Beyond the angst

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Because I'm Bella By Joe Hackett Oxford University Press, pound;4.99

Sugar Rush By Julie Burchill Young Picador, pound;9.99

Fat Kid Rules the World By K L Going Corgi, pound;4.99

Gangsta Rap By Benjamin Zephaniah Bloomsbury, pound;5.99

Linda Newbery reads novels that tackle crises of youth with wisdom, wit and some cliches

Bella, in Joe Hackett's assured and compelling first novel, has serious problems to face. Abandoned by both parents, she's been brought up in a children's home; she reaches a crisis after she steals a three-year-old boy and is confined to a secure unit.

This may sound excessively bleak, but Because I'm Bella is no issues-laden rite-of-passage novel. Let down by various people in her life, mainly her mother, Bella finds companionship in the statues and sculptures of Exeter cathedral, particularly the stern figure of the Dog Whipper, who becomes her guide and consoler.

There's a definite sense of loss when her colourful visions fade, but although Bella's difficulties emphatically aren't over, we sense that she's a survivor.

It would be hard not to warm to a narrator who imagines the medieval cathedral full of "people with only one eye or bright red boils, or warts with hair growing from them, and beards and beads and everyone with long dirty hair and crutches and funny hats".

With its high-profile author, a cover warning of explicit content, and plenty of advance flagging, Sugar Rush isn't likely to go short of publicity. Narrated by quiet, clever Kim, it's as much about class difference and the power girls wield over each other as about same-sex attraction. The main character's intelligence and wry sense of humour permit Burchill to make genuinely funny observations about teenage and adult behaviour, while Kim's realisation that girls know exactly how to wound other girls is astutely shown.

Other characters, though, are simply drawn: the Ab-Fab contrast between sensible Kim and her flighty, toyboy-chasing mother has become a cliche of teen fiction, and no adolescent male in the story is rounded enough to do more than gawp and drool. Even the alternating objects of Kim's lust, sexy smartmouth Zoe and sexy smartmouth Maria, one from the posh girls' school and one from the local comp, are virtually interchangeable.

For a novel of more than 200 pages, it's surprisingly thin, though maybe it breaks new ground by ending with teenage lesbians in a happy and fulfilling relationship.

A close relationship between teenage boys is central to Fat Kid Rules the World, an American first novel. First-person present-tense narrative has become almost the norm for teenage fiction, and the witty, self-deprecating tone used by "fat kid" Troy is reminiscent of two of the most striking novels I've read in recent years, You Don't Know Me by David Klass, and Kevin Brooks's Kissing the Rain.

Attention is grabbed from page one, when Troy, giving up the struggle against low self-image and about to throw himself under a subway train, is stopped by skinny drop-out Curt, guitar legend from the same New York school. Unfathomably, to Troy, Curt adopts him as drummer and renames him "Big T", keeping faith throughout all protestations of uselessness. Finding out that Curt, too, is in desperate need of help is the saving of Troy.

Funny, poignant and irresistible, Fat Kid will easily win fans.

In a press release accompanying his third novel, Benjamin Zephaniah expresses his concern about the number of black boys failing in - or failed by - schools.

Gangsta Rap is a rags-to-riches story in which three East End teenagers are excluded from school but, encouraged by their former teacher and a social inclusion project, achieve fame as a hip-hop band.

Adulation, accolades and awards almost instantly come their way, but less welcome is the behind-the-scenes manufacturing of rivalry and violence to build the band's notoriety. Though targeted at teenagers, its simple characterisation and undemanding style make this an easy read for children of about 11 and up; it will particularly appeal to boys who identify with the school experiences in the opening chapters.

= Linda Newbery's young adult novel Sisterland, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, is published in Definitions paperback this month

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