The frontline: in the home and abroad: best books for teens

In our final selection of Christmas books for children, we examine the best titles for teens

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The Independent Culture

From war to family conflict and from crime to ghosts, along with love of course – sometimes all in a single novel – the best 2013 books for young adults cover all bases and tastes.

Take Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper (Bodley Head, £12.99). It’s a moving and tragic account of colonisation in 17th century New England. We’re shown blind, ruthless prejudice against “savages” and the equally savage tyranny of one “Christian” group against another. That’s the background. The foreground presents two boys, one of English immigrant parentage, and the other a native. They forge a friendship that, in a sense, lasts until 2013 and beyond. There’s an epic quality to this deeply thoughtful novel.

Another terrific book which visits the colonisation theme is Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Middle of Nowhere (Usborne, £9.99) which, as usual with McCaughrean, is quirky, original and unpredictable. We’re in the Australian outback in the mid-19th century where Comity’s father runs a telegraph station. Camels and “Ghans” deliver a piano, snakebite kills, the aboriginal yard boy (who speaks entertaining biblically-based English) is astonishingly wise and there’s a whole cast of good and bad guys. And at the centre of all this feisty, imaginative, yarn-spinning Comity somehow picks her way through the dreadful problems that life hurls at her, not least her ghastly family in the city, her traumatised father, and the foul interloper Quartz Hogg. Even the names are a delight.

War has not been far from authors’ minds this year as the impending 2014 anniversary begins to make its presence felt. In John Boyne’s Stay Where You Are And Then Leave (Doubleday, £10.99) – Pat Barker meets Michelle Magorian – Alfie, the son of a London milkman, is puzzled by the outbreak of war but we learn with him how complex the issues are. Local men disappear and die, everyone turns on the local – kind and cerebral – “conchie” and then there’s shell shock. Alfie discovers a lot about the world through his unofficial job shining shoes at King’s Cross. Eventually he finds his deeply traumatised father in a Suffolk hospital and the drama which ensues is comic as well as poignantly enlightening.

When the Guns Fall Silent by James Riordan (Oxford, £6.99) was first published in 2000 but is to be reissued early in the new year. I feel justified in including it here because I read it, in a proof copy, for the first time this year and it’s mighty topical. Like the John Boyne novel it takes us to 1914 – this time to the front itself and that famous unofficial Christmas ceasefire for carols, football and recognition that we’re all equal and that there are no real enemies in war, except perhaps officers whom Riordan clearly hates with a vengeance. Both these fine, very readable novels stress the sheer futility of it all and if they help to make that clear to a new generation of readers then they get my vote – resoundingly.

Tinder by Sally Gardner (Indigo, £9.99) is another story which graphically highlights war’s horrors, this time the 30 Years War in 17th-century Europe. Gardner’s lyrical reworking of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Tinderbox is full of wolves, fire, fighting, death and love, although Otto Hundebiss does find a happy ending with Safire. David Roberts’s spiky black and white illustrations with occasional blood-red splashes add to the tale’s haunting atmosphere.

The Dead Men Stood Together by Chris Priestly (Bloomsbury, £9.99) is a reworking too. It tells the story of the Ancient Mariner in perceptive and revealing detail, bringing out beautifully the horror of the dead men on the deck, the snakes in the sea and the portentous, ghostly figures who come alongside the ship. And it’s deliciously physical. Have you ever thought what it would actually be like to carry – for weeks – the stinking, rotting corpse of an albatross around your neck?

In a completely different mood, if it’s contemporary crime you want then try Anne Cassidy’s Butterfly Summer (Bloomsbury, £6.99) in which the continuing, compelling adventure of stepbrother and sister (and increasingly lovers) Joshua and Rose has taken them from London to Newcastle, where most of this novel is set. Joshua’s uncle has had a suspicious accident on a cliff top and the mystery of their parents’ disappearance five years earlier goes on unravelling with shocking twists. At one point, I was so engrossed that I missed my station on the Tube.

And so, finally, to three novels about families and/ or love set in 2013 or thereabouts. Hurt by Tabitha Suzuma (Bodley Head, £12.99), set mostly in London, is one of the most powerful and tense novels I’ve read in ages. Something unspeakably appalling has happened to Matteo, although it’s a long time before we discover exactly what. It must, for the most horrifying of reasons, affect his relationship with his beloved girlfriend Lola who is sensible and supportive until she learns the truth. There is some very adult material in this outstanding novel. Buy it only for the upper reaches of this age group, perhaps.

In Gayle Forman’s Just One Year (Definitions, £7.99) Willem, a young Dutch actor, has been beaten up. His memory is affected and it takes a while to piece together the single day he spent with a girl he must find again. Then we get a 12-month quest which takes us, and him, all over the world so it’s a good read for armchair travellers who don’t feel patronised by a happy ending. It could be a good antidote to Hurt.

Listening for Lucca by Suzanne LaFleur (Puffin, £9.99) neatly explores the strange phenomenon of selective mutism through two families, one in present-day Maine and the other during the Second World War, who are linked by the house on the coast that both lived in. Siena, who has a psychic gift or perhaps simply unusual receptiveness to feelings, gradually senses and writes the story of the earlier family as she waits for her silent three-year-old brother to speak. It’s a warm family story with some cracking characters including both Siena’s parents and her friends, Sam and Morgan.