Fiction

21st January 2000 at 00:00
Sweet Clarinet, James Riordan's first novel, was one of last year's big successes: it won the Nasen children's book award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year. His second novel, The Prisoner (Oxford University Press pound;5.99), is also set during the Second World War, and is an exciting story of what happens when British children find a German airman alive.

The wounded Martin tells the children about his life, and this allows Riordan to paint a vivid and searing picture events such as the Allied bombardment of Dresden. At the back of the book, casualty figures are given for non-combatant deaths in the Second World War all over the world.

Of course, everyone is against the bombing of innocent civilians, but, of all wars, the Second World War was not one in which everything was "topsy-turvy ... with no real goodies or baddies". A novel for children which scarcely even mentions the Nazi death camps shows a disconcerting lack of balance.

The Divine Wind by Gary Disher (Hodder pound;4.99) is set in the same period. There seems to be a flowering of Australian talent, and Hodder is one of the main publishers disseminating it. This is a wonderfully moving, exact and economical retelling of an unusual love story set among the pearl-fishers of northern Australia.

Japan is very close; Mitsy is half Japanese and half Australian. Her father works on Hartley's father's boat, and Hartley tells their story. This is one of the best books I read in 1999, and Disher is someone to watch out for.

I've been a Libby Hathorn fan since reading Thunderwith last year. The Rift (also Hodder pound;4.99) is a story about a religious cult and a rite of passage, and a boy abandoned by his parents. It's about friendship, memory and the need to belong. It's full of the sights and sounds of the sea.

Vaughan wants to join Liam's gang, but frst he has to undergo a terrifying ordeal. It's a riveting tale, and both this book and Gary Disher's manage to combine a page-turning plot with plain, strong, lyrical language. Above all, the feeling that you get from these two novels is that their readers might be of any age. Terrific stuff.

Jean Ure is another writer who refrains from putting on a special tone of voice when writing for older children. Her characteristic blend of witty dialogue, likeable characters and general good sense are all to be found in Just Sixteen (Orchard pound;4.99). It's about Sam and Priya and what happens when they discover that Priya is pregnant. Their reactions to this predicament, and those of their parents, are very plausibly presented.

Ure is careful to present the story kindly and sensibly, but with none of the soft-focus sentimentality that often hovers over such plot-lines. The fact that the story is narrated by Sam may get boys past the attractive but rather girly cover. It ought to be read long before one's 16th birthday.

Terry Jones (and no, I'm not going to be the reviewer who fails to mention the Monty Python connection) is a great jollifier of ancient times. Like Tony Robinson, he has the gift of picking up a historical period by the scruff of the neck, shaking it about a bit and presenting it to children in an engaging way.

The Knight and the Squire, now in paperback (Puffin pound;5.99), has a twist in the tale which may be obvious to seasoned readers, but which will come as a delightful shock to a younger, less knowing audience. And while they're getting to the denouement, everyone will have a rip-snorting, fast-moving, rollicking good time.

The book is greatly enhanced by Michael Foreman's illustrations. Perhaps in the third millennium we can again start giving adults pictures in their books. I live in hope.

Adele Geras


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