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Step by Wicked Step, By Ann Fine, Hamish Hamilton Pounds 9.99 0 241 00161 7. Anne Fine is adept at portraying the emotional pressure of being a teenager in distressing family circumstances with a lightness of touch that prevents it becoming overwhelming.

Step by Wicked Step opens with a mixed group of five adolescents on their way to Hardwick Hall in the school minibus. They arrive among the looming ivy clad towers amidst a fine old spooky night of thunder claps and lightning flashes. In a cobwebbed back room behind a secret door they discover a handwritten document headed "Richard Clayton Hardwick - My Story: Read and Weep."

This is an account of how a hundred years earlier or more, the original owner of the hall had run away to sea to escape his wicked bullying stepfather, thereby destroying the happiness of his mother and loving sister.

History and a century of dust give this harrowing tale a comfortable distance from the reader, but it prompts the five children to tell their own stories when they discover that they too are juggling with the emotional conflicts occasioned by living with a step-parent.

Anne Fine writes about these problems with directness, warmth and optimism. Four of the young teenagers have found some kind of compromise and way forward by facing up to their problems and eventually being outspoken. But sandwiched between the stories of these emotionally robust survivors is the pathos of Colin, still missing the step-dad he and his mother left when Colin was much younger. The step-dad was kind but feckless, and Colin's mother left no forwarding address. Although for years afterwards the heartbroken boy cuddles an old tobacco tin to remember the smell of his step-dad's woolly pullover, his mother has no idea of Colin's secret yearning, nor of his plans to go looking for him when he's old enough, leaving her no forwarding address. His plea reflects a feeling common at some time to all five of the children, "I get the feeling that Mum thinks the things that are happening to both of us are only really happening to her."

The counselling Colin receives from the others may avert another family disaster, and a message of hope runs through these accurately observed and moving stories. In writing so clearly without losing human depth, Anne Fine proves herself once again to be a children's writer of rare gifts.

David Buckley

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