Bleak expectations

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Elaine Williams selects meaty tales of youth under pressure


By Kevin Brooks The Chicken House pound;6.99

The Boy in the Burning House

By Tim Wynne-Jones Usborne pound;4.99

Freaky Green Eyes

By Joyce Carol Oates HarperCollins pound;5.99

The Whispering Road By Livi Michael Puffin pound;5.99

The Defender

By Alan Gibbons Orion Dolphin pound;4.99

The Fugitives

By Alex Shearer Hodder Children's Books pound;5.99

The Whispering Road

By Livi Michael Puffin pound;5.99

Victory Street

By Richard MacSween Andersen Press pound;5.99

Teenagers have it tough. The pressures can be social, academic, economic or a combination of all three, and contemporary teenage novels pull no punches in examining the agony and ecstasy of youth.

Candy by Kevin Brooks is a gut-wrenching account of a middle-class sixth-former's descent into London's underworld after a fatal encounter leads naive, lovelorn Joe into a relationship with a young prostitute, her heroin addiction and her pimp. This ambitious, tautly constructed thriller has the emotional scale of Greek tragedy, against a starkly contemporary backcloth of race, class and gangsterism.

There are shades of Melvin Burgess's Junk in the way the main male character is sucked into the lives of addicts and their indifference to the extortion that goes with the drugs. With a more privileged background than Tar in Junk, Joe resists heroin himself, but he is ill-prepared to deal with the hold that it has on others' lives and the violence that engulfs his family.

Candy deftly exposes the vulnerability of adolescents in 21st-century society, and confirms Brooks as a major novelist for this age group.

Two clever, compelling thrillers from North America place teenagers at the centre of murderous plots. The Boy in the Burning House by top Canadian author Tim Wynne-Jones has all the grace and subtlety of classic North American fiction as well as the edginess of contemporary narrative.

Jim finds it hard to come to terms with the presumed death of his father; his turmoil increases when he meets Ruth Rose, a Goth - all piercings and black garb -and the daughter of an evangelist preacher.

Ruth Rose pursues Jim with her terrifying hypotheses (that his father did not commit suicide but was murdered, her own life is also in danger) until he begins to listen. This superb psychological drama explores the manner in which fateful events and unleashed emotions turn people into killers.

Freaky Green Eyes, by Joyce Carol Oates, charts the roughshod rite of passage of a girl into adolescence and her dawning realisation of the pitfalls of sexual relationships.

Meanwhile, her parents' marriage is deteriorating, with ultimately tragic consequences. In a chilling and insightful account, Oates charts unsparingly the ruthless logic of those bent on domestic violence.

The news constantly reminds us that terrorism does not spare children, but what about the children of terrorists? Or the children who become the hostages of terrorists? Two superb new novels set in Northern Ireland are reminders of the wasted and shattered lives that terrorism leaves in its wake, victims of bombings aside.

Alan Gibbons writes with his usual passion in The Defender, tackling the moral choices that terrorism exposes in the story of Kenny Kincaid, who turned his back on his Loyalist paramilitary past, little thinking that one day it would catch up with his son.

Alan Shearer's The Fugitives is the tale of two bored and trouble-seeking boys who are drawn into a paramilitary bombing, their growing realisation of the implications, and the emotions of the terrorists who have had to take them hostage. Shearer writes with impressive economy and expression, lending a disarmingly light touch to a very, very sad story that is sometimes intensely funny.

The industrial and post-industrial landscape of Britain is woven in vivid tones in two novels both rich in characterisation and sense of place. The Whispering Road is an epic of Dickensian proportion, set during the Industrial Revolution, which follows the fate of Joe and Annie, a brother and sister abandoned by their impoverished mother to the workhouse.

Their search for their lost parent takes them on strange and arduous journeys from the Pennines into Manchester and through a series of encounters with weird and wonderful people as well as the downright dangerous. This is a striking first novel for older children from Livi Michael, who has written for younger children and adults. She writes with great invention, weaving both myth and fantasy into this gripping historical fiction.

Victory Street by Richard MacSween provides an equally evocative account of young people caught up in the race riots that beset northern towns a few years ago. Ellie wants to be a writer and make something of herself, but she's caught up in the daily round of living with a mother desperate for a new man, the trials of her Muslim neighbours and caring for a younger brother with a disability.

Meanwhile, her older brother has joined a fascist group and the racial tension in her neighbourhood explodes when he is injured in a scuffle. This revealing narrative of the positive and negative tensions of multicultural Britain is peppered with witty, pithy dialogue: humour which servves to illuminate the senselessness of racial hatred.

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