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Thursday, April 3, 2003

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Going for Stone," "Through the Night"


"Going for Stone," Philip Gross, Oxford University Press; 2002; 224 pp.

It seems there's only one thing more terrifying than anything you could dream up -- the world you actually live in. Nick is a teenager who hasn't seen much of that world while growing up, but he's in for a shock when he leaves home. He has no money, nowhere to go -- and nowhere to return to after falling out with his mother's boyfriend. Now he must discover the freedom, but also the terror, of being on his own.

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He meets a group of street performers -- human statues, who stand still for hours on end, in blustery cold and driving rain, to eke out a living. But that's not the only reason that the "Stone Saints" stand outside an old church building pretending to be statues; or that the "Tin Man" gets dressed in his fake armor for the tourists; or that Swan, whom Nick falls for, poses as a graceful clockwork ballerina. They're all praying they'll get noticed -- by the "Watchers."

All this talk about Watchers seems too crazy to believe, but there doesn't seem to be any other way for a young runaway to survive the streets. It's every man for himself and so Nick finds himself a character -- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart -- and a public spot, and stands still. He discovers how arduous this is, how the muscles beg for movement, how the mind screams for stimulation; and when a passerby puts a coin into the collection box at his feet, Nick starts to play jerkily on his white plastic recorder. Someone watches him from the crowd -- the shadowy Antonin. He makes Nick and Swan an offer that the others would die for.

Within the high walls of Antonin's secret academy, Nick and Swan must learn the art of becoming absolutely still, of "going for stone." The manipulative Antonin watches his students around the clock, and they will do anything to please him. Anything. Nick is desperate to be picked for great things by Antonin and to find a sense of family -- but how far will he go?

Before long, Nick finds himself trapped in a bizarre cult, face-to-face with an unfathomable insanity from which he must save himself and Swan.

Taut, tense and suspenseful, this is a cautionary tale of what can happen if you slip through the safety net of ordinary life. When you're a lonely, insecure teenager it seems that there's nothing more terrifying than being down and out, but there is -- there are people out there waiting to feed on your need to belong. Sometimes, as Nick finds out for himself, getting out alive is more important than fitting in.

This is by far the most frightening children's book I've read. No monsters, no magic, just real fear about real things. Dare to pick it up only if you're prepared for a story that will suck you in and wring you dry.

For children 12-16 years. Parental guidance strongly recommended because of violent content. Available at online book stores.

"Through the Night," Michael Cronin, Oxford University Press; 2002; 170 pp.

There's something about war novels that makes them riveting reads: invading forces, resistance movements and spy games. Of all war stories, the one in which the Nazis are the bad guys is a favorite -- and that's one thing that makes Michael Cronin's sequel to "Against the Day" an easy read.

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"Against the Day" depicted how life might have been if the Nazis had invaded Britain. Frank and Les, two boys living in England under Nazi occupation, are getting an unpleasant introduction to the ruthless ways of the Gestapo and looking for a way to fight back. A Resistance movement is born and all over Britain, people are quietly forming alliances and waiting for the day of uprising to come.

In "Through the Night," fast-forward on two years: The Nazis are still in Britain and the occupation has lowered the morale of the people. The uprisings detailed in "Against the Day" have been crushed by horrific reprisals, and hope is lost.

But not all of it. Frank and Les are still waiting to be given one more chance to fight the Germans. Then a salesman comes to town to sell cleaning brushes -- but Frank suspects that there's more to Mr. Crompton than he lets on. Meanwhile, Peter Sims, headmaster of Shevington School, is trying to unearth the history of a villa that he believes survived from Roman Britain. Why not look to the past when both the present and the future hold little promise? Or so he believes, until his help, too, is called for.

At home, for both Frank and Les, things are taking a turn for the worse. Frank's uncle, a POW, is released by the Germans, but he returns home a broken man. And Les' sister falls in love -- with a German soldier. Although he promises never to harm her, can he be trusted? Can she?

Slowly, secretly, a new Resistance is forming. Someone is sending out coded radio transmissions, and the Germans have called in a wireless expert to pinpoint where the messages are being sent out from. A rebellion is under way -- and Frank and Les are about to experience the most dangerous days of their lives.

This alternative history realistically depicts an uneasy environment in which no one can be trusted and nothing can be taken for granted. The story of what it is like to be occupied by a foreign army -- curfews, codes, ambushes, surprise raids -- is told with powerful immediacy. This is a war story, but it's not about the fighting that takes place on the frontline. It's about underground movements born in small towns, thanks to ordinary people who take great risks and are willing to fight to the finish to be free. Perhaps this will whet your appetite for true stories of what life must have really been like in the occupied countries in World War II.

For children 12-14 years. Available at online book stores.


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