Children's books / Nicholas Tucker on teen reading

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The Independent Culture
Aged only 27, Keith Gray is a bright new talent in teenage fiction. From Blood: Two Brothers (Mammoth, pounds 4.99) is not as good as Creepers, his brilliant first novel, but it still deserves to be read. It describes a blood brotherhood ceremony which then unexpectedly allows each of the friends involved to enter into the others' thoughts. This is fine if it is a question of summoning aid quickly when danger threatens, but a disadvantage when Chris goes out with his first girlfriend and wants to be left uninterrupted.

Resentment leads to a fight, and shortly after former friend Paul is badly injured in a road accident. A protracted journey into the Absolute Elsewhere enables Chris to cheat time and save his friend's life, but by now the story has gone on too long for its own good. Before that, some authentic dialogue and a lively adolescent eye for adult foibles makes this an entertaining and sometimes moving read.

Robert Cormier is still one of the more controversial authors writing for teenagers, even though his first novel came out in 1974. Shining a powerful literary torch into dark areas many would prefer the young to leave unexplored has some merit, but the danger of sensationalism for its own sake is also always near. His latest work Tenderness (Gollancz, pounds 12.99) is more a cut-down adult story than a novel written to expand immature understanding. The inner life of an 18-year-old psychopathic serial killer makes for a gripping but ultimately nasty read, with his final conversion by the 12-year-old runaway he plans to kill both unconvincing and unintegrated into the pessimism of the tale. In his time Cormier played a useful part in challenging the unwritten law that all stories for children should end, if not happily, then at least on a note of moral resolution. Tenderness, with its absurd coincidences, over-explicit character descriptions and uneasy vocabulary of growing sexual awareness, is a shadow of his previous work.

Elizabeth Arnold's Gold and Silver Water (Mammoth, pounds 4.99) is a much more up-beat affair. This is the sequel to her successful The Parsley Parcel, and describes more adventures of Freya, a gypsy girl with the power of second sight. Her task this time is to restore a small child traumatised into mutism after witnessing the death of her mother and sister. Freya herself communicates in Gerard Manley Hopkins style (sometimes she feels "weary-world worried" or "heart-hungry home-sick"). This unusual, genuinely original piece of writing has the added luxury, for today, of a happy ending.

Lynne Markham's The Closing March (Mammoth pounds 4.50) is also a positive story, though set in a town where the young hero's grandfather and the pit he used to work in are both approaching extinction. Mick decides he would like to take his grandfather's place in the doomed colliery's final march, playing the old man's cornet at the same time. And that more or less is what happens, but only after a well-constructed plot where the pros and cons of mining as a way of life get an honest airing. The author occasionally becomes over-didactic in her eagerness that no reader should miss any of the points involved in Mick's occasional misgivings about life, death and art, where her real talents lie. But teenagers who enjoyed the film Brassed Off might also want to read this fictional counterpart to it.

Chris Westwood looks to the future in Virtual World (Viking, pounds 10.99), which offers readers a dizzy ride into the menacing potential of the type of "infotainment" offered by virtual reality and the Internet. A crazed inventor markets a game that traps viewers into giving up their own individuality. Once inside, it is hard to get out; once outside, there is an overwhelming urge to return. Terry Pratchett has already explored these intriguing possibilities in his stories, more successfully than Westwood in that he creates better characters while making much funnier jokes. Games-freaks may still go for this story, however, attracted by its general enthusiasm for the new worlds we are now creating.

Hugh Scott's The Ghosts of Raven's Crag (Walker Books, pounds 8.99) features a self-congratulatory family where everyone laughs loudly at each other's facetious remarks. So when a local evil spirit intervenes it is hard to be concerned, especially if ghastly, ever good-humoured Dad ("Little perishers!") is going to get some sort of come-uppance. But he finally wins through in a climax where the moans and shrieks, the dull thuds of a dead horse being soundly flogged are also evident. What a disappointment from an author with such a good track record.