cover image Step by Wicked Step

Step by Wicked Step

Anne Fine. Little Brown and Company, $15.95 (144pp) ISBN 978-0-316-28345-8

In classic thriller fashion, it is a wild and stormy night when five British schoolchildren arrive ahead of their classmates for a week-long field trip at ""haunted"" Old Harwick Hall. With the aid of flashes of lightning, the two girls and three boys find a long-abandoned secret room containing a mysterious journal. All signs point to a ghost story, but Fine (Alias Madame Doubtfire; Flour Babies) adroitly sidesteps the obvious. The story recounted in the journal, about a boy who runs away from the sinister influence of a loveless stepfather, inspires the five students, all of whom also have ""steps,"" or step-parents, to share their own sagas. And what engrossing, heartrending stories they are: of hurting but still humorous kids picking their way through a minefield of embittered or uncommunicative-or just plain immature-parents, insecure or reluctant stepparents and resentful step-siblings. Fine has an uncanny gift for dialogue, and her protagonists voice subtle perceptions in the clearest and most natural of terms. She wrests the fullest emotions from her scenarios, presenting daily life in all its comedy and drama. An immensely humane work. Ages 10-up. (May)