How to build a novel

17th September 2004 at 01:00
MURKMERE. By Patricia Elliott. Hodder Children's Books pound;5.99

FROZEN BILLY. By Anne Fine. Doubleday pound;10.99

THE TORTURED WOOD. By Malcolm Rose. THE BEAST. By Ann Evans. Usborne Thrillers pound;4.99 each

Adele Geras ventures into worlds of the imagination that will intrigue young readers in novels for key stage 2 and above

A good novel creates a small world of its own. This fictional universe can be a representation of the actual world or entirely invented, or a combination of reality and fantasy. You can remake the past by setting your story in another time and even then you're not bound to be entirely and strictly factual.

What Patricia Elliott does in her wonderful second book (her first was the prize-winning The Ice Boy) is invite us into a place that reminds us of many different things and yet is none of them. The estate of Murkmere is set in a bleak landscape, and although we're not told when the action takes place, much of the language and details of the decor bring to mind the 17th century. We could be in England, but the religion of the land is a kind of bird worship.

Agnes goes to Murkmere to be a companion to a young woman called Leah. The book has all the Gothic accoutrements you could desire, including sinister servants, a reclusive lord of the manor and a mysterious tower which houses a still more mysterious contraption. The rulers of this place are to be feared and revered.

Most importantly, there is a lake near the house which is home to many swans. How they play their part in the story is one of the beauties of this elegantly written and very atmospheric book which will intrigue readers of 10-plus. The relationship between the two young heroines is particularly moving.

Anne Fine usually writes about the present with a sharp eye for the intricacies of every sort of relationship. Here she's gone back to the days of the Victorian music hall, in a story for readers aged about eight. The narrative unfolds in 10 notebooks which, we are told at the beginning, Clarrie, the heroine, has found and is rereading.

It's only when we reach the end of this cleverly constructed tale that we see why Clarrie wrote the story in the first place. There is every story ingredient you could possibly wish for here, including potentially wicked uncles, a mother who is absent for most of the action, a thrilling theatrical background, children in peril and, best of all, a ventriloquist's dummy called Frozen Billy. Very suitably, it's an overtly theatrical book, full of terrific characters and deceptions and intrigues which rely on disguise and ventriloquism.

The theme of someone talking through another creature is cunningly used throughout the novel, but it never gets too heavy or portentous, or loses sight of who is going to be reading it. It's funny and sad and, although matters become tense at times, there's never too much for a young child to handle. The pictures by Georgina McBain add to the reader's pleasure.

Two books from the Thrillers series on Usborne's new fiction list are well worth seeking out. They are just right for children of about 10 who like stories which are neither too long nor too taxing linguistically, but which still pack a punch.

Malcolm Rose writes about bullying in a tale that moves from school to a possibly haunted wood. It's a gripping story, well and plainly told, and will engage both boys and girls.

Ann Bryant's book is a new take on the traditional "family on holiday" story. It takes place in a Scottish glen where something from very long ago still seems to be around. The grown-ups are oblivious but young Amanda and Grant know there's more to this place than meets the eye. Good spooky stuff from both authors, which also has a firm grip on the real world.

Adele Geras's latest novel for young adults is Other Echoes (David Fickling Books)

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