CHILDREN'S BOOKS / Old haunts, and dances with elves: Nicholas Tucker on a grisly clutch of children's stories, full of ghosts, kidnappers and cliffhangers

ALAS, poor ghosts] Driven out of adult literature by the sceptical, psychological age in which we live, they tend now to be relegated mainly to children's books. And even here they are often only a shadow of their former selves.

In Penelope Farmer's novel Penelope (Bodley Head pounds 9.99), the ghost of a child of two centuries ago is felt rather than seen, making her presence known to her young contemporary ancestor through sudden sharp, inexplicable memories. Erasmus Darwin and William Blake rub shoulders with Michael Jackson, and the haunting of young Penelope finally gets close to madness. Some readers between 10 and 12 may find it rather tame, preferring the full-blooded spirits that haunt today's video games. But for an already bookish child, this is an excellent novel by a constantly intriguing author, returning to something like the strength of her previous classic, Charlotte Sometimes.

Catherine Storr, another fine writer, does not have the same success with The Mirror Image Ghost (Faber pounds 9.99). Here, the truly disagreeable 11-year-old Lisa finds she can contact her Jewish grandfather back in time as a boy in Vienna and so warn him to leave Austria as soon as possible. But she already knows her grandfather well as an old man living nearby. Some rather tentative explanations of the different possible workings of time fail to address her confusion here and, I suspect, that of the reader too. Meanwhile Lisa pursues her own war against two French step-children added to the family against her wishes. Her bitterness is understandable but also, over 170 pages, somewhat repetitive. Readers anxious to acquaint themselves with this author at her best must still return to Marianne Dreams, later made into a powerful horror film The Paper House.

Kenneth Lillington's A Trick Of The Dark (Faber pounds 9.99) does not contain ghosts, but features some thoroughly nasty elves. The elves begin as literary creations, characters in the sagas of the Tolkien- like 'Professor Bodkin', but they soon take on a life of their own in the real world, where, with fiendish gusto, they take advantage of human weakness. Given the potentialities of his plot, the author disappointingly steps away from full engagement with it. Circular arguments and half-felt relationships abound, almost as if the elves themselves had taken a hand in the writing, leading the reader a merry dance that never really gets anywhere in the end.

Despite its sinister cover, Vivien Alcock's The Face At The Window (Methuen pounds 9.99) does not contain anything supernatural. Instead, the face here belongs to Erri, a young illegal immigrant sheltered by children whose mother who is an enthusiastic charity worker. Rather unfairly perhaps, she is picked out as a soft target for particular scorn simply for daring occasionally to put the importance of social issues ahead of the immediate gratification of her own family. But faced with a flesh and blood challenge, she funks it, leaving her own children and the girl next door to attempt to hide Erri for themselves. The children inevitably quarrel, and the whole adventure, with its final near-happy solution, is described very plausibly. Yet the total effect is ultimately rather claustrophobic, like those studio-bound films that cannot afford to go out on location. So much hiding in dark rooms leaves one longing for fresh air.

Much more ozone is on hand in Ruth Thomas's Hideaway (Hutchinson pounds 8.99). Maintaining the somewhat grim outlook set by all these titles, this novel describes three children kidnapped by a fat crook after they realise he is using his camper-van for transporting stolen goods. The children are later dumped in the wilds of Dartmoor, with new complications arising when their leader decides he does not want to return to his home where he has always been unhappy. Life in the open is not so bad until the van's food runs out and one of the children falls dangerously ill with asthma. Seeing his dream disintegrate, the child leader attempts to kidnap the other two for himself rather than let them seek adult help. At this stage the story turns very dark, with overtones of recent, tragic cases of children kidnapping others smaller than themselves. Ruth Thomas is a good writer and this is a powerful story, though not really an enjoyable one.

The Kidnapping Of Suzie Q (Hamish Hamilton pounds 8.99) carries on with this theme, though now it concerns a criminal teenage gang making away with a resourceful 11- year-old after a hold-up that goes wrong. Catherine Sefton (as the Irish author Martin Waddell sometimes prefers to call himself) is an expert writer. Each chapter ends on a cliff-hanging note, and the events described read exactly as if they had really happened. Not a word is wasted, and the only disappointment is that it is all over too quickly. Large print is partly to blame here, using up a lot of space while giving the misleading impression of writing aimed at a much younger audience. In fact, tough 10 to 12 year olds will find much that will grip them, with the extra satisfaction of knowing that Suzie will always make it in the end, while her initially frightening but ultimately pathetic captors are bound to fail.

Theresa Tomlinson's The Herring Girls (Julia MacRae pounds 9.99) is something different: a historical novel set in late 19th-century Whitby and featuring 13-year-old Dory suddenly faced with becoming the family bread-winner. In this she has the support of her whole community, seen here as almost relentlessly goodhearted. So while the details of Dory's day-to- day life are convincingly tough, the story's atmosphere is firmly up-beat, like the old historical reconstructions on the BBC's Children's Hour, where goodness always managed to win through whatever the odds. But after so much disaster in previous books, it would be churlish now to spurn such a nice little story for being too cheerful. The text is also enormously enhanced by the addition of grainy period photographs by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, now housed in Whitby's own Sutcliffe Gallery.

No hopes of any cheerfulness, though, in Katherine Paterson's Flip-Flop Girl (Gollancz pounds 9.99). Nine-year-old Vinnie loses her father from cancer and sees her five- year-old brother turn into an elective mute. She then moves to a new area she hates, inhabited by other children who dislike her almost as much as she detests them. The only hope is a nice English teacher and another outcast pupil whose father is in prison for murdering his wife. Bonjour tristesse] Katherine Paterson has done some good work in the past, but Flip- Flop Girl is definitely more flop than flip.

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'