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Piano lessons in love

BARRINGTON STOKE TITLES: Playing Against the Odds by Bernard Ashley. To Be a Millionaire by Yvonne Coppard. Falling Awake by Viv French. The Shadow on the Stairs by Ann Halam. Alien Deeps by Douglas Hill. Runaway Teacher by Pete Johnson. Barrington Stoke pound;4.50 each

FAST FICTION: Old Bag by Melvin Burgess. Stalker by Anthony Masters. Barrington Stoke pound;4.99 each.

OPEN DOOR SERIES Sad Song by Vincent Banville. In High Germany by Dermot Bolger. Not Just for Christmas by Roddy Doyle. Maggie's Story by Sheila O'Flanagan. Jesus and Billy are off to Barcelona by Deirdre Purcell. Ripples by Patricia Scanlan. New Island Books pound;4.99 each

For years, reluctant and poor readers of primary age have been targeted with attractive, well-written story books; indeed, publishers have covered this area so well that the books are often chosen by capable readers in search of short, enjoyable stories, or just as a rest from longer fiction. The teenage market is notoriously far more difficult to please, and publishers' previous efforts have too often shrieked "special needs", ensuring that the books stay on the shelves.

Extending its range of easy fiction to the 13-16 age group, Barrington Stoke, based in Edinburgh, has launched a new series with six initial titles. The authors are well known to teachers and librarians, with more big names to follow. Within the confines of length and vocabulary - reading age of eight and up, short chapters, plenty of dialogue - it's interesting to see how differently the writers have responded. Outstanding in this first batch is Bernard Ashley's Playing Against the Odds, a poignant story of first love.

Chris, a self-conscious pianist, is fascinated by the new girl in the class who returns his interest, but when he suspects her of thieving Chris's guilt forces him to reject her advances. The easy-reading requirement doesn't prevent Ashley from showing memorable insights into Chris's feelings: "Our hands are still resting on the keyboard, with a touch of little fingers that neither of us move. And I look to see what note we're touching on. Because my first piano concerto is going to be written round that note."

Douglas Hill's contribution, Alien Deeps, a story of underwater exploration on an alien planet, effectively creates an environment where it can be difficult to distinguish between dangers and undiscovered treasures; Viv French's Falling Awake uses a fantasy element to convey the hallucinatory effects of drug-taking. Teenagers have been consulted about format and design; the text is well-spaced, in reader-friendly font and o cream-coloured paper (less harsh than white). The photographic covers are not likely to embarrass any adolescent caught reading one of these books.

For adults with reading difficulties, Barrington Stoke provides Fast Fiction, in similar format. The first two titles, Old Bag by Melvin Burgess and Stalker by Anthony Masters, are contemporary, action-packed thrillers that will appeal to older secondary pupils.

Open Door, a series from a Dublin publisher, is also aimed at adults with poor literacy skills, but useful for the secondary school library or special needs department. Edited by Patricia Scanlan, it offers short, accessible fiction by high-profile novelists. Some, such as Roddy Doyle and Dermot Bolger, are sure to appeal to teenagers.

Doyle's Not Just for Christmas is a tautly written tale of two brothers who meet after a separation of more than 20 years. Short chapters intersperse flashbacks with the present, showing how the relationship between Danny and his elder brother Jimmy has soured, leaving the adult Danny resentful. Jimmy's spur-of-the-moment lie prevents a renewed rift, forcing Danny to overlook the bullying that marred his childhood. Doyle's dialogue is as crisp and sharp-witted as in the Barrytown trilogy. There is no hint of patronising the reader. Not all the authors manage to do this. Patricia Scanlan's Ripples reads more like a plot outline for a soap series than a piece of fiction, and Sheila O'Flanagan's Maggie's Story has a cloying, sugar-sweet ending which, unlike Roddy Doyle's clever twist, is a let-down. Somewhat more successful is Jesus and Billy are off to Barcelona by Deirdre Purcell, a slickly written farce about a student exchange that goes wrong.

Dermot Bolger's In High Germany is an appeal from an Irish father to his half-German son. Eoin, forced to leave Ireland to find work, keeps his sense of national pride by supporting his team in the World Cup of 1988, the year his son was conceived. When the Irish team is knocked out, he is aware of how frail his sense of belonging is: "This was the only country I still owned. Those 11 men in green shirts, half of whom were born abroad." Yet he hopes that one day his talented young son will wear an Irish football shirt and will think in German: "This is for my father." A selection of poems written by Bolger also appears, marking special events in his life, with notes on the inspiration of each.

Both series are attractive, slim paperbacks whose covers don't announce their purpose, and in the best books from each, neither does the writing.

Linda Newbery

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