Diversionary tactics

29th August 1997 at 01:00
Outside Permission By Eleanor Nilsson Viking #163;7.99

Forever X By Geraldine McCaughrean Oxford #163;5.99

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple By Karen Cushman Macmillan #163;3.99

Tell No One Who You Are By Walter Buchignani Puffin #163;4.99

If the holiday reading lists have not been started yet, use them to line the hamster cage and reach for diversions that are neither too lightweight nor too overtly self-improving.

Outside Permission is a sophisticated, deeply uncomfortable thriller with believable lads-about-town characters whose worst problem is mild self-obsession until they attract the attention of invisible, powerful enemies.

David and Simon live in a society indistinguishable from present-day Adelaide, except that Big Brother holds secret files which predetermine the date of each citizen's death. When David sneaks a look at his file, it's bad news. His remaining lifespan begins to seem as unreal as the romantic fiction his mother edits and his mood swings between lethargic misery and hyperactivity. Meanwhile, there is something strange about Simon's support group for young people with cancer.

From the pure X-Files stuff of Nilsson's ending, guaranteed to cast a chill over the end of summer, to Geraldine McCaughrean's tragicomic Forever X. This X stands for Xmas, which is grimly celebrated year-round at the Partridges' hotel. When the Shepherds come seeking room at the inn (don't worry, there's also Holly, Ivy, Joy, the Starrs and an Angel up a tree), the festivities are grinding on Australian style, in a heatwave.

The author's reputation as a prolific, skilled and witty re-teller of myths, legends and strange tales tends to eclipse her original novels. Forever X is a sharply plotted farce with only one joke, but lots of punchlines and acid undertones.

It's easy to mock the Partridges' daily Christmases, complete with frozen turkeys, sweet sherry and dreary parlour games (bring your own miserable children and desperate adults), but McCaughrean doesn't miss the poignancy of the hotel's unique selling point - packaged happiness for people who have missed out on the real thing, or think they have.

In Karen Cushman's latest historical narrative, the Whipples attract a similar collection of waifs, strays, oddballs and failed dreamers when they open a boarding house for the Forty-Niners of Lucky Diggins in the California goldfields. California Whipple, named embarrassingly after the future Golden State, defiantly calls herself Lucy and keeps her heart firmly back East. Massachusetts represents not only civilisation and luxuries such as fresh fruit and books, but Lucy's past life with her beloved late father.

Lucy Whipple does for the gold rush what Cushman's previous excellent titles, Catherine Called Birdy and The Midwife's Apprentice, did for the Middle Ages. Historical detail is absorbed almost invisibly alongside the strong central account of Lucy's struggle to put down roots in harsh new terrain.

R#231gine Miller, interviewed by Walter Buchignani for his low-key, touching fictionalised account of her survival of the Holocaust, had even more incentive to reinvent herself in alien surroundings. She was one of 4,000 Belgian Jewish children who were helped by the Resistance to "disappear" for the duration of the Nazi Occupation. Eight-year-old R#231gine was given a new identity and taken in by non-Jewish farmers who assumed that she simply needed country air. The charade saw her safely to 1945, but none of her family survived and the scars of years of isolation and subterfuge ran deep. A sombre, but not gruelling tale, with a bearable resolution - R#231gine is alive today.

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