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Of football and fantasy

Linda Newbery considers action, adventure and mystery in fiction for a range of readers

Under Pressure By Tony Bradman Corgi pound;4.99

Ghost WRiter By Julia Jarman Andersen Press pound;9.99

The Dark Horse By Marcus Sedgwick Orion pound;7.99

Stravaganza: City of Masks by Mary Hoffman Bloomsbury pound;10.99

Kicking off a new series which focuses on a football youth squad, Under Pressure alternates between Craig and Darren, new recruits to the demanding regime of training and matches. Although there's plenty of game action, with enough grass-cutting shots, despairing dives and balls billowing nets to satisfy aficionados, the main pressure for both boys is off the pitch. Craig, spectacularly talented, realises that his father has an ulterior motive for his new interest in soccer; worrier Darren, whose parents are in financial trouble, assumes from their well-meaning remarks that they're depending on him to make a high-earning breakthrough; loyalty and determination are tested. Attractively produced, the series is sure to find fans.

Determination is also a necessary quality in Ghost WRiter, recently highly commended in the Special Educational Needs Children's Book Award. Julia Jarman combines a supernatural mystery with the story of a self-doubting boy joining Year 6 in a village primary. Frankie, very conscious of his dyslexia, has learned avoidance tactics: joining the reading group with the thinnest books, behaving clownishly to avoid reading aloud. His problems are compounded by a scornful teacher, Miss Bulpit (who clearly should never be allowed near children). The ghostly element manifests itself in an unaccountable draught from a classroom cupboard, indecipherable messages on the blackboard, and glimpses of a sad-eyed boy. While Frankie becomes convinced that he's being urged to take revenge on "Pit Bull", research into local history shows that dyslexia has always been misunderstood and even punished. This warm, highly readable story succeeds in giving an authentic child's-eye view of primary school friendships and concerns, and most notably an insight into the trials of daily life for those who struggle with literacy. By the end, Frankie is triumphantly "DBNT" - Dyslexic But Not Thick.

Marcus Sedgwick's The Dark Horse is set "in a distant time, in a distant place", with Norse suggestiveness in the names. Sigurd, son of the former leader of a tribe of coast-dwellers, has befriended Mouse, a girl brought up by wolves who possesses telepathic powers. Following the near-drowning of a strange man and the beaching of an empty wooden box, the tribe is threatened by fierce mounted raiders known as the Dark Horse. Third-person narrative alternates with first-person accounts by Sigurd, who is forced to take over as Lawgiver and to lead his tribe into battle. But reliance on Mouse's special powers leads to shock and surrender, in this atmospheric story of a way of life in which survival depends on knowing who to trust.

Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza: City of Masks uses Venice for its setting in the way that Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy uses Oxford. Talia both is and isn't Italy; Bellezza both is and isn't 16th-century Venice. The link between Bellezza and modern England is an adolescent boy, Lucien, being treated for brain cancer, who accidentally finds his way to Bellezza, his passport a "Venetian" notebook. His role there is crucial: saving the Duchessa from assassination, he is drawn into a political plot involving a Machiavellian schemer, a body double, and a 16-year-old girl with secret parentage. Although the sections involving Lucien's parents are less successfully evoked, Bellezza - the setting for most of the book - is a delight: a city of masks and ceremonies, fireworks and festivals, with a fierce pride in its rules and rituals. The intriguing plot, juxtaposing the progression of Lucien's illness in real life with his growing confidence as "Luciano" and his attachment to the Bellezzan characters, will keep readers hooked - with an interesting twist when Lucien and his parents visit the real Venice. It's the first of a trilogy set in Talia; as a scheme for justifying Italian holidaysresearch trips, I can only say that I wish I'd thought of it first.

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