God's helpline

21st April 2000 at 01:00
Amber's Secret by Ann Pilling (Collins Children's Books, pound;9.99) is a beguilingly simple but very effective novel set in the 1950s, a decade rapidly acquiring the same patina of historical charm that the Edwardian and Victorian epochs held for earlier generations of children.

The period atmosphere is enhanced by the choice of illustrator, Victor Ambrus, whose delicate drawings decorate the start of each chapter.

Amber, a gypsy girl in possession of many secrets, disappears from the book after the early chapters, but not without revealing the secret referred to in the book's title - that God has a direct phoneline. It is just as well for Sally, the main character, for she quickly needs to call upon divine assistance.

Sally's father is working abroad. Her mother is seriously ill in hospital with a mysterious tropical disease. o Sally is being looked after by Mrs Spinks, a cold but considerate next-door neighbour, who has not yet accustomed herself to the end of wartime rationing.

On one of Sally's regular return visits to her own home, in order to feed her pet mouse, she accidentally pulls down a prized family possession, the grandfather clock.

The book's title is intentionally ironic, since for most of the novel the one with a secret is Sally, who has to try and keep from Mrs Spinks the fact that the clock lies shattered and splintered.

The phone number does not work in the way expected, but it does put Sally in touch with some godlike souls, including a kind clockmender, who helps to repair the damage. Ann Pilling, known mainly for the televised Henry's Leg, has written an accessible and suspenseful feelgood novel for Year 3 and up.

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