Teenage Fiction reviewed

Breaking the crime wave
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The Independent Culture

Lesley Howarth's latest story, Drive (Puffin, £4.99), provides an excellent sequel to her previous, mesmerising novel, Carwash. Her cocky teenage hero, Luke, has now moved from the city to a small village, where he falls for a girl from the local mafia-type Crocker family, much into car-stealing and general violence. Luke thinks he can handle this situation, but his readers may not share this optimism as things begin to spin out of control.

Lesley Howarth's latest story, Drive (Puffin, £4.99), provides an excellent sequel to her previous, mesmerising novel, Carwash. Her cocky teenage hero, Luke, has now moved from the city to a small village, where he falls for a girl from the local mafia-type Crocker family, much into car-stealing and general violence. Luke thinks he can handle this situation, but his readers may not share this optimism as things begin to spin out of control.

Reminiscent of Paul Abbott's recent sparkling television serial Shameless, this novel treats serious issues lightly and light issues seriously. Its best characters are flawed, and the worst still have some redeeming features. No word is wasted, yet there always seems plenty of time as the plot slowly but oh-so-cleverly develops. Witty, wise and compassionate, this is a story to treasure.

Gennifer Choldenko is a bright light in American teenage fiction, and her latest novel, Al Capone Does My Shirts (Bloomsbury, £5.99) is one of her best. Set in 1935 on the gloomy Prison Island of Alcatraz, it tells the story of Moose Flanagan, son of a reluctant, newly recruited prison guard and brother to a highly dysfunctional autistic sister. Notes at the end of the story quote sources for the descriptions of the main prison characters and their routine, and there is a photograph of the whole island, plus more annotations at the start.

But this is no dry academic study. Moose overcomes his various problems with good humour; the other teenagers who have been on the island longer than he has are recognisably human, not caricatures, as are the convicts when they appear in this immensely readable story.

Alan Gibbons can always be relied on to raise pulse rates, and his The Defender (Dolphin, £4.99) is, at times, achingly exciting. It tells the parallel stories of the initiation of an Ulster hitman as a teenager, and the way his past catches up with him 15 years later when he is living incognito in England with his adolescent son. Only occasionally slipping into pulp-fiction mode, with "lifeless bodies slumping to the floor", the book offers an intelligent discussion of terrorism in the context of characters that readers have grown to know and like. Easy to read, this novel also contains much that is hard to forget.

Alex Shearer also visits the Ulster badlands in his equally involving The Fugitives (Hodder, £5.99). The main action takes place well away from the six counties, with dopey young teenagers Davy and Mike taken on a supposed holiday to Wales by two IRA bombers who believe the boys have caught them red-handed. Convinced they might testify against them, the terrorists are told to kill them at the end of a week. But plans are thwarted when the two young captives at last realise their danger and one bomber changes sides and tries to save their lives. Tense and involving, this is accomplished work.

Elizabeth Laird is an interesting and challenging writer, and her Paradise End (Macmillan, £9.99) remains strongly readable throughout. Told as if by Carly, a mildly stroppy 13-year-old with an intensely irritating younger sister, this is a modern fairy story featuring a poor little rich girl living in stately loneliness in the big house just down the road. She and Carly become friends, despite the embarrassment caused by their mothers, one of whom is mostly drunk and the other irritable and overweight. Everything just about resolves at the end, but not before a shattering climax following a series of coincidences that only the most picky of readers might object to.

Julia Jarman's Peace Weavers (Andersen, £9.99) is an ambitious attempt to take on the build-up to the latest Gulf war from the point of view of Hilde, an angry adolescent girl. Her mother is a British peace protester out in Baghdad, but her divorced American father, with whom Hilde now lives, works on a USAF base in East Anglia. This tangled web of relationships is further complicated by a parallel story involving sixth-century Maethilde, who manages to make peace in her own time at the same spot and now speaks out to Hilde from the past. There's also a not very convincing American boyfriend, a contentious archaeological dig and a final tragedy before this brave story reaches its well-deserved, more or less peaceful end.

Teenager readers looking instead for total fantasy should hasten to Joseph Delaney's The Spook's Apprentice (Bodley Head, £8.99). Clad in a sinister brown cover, this terrific novel is as black as David Wyatt's ingenious ink drawings that head each chapter. It tells the story of Thomas Ward, the seventh son of a seventh son, who takes on the role of resident Spook - a type of Samurai, feared by the locals yet much in demand when there is any dirty work to be done in the spirit world.

And there is no shortage of malign activity here, mostly from truly terrifying witches, capable of changing form at a moment's notice and given to taking up residence in any passing human they fancy. Young Thomas can only just cope with these demons; the horrors he faces are made more credible by the cleverly laid-back way in which his story is told. This is the author's first children's book, but surely not his last.

Kate Thompson is always worth reading, and her Annan Water (Bodley Head, £10.99) is yet another intriguingly different story. Set in Dumfries, it features young Michael, a 15-year-old who has to spend every day with the horses that provide his parents' livelihood. Any reader harbouring sentimental fantasies about such work will soon be disabused as Michael drives himself to a standstill at the end of each day. But a beautiful, self-harming new girl neighbour provides relief, however troubled, with the two teenagers almost but not quite re-enacting the tragic ballad upon which this well-written and deeply romantic story is based.

Nicholas Tucker is co-author of the 'Rough Guide to Books for Teenagers'

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