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Moral blaze

Victoria Neumark enjoys a serious read

THE FIRE-EATERS. By David Almond. Hodder Children's Books pound;10.99.

SMALL GAINS. By K M Peyton. David Fickling Books pound;12.99.

Sometimes it seems as if the only serious writers today are children's writers. Philip Pullman won the Whitbread with a highly wrought, literary novel looking at big themes (original sin, redemption, divinity), David Almond explores the mingling of mystical and everyday experience, Melvin Burgess looks, controversially, at adolescent sexuality and identity, Anne Fine skilfully dissects family relationships. And so on.

Younger readers demand a story and do not blench at a moral.

David Almond's latest novel is serious, moral and literary. Set against his usual north-eastern backdrop, it follows young Bobby through his first months at secondary school, which coincide with the Cuban missile crisis.

Through this Almond weaves several threads: Bobby's father has a mystery illness, worrying his loving mother; his friends are angry at his deserting them to go to grammar school; at the new school he encounters both rigid, class-bound bullying and unconventional, intellectual defiance in the person of a new boy from "down South"; Bobby encounters a mystery tramp named McNulty who earns a precarious living doing stunts such as piercing himself with needles and eating fire. All of this is told like real memories, almost like an accompaniment to a photo album.

Like the missile crisis, the story ends luridly but not as badly as feared.

It's not Almond's best work, perhaps because it seems too personal: McNulty's figure seems uneasily overloaded with meaning, distorting Almond's basic message, which centres on the stability of the loving home against the destruction of the wider world.

K M Peyton has been mining similar seams for decades. Her latest novel, Small Gains, is a meticulously researched account of a farming family at the turn of the 19th century. When both her mother and beautiful older sister have died of TB, it falls to unattractive Clara to propel the rest of her family through the hard grind of daily life.

Intense love for the horses which the farmers race cross-country and intense hatred for the bullying neighbouring Grover family sustain Clara, even when her best friend dies, her brother is hunted for arson and the boy she falls for goes off to sea.

In the Middle Ages, perseverance was rated one of the four cardinal virtues, but we are not used to valuing it today. Clara's perseverance embraces courage, loyalty, creativity and love: Peyton's masterful prose makes it sing off the page in the triumphant rhythm of a horse winning a race.

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