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No boys allowed

A bunch of books about relationship issues gets the thumbs-up from Jo Klaces

The Serious Kiss By Mary Hogan Simon and Schuster pound;5.99

Sisters... no way! By Siobhan Parkinson O'Brien Press pound;5.99

Boy Proof By Cecil Castellucci Walker Books pound;5.99

The Bad Girls' Club By Rhian Tracey Bloomsbury pound;5.99

Breakfast at Sadie's By Lee Weatherly David Fickling Books pound;10.99

Am I bothered that this selection of books marketed at girls mainlines on boyfriend and relationship trouble? Well, frankly, I wanted to be, but I was won over. Weren't social relationships Jane Austen's material? And, in the end, each of these novels reaches far beyond eternal boy-girl wrangling.

In The Serious Kiss, Libby, the permanently mortified 14-year-old heroine, lives in small-town California with a mother who mangles the language into such coy shapes as "dinnerooney" and "poopadilly", and a father who never lets go of the remote control and has a drink problem.

Ostensibly about Libby's pursuit of the "serious kiss" of the title, this book actually takes on much graver issues, such as the impact on the family of the father's growing alcoholism and the eldest son's dalliance with crime.

It's written with a light touch, in Libby's convincing teenage voice. One to curl up on the sofa with, particularly for anyone who feels they can't escape their genetic destiny; Libby is here to tell you that you can.

I was pre-disposed to like Sisters... no way! Not only has it won the Bisto Book of the Year prize in Ireland, but it has a character called Mr Gravy.

Even without that happy coincidence, I would have been impressed by the two energetic and plausible voices who tell the same story from their separate perspectives. I started from the punk cover (there's a cover for each narrator) and read the story from 15-year-old Cindy's point of view.

Her mother has recently died and her father starts a relationship with one of her teachers, who has two daughters. The families move in together, and anger, tangled relationships and wistful sadness ensue. Cindy is mostly outraged and unforgiving while Ashling, the teacher's eldest daughter and other narrator, is much less self-centred; both diarists engage our sympathies. This book would be especially good for any teenager who has had to join an extended family.

The heroine of Boy Proof models herself entirely on a film star. Her clothes, make-up, haircut and name echo those of her celluloid heroine, Egg from the film Terminal Earth. Narrator Egg (real name Victoria) loves film, hates herself and does her best to make herself "boy proof" by being combative, refusing to dress to please the opposite sex (or herself), or dumb down. We follow her diary entries as she gradually becomes more comfortable with life and finds out who her true friends are.

There are more social misfits in The Bad Girls' Club as four Year 10 girls are brought together by their teacher to form a group which reviews books and then discusses them on a teen radio programme. The story is told from each girl's point of view, and I sometimes found it hard to differentiate between them. Yet I can't argue with the core message, that books are a good thing. Indeed the novel seems to be fulfilling its own brief when one of the heroines asks, "Why isn't there a book like that on the list, about feeling like me, a total loser?" Well, here it is.

Finally, in Breakfast at Sadie's, 13-year-old Sadie is left alone to run her mum's bed-and-breakfast business and eventually triumphs. There are no boyfriends and the focus is on the value of practical work and determination. It's a cheeringly positive, deceptively simple book which shows that domesticity needn't be tame; Sadie is a modest action heroine.

Jo Klaces is director of the National Literacy Association

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