Young adult fiction: Ghosts of history and inner-city Arthurian knights

From Katherine Howe's The Appearance of Annie Van Sinderen to Alex Wheatle's Crongton Knights

Janette Wolf
Thursday 25 February 2016 15:02
Amorphous: stories of hauntings and ghosts
Amorphous: stories of hauntings and ghosts

The term "young adult" is a curious publishing construct. Its age range is supposed to be late teens up to, well, when do you stop being a young adult and become an old one? Do readers suddenly drop the school romances for Jonathan Franzen? This amorphousness is shown clearly in a fresh quartet where the lead characters range in age from undergraduates to eight years old.

Katherine Howe's follow-up to the superb Conversion (last year's Independent YA Book of the Year) is The Appearance of Annie Van Sinderen (Rock the Boat, £7.99). Like its predecessor, the past seeps eerily into the present, here mainly because Annie V-S is a ghost. I don't think I'm giving too much away as the clues are there from early on: her hands have a habit of vanishing in strong sunlight and New York student filmmaker Wes can see her, but his camera can't. The two share narrating duties and, during the course of their temporal two-step, must find out what happened to Annie back in 1825 when her memory ran out. Howe has a historian's sure grasp of period detail as well as a keen ear for contemporary dialogue. While this may not be quite as multi-layered as Conversion, Howe has more fun with the plot. Annie is a sassy heroine who takes the unfamiliarity of being dead and the wonders of new technology in her stride.

While the characters in this book maintain a certain old-fashioned decorum, in Sarah Pinborough's 13 Minutes (Orion, £16.99) there is no holding back from the full gamut of sex, drugs and rock and roll. It is a dark and nasty tale of jealousy and manipulation, which begins when school beauty Natasha is fished out of a freezing river where she has been clinically dead for 13 minutes. She can't remember how she got there but is fairly certain it wasn't under her own steam. The viewpoint switches from Tash herself to her former best friend Bex, who was dumped for more fashionable accessories some years before but is now hauled back into service. The characters are intriguingly flawed, the narrative tension bow-twangingly tight and there's an absolute belter of a twist.

In Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit (Bodley Head, £9.99), Anna is growing up happily oblivious to the war that is closing in on her Polish homeland in 1939. One day, her adored father doesn't come home. We are given the chilling reason (off to a concentration camp he goes) but Anna never knows this. Abandoned and friendless she hooks up with a mysterious stranger (the Swallow Man) and embarks on a surreal odyssey, criss-crossing the country as they try to outrun both the cruel winters and even crueller soldiers. Savit's writing has a luminous quality, as he charts their unlikely friendship and struggles to stay alive. By focusing on the simple rhythms of nature, Anna's life achieves a certain sad harmony even as the world spins off its axis.

The final book will soon be on school reading lists and examination syllabuses everywhere, as it has "classic" singing from every page. Alex Wheatle's Crongton Knights (Atom, £6.99) is a joyous shout of youthful exuberance. Teenage McKay, a wannabe chef whose world view is that of an Arthurian knight stuck in a dodgy kingdom. The kingdom in question is an inner-city estate, blighted by gangs, poverty and mistrust. McKay and his "bredrens" agree to go on a dangerous quest to retrieve a friend's stolen mobile phone. The phone contains compromising pictures of her and as her family is in "Team God", "If her fam finds out, it's gonna go off, big time".

It's not all noble sentiment, though, as McKay admits, "it helps that Venetia is hotter than Miley Cyrus twerking against a bonfire". Wheatle's Twain-like command of patois never falters. Crongton Knights is as enriching and life-affirming as McKay's jerk-chicken stir fry, the recipe for which is helpfully added at the end. A total gem for any age.

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