A long time ago, in a land far away...

In the first of our three Christmas books specials, Susan Elkin looks at novels for teenagers, while on the following pages our reviewers pick the very best of the year's literary fiction, humour, cinema, politics and audiobooks

Susan Elkin
Sunday 04 December 2011 01:00

Immaculately researched history, bereavement, racial tension, genius problem solvers, flying boys and a whiff of dystopia ... it's all there in the new titles for young adult readers this Christmas.

Velvet works in a back-breaking, exhaustingly hot Edwardian laundry until she is "rescued" by one of its clients, a medium calling herself Madame Savoya whose house is stylish, manners generous, and assistant dishy. Mary Hooper's powerfully plotted Velvet (Bloomsbury, £9.99) – almost a teen version of Sarah Waters' Affinity with a bit of Jacqueline Wilson's Hetty Feather thrown in – gradually reveals the tricks of Madame's fraudulent trade and is hideously strong on the evils of baby farming. It's quite a relief that Velvet's old friend, Charlie, is never too far away.

Jennifer Donnelly's Revolution (Bloomsbury, £6.99) takes us to another period of history, the French Revolution. Andi's brother has been killed in a hideous accident in modern-day Brooklyn and, like her artist mother, she is almost destroyed by guilt. Taken by her famous father to Paris, Andi – a gifted musician – finds in an old guitar case the 18th-century diary of a girl her own age. Alexandrine, a street performer, has witnessed terrible scenes and was involved in trying, in vain, to save the life of the Dauphin, Louis Charles. Her guilt mirrors Andi's. This intelligent and compelling story is loosely structured around Dante's Inferno and there are some wonderful scenes in the catacombs of Paris as well as a strong 21st-century love story.

Another character who has lost a brother – this time in an event based on the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings – and has a parent broken by bereavement, is Caitlin. She has Asperger's, and Kathryn Erskine's well observed Mockingbird (Usborne, £7.99) uses first-person narration to show us how her literal world and her continual misunderstandings make her appear tactless, obtuse and uncaring – although she is none of those things. Caitlin sees herself as another Scout Finch, hence the reference to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird in the title.

Just as Mockingbird uses real events as its starting point, so do Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy (Frances Lincoln, £6.99) and Blood Runner by James Riordan (Frances Lincoln, £6.99). Reedy served in the US army in Afghanistan, and his sensitive and empathetic novel gives us an unusual take on that experience. Zulaikha has a cleft palate which is spotted by sweet-distributing US soldiers who eventually arrange free surgery for the child at their HQ. It's all based on true stories – even the horrifying burning of Zulaikha's elder sister by the man her father has married her to – and I like the way that Reedy presents cultural differences and breaks down stereotypes.

Blood Runner, almost a work of "docu-fiction", is inspired by Josiah Thugwane who, at Atlanta in 1996, became the first black South African to win an Olympic gold medal. It's a moving story which takes the fictional Sam from the worst of apartheid to achieve what Thugwane did in real life. It's reasonably well paced, although Riordan's detailed imparting of background information via dialogue is a bit clumsy in places.

Still on black experience is the broadcaster Floella Benjamin's first novel, Sea of Tears (Frances Lincoln, £6.99). It's an original, enlightening story about 12-year-old Jasmine, whose immigrant parents take their angrily reluctant daughter "home" to Barbados because they are anxious about the increasing dangers of UK life. Unfortunately, they do not entirely successfully escape crime and criminals. The characterisation, especially of Jasmine, her parents, her new friend, Devlin, and her Barbadian grandmother is very appealing.

Isla Whitcroft's Deep Water (Piccadilly, £6.99), part of a series called The Cate Carlisle Files, gives us another displaced teenager. But this is light-hearted, highly entertaining escapism. Cate – think a 21st-century young female James Bond seasoned with some rock star stuff – gets into trouble with ruthless criminals but is so brave and clever that, of course, she lives to tell the tale. It will go down well with intelligent readers wanting light relief that is not dumbed down.

Even more fantastical, and aimed at the younger end of this age range, is Lauren Child's Ruby Redfort: Look into my Eyes (HarperCollins, £12.99), the first in a new series spun off the same author's popular Clarice Bean books. It's a sparky, amusing tale of gangsters and spies, complete with the 21st-century equivalent of the traditional Chicago drawl from the sides of characters' mouths, and the super-bright Ruby Redfort at the centre outwitting everyone. Ruby's feckless parents are good value, as is the daunted-by-nothing housekeeper Mrs Digby.

And so to fantasy proper. Ally Condie's Crossed (Razorbill, £9.99) – the second in a trilogy although it reads reasonably well as a standalone – finds Cassia heading to the Outer Provinces to find Ky, who is meant to have been abandoned to his certain death but is very much alive as one of the novel's two narrators. It's sharply written and as serious as Deep Water and Ruby Redfort are not.

So, too, is James Norcliffe's The Loblolly Boy (Allen & Unwin, £6.99), in which a flying boy comes, Peter Pan-style, to the window of a harsh children's home in New Zealand and changes places with the boy he finds there. In a moving, quite profound exploration of abandonment, family loss and the need to take responsibility, Michael flies away to find what he thinks is his own family of mother and twin sisters. The character of the sinister, black-clad, spider-like "Collector" is well drawn and I fell in love with the gravelly, wise, enigmatic Captain Bass. At first it seems too juvenile for readers over 12, but there's far more to it for a thoughtful reader than the opening might suggest.

Revolution, By Jennifer Donnelly (Bloomsbury £6.99)

'As I get closer to the left bank, the ground slopes up and the water starts to recede. But it's still murky, so much so that I don't see the dead guy lying in it until I trip over him.

I scream and stumble, but manage to catch myself against a wall. After a minute or so, when my heart stops trying to batter its way out of my chest, I look at him ...'

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