like Eileen”. 24-year-old Eileen lives in her rundown Boston home with her alcoholic ex-cop father. She works at a men’s prison and fantasises about one of the guards. She wears her dead mother’s clothes. Nothing much happens. Then mysterious redhead Rebecca starts working at the prison and strikes up an unusual friendship with Eileen. That’s all you really need to know.

Despite the misleading and inaccurate marketing of Eileen as a “taut psychological thriller”, the novel is more a character study of a self-loathing, miserable, half-prudish, half-perverted young women stuck in an unhappy family dynamic. Told from the in-depth and unreliable perspective of Eileen, the reader discovers, in minute detail, Eileen’s base desires, perversions, and digestive ailments.

Described as “gratuitous” by some critics, at times the novel borders on disgusting, and the grubby Eileen is often hard to like. Yet at other times, her honest depiction is relatable, as Eileen tries to fade into the background, and Eileen’s unhappy life elicits the reader’s sympathy. The scene-setting creates a cold, dark atmosphere, and the novel feels enjoyably moody. Despite little happening, Eileen is strangely intriguing, almost like a morbid curiosity keeps you reading.

The novel is certainly polarising, with our reviews ranging from “loved it” to “over-laboured”, “tells it like it is”, and “the opposite of fluffy”, scoring between a 4 and a 9. Some of us wanted more of Rebecca (we also couldn’t help but wonder whether she was inspired by Du Maurier’s Rebecca), others wanted to know more about Eileen’s post-Boston life, some were waiting for something to happen, and Theresa just wanted “to give Eileen a good scrub”.

While the character development is strong, it felt that the ending was rushed after such a lengthy build up. Perhaps the unusual style is because Moshfegh first attempted to write the book in 90 days following The 90-day Novel by Alan Watt—primarily because she felt the notion was a joke. But since Moshfegh described herself as “broke” beforehand, she’s probably laughing all the way to the bank now.

If you’re looking for a slick, fast-paced action thriller, this is not it. But if you’re looking for something different, Eileen is a fascinating read.

Score: 6.5

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Book 52: Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, Katarina Bivald (2013)


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Location: Las Iguanas, Christmas special!

Theme: “Just because”

Chosen by: Lorna

In Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, 28-year-old, Swedish, plain, bookworm Sara takes a chance on an offer to stay with her pen pal, an old lady in small town America, who she has never met but shares a love of books with.

She quickly discovers that the tiny town—“Broken Wheel”—is broken, run down, and in need of inspiration. What follows is Sara’s opening of the town’s first book shop in a town where nobody reads, her gradual revival of the town, and her inspiration of the town’s residents—including getting them to read.

This debut novel contains all the required elements of a “feel good” book, with romance, friendships, humour, and saving a dying town. The plot and ending are pretty predictable, and there’s nothing even vaguely unpleasant to be found here. In fact, it’s overwhelmingly cheerful—if not a little twee.

Not to mention, it’s a book about books. “A book for book lovers” if the reviews are to be believed. (A minor point, but the spoilers of classic books are annoying for readers who haven’t read them yet.) Rather than pitching itself with the classics it describes, it falls dangerously near the genre of “chick lit”.

It’s interesting to see how a perceived “outsider” can impact on a quiet American town, and particularly how Sara already knows so much about the town through her pen pal’s letters. It’s enjoyable to observe the town and the residents’ revival—in a decidedly character- rather than plot-driven novel. That said, the town’s residents are a little 2D, paper cut outs in a paper town. The trouble is, the novel fails to feel real, or at least conceivably believable—it’s too fiction.

Score: 7

Book 28: Elephant Moon (2012), John Sweeney

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Discussion location: The Woodman’s

Chosen by: Theresa

Reason for choice: Another 99p Kindle summer read. Sounded different to the usual wartime story.


Elephant Moon, John Sweeney’s debut novel, is the story of a class of orphans trying to escape Burma during WWII. As their British colonisers abandon Burma, the Japanese begin to attack. The half-Burmese orphans, the result of coloniser affairs with local women, are unwanted by either side during the conflict. Having been raised by the British, their only protector is their school teacher Grace, who chooses to help the orphans rather than being evacuated.

Grace and sixty-two school children face the mammoth task of reaching India across rivers, jungles, and mountains. As if the landscape didn’t pose enough peril, the group are under the constant threat of Japanese soldiers. When hope seems lost, a herd of fifty-three elephants and their riders appear, also on their way to India, who aid the orphans on their journey. Elephant Moon is based on the true story of the elephant men who rescued refugees in 1942.

The novel presents a different side of the WWII story, one not commonly documented, and provides a good opportunity to learn something new about the war. It portrays an interesting and less-heard perspective, such as the British abandonment of those they colonised.  Moreover, the central concept of the elephants aiding orphans safety is appealing, and the descriptions of the elephants is wonderful, particularly Oomy and his mother. Undeniably, this novel has great potential.

However, it was evident that Sweeney is not a natural fiction writer. Award-winning journalist at the Observer and Panorama, Sweeney does build an impressive sense of suspense throughout and illustrates the landscape and war well. However, after a slow start and a crescendo-building middle, the ending is rushed, and like many authors, Sweeney misunderstands the concept of an epilogue (when will they learn what an epilogue is?).

Moreover, his characterisation lacked depth, and most characters fit into good or evil stereotypes. His ability to draw a believable female character was weak, and while Grace should have been portrayed as a powerful female character who sacrificed her own safety to help her class, instead she was a almost parodied goody two shoes whose main attribute seemed to be her ridiculously-often-mentioned attractiveness (pass us a bucket please!).

Sweeney’s best writing skills were displayed in the story of Eddie, where he seemed much more comfortable detailing a male character. Unfortunately, here Sweeney fell into the trap of adding an unnecessary subplot that distracted and detracted from what was a strong enough story on its own. The novel would have been much improved if this subplot had been avoided and Sweeney had focussed his efforts on padding out Grace, the orphans, and the ending, and giving readers more of what they wanted – the elephants!

In general, for a short novel Sweeney tried to take on too much, with the outcome that it seemed disjointed and chaotic (while we mused that this may have been to depict the chaos of war, we found it more likely a result of an undeveloped writing style). There was a lack of depth and focus, and the novel either needed to be longer to cover all of the subjects or shorter and more focused.

Overall score: 5/10

Book 27: We Were Liars (2014), E. Lockheart

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Discussion location: The Woodman’s – the tallest burger we’ve ever seen!

Chosen by: Susan

Reason for choice: Saw it on Amazon/Kindle for 99p – winner!  (And her best choice yet)


Lockheart(known as Emily Jenkins on her non-YA days)’s We Were Liars might just be the first YA literature we’ve reviewed. To add to that, it’s pretty difficult to review this novel without giving away something that might ruin the ending for you. So, I’ll be brief (perhaps the reason the novel itself is so short).

In what might seem like a familiar opening, protagonist Cadence Sinclair unexplainably has amnesia. The oldest grandchild of a wealthy all-American family, Cadence returns to the private island where the Sinclairs spend their summers. A private island populated only by the four houses they built, an idyllic paradise where everyone can be someone different to their normal lives, where any problems, deaths, or tragedies simply aren’t mentioned.

Two summers earlier, something happens to Cadence on the island that causes her amnesia, and in the cloaked environment where her family refuse to talk about it, plagued by migraines and befuddled by tablets, Cadence tries to fill the gaps in her memory. In short, fragmented chapters, she recovers scraps of knowledge in real-time, present-tense, first-person prose, piecing together the jigsaw of what happened to her.

Lockheart’s ability to build suspense in the novel is complemented beautifully by her descriptions of the island and the Sinclairs. Cadence’s cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and her aunt’s-sort-of-stepson-and-outsider Gat, her grandfather, and his three daughters, an old money family. Beautiful, tall, and blonde, good noses, and strong heritage, going out on the boat to get ice cream, eating lobster, and basking in long summers, the novel is richly written and evocative.

However, despite this thin facade, Lockheart conveys how wealth and privilege fail to afford contentment or happiness in any of the characters. In her allusions to King Lear and inheritance disputes, and to Wuthering Heights and forbidden love, this YA novel has its roots in classic literature. Ignore the labels, this book is well worth a read.

Overall score: 8/10