Ghosts in the machine and other shockers

17th January 2003 at 00:00
You Have Ghost Mail by Terence Blacker.

The Beast of Crowsfoot Cottage by Jeanne Willis.

Goodbye, Tommy Blue by Ad le Geras.

Macmillan Children's Books Shock Shop series pound;9.99 each.

e-(t) mail by Sandra Glover. Andersen Press pound;3.99.

Michael Thorn dips into fiction for Years 2 to 4

The reputations of authors of slim chapter books with line illustrations are often limited by the confined market they write for (mainly pupils in Years 2 to 4). With its Shock Shop series, Macmillan has bucked this trend by commissioning writers who are well-known across the whole spectrum of children's books. However, when busy authors are asked to contribute this sort of book, there is a danger that it will be squeezed in between other projects or produced alongside work in which they are more emotionally engaged. And there is a hint of that in several of the new titles - the authors are unlikely to list these books among their best work. (Michael Morpurgo, commissioned to write one of the first Shock Shop titles, refused to write to order and delivered instead the book that became Out of the Ashes.) In Terence Blacker's catchily titled You Have Ghost Mail, Matthew starts receiving mysterious messages from his computer screen and he seeks the advice of a technologically minded schoolfriend, Angie.

Blacker succeeds in balancing the unexplained with theoretical conjectures, one being that ghosts are disturbed by the electromagnetic radiation of mobile phones.

Matthew and Angie's efforts to get to the root of ghostly communications from a boy called Giles are told in a story that also reveals how Matthew's mother died in a car accident several years before. Matthew's sense of being possessed by the spirit of Giles leads to a scary and dramatic conclusion.

Jean Willis's story, The Beast of Crowsfoot Cottage, suitably centres on reports that a wild beast, thought to be a werewolf, is on the loose. Just as Blacker draws on quasi-scientific explanations of paranormal phenomena, Willis refers to decades-old stories about black pumas and other big cats living wild in the UK. Like Matthew in Blacker's book, the girl who narrates Willis's story is motherless. In a twist which only experienced readers will see coming (and these books are aimed at novice readers), we discover she had a troubled relationship with her stepfather.

Taking in a story about a missing child and more reported sightings of beasts at large, this tale steamrollers to a tightly condensed, melodramatic and ghoulish end that readers may find confusing.

Goodbye Tommy Blue, by Ad le Geras, is a more conventional and less far-fetched ghost story about a boy who moves into a new house and is troubled by the phantom of a previous occupant.

Geras approaches her tale as a leisurely short story rather than an action-packed chapter book and as a result the narrative is less shocking but more lucid. The Tommy Blue of the title is a toy soldier that once belonged to the child of a serviceman killed at the Battle of the Somme. This book's historical and generational perspective - its adult characters have small but real roles to play rather than just receiving a passing mention - and its narrative coherence make it the best of the new Shock Shop titles.

In e-(t) mail, Sandra Glover, who normally writes for older readers, focuses on a nine-year-old boy who is trying to complete a project on the solar system but is being distracted by emails from someone purporting to be an alien. Jason suspects a practical joke, especially when his homework file is hacked into and wiped from the hard drive.

By the end of this highly readable, dialogue-driven story, readers are left to make up their own minds whether the alien is for real or not.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm Primary School, Hailsham, East Sussex.

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