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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

When I Was Joe by Keren David

Title: When I Was Joe
Author: Keren David
Publisher: Frances Lincoln
Published 2010
Genre: Teen Thriller

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says...
It's one thing watching someone get killed. It's quite another talking about it.

But Ty does talk about it. He names some ruthless people and a petrol-bomb attack forces him and his mum into hiding under police protection.

Shy loser Ty gets a new name, a new look and a cool new image. Life as Joe is good. But the gangsters will stop at nothing to silence him. And then he meets a girl with a dangerous secret of her own.

My verdict: a gripping, engaging thriller. Ty's voice, expertly created, draws you in and doesn't let you go. Highly recommended from teens upwards.

The central voice of Ty is definitely a key strength of this book. He narrates the story, gradually sharing more of what happened 'that day', and regularly revealing his feelings (albeit not always deliberately). He is a wholly sympathetic character and you are desperate for things to go well for him, but at the same time he is a realistically drawn teenager. This means his choices aren't always the best ones, and there are some wonderful moments where he clearly doesn't grasp the subtleties of what is going on around him.  A sentence that sums up the delightful 'teenageness' of him for me is:
'Yeah,' I say and she says, 'You know, Ty, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' which is pretty amazing because I would have thought that Maureen'd be way too old to have even heard of Kanye West.
The story is pacey; helped by starting after the incident that ruptures Ty's world, which means the truth of what he saw is delivered in a tantalising trickle throughout the novel. And there are fantastic twists. At one point, I did such a sharp intake of breath that the woman next to me on the train was laughing at me!

At the same time as dealing with this big central incident that drives the story, the bulk of the novel is ultimately about fitting in and being accepted. Ty's life is complicated by having to move to a new area and live as someone else. This gives David lots of scope to explore 'normal' teen stuff like negotiating friendships and romantic/sexual feelings, together with all that angst about who or what is 'cool'.

The novel deals with the important issue of knife crime (as well as at least touching on other issues affecting teens, such as bullying, identity, relationships, self harm, attitudes to different kinds of families), but it isn't an 'issues' novel, it's an engaging story which happens to highlight some issues. This is the perfect way to address issues for this audience: teens (no scratch that, people) run a mile from preachy books. This novel will get them thinking because it will have first engaged them with Ty and his specific and personal situation and concerns.

This is my seventh review for the British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette.

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