Young adult book reviews: War's hell, but childbirth and the future are scary too

In the second of our Easter specials, Susan Elkin looks at holiday reading for young adults, from dystopia to the Somme

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

From Virginia to Tehran, Istanbul and Australia via various bits of northern Europe and from the early 20th century to the 22nd, this sparky selection of young adult books takes us on many a compelling journey.

In Echo Boy (Bodley Head, £12.99) by Matt Haig (pictured right) we're in a flooded, technology-driven 2020. Enhanced computerised humanoid organisms (echos) service every human need. Each prototype is "better" than the one before and, suddenly, it's Frankenstein territory. You can reach New York, which used to be called Chicagom until the eastern coast disappeared, in just a few minutes from London via magrail and the area once called Regent's Park is now the Resurrection Zone and houses dodos, woolly mammoths, tigers and other creatures brought out of extinction by scientific wizardry. Audrey, 16, orphaned and terrified, goes to live with her powerful uncle who owns most of the country's technology. There's a love story at the heart of this highly original page turner.

The most interesting character in Seeing Red, by Kathryn Erskine (Usborne, £6.99) is the thoughtful, charismatic black boy Thomas, Red Porter's friend in 1970s Virginia. But racial tensions are simmering and you can hear the echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird. Red's forebears in the family car repair business were not all as enlightened as his mother and his much missed, recently dead father. It's a high octane read with some unforgettable personalities such as the loveably decent Beau, who runs the business for Red's mother, and the wise, informative nonagenarian Miss Georgia.

But there are vicious racists nearby too and Red has a lot of learning to do.

On Two Feet and Wings, by Abbas Kazerooni (Allen & Unwin, £6.99) is a memoir rather than a novel. It describes Kazerooni's being sent - alone and aged nine - to the "safety" of Istanbul by his formerly wealthy parents who couldn't get passports from the Ayotollahs. The child managed to live for 12 weeks alone in Turkey before finding his salvation and a ticket to Britain. Today, he is a lawyer in the United States. And he never saw his parents again. It's an astonishing story which makes you want to hug decent people such as Ahmed the taxi driver and Murat the hotelier who helped Kazerooni without taking too much advantage.

If detective fiction is what's required try Knightley and Son by Rohan Gavin (Bloomsbury, £6.99). In this first story in a series 13-year-old, super bright Darkus Knightley is, with his father who is just out of a long coma, fighting a huge crime network - a cross between East End gangsters and the Mafia but linked up with international espionage. The plot rolls forward energetically and Darkus proves predictably indispensible.

Women have babies. And it's often inconvenient or difficult, especially when the mothers are very young. Enter two fine novels, a great deal of judgemental cruelty and some immensely kind, wise characters: The Convent, by Maureen McCarthy (Allen & Unwin, £11.99) and Writing in The Sand, by Helen Brandom (Usborne, £6.99). McCarthy's gripping book explores the experience of four women across four generations, linked by an old convent near Melbourne, now an arts centre with café. Once it was a Magdalen laundry. And we see its operation both from the viewpoint of a young nun and from the "fallen" girls whose babies have been removed. The intricate plotting, including flashbacks and forward shifts, is immaculate. Helen Brandom's protagonist, Amy, is a delight too - childish and naive but strangely adult in the way she cares devotedly and protectively for her sick mother. And every teenager needs people like her friend's parents Mr and Mrs Kelly, and the form teacher Mr Smith in their life.

And, finally, to two First World War novels for centenary year. Eve Edwards's Dusk (Penguin, £6.99) is a love story about the "mismatched" Helen and Sebastian. He is from a titled family. She is the lower middle-class daughter of a bullying father and German mother. They meet early in the war and are then separated by the events which follow. The detail on the Somme catastrophe and the feelings and fears of those officers and men present is good (as a junior officer, Sebastian only just survives 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme offensive), as is Helen's service in a nearby hospital. There is a sequel coming. Remembrance (Corgi, £6.99) by Theresa Breslin (pictured left) is reissued for this year and unravels the 1914-18 experiences of five young Scots, linked but from different social backgrounds. Their work includes nursing, munitions manufacture, frontline military service, the horror of being expected to kill your enemy as he stands in front of you, and the aftermath of shell shock. The period details, social backgrounds, greater career opportunities for women, and the scene shifts are all nicely handled.