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Teenage fiction

BURNING UP. By Caroline B Cooney. Macmillan pound;4.99. XTREME: BURN OUT. By Ben Bo. Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;4.99. BLACKWATER. By Eve Bunting. Collins Children's Books pound;4.99. IS HE WORTH IT? By Sherry Ashworth. Women's Press Livewire pound;4.99.

Passion dominates the adolescent years: hormones erupt, and so does social conscience and determination that the world can change.

Macey, 15-year-old heroine of Burning Up, has such an awakening when her school pays a charity visit to an African-American church in a deprived area, and she nearly dies in an arson attack. Macey is sickened by the poverty in the African-American community, by a death on the streets, and finally by the discovery that racism was alive and burning in her lily-white Connecticut town back in 1959, among folks she holds dear. Trying to discover more, she encounters indifference, evasion, and outright denial.

Cooney does everything right. The reader is drawn into Macey's search for truth, her burgeoning romance, her family and friendships, and the justice, importance and painful challenge of her cause. Young readers will like this one; adults too.

I can't say the same for Burn Out, part of Bloomsbury's series set against backgrounds of extreme sports. The (despicable) protagonist is, Max, a narcissistic rich-boy skateboarder who becomes almost nice upon meeting Luka, an Eastern European refugee new to his school and neighbourhood.

The novel touches on the casual (and sometimes violent) prejudice refugees face, as well as their painful histories. But this is Max's story, and for him the personal is only fleetingly political. Issues of conscience re lost amid an over-written genre-blend of horror, romance and action sport - but no doubt Burn Out will be enjoyed by streetwise kids.

The issue of conscience in Eve Bunting's Blackwater is also personal, not social - although the message is universal. Thirteen-year-old Brodie pulls a foolish, jealous stunt that accidentally sends two teenagers into the deadly Blackwater river. His manipulative and loathsome cousin Alex spins a cover-up story, and Brodie's small-town community lauds him as hero rather than villain. Will he find the courage to tell the truth?

In an American teen novel with strong Christian underpinnings, you can guess Brodie's choice. But the problem of what happens to Alex remains frustratingly unanswered. Eve Bunting writes well, and the anxious narrative tugs fiercely at the reader, but too much of the story lingers beyond the closing pages.

A different kind of courage is needed in Sherry Ashworth's Is He Worth It? - the guts to end a relationship, or begin one. When Michelle falls for handsome, moody Ryan, her best mate, Helen, can see that he's a destructive control freak. Helen's conscience is heavy - should she interfere?

Told in the first person, alternating between Helen and Mish's viewpoints, Is He Worth It? is fun. Perhaps not as striking as Ashworth's powerful anti-bullying novel, What's Your Problem?, but equally feisty. Helen and Mish are 16, facing big choices and hard work in pursuit of realistic career dreams: gutsy girls who live far, far from Sweet Valley High.

So much intensity. It's enough to make me feel my age - and grateful for it.


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