Time to think

19th August 2005 at 01:00
Elaine Williams selects fiction that combines myth, magic and murder.

The New Policeman. By Kate Thompson. The Bodley Head pound;10.99

The Beasts of Clawstone Castle. By Eva Ibbotson. Macmillan Children's Books pound;12.99.

Zip's Apollo. By Philip Ridley. Puffin pound;4.99.

The Secret Country. By Jane Johnson. Simon Schuster pound;12.99.

Seven for a Secret. By Clive Woodall. Ziji Publishing pound;9.99.

The Last Black Cat. By Eugene Trivizas. Egmont pound;4.99

Where does the time go? How often do we hear that refrain? Children as well as adults never seem to find enough hours for all they need to do.

Shirley Hughes, the children's illustrator and author, has said that it was having the time to be bored and stare at her feet as a young girl that helped to unleash her imagination and make her the consummate storyteller she is today. Children, she said, need the time to let their minds wander, to watch their feet sink into puddles or, as Kate Thompson writes in her novel The New Policeman, "to pick an ash plant and wallop the heads off stinging nettles, time to pop the big white bindweed flowers out of their little green beds".

Children on the cusp of puberty are only too aware of the pressures of time as they face the demands of schooling and growing up. The New Policeman is one of a clutch of novels for those aged 10 and above that deals with this issue in a lyrical, romantic fashion. Thompson has woven a shimmering story linking time with magic that undoubtedly secures her place as a queen of contemporary Irish children's narrative. The New Policeman tells the tale of JJ, a gifted 15-year-old fiddle player from a family renowned throughout the west of Ireland for its traditional musicianship. JJ's mother Helen deeply regrets that she rarely has time to practise the reels and ballads that she and her son love to play together. When, in a wistful moment, she declares that what she wants for her birthday is more time, JJ resolves to buy it for her.

His quest takes him into his family's dark history. Can it be true that his great-grandfather was a murderer? And what is the true identity of the policeman Larry O'Dwyer, called in to investigate JJ's mysterious disappearance? This masterfully structured novel threads together the magic of myth and music. Every chapter, which ends with the musical notation of a traditional jig as well as one of Thompson's own compositions, adds to its rich, melodious quality. A truly inspiring achievement.

The Beasts of Clawstone Castle by Eva Ibbotson follows the classic convention of sending children to stay with eccentric relatives who draw them into fantastical adventures. Madlyn and Rollo's parents are trying to make ends meet in London, so when they get the chance to earn decent cash running a design course in New York, they persuade the children to stay with Uncle George at Clawstone Castle on the Scottish borders. There they become embroiled in a baroque saga with a bunch of gruesome but loveable ghosts to save his famous Wild White Cattle. The book has all of Ibbotson's gentle wisdom and is a tribute to her inventiveness as well as her lucid prose and lightness of touch.

In Zip's Apollo, Philip Ridley tells the uplifting story of Zip and his little brother Newt, New Age children who have to leave their woodland home to live on a new estate next to a supermarket. But even here there is magic, if you have the time and inclination to look for it. Zip and Newt's unlikely affiliation with a living, speaking supermarket trolley brings them into contact with true friends and gives hope for the future. This is Ridley as a wildly playful contemporary commentator; enchantment dished up with many current themes.

Like Kate Thompson, Jane Johnson chooses a changeling child as the pivotal character in her debut children's novel, The Secret Country. When Ben sets out to buy Mongolian fighting fish from Mr Dodds's Pet Emporium, he begins an adventure of discovery about his birth. He is taken like Harry Potter between two worlds, that of suburbia and that of magic, in a perilous journey upon which his mother's life depends.

The nature of prejudice and bigotry and the power of propaganda are the thought-provoking themes of two absorbing novels. Clive Woodall's Seven for a Secret, the sequel to his highly acclaimed One for Sorrow, continues the epic struggle of Birddom against the destructive tendency of the Corvidae - the magpies, crows, jays and other scavengers that seek domination. But man is also hell-bent on annihilating nature, and the owls, robins, chaffinches and kites have to muster all their courage and ingenuity to secure their salvation. Woodall remains compelling as he explores the extent of cruelty, loyalty and love.

The Last Black Cat, an evocative fable by Eugene Trivizas, explores the descent of a nation into murderous fanaticism. Black cats take the blame for human problems on a Mediterranean island, and the human population is goaded into trying to exterminate them. This is a heart-warming story even as it reaches the depths of its material, and a good introduction for older primary children to issues surrounding genocide.

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