Books: Christmas dystopia

Parents, ghosts, the future, bullying and lemonade - exciting and challenging stories for more advanced readers
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The Independent Culture
2 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J K Rowling, Bloomsbury pounds 10.99. You've probably already heard of J K Rowling's Smarties Award- winning and Carnegie Medal-nominated Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Bloomsbury pounds 6.99). It was an imaginative, witty and fast-paced debut that clearly struck a chord with a whole generation of young readers wondering where all the fun and magical things happen in this life. (It turns out you have to get on the train at King's Cross, platform 9 3/4 and go to Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.) Now Rowling's budding wizards and witches return for their second year of Potions, Defence against the Dark Arts and Broomstick-flying lessons. It's got everything a good sequel should have - the same formula as the original but with extra action and more jokes. Bloomsbury assures us that there are a total of seven Harry Potter books planned (although whether the young wizard will still be as charming when he gets into the sixth form remains to be seen).

2 The Boggart and the Monster by Susan Cooper (Bodley Head pounds 10.99) is another supernatural sequel, set amid the castles and lochs of Scotland, starring three children, a few initially sceptical adults, a Boggart (a friendly poltergeist) and the Loch Ness Monster. It lacks the mysticism and scariness of Cooper's earlier, brilliant The Dark is Rising sequence, but is enjoyable nonetheless.

2 Rosie Rushton's latest additions to the ever-increasing What a Week ... and Girls series of books are based on the premise that parents, and mothers in particular, were invented solely to embarrass their children and destroy their social lives. For example in Melissa (Piccadilly pounds 5.99) the protagonist's mother has got the most embarrassing job in the universe (curate of a village church) and subsequently dragged her away from London and her friends to the countryside. And in What a Week To Fall in Love (Puffin pounds 3.99), Holly's mother ruins her life by refusing to let her have a decent birthday party, and as for her father's hobby - battle re- enactment - how embarrassing ... The girls realise the importance of friendship, not to take the advice of Just Seventeen too seriously, and build new relationships with their parents. What a Week ... also comes with a handy luminous green nail file attached to the cover, presumably so that you can keep your nails neat and at least part of your brain occupied while you are reading it.

2 Crashing (Scholastic pounds 4.99), by the 19- year-old Chris Wooding is a rites-of-passage story of an after-exam party, held for a group of 16- year-olds who may appear very convincing to a 12-year-old reader. Jay, the narrator and host, fears that his friends may soon start to drift apart and wants his party to bring them closer together while also allowing him to get closer to Jo Anderson. Crashing has no adult characters but it remains rather well behaved. There is a lot of drinking, a bit of fighting and one snog but everyone gets what they want or deserve, and unlike 17- year-old Rebecca Ray's unsettling debut A Certain Age or Melvyn Burgess's brilliant Junk, its readers won't have to hide it from their parents to stop them finding out what 16-year-olds really get up to.

2 The Crowstarver by Dick King Smith (Doubleday pounds 10.99) is set on a farm in Yorkshire from the 1920s to the 40s. It tells the story of John "Spider" Sparrow, abandoned as a baby and brought up by a kindly shepherd and his wife. Although a bit simple, Spider has a unique gift for befriending animals, and is found a job on the farm as a glorified scarecrow. Though his life is often difficult and lived in harrowing times, Spider is surrounded by kindly adults, and his simplistic, optimistic and entirely unselfconscious take on life is very refreshing.

2 A Map of Nowhere by Gillian Cross (Mammoth pounds 4.99). In this sophisticated investigation into morality, Nick's passion for role-playing games gets him mixed up in a dangerous, real-life adventure orchestrated by his older brother's hoodlum motorcycle gang. He is forced to redefine his loyalties and learns some predictable but useful lessons in life: it's hard to be good and you have to make your own way through this world, but growing up is all about learning a sense of responsibility and with that comes rewards. Somehow Cross makes A Map of Nowhere exciting, fairly convincing and not too preachy.

2 Just Jimmy by Richmal Crompton (Macmillan pounds 9.99), first published in 1949 and reprinted for the first time in decades, is the story of a ginger- haired 7-year-old who is every bit as naughty but lovable as Crompton's more famous creation William. His escapades amid quaintly blitzed suburbs will soon have you reaching for the freshly made lemonade. Smashing good fun.

Laurence Phelan

2 Psylicon Beach by Philip Gross (Scholastic pounds 5.99). What an amazingly talented man Gross is; shortlisted for the Whitbread this year for his book of poems, The Wasting Game, he also writes thrilling "cyberfiction" which puts most grown-up novels to shame. "Then I came up ... harpoon tip first, up and into the alligator's soft bits, and before I knew it I'd pushed off the side with both feet and the long bag of its belly unzipped in a smoky burst of guts - all over me..." London is flooded, reality is fractured and human life is divided into "trashtypes" and "topdoggers". (Gross's use of inventive slang is inspired.) It's composed of interlocking tales from a variety of viewpoints, but our hero is the resourceful Scip, looking out for his pals, Guppy the wild kid and the beautiful Chiara, all fending for themselves on the toxic beach. Virtual movie stars, cybercreeps, Mixers ("MCs, DJs and conjurers all in one"), N-forcers and hopelessly outnumbered social workers all mash together in a scintillating narrative.

2 Cuckoos by Roger J Green (Oxford pounds 5.99). It's Sam Wilkinson's turn to be bullied and psyched-out by the class oaf, tubby John Snow, who's adept at alienating his victims from their friends and reducing them to utter terror. Bullying is a popular theme in children's books, but John's obsession with violent videos, ropes, knives and revenge gives this one real menace. Also giving depth and an almost poetic flavour to the story are Sam's planetary observations (he's a keen astronomer), and his growing conviction that John is a cuckoo-like alien life-form. Without either demonising the bully or shortchanging the victim's suffering, this is a challenging read, especially with its hint that all is not yet well with Sam even after the resolution.

2 The Midwinter Watch by John Gordon (Walker pounds 9.99). There are almost too many ingredients in this engaging supernatural thriller. There's the Starveling Boy, the grey-faced ghost who haunts the village at Christmas; there's the mysterious train which steams up the long-disused track one snowy day, seen only by Sophie, Jack and Simon; there's the now-impoverished lord of the manor, Toby Heron; a mysterious stranger; an evil villager; a secret room; missing treasure and the long-lost watch of the title. Except that all these turn out to be intimately interconnected, of course. While the time-travel element is not as elegant as in, say, Tom's Midnight Garden - in fact I found it baffling - this is still an enjoyable tale with all the traditional Christmas trimmings. And this shares with the rather more original Psylicon Beach a burst of Morse Code, thus proving that a bit of dot-dot-dash remains as essential a part of children's derring- do as it ever was in the days of Blyton.

2 Off The Road by Nina Bawden (Hamish Hamilton pounds 10.99). We're in the future again, in a cocooned and joyless England where children dictate to adults and old folk are forcibly retired at 65. But Gandy has another idea; he escapes "off the road" with his grandson Tom into the wild "Outside", which, with its earth closets, horse-drawn wagons and waterpumps, is a bit like Thomas Hardy's Wessex. The rather weedy and whiny Tom - afraid of trees, unable to walk long distances, but still apt to shout at his elders - gradually becomes a more likeable and even heroic character as this thought-provoking political fable develops, and he realises that social problems also exist beyond The Wall.

Suzi Feay