Sunday, August 30, 2020

Secrets by Jacqueline Wilson

In Secrets we have the stories of Treasure and India via their diary entries.
Secrets opens violently with Terry, Treasure’s step-father, taking off his belt to her and thrashing her. Just before he starts hitting her, he has torn pages from her diary; she had invented all sorts of elaborate torture methods for him. Terry’s violence has been ongoing for some time and not just towards Treasure.
Even before Terry came on to the scene life with just Mum had not been good. Treasure’s mother had no time for her when she was little. Treasure generally has low self-esteem.        
India’s father is different form Terry. He isn’t violent but is constantly under stress because of his work. He has little time for India. He also has affairs with the string of au pairs that come to look after India. He is plagued by constant money worries. Eventually he embezzles the company he works for. Her mum isn’t all that much of a mother, either. She is obsessed with dieting and puts pressure on India to lose weight. Perhaps the ultimate problem in the relationship between India and her children’s clothes designer mother is that she hates the clothes her mother designs. They are too small, bright and sparkly. Similarly, a friend of her mother’s has written a book about diets for intelligent children.  Her own intelligent son remains fat and refuses to go on the diet described in the book. It is likely also that India’s mum is anorexic.
India is desperately lonely and has difficulty making friends. She envies Anne Frank who had a lot of friends before she went into hiding. India hides within the house for two hours and no one notices.       
Wilson takes a risk in being explicit about the Holocaust. In an outburst when other class members are not taking a reading of “Anne Frank’s Diary” seriously India gives us a graphic description of what the concentration camps were like.
The two girls live on separate estates. Treasure is on the very bleak and tough Latimer estate. India lives on the luxury complex of Parkfield Manor. The two groups of residents gaze at each other xenophobically. We have the beginnings of a dystopia. The girls’ first meeting is tentative.                
There is some mitigation in that Treasure’s grandmother cares for her and even step-sister Bethany is kind when Treasure has to leave; she gives her a designer T-shirt that she had previously guarded jealously. Treasure finds a good family situation with her grandmother, child-aunt Patsy and her cousin Loretta’s baby, Britney. Life is comfortable with Nan, but she cannot quite forget the horrors of her life with Terry. However, her mother is adamant she should return; she needs help with the younger children. Eventually her mother and stepfather threaten them with social services; Nan’s partner Pete will be coming out of prison soon. However, Treasure eventually gets her wish and is allowed to live with her grandmother. But she is torn; she still loves her mother and will miss her.        
When India and Treasure first meet, they are initially wary of each other but they have the courage to talk it out. They speak and listen to each other. Wilson thus gives her readers some hope that conflict can be resolved. In the end, India manages to stand up to her mother.   
There is an ironic twist in this story that makes it even darker. “Mumbly Michael”, Nan’s neighbour with special needs is accused of murdering Treasure.
As ever, Wilson skillfully gets rid of the grown-ups. 

Scorpia by Anthony Horowitz

2015, first published 2004  

This is the fifth of the Alex Rider books. Alex goes over to the dark side. He joins the Scorpia agency which specialises in contract killing and other dark actions.  He has found out that his father used to work for this agency and was killed whilst in service.

However, all is not how it seems. By the end of the book he finds out the full truth about his father and mother.  

Although only a few months have gone by within the books, Alex has matured much in that time and the reader perhaps even more so.  As well as being fast-paced the book deals with some complex emotional issues. Alex wants to know more about his parents. We also see him a little closer to Jack, his young guardian.  

There is a huge cliff-hanger at the end of the story.  Is this the end of Alex? Well we know that it is not as there are another five books.  However, when this book first came out the ending must have been shocking for fans.  For the current reader, the ending just invites us to read the next book so that we can see how Alex gets out of this situation.   

The book is 362 pages long, - considerably longer than earlier books - with blocked text and an adult but simple font. The chapters are a quite long.  There are no illustrations.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Tracey Beaker Trilogy by Jacqueline Wilson

For all Tracy Beaker fans this volume combines three of Tracy’s best-loved stories:  The Story of Tracy Beaker, Starring Tracy  Beaker and The Dare Game.  
Tracy Beaker has become one of Wilson’s iconic characters. A television series arose from the books and another one, The Dumping Ground, followed on. The concept of The Dumping Ground is important to Tracey. It is a home for children whose parents cannot look after them. Though they are supported by caring adults, and they also support each other, the children lack the attention they would be given if they lived with their own well-functioning parents. Many of the children in the Dumping Ground are damaged and are gradually working through their issues. Tracey herself is no exception and her problems are quite severe.
At times she is exceptionally naughty and shocking to normal parents. Some Mumsnet subscribers decided to ban the TV series and the books (Mumsnet 2013). We see Tracy make many mistakes but she gradually learns to take responsibility for her actions and to control herself to the extent that in the TV series, when she grows up, she actually takes on a role as a carer at The Dumping Ground.
Tracy horrifies us at times and we may understand the Mumsnet stance. She “borrows” £10 form Cam and doesn’t see it as stealing. She also “borrows” a good pen from Cam. She fiddles with Cam’s locket that has a picture of Cam’s mother inside it. Tracy wants to put a picture of her own mother there. She manages to damage the locket in the attempt. Even worse, Tracy cannot see that she is wrong in her attitude here. She also thinks that Cam should be spending more money on her. Sadly, when Tracy’s mum does actually come back on the scene, Tracy interprets Cam’s reasoned reaction as indifference.
As Tracy packs at Cam’s place to go and spend time with her real mum, her insecurity makes her quite cruel towards Cam. However, the good life is soon over. Mum is pale and the curtains must stay shut. The house smells of cigarettes and alcohol. Though Mum has a present for Tracy she claims she is not made of money. The dream begins to break. Mum become irritated with Tracy and leaves her home alone. Later she comes back with a strange man, forgetting Tracy will be on the sofa. Tracy overhears her mum say that she is funny looking. At breakfast Mum tells her she has the chance to meet a film producer. Tracy understands that she is lying. She steals some money and runs away.              
Football dares her to take her knickers off and hang them on the fir tree outside. Sometimes the naughtiness gets out of hand.  She, Alexander and Football almost set fire to an abandoned house because they get mad as their parents don’t want them. Alexander gets hurt.                         
Tracy is frequently antagonistic towards the other children. Fellow resident Justine helps with interviewing children who live at the Dumping Ground but finds operating the tape-recorder difficult. She is scathing. She admits that she can become violent when the others tease her if she says her mum is a Hollywood star.
Tracy is acutely self-aware and presents the readers with truths that may be difficult to accommodate. Yet she continues to dream about her mum becoming rich and famous and that she will come to fetch her. She becomes so obsessive about this dream that she almost gives up good reality e.g. a trip to MacDonald’s with journalist Cam. Is Wilson warning her readers off grandiose dreams or is she suggesting a practical means of being happy? However, when Tracy “downsizes” her dream to that of Cam fostering her she encounters other obstacles. Cam claims her flat would be too small and we sense that she is not too keen on this idea.                           
There is some mitigation. When Tracy’s punishment for fighting with Justine is to clean the whole of the Dumping Ground, the others rally round had help her. She gives a marvellous interpretation of Scrooge in the Christmas play. However this is spoilt; her mother is not there. A bouquet arrives- supposedly from her mum.  Tracy complains that the writing on the card isn’t her mother’s but Cam explains how flower deliveries work. We suspect that Cam may have sent it all up. Tracy describes the miserable Christmas she would have in the Dumping Ground. She and Cam decide to join forces. Tracy does not yet realise that this is a solution that could lead to happiness. 

Eagle Strike by Anthony Horowitz

2015, first published 2003  

This is the fourth of the Alex Rider books. Alex is on holiday in France with his not-quite-girlfriend and family.  He encounters contract killer Yassen Gregorovich whom he has met before. So when an explosion happens at the holiday home Alex assumes it is caused by Yassen trying to kill him.  In fact it is aimed at Sabine’s father who has discovered some secrets about pop star Damian Gray. 

Damian Gray has a reputation for being generous and has donated millions to charity. Yet Gray has a disturbing agenda; he wishes to kill off the populations of countries that produce drugs.  He claims he is being cruel to be kind. 

In this novel Rider acts alone and MI6 becomes involved too late. 

Sabine and her family relocate to the US at the end of the novel and as Gregorovich dies he tells Rider something awful about his father’s past.    

We read a little more about Jack in this novel than in the previous ones. 

The stakes have been raised yet again.  Alex seems to be growing older with his reader.    

The book is 331 pages long, with blocked text and an adult but simple font. The chapters are quite long.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans

Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans


This is a proper book.  It has a thick spine.  It is 243 pages long. The text is blocked .  It uses a serif font and has difficult ‘a’s  and ‘g’s.   However, it does make a few concessions to the fairly new  reader:  it has short chapters,  it uses double spacing and includes some different fonts for different types of text.  The chapters are short. 
Fidge is thrown into a bizarre fantasy world with her awful cousin Graham shortly after her sister Minnie has been run over. Thus  Lissa Evans cleverly gets the adults out of the way.  Fidge grows in the other world:  she takes responsibility for Minnie’s accident.
We have a recognisable story arc: Fidge crosses the threshold, refuses the call and faces trials and enemies. 
The novel may remind us of other stories. Fidge and Graham are perhaps like Mary and Colin in Secret Garden.  It may also remind us of the Alice book; toys come to life and there is some nonsense verse. 
Pace is maintained through the short chapters, a quick exchange of dialogue, cliff hangers at the end of many chapters and plenty of action. 
It is certainly quirky.     

The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson

The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson

The first person narrative by a young girl, Dolphin, features her manic depressive mother Marigold, nicknamed "the illustrated mum" because of her many tattoos. Dolphin and her older sister Star have to be a mother to their own mother. The mother soon becomes a burden to the two girls. Not only is she bi-polar, but she doesn’t always come home at night. The girls confront a severe mental illness and have to be in charge of their own world.
We have here a first person narrative from a very young person. First person narratives are normally for teens and young adults. Even the younger child is more grown up than the mother. As Marigold gets yet another tattoo, we get a real sense of her being the child and of narrator Dolphin being the adult. Star rejects the parenting role when she and Dolphin argue about her weekend away. Finally Marigold paints her body all over with white paint in order to bury the tattoos and become a good mother. Dolphin has to cope with this on her own. As Marigold is taken away in an ambulance, she sinks further. While Marigold is in hospital Dolphin has to fend for herself and avoid social services. Marigold does come home after her birthday. She insists on making cookies for the girls. They are still more adult than her, however, as she takes a childish delight in the cookie-making endeavour and spoils at least two batches. The kitchen is a total mess.        
Marigold’s mental health problems are always a challenge: she cuts herself and gets blood-poisoning but the girls dare not take her to A & E because they are afraid she’ll be sectioned. We learn that Marigold has already been institutionalised and that it didn’t go well.
Marigold is dysfunctional in all sorts of ways. She manages money badly and we suspect she has stolen a credit card. She is often irresponsible. She insists on taking Dolphin to Brighton to look for Star’s father Micky. She has no clue as to exactly where he lives but she does know that he has a live-in girlfriend. Dolphin becomes tired and hungry as they wander around Brighton aimlessly. Dolphin cries and Marigold slaps her. Micky actually drives Star back. Marigold makes an effort to seem normal but he doesn’t give her a second glance. We feel her sadness. There is a real threat to the family unit. Micky has asked both Star and Dolphin to live with him but Dolphin wants to stay with Marigold. The reader knows that when Star goes to Micky for a second weekend she is not coming back. We suspect Marigold knows this as well and young people have to witness an adult crying. Later Marigold is in denial as she buys new clothes for both girls and paint to redecorate their room.               
Life is frequently bleak for the two girls. The rental firm takes their television back because Marigold hasn’t kept up with the payments.  
Star finds her role as substitute parent hard. This leaves the even younger Dolphin with a lot of responsibility. Marigold has not come home after she went out to celebrate her birthday. The girls find a curious comfort in relating horror stories to each other. There are some good times but Marigold never realises when it is time to stop playing
As if life isn’t bleak enough, Dolphin is also bullied by other students at her primary school. She upsets Ronnie Churley because they both get 0/10 for a letter-writing exercise in which she had failed to participate properly. The bullying is brutal. 
They can’t really ask friends round to the house. Their flat is small, even though it is actually the best one they’ve ever lived in. Their neighbours are elderly. The flat is otherwise nice enough but it means Dolphin has to go to a difficult school. Marigold reaches out to one of Dolphin’s classmates, Tasha. It falls flat. Marigold and Dolphin are rejected by both Tasha and Tasha’s mother. Even the fairy story that Dolphin and Marigold share is Hansel and Gretel, a gruesome offering where there is cruelty to children and the children commit murder.
When Micky, Star’s father, comes into the story, it difficult for Dolphin. She does not know who her father is and Marigold won’t tell her. This gives us the clue as to why Dolphin narrates the story. She is the outsider and it is painful. Surely even the younger reader feels pain on Marigold’s behalf when Star’s father Micky pays for Dolphin and Star to go to Brighton but not for Marigold. It becomes Dolphin’s problem, again, however. Because Marigold has to stay at home, so does Dolphin.             
We do see some mitigation in this text. Marigold’s biscuit-making and cake-making are an act of love. Dolphin sees the angel cookies go into the oven as “real works of art” Later when they turn the left-over cake into a gingerbread house Marigold and Dolphin play together making the house and inventing a story about two mice living there.
Dolphin becomes tough. She can hand out the insults too. She names one boy Owly Morris because of his thick-lensed spectacles.  When Kayleigh names her “Bottle-nose” she names Kayleigh “Camel Breath”. She actually befriends Owly and starts calling him by his real name: Oliver. Oliver helps her to find her father, Michael. Michael wants to do everything by the board. He wants to contact social services and discuss having Dolphin to stay with his family. It doesn’t happen straight away, however. Dolphin has to go to a foster home to start with. We’re not allowed to become too complacent. Star is also brought to the foster home and she and Dolphin have a terrific row. However, Auntie Jane, the Foster mother, manages to help them to laugh at themselves.  

I am Brown by Ashok Banker (writer) Sandhya Prabhat (illustrator)


This is a picture book containing ten double spreads of full colour pictures. The pictures illustrate the text and add to the story. 

The protagonist is possibly every brown child. 

The first picture is of an upside down face on a single page. The next page asserts that the main character is beautiful and perfect. The reader – and this is probably an adult reading accompanied by a child looking at the pictures - is taken through a series of scenarios:
·         the child dresses up as many different professionals,
·         says what those workers actually do,
·         where people who are brown actually live
·         which languages they speak,
·         what they look like,
·         which sort of homes they live in – and here the diversity is complete- every reader will recognise her own home
·         what they like to do,
·         what they like to eat
·         what they like to wear  
·         which relationships they may have to the reader
·         where they might worship _ which includes nowhere
·         what they may have achieved in life  

The text is not dense but is rich in vocabulary. The pictures are rich in detail and in very vibrant colours. 

Who should read the book? No doubt is would appeal to black readers – and interesting perhaps that the text asserts that the protagonist is brown. Yet it also a text that white readers should enjoy. It helps us all to understand that there are more similarities amongst us than differences between us.         

The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

  2012   teen, upper secondary   Key Stage 4, ages 14 -17, Dashner   James, science fantasy, thriller This is the second book in the Maz...