Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Road of the Dead by Kevin Brooks

The thing I love most about reviewing books on VL is the freedom to write anything I like.  My feeling is that a review that comes from a real person, someone you’re beginning to know a few things about, rather than just a name at the top of the page, is more compelling.  And this is where we bloggers have the upper hand.  With this in mind…

 Today, I want to share my thoughts on The Road of the Dead by Kevin Brooks.  I was initially drawn to this book when I discovered it has a character named Cole.  I have an eight year old called Cole, a somewhat unusual name, so unusual that you can’t get pens or key rings or mugs or those signs you hang on doors saying “Cole’s Room”.  (This was something I hadn’t considered when naming my child – and it does become an issue when you’re wasting hours in an airport shop or have pocket money to spend in Woolworths.)  Anyway, after reading The Road of the Dead, I discovered this book is absolutely not suitable for an eight year old, so it shall be put away until he’s older – bummer!

The Road of the Dead is a gripping murder mystery, very dark and in some places extremely violent.  Reuben and Cole are half-gypsies living in London.  Their sister is brutally raped and murdered in a small village on Dartmoor, the police are slow to investigate and their mother can’t bury her daughter until the case is solved.

The main character, fourteen year old Reuben has the gift of second sight, he “saw” his sister being killed and he knows the Dead Man did it. Reuben is introspective, questioning, a deep thinker with reasoned actions and sensible decisions.  Cole on the other hand…

 I looked at his face.  I like looking at his face.  It’s a good face to look at – seventeen years old, dark-eyed and steady and pure.  It’s the kind of face that does what it says.  The face of a devil’s angel.

 Cole and Reuben travel to Lychcombe to bring their sister back.  They’re met with a closed community; resistant, aggressive, hostile.  The landscape is bleak and dark, the weather is cold and miserable and the people are just downright nasty.  But through all of this is a sense of hope that kept me turning the pages at a furious rate.  I was willing these boys to triumph, to solve this unspeakable murder and to bring the complete bastard perpetrators to justice.

The brutality throughout this book was graphically drawn, Brooks pulled no punches.  But all of it was within context and he deftly drew out the characteristics of the various shades of nutters that roam this planet.  And I feel that violence should be shared with teenagers in a realistic way.  There’s no point in having someone beaten to a pulp off screen and then have them coming bouncing back on as though nothing had happened.  Show them the pain, the agony, the suffering.  Show them the full horrors of what it feels like to be mashed to within and inch of your life.  Maybe they’ll learn something.

There was a knot-hole in one of the floorboards – an odd little oval shape with intriguingly slanted sides – and that was my sanctuary.  That was where I was nothing.  Deep in the hole.  Lost in the dark.  Being nothing.  Riding the pain.

When Red grabbed my hair and slammed my head back against the post, I still didn’t feel anything, but this time – when my head rolled back – I couldn’t get back to my hole.  Red was keeping hold of my hair, forcing my head back, shoving his face into mine.  Making me look at him.  I closed my eyes I could feel his sour breath scouring my skin.

‘Open your eyes,’ he hissed. ‘Look at me.’

I imagined my hole.  My sanctuary.

A flick knife snapped.  Cold steel pricked the skin of my eyelid.

‘Open them or lose them,’ Red said.

The writing, as ever for Brooks was magnificent.  There were times at which I had to stop and marvel and then try to forget I was a writer and just get on and read the story. 

Cole nods.  He likes the old man now.  He likes his simplicity.  He likes his cheap cigars. And he likes his niece, too – if that’s what she is.  Cole somehow doubts it.  Not that it matters.  He doesn’t care who or what she is – he just likes her. I can feel the attraction tingling in his veins like electric blood.

I can feel his uncertainty too.  He isn’t used to liking things, and he isn’t sure what to do about it.

‘I need some air,’ he says to Jess. ‘Can we go for a walk or something?’

The way Brooks uses Reuben’s ability to feel his way into others thoughts and experiences is superb.  It not only takes us out of the perspective of the MC to see things he shouldn’t be able to and therefore gives the reader much more information but it underlines Reuben’s empathic nature and makes us care about these kids so much more.

So, this certainly isn’t the book for the little boy named Cole I had first hoped it might be.  But in a few years time, I shall dust it off and present it to him, in triumph – although by then, it’ll no longer matter that there’s at last something with his name on it.  But I know he’ll love the The Road of the Dead nonetheless.

(Oh and P.S. in case you’re wondering – my Cole is nothing like the Cole in the book.  My Cole is like Reuben and I had to triple check this review to make sure I hadn’t got the names mixed up!)

The Book Depository have several more Reviews.

About Eve Harvey

Eve Harvey is a bookaholic. She is forever to be found with her nose in a book. If there are none around then newspapers, magazines, the back of cereal packets, road signs or the tiny washing labels found on the seams of jumpers will do. Eve used to have full time job as a children's bookseller and she was the very first Waterstone's Children's Expert Bookseller in Scotland. Her first love was definitely literature for children and teens, about which she has nerd-level knowledge. However she has since become involved in grown-up books and has co-written her first adult novel with Cath Murphy. Eve and Cath Podcast, blog and have far too much fun on their website Domestic Hell. Eve lives in a field just outside Edinburgh in Scotland with her daughter and son and two dogs and two rabbits. She also has some tanks of tropical fish and vows one day to start up a marine aquarium. And the day she signs her very first publishing deal she is going to celebrate by buying a pair of Horsefields tortoises. You can find Eve through her Agent, Ella Kahn at DKW Literary Agency. She's also on Twitter or on her website :

19 comments on “The Road of the Dead by Kevin Brooks

  1. Luisa
    June 28, 2008

    Brilliant review – and fascinating to hear that your Cole is like Reuben.

  2. Moira
    June 28, 2008

    It’s not the sort of thing I was reading as a Young Adult … but then we were still called teenagers at the time, and I recall being heavily into ‘Follyfoot’ … so I probably wasn’t a prime candidate anyway.

    I agree completely about violence – if it must be portrayed – being portrayed realistically. When you hit someone over the head with a heavy object, they’re likely to suffer a skull fracture, not blink for a moment, shake their head and carry on heroically.

    Not too sure I’d be willing to let a child of mine read this, however, until he or she was fairly well advanced in years …

  3. marygm
    June 28, 2008

    Good review that gives a very clear idea of the book. I’m not sure about how much violence is OK for children but I presume it varies from child to child. I know my ten year old wouldn’t want to read something like this but then I’m a bit squeamish too. 🙂

  4. Jackie
    June 29, 2008

    Oh dear, I wouldn’t be able to read this book as an adult, much less a teen. I was into S.E. Hinton and Paul Zindel at that tender age.
    I can see why you like the style, because I do get a strong sense of character in the bits you posted, especially the part about the old man & his niece. I like the phrase “electric blood”, that IS how it feels when you’re attracted to someone.

  5. Moira
    June 29, 2008

    Yes, judging from the extracts, it is beautifully written – if ‘beautiful’ is quite the right word …

  6. Lee
    June 29, 2008

    I disagree about brilliant writing. In fact, Brooks is one of those writers whose early promise seems to diasppoint. There is an essential underlying sameness to his characters from book to book, despite superficial differences, which leads me to suspect that Brooks doesn’t think deeply about them, and they often drone on and on and on in interior monologues which becomes tedious after a while.

  7. Lee
    June 29, 2008

    @Jackie: ‘electric blood’ is exactly what I don’t like – trite.

  8. Lisa
    June 29, 2008

    This sounds intense, Eve. “Their sister is brutally raped and murdered in a small village on Dartmoor, the police are slow to investigate and their mother can’t bury her daughter until the case is solved.” It sounds fraught with tension and anxiety. I know we’ve talked about age banding here, and whether we think it’s a good thing, but this made me think about that. What sort of age group do you think this is aimed at?

  9. Eve
    June 29, 2008

    Thanks everyone – this was a gritty read, but well worth it for the excitement factor.

    Lee, I have to disagree with you (isn’t it great how subjective this writing stuff is?!) I think the writing is fabulous. And yes, I suppose Brooks does write about similar types of characters but I like that factor. I like that I know what to expect when I pick up one of his books, it’s a familiarity that I slip into and that I enjoy. On this point actually, I’m going to review a book next week by Anthony McGowan (The Knife that Killed Me) which is a very different book from the previous two and I was jolted by that. I loved it… but it wasn’t what I had expected and it didn’t have that familiarity that I was looking for. So I guess I’m one of those people who like to pick up a book and know what to expect.

    Lisa, I would think this is certainly a teen book judging by the graphic violence, but the MC is fourteen and from what we’re told kids don’t like to read about characters who are younger than them (so that throws that “rule” out the window!). But I have read parts out to my Cole who is 8 (carefully selected parts I should add!) but if he picked it up and read it himself, I wouldn’t stop him. I’m sure he would stop if he didn’t like what he was reading. I read Stephen King when I was ten and it did me no harm. If he can be bothered reading it, then I’m not going to say no.

  10. clom
    July 1, 2008

    Great review Eve. I really enjoyed the book. Brooks does repeat himself in terms of characterisation but he’s got a really arresting turn of phrase and a great way with plot.

    I’ve found that the reputation precedes somewhat and adults tend to clam up a little when I suggest it for some kids. This is something that comes up when working directly with vulnerable young people and the people who look after them, decisions are frequently made as to what they can “handle” which perpetuates their view of books as being “not for them”.

    There was an interesting Guardian blog last week about the importance of young people to select their own material. This blog really resonated with my experience of encouraging reading and books to excluded kids and the necessity to allow them to “drive”.

    Looking forward to the McGowan review, both McGowan and Brooks are doing a talk about addressing grown up themes in young adult literature in the Book Festival this year. It’s an interesting argument in that there’s no clear answer but contributes to an interesting discussion.

  11. clom
    July 1, 2008

    The first line of that second paragraph should read “the books’ reputation precedes it somewhat”.
    It was truncated due to anxiety as to placement of an apostrophe and never completed.
    This may have something to do with excessive mid-morning coffee consumption.
    Or is just another manifestation of a lack of discipline on my part!

  12. Moira
    July 1, 2008

    Apostrophe anxiety, heh, clom? :mrgreen:

  13. clom
    July 1, 2008

    It’s important to categorise all anxieties, that way they appear surmountable!

    Other related subcategories include
    Anxiety: Orthographic,
    Anxiety: Grammatical,
    Anxiety: Syntactic,
    and the dreaded;
    Anxiety: Colonic (which can itself be divided into the Semi and Full categories)

  14. Lee
    July 1, 2008


    ‘Brooks does repeat himself in terms of characterisation but he’s got a really arresting turn of phrase and a great way with plot.’

    I agree that there are times when Brooks’s turn of phrase is good – hence my interest in his work – but equally as many, if not more, when they are banal. Here are some examples, chosen pretty much at random:

    ‘There was a long way to go yet, but the fuse was already burning.’
    ‘The only spectres plaguing Abby were her own.’
    ‘It was like walking through the belly of an ancient cathedral.’ [‘belly’ is the wrong register, and comparing a forest to a cathedral has been done and done and done yet again.]

    His plots are sometimes thrilling, sometimes way over the top and unconvincing. But to my mind, one of his worst faults again lies in characterisation – his bad guys are just so thoroughly bad that it becomes hard to believe in them; they become almost self-parody. And in The Road of the Dead what I really miss is a genuine sense of travellers, of their lives.

    I often think, with admittedly no justification at all except instinct, that Brooks is one of those writers with tremendous talent who is being spoilt by his success and the pressure to produce a book a year. And he needs a better -stricter – editor.

  15. Lee
    July 1, 2008


    Perhaps I should add that I read YA literature as literature and will not make any compromises. Therefore I compare to those who in my view are our very best writers – Hilary Mantel has a wonderful ‘turn of phrase’, as you put it, for example, or Andre Aciman, Colm Toibin, Alan Hollinghurst. Not to maintain these critical standards is to denigrate the YA field.

    So you see where I’m coming from …

  16. clom
    July 2, 2008

    That’s a laudable viewpoint. It’s not one that I can enthusiastically embrace though. There are some very exciting YA literature writers and an array of excellent books which are suitable for YA’s of all ages and abilities but I get the sense that there is a schism between YA “Literature” and YA “Books” that creates unhelpful categorisation of readers. Readers that can’t don’t have the confidence to open a 200+ page novel aren’t able (or don’t feel able) to engage with the “Literature” end of the YA field.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to hold them up to the same criteria of assessment as all books (literature, genre, whatever) because every book we read is different. Is fantastic prose all we want or do we want other elements? There is no single purpose to reading, which is the pleasure of it.

    I appreciate you don’t want to comprimise on quality of writing and that YA are entitled to quality as much as anyone else. But YA’s themselves read based on a variety of criteria often varying from one to the other. The real challenge for me is in engaging YA’s in reading doesn’t come at the prestige end of the YA market, it comes in trying to get kids who don’t consider themselves readers to pick up a book.

    Good storytelling is a “hook” as is a degree of familiarity. Brooks is one of those authors who is able to write vividly about the real world and that’s something that engages people whatever age they are.

    I hope people don’t think I’m denigrating the YA field, there are some fantastic writers in the field who are the equal of anyone in the “grown up” world. I’m happy for anyone to pick me up on any bobbles in my woolly thinking!

    This is an interesting discussion and I’m really looking forward to the next few days articles!

  17. Lee
    July 2, 2008

    Yes, Clom, I certainly understand your viewpoint and of course agree that not only are there all sorts of readers, but each of us reads for all sorts of different purposes. Still, I think there is place for rigorous literary criticism in the YA field. I’m not saying it’s the only way to discuss these books – it’s just the way I care to, feeling as I do that it adds (hopefully? ideally?) depth and understanding to our reading.

  18. clom
    July 2, 2008

    It does absolutely!

    I think kids should be encouraged to think critically about all artforms.

    Unfortunately many adults seem to have the view that any form of engagement with the arts is too poncey/difficult for “most people” and wordlessly transmit this sense.

    I say this as someone who was seen as poncey/difficult throughout his time as a YA!

  19. Pingback: The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks | Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on June 28, 2008 by in Entries by Eve, Fiction: young adult and tagged , , , , , , , .



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