Dystopia, war, and spies ... just for those tough teenage years
This summer's best young-adult fiction makes few concessions, says Susan Elkin
Sunday 22 July 2012
Good reads for teenagers this summer range from futuristic dystopia to historical novels and from sheer fantasy to stories set more or less in the gritty reality of 2012. Take The Adjusters by Andrew Taylor (Usborne, £6.99) for example, which is about as plausible as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and just as gripping. Henry and his mother move to an industrial complex where she has a new job and both can make a fresh start. But Mallory is not the benign boss with philanthropic inclinations that he pretends to be. His real purpose is the development of medical technology to implant in human brains and render their owners quiescent, biddable and super receptive – because there's a fortune in it. Henry, of course, is determined to avoid being "adjusted", to save several people he cares about, and to expose Mallory – against near-impossible odds, which is what makes this into a real page turner.
Another enjoyable story about a boy finding that all is not as it seems is Cracks by Caroline Green (Piccadilly £6.99), a beautifully crafted, complex story in which Cal wakes from a coma after 12 years to find a dispiriting world of boarded up squalor, tracker chips, buzzing wireless detectors and plaster bombs.
Or try the fast-paced All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle Zevin (Macmillan, £6.99), which takes us to 21st-century New York where feisty Anya leads her mafia-style family and remembers her father. Chocolate is a banned substance ruthlessly traded by the influential families, water is a great luxury, but, oddly, Catholicism is still very strong. No one has new clothes and recycling is a way of life. This is the first part of a trilogy and I shall be interested to see where Zevin goes with it.
Moving back in time, rather than forward, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Electric Monkey, £7.99) is an original, cleverly written Second World War story about spies, torture, women pilots, friendship and the horror of war. Julie, who is captured in France, seems to be giving British secrets to the Germans, but she isn't exactly a reliable narrator. It's a compelling, uncompromising read which makes few concessions to the age group it's written for – either in subject matter or narrative technique. The bits about flight and women in the war are well researched and the terrifying, but exciting, atmosphere is good.
In a completely different mood comes Cora Harrison's 1920s-set novel Debutantes (Macmillan, £6.99) which will be published next month. Five well-born and talented but impoverished sisters (think Downton meets Pride and Prejudice with a whiff of the Mitfords) need to make their way in life. With Daisy, the aspirant film-maker, Poppy the jazz musician, Rose the future novelist and Violet the dressmaker, they're quite a family. It's fairly light-hearted but an interesting take on a world which is moving rapidly towards more opportunities for women.
A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan, £12.99) is a detailed, well-written epic with a huge cast of characters. It takes us to the underground city of Caverna where Neverfell, a trained cheese- maker with a heightened sense of smell, has an unusual face and ancestry in a world where cheese has Harry Potter-esque magical properties and most people have a "wardrobe" of faces. Neverfell has, somehow, to pick her way through the forces of good and evil and to decide which is which – and there are echoes of Moses and the Book of Exodus at the end.
A rather different sort of fantasy is The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M Valente (Corsair, £9.99). It creates a whole esoteric world of whimsy – Alice meets the Wizard of Oz meets the Persephone story with a whiff of Narnia. A story about stories, it gives us September setting off to Fairyland and embarking on a quest involving a bathhouse keeper, a golem made of soap and rides on wyverns and leopards – among many other things. It's as frothy as meringue one minute and as earthy as a good honest spud the next.
And so to four books featuring "real life" – of sorts. In At Yellow Lake (Frances Lincoln, £6.99), Jane McLoughlin gathers three very different teenagers, all lost in their different ways, by a remote lake in Minnesota where criminal danger and a corrupt cop force them to grow up fast and reassess their priorities and needs. McLoughlin is skilled at maintaining the tension.
So is John Townsend in Crash Dive (Acorn, £6.99), a pacy, upbeat adventure story in which Barney – a troubled and sometimes troublesome boy, but a very able and witty one – has to commute by air between his divorced parents. He gets caught up in an espionage plot but, because of his "attitude problem", no one will believe him when he asks adults for help. This engaging book would be a good one to give to a misunderstood teenage reader whose behaviour is regarded as "challenging".
Another boy with problems is Chris, an elective mute whose best friend has died in an accident. He is at the heart of Simon Packham's moving, poignant and perceptive novel Silenced (Piccadilly, £6.99). Packham gets right inside the mind of a boy who is almost literally crippled by guilt and regret, while we gradually learn more about Declan, the friendship between him and Chris, and, crucially, all the things about his friend which Chris didn't know when Declan was alive.
Whatever Love Is? by Rosie Ruston (Piccadilly, £7.99) is an entertaining 21st-century free reworking of Mansfield Park, which finds Frankie Price living with her aunt and uncle (he's a wealthy, Philip Green-type retailer) and cousins in Northamptonshire because her more modest family life in Brighton has fallen apart. The ingenious Austenian journey of discovery which follows has the play Lovers' Vows reinvented as a music festival, and Miss Crawford's alluring cello as a horse. It is clever, fun and surprisingly perceptive.
There is plenty to cater for all teen tastes this year, then – for the beach, long flights, or bedrooms on wet days during the long summer break from school.
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