The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross

Dinah, an eleven-year-old girl who has spent her whole life in a children’s home, gets fostered by Hunter family, which already sports two young boys, Lloyd and Harvey. Things get off to a rocky start, but the three eventually become loyal friends when forced to confront something terrible that is happening at their school. All the pupils, bar a handful, are the neatest, tidiest, brightest, most well-behaved children you could ever meet. You could also say they’re the most joyless bunch of kids you could ever meet. And what can Lloyd and Harvey do when Dinah starts becoming just like them?

Being a horror movie veteran, my first thought was this is The Stepford Children for a child audience. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, eh? The novel doesn’t score many points on the originality front, but there’s no denying it’s an enjoyable ride. Something dramatic and interesting happens in every chapter. The prose is very snappy and easy to read. Descriptiveness is at about the right level for kids, though sometimes Cross is a little too free with her adverbs. Call me a nit-picker but I wince every time I see an adverb which describes something already glaringly obvious, e.g. “Right, Smart Alec,” Eddie Hair said sarcastically.

Briefly discussed within the story is the idea of there being two kinds of teaching. One, where we are taught to remember a bunch of facts and figures so that we can regurgitate them later, zombie-style. The other type, where we are actively encouraged to think for ourselves and solve problems.

In terms of the characters, I was pleased to see some realistic childhood shortcomings coming through. There was Harvey, the easily scared one, often to the point of tears, and Lloyd, a natural leader constantly jealous for recognition amongst his friends. However, I found it hard to believe any kid would come out with an exclamation like “Suffering crumpets!” or “Scarlet sausages!” or “Plum-coloured pumpkins!” Young Lloyd had a seemingly never-ending supply of these witticisms, which I thought only served to make him a less realistic child.

Despite my niggling criticisms, I found this to be a enjoyable light-hearted read. It’s definitely one for the sub-teen market though, where I have no doubt it will be much loved.

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On the Edge by Gillian Cross

A teenage boy, Liam Shakespeare, is kidnapped by terrorists and held to ransom in his own house in London. Far away in Derbyshire, a girl called Jinny stumbles across strangers (two adults and a boy), arriving at a cottage in the middle of the night. Are they merely tourists, or something more sinister? And is Liam Shakespeare really being held in London, as it says on the news, or is he in fact the boy in the cottage?

This kidnapping story is made particularly interesting by the fact that it’s not merely about a couple of crooks wanting to make money. Gillian Cross invents a terrorist organisation called the Free People, which is intent on the abolishing of the family unit as a way of life. That might seem like laughable goal, but Cross expounds the views of the organisation in detail, and the Free People become all too realistic.

The book is not without its faults. Liam Shakespeare, who is cooped up in a room for much of the story, starts to lose his sense of identity, as he is fed a load of lies by his kidnappers. That’s all well and good, but the fact that it only takes a few days for the boy’s mind to play tricks on him seems a little forced. By the end of the story, the identity crisis is taken to a pretentious extreme; the author gets a little philosophical, but I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to say. The words looked good on paper, but felt empty, and made for an unsatisfying ending.

On a brghter note, the characters are great – especially the bad guys, who are by no means stereotypical villians, but damaged people with real problems and believable motives.

Overall, quite enjoyable – an average thriller.

Wolf by Gillian Cross

Cassy is a young girl, not quite in her teens, who lives with her grandmother, whom she calls Nan. Of her father, she knows nothing, and Nan is determined to keep it that way. Cassy’s mother is less shrouded in mystery; she’s an odd woman, who behaves like a giggling kid most of the time, and spends her life moving from squat to squat – unfit to take care of her own daughter. On one particular morning, long before dawn, a visitor knocks the door of Nan’s flat. Before Cassy can even see who it is, Nan has put him in the spare room and ushered Cassy out of the house with a bag full of rations and instructions to go and stay with her mother for a spell. It’s all seems a bit unusual to Cassy, but what can she do except obey?

And so the novel gets off the ground staight away with a fairly interesting mystery. Cassy soon finds her mother, and a large portion of the rest of the story is devoted to developing the characters she meets at her mum’s squat: Lyall, an old man who visits schools to give talks on wolves, and his loyal son, Robert, who is Cassy’s age.

The problem I had with this novel is that nothing much happens until around page 100. That approach might sit comfortably in a typical mammoth Stephen King tome, but in a novel that’s a mere 140 pages, it just doesn’t work. I got bored. To be fair, the mystery deepens slightly with the discovery of a strange yellow substance at the bottom of the bag Cassy’s grandmother packed, but any sense of danger is held back until the story’s almost finished. Who’s the mysterious visitor? just isn’t a strong enough premise to carry a novel.

The whole way through, I kept wondering what wolves had to do with the plot, apart from Lyall being obsessed with them and causing Cassy to have nightmares. Very much incidental stuff, compared with the main thrust of the story – which was what, exactly? Hmm. The wolf theme does tie into something which happens at the end of the novel, but I’m sad to report that the constant emphasis on wolves throughout the novel seemed contrived to me.

I remember a sound piece of advice given to me about writing: Don’t go easy on your main character. There has to be conflict and danger and peril. Wolf has these … confined to the closing chapters. Oh, and did I mention that this novel won the Carnegie Medal? Go figure.