Teenage novels

Sunday 22 June 2003 00:00

Orlando Reade

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday £12.99). Pratchett's latest magical adventure for children takes place in a medieval peasant village with an affinity for sheep. Tiffany, a farmer's daughter, is a rather reluctant heroine, but when her brother Wentworth is kidnapped, she resolves to find him, aided by a saucepan (her only weapon), a magical book (Diseases of the Sheep) and a small army of picties (no, not pixies). These are Scottish-speaking, red-haired, "stealin', drinkin' an' fightin" blue imps, and Tiffany has to command these "Wee Free Men" in a rebellion against their Queen, who, as it turns out, has taken her brother.

It's a wholesome book, but the plot leaves a bit to be desired. The "wee free men" themselves play a big part in making the book readable, and Pratchett's take on medieval witchcraft is refreshingly different from that of a certain Ms Rowling.

Bud not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (Corgi £4.99). This story is set in the midst of the Great Depression in Michigan. An African-American child ("Bud, ma'am, not Buddy") escapes from his orphanage in order to discover his past. Armed with an old suitcase, several fliers for "Herman E Calloway and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!!" and some fond ole memories of his Mama, Bud is determined to find his father (whom he expects to be Herman E Calloway).His determination is well portrayed and his toughness is realistically described. The historical context is very engaging and the book has effective insights into the trauma and sorrow of an orphan's life at that time.

The Burning City by Ariel and Joaquin Dorfman (Doubleday £10.99). Heller, a teenage courier in New York, delivers messages of unhappiness. His work brings him into contact with many people as he speeds through the city; he starts to make friends and a crescendo builds up: something is bound to happen as the summer heat wave hits. The book is dark and ominous; the descriptions of New York are familiar yet distant and not very affectionate. The authors incorporate the weather and environment well into the plot, though the concluding few pages are irritating, trailing into description, so the story just seems to fade away.

Who the Man by Chris Lynch (Bloomsbury £5.99). Earl has just been suspended from school, his parents can't bear to be in the same room, he is arguing with his only friend and feels awkward with his outsized body. He finds communicating difficult, which is no help to the book but is a good representation of adolescent behaviour, and he seems to spend most of the novel with his fists clenched. Lynch ventures boldly into the dark recesses of an adolescent mind, but Earl's thought processes do not flow well. His story is a bit too familiar and he is more confused than complex. The book comes across as slightly condescending: this is clear from the lack of genuine warmth.

Racing the Past by Sis Deans (Hodder £5.99). " 'The best thing your father ever did for your family was running his truck off of Dead Man's Curve.' Although Ricky secretly agreed, Bugsie had no right to say it." Ricky Gordon starts running to school to avoid bullies like Bugsie on the bus, and finds a way of exorcising the troubles of his past. Ricky starts taking the running seriously and, using the only other thing he's good at, maths, he starts calculating his goal - to beat the school bus.The Gordon family's struggles, financial and emotional, are well portrayed. The running is described at length and the depiction of Ricky's painful efforts (in dirty bare feet) is accurate and interesting.

Blinded by the Light by Sherry Ashworth (Collins £4.99). Joe, a university student at Bristol, meets and is attracted by a mysterious religious cult called the White Ones, whose members all seem incredibly content. Joe is inducted into their society, where he meets a girl called Bea. At first he happily sacrifices all addictive activities, stops seeing his family and is completely satisfied with his life at the farm community. Soon he has grown close to Bea, but if they take it any further their relationship will not be permitted... The plot is exciting and readers will want to know more. The author creates a slightly ominous feeling throughout so the metamorphosis from good to bad and from bad to worse comes as predicted, but in a way that is completely unexpected.

Orlando Reade is nearly 15 and goes to school in Brighton. His favourite writer is John Steinbeck

Zenobe Reade

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier (Scholastic £12.99). Dimple Rohitbhai Lala is just 17; her parents want her to be one thing and she, resisting them fiercely, wants to join in with her best friend Gwyn's boy-filled American lifestyle. "I didn't want an Indian boy to appreciate me, what I wanted was even half a glance by someone cool, someone who played guitar or made movies or had long hair or even - jackpot - all three."

When she is caught trying to get back into her house slightly intoxicated after a double date, her shocked parents ring round all their Indian contacts in America to find a suitable boy who will get Dimple back on track.

Eventually Karsh Kapoor is pinpointed, the son of her mother's old best friend from Bombay. Karsh at their first meeting had already secured himself the label of "Striking Average Boy Who Is Computer Geek And Mama's Boy To Top It Off". Dimple is at once keen never to befriend, let alone marry him. However, after her cousin introduces her to the South Asian community at New York University, she sees the "suitable boy" Karsh, DJ-ing in a club, in a very different light. She slowly discovers that she has something Gwyn can never have - her culture.

Hidier writes with a flamboyance full of rich description, flaunting the beauty and vibrancy of the Indian culture as she weaves a spellbinding story.

Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates (Collins £4.99). Matt is a big mouth. An ill-timed joke reaches the wrong ears and he is accused of terrorism and arrested by Rocky River detectives. Ursula is a self-labelled ugly girl. She speaks out against this blatant injustice against Matt, and a friendship evolves.

Despite being initially unappealing and slightly unbelievable - basing such enormous consequences on a casual remark - the story gained pace. I could imagine it appealing to a younger readership of 13 to 14-year- old girls. The book explores the integrity and commitment of friends, with Matt's regretful realisation that his own abandon him in his most needy moment. Oates questions the foundations of popularity and what it can allow people to get away with, and we watch Matt visibly mature as he is forced to rearrange his ideas and his ethos.

Alternate chapters narrated by Ursula and Matt add an interesting perspective to the novel, and through this Oates shows off how well she can get under the skin of her characters. The book was a welcome diversion from revision, but instead of returning to it another time, I shall be going in search of Oates's much acclaimed adult fiction.

My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr (Young Picador £9.99). Ellen loves and idolises her intellectual older brother Link and his friend James and feels privileged to be an onlooker into their beautiful and private friendship. However, after hearing rumours at school she begins to question the extent of her knowledge about the true depth of her brother's relationship with James. She is immediately curious to explore this relationship that has been in front of her unknowing eyes for so long. In asking the boys outright, she irrevocably alters the course of life to come for all of them.

For the first time, Ellen comes to recognise previously hidden prejudices and a deeply rooted fear in those close to her. Feeling ignorant yet contemptuous of homophobia in others, she attempts to educate herself and begins a journey of self-discovery and revels in her own newfound creative expression and liberality.

This is a fantastic book, confronting the insularity of conformity and the shame often surrounding homosexuality. The ending, though slightly unsatisfying in its incompleteness, mirrors life's own ongoing path. The author covers the issues involved with a subtlety, depth and intense solidarity with her characters uncommon in this genre.

Zenobe Reade is 16 and has just finished her GCSEs. Her favourite writers are Donna Tartt and Zadie Smith

Jessica Seldon

Love, Shelley by Kate Saksena (Bloomsbury £5.99). This is Kate Saksena's first novel. It is impossible not to warm to Shelley in this touching story, in which, in the absence of a reliable mother, she confides the details of her life in letters to Ziggy, the lead singer of her favourite band. Shelley writes one letter a month for a year, and over that time we witness the way she deals with problems that many of us hope never to experience. As well as coping with a dangerously impetuous (and alcoholic) mother, and an utterly reliant younger brother, Shelley is like any other 14-year-old girl, having to deal with school, bullies and boys. This allows us to relate to her, and enables us to put our own problems into perspective when we see what Shelley is forced to face every day on her return from school.

Poignant and captivating, Shelley's story is sadly representative of that of millions of children, but Saksena portrays her not as a victim, but as a charming, passionate, and likeable girl.

Borderland by Rhiannon Lassiter (Oxford £4.99). The story focuses on Zoë, who, having failed to make friends at her new school, goes to a party at Laura's house. Laura then confides to Zoë the secret of a door in her garden, leading to another world, and the book describes the events that occur in the empire of Tetrachate.

Sadly, I was not captivated. The plot just becomes too complicated too soon, and the constant, occasionally superfluous, addition of names and places detracts from the development of an already confusing storyline. This lack of simplicity is Lassiter's major flaw, and I even found myself reading a double page five times over because my mind was trying to take in the introduction of multiple new characters. It's a shame, because parts of the book gripped me, yet these moments of magic were punctuated with sections of uninspired tedium.

This book will appeal to readers who enjoy novels like The Lord Of The Rings, but it is simply too much like hard going if you are looking for a relaxing, undemanding book. I feel Lassiter could have told exactly the same story in half the length.

Fake by K K Beck (Scholastic £7.99). This novel charts Danny Murdock's journey after he escapes on the way to the Utah desert for a Youth Intervention Therapy experience with Keith, in whom he, perhaps mistakenly, places his trust.

Believing he is on the run for assault after Keith "dealt" with the men taking them to the desert, Danny decides to search for his father in Seattle and Keith decides to help him, but it soon becomes apparent that Keith is out for no-one but himself.

Fake is a fast-moving, gripping thriller, and it is impossible not to be absorbed into Beck's world of lies, deceit and fear. Constant cliff-hangers maintain interest, and Beck creates a palpable sense of trepidation and anxiety as Danny realises that he has no one left to turn to.

Despite the somewhat implausible plot, Beck succeeds in making Fake extraordinarily realistic, as though stolen identity were a daily occurence, which adds to the unnerving, chilling tone of the book. The reader is able to relate to Danny, despite his bizarre situation, allowing us to feel his fear and desperation.

My only criticism would be the persistent and perhaps unnecessary use of swear words, which may make the book unsuitable for younger readers, who would otherwise I believe really enjoy this novel.

Jessica Seldon is 16, lives in Brighton and has just finished her GCSEs. Her current favourite writers are William Golding and Tony Parsons

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