Teenage fiction reviewed

The art of a gripping story
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The Independent Culture

Hilary McKay's novels are like beacons of light shining over the dark and troubled waters of so much other contemporary teenage fiction. Her latest, Permanent Rose (Hodder, £10.99), is so good it almost hurts. The third installment of the domestic adventures of the eccentric but never self-congratulatory Casson family, this one has eight-year-old Rose at its centre.

Hilary McKay's novels are like beacons of light shining over the dark and troubled waters of so much other contemporary teenage fiction. Her latest, Permanent Rose (Hodder, £10.99), is so good it almost hurts. The third installment of the domestic adventures of the eccentric but never self-congratulatory Casson family, this one has eight-year-old Rose at its centre.

Very soon, her father defects, her best friend disappears, her older sister makes an unwise engagement and her mother retreats to the garden shed where she paints, sleeps and sometimes drinks. But Rose has an unstoppable vision of what should be, and unlike Henry James's juvenile heroine Maisie, with whom she has much in common, she gets her way. Mostly told in dialogue, this book offers children's writing at its least judgmental. Sentimentality is avoided, wit is everywhere and seemingly inconsequential remarks turn out to have unexpected double meanings. Charming, affectionate and perfectly written, the novel comes over like a sunny day in the midst of a frosty winter.

Another eccentric family features in Celia Rees's The Wish House (Young Picador, £9.99), but this time more reminiscent of the ménages presided over by Augustus John and Eric Gill. Set in the summer of 1976, it describes how shy 15-year-old Richard is lured into a situation that he can never hope to cope with. The main draw is beautiful, free-spirited Clio, the daughter of the house, with whom Richard is soon enjoying under-age sex - no longer a taboo subject in teenage fiction. Nemesis is at hand, with the story ending in a heady brew of betrayal and poisoning. Tricked out to look like an exhibition catalogue, this is good storytelling from an increasingly impressive author.

Kevin Brooks's Candy (Chicken House, £12.99) also leads with a tongue-tied teenage hero: Joe, whose endless self-interrogations, while convincingly authentic, do occasionally risk tedium. By falling for an attractive young prostitute he spies on London streets Joe risks the murderous anger of her terrifying pimp, not to mention the consternation of his doctor father.

Told in staccato sentences, this story combines adolescent angst with a climax that is genuinely frightening. As in his previous novels, Brooks seems drawn towards a sense of pervading violence which he sometimes seems only barely able to control. The result is a very readable but queasy experience, where romantic sentiment battles with reality as readers are drawn ever closer to an underworld that is the stuff of nightmares.

Violent crooks also feature in Graham Marks's Zoo (Bloomsbury, £5.99). Told in a cheerful mid-Atlantic mixture of idioms, this story describes how 17-year-old Cam is abducted from San Diego to a house on the Canadian border. Escaping from his captors and accidentally killing one, Cam is chased by the cops. But he gets a lift from cynical Jaxon and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Tee. So far, so derivative, with clear echoes both of the whole sub-Raymond Chandler genre and American road movies. But this story then changes direction. Cam discovers he is the bearer of a small, internal identity chip. This is traced to his adoptive parents, involved in a money-spinning eugenics programme, with Cam one of its more successful products.

Julie Hearn's The Merrybegot (Oxford, £5.99) carries readers back to the world of 17th-century witchcraft, described here as benign and popular, with cunning women fulfilling the role of pharmacist, midwife and friend to one and all. Enter Witch-Finder General Matthew Hopkins, a scoundrel of the darkest hue, and everything changes. When her old granny is cruelly ducked, young Nell thinks her own time has come. But a last-minute rescue by the future Charles II on horseback sees her straight, with Nell Gwyn - for it is she - adopted as the royal mistress. Although the main events are portrayed in simplified terms of blameless heroines versus heartless villains, this is still a subtle, spirited and well-written book.

In Steve Voake's The Dreamwalker's Child (Faber, £12.99), teenage Sam Palmer, bored and lonely after moving to the country, becomes the victim of a bicycle crash. While still apparently in a coma he finds he is living in the miniature country of Aurobon, presided over by the evil Odoursin and his minions. Their intention is to invade and destroy the human world. Some tension leaks away from this intense and at times nightmarish book as Sam gets involved with Biggles-type escapes and rescues. But there is also some excellent writing, and a moving ending.

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