Books: Third age, first class

In the latest batch of novels aimed at teenage readers, grans just want to have fun. Nicholas Tucker welcomes grey power
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Grandparents can have quite a good time in teenage fiction these days. More free to speak their minds than their career-conscious children, they are often depicted despatching home truths across the dining room table with accuracy undimmed by age.

In Michael Morpurgo's Escape from Shangri-La (Heinemann, pounds 12.99) a lost sailor-grandfather turns up one day on the doorstep of a son-father who never thought to see him again. An uneasy period of settling in finally breaks down, with grandfather "Popsicle" bundled off to an unpleasant nursing home, the Shangri-La of the title.

After that, the story leaves reality in favour of geriatric wish-fulfilment. Popsicle leads an oldie escape group on a trip to Dunkirk in the boat he had formerly used during the great rescue of 1940. This book only half succeeds, but should certainly be enjoyed, not least by adventurous grandfathers.

Grandmothers are celebrated in Ann Coburn's Dark Water (Bodley Head, pounds 9.99). This is the third novel in the author's Borderland sequence, but stands perfectly well on its own. When an oil company decides to investigate the Devil's Hole, a patch of dark sea with an equally murky reputation, Grandma Elliot warns of deadly consequences. How right she is: spooks, meteorites and "black smoke" (superheated water) all combine to cause a near accident followed by a fatal one.

This is a well-written story by a novelist who has done her homework in today's deep-sea technology: the description of first seeing an oil rig close-up is genuinely awe-inspiring. But too much going on elsewhere tends to blunt the book's true climax. As in some other contemporary writers for teenagers, there seems pressure to over-plot, leading to one excitement too many.

The same could be said of Robert Swindells's Smash! (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 10.99). It starts well, showing how teenage characters of mixed ethnic origin living in a Midland town are forced apart by an insidious campaign of racial prejudice. Hatred soon becomes as addictive as any drug, but it is a pity that the villain who "purrs" down the phone has to be quite so melodramatically evil. Fortunately the girl teenagers of the story keep their heads; the ending, while not exactly happy, is certainly sobering.

Swindells is a good enough writer to be able to avoid phrases like "arsed off" in his writing. This would be fair enough coming from a teenager; from the author himself, it smacks of trying too hard to establish street cred.

Pauline Fisk's The Beast of Whixall Moss (Walker Books, pounds 8.99) is very odd indeed. Living in the remote countryside, 11-year-old Jack has a hard time with his bitter, unloving mother. To add to the fun, a strange, grim man plus his blank-eyed daughter move in on their barge slightly up the river. So far, so compelling. Fisk does not waste words, and has a good eye for detail.

Then Jack spies a fabulous beast on the barge, with a silky, flying coat, long legs, blue eyes and six thrusting heads. Like the white elephants that the King of Siam used to give as a present to courtiers he wished to ruin, the beast brings unhappiness to those who offer shelter because it needs so much care and protection. Yet try as I might, I could not even visualise this beast, let alone believe in it. Let's hope younger readers prove more amenable.

Finally, two disappointments: Theresa Tomlinson's Robin Hood story Child of the May (Julia MacRae Books, pounds 9.99) soon gets lost in a thick undergrowth of Christian names, mumbling soothsayers and potted history. Some fighting leper monks make a spirited appearance, but otherwise this is a dismal sequel to The Forestwife, which promised so much.

William Mayne's Midnight Fair (Hodder, pounds 9.99), as opaque as anything he has written, combines incomprehensible asides (bitumen of Judaea?) and scholastic puns in a plot that only begins to become clear after a great deal of effort. There are as always some fascinating, impressionistic fragments, but this is a book that needs at least two readings at a time when many teenagers can barely stir themselves to get through a novel once.

Illustrations, left to right: a tour of Rome conducted by a homing pigeon in David Macaulay's Rome Antics (DK, pounds 9.99); a magical library in How To Live Forever by Colin Thompson (Red Fox, pounds 4.99); The Paradise Garden also by Colin Thompson (Cape, pounds 9.99)