IoS Books of the Year 2012: Teenage fiction - tales of mean streets and magic

Over the next three Sundays we look at the best books of 2012, beginning here with Susan Elkin on teenage fiction

From the doomed life of Mary Stuart to the killing fields of Cambodia and gangland London, there's a fair amount of realistic horror around this Christmas. But to counterbalance it, there are also upbeat stories about siblings looking out for each other, brave teenagers confronting corruption or the divisions of war, as well as a whiff of otherworldliness and a smidgen of witchcraft.

First up are five historical novels. Paul Dowdswell's Eleven Eleven (Bloomsbury, £6.99) is a gutsy, fast-paced tale of three very young First World War fighters – one British, one German and one American – whose paths cross in November 1918. Initially they are suspicious and hostile, but each gradually comes to recognise that his "enemy" is simply another young man. There's rather too much about the technicalities of early 20th-century fighter planes for my taste, but I doubt that it will bother most teenage boy readers, reluctant as I am to stereotype.

Victoria Lamb's Witchstruck (Corgi, £6.99) and Theresa Breslin's Spy for the Queen of Scots (Doubleday, £12.99) are both set 400 years earlier. Meg, a young witch, is a servant to Princess Elizabeth at Woodstock during Mary Tudor's short, brutal, heretic-burning reign. Lamb pulls no punches about the danger both Meg and Elizabeth are in, especially during the horrifying burning of Meg's aunt, who is already sick with cancer. But there's a love interest, and many a teenage girl will fall for the dishy Alejandro de Castillo, of whom we'll hear more because this is the first in a series.

Breslin's protagonist, Jenny, is a royal servant too, this time to Mary Queen of Scots, first in France, then in Scotland and eventually, inevitably, at Fotheringhay Castle. Spy for the Queen of Scots is a strong, old-fashioned humdinger which reminded me how much history I learned and retained from this sort of novel when I was a teenager.

A long way from Tudor England – although there are parallels in the tyranny – is Patricia McCormick's Never Fall Down (Doubleday, £9.99), a harrowing account of the activities of the Khmer Rouge in 1970s Cambodia. Arn Chorn-Pond is the narrator. McCormick, a journalist, has ghosted his story after many interviews with him, and fictionalised it by filling in the gaps. Arn, driven from his home in the midst of one of the worst genocidal atrocities of the 20th century (and tragically, there is no shortage to choose from), became a boy soldier, and managed to survive – eventually to be adopted by an American family – by becoming a musician.

Ibajrajo Road by Harry Allen (Frances Lincoln, £6.99) is set in a thinly disguised 1980s Nigeria where Aids is just beginning to bite. Expelled from his exclusive international school, Charlie, a privileged expatriate, goes to work in a local orphanage to redeem himself. From there, it's quite a journey, as he discovers undreamt of poverty, selfless devotion to helping the poor, and – for himself – friendship and romance. It's a compelling story, teaching you a lot without being off-puttingly didactic.

My Brother Simple by Marie-Aude Murail (Bloomsbury, £6.99), How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr (Usborne, £6.99) and The Seeing by Diana Hendry (Bodley Head, £10.99) are all about family life and relationships. My Brother Simple, which is almost an Of Mice and Men for our times, is a witty, upbeat story of a mentally impaired young Frenchman cared for by his exasperated younger brother, who takes him to Paris rather than allowing him to be shut up in an institution as their father wants. Moving and enjoyable, Zarr's How to Save a Life is about three American women: a widowed mother, her teenage daughter and a young, rejected, abused, pregnant stranger. The mother plans to adopt the pregnant girl's baby, but, as they gradually break down barriers of jealousy and grief, they all three come to realise that perhaps there is another way of creating a family.

Hendry's The Seeing is in a very different mood. Set in a seaside village during the post-war austerity of the 1950s, it introduces us to three children, one of whom, "the wild one", is seriously damaged by everything life has thrown at her, and another of whom may or may not have whatever we mean by "second sight". At one level this thoughtful, rather lyrical story resonates with topical and timeless references; witch-hunts and false accusations, for example. At another, it explores the whole concept of "seeing" and "vision".

And so, lastly, to street violence. Street Duty Knock Down (Usborne, £6.99), the first in a grittily realistic crime series by Chris Ould, is about a rape and murder case solved by two apprentice police trainees. Although Ould has invented the trainee scheme, everything else he writes about police procedures is well researched and page-turningly convincing. Keren David's Another Life (Frances Lincoln, £6.99) is a sequel to When I Was Joe and Almost True, and doesn't make too much sense if you haven't read them. We're in London's gangland again, with two boys, one far more privileged than the other. The tightly written tale involves us with drugs, violence, kidnapping, prison and issues such as failure at school and parental neglect. It's arguably a bit long, but should appeal to readers who enjoyed the first two titles.

Turf by John Lucas (Bodley Head, £9.99) is an unusual and original novel which starts like any other graphic knife-crime story: drug-dealing Jaylon is trapped and controlled by the estate gang he's part of. But then it develops into something else, as the evangelical religion practised by Jaylon's aunt and girlfriend begin to intrude. In the increasingly surreal second half, it's hard to distinguish, if you need to, drug-driven hallucinations from religious awakening, but it's a good read.

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Usborne £6.99

"Now that I'm here, it's different. I'm changing. It's just like I felt my body changing in the first few months of pregnancy, only this time what's changing is something deeper in me. Robin is special. This house is special. I'm more sure all the time. Even Jill, who hates me, has something she doesn't know she has …"

Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
artVoted for by the public, artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried