The best books for teenagers reviewed

Small miracles and big troubles
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The Independent Culture

Charm is not the first word that usually comes to mind when contemplating most of today's teenage fiction, yet it exists in plenty in Other Echoes ( David Fickling Books, £9.99), from the prolific but always interesting Adèle Geras. Set in the 1950s, the story flits between Flora at 18, convalescing in her boarding school's sanatorium, and the time when she was 10 and temporarily exiled in Borneo with her diplomat parents. There she has to face other British children, much given to cruelty towards newcomers. But Flora's need to belong leads to her grudging acceptance, given that she is the only one brave enough to visit a deserted farmhouse, once the scene of a tragic death. Based in part on the author's own experience as a child, this lovely story is both magical and evocative.

Charm is not the first word that usually comes to mind when contemplating most of today's teenage fiction, yet it exists in plenty in Other Echoes ( David Fickling Books, £9.99), from the prolific but always interesting Adèle Geras. Set in the 1950s, the story flits between Flora at 18, convalescing in her boarding school's sanatorium, and the time when she was 10 and temporarily exiled in Borneo with her diplomat parents. There she has to face other British children, much given to cruelty towards newcomers. But Flora's need to belong leads to her grudging acceptance, given that she is the only one brave enough to visit a deserted farmhouse, once the scene of a tragic death. Based in part on the author's own experience as a child, this lovely story is both magical and evocative.

Frank Cottrell Boyce's Millions ( Macmillan, £9.99) is another equally charming story. It is narrated by young Damian, a boy with an obsession about the lives and grizzly ends of obscure saints. He lives with his father and older brother but has no mother, since she has died. As with the adolescent hero of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Damian's quirky single- mindedness causes consternation, particularly at school. But the near-miraculous discovery of a bag full of bank-notes gives him and his brother a new chance while pushing this lively, sometimes acerbic but beautifully written story into the direction of social comedy. The author has not written for teenagers before, but will surely do so again.

Leslie Wilson's Last Train from Kummersdorf ( Faber, £9.99) is quite different in tone, but just as compelling. It describes the, at times, surreal journey taken by 14-year-old Hanno and Effi as they travel through 1945 Germany along with fellow-refugees. In their rear are soldiers from the feared Russian army, but how much can they trust the deserters, survivors and occasional Nazis they meet? Once again partially based on family history, this fine story bears an unmistakeable ring of truth.

Hanno has to learn that his former Nazi brainwashing cannot now be believed, while Effi must decide whether to trust him with her most potentially damaging secret. The author has previously written three adult novels; this one proves that her sure touch extends to teenage readers.

Matt Whyman has already written several books for this age group, but none as good as his stunning Boy Kills Man ( Hodder, £10.99). Set in contemporary Colombia, it tells the chilling story of 12-year-old Shorty, who becomes a hired assassin after seeing his best friend Alberto take the same course. Drugged by their controllers before making each kill, the two boys know that their lives are going to be short ones.

There are some consolations, such as ready spending money and awe-inspiring tattoos spelling out their allegiances. But by the end of this sparely told, credible story, all that is left is a feeling of sadness and loss, both for the boys and for others in their home town of Medellin who once wished them a better life. Those they murder remain anonymous figures who have simply got in the way of their gangland boss. A story about violence rather than a violent story, this is a fine achievement.

Sophie Masson's fascinating, dream-like The Hollow Lands ( Hodder, £5.99) goes backwards in time to a magical universe co-existing with ordinary life in 15th-century Brittany. Twins Tiphanie and Gromer both become embroiled in this world, where fairies behave as heartlessly towards them as fairies are generally supposed to do. Taking its inspiration from Breton folklore, this story is the fictional equivalent of a medieval tapestry, stuffed with strange creatures performing rituals that are only half-understood.

Back to the present, Gillian Cross's The Dark Ground ( Oxford, £9.99) also features tiny beings, this time human children who have shrunk to insect size. Their battles with snails and birds have all the obsessional urgency of Richard Dadd's 19th-century fairy paintings. But when Robert is flicked off his own window-sill by the mother he has travelled so painfully to be re-united with, the mood switches closer to Swift. With two more stories to go in this planned trilogy, Robert and his band have many more ditches to traverse and gutters to swim in their attempts to return to a world where they were once more happily in scale.

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