Friday 11 January 2013

YA REVIEW: 'When I Was Joe', Keren David (Frances Lincoln 2011)

When East London teenager Ty becomes embroiled in a fatal stabbing, the nature of his evidence means Ty and his mum are forced to go into witness protection and assume new identities, leaving behind their close-knit family. But as 'Joe', Ty manages to turn around this bleak situation and become the teenager that he always wanted to be, but at what price?

"Its lucky that I'm not doing feelings at the moment, because if I was, I might be pretty scared."

This book was not in the least bit what I expected, yet everything I expected it to be. 

When I Was Joe (When I Was Joe, #1)First off, apologies for that opening sentence, but I couldn't really come up with another way to describe it. I expected a rather raw coming of age tale and that's exactly what I got. I expected a few lessons learnt, a few heart strings pulled, a few scrapes along the way. And, again, that is what I got. If perhaps you multiplied this by a few thousand and then some...

One of the things I love about good YA is the messy factor. Not everything is black and white, not everyone is good or bad. Even the most well-intentioned folk make colossal mistakes. And it is for all these messy reasons that I loved When I Was Joe. The good guys aren't always necessarily good, they sometimes want the wrong people, and even the right people aren't always the most clued up or have their best interests at heart. 

I think super-charged coming-of-age tale might be the best way to describe this. Ty is going through all the changes that a lot of teenage boys experience, but he just happens to be pursued by violent criminals at the same time. Which makes everything just that little bit more complicated. And scary. Keren David handles the lightening pace magnificently, with intense events and emotions skirting across the page and tightening the tension. I don't think I've read a book recently that zipped through at such a pace. I have to admit, I was a bit wary at the start, especially when Ty was talent-spotted as a promising athlete in a few pages, but I quickly realised that this story had a lot more elements than I had originally suspected. Keeping Ty's voice consistent and strong is key in all of this and that proves another success. The delicate balance between the frightened Ty and his new persona of Joe, with his bravado and swagger is masterfully done.

"Ever since Mr Naylor made me apologise to Carl I've known I must say sorry to Claire for hurting her and scaring her. Only then will I be able to forgive Joe."

Not only is this character driven, but it has a tense plot with a few genuinely scary moments, complete with a carefully drawn out and intriguing mystery that Ty only reveals in bits and pieces. This is jammed packed full of different characters, with some faring better than others. Ty's relationship with his coach Ellie, started out as very intriguing, but seemed to get lost as the plot powered on. On the other hand, I loved the way the character of Claire was handled. It wasn't a cliched 'it's what's underneath that counts' love story and was all the better for it.

Which brings me onto what I enjoyed most about this book. I never forgot that these characters were teenagers. I know this sounds like rather an obvious statement for a YA book, but sometimes you get kids spouting rather pretentious nonsense that makes me want to throw things. But these teenagers make immature and impulsive decisions and don't always do sensible things. Like a lot of teenagers (and quite a few adults). Which is how it should be.

And an example of one of those mistakes that are made...

"It's safest to stay at home and watch Cash in the Attic."

Ty, Cash in the Attic is never the answer...


  1. Yay! Lovely review Anna, I am so glad you loved this. I love the 'messy' factor too - that's what makes YA books brilliant!

    1. Thanks lovely!It was quite refreshing to read such a fast-paced contemporary. I've nearly finished Almost True, so I'll post a review of this next week.

  2. Oh I really loved this book! Great review, I love the authentic teen voices in this book as well. Plus, the humour in it. There was something said about a Kanye West song that still makes me laugh when I think about it :)

  3. Yes! The humour! I highlighted that Kanye West quote on my Kindle :)

  4. Argh, I keep seeing great reviews of this book.. I really need to read it. Love this review :)