Thumping good yarns

Christina Hardyment on the latest adventure stories for older children
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The Independent Culture
Once it was Biggles, Malory Towers and sagas of school holidays that kept children's noses stuck into their books until well after lights were officially out. There are echoes of all these in this new crop of adventure stories, but much has changed. Weather, wizards and strife- torn future worlds are now the dominant themes. Fear is to the fore, distorting today's everyday anxieties into tomorrow's nightmares. It is harder to get away from parents than it used to be, and the said parents are inadequate and preoccupied characters - overweight, out of work and mysteriously ill - rather than calmly responsible dignitaries to whom young adventurers could report missions accomplished. And even in a batch of books carefully selected for action rather than introspection, there are shards of that amateur psychologising that the critic Michele Landsberg derided so aptly as "biblio-therapy" in her classic World of Children's Books (1988).

The good news is that the traditionally high standard of British writing for young people is being maintained. Outstanding in a strong field is Lesley Howarth's Weather Eye (Walker, £8.99), an all too plausible millenial tale of increasingly catastrophic weather conditions catalogued and coped with by an international children's internet society. Telly's family run a windfarm on the edge of Cornwall in 1999, and an accidental blow to her head from a falling turbine blade gives her a brief taste of supernatural powers. Suddenly, she can drive a car, walk as if she wore seven-league- boots, and predict to the minute the time people will die. Managing all these wonders in the context of a totally believable Cornish setting with a degree of suspense and pace that would do credit to Raymond Chandler is no mean feat, but Howarth brings it off triumphantly, and to good purpose, when the calm after the great storm finally descends.

Malorie Blackman's Thief (Doubleday, £9.99) starts in classic school story territory with new girl Lydia implicated as a thief by the school bitch. But then Lydia finds herself in a future world in which her brother, 50 years older and still deeply resentful of the slight to his sister, is running a fascist state. Unlikely, but it works, again because of the author's skill in maintaining the elusive balance between authenticity and fantasy. There is also plenty of room to make points about the implications of surveillance technology, a computer-dominated age with no books and an oppressed underclass.

Janice Brown's A Dangerous Place (Lions Tracks, £3.99) is also set in the future, but the nub of the plot is the all too logical extension of a world in which a few rich are getting indecently richer, and a large number of poor are becoming not only poverty-stricken but unemployable. In a Bonfire of the Vanities scenario, a pupil at an lite training academy for the much-feared and all powerful ruling Corps falls from grace and finds himself hunted and shorn of identity in the urban jungle. Self-recognition comes slowly, inspired by a chance gift of the poems of Robert Frost, and a lifetime's complacent assumptions are contradicted by events. A slightly longer, meatier book would have done more justice to the variety and vividness of Brown's characterisation, but the conclusion pulls no punches.

Andrew Davies's Conrad's War (Penguin, £9.99) is a light-hearted spoof of the Biggles genre, a witty tale of a war-mad boy and his father (a fine self-parodying portrait of the artist as a tubby middle-aged playwright) who share dreams. First they find themselves in a home-made tank that has metamorphosed into a real Centurion and flattened the garage, and then in the cockpit of the Airfix Lancaster bomber, with only half a plastic navigator to guide them over Nuremburg. Captured after crashing (model parachutes don't work too well), Conrad is all set for a heroic escape from Colditz, but finds his fellow prisoners less ambitiously pre-occupied with football. Finally, his shamblingly ineffective father does in fact save the day (an almost unique achievement in the annals of modern fictional parenthood), but Conrad turns unrepentantly to even more horrific schemes for getting his quota of kicks.

Finally, younger children who enjoy series novels will lap up Toby Forward's Wyvern quartet (Wyvern Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, published by Anderson at £8.99 each), vividly illustrated by Michael Foreman. Wyverns are part snakes, part dragons - the word is country parlance for viper - and they haunt the village of Herpeton from the church steeple to the gateposts of ghostly Wyvern Manor. Young Thomas Ketch has inherited the gift of handling them, but are the mysterious new vicar Weaver and the ambiguous Felicity Aylmer goodies or baddies? Layers of history are unfolded with a good many secret passages, locked doors and cunningly concealed clues. But Toby Forward is no C S Lewis, and for all its energetic rattling of magic, his lost medieval world lacks the resonance of Narnia.