BOOKS FOR CHILDREN FICTION: 8 to 12

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The Independent Culture
2 Conrad's War by Andrew Davies, Dutton £9.99. Inspired by pre- adolescent undeclared war with his failed playwright father, giving vent to the usual mixture of unlocated anger and freshly learned vocab, Conrad builds a tank from his sister's pram. Mira-culously, though, the creation leaks trails of diesel and ploughs through the garage wall. His fantasies blessed with new realism, Conrad goes on a bombing raid in his home-made Avro Lancaster, only to find his parent is the incompetent rear gunner. His father, "the great writer", a bog-bound thinker, eventually proves his worth by absent-mindedly exasperating a German interrogator after the pair are forced to bail out. With strong descriptive and comic action, Conrad's War gives fresh life to Boy's Own themes like escape from Colditz by using the on-going real-life settings as the props and inspiration for the hero's fantasies. Nicely depicts the growing confidence of early adolescence and the simultaneous retreat into day-dreams. Julius Duthy

2 Step By Wicked Step by Anne Fine, Hamish Hamilton £9.99. Five weary children on a school trip tumble out of a minibus at creepy Harwick Hall and are bundled upstairs to bed by their teacher. The five have something in common - they've been picked from one of Miss O'Dell's "special" lists - but they don't know what. As they sit up watching for ghosts, they glimpse, in a flash of lightning, a mysterious door. Inside is a room and a journal, written by an unhappy boy in Harwick Hall long before. Fine uses these tempting supernatural trappings to draw out a corresponding story from each child. What the ill-assorted group have in common, they discover as the night wears on, are broken homes and step-parents, hence the title's pun. Claudia, Robbo, Pixie, Colin and Ralph are perhaps unrealistically supportive and sensitive as they share in turn their anger and sadness, but the stories cleverly dramatise the many ways in which families can break up, and Fine's ear for the back-and-forth misery of inconclusive family rowing is as keen as ever. Suzi Feay

2 When She Hollers by Cynthia Voigt, Collins £8.99. On the day of reckoning for 18-year-old Tish, who is being abused by her step-father, she arms herself with a survival knife. The story follows her increasing resolve, through arguing with friends, teachers and herself, not to let her stepfather get away with his crimes any longer. Her situation is made worse by having to hide the knowledge that a school friend committed suicide because she was also being abused. The story is told in semi-stream of consciousness interspersed with dialogue which can lapse into almost soapy melodrama. But the theme is dealt with unsparingly and there is insight into the mixture of cynicism and emotional confusion of the heroine struggling with her secrets. Julius Duthy

2 Weather Eye by Lesley Howarth, Walker £8.99. Telly Craven has had an NDE (Near Death Experience, to you and me) and isn't quite the same again. To begin with, she knows exactly how long each of her friends has to live; later, she is joined by "Lightfoot", the young boy who died in one of the violent storms that shook their homes so mysteriously. The weather is changing dangerously fast, in 1999; Telly, who becomes a "Weather Eye" on the Internet, is one of the few who knows why - and what to do about it. "Situation changeable", her report reads. "Outlook improving. Kids, active on all fronts. Adults, brighter later ..." A fine suspense novel, preferably for Internet surfers . Catherine Storey

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