BALLOON HOUSE. By Brian Keaney. Orchard. Pounds 4.99
TRIP OF A LIFETIME By Eric Johns. Walker. Pounds 9.99
FINDING JOE. By Anthony Masters. Scholastic Press. Pounds 5.99
Each of the books in this selection of page-turning fiction has family difficulties at its core. The Girl Who Knew is a thriller about two girls involved in a hit-and-run incident. Kits, left partially paralysed, is at first resentful of her friend Lisa, who escapes unhurt; but gradually, with the psychic powers that have come to her since the accident, she finds out about Lisa's damaging experiences with her mother's boyfriends.
Lisa is the "girl who knew" of the title, repressing the knowledge that it was her mother's partner, the violent and unstable Ross, who deliberately drove his car at them. Kits's visions reveal that Lisa is in further danger, and in spite of being confined to a wheelchair, Kits is able to contribute to her friend's rescue.
Characterisation and settings are kept simple and the style is undemanding - it's the plot that will hook readers.
The same is true of Brian Keaney's Balloon House, which starts off focusing on Neve's relationship with her father, his new wife and their baby son, then becomes thriller-ish when the father's work as an investigative journalist endangers the family. Orchard has given this, and Keaney's other novels, stylish and eye-catching cover artwork by Sarah Perkins.
For slightly older readers, Trip of a Lifetime is stylish, witty and unusual. It's also the only one of these four books written in the first person. Seventeen-year-old Michael Jester, cynical and self-mocking, disillusioned with his parents and their new partners, introduces himself as a sex maniac - indicating the frank tone of the story to come.
He meets a student nurse who gives him a cocktail of drugs. Already prone to hallucinations, he finds himself in a dream world where myth and desire mingle. After stealing money from his mother, he tells a series of lies to obtain a horse-drawn caravan as transport, an odd conveyance for his escape attempt, but perfect for taking him back in time.
Cast as the Green Man and as Adam, he finds himself in a rural village called "Ende" (Eden) enacting fertility rituals - but the purity of this idyll is tainted when his role turns to that of John Barleycorn, about to be sacrificed.
The humour is often sophisticated, and the book is short enough to be read in one sitting. Michael, always ready with a smart answer and scattering his story with literary allusions, isan anti-hero likely to be appreciated by clever boys of 13 and above.
Finding Joe by Anthony Masters would be another excellent addition to a collection aimed at attracting boy readers. It has a Waiting for Godot air of expectancy as three 16-year-old boys search woodland near a lake-cum-rubbish dump for their missing friend - but one of them knows that Joe, who supposedly left home upset by his father's infidelity, is already dead and his body is decomposing in the water.
What's interesting here is that the structure allows us to see how Jake, Barry and Paul behave together, putting on a casual, laddish front, with dares, games and whisky-drinking, while chapters devoted to each boy's individual viewpoint show us their more vulnerable side. On the surface, the athletic and socially confident Joe, formerly the leader of the group, was admired and envied, yet each of the boys has a private reason for hating him.
Clever plotting keeps the reader guessing right up to the final revelation, after which the boys are left with their dilemma - whatto do, now that they know? - and their continuing need for ahero-figure to lead them.
The brooding, black-and-white cover artwork by Anne Magill is aperfect match for the darknessof the story.