Strange Boy. By Paul Magrs. Simon amp; Schuster pound;7.99
Blazing Star. By Lynne Markham. Egmont pound;4.99.
Secret history, sexuality and spirituality in rites-of-passage novels reviewed by Geraldine Brennan.
Watch out for The Shell House on book award shortlists this year (it's already on the longlist for the Guardian Children's Fiction Award). The sweeping narrative is like the mosaic that covers the country-house grotto of the title, with only the reader holding all the pieces as crucial facts that never surface from discreet burial.
The title also refers to the burnt-out English country mansion, torched mysteriously in the Great War and left for nature to fill the vacuum. The well-meaning volunteers working on its semi-derelict gardens cannot reconstruct the building's human history, although the truth is tantalisingly close and the final chapters of this extremely satisfying novel deliver a series of clever twists.
When sixth-former Greg befriends Faith, whose parents are organising the restoration, they research the life of Edmund, last son of the great house's family, who disappeared from public record in 1917. Greg, like Edmund, whose life at the Front is relayed in flashback, is gay; both make bargains with God and are led to question their assumptions about others'
beliefs; both step outside their class background in pursuit of love and friendship.
The result is a unique exploration of spirituality (an area that most teenage fiction avoids) and sexuality. Edmund is confined by more overt social pressures than Greg, but the heightened emotions of the trenches have encouraged him to be true to himself and made possible his affair with a fellow officer. Greg is less able to act on his attraction to Jordan, a schoolfriend whose composure is easily dented. Ignorance and insecurity prove his undoing, at least temporarily. It's good to read a novel about rounded teenage characters who are allowed to be intense, thoughtful and questioning.
David, the 10-year-old narrator of Paul Magrs's novel, has years to go before he endures the agonies suffered by Greg; as yet he doesn't realise that his special interest in another boy might cause comment or censure. The subtle references to David's sexual curiosity in this touching novel are appropriate for a mid-teen readership and may be comforting to boys who are questioning their sexuality, or feeling overwhelmed by embarrassment, and find it difficult to confide in adults.
David's growing sense that he is perceived as "strange" is also related to his sense of dislocation as he shuttles between the branches of his extended family: his loudmouth grandma who dresses up as Shirley Bassey, his isolated mother and her new boyfriend's unruly relatives, his policeman father who cries on his shoulder on the way home from access visits. He escapes into an imaginary universe, drawn from superhero comic stories and special-effects scenes from film and television that form part of his Seventies boyhood landscape.
While The Shell House is composed in the form of Greg's photography project (the most telling images being those he sees but never captures on film), Strange Boy is put together like a home movie with David, a committed adult-watcher, as director. The first chapter reads like a self-contained short story, introducing David's curiosity about his friend John's body, his secret life in the comic-strip inside his head, and the astonishing (to him) spectacle of an adult (John's mother, Maddy) sharing his fantasy life with gusto.
Only readers old enough to relish nostalgia and sophisticated enough to notice that Seventies kitsch is cool again will appreciate the finer points of period detail, but many readers of 14 and above will enjoy this tale of vulnerable children preparing for adulthood on the raw fringes of a new town in a perfectly evoked North-east.
Lynne Markham's Blazing Star, for slightly younger readers, also offers a portrait of a boy gathering strength to cope with what life throws at him (in this case, school bullies and missing parents). Geoffrey is a gentle, thoughtful child who loves astronomy. He is unhappy at school, but in his rich alternative life meets a 19th-century Native American warrior who helps him find courage.
Back in the real world, salvation comes through the unlikely route of partnering his grandmother at ballroom dancing, befriends a feisty girl and painfully starts to grow a macho exterior.
Gran and her friends, growing old disgracefully, in sequins and strappy shoes, are more fun than the dreary cast of usual suspects in the classroom scenes in which emotions run high, but the canvas of school life seems limited. The powerful undercurrent of the story (Geoffrey is furious with his parents, who abandoned him to become missionaries in Africa, and struggling to accept that they have died), is more rewarding.