Teenage fiction reviewed

The sounds of silence
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The Independent Culture

Writing for teenagers sometimes tempts authors into mimicking the immaturity of their readers. But this is not the way of EL Konigsburg, whose novels have twice won her America's Newbery medal. Her latest novel, Silent to the Bone(Walker, £5.99), is another fine achievement. It tells the story of a 13-year-old American boy who retreats into mutism after being unjustly accused of injuring his baby stepsister. He is eventually saved by his friend Connor, the narrator of this story. Working on an ingenious silent code devised between them, the two boys finally see off an evil baby-sitter fresh from Britain, but not before their friendship is tested to its limit. Sexual jealousy and insensitive parents also come up as issues in this unusual and engrossing story.

Linzi Glass's The Year the Gypsies Came (Penguin, £10.99) adds to the post-colonial litany of unreal expectations, child neglect and failed marriages familiar from Doris Lessing's early stories or Alexandra Fuller's wonderful memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight. Here, 12-year-old Emily, living in South Africa during the 1960s, watches her family disintegrate, unable to make her selfish and immature parents attend to the various warnings that come their way. A rape and a suicide round up a final chapter of disasters, described in prose that is both poetic and unsparing. Only in the final pages does some proselytising sentimentality creep in with the departure of Buza, Emily's beloved Zulu house servant and teller of magical folk tales reproduced throughout the text. This is a gripping read from an exciting new author.

Meg Rosoff's dystopian first novel How I Live Now was one of the publishing successes of 2004. Its successor, Just In Case (Puffin, £10.99), contains some fine writing but fails to pack the same punch. The book concerns 15-year-old David Case, who becomes convinced that he is shortly to die unless he can dramatically depart from his uneventful Luton life. Making a start by changing his name and adopting an imaginary dog, he continues to receive what seem like signs that his time is short. Tough new friend and fashion photographer Agnes offers some help, but David remains essentially on his own, a victim either of psychic forces or else a bad case of adolescence. There is much to enjoy here, but the atmosphere of concentrated despair takes its toll on a narrative that never quite manages to get going.

Paul Magrs is an interesting novelist, and Exchange (Simon & Schuster, £9.99) is another original, well-written story. Its hero, shy 16-year-old Simon, is happier reading books than confronting the world outside. Abetted by his book-loving grandmother, with whom he lives after the death of his parents, the two go on a shopping trip and stumble upon The Great Big Book Exchange. Now they can borrow as many novels as they like, but David's grandfather is not happy with this development. There are some good discussions of both the pleasures and perils of reading, but whether teenage readers will be able to accept an adolescent hero always happy to walk down the street arm-in-arm with his gran is another matter.

Julie Hearn's Ivy (Oxford, £5.99) is a splendidly fruity story about a 19th-century slum child later taken up by a Pre-Raphaelite artist enchanted by her luxuriant red hair. Ivy is a dreamy girl, whose vulnerability is exploited by all those she comes into contact with. As such, she offers a welcome change from those fictional Cockney urchins who become more chirpy the worse things get for them, and the author deserves congratulations for her honesty as well as her artistry. Rich in period detail, this is excellent historical writing, often grimly funny and with a teasing ending. An over-extended plot and one unconvincingly melodramatic villain cannot stop this story from steaming to its successful conclusion.

Comparatively few collections of modern short stories exist for teenage readers, even though "not enough time" regularly appears as a reason why adolescents don't read more. So a special welcome to Shining On (Piccadilly, £5.99), a collection of 10 stories published in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust. It contains contributions from top authors including Malorie Blackman (on being blind), Melvin Burgess (on blowing the whistle on a parent's affair), Anne Fine (on coming out), and Jacqueline Wilson (on the trials of living in a dead sister's shadow).

Also recommended, You're The Best (Kingfisher, £6.99) offers 14 stories about friendship selected by Belinda Hollyer. Jamila Gavin and Julia Green, among others, provide some excellent fare, with a particularly good story from the promising newcomer Sophie McKenzie.

Nicholas Tucker co-wrote the 'Rough Guide to Books for Teenagers'

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