Beneath the surface

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Linda Newbery selects novels that put values and relationships under pressure

Underworld By Catherine MacPhail Bloomsbury pound;5.99

Tomorrow Belongs to Me By Mark Roberts Andersen Press pound;5.99

Pool Boy By Michael Simmons Scholastic pound;9.99

Drive by Lesley Howarth Puffin pound;4.99

Boy Kills Man By Matt Whyman Hodder pound;10.99

After Summer By Nick Earls Walker pound;5.99

Catherine MacPhail draws out the tensions in a group of ill-assorted teenagers on a caving expedition. With the entrance blocked by a rockfall and their teacher-guide unconscious, the group is trapped in a network of tunnels and thrown on its own inadequate resources. Each of the clear-cut characters - arrogant Zesh, bolshie Fiona, Angie the relentlessly cheerful Girl Guide, aggressive Axel and indecisive Liam - demonstrates a weakness, but surprises the others with physical or moral strength. Interspersed with their story is that of a German submariner, marooned in wartime, who meets - in imagination or in reality - the cave-dwelling worm of local legend.

Danny, in Tomorrow Belongs to Me, leaves his Liverpool home with only a rucksack and is picked up in a service station by a well-heeled older boy, Luke, whose confidence, possessions and apparent employment as film-maker instantly impress. When the boys share hotel rooms and a tent, Danny must be unworldly indeed not to question Luke's motives; but Luke's lack of sexual presence contributes to his insubstantiality as a character. Danny's willingness to see only the best in Luke, finding reasons for the beatings and deaths reported in his wake, could have been better exploited if Luke were more vividly present.

Likeness to Holden Caulfield is more frequently claimed than merited, freely attached by blurb-writers to any mildly disgruntled American adolescent narrator. Pool Boy is likeable enough, but, unlike Salinger's ground-breaking novel, easily forgettable.

Approaching his 16th birthday, Brett Gerson has taken material comfort for granted, until his father is jailed for insider dealing. Working as a pool cleaner with the engaging 75-year-old Alfie leads Brett, predictably, towards a reconsideration of his values and his relationship with his father. But Alfie is the only fleshed-out character in the book, and Brett's narration is more authentic than interesting, with the handy shorthand of teen-speak - "pretty cool", "like a billion years old" - glossing characters and settings with universal blandness.

Drive, as readers of Lesley Howarth's previous novels will expect, is more stylish. Luke, previously encountered in Carwash, has moved from village to city and met Carrie, member of the notorious Crocker family, who run a local mafia. The parentless brothers risk following their older brother into crime; Luke, while trying to pass his driving test and cope with a cousin-impersonator who's come to stay, determines to rescue Carrie from grimness. With conciseness, wit and a laconic sense of absurdity, Howarth lets her reader relish the street-savvy world of adolescents on the fringe of crime, while adults (or "olds") remain unaware of what's under their noses.

The title and cover picture give no doubt that we can expect harshness and violence from Boy Kills Man, Matt Whyman's story of boys learning to survive on the streets in Columbia. Twelve-year-old Sonny at first watches in dismay as friend Alberto becomes a hired assassin then, when Alberto disappears, takes over.

There are chilling details - notably of the gruesome "Columbian necktie" torture - and, even more disturbingly, Sonny quickly becomes blase about his role, learning to do the job without asking questions. The first-person narrative is skilfully handled, drawing us into Sonny's bleak world; the violence, though accepted, isn't glamourised, with the boys so obviously victims as well as executioners.

The tone and setting of After Summer could hardly be more different. Alex Delaney, at his mother's holiday home near Brisbane, is awaiting confirmation of his university place, but anxiety fades when he meets and falls in love with Fortuna, daughter of an unmaterialistic family eking a living from bee-keeping and pottery. The pace - suiting the leisurely holiday days - is languid, yet the story hastens towards the imminent return to city, college and peers that will separate the lovers.

Initially self-mocking and sardonic, Alex's first-person narrative gradually encompasses not only the intensity of first love but also a growing awareness of adult preoccupations - as well as tolerance of their eccentricities. After Summer is absorbing, elegiac and thoroughly memorable; and, of all these books, is the most likely to appeal as much to adults as to teenagers.

Linda Newbery's young adult novel Sisterland (David Fickling Books) was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal

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