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Great escapes

PoW. By Martin Booth. Puffin pound;4.99. PLAYING ON THE EDGE. By Neil Arksey. Puffin pound;4.99. THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT. By Darren Shan. Collins pound;3.99. THE DROP. By Anthony Masters. Orchard pound;4.99. DOSH. By Robert Swindells. Puffin pound;4.99. PoW could pass for a book published half a century ago, except for two graphic descriptions of bodily dismemberment (both fairly mild by modern standards). It's an old-fashioned escape yarn about a boy who joins the Navy during the First World War and is captured by the Germans. Compared with Booth's gripping Music On The Bamboo Radio, it lacks tension. The remaining books reviewed here capture more effectively, in other scenarios, the sense of trying to escape from restrictive predicaments.

Neil Arksey has already written several powerful football novels. Playing on the Edge is more ambitious. Set in 2064, it can be read as football's version of 1984. The main theme - the great old clubs of English football have merged into a few superteams, and the game is dominated by big business - could have made a tiresome tract. Instead, it is a brilliant thriller, with a rousing climax.

The big clubs feed their players performance-enhancers with unknown side-effects. Easy Linker, signed up by Gunman Reds, palms the pills, but his deception is discovered and the drugs are added to his food. However, Easy escapes with evidence of the racket, establishes a new identity as Snake and plays for an underground football league where the true spirit of football lives on. Add a friendly politician and a father with the good of the game at heart, and you have a classic goodies vs baddies encounter.

In The Vampire's Assistant, the sequel to Cirque du Freak (with more to come), Darren Shan is trapped as a half-vampire. The narrative device of "If I hadn't... maybe things would..." was effective and heartfelt in the first book, but here is used just to crank up tension.

Certainly the scenes of dismemberment are described with more relish than in Booth's book, and the author is brave enough to have an innocent and sympathetic character fiendishly munched to death, but it is difficult to see quite where this saga is taking us.

This cannot be said of Dosh. Told in a terse, stage-direction-style continuous present, in 87 tightly drawn scenes, the book has no central character, but grips by virtue of a shared experience. An extortion racket and a mobster's involvement in child pornography are undermined by group resistance. A heartening and powerful novel.

The Drop is an intense psychological study of macho posturing, and (for one of the characters) descent into dangerous instability. By the end of the book, Oliver, son of a bestselling teenage series novelist, has become a psychopath. Masters doesn't always leave character development to action and dialogue in this novel, and the illness of good character Greg's baby sister is pure narrative cliche. But boys of 11 upwards will be gripped and haunted by the realistic rendering of individual and group intimidation.

MICHAEL THORN

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