Doubleday, £12.99 Order for £11.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Boys Don't Cry, By Malorie Blackman

Matters of life and near-death

Its body was warm against mine. Its hair was soft and silky under my chin. And I hated it." So says schoolboy Dante, the main character in this troubling teenage novel. He is holding a baby daughter he had previously known nothing about, who has suddenly been dumped on him. His long-dead mother can't help, and a conscientious but strict father offers no easy get-out. So university plans have to be shelved, despite his four starred "A" passes, while Dante gets down to being a single father a few weeks short of his 18th birthday.

As in Silas Marner and practically every other novel involving the unexpected and initially unwelcome arrival of a new baby, one-year-old Emma gradually wins through, first with her grandfather and then with Adam, the younger brother. Dante takes longer, having to accept the loss of a girlfriend and peer group as well as his disappointment at giving up hopes of becoming a crusading journalist after graduation.

He slowly warms to his new charge, who fortunately has already gone through some of the more trying moments of a young life when living with her now-absent mother. But there is no disguising the unrelieved hard work involved. Dante finds himself wishing he had taken along a condom to that drunken party, and readers on the verge of their own adulthood will surely agree. This novel might even prove to be one extra tool in the battle to reduce Britain's disgracefully high teenage unwanted birth rate.

That is where the book could have finished. But Malorie Blackman has added a sub-plot which ultimately takes over in its urgency even this main concern. Dante's attractive 16-year-old brother, Adam, is gay, a fact he keeps hidden at home. But when a secret relationship goes disastrously wrong, he is beaten up to the point of nearly dying. Surviving with a mutilated face and doubting he will ever make it as an actor, he tries to kill himself.

Dante is intent on revenge, and more fists fly before a final resolution of sorts is brought about again by baby Emma. By now too much plot manipulation has crept into this story: unnecessarily, because Blackman is an effective enough writer already, with no need to over-egg her fictional puddings. The rest of this novel still shows her writing at its best, creating characters and a story which, once read, will not easily go away.

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