Long hot days of change

Key stage 3

Linda Newbery on novels that make the most of the holidays.

While we have the three-term school year, the August gulf is wide enough for transformations, leaps in experience and maturation. These novels all exploit the freedom of holidays, with one writer keeping an eye on imminent return.

In Sue Mayfield's Reckless (Hodder Bites pound;4.99), a Yorkshire Dales holiday marks the end of childhood for Josh. In a narrative divided between twin brother and sister (though with little to distinguish their voices, especially in the early chapters), one incautious sexual experiment results in pregnancy for Charlie, the adventurous girl Josh falls for.

It's Josh's sister Rachel who maintains contact when all three return to home and school, worrying about the other girl's situation and charting the pregnancy. For Josh it's a period of denial, ignoring Charlie's pleas for support, until after the birth, when he accepts responsibility and tells his parents. The characters have little depth, but the subject will attract young teenagers, especially those who like their fiction short and undemanding.

Compare these incoming phone calls. From Reckless: "It was Charlie. I heard Mum say her name. 'Hello Charlie,' Mum said." And from Last Chance by Sarah Dessen (Hodder Bites pound;4.99): "Morgan reached over and picked up the phone. 'Hello?' she said. I was confused for a second until I realised it must have rung."

Young American writer Dessen has a wit, humour, and love of human eccentricity reminiscent of Anne Tyler. Colie, used to the fast-forward lifestyle of her mother, a fitness guru, spends the summer with ramshackle aunt Mira, an insatiable collector of flawed and damaged objects, and finds work at a beach cafe. Formerly overweight, humiliated by school peers and cruelly nicknamed, Colie has accepted the judgment of others; but Last Chance is too rich and varied to be labelled an "issues" novel. Through the company of her aunt, the quietly self-assured art student Norman, and two bickering older girls - all highly individualised and affectionately observed - Colie learns to respect herself as well as value those around her. All predictable enough material, but Dessen reveals herself as the real thing: a sharp, warm and funny writer who shapes her world from the stuff of real life. Highly recommended for - well, everyone.

The same can be said of Carwash, by the marvellously inventive Lesley Howarth (Puffin pound;4.99). Choosing the limited setting of a West Country village, Howarth exploits, through various viewpoints, the unwritten rules that govern teenage hierarchies and, in particular, the difficulty of being both clever and popular. Wide boy Luke, with his money-making venture, "nerdish" Paxman, self-styled Romantic writer Liv and younger sister Bix, who observes others from a tree perch, are engaging company. As Jane Austen famously observed, a few characters and a restricted setting provide ample material for the novelist; Howarth's village world is a delight of restrained exuberance.

Transformations on Sweetholm, a remote island in the Bristol Channel, are sometimes literal. Calypso Dreaming by Charles Butler (Collins Voyager pound;4.99) combines fantasy elements with a strong foothold in the physical world. The island has few inhabitants, several of them escapees. The story centres on Tansy, a summer visitor with her feuding parents; a cultish community living in the Manor; a dangerously obsessed amateur sculptor; and Calypso, four-year-old dreamer with a seal-like gaze, who may be the conduit for evil powers. Some perseverance is required to assimilate who's who and what baggage everyone carries, but the island's atmosphere is powerfully conveyed: beauty and danger, changeable weather and tides, the past's long shadows. For capable readers of 13 and over, especially those who appreciate something out of the ordinary.

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