Children off the leash

20th August 2004 at 01:00
Linda Newbery is enchanted by tales of love and loyalty

THE PACK. By Tom Pow. Random House pound;4.99.

ANNAN WATER. By Kate Thompson. Random House pound;10.99.

INVISIBLE THREADS. By Annie and Maria Dalton. Random House pound;5.99.

HARD LOVE. By Ellen Wittlinger. Simon amp; Schuster pound;5.99.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LARRY. By Janet Tashjian. Puffin pound;5.99.

Tom Pow's The Pack has the flavour of fable combined with epic adventure.

In a futuristic society, improved public services come at the cost of individual happiness. Citizens are cordoned off into distinct zones, illicit gangs roam the spaces between, and abandoned children, for whom family life is a distant memory, scavenge a living.

Bradley, Vincent and Floris live so closely with their dog protectors as to be almost canine themselves, depending on their pack instincts; when Floris is abducted, desperate measures must be taken to retrieve her. The pacing sometimes falters - the false humility of the treacherous Red Dog is no sooner revealed than the danger is past - but the writing has a mythic quality, and the loyalty of children and dogs compels page-turning. For capable readers of about 11, The Pack offers total immersion in a vividly imagined world.

Folklore is at the core of Annan Water, which is short enough to read at a sitting. Although rooted in the present, and Michael's day-to-day life in his parents' ramshackle horse-dealing and show-jumping yard (with school haphazardly fitted round the edges), it is structured around snatches of a song that flits into Michael's head when he first sees the nearby river.

As phrases from the song come to him, they foretell his story and that of Annie, the girl who lives on the water's edge with her ailing mother. The finale - drawing us back, inevitably, to the river - is as mysterious and unexplained as the song. Some readers hate endings as wide open as this; others will be enthralled, and will wish, as I did, that the book were longer.

The remaining three titles will appeal to difficult-to-please teenage readers in Year 9 and above. Invisible Threads tells two stories: those of 16-year-old Carrie-Anne, and of her mother Naomi, who gave her up for adoption. Carrie-Anne is determined to meet her birth mother, though her resolve falters when her goal seems achievable.

Their first-person stories are told in alternating short chapters, setting up questions and expectations for the reader. A poisonous best friend for Carrie-Anne, an emotionally unstable mother and an unwise rush into first sex for Naomi, provide ample interest in the respective stories, giving plenty for teenage girls to identify with; the ending surprises but certainly doesn't disappoint.

As I'm quoted on the cover of Ellen Wittlinger's Hard Love, it's no secret that I enjoy the work of this insightful American writer, whose latest book will help build her reputation in the UK. John, moving awkwardly between his absent father and a mother who avoids any kind of physical contact, meets other teenagers through the "zines" they exchange - self-published magazines swapped in a music store.

Marisol, "rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love" befriends him, strictly on her own terms; although her sexuality is never in doubt, John falls in love. The anguish of this is mitigated by the confidence Marisol gives him in expressing his feelings in writing - to readers of his "zine", and, more urgently, to his parents. In this poignant, often funny portrayal of various friendships, it's pleasing to encounter teenagers for whom writing is important: Diana, who is more than willing to meet John halfway, finds it easier to communicate in writing than in person.

I can't help thinking that teenagers like Wittlinger's would be more likely to communicate through websites than by stapling pages together. Josh Swensen, narrator of The Gospel According to Larry, does just that - posting intermittent "sermons" inveighing against consumerism, and gradually revealing the 75 items which are, by his own rule, his only possessions.

Josh's "Larry" persona is kept secret even from his best friend Beth, and, at first, from the reader; but as Larry becomes a cult hero and curiosity grows, a pursuer named Betagold is determined to expose him. Soon Larry becomes a victim of the media he despises, and his personality more sought-after than his message. Clever, engaging and teasing, this could become a word-of-mouth favourite.

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

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