Children's fiction

27th July 2007 at 01:00
Nicholas Tucker uncovers a darker side of literature

Incantation

By Alice Hoffman

Egmont Press pound;5.99

11-plus

Verdigris Deep

By Frances Hardinge

Macmillan Children's Books pound;10.99

Nine-plus

Alice Hoffman's Incantation is a beautifully written story about a desperately grim subject. Set in Spain of old, it describes the persecution of those Jews who despite converting to Christianity still faced random accusation swiftly followed by torture and execution.

Teenage narrator Estrella sees first the neighbours and then her own family get caught up in a collective outburst of hate and malice. Her only remaining friends in the town are Muslims living in their own quarter who offer to help despite ever-present danger to themselves. There is also Andres, her gentile boyfriend, who finally escapes with her to Holland. Sparely told, allowing the terrible events described to speak for themselves, this arresting story has more than a few messages for international politicians today.

Frances Hardinge is a master of language and her second novel Verdigris Deep buzzes with phrases like "knuckle duster humour" or "kitten-tottering helplessness". I also liked the description of a scatty mother as "busy in the way that a moth crashing about in a lampshade is busy". But this talent does not extend here into a good choice of plot, and this story, about a disused well presided over by an evil witch, does not always convince.

Disturbed by three pre-teenagers in search of discarded coins to pay for the bus ride home, the witch imposes a difficult mission upon them: nothing less than to make all the previous wishes associated with the same coins come true. This proves to be dangerous, with fulfilled wishes having a nasty habit of causing more harm than good. Unpredictable, sometimes plain zany, here is an author who whatever else is never dull.

The same could be said of Cliff McNish, whose Angel is a brave attempt to breathe new life into these heavenly creatures without being either sentimental or religiously doctrinaire.

This he achieves by creating different types of angels some of whom are more helpful than others towards Freya, the 14-year-old heroine of this story. She attends a school where vicious bullying goes on incessantly without anyone ever complaining about it.

No doubt such places still exist, but it would be nice for a change to read a novel where victims are shown using the mechanisms that schools have in place for tackling such situations. Tense, quirky and highly individual, this story has plenty going for it.

Finally, two Diana Wynne Jones paperbacks to take on holiday: The Pinhoe Egg, published last year, is the most recent Chrestomanci story, and very good too. Look out also for her re-issued The Skiver's Guide, an amusingly sly survey first published in 1984 of all the various excuses and strategies most often put forward in the cause of avoiding wor *

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