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Opposites make the best of friends

CRASH. By Jerry Spinelli. Orchard Pounds 9.99. FROM BLOOD TWO BROTHERS. By Keith Gray. Mammoth Pounds 4.99. THE SCHERNOFF DISCOVERIES. By Gary Paulsen. Macmillan Pounds 3. 99.

WICKED. By Anthony Masters. Orchard Pounds 9.99

The best friendship story ever written is probably the one about David and Jonathan. Jonathan: a bit of a dork with a doolally dad. Dead-shot David: a music maestro, cool brain, cool brawn. Opposites drawn together.

In Jerry Spinelli's Crash, a new kid on the Pennsylvanian block turns out to be a vegetarian Quaker, given to wearing peace badges. Not quite what Crash Coogan was looking for in a new friend. Penn Webb, the newbie, even refuses to be provoked into a water pistol fight; he's more inclined to play with Crash's kid sister. Much changes in the course of a year, and the two opposites end up being the best of friends, with Spinelli managing to avoid lame stereotyping in a story told in a lively first-person voice with pace and humour.

The Biblical David's talents extended to the opposite sex, and in the best of buddy stories girls hover in the wings, provoking varying degrees of wonder and alarm. Mark Twain brings Tom Sawyer close to death in the caves with Becky Thatcher. And in Keith Gray's From Blood Two Brothers a sweet temptress in red DMs threatens to break the line of communication between the narrator and his best friend Paul.

Gray writes brilliantly about male friendship and it is no real surprise when the ties of brotherly affection (boys behaving badly) prove to bind more surely than those of sexual attraction.

Getting a girl is something that Harold Schernoff, in Gary Paulsen's The Schernoff Discoveries (entertaining vignettes of adolescent brotherhood), approaches in the spirit of scientific research. In one hilarious episode he puts a tongue inside the left nostril of his first date, having misunderstood a sex manual in the local library, and then misdirected his aim, originally planned for her ear.

Thrown together by their dual status as social outcasts, Gary and Harold manage to get one over on Dick Chimmer, the macho heavyweight who intimidates them. And in an afterword - perhaps the one point in this book when Paulsen misses a beat (does the reader really want to know what happened to these characters in adulthood?) - we learn that Harold ended up marrying the girl of the disastrous first date.

Anthony Masters is never dull. His books always begin grippingly. The fund of tough, conflict-filled situations which he has managed to create in his prolific career might have set him up to be the British Robert Cormier, if it were not for a tendency for somewhat crude and heavy-handed resolutions.

Wicked is no exception. The first two-thirds is excellent. While Josh is attempting to discover the secret which has twisted the behaviour of his twin brothers, the book is compelling and full of atmospheric promise.

Once revealed, a good deal of the tension seeps out of the narrative and the melodramatic hospital-bed ending cannot compensate for lost pressure. Like putting extra tread on a worn tyre, it makes for stumbling progress.

As Paulsen quotes Harold Schernoff as saying about the solution to problems, in one of the many chapter headings culled from his pal's philosophical lore: "Sometimes it isn't pretty and takes a little longer, but there is still a solution."

Primary children's books page 12

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