Books: Graffiti, thongs and football - all your problems well sorted

Laurence Phelan reviews fiction that encourages teenagers to reach for the stars
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The Independent Culture
Often it's the things parents don't notice about their own children that creates the most interesting conflicts in teenage fiction. In Mister Spaceman by Lesley Howarth (Walker pounds 9.99), Thomas Moon is a bright under- achiever whose parents love him but just don't understand. Mind you, his burning ambition to be an astronaut makes him do some peculiar things. He takes to only eating food that comes in tubes, spending nights in a lift, sleeping upright in a sleeping bag suspended from the ceiling and, in the book's most amusing episode, bounding across the playing fields wearing six tracksuits and a motorbike helmet. Mister Spaceman is a cautionary tale about a boy whose dreams encroach just a bit too far on reality, but it is very funny and never suggests one shouldn't reach for the stars. Peter Hayden's And Smith Must Score... (Crazy Horse Press pounds 6.99) is narrated by 15-year-old Percy Carter, ostensibly as a history project, although it's set in the year Brighton and Hove Albion reached the FA Cup final which is probably ancient history for its targeted readers. When his dad is relocated, Percy has to move from Brighton to Yorkshire. Moving to a new school is hard enough, especially with a name like Percy. But when no one else in your new home town appreciates the minor miracle that was the Seagulls' 1983 Cup-run, the feelings of isolation are acute. Again, the narrative resolution only comes when his parents recognise these problems. Hayden blends some Fever Pitch-style observations about football and identity crisis with a well structured plot and deft characterisations and comes up with an exciting and poignant book.

Ashley, the heroine of Tightrope (Oxford pounds 5.99), by the creator of the Demon Headmaster, Gillian Cross, is a model daughter in almost every way: courteous, good at school and a full-time carer for her debilitated mother. But she's also the town's best and most notorious graffiti artist which ultimately gets her involved with some very undesirable company. Tightrope is that rarest of things, a convincing urban drama for teenagers. Ashley is a complex character, and the inverted relationship with her mother is emotionally draining for the reader as well as for Ashley.

The Teenage Girl's Diary is now a well-established sub-genre (easily recognised by the hideous fluorescent covers) and is unlikely to abate for as long as teenage girls want to be reassured they're not alone in thinking that boys are a completely incomprehensible species. But a new standard has been set by Louise Rennison with Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging (Piccadilly pounds 5.99), the diary of 14-year-old Georgia Nicolson. Georgia has all the usual problems - a stubborn spot on her nose, sadistic teachers, an incontinent younger sister and an uncontrollable pet Scottish Wildcat (Angus), her parents might be splitting up and she doesn't know how to kiss properly. Worst of all, Robbie the sexgod is going out with a dappy sixth-former who wears thongs. She recounts these traumas with a sense of irony and a deadpan hilarity Bridget Jones could only dream of, and it's one of the funniest books of the year.

Other new entries in the genre this year include Jacqueline Wilson's sequel to the highly popular Girls In Love and Girls Under Pressure, Girls Out Late (Doubleday pounds 10.99) in which the 13 year old narrator, Ellie, finally meets a boy who fancies her. This creates some tension with her friends Magda and Nadine, who don't want to give her up; and with her family, who are worried about her staying out late. Along the way she learns that lying tends to be a bad thing, older boys and drugs are always a bad thing, but stepmums are generally a good thing. Which is all cosily reassuring, but how many 13-year-olds do you know who'd say, "You're dangerously inflaming me," or "I must have been barking mad. Woof woof"?

Dawn (Scholastic pounds 3.99) by Ann M Martin is much the same, except that as it's the first instalment of the California Diaries, there are more sleepovers and the older boys drive Buicks. None of the cool Valley slang you might have hoped for though. Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen by Dyan Sheldon (Walker pounds 9.99) is also American and contains a few good lines: "Paula sometimes shows signs of being an intelligent life-form ... And at other times, the closest Paula gets to an intelligent life form is sitting next to me." But on the whole it's as enticing as the title makes it sound. Finally, Yo, Diary by Jonathan Myers (Piccadilly pounds 5.99) gives the genre a slight twist by entwining the diaries of six different fifth formers who learn about themselves and each other as the year progresses. Not as good as The Breakfast Club, but it does tread the same ground.

Fans of Joan Aiken's Wolves of Willoughby Chase saga will rightly be excited about the highly imaginative, somewhat confusing but enchanting ninth instalment, Limbo Lodge (Cape pounds 12.99). Fresh from her adventures in America, Dido Twite lands on the pacific island of Aratu. Accompanied by the

mysterious Dr Talisman (who inexplicably appears in male drag in the early parts of the book), she braves the island's poisonous snakes and monkeys in search of Lord Herodsfoot who has been summoned by King James III. As all intrepid young explorers must, she gets involved in the conflict between the island's indigenous people (the magical Forest People) and the recent invaders (the Angrians), makes many new friends, loses some, and then ends up back on a new boat ready for the next adventure.

There's little chance of a sequel to Melvin Burgess's Bloodtide (Andersen Press pounds 14.99) because he's one of the very few children's writers who dares not to resolve things with a neat happy ending, and by the end of it nearly all the characters are dead. Bloodtide is set in an unspecified future time, reminiscent of both Jeff Noon's cyberpunk fiction and John Carpenter's Escape From New York. London is a walled city in the hands of two warring ganglords, Volson and Connor - beyond it are the halflands, roamed by results of past genetic experiments known as halfmen, and Ragnor, the city everyone moved to when London became overrun by criminals. Somehow Christianity has been supplanted by Norse mythology, but this is probably for the best because the strange uninvited guest at the wedding of Connor and Volson's 14-year-old daughter Signy is probably Odin himself.

The marriage should signal the beginning of a truce between the two warring families, but instead it is the beginning of an epic tale of treachery, deceit, sex, torture, violence, revenge and retribution, adapted from the first part of the Icelandic Volsunga Saga. The heroine Signy develops from rebellious teenager, through lovestruck beatific princess, to modern Medea, but is always a wholly believable young girl forced to grow up too fast.

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