Tea, toast and techno-terror
Nicholas Tucker finds challenge and complexity in recent teenage fiction
In the first story, tough Margaret sees off opinionated Ralph, but possibly not for long as both grow older and wiser. In the companion novella, an otherwise irritating 16-year-old finds new strength and understanding as he rescues his saintly girlfriend from exposure. Each story is set in a past when bookish sixth formers still liked nothing better than talking about their favourite literary classics. This element of nostalgia apart, there is an enormous amount in Westall's writing for modern teenage readers.
Anne Fine is a brilliant writer who also sells well, proving that quality can still make it in a children's book market increasingly dominated by formulaic series. The Tulip Touch (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 10.99) explores the destructive side possible in close friendships, when a best mate can gradually become an oppressive enemy. Young Natalie watches helplessly as her unpopular but powerful friend Tulip turns into a thief, arsonist and near-murderess. An attempt to disengage provokes Tulip into a final act of destruction, in which Natalie loses her home and Tulip the only place she was ever happy. Natalie still cannot bring herself to condemn her former friend, the product of a cruelly neglectful home, and ends the story feeling guilty and sorry. There are fewer laughs here than normal in Anne Fine's work, but as always plenty to think about.
Theresa Breslin's Death or Glory Boys (Methuen, pounds 11.99) also asks troubling questions, this time about the ethics of meeting violence with violence. A dangerous terrorist is on the loose, but Phil and Sarah disagree about how to meet this situation. In response, Sarah joins an Army Cadet Orientation Course while Phil remains resolutely pacifist. Neither gets off lightly in terms of knowing for certain they have made the right choice - a point worth stressing given the current simplistic discussions about teaching morality in schools. When the terrorist is killed just before another bomb is ignited, she turns out to be an adolescent herself. But by this time, credulity is severely stretched; this book is not in the same league as the author's prize-winning Whispers in the Graveyard.
Norman Silver's The Blue Horse (Faber, pounds 9.99)is a shorter story, but a more powerful one. Describing a boy with a serious facial injury following a road accident, it ends with an appeal for more understanding plus a mention of the charity Changing Faces. Yet this is no wooden morality tale to boost a good cause. Alex is a convincing character, whose possessive mother and escapist father both make his life harder. Jilly Wilkinson's dreamlike line illustrations give this moving account a valuable extra dimension.
Karen Cushman's Catherine called Birdy (Macmillan, pounds 3.99) sets out to make British medieval social history child-friendly as never before. Written in the form of a journal, it describes the year 1290 in terms of immediately arresting detail: maggots in the meat, fleas, medicine made with the dung of a white dog and meals with swan's neck pudding. But while these details are accurate enough, the journal-keeper - 14-year-old Catherine - is so laid-back in her sulks and pertness she could just as well have appeared as a Beverly Hills teenager in Clueless. Disapproving of all types of social snobbery, indignant about arranged marriages, Catherine may be a right-on person, but she is never historically convincing. Readers may still enjoy her various adventures, and especially the possibility of True Love at the end.
A clan meeting in Australia for all the dispersed members of one MacDonald family is a daring plot for any novel, given the plethora of Christian names inevitably involved and the tangled blood-lines that keep cropping up. Despite trying hard with this scenario, Judith O'Neill never quite gets away with it in Hearing Voices (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 10.99), a sequel to her more successful So Far from Skye. Adolescent Malcolm, flying in from Scotland, soon gets involved in a sub-plot so unbelievable O J Simpson himself might hesitate before using it as an alibi. Family secrets have always been one staple of children's fiction, even for readers with cupboards bare of skeletons. But this story is more nightmare than reality; the type of plot an editor should have moved in on at the early draft stage, blue pencil at the ready.
Philip Pullman can do no wrong these days, and Clockwork, or All Wound Up (Doubleday, pounds 9.99) can fairly be compared to the gothic fantasies of the greatly missed Leon Garfield. Elegantly produced, with haunting illustrations by Peter Bailey, it is one more version of the Faust legend set in the world of 18th-century German clockmakers capable of producing masterpieces involving moving saints, sinners and Death himself with his scythe and hourglass. An inadequate apprentice makes a deadly pact with a stranger, who provides him with a perfect little metal figure to join all the others circling round the town clock. For those who might want to read spooky stories this Christmas in front of a flickering fire (or television screen), this story could hardly be better.
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