Scaling Mount TBR: My Name is Leon

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This one may have only been on my TBR list for six months, but by gum it feels good to knock it over anyway.  We received a copy of My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal from the publisher via Netgalley, and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A brother chosen. A brother left behind. And the only way home is to find him.

Leon is nine, and has a perfect baby brother called Jake. They have gone to live with Maureen, who has fuzzy red hair like a halo, and a belly like Father Christmas. But the adults are speaking in low voices, and wearing Pretend faces. They are threatening to take Jake away and give him to strangers. Because Jake is white and Leon is not.

As Leon struggles to cope with his anger, certain things can still make him smile – like Curly Wurlys, riding his bike fast downhill, burying his hands deep in the soil, hanging out with Tufty (who reminds him of his dad), and stealing enough coins so that one day he can rescue Jake and his mum.

Evoking a Britain of the early eighties, My Name is Leon is a story of love, identity and learning to overcome unbearable loss. Of the fierce bond between siblings. And how – just when we least expect it – we somehow manage to find our way home.

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There is a certain charm to books for adults that feature a child protagonist and My Name is Leon certainly exhibits that charm throughout.  Leon is an immediately likable lad, with his fierce loyalty to his mother despite her obvious flaws and unfathomable depth of love for his baby brother Jake.  His foster carers, Maureen and then Sylvia, are also lovable in different ways, while the folk from the allotment grow on the reader with every interaction.  The laid-back but determined Tufty steps in as a replacement father figure for Leon in some ways and while Mr Devlin has a few odd behaviours on the outside, he proves himself to be one who can be counted on in a pinch.

The main focus of the story of course, is Leon’s up-and-down life as he bounces between foster homes, loses his brother to adoption and waits for his mother to get his act together.  This alone would have been a rich vein to mine, but de Waal has also included a sideplot about race riots that, while relevant to Leon and his situation, seemed slightly out of place with the tone of the rest of the story.  Having said that, it does provide a rather exciting end to what could have otherwise been a reasonably predictable story arc!  I would have liked to see a bit of information about this part of the story in an author’s note – were the events based on actual events, and if so, where and when and in what social context did these happen?  If not, why were they included?

Overall, this is an uplifting story that shows the reality of many foster children’s lives today, even though it is set in the 1980s.  The story did feel a bit hefty at times, particularly in the middle, as Leon is developing his relationship with the folk of the allotments, but the richness of the relationships developed between the characters is a satisfying pay-off for this.

Until next time,

Bruce

Read it if: 8-Bit Christmas….

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Today I have a belated Christmas present for all you children of the eighties and contemporary eighties revivalists – the gem of nostalgic goodness that is Kevin Jakubowski’s 8-Bit Christmas.  I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review – thanks!

8-Bit Christmas is an epic roller coaster of a tale revolving around nine-year-old Jake Doyle and his soul-crushing, arm-twisting, sister-enlisting quest to get the brand new Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas, 1987.  Only one kid in Jake’s town has the power that comes with owning an NES (coincidentally, the richest and most spoilt kid in town) and he wields this power by forcing the neighbourhood kids to beg, borrow or steal their way into his house on a Saturday morning in the vain hope of securing a few minutes playing time.  After a tragic (and messy) event during one of these Saturday morning sessions, the parents of Jake’s town ban the purchasing of Nintendo systems, and the successful completion of Jake’s quest suddenly seems a lot less likely.  Cue Jake’s sister and her comparably crippling desire for a Cabbage Patch Doll, the collected baseball card resources of Batavia’s kid population and a whole lot of wishin’, hopin’ and prayin’ and Jake may just find that Christmas wishes do come true!   Or maybe not.  You’ll have to read to find out.

8 bit christmasRead it if:

* you’ve ever felt the keen, incisor-sharp sense of desperation for some new-fangled consumer product that is woefully beyond your ability to attain

* you’ve ever known the pain of having to kowtow to some jumped up little snot in your class/neighbourhood/(dare I say it) family in order to experience some tiny sliver of the joy that comes from owning the aforementioned new-fangled consumer product

* you were a kid in the 80s or are currently experiencing a sense of faux-stalgia for a time period in which you were not born, but feel you know due to the proliferation of pop culture references currently doing the rounds on the interwebs

*you can’t go past a book that so expertly conjures up the atmosphere of your own childhood, that you feel that you probably actually knew the author as a kid, but have somehow forgotten

I LOVED this book.  Jakubowski has somehow managed to reach through a wormhole and pull out the sights, sounds and yearnings of kids in the late eighties.  The pop culture references are spot on.  The descriptions of the social pecking order and the factors that really influence kid friendships are flawless.  It is a fantastic read.  If you were a child in this time period, particularly if you were a boy and especially if you know, deep in your heart, the excitement and desire created by Nintendo at this time, I daresay you will thoroughly enjoy this book.

If you are a child (or teen) TODAY, with any kind of interest in toys, gaming and pop culture of yore, I suspect you will also thoroughly enjoy this book.  Jakubowski has written this with such kid-knowledge, that even contemporary kids will recognise the importance of Jake’s quest and relate to the difficulties of getting one over on the adults to attain the object of your desire.

But the best bit is the ending.  I had already rated it a five-star read in my mind before I got to the ending. The ending pushed me over into the elusive (and some say mythical) territory of the six star review.  And I’m not telling you what happens.  But you should read it.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Retro Reading: Choosing one’s own adventure…

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  “BEWARE and WARNING!

This book is different from other books. 

You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story…”

I must admit, when I saw the book pictured here land on my shelf I emitted a gasp suffused with nostalgia and excitement and more than a little trepidation.  It was as if I had dropped back through time (appropriately enough, given the title) to the days when I graced the shelf of a much younger fleshling.

Ah, the phenomenon that was Choose Your Own Adventure!  Designed as an interactive reading experience, some forty titles made their way out into the homes and hearts of young readers, to engage and frustrate and challenge.  Each book contained multpile endings to the story which could be accessed after the reader had made a choice about the direction of the plot.

Surely I am not alone in remembering the feelings of anticipation and angst that accompanied every choice; the complicated internal dialogue that reflected the fraught-ness of each decision…should I stay and search the cave (turning to page 56) or go back and find my dog first (turning to page 89)?   Should loyalty to one’s canine outweigh the potential for discovery? Which action would serve me better in saving myself from future peril? And could I sneakily leave my finger to mark the page in case I made the wrong choice?

How well I recall the feeling of righteous indignation that welled up when, having made a well-considered and strategic decision, I was met with those awful words, written in bold capitals after half a page or less of text – THE END. How could my plucky gamble have backfired so poorly? And what measure of ethics surrounded this “ending” of my adventure? Was it morally the correct thing to begin the story again from the beginning, or would the god of the reading universe overlook, say, a change of heart that involved simply turning back a few pages and choosing the initially discarded option?  After all, a gargoyle is entitled to change his (or her) mind.  It could simply have been that in the time between making the choice, and turning the pages (with possibly a glimpse at those terrible, story-ending words as the pages turned) that a gargoyle reconsidered the criteria on which to base the most prudent choice.  Yes, obvioulsy I meant to choose the other option.  Any fool could see that.  I just…misread…which page I was supposed to turn to.

Surely this collection of books is ready for a second coming.  After all, younglings of this generation are breast-fed on interactive everything – Ipods, smartphones, Wii thingies….why not books?  The series has even been extended in recent years to include beginning readers, with new titles published that cater specifically to children in pre-school and prep.  Imagine, if you will: new parents, who grew up on the heady anticipation of being master (or mistress) of their own story domain, guiding their younglings in the best strategies to avoid disaster….it could be a brave new world of reading pleasure.

Admittedly, re-engaging with this particular Choose Your Own Adventure title as an older gargoyle lacked somewhat in the area of disbelief suspension, but nonetheless, the trip down memory lane it provided was worth the extra effort it took to really imagine one’s self into the story.  But never fear! This is one gargoyle who believes firmly in re-gifting, and will no doubt wrap this one up and pass it on to gargoyles of a more recent vintage to discover…for the first time.

And if the nostalgia bug has burrowed it’s way into your neurotransmitters while reading this post, you may find some relief here: http://www.cyoa.com/

Until next time,

Bruce