A brand, spanking new book by Shirley Hughes? Her first novel you say? Count me in; I think I've mentioned before I'm a bit of a fan.
'Hero on a Bicycle' is a tautly written thriller set in and around Nazi-occupied Florence at the end of the war. Thirteen year old Paolo and his older sister Constanza must tread a careful diplomatic path with both neighbours and occupying forces; their mother is British and their anti-Fascist father has disappeared to join the Partisans.
Paolo however, has a teenage boy's thirst for adventure and his illicit night time sorties on his bicycle soon ensure that keeping a low profile is going to get even trickier. The whole family become involved in hiding escaped Allied prisoners and aiding the local Partisans hiding in the mountains. And as the end of the war draws closer and invading troops arrive on the doorstep, the risks begin to escalate.
It's an old fashioned page turner of the best sort. There are cliff hangers a-plenty and just the right amount of Gestapo officers knocking on doors in the dead of night. Having said that it's also as infused with genuine warmth and humanity as Shirley Hughes' books for much younger audiences. The divisions between 'goody' and 'baddy' are not clear cut and the complications of being a teenager evidently don't disappear just because there's a war on. I particularly like the complicated relationship drawn between Constanza and her best friend Hilaria, daughter of wealthy, Nazi-sympathiser black marketeers: A teenage girl friendship of mutual need/envy coupled with mutual distrust that rings very true.
I think this book is probably best enjoyed read aloud as a family. It has a slightly understated air which might lead to it otherwise falling neglected on a bookshelf by those browsing for flashier delights. But as entertainment to be read around a winter fireplace or a holiday patio 'Hero on a Bicycle' will satisfy and grip all ages together; rather like the best bank holiday old movies. It falls into very nice 'installments' and as any Alfie fan knows, Shirley Hughes' prose is always a pleasure to speak. For those with older children who have fallen out of the habit of a nightly bedtime story this would make a lovely reminder of the pleasures of book sharing. Pack a copy for your next family holiday as a better alternative for evening entertainment to watching foreign versions of 'The Weakest Link.'
"Down in the cellar Paolo was standing frozen with fright. He expected a blow, or two hands reaching out from the darkness to lock in a stranglehold on his throat. But the figure a few feet away remained quite still. All he could hear was his own breathing. Agonizing minutes passed.
'Hello?' he whispered hoarsely. No answer. 'Hello?'"
own website here which is full of interesting titbits and a great film of Shirley Hughes explaining how she came to write the book based on her own experiences.
'Hero on a Bicycle' by Shirley Hughes, pub. Walker isbn 978-1-4063-3610-8