Amazon Vine sent me The Private Blog of Joe Cowley: Return of the Geek by Ben Davis, in exchange for my honest opinion of it. I chose it because I had already read the first volume of this series: The Private Blog of Joe Cowley, a few years ago. I had been ambivalent about it, finding parts of it excellent, and other parts slightly derivative. I was interested to see how Ben Davis developed the character and whether I felt the style and content of the writing had improved.
I think it is important with new writers, where you see potential, that you don’t write them off straightaway. It often takes time for writers to find their voice. I am thinking specifically of writers like Terry Pratchett, who most people agree didn’t really hit stride until he was into the fourth of his Discworld books, or Ian Rankin the crime novelist, whose early Rebus novels are not a patch on what they developed into. With them, and plenty of other writers, you may see snatches of brilliance, gleams of the treasure they will one day consistently write, and you need to persevere with them. A bit of patience and persistence really pays off.
Ben Davis, I think, is getting there with these books. I think the characters need to have more depth and I want to see more of a balance between the serious and hilarious side of Joe’s life so you feel that he is more ‘real’, but I do think the writing has improved since the first volume.
Davis has chosen a tricky genre. The blog label is a bit of a misnomer to be honest, and I think, as a blog writer of many years standing, that this would have been better labelled as a ‘diary’, which is effectively what it is. There is no sense, as there would be in a true blog ‘spoof’ of any feeling that Joe is writing for a wider audience, or that he has an audience or commenters. I know that this has been taken care of with the word ‘private’ inserted into the title, but it didn’t ring true for me. The ‘computerised’ font for some of the page details didn’t really work, and the caricatures which litter the book would probably not be in a blog, and seem to be there as some kind of derivative nod to Wimpy Kid, which is not needed in my opinion. This is a Teen book. It doesn’t need the illustrations.
I admit that these are nit picking criticisms, and I suspect the blog title was chosen to try and move the author away from the diary genre, where you have the stiff competition of Adrian Mole, Wimpy Kid and Tom Gates vying for your attention on the male diarist side, along with Rachel Riley and Georgia Nicholson on the girls’ side.
The story is written from the perspective of teenager Joe Cowley. His life is chaos. His mother is now pregnant with twins. His step father is the father of the boy who used to bully him at school, and who he now has to share a bedroom with. His grandmother is slightly senile and living at home, and he is still a Star Trek worshipping geek.
The only thing in Joe’s life that can be said to be going well is his relationship with his girlfriend, Natalie. Joe cannot quite believe his luck as far as Natalie is concerned, and it seems that no matter what weird things he does or says, or even when his new braces get caught in her lip piercing, she still loves him.
This is fine until Joe has to meet Natalie’s parents who loathe him on sight. Natalie’s dad has his sights set on his daughter being with Seb, the son of the local MP. Seb drives a gold jaguar to school. Seb is Natalie’s dad’s protege, and even though Natalie hates him, Natalie’s dad is undeterred in his efforts to break Joe and Natalie up on Seb’s behalf.
The rest of the book focuses on Joe’s efforts to make things right with Natalie and her dad and undermine Seb at every opportunity.
The book is, at times, very funny. The episode where Joe and Natalie literally lock lips springs to mind in particular, although my age is showing as I thought immediately about Adrian Mole sticking his nose to an Airfix model in correlation. There are also some splendid scenes where Joe tries to break in to Natalie’s house, and Joe’s run ins at school with his nemesis PE teacher.
There are also times when it is quite touching and we see a softer, more realistic side to Joe and his friends than the cartoonish characters they sometimes become.
The style is still rather choppy. I think this is down in large part to the two pretend drivers of Joe’s unconscious, who get a lot of page time, and don’t really add a lot to the plot. I think they would be better if they were ruthlessly edited, or just left out completely.
The characters are becoming bedded in on this second outing, and I particularly liked the character of Ad. His stay in hospital was handled beautifully and really gave an interesting twist to what sometimes descends into a mere foil for Joe.
I think it’s great that there is a diarised hero for boys who isn’t designed for primary aged kids like Wimpy Kid and Tom Gates. This is definitely not that. Like Rachel Riley this is absolutely a book for teens. There are plenty of sex jokes, innuendo, drinking and other things that mean that I can only really recommend this book for 12 and up, possibly older. I think that Joe’s character is such a sympathetic one that even though he is supposed to represent the thoughts of teenage boys, he would work well as a character girls can relate to as well.
I will definitely be reading the third volume when it comes along.