By L.J. Adlington
Published by Hodder Children's Books
ISBN 978 0 340 95682 3
Teenage novels as powerful and intelligent as Lucy Adlington's Burning Mountain don't come along very often. When they do, they remind you what good writing is all about.
This complex and brilliantly written book packs a lot into its 300 pages. It covers separate but connected events in three time periods, and when everything comes together at the end, the author rounds off the story with a clever twist.
The burning mountain of the title is the Italian volcano Vesuvius, which famously erupted in AD 79, burying the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum under tonnes of lava and ash. The volcano erupted again in 1944 as the second world war battle of Monte Cassino was being fought nearby.
Burning Mountain brings together these two dramatic historical events, blending in the story of two British teenagers of today whose elder brother is fighting in the war in Afghanistan. The story is so thrillingly and skilfully told that at times you will forget you are reading fiction.
Adlington begins her story simply but dramatically in Pompeii as a Roman soldier tries in vain to help terrified citizens as burning ash and molten lava engulf them.
In present-day England, Craig and Denise wait daily for news of their soldier brother. They have experience of the tragedy of war - their father was killed in the Gulf war in the 1990s. War happens in faraway places, the teens observe, but it's always present in the lives of these two ordinary youngsters.
The teenagers live next door to the Shepherds, a quiet, elderly couple. Left to themselves while their mother works long hours, Denise and her younger brother make friends with their elderly neighbours, who tell them the story of a soldier fighting in Italy during the second world war.
In war-torn Italy in 1944, a young German soldier develops a friendship with an aristocratic Italian girl who is reduced to stealing on the streets to survive.
As the bombing of the city of Naples gets worse, the two young people witness the horror of war and the hopelessness of their future. The Burning Mountain watches, ready to add a darkness of its own. As Dr Shepherd tells Craig and Denise: "War is not a different world. It happens in the world normal people live in. It happens to civilians. To families."
Burning Mountain covers a lot of ground but stays on a very human and personal level. The historical elements are well researched and presented at a good pace and with energy. And the surprise at the end perfectly rounds off the this smart, thought-provoking story.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com