Thursday, 24 June 2010

Read it and weep

Everyone knows I like a good read but it’s not often I feel compelled to review a book. I knew I was going to love “Dead Boy Talking” by Linda Strachan for lots of reasons. Firstly I had enjoyed "Spider" so much that I read it without coming up for air. However, Linda Strachan’s second offering of gritty realism is something really special.
To start with there is the stunning front cover and the shocking first line that snares you from the outset - “In 25 minutes I will be dead”. But I really knew I was in trouble when I looked at the clock in the car and realised I was ten minutes late collecting my son from school. I’ve never done that before. "Dead Boy Talking" just sucked me in and before I knew it I was completely engrossed in Josh’s story. I had even shed a tear by page 34. I was still thinking about what I had read well into the evening.
The timing of my picking up this book was particularly poignant. Only last week I was told that a young boy I knew had been stabbed to death outside the school I used to teach at. He was 17. Any death of a young person is heartbreaking but when it’s as needless and violent as that it makes it all the more horrific. With it comes the death of possibility and the ripples that affect the community and the people who knew the victim. Sadly, knife crime is an aspect of youth culture that continues to shock and upset us on a daily basis and one that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in a hurry. That’s what makes “Dead Boy Talking” such an important book. Not only does it open up dialogue about knife crime and gang culture but it also shows us the devastating consequences that carrying a knife can have on both the victim and the perpetrator (Josh is both which gives the story an interesting and unique angle). Every secondary school pupil should read “Dead Boy Talking”. In fact, come to think of it every teacher and parent should read it too. I wish I had had access to books like this when I was at school and I will certainly be putting this on my son’s bookshelf for him to read when the time is right.
Josh's story is a stark reminder of how flimsy the wall can be between friendship and betrayal, how our actions affect others and how easy it can be to take the wrong path. Just as she managed to achieve with "Spider" Linda Strachan allows us to see the bigger picture, snapshots of the events which have brought Josh to this terrible and hopeless point. She reminds us that nothing is ever as black and white as it seems, that there are reasons people behave the way they do even when their actions are abhorrent. Despite the fact that Josh has made a terrible mistake we still feel sympathy for him. I desperately wanted this book to have a happy ending.
I have had the pleasure of meeting Linda a few times and she doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who would have had much experience of knife crime. And yet she manages to capture the emotions, dilemmas and stark choices of teenagers in a way that is authentic and non-patronising. Young people would see straight through any pretence and so it’s great to see there isn’t any in this story. Throughout, Strachan manages to convey a feeling of dread and terror without stepping into unrealistic territory. In fact it is the haunting realism that makes this story so gripping. I was constantly reminded that this could happen to anyone.
The parts of the story where we see Josh lying waiting to die are harrowing, shocking and deeply moving. We are privy to Josh’s thoughts and regrets - “Typical I would only start to understand now it’s too late”. I actually had butterflies in my stomach as the clock ticked down, such was my terror at losing him. 24 minutes…19 minutes…10...3.. The thing that Linda Strachan does so well here is to make it feel like we are standing watching Josh and yet helpless to do anything about it. The mother in me wanted to reach in and scoop him off the ground, to comfort him, help him and ultimately save him. Not being able to do that only added to the heart hammering tension and horror of the story.
"Dead Boy Talking" is not an easy read. There were moments where my stomach clenched so badly I had to put the book down and take a break. I hope that this book takes other people out of their comfort zone too and prompts them to ask important questions and explore the reasons why some young people resort to carrying knives - a deep seated need to belong/"for show and to ward off trouble”. The story of how Josh is dragged into using a knife on his friend is gripping but the most frightening part is how easy it is for him to find himself in the situation. As a mother I was forced to contemplate how my own son might deal with the same pressures and choices both Josh and his friend Ranj faced. Strachan’s characters are always solid and credible. She has a knack of understanding the teenage psyche and tackles the consequences of carrying knives without being sanctimonious or patronising. Although we kind of know how this book is going to end that in no way reduces the value or importance of Josh’s story. As always, Linda Strachan manages to pull in the reader with her masterful writing and some of the most disturbingly precise descriptions I have ever read in a teenage novel. I was completely riveted right up until the heart-wrenchingly poignant finale.
If there’s any justice in the world this book will win Linda Strachan a whole heap of awards as well as a team of devoted fans. My advice? Put aside a day to read this. And don’t forget the tissues.


  1. Thank you Hazel- What a great review, Apologies for making you late for your son at school, and for making you cry!

  2. It was worth being late and don't worry about making me cry, I love a good bawl!!
    Linda, Dead Boy Talking deserves all the good things that are coming to it.
    Hope to see you soon