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Monday, October 19, 2015

YA Review: When I Was Joe

No one probably cares what I think by now. I have had this book for seriously five years. I'm trying here, guys. I'm terrible, but I'm trying. I made a shelf on goodreads organizing my blog books, so that's cool, right? Plus, I hit my yearly reading goal and bumped it up another five books!

But let's talk about the book and not me!

When I Was Joe by Keren David

Published: Originally published August 31st, 2010 by Frances Lincoln Children's Books.
Genre: YA Thriller
Binding: Paperback
Page Count: 364 plus an except and acknowledgements
Part of a series? Yes, there are two more books "Almost True" and "Another Life".
Got via: Someone sent it to me for review. I can't remember who to save my life because it's been so long, and I, as we have previously discussed, am terrible.
Amazon / Book Depository / Indiebound

Summary (from the back of the book because the goodreads ones were too spoiler-y for me): 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.

Review: This was different than what I expected, but I quite enjoyed it. I don't read a ton of British YA, which this is. It is different than US or even Canadian YA. It is, indeed, very British. From my limited perspective, it feels very authentic to the setting. There were references and slang that I honestly did not understand because, hey, I don't live in London! Most Londoners probably don't know what bunnyhugs, toques, or double-doubles* are. Part of the charm of reading books from somewhere you don't live, right?

For me, this one was a solid read, and I think a lot of people would enjoy it as well. The witness protection angle is interesting unto itself, but I had never read, or even watched, about the British variety of witness protection. I wasn't very familiar with the British police system at all, really. Reading about something you have no experience with can be a mixed bag, but in this case, it was done well to not be confusing.

Plot Talk: I think it's pretty well explained in the summary. Ty sees someone gets killed, tells the police, and he and his mother are put into witness protection. He becomes Joe, becomes really cool and fancy and stuff, and the past catches up to him at one point. A lot of the plot is about how Joe (and that is how I will refer to him for simplicity's sake, since for most of the book he prefers that name) changes as a person, both just through natural life growth, and through his experiences being Joe.

The plot also deals with the crime aspect, obviously, but it's not quite as much as you'd think. The witness protection program is part of Joe's daily life, thoughts, and emotions, but the actual threats and stuff are fairly spaced out. I don't think it's detrimental to the plot, but sometimes I wanted more action!

Characters: I think I had some trouble connecting to the characters at time. Possibly it was because of the British thing - I know I've felt more removed from other British books. I have also never been a fourteen year old boy, so that's obviously not going to be so much a character that I relate to as much to others! I thought Joe was very authentic, though, as a fourteen year old boy, and it was really interesting that he was at times a slightly unreliable narrator, although I won't say more to avoid spoilers!

A nice touch was that the minor characters were fairly diverse. The characters especially who make up the setting, like the store (a newsagent?) that Joe and his mother live over is owned by a man named Mr. Patel speaks Urdu, which from googling makes me think he's from India or possible Pakistan. They have a Turkish kabob shop near their flat, there's a woman at a tattoo parlor near them who speaks Portuguese (Joe is very interested in languages), and Joe's best friend before they leave is mixed race. Along with that, Joe mentions several other people of colour, and several characters are disabled or have a mental illness in the book.

I don't think any of the portrayals were perfect or anything, but I think it's a lot more realistic for London to have a wide and varied population of people. While there were some things that probably could have been handled better, I recognize the attempt to diversify the cast.

Meanwhile, one thing I didn't really like was the limited number of female characters, and how most of them were negative characters. I don't think all female characters need to be amazing or anything, but several of the most prominent female characters are just... not well portrayed. Joe's mother Nicki is physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive, and neglectful of Joe's needs. Other female characters are portrayed in a way that's reflective of very negative stereotypes. My one note just says, "Not real girl friendly".

PG-13 stuff: There's a fair amount that younger or sensitive readers may struggle with. There's the obvious violence with the legal stuff, but there's also self-harm which could be triggering for many readers, physical abuse from Nicki (it only happens once or twice, but Nicki throws things at Joe and at least once slaps him), alcohol abuse. Joe also dates a girl at one point, and they get fairly physical together. He also thinks about her body in ways that are probably realistic, but are not exactly respectful (there's some slut-shaming).

Cons, complaints, bad stuff, etc.: Apparently I had some issues that had to come out! Definitely was not a huge fan of the way a lot of women were portrayed in the book. Joe mentions at point that he grew up around a lot of women and therefore claimed to be more feminist, but at the same time he had slutshaming moments, or moments where he really judged girls based on their clothing choices. There wasn't enough to balance it for me, and that kind of attitude does make me more hesitant to recommend the book.

Also, random, but Joe put on this "tough" accent when he was being intimidated or whatever, and it was spelled out phonically, basically, and it looked ridiculous. Sorry! It was just too much for me, too cheesy.

I will add here that there are a fair amount of references that could be confusing for non-Brit readers, but also could possibly date the book, like talking about celebrities like James Blunt. Some people might like that.

Cover comments: I quite like this cover! It's sort of dark and mysterious, and it definitely suits the book. There is another cover that is cool, but I don't think it fits the book as well. I also just like blue.

Conclusion: Despite the fact that I got a bit ranty, I did enjoy this one for the reasons I mentioned. I don't gender books ("boy books"), but this might be one for people who are looking for books for a male reader. YA thrillers are not something I read a ton, but I do really enjoy (I want more!). I have checked out the second one from my library, and I would love to get my hands on the third. So, this is a solid book, and if you're interested in any of the elements from this (there's also a sports angle!), then I'd say to check it out. Just be warned of the things I mentioned about the women in the book, because that definitely could turn some readers off. This one is going to get three roses from me.

Other notes:

- Thanks, Buzzfeed, for the help with the Canadian slang when I blanked on examples for my clever little paragraph.

Peace and cookies,

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