Children's Books Special: Teenage fiction

Voodoo gods and ghost mothers
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The Independent Culture

Tired of novels dominated by morose adolescents, fractured families and insufferable teachers? Then hurry to Hilary McKay's Caddy Ever After (Hodder, £10.99), a charming story about teenage siblings who love one another and their parents while also having a good time at school. Describing basic contentment always risks smugness, particularly when the main focus is an eccentric middle-class family of the type made famous in Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. But McKay writes with such art, taking on tough as well as happy moments, that there is simply no room for a sneering response as young Rose, heroine of previous novels in this series, once again rescues her elders from potential disaster. Let's hope there is still time for one more story before she exchanges her effective innocence for adolescent knowingness.

Linda Newbery's Cat Call (Orion, £9.99) also features a close family, including those rare members of the teenage fictional world: ex-spouses who continue to get on. This is just as well, because they all need support after young Jamie suddenly stops talking. This verbal equivalent of anorexia proves unsettling, with older brother Josh having to field malicious comments at school while his parents try to work out if it is somehow all their fault. Illustrated extracts from Jamie's notebooks about things feline - the preoccupation that holds the key to his silence - are included. Aimed at the younger end of the teenage market, this beautifully told story is haunting and memorable.

Mal Peet's The Penalty (Walker, £5.99) has a kidnapping plot set in soccer-mad Brazil running alongside a parallel story describing the barely imaginable cruelties of that country's history. Reminiscent of Matt Whyman's superb Boy Kills Man, this novel opens up a world of corruption against which individuals try to survive as best they can. The denouement, where a voodoo God becomes alarmingly real, stretches credibility, and an uncertain start may put off some readers. But they should stick with this fine story by a writer who is getting better all the time.

Sophie McKenzie is a new voice, and her Girl Missing (Simon & Schuster, £5.99) shows much promise. This is a gripping story of an adopted child, 14-year-old Lauren, searching for her biological identity. Her researches take her into a world of child kidnapping, with the crooks anxious to silence her. Melodrama eventually sets in, but there is an excellent description of the way that Lauren changes her mind about the British parents who first adopted her and she begins to revalue the world she has now lost. Written with assurance and style, this is page-turning material.

So, too, is Cliff McNish's Breathe: A Ghost Story (Orion, £9.99). Morbid, necrophiliac and often distinctly queasy, this could be just the thing for adolescents in search of something engagingly horrible. It describes how three unquiet spirit children are routinely fed upon by a vampirish Ghost Mother: once she has devoured their souls, they are condemned to go to the Nightmare Passage, to be blown about like flotsam for the rest of eternity. But 12-year-old asthmatic Jack, a newcomer from the real world, discovers what is going on and tries to help. In revenge, the Ghost Mother inhabits the body of his real mother. How many self-righteous teenagers must have wondered whether the same thing may have happened? As one startling development succeeds another with all the inevitability of a nightmare, this weird story remains oddly convincing, however outrageous.

Nicola Morgan also deals with outsize evil in The Passion Flower Massacre (Hodder, £5.99), represented this time by a Devon fruit farm in the hands of a dangerous cult. Grumpy teenage Matilda, a volunteer in flight from her over-protective parents, is suspicious when the sceptical young man she talks to disappears. But she soon succumbs to the flattery of becoming one of the chosen people, with near-fatal results. This novel peaks too soon, but it still remains a compelling and scary read, giving all blameless fruit farms a terrible image to live down.

Alison Prince tries something ambitious in Jacoby's Game (Walker, £6.99) when teenage Tig, in a coma after a road accident, finds herself visiting scenes from the past, with members of her family in different guises. Introducing so many time-zones demands a fair amount of historical explanation, and there are moments when this story becomes bogged down in its own ingenuity. But Prince is a good writer, always giving readers plenty to think about.

So too does Theresa Breslin in The Medici Seal (Doubleday, £12.99), a richly detailed story set in Italy in 1502. Young Matteo, pursued by a murderous brigand, has the good fortune to fall in with Leonardo Da Vinci, on his way across Italy with a band of companions on Borgia business. While having time for dissecting bodies, painting masterpieces and experimenting with flying, Leonardo teaches Matteo as the two struggle to survive in an atmosphere of plotting and murder. Great stuff, and also an excellent introduction to the exhibition about Leonardo currently at London's Victoria & Albert Museum.

The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett (Walker, £7.99) is a dreamy, gentle story about two French children adopting a British First World War deserter. In return for their care, he tells them stories, all focusing on wise and ultimately heroic donkeys. Beautifully illustrated by Laura Carlin, this unusual and artful story is one to treasure. Also drawing on times of war, Dark Hours by Gudrun Pausewang (translated by John Brownjohn, Allen & Unwin, £5.99) is set just outside Dresden in February 1945: a compulsively readable story of two traumatic days for five German children trapped on their own during relentless Allied air-raids. Celebrating courage, endurance and the final victory of hope, this is children's anti-war fiction at its finest.

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