Saturday 9 January 2010

Review: When I Was Joe by Keren David

When Ty witnesses a stabbing, his own life is in danger from the criminals he s named, and he and his mum have to go into police protection. Ty has a new name, a new look and a cool new image life as Joe is good, especially when he gets talent spotted as a potential athletics star, special training from an attractive local celebrity and a lot of female attention. But his mum can t cope with her new life, and the gangsters will stop at nothing to flush them from hiding. Joe s cracking under extreme pressure, and then he meets a girl with dark secrets of her own. This wonderfully gripping and intelligent novel depicts Ty/Joe's confused sense of identity in a moving and funny story that teenage boys and girls will identify with.

Readers of my blog will know by now that I thrive on action and adventure stories; tales that help me escape the pressures of my job. For this reason, and the fact that I hear enough about this sort of thing as part of my day-to-day work life, I would rarely ever buy a book that deals directly with the issues that face the modern teenager on a daily basis. I have taught Citizenship; I have discussed these issues with countless young people; I really don't feel the need to be reading about these issues in my spare time. However, thanks to the kind people at Frances Lincoln, this book arrived on my doorstep and due to school being closed as a result of the snow I decided to promote it to the top of my reading pile. Truth be told.....  I am really glad that I did as When I Was Joe is a compelling, fast-paced modern thriller that had me gripped almost from the start.

I say almost from the start and this is probably the only negative thing I have to say about this book, so I will get it out of the way now. Ty, the main character of the story, has witnessed the murder of a fellow fourteen year old, as a result of which he is fast-tracked onto a police witness protection programme. Ty's interview by the police and his and his mother's relocation all occur in the first two relatively short chapters of the book; personally, I felt that this all seemed a little too rushed and therefore less believable and I would have preferred another chapter to help ease me into the story. Then again, my only knowledge of witness protection in the UK stems from my wife's love of The Bill on TV so maybe things do move this fast in real life?

That aside, the rest of the book is very realistic and despite it being written in the first-person, present tense (normally one of my pet hates) I loved it. In fact, I have to admit that the author's use of tense and point of view works really well with the story, for the main focus of the story isn't witness protection; it is really about how Ty copes with this sudden and dramatic upheaval in his life. Identity and image are all-important for young people, so how would you react if you suddenly had to re-invent yourself and become someone totally different? Would you be able to keep your past a secret to protect you and your loved ones? Once you have told one lie about yourself, and then another and another, where do the lies stop? Scary thoughts aren't they, but all issues that Ty has to deal with in this book once he becomes Joe.

Incredibly, Ms David has really managed to get inside the head of a teenage boy and portrays Ty's feelings brilliantly. Boys of this age really do think that way and her characterisation of Ty and the other young people in the story is spot on. The dialogue is also very realistic - some readers may not like the way that Tye slips into using "youth speak" (horrible phrase, but I'm not sure what else to call it), and the use of swear words, depending on who he is talking to. Wise up people - this is what teenagers do when they are with their peers. It gives them a sense of belonging within a group; it distinguishes them from their seemingly boring elders; it makes them feel relevant in their society, and the author's use of this technique is used well in the story amd makes the dialogue more realistic.

Above everything else, this story is relevant. I have lost count of the times I have had discussions with students at school where they have told me that some of their main worries in life include bullying and knife crime. In addition this book also addresses the topic of self-harming in a sensitive manner; this is an issue that is very relevant in today's teenage society as more and more young people feel the need to harm themselves for a multitude of reasons, that are often incomprehensible to their peers. However, the adressing of these issues in the story, as well as some of the swearing in the dialogue, would lead me suggest that this book is most suited to readers of the 13+ age range. 

When I Am Joe is available to buy now and if, like me, you enjoy reading this book you will be overjoyed to hear that there is a planned sequel entitled Almost True due to be published in August 2010.