MONKEY By Veronica Bennett Walker #163;9.99
HUMANZEE By Susan Gates Oxford University Press #163;5.99
OUT OF THE DARKNESS By Nigel Hinton Puffin #163;4.99
THE SCAVENGER'S TALE By Rachel Anderson Oxford University Press #163; 5.99
A book about a boy who is desperate to find an efficient contraceptive for a mother who keeps forgetting to take the Pill, and an accomplice with a talent for biting intra-uterine devices from display boards is, I suppose, rightfully reviewed alongside fiction for older readers. But there is nothing in the joyfully entertaining new novel from Morris Gleitzman to make it unsuitable for 10 or 11-year-olds. Indeed, the humour of the hilarious opening page is aimed directly at children having their first school lessons in human reproduction.
Angus's mother, the star of a soap opera, is forever out filming while he, Mr Dependable, is left to look after his smaller brother and sister, Imogen and Leo. As ever, Gleitzman is excellent on small children. And for all its lovely jokes - "Angus tried to keep his mind on sex" - this ends up being a novel about everyone's right to an irresponsible, piratical childhood. That the 11-year-old girl who joins Angus in his quest for the ultimate contraceptive is set to become a child bride in an arranged marriage, leads to a bizarrely unravelled adventure. This is Gleitzman's best yet.
A lighter vein would have enhanced Veronica Bennett's first novel, Monkey.It is, nevertheless, an impressively well-written and audacious debut. Audacious, because it tackles two major themes - bullying and physical paralysis - in one book. Harry, schoolboy victim, gets to know Simon, a disabled patient of his mother's. The book is subtly developed, swinging from conversations between the man and the boy, and incidents at school which involve further bullying, rehearsals for a play, and first love.
Humanzee by Susan Gates has a clever opening chapter apparently set in the late 19th century. Then the first-person narrator lets out a 20th-century expletive, and a mobile phone rings. Nemo and his family have rescued a mistreated chimpanzee which, because of its habit of walking upright, is preposterously considered a "missing link" in the evolutionary chain. There is much else that is far-fetched and overdone in this novel. Nemo's acting is ridiculed by a group of girls for being "over the top". Gates goes over the top herself, with repeated use of the phrases "go ape" and "go bananas". However, the narrative does build into a tense confrontation between Nemo, Chingwe (the humanzee) and a family of fundamentalist neighbours preparing to bunker down for Armageddon.
In Out of the Darkness, Nigel Hinton has written a fast-moving, nail-biting, romantic adventure of a type definitely not suggested by its gruesomely apocalyptic jacket. The first half gives the impression of being a conventional political thriller, about a girl on the run from assassins, such as you might expect to see adapted as a two-parter for television. The second half would hold most of the surprises and most of the drama.
Midway, Hinton introduces an X-Files factor, revealing Leila to be an initiate of The Work, a kind of Fifth Dimension order for those who have worked their way "out of the darkness" into a state of superior consciousness. Once revealed, this New Age mysteriousness is sensibly sidelined. There is genuine pace and excitement as Leila and Liam flee their pursuers, through France and Spain into Morocco.
The jacket of Rachel Anderson's The Scavenger's Tale - one of the most powerful novels I have read this year - is equally misleading. We see a solitary skip in the midst of a barren and parched wasteland. Yet the book is set in a central London described by Anderson with Dickensian relish. The "scavvying" is done round the back-courts of big hotels, or on the mudbanks of the Thames.
Bedford, the main character, has a younger Down's-syndrome sister named Dee, as well as other "dysfunctional" family members. The year is 2015 and,following disastrous firestorms (alluded to but never entirely explained),London has become little more than a tourist attraction for foreigners, and the British economy reliant on organ transplants.
The excitement in the story stems from Bedford's attempts to save his family members from the Community Health and Welfare Monitors (CHAWMs), who are on the prowl for kidney donors. Its central strength lies in the horrible yet instructive plausibility of the future it envisages, and in Anderson's vivid writing. When Bedford provides a rescued vagrant with a piss-pot, the collected, bloody urine is compared with the coloured liqueurs poured into a cocktail glass. "Look! You've made yourself a Tequila Sunrise!" Bedford jokes. A welcome shot of adult humour, too rarely seen in "young adult" writing. Unless it's Australian.