Friday, 1 May 2015

When Mr Dog Bites – Carnegie Shadowing – review

This was the book I was really looking forward to reading for our shadowing for two main reasons – it seems to have been the one this year that has got everyone talking (and I always like to read books people are talking about).

Plus it had very high billing as a ‘Curious Incident’ for Tourette’s, which sounded very intriguing (if not extremely difficult to live up to).

Any award should include books interesting enough to get people talking, and this book has been controversial enough to make headlines. 

If you’ve already heard about this book you will probably know one thing about it – it is full of swearing.

So the question I really wanted to address was – was it on the list mainly as a book that would get children talking? Is it good enough across all areas for me to want it to win?

The concept of the book is that the main character, Dylan Mint (great name), has a very rare type of Tourettes that means whenever he is stressed he can’t stop himself verbally insulting people.

By far the best thing about the book is the really deep way that the reader engages with Dylan and his condition. You really feel for Dylan as he can’t help just going around being incredibly offensive, which, inevitably, causes lots of problems. 

It's an incredibly compassionate book that is presented in a fun and funky way rather than an overly emotional one, so will appeal to a different group of readers. Diversity and inclusiveness always get a big thumbs up from me.

Dylan is sixteen, but does have a very naive view of the world, which definitely makes the reader feel that as well as having Tourettes (basically a genetic illness of the nervous system which means the body tics and jerks) that he is in some way not fully developed mentally as a sixteen year old (is this part of Tourettes?). Not sure. Ultimately it's not really a story about Tourette's very much.

Dylan is trying to make sense of the world and care for his friends and his family. But he's a teenage boy, so he doesn't always do it in ways you might expect. His close relationship with buddy Amir is very touching.

Dylan has a close and warm relationship with his mum (his Dad is away in the army). They spend evenings together; he makes her soup, they comfortably share tv viewing. He misses his dad. Then Dylan accidentally overhears something he shouldn’t – he believes he has learned he has only months to live.

Having set up a great relationship between Dylan and his mum, you can't help but wonder why would he not want to talk to her about his imminent demise?

Knowing he will die, Dylan declares an intention of having sex, picking on a girl to whom he is mostly attracted by her trendy, branded clothing and accessories.

I liked this point and thought it skilfully made as the world is seen through Dylan’s eyes and he constantly wants people to see beyond his exterior (and that of his best mate, who suffers racist abuse rather than abuse about his disability).

The fact that Dylan himself makes many surface judgements about people was cleverly done.

The most touching scene in the book I felt, was where he discovers that he has learned to care for the girl, for who she is, flaws and all. As a book about love among disabled teenagers, the book was terrific. The disco scene is truly hilarious and the quality of the writing really shone here.

There were a lot of sub-plots. A lot. All of which were trying to tackle big issues and the book felt somewhat overloaded and relied heavily on plot devices and twists. 

There is a plot twist at the end where Dylan learns he won't die. (Mum and the doctor were actually talking about the fact that Dylan has a new baby sibling on the way.) Why the secrecy? Why does Mum not make any effort to try to prepare Dylan as much as possible for the arrival of babies into the house? 

We discover Dylan’s dad was an alcoholic, was booted out of the army, became a violent armed robber and was repeatedly violent towards Dylan’s mum and is actually in jail. I did struggle to reconcile the considerate and thoughtful Dylan, with someone who didn’t notice his mother was a victim of repeated extreme violence. 

The final twist is where Dylan’s Tourette’s symptoms are dealt with by Dylan being offered a miracle cure.

One of the best things about stories is their ability to allow you to step into someone else’s shoes.

And this is a very good book for that. 

The book is big on its ability for the reader to get under Dylan’s skin, but a bit light in its ambition in terms of dealing with some of its plot issues with the depth given to other parts of the book.


You can’t discuss Mr Dog without discussing the swearing. At the start, Dylan’s swearing is mostly done with very good comic effect. Words are said unintentionally and without malice, although the words themselves are profuse and offensive, It does mean it is not a book you would recommend for some readers who would very probably otherwise enjoy it.

Not only does Dylan’s internal monologue and his dialogue start to be littered with swearing, all the children use foul language and are frequently vilely abusive to each other. Yet none of the adults ever swear.

In the end it was in danger of feeling more like a book about swearing than it did about anything else, but I was actually left feeling confused what the book was trying to say about swearing.

Author Brian Conaghan has set himself quite a challenge and he pulls off an appealing story for older teenagers about disability that is actually funny more often than grim.

Dylan is a warm and quirky character and the story of adolescent friendship and first love among the disabled made this, ultimately, an uplifting read.

There is lots here that is worthy of plenty of classroom and bookgroup discussion - absolutely a book that should and will get people talking. And I am always in support of‘difficult’ books – where would we be if everyone jumped on band-wagons and shied away from anything challenging or experimental?

For me, it would actually have been a whole lot better without half so much swearing.

My overall feeling is that ‘Mr Dog’ suffers from too many flaws for me to really have it as one of my ‘great’ books.

We asked author Brian Conaghan the question: ‘What is your favourite thing about your shortlisted book?’

"The favourite thing about my book is the friendship that exists between Dylan and Amir, it demonstrates how important having trusted and loyal friends around helps shape the person both boys become."

Many thanks to Brian - and we wish him very good luck with his original, heart-warming and thought-provoking book.

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