By Shirley Hughes
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 978 1 4063 3610 8
The title of this first-rate second world war thriller tells you just what you are going to get in Shirley Hughes' splendid debut novel for teenagers.
Paolo Crivelli is an ordinary Italian 13- year-old living in the countryside just outside Florence in 1944. The city and its surrounding areas are under the control of Nazi troops from Germany, but the war is almost over, with rumours of British and Canadian troops advancing from the north to free Italy. Italian partisan freedom fighters are hiding in the hills ready to join the victorious Allies as they sweep south.
Paolo's father vanished from the family farm a long while ago and there is talk he joined the partisan fighters. Life for Paolo, his 16-year-old sister, Constanza, and their English-born mother is a daily round of danger as fighting closes in on their once-peaceful home. As the situation worsens, Paolo finds himself caught up in a deadly game of cat and mouse as he is forced to face the horror of a war he doesn't understand.
Shirley Hughes has been a successful book illustrator for almost four decades but Hero on a Bicycle is her first novel. It is a story she had intended to write since she studied art in Italy just after the end of the second world war. Hughes has never forgotten the people she met in Italy when she was a student and the stories of courage and suffering they told her.
Hero is a very tight and vivid tale focusing on one boy and his family. It is a thrilling and emotional novel about war, but also about courage and love in the face of terrible danger and hardship.
Paolo is at the centre of the action from page one, and he is lively and totally believable. Hughes begins the novel with Paolo riding round occupied Florence at night on his bicycle. One night he is stopped by a group of men, pulled off his bike and dragged into the darkness. What they want from him starts a chain of events that places his and his family's lives in peril.
Signora Crivelli is asked to hide two escaped Allied prisoners until they can be smuggled out of the area. She cannot refuse, but she is terrified she is putting her and her children's life in danger. Hero on a Bicycle moves into top gear as the Crivellis hide the soldiers in their cellar. Novels don't come any more suspenseful than the scenes when Nazis arrive to search the farm.
As you would expect from a renowned illustrator turned novelist, the scene-setting and character detail in Hero on a Bicycle are evocatively drawn and help to make the book unputdownable. This is a novel well worth searching out to on bookshop shelves groaning with rows of vampire, magical and dystopian tales. The hero on a bicycle is an ordinary boy, but his story is anything but ordinary. Strongly recommended as a thrilling and original read.
You can read more about the novel's historical background at www.heroonabicycle.co.uk.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com