Fighting talk

13th May 2005 at 01:00
Key stage 3 fiction with meaty themes reviewed by Nicholas Tucker

Time Bomb By Nigel Hinton Puffin pound;4.99

Under a War-Torn Sky By LM Elliott Usborne pound;5.99

Riding Tycho By Jan Mark Macmillan pound;9.99

Set in the summer of 1949, Nigel Hinton's moving and skilfully written Time Bomb is about growing up while losing some illusions on the way. Told as if by 11-year-old Andrew, it mostly takes place in a London bombsite harbouring good spaces to play. But one day the four boys who go there every day in their holidays discover an unexploded bomb, and after that everything goes sour.

The bomb becomes a symbol for each boy's brooding discontent, with Andrew now out to punish his philandering father after catching him in the act, and his friend Eddie planning to avenge the unjust beating he received from his primary school headmaster on the last day of term.

Their two other friends also have problems, all of which are made worse by the arrival of self-styled Cap - an adult fantasist who soon has Andrew and Eddie eating out of his hand. Cap is a fascist sympathiser, active in the Mosley-inspired marches taking place in London during this time. He is also a vicious anti-Semite, which is hard on Manny, the otherwise amiable Jewish member of the gang.

The best Puffin books have often described the way that children's active fantasy lives can at least in their own eyes sometimes transform otherwise unremarkable everyday events. This fine novel is an excellent addition to this distinguished list.

LM Elliott's Under a War-Torn Sky starts badly with its depiction of a group of virginal American pilots caught up in the Battle of Britain, who are so well behaved that their greatest oath under fire is a mere "Oh God!". But once 19-year-old Henry is forced to bail out over France, everything gets much more convincing.

Based in part on the memories of the author's father, also an American pilot who was shot down during the last war, this story eschews sentimentally patriotic pictures of Vichy France in favour of the more equivocal reality.

The Swiss come in for some harsh comments, too, with Henry in particular danger from some of their gung-ho border guards before finally making it to hospital for treatment for his broken leg. But his troubles are not over yet, with capture by the Gestapo and horrible interrogations still to come.

By now this account has become thoroughly grown-up, with none of the pussy-footing that marred its first few chapters. There are also detailed descriptions of what it was actually like to fly planes in those far-off days when they still possessed rudders that could only be controlled by maintaining constant foot pressure.

Jan Mark is a writer who always delivers, and her futuristic novel, Riding Tycho, reads in many ways like a junior version of Margaret Atwood's unforgettable story, The Handmaid's Tale. Set in a planet long colonised by humans after their own seemed finished, it describes a society where females have to do all the work that males cannot be bothered with, while getting beaten as a matter of routine.

When there are any spare moments, every female is expected to knit; the songs and stories that might have helped sustain such all-consuming work remain unknown. So life is hard and unrewarding for young teenager Demetria, one of whose jobs is to bring food to Ianto Morgan, an older political prisoner living in her garden in something like shed arrest.

Gradually he starts telling her about the old world that he comes from while also providing her with some of the basic knowledge her education had always avoided. But such information proves dangerous, with Demetria finally driven away from her society and left apparently to drown. The first two pages of the planned sequel to this novel are appended, making it clear that Demetria survives her water ordeal at least for the time being.

This should console readers anxious to know what is going to happen next, though they may also wonder why the publishers did not decide to bring out one long book rather than two shorter ones. But no reviewer is likely to complain about a novel of 215 pages while there are so many lesser works around at three times the length.

One of Jan Mark's first and best novels, The Ennead, was also part science fiction, part political satire. Riding Tycho, written 27 years later, is a worthy successor.

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