What counts as ‘contemporary fiction’? Is it fiction written over the last couple of years or is it fiction set in the here and now? I suspect it is the latter with the proviso that it is also quite serious stuff about heavy issues. Whatever it is, I seem to have been reading a lot of it recently.
I finished Keren David’s debut YA novel ‘When I was Joe’ midweek. This book has done really well – it made it to the Carnegie longlist and won the North East Book Award earlier this year.
It’s about a 14-year old boy called Ty who witnesses a murder. He gives a statement to the police naming the killer and that results in him and his mother being taken into the witness protection programme. They are moved out of London and given a new identity. Ty becomes Joe; his hair is dyed, his clothes are changed and even the colour of his eyes are disguised by contact lenses. After a period of adjustment Ty quite likes being Joe. Joe is a much sharper, more popular kid than Ty ever was. He’s a hit with the girls, a star athlete and all-round ‘dude’. He is also a flawed character, difficult to like at times.
When I Was Joe is tightly written. We share the claustrophobia of the hotel rooms mother and son secreted in, the tension and the constant fear of discovery. The bickering between Joe and his young, single mum Nic, resentful at having to give up her college course, rings very true. As the story unfolds we learn what happens on that fateful day and how nothing is as straightforward as it seems. Is Ty/Joe as innocent as he makes out?
Beware if you do read When I Was Joe. It is only the first part and there is no resolution at the end. The sequel Almost True is out now and I’m going to have to hunt it down to find out what happens next.
I followed When I Was Joe by reading Jacqueline Wilson’s The Diamond Girls. Blimey, she knows how to write a flaky and feckless mother, does Wilson.
If I remember correctly Wilson wrote this story in response to the then Conservative MP Ann Widdicombe having a go at her for the two sisters in her previous book The Illustrated Mum having different fathers. In Diamond Girls Wilson doubles the tally and the four Diamond sisters have four different dads (plus another baby on the way by a fifth). In your face, Widdy!
I have to say once I got into it I quite enjoyed the Diamond Girls. Jacqueline Wilson has the knack of drawing the reader in, despite battering you with the back- story in one big lump at the beginning. Her stories bounce along at a rate of knots and all four girls’ very different personalities clawed at each other (sometimes literally) for attention.
Not surprisingly Diamond Girls isn’t to everybody’s taste. I came across this interesting perspective from a young reader on her blogspot about the Wilson genre: http://dragonflybookreviews.blogspot.com/2008/10/diamond-girls.html
However, Jacqueline Wilson’s popularity shows no sign of fading. She is even having her own festival in October. Wow! That’s when you know you’ve made it when you get your own festival. None of that stage-sharing business. Well done to her I say. She has worked hard for years and deserves her success.
While Wilson doesn’t pull any punches the book I’ve borrowed from the library and am reading now goes much further. Jo Kendrick’s Screwed is a Dangerous Liaisons for teens and the female equivalent of Melvin Burgess’ Doing It’. Marsha and Faith are 15 and in a race to see who can sleep with the most boys. I say sleep – we’re talking about cold encounters that barely last two minutes. Marsha, the narrator, reveals early on why they are so promiscuous but the reasons didn’t gain them much sympathy from me. I think this is because by the time we meet them they are hard bitten and cynical characters difficult to warm to. Like in When I Was Joe it takes a brave author to create central characters who don’t give a stuff about anyone and Kendrick has been very brave here. She must have known Screwed’s content would give half the school librarians in the UK a heart attack. Despite italicising the sex scenes they’re as graphic as anything I’ve come across in YA or adult fiction. As I read them I kept thinking to the bits of my teen books my editor made me tone down and how mild they seem in comparison. Kendrick’s editor must be made of sterner stuff! But what redeems the book is that it tells the truth. For some young girls, this is how it is, this is how they feel, this is all they know and this is how they behave. The dialogue is spot-on, the fractured relationships with parents keenly observed and the sex scenes don’t titillate – they make you cringe. Screwed would be an excellent class reader for Y9/10 kids as a basis for frank and honest discussions on sex and relationships. A ‘how not to’ guide. By the end of the book Marsha learns to like herself more and with that, the reader likes her more.