Stout hearts, cyber-babes and slug stew

From an overweight rebel who flattens a tyrant to a stomach-turning Aussie toad, new fiction for teenagers features some extraordinary characters. By Nicholas Tucker
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The Independent Culture

Girl characters seem to be having all the best adventures in teenage novels these days, even in the case of 15-year-old, seriously overweight Maddie in Thomas Bloor's The Memory Prisoner (Hodder, £3.99). This novel won last year's Fiddler Award, awarded annually by the Scottish Book Trust. It describes the closed-in world of a reclusive teenager who has not ventured outside her home for 13 years. But once her brother starts working for the Gormenghast-type local library presided over by a senior head librarian intent on becoming dictator, Maddie decides to take action. Braving taunts about her size, she finally brings about the tyrant's downfall.

Girl characters seem to be having all the best adventures in teenage novels these days, even in the case of 15-year-old, seriously overweight Maddie in Thomas Bloor's The Memory Prisoner (Hodder, £3.99). This novel won last year's Fiddler Award, awarded annually by the Scottish Book Trust. It describes the closed-in world of a reclusive teenager who has not ventured outside her home for 13 years. But once her brother starts working for the Gormenghast-type local library presided over by a senior head librarian intent on becoming dictator, Maddie decides to take action. Braving taunts about her size, she finally brings about the tyrant's downfall.

Fat is more than just a feminist issue in contemporary children's literature. Many of the objections to the Harry Potter stories in America have been over what some see as the author's pitiless mockery of obesity, helping perpetuate a type of casual cruelty that should no longer be encouraged. Bloor is to be congratulated on creating a genuine heroine, stout in courage as well as in size.

Sharon Creech's The Wanderer (Macmillan, £10.99) features 13-year-old Sophie, an orphan adept at everything except facing the mystery of her own past. She is also the youngest member of an ill-advised yacht trip from America to Britain, presided over by three uncles and two cousins.

These too have their problems as the boat nearly sinks while ancient griefs resurface. Creech is expert in evoking an atmosphere of barely controlled panic; the sea storm described here is vividly alarming. There must be few readers who would begrudge Sophie her comparatively happy ending as the story winds down to its unexpected conclusion.

Natasha's problem in Nick Warburton's Lost in Africa (Walker, £9.99) is with a father obstinately alive and bent on leading his children to destruction. Sacked from his job on the Palm Coast for drunkenness and petulance, Daddy (this is, after all, 1961) sets out to start a new life with all the family possessions loaded onto an old pram.

Mummy isn't there to stop him, having died, so Natasha is left with the awesome job of trying to control her father's excesses while also caring for her younger brother, Colin. The atmosphere of Africa is well caught, as is the humanity of the Africans who save the family from certain death. This is a gripping, one-session read: easily the author's best effort to date.

Chloë Rayban's Terminal Chic (Bodley Head, £10.99) has a lively heroine familiar to readers of this series, including the excellent Love In Cyberia. Once again, Justine is in search of her dream boy-friend, who unfortunately lives a thousand years in the future and so can only be contacted and visited through some inspired Net surfing. The world she discovers has no time for people bred from any but the finest genes, nor is there much remaining interest in those romantic emotions once associated with sexual attraction.

Justine soon tires of the perfect body she can now choose for herself; she also finds that a dream wardrobe is no substitute for a general lack of human warmth. Because she is cheerfully amoral and unashamedly hedonistic, the moral criticisms she makes about this unbrave new world come over as all the more convincing. There is a pleasing energy and humour about this story, making it a pleasure to read despite its dark message.

Joan Lingard is an author mostly associated with a fine series of novels set in contemporary Ulster. In Natasha's Will (Puffin, £4.99), she settles instead for two intertwined tales taking in the Bolshevik revolution and life in Britain today. The character of Natasha, a child in 1917, ties both stories together. Unless her will can be found, the family members who looked after her as an old lady face eviction from the home they thought was their own.

Natasha has hidden the will, but has also left various clues about where it might be, many of them linked to her own dramatic history. Lingard always writes well; this is one of her best stories.

Now for a few leading male characters. Ted Foley, the 14-year old hero of Martin Booth's PoW (Puffin, £4.99), is a throwback to a former world of tight-lipped gallantry. He is a naval prisoner of war in 1916 Germany; the back cover photograph shows one such group of boy prisoners.

But while the author is scrupulously careful to get every detail correct, right down to the cylindrical canvas kit bags each sailor carries on his shoulder, the emotional core of his writing is absent on leave. In this Boy's Own Paper universe, the worst swearing heard in the navy is "Stone the crows!" and sexual interest simply does not exist. A glossary of naval terms at the end of this book is no substitute for a two-dimensional approach.

Reinhardt Jung's Dreaming in Black and White (Mammoth, £3.99; trans. Anthea Bell) is a disturbing story of a modern, disabled child who dreams about the life of a handicapped counterpart 65 years ago. Today's occasional taunts are nothing compared to the murderous activities of the Nazis, who first experimented with mass gassing on the 200,000 or so of their own people considered to have "lives not worth living".

The authentic quotations from contemporary arithmetic books make extra-chilling reading. For instance, "The 300,000 cripples, epileptics and mentally ill people cost the German Reich 438 million Reichsmarks a year in all. The same sum of money would pay for 438,000 low-interest government loans to young married couples." This novel is under a hundred pages, but stays in the memory long after it is finished.

Finally, something more cheerful. Morris Gleitzman is one of the wittiest writers for younger teenagers, and Toad Rage (Puffin, £3.99) should not disappoint his many fans. It is the story of how Limpy, an Australian cane toad, sets out to discover quite why he and his kind are so detested that passing motorists make a point of trying to run them over.

True, their habit of eating and then excreting live mud-worms makes for an unpleasing spectacle, and the poisonous pus they emit when cornered can prove troublesome. But Limpy believes there must be a way of turning round this initially bad impression; how he does so will delight readers who enjoy tall stories garnished with stomach-turning details about favourite foods - such as worm stew with slug topping.

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