Teenage fiction reviewed

Voices of a world at war
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The Independent Culture

Elizabeth Laird's Secrets of the Success (Macmillan, £12.99) takes a more rosy view of the past - unexpected in a writer whose previous novels have included unflinching pictures of today's political hot spots. Based on the life of her great-great-great grandfather, this story describes how 12-year old John Barr discovers that life as a powder-monkey aboard a battleship during the Napoleonic Wars has much to recommend it. Brutality, poor food and hideous wounds never really dent the mood of optimistic adventure, with John soon joined by Kit, who is - as so often in history novels - a girl in disguise. Setting out on a dangerous mission in France, they are aided by overheard conversations and unearthed documents as the story settles into the comfortable grooves of a pleasant old-school melodrama.

John Sedden's Mudlark (Puffin, £4.99) is set in Portsmouth in 1914, at a time when children used to dive for coins thrown by tourists into the thick mud of the harbour - a practice that survived to the mid-20th century. Jimmy, aged 14, is one of the best at this game, using his winnings to help out his loving but distracted mother, an unwilling prostitute. Walking around Portsmouth barefoot, getting bitten by fleas in the cinema, at war with the local police, Jimmy cheerfully gets by until he is arrested on a trumped-up charge. Convinced he knows the identity of a suspected serial murderer about whom the authorities want to keep quiet (for fear of endangering public morale), Jimmy is forced into the army. He ends up deep in mud once again, this time surrounded by rats rather than coins. Sparely written and expertly paced, this debut novel is gripping and entertaining.

Matt Whyman's The Wild (Hodder, £5.99) takes place in a nuclear testing-ground in modern Kazakhstan; a location so desolate that even diving into Portsmouth mud looks desirable by comparison. Alexi is, at 14, the oldest in a gang that salvages the débris left behind from rockets fired for experimental purposes. His younger brother Misha is one of many children suffering from a brain tumour. Determined to make it to a Moscow hospital, the boys enter a different type of nightmare. The author's previous Boy Kills Man was triumph enough; this book is just as good. Written with convincing authority, bleak but inspiring rather than depressing as the two boys refuse to admit defeat, the novel is a superb achievement.

Nigel Richardson's The Wrong Hands (Oxford, £12.99) is a rum business. It describes the world as experienced by Graham Sinclair, a near-autistic adolescent whose disfigured hands make him the butt of cruel humour at school. But he also has secret powers that enable him to fly. When this becomes known to a beautiful but ruthless journalist working for that notorious tabloid The Moon, Graham is set for his biggest fall yet. Although well-written, this story never quite decides whether it is fantasy, allegory or adventure with a twist. But it still manages to be oddly compelling, right up to its characteristically strange ending.

In Terence Blacker's Parent Swap (Macmillan, £4.99), 13-year-old Danny is encouraged to move in with what seem like much better parents in a richer, apparently more stable, home. But he slowly realises that his new existence is being filmed without his knowledge in the hope of making a reality TV programme. Danny decides to take his revenge against everyone who has been lying to him, and does so with the aid of none other than the Queen herself. Maintaining a suspension of disbelief has, by this stage, become impossible, but there is still plenty to enjoy in a novel that contains excellent parodies of current speech and fashions.

Finally, look out soon for Frances Hardinge's Fly by Night (Macmillan, £12.99). This picaresque first novel, due in September, combines the vivid colours of Leon Garfield's history stories with Philip Pullman's power to create imaginary worlds. Its heroine, tough, streetwise, 12-year-old Mosca Mye, takes on warring craft guilds, a corrupt royal family and various villains as she and her pet goose finally make it to a place she has always wanted: a society where books can be published freely, without censorship. Imaginative and richly textured, this extraordinary novel is a reminder that in the world of fiction nothing can be taken for granted, particularly when aimed at a younger audience. Read and enjoy.

Nicholas Tucker's is co-author of the 'Rough Guide' to books for teenagers