Teenage fiction: Secrets of survival

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The Independent Culture

A new imprint should always try to get off to a good start, and this certainly is the case with Ally Kennen's Beast (Marion Lloyd Books, £6.99). A first novel, it takes its name from the giant crocodile that Stephen, an unhappy fostered-out teenager, has been secretly feeding for the last six years. Trapped in a disused reservoir, the beast could also be read as a metaphor for Stephen's own destructive rage against an alcoholic father and an incurably insane mother. But this is no heavily symbolic text. Narrated in taut, spare prose with a nice line in sardonic humour, the novel has a tension that never lets up. Kennen is already a remarkably assured writer.

Anne Cassidy's The Story of My Life (Scholastic, £12.99) is another tough novel about a teenager faced by a problem that gets worse at the turn of each page. This nightmarish scenario is expertly maintained as Kenny Harris tries ineffectually to shake off an unwise friendship with an older man who turns out to be a closet murderer.

Flitting forwards and backwards in time, Kenny's journey to his personal hell is made horribly convincing, from the moment he seduces his older brother's girlfriend to the final showdown with his arch-tormentor. Set in London at its bleakest, this story would make an excellent film noir of the darkest hue.

Things are not much more cheerful for teenagers in Bronze-Age Amazonia, the setting for Alice Hoffman's ambitious The Foretelling (Egmont, £5.99). Rain, the neglected 15-year-old daughter of the Amazon queen, makes herself expert at warfare in order to claim her inheritance. But when it comes to slaughtering the baby boy born to her dying mother rather than the second daughter that she yearned for, Rain finally desists. Despised for such weakness in the face of man, their most ancient enemy, Rain has to convince her group that there are better ways than slaughter to ensure survival. Written in the shadow of the Iraq war, this book's insistence that a sense of mercy is always better than unthinking violence is timely and compelling.

Moving on a couple of thousand years, Ann Turnbull's Forged in the Fire (Walker, £6.99) revisits that well-trodden 17th-century fictional territory stretching from the Great Plague to the Great Fire of London. But such a good writer can still make familiar material look new, in this case by focusing on a Quaker couple trying to survive virulent persecution. Neither Will nor Susanna is without faults, and their broken romance takes some time to heal. Plainly but effectively written, this is one of those novels where readers can be forgiven for prematurely jumping to the last page, just to make sure that everything works out for the best.

Susan Cooper, another prize-winning author over many years, hits top form with Victory (Bodley Head, £8.99). Once again, an immemorial plot - a young powder-monkey's first experience of naval warfare - is made fresh by the power of forceful writing. Sea-faring novels for young readers used to gloss over the appalling conditions on board in favour of paeans to patriotism and manliness. This novel makes explicit the disgusting food, arbitrary punishments and institutional cruelty that made up an 18th-century sailor's lot.

Only sexual predation is left out as yet another torment for young Sam as he somehow survives until Trafalgar, even managing a few words with Lord Nelson himself. His story is interwoven with an account of a modern British girl unhappily living in America but mystically drawn to the good ship Victory on a visit home to Portsmouth. Why she feels this attraction is revealed at the end of this rousing yarn, crammed with enough accurate detail to keep any history teacher more than happy.

Morris Gleitzman also turns to sadly familiar material in Once (Puffin, £5.99), a short novel set in Poland at the time of the Holocaust. Young Felix, living in an orphanage where he is being hidden by the nuns, runs away in search of his Jewish parents. Unable to accept that they are long dead, he is gathered up by a fictionalised version of Janusz Korczak, one of the last century's secular saints and himself the author of a classic children's book King Matt the First, republished last year. Shut up with his beloved guardian in a cattle truck for their end journey, Felix manages to make a run for it. Readers are left to wonder whether he survives; what remains inescapable is the amount of other children who did not. Gleitzman is a highly skilled comic author; this story proves he can write tragedy as well.

Siobhan Dowd's A Swift Pure Cry (David Fickling, £12.99) was inspired by a sensational news item dating from 1984, although the events and attitudes it describes go back much further. Set in rural Ireland, it tells the story of 15-year-old Shell and the baby she bears without anyone noticing. Delivered in secrecy by her younger brother and sister away from the drunken attentions of her widowed father, the baby only lives for a few minutes. The trio bury the body, but when another tiny corpse is found nearby, Shell is initially blamed for murdering what are thought to be a pair of twins. Movingly written, this is a sad but not a dismal story, given Shell's resilient personality and the support she gets from a generous-hearted young priest. This debut novel is a fine and memorable achievement: it never sells its characters short and always stays close to what was thought to have happened at the time.

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