A touch of darkness

9th June 2006 at 01:00
ANGEL BLOOD. By John Singleton. Puffin pound;9.99

THE STORY OF MY LIFE. By Anne Cassidy. Scholastic Press pound;12.99

A NICER WAY TO DIE. By Sam Mills. Faber pound;6.99

MIDNIGHTERS: THE SECRET HOUR. By Scott Westerfield. Atom Simon Schuster pound;6.99

Tony Bradman considers the attractions of tales that edge beyond straight storytelling

As well as fairly straightforward storytelling - as seen to blockbuster effect in the Harry Potter and Alex Rider books - children's fiction has a thriving avant-garde, with writers such as David Almond treading boldly where few children's writers have gone before, and winning prizes for doing so.

It doesn't take a genius to see that John Singleton's Angel Blood is firmly in the avant-garde camp. In the first few pages we encounter children called Lights Out, Cough Cough, Chicken Angel and X-Ray, who appear to be imprisoned in some kind of mental hospital where awful things take place. The style is spare and elliptical, the children themselves speaking to each other in a poetic private language.

It may take a genius to work out exactly what is going on, although there is a plot of sorts. The children, who have strange, unique disabilities, are forced into escaping the hospital when the dastardly Dr Dearly begins to take his treatments too far. Once outside, they fall under the protection of Nail and Natalie, two teenagers with their own reasons for being unhappy, and a gripping chase across the Highlands of Scotland ensues.

The writing is powerful, if a little too self-consciously quirky, the characters have depth, and - as with most avant-garde art - there's a continual air of deep significance and symbolism throbbing through the whole performance. But we're never given an explanation of who the children really are, or why they're being mistreated, and ultimately I was left with the nagging suspicion that the book isn't really about anything in particular.

Anne Cassidy's The Story of My Life is a much sharper piece of work. It's the story of the longest night in the life of teenager Kenny Harris, an East Ender who has got himself into some serious bother. Not only has he pinched his older brother's girlfriend, he's also fallen into the coils of Mack, someone who seemed cool to begin with, but turns out to be a psychopath with a penchant for manipulation and extreme violence.

Anne Cassidy writes in a spare, elliptical style - this is the pared-down, hard-edged urban poetry of the contemporary crime story. And, as with the best thrillers, Kenny's journey through darkness is more to do with what's happening in his own soul than in the world around him. Strong language, sex and violence makes this a book for older teenage readers; the ending is just a little flat, but overall it's a great read.

A Nicer Way To Die, by Sam Mills, is another contemporary psychological thriller, a tale of two teenage stepbrothers on a school trip to France that goes horribly wrong. It includes an excellent description by the central character of a visit to his school by an author of patronising novels for teenagers. "Listening to him," says the deeply underwhelmed 16-year-old James, "was like watching your parents trying to dance at a school disco."

Sam Mills certainly isn't guilty of being patronising. She writes very well, and the details of her characters' world seem spot-on. Where she doesn't convince is in the story itself, which tries to pack in far too much - there's the death of a parent, bullying, violence, an inappropriate relationship between a pupil and teacher, a sleuth-like duel between the boys in a darkened country house... A tighter, better book is in there somewhere.

I doubt that you could cut even half a line from Midnighters: The Secret Hour, by Scott Westerfield, even though it features a large cast of characters, human and supernatural. It's the first in a series about an ongoing battle between good and evil in classic small-town America, and it has the qualities of the best American writing for television. It's slick, fast-paced, scary and funny, pretty much all at the same time.

The story focuses on Jessica Day, whose family have just moved to the Midwest from Chicago. Jessica soon realises that strange things happen at midnight in Bixby, mostly involving evil creatures who want to kill her.

She also meets a group of teenage outsiders with special powers, and a simple, gripping narrative unfolds, reaching its climax in a confrontation with the forces of evil, which finally reveals Jessica's own special talent.

Yes, of course it's reminiscent of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and there isn't a lot of depth to it. But at least the only symbols are magical ones, and you know you're in the hands of a cracking storyteller. Enjoy.

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