The Story of Tracy Beaker

The first book I’ve read in a while from the BBC Big Read list

By Jacqueline Wilson

book coverI haven’t read any of the books on the BBC Big Read list for rather a long time. I really need to get a move on with it as I’ve still got well over a hundred books to go. (I’m reading the long list of 200 books, rather than the more doable 100 top books – it just wouldn’t be me if I made things easy for myself). I want to read the books on the list, I just keep getting distracted with motivational books and Nordic-Noir. So to get myself back on track I started with something nice and simple and quick to read – a children’s book.

In case you don’t know, Jacqueline Wilson is one of the UK’s most popular writers of children’s books and even spent a couple of years as Children’s Laureate. She can attract controversy because her books tackle real-life issues such as divorce, adoption and bullying.

The Story of Tracy Beaker was the novel that gained Wilson recognition. Set in a children’s home, the story is told from Tracy’s point of view.

Tracy has never known her dad. She does have a mum, but as no-one knows where she is Tracy has convinced herself that she’s a busy film star in Hollywood and will return to collect her once she’s got settled down.

Tracy is very good at convincing herself of things. She constantly gets into trouble, but believes the stories she makes up to explain her actions. She never cries, but does suffer an awful lot from hayfever which explains her watering red eyes.

Although Tracy pretends to be tough, at heart she’s a little girl wanting to be loved. Preferably by her mum, but failing that (or in the meantime) by a lovely couple who would want to foster her and give her the life she wants (i.e. lots of trips to McDonald’s).

Wilson really does have a way with words and manages to portray the characters in such a way that convinces the reader. She doesn’t dress her stories up with fairytale endings or wicked stepmothers; Tracy has never, for example, had to live in a cupboard under the stairs like another famous children’s book character had to do. Instead she keeps it real, which probably explains both why she is so popular and so controversial.

I enjoyed the story and easily read it over a couple of evenings. It made a good first book to get me back to reading from the list. Who knows, maybe I’ll tackle Moby Dick next.

Or maybe not.

Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves is as good at telling stories as she is at writing them. She’s also full of mind-boggling facts.

Today was World Book Day. Instead of dressing up as a book character, I celebrated by attending a talk by Ann Cleeves at Bolton Library.

The library is fortunate to have lecture theatre and as we all threaded our way into the tiered seats I noticed that I seemed to be the youngest person there. That doesn’t happen very often! I don’t know why the audience was predominantly older people as I’m sure her books and the TV series appeal to a much wider age range than that which was represented.

Ann was relaxed and informal, inserting snippets of humour into her stories. Although she was stood at a lectern her style was more that of a friend having a chat over coffee than a professor delivering a lecture. She read an excerpt from Raven Black, the first book in the Shetland series and followed this with a reading from the latest addition, Thin Air.

She started by telling us a bit about her early life; how she had dropped out of university, believing she didn’t need an English degree to read books, and found a job in London. She didn’t adapt well to the hectic pace of the city and found her escape when she met a man who was about to leave for Fair Isle. He was to take up the position of assistant warden at the bird observatory there and wasn’t particularly enamoured by this opportunity, describing it as a bleak, windswept island in the middle of nowhere. Ann thought it sounded great. Fortunately the observatory was in desperate need of an assistant cook and so Ann travelled north to take up with the role, despite not knowing where Fair Isle was or being able to cook.

Over the next two years she got to know the island and the islanders well. Magnus, the eccentric elderly man in Raven Black, was based on one of the local characters she had shared many a dram with. It was during her time in Fair Isle that she also met her husband, a keen bird-watcher. Over the following years she had a variety of jobs culminating in her training to be a probation officer. Her varied life experiences have supplied her with material for her books.

Ann comes across as much a great storyteller in her speaking as she is in her books. She didn’t have notes, just let the stories unfold, and explained this is much the same way she writes her books. She doesn’t plot in advance, but rather starts with her basic idea and sees where it takes her chapter by chapter. Before she was able to write full-time, she would write for pleasure after a full day’s work. Her motivation was not knowing herself what was going to happen next and being just as surprised as her readers are today as the story unfolds.

The Shetland books came about when her husband wanted to go to Shetland to see a rare bird and she took him on a crazy day-trip as a birthday treat. Crazy because most day-trips don’t involve a long drive and a 14 hour ferry journey at either end of the day. As he went in search of the bird she wandered about noticing the stark contrast of black ravens against the white snow. Being a crime-writer, she mentally added blood to the scene to a create an even more powerful contrast. From this idea the first book was born; first as a short-story, then as a novel, then as a quartet and now as a longer series.

Shetland is one of the safest places I know. Ann knows this too and originally planned the book as a one-off thinking it would be too far-fetched to have so many murders in a placid archipelago of 22,000 people. As positive feedback poured in she realised that when it’s a choice between credibility and a great story, reviewers and readers will usually cast doubts about likelihood to the side and go with the story. And so the book became a series.

Ann shared some of her inspirations for the other books in the series and explained how she had chatted to a former policeman in Lerwick as part of her research. She was surprised to find out that in the case of an actual murder, the serious crimes squad from Inverness would not be flown in on a specially chartered flight, but would have to take the scheduled flight along with everyone else. Even if this meant waiting 3 days for the fog to lift before they could reach the islands. Bodies needing to be shipped to Aberdeen for autopsy travel on the ferry. An anonymous looking transit van is used to protect the sensibilities of passengers who may otherwise be perturbed to know they are accompanied by a corpse.

This is only a tiny part of what Ann shared with us. She spoke for the best part of an hour and then answered questions. One topic she was particularly vocal about is her support for libraries. She has never taken part in any writing courses and, as mentioned above, didn’t complete her degree. Instead, avid reading has taught her all she needs to know about writing. Libraries give people the chance to read no matter what their budget. They give people the chance to read authors and genres they might not be prepared to try if they had to pay for the book. She pointed out that the combined creative industries bring £8.8 million an HOUR to the UK economy. That’s nearly £80 billion a year. I struggled to get my head round this, but it’s true: the figures are there on the government’s own website. The creative industries which include, not only publishing, but also film and television programme making (all of which rely on writers), provide 1.7 million jobs and make up 5% of the total economy. With these facts in mind, government cuts to libraries and the creative industries seem not just misjudged, but downright foolhardy.

Following the talk everyone moved to another room for tea, biscuits and book signings. I filled in the feedback form, still flabbergasted by the statistics and with a head buzzing with all stories Ann had told. This was a far better way to celebrate World Book Day than merely dressing up as Harry Potter or Where’s Wally.

Ice Station

Thrills and spills galore in this page-turner set in Antarctica.

By Matthew Reilly

I picked this up in a charity shop just before Christmas. I hadn’t heard of Matthew Reilly before but it sounded like a good fast-paced thriller – the sort of story I could easily lose myself in when I needed a bit of respite from all the chaos around me during my house renovations. The fact that it is set in Antarctica also had something to do with its attraction.

Within a couple of pages I was hooked and managed to read all 704 pages in the space of a few days. The story starts when a remote (even for Antarctica) research station puts out a distress call – the residents think they have found an alien spacecraft buried in the ice sheet and the group of scientists they sent into a cavern to investigate failed to return.

A group of American marines are sent to investigate but find the threat of death by alien to be the least of their worries. They come under attack by commandos from other countries eager to claim the extra-terrestrial prize for themselves, by killer whales, nuclear enhanced seals, and rogue elements from their own side. The action is a non-stop roller-coaster of thrills and spills and as long as you suspend any sense of incredulity it’s a great ride.

This book is just begging to be turned into an extreme Hollywood action thriller and was actually optioned by Paramount. The screenplay was written but then they let the option expire; maybe because they realised the difficulty and cost it would entail to do the story justice? The special effects and stunts required would make the Die Hard and James Bond films seem sedate by comparison. I really hope someone takes the plunge though as this would be a film I’d really like to see.

This book is by no means high literature but as far as easy, captivating reads go, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while.


The Black House

A murder mystery from which I learnt about some Hebridean traditions.

By Peter May

This is the first in a trilogy of murder mysteries set on Lewis, the largest and most northerly island in the Outer Hebrides. Black houses were the stone dwellings lived in by people across the islands until relatively recent times. They were known as ‘black’ houses because the fire in the middle of the main room and lack of ventilation led to them being constantly filled with smoke. The white houses that came along later were basically modern houses, with a hearth and chimney to allow the smoke to escape.

Edinburgh detective Fin Macleod is sent to investigate a brutal murder in the north of the island. He is chosen firstly because he is investigating a similar murder in Edinburgh and it’s possible it’s the same killer, and secondly because he is originally from the village in which the killing has taken place and speaks Gaelic.

Through a series of flashblacks told in the first person we learn about Fin’s early life on the island. These are intertwined with the present day investigation which is told in the third person. As secrets from the past are revealed Fin is dragged personally into the case.

The local men are about to leave on their traditional annual guga hunt. Guga are young gannets and as seabirds are protected under British law. However, an exception is made allowing the men of Ness to carry out their hunt once a year as it is seen as an important local tradition originating in times when the guga would have provided essential food throughout the winter when the weather was too bad for fishing.

The men are going to Sula Sgeir, a desolate rock out in the Atlantic. Once there they will be cut off from the mainland for 14 days until the fishing boat that delivered them, returns to collect them. The time on the weather beaten rock consists of long days of hard work and primitive living conditions. Fin took part in the guga hunt the summer before he left for university and knows full well what it entails. In the story his old schoolfriend’s son is about to make his first trip.

The book provides quite an accurate description of the tradition with just a few details changed – the number of men who take part is increased from ten to twelve in the novel, and the rock is never actually referred to as Sula Sgeir. Wanting to know more about the tradition I googled it and came up with this BBC web page  based on a documentary made a couple of years ago by Mike Day. The page includes a series of short videos which were quite interesting and helped me to see how close the book was to the reality.

Did I like this book? Yes, for the knowledge of the guga hunt I gained and yes it was an entertaining story. I didn’t like the switching from first to third person, though I could see the reason for this (kind of). I also wouldn’t class it as one of the best books I’ve read in this genre, but it’s certainly not the worst and so I probably will read the rest of the trilogy.

Swallows and Amazons

This is book #57 on the BBC Big Read list.

by Arthur Ransome

This book is number 57 on the BBC’s Big Read list and is a children’s book.

The Swallows are four children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, who are spending the summer in the Lake District with their mother, baby sister and baby sister’s nurse. Their father is away at sea but has given permission by telegram for them to take a boat and a couple of home-made tents and sail off to an island in the lake to camp by themselves.

The children spend most of their time in a make-believe world where the lake is a sea with the North Pole at one end and the Antarctic at the other. They have renamed all the places around the lake and so the river leading into it has become the Amazon, the village has become Rio and a pool part way along the river has become the Octopus Lagoon. They use sailor/pirate/explorer words for everyday things and people. The local people are referred to as natives and the charcoal burners as savages; a snake is a serpent; lemonade is grog; they don’t go fishing, instead they go whaling.

The children quickly settle into a peaceful routine on the island, but then find themselves under attack by a couple of Amazon pirates. The arrow-firing Amazons are two sisters, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, who are also staying by the lake with their mother. The Amazons have their own boat and had previously claimed the island as their own. They do not take kindly to the intruding Swallows and the two sides declare war. However, they are soon united in battle against the mean Captain Flint (aka the Amazons’ Uncle Jim) who lives on a nearby houseboat.

Adventures follow and the Swallows and Amazons find ‘treasure’ which had been stolen from Captain Flint. This endears him to the children and he gives them his parrot and agrees to lead them on a bigger adventure the following summer.

The book was first published in 1930 and the story is set in the 1920s. It always shocks me a bit when I’m reminded of how big the gap between the classes was in those days and how the working classes would be treated as so inferior. This is the case with this book. The children, with their naval father and baby sister’s nurse, are obviously middle-class. The local farmers and villagers refer to them as Master Roger, Miss Susan and so on. When a policeman comes to the island to follow up a complaint from Captain Flint the Amazon sisters, who know him, are downright rude to him and talk down to him as though he is a naughty boy – ‘as long as you’re good we won’t tell your mother’. The policeman is frightened and chastised and hastily leaves.

All in all, I enjoyed the book though I’m glad I don’t have to teach the children – I think they’d be damned annoying and precocious in real life and I doubt I’d last a day with them before I’d be sacked for insubordination!

Stephen Booth and the Chinley Book Festival

A tiny book festival and a talk by one of my favourite authors.

This afternoon I went along to the first ever Chinley book festival. It hadn’t been well advertised – I only found out about it when I saw Stephen Booth mention on his website that he would be speaking at it. A google search didn’t turn up much more information. I arrived not really knowing what to expect but hoping that the Stephen Booth talk wouldn’t be sold out as I’ve wanted to attend one of his talks for a while now. 

Chinley is a village in the Peak District not too far from Chapel-en-le-Frith. Booth’s books are about two police officers who are based in the fictional town of Edendale in the Peak District. They have an alarming number of murders to solve and their cases take them all over the Peak to many real locations as well as fictional ones. 

The book festival was rather small scale, but then I wasn’t expecting a Derbyshire equivalent of Hay-on-Wye. One hall had a few stalls including one which had second hand books for sale very cheaply. I bought eight. Another stall was advising people on the advantages of e-readers and had a Kindle and a Kobo to show people. After talking to the lady on the stall I’m finally thinking seriously about getting one.

My entry ticket which cost £1 included a free drink, so I had a bowl of broccoli soup and then indulged in a piece of banana cake with my free coffee. There were tables and chairs set out in the middle of the room so I was able to sit with food and coffee and peruse my new books. 

At 3pm I went to another hall a couple of minutes away for the talk. I think most of the talks had been quite poorly attended, but Booth’s talk had about 40 people in the audience. As the hall was only small this was quite a lot. He talked for the best part of an hour and it was really interesting. He spoke about how he decides on the locations for his books (the 12th is coming out in June) and why he has a mix of real and fictional places. He realised quite early on that the locations were really important to his readers and that many readers try to work out either where the places are that the fictional places are based on or where the places are that he only vaguely refers to and doesn’t actually name. He gets lots of emails from readers who go to specific places just because they are in the books. 

I can understand this. Although I wouldn’t go out of my way to look for a telephone box just because it had been mentioned in a book (as one reader did), if I was near that telephone box and someone pointed it out to me, I’d be quite interested and would probably take a photo. 

All in all it was quite an interesting talk and I was glad I’d made the effort to go.

The Killer’s Guide to Reykjavik

This novel set in Iceland doubles as a guide to the country.

This is another book that I read around the time I was last in Iceland. Here’s the review I wrote of it at the time.

by Zane Radcliffe

This is the first of Zane Radcliffe’s books I’ve read. I enjoyed it so much I immediately ordered his other two off Amazon.

The main character Callum is a successful Glaswegian internet entrepeneur. He sells his travel website and moves to Reykjavik to live with his Icelandic girlfriend, her daughter and mother. Both Callum and his girlfriend Birna have skeletons in their respective closets which lead to Birna’s daughter being kidnapped and/or killed (I’m trying not to give too much away).

As well as a great story the book really is a ‘guide to Iceland’. Radcliffe interweaves numerous facts and lots of information about Icelandic culture, geography, food, beliefs and so on into his story. If I’d read this book before visiting Iceland the storyline would have stood out much more than the guide part of the book. But having spent a month there last summer I can really appreciate just how much information he has melded seamlessly within the story.

Get more information on the book and the author here.

The Blood of Flowers

A wonderful depiction of life in 17th century Iran.

By Anita Amirrezvani

The un-named narrator is a a girl in her early teens. She lives a contented life with her parents in a small village in rural Iran. The unexpected death of her father leads to severe poverty for her and her mother and they take the decision to travel through the desert to Isfahan in the hope that relatives will care for them. Although the relatives take them in they are treated as servants rather than family and feel powerless to change their situation. The narrator has always been interested in making carpets and as luck would have it her uncle is a well-known carpet maker. He sees her interest and recognises her skill and so becomes her teacher and mentor. At the same time as learning to design and knot carpets and working as a servant, her aunt and uncle arrange a sigheh for her. She spends many nights as a rich man’s concubine and is often completely exhuasted. Eventually she ends the sigheh and is thrown out of her uncle’s home. Both she and her mother now have to fend for themselves and find themselves in their worst situation yet. Through her resiliance and carpet making skills the narrator manages to begin building a new and independent life for herself and her mother.

I found Amirrezvani’s depiction of 17th century life in Iran fascinating and her descriptions of Isfahan make me even more desperate to get there than I already was. Iran has interested me for a long time and I wrote my Master’s disertation on the practice of temporary marriage (known as sigheh or muta). This is the first novel I’ve read that features this practice and this made it all the more interesting for me.

I almost got to Iran last year, but it fell through at the last minute and I had to make alternative holiday plans. This book has brought it to the forefront of my mind again and inpired me to have another go at getting there.