Stuart David. Jackdaw and the Randoms. Hot Key Books, 1 Oct 2015. 256pp., $16.95 (pbk) ISBN 9781471404696
Jack Dawson, known to his friends as the Jackdaw, is an ideas man. He doesn’t like school and doesn’t do particularly well there, mostly because he’s thinking of anything other than the work he’s supposed to be doing. On one occasion when he is suspended from class yet again for inattention, he has a brainwave – an app which will stop students from getting into trouble when they are not paying attention in class. He regards this idea as a stroke of genius, but there is one problem; he needs a high level computer programmer to set it up for him. It his attempts to find the appropriate person that give rise to the exploits of the remainder of the book. The book is very much part of the computer and technology age as its whole premise is based on the idea of the importance of apps and as a part of everyday life, a world in which there appears to be an app for everything.
There is a sub-plot in the book too, as Jack’s parents constantly argue about what he should do when he leaves school. For him the choice seems rather less than inviting – sticking labels on whisky bottles in a hugely noisy and hot factory as his father does, or working in an office as his mother does – a prospect which Jack regards as being like school but without the fun bits. The question of his future looms menacingly as he realises that if he doesn’t pass his exams he will have to work in the factory and if he does he will need to work in an office like his mother’s. The prospect of making his fortune from the app is therefore particularly enticing – no examination results required and lots of money in the offing.
The best programmer in the school is, however, the deeply unpopular Elsie Green, known to everyone with typical school humour as Greensleeves, an eccentric girl who finally agrees to program the app, but for a price. It’s perhaps a pity that the only clever girl we meet – Elsie – is depicted as plain, friendless and a figure of fun. Chaos and complication ensue as Jack tries to achieve his goal but, as Sir Walter Scott wrote ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive’. Things go from bad to worse for Jack and eventually the whole app idea simply fizzles out. The ending is somewhat enigmatic as Jack has another brilliant idea, although we don’t learn the details of this, setting the reader up for a sequel to this book.
There is a wide and varied range of characters in the book, many of them like Uncle Ray, completely ‘over the top.’ Some of the characters are rather stereotyped, especially the teachers such as Baldy Baine, the rather nerdy science teacher. Nonetheless, these characters are part of the exploration of what school can mean to someone like Jack who seems to be completely alienated from all desire to learn.
The dialogue between Jack and his friends is generally convincing and reflects the different personalities. The sub-plot of Jack’s parents different desires for his future and the tensions that causes in the household is convincing and we get suggestions from Jack as to how distressing he finds these arguments. Their frequency is indicated by the names he gives them – the Regular Madness. This is a seemingly lightweight book but one which has underlying messages – perhaps a little like Jack himself.
Reviewed by Margot Hillel