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Behind the front lines

Daisy Chain War By Joan O'Neill Hodder Children's Books pound;4.99

A Kiss in Every Wave By Rosanne Hawke Lothian Fiction pound;4.99

Match of Death By James Riordan Oxford University Press pound;6.99

Paper Faces By Rachel Anderson Oxford University Press pound;4.99

This batch of fiction for 11-plus readers deals with aspects of the Second World War less familiar than the Blitz and home front. Daisy Chain War, part one of Joan O'Neill's trilogy, is set in neutral Ireland, where it was first published. Sweeping through the "Emergency" years, this has the feel of autobiography, covering meetings and partings, weddings and births, squabbles and reconciliations as Lizzie and her relatives cope with privations and losses.

Gran comes to live with the family, Lizzie attends boarding school with headstrong cousin Vicky, and experiences first love. Extracts from the diary of brother-in-law Paul, a pilot in the US Air Force, hint at the tragic events off-stage. The loose structure won't please readers who like strong narrative pace, but it does give the flavour of a complex family life.

Australian writer Rosanne Hawke sets her story in the present, with reference back to the war generation. Jessie must adapt to the difficult circumstances when her grandmother moves in with the family - Nanny has Alzheimer's, and needs constant attention. The discovery of a cache of love letters from soldier to sweetheart makes Jessie realise that her Gran was once a desirable young woman and this wartime element of the story has a happy ending. But the tale tips into sentimentality, and the revelation that Elijah, a new friendboyfriend, is the "author" of Jessie's story is implausible and unnecessarily distancing for the reader.

In Match of Death, James Riordan draws on real events during the German invasion of Russia. Vova joins the partisans, later returning to beleaguered Kiev to join a special football squad trained to beat the Germans in a grudge match. Only when the game begins does he learn of the conditions imposed by the Germans - lose and live, or win and die.

En route, Vova witnesses and hears of atrocities committed by both Nazis and Ukrainians, including mass shootings, the throwing of a baby into a well and the crucifixion of a female partisan leader, yet the reader is rushed through the story so quickly that none of these events is allowed to make much impact. Maybe that's the point, but young readers lingering over these details are likely to be bewildered and disturbed, as indeed they should be.

Occasionally the flippant tone jars: for instance the spoofy accounts, sounding like a Bond movie, of Stalin's meeting with staff (Stalin "allowed a flicker of a smile to play on his lips") and, later, the statement "OK. I'll settle for the No 2 shirt!" when Vova isn't one of the footballers selected for a reprisal shooting.

Paper Faces, by the always reliable Rachel Anderson, is concerned with precise evocations of character, place, period and idiom, and is to my mind the most satisfying of the four novels. The war has just ended, and for Dot, facing the return of a stranger-father, this is as unsettling as the war years. No one has explained that her father has suffered a mental breakdown, or what it meant when her baby brother died in hospital, so the reader understands her confusion while being granted a more mature view of feckless mother Gloria and the bleak London room they inhabit.

A stay with kind Mrs Hollidaye in the country creates new difficulties, offering glimpses of a more stable and comforting way of life. There are hard lessons for Dot, though the new welfare state offers better living conditions. This is one for the thoughtful reader who will appreciate its subtleties.

Linda Newbery

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