A fire spreads from Sydney;Children's books

8th May 1998 at 01:00
POWER TO BURN. By Anna Fienberg. Hodder. pound;3.99.

THE HOUSE GUEST By Eleanor Nilsson. Puffin. pound;4.99.

IRON HEADS. By Susan Gates. Oxford University Press. pound;5.99.

MINE. By Caroline Pitcher. Mammoth. pound;4.50.

Australian authors are on a roll, writes Joanna Porter.

Teenage Britain's infatuation with all things Australian has nudged publishers towards writers with long-established reputations down under. Sydney-based novelist Anna Fienberg, for instance, has been a regular on Australian Children's Book of the Year shortlists since the late Eighties. Power to Burn is the first novel for an older age group that she has published in Britain.

This extravagant fantasy transfers swiftly to a European context. Roberto, a 14-year-old Italian-Australian, has magical powers that enable him to burst into flames, and ignite others too. His anxious parents send him to visit relatives in Italy where he finds that his long-lost twin sister, Angelica, has also inherited la magia, but is better able to use it positively. Together, they resolutely contend with the similarly "gifted" Aunt Lucrezia, who poses a threat to the country.

Multicoloured melodramas ensue with inflaming (and freezing) special effects, combined with such meticulous and affectionate reconstructions of life in Italy that one is reminded of E M Forster's maxim that fantasy fiction can be a matter of simply writing honestly about Grand Tour marvels.

Less showily, but still more memorably, Eleanor Nilsson's The House Guest (winner of numerous accolades in Australia) offers an impressive study in adolescent confusion, frustration and inertia. Hard-knock Gunnar (nicknamed Gunno) commits himself to clever-clever housebreaking after his mum walks out. Drawn repeatedly to the same suburban property, he develops phantom friendships with the inhabitants via their CDs, videos and discarded childhood novels. But his real longings, like those of all the characters, remain ill-defined.

Informed throughout by references to Ursula Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthsea, and with an epilogue urging a reading of the Old Icelandic Njal's Saga, this book will keep you reading well into the small hours and could surely be the stuff of arresting TV serialisation.

Iron Heads brings us back home but denies us any sense of terra firma. Rather, we have crunchy shells and sloppy mud beneath our feet as we explore an uncanny offshore island somewhere beyond Lincoln with the alienated Rachel.

She is tormented by the local kids, whose gaping mouths and lolling tongues are stained virulent blue by the abundant skyberries, terrified by the sudden and impenetrable fogs and further confounded by unfathomable tidal patterns. This is seriously disarming reading, but, despite everything, Rachel ensures that her new community escapes imminent disaster in a nail-chewing Hound of the Baskervilles-style climax. Today's happy endings, this 1990s teen heroine concedes, must have a bitter-sweet flavour if they are to happen at all.

Finally, a super-subtle read - Caroline Pitcher's Mine. This book's slim packaging belies its narrative complexity. Seventeen-year-old Shelley lends a tolerant ear to two disembodied females from 18th-century Derbyshire, each telling a painful, autobiographical story. Shelley realises that her own well-being is similarly dependent upon telling her tale - or what she knows of it - so that three voices interweave harmoniously, each one with its own unmistakable register.

Mine values articulation for its own sake, no matter how guttural or raw the voice. If ever a book endorses the idea that "it's good to talk", this has to be it.

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