Gritty realism

6th June 2003 at 01:00
CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE. By Alan Gibbons. Orion Children's Books pound;4.99

DEAD NEGATIVE. By Nick Manns. Hodder Signature pound;5.99

BLOOD MONEY. By Anne Cassidy. Hodder Bite pound;5.99

BIG MOUTH AND UGLY GIRL. By Joyce Carol Oates. Collins Flamingo pound;4.99

CATALYST. By Laurie Halse Anderson. Hodder Bite pound;5.99

Linda Newbery chooses novels about young people's response to a conflict-ridden world

According to publisher marketing-speak, "grit" is essential to any self-respecting teenage novel. Certainly, this batch shows young people struggling to make sense of a hostile and dangerous world.

Caught in the Crossfire is a substantial novel at nearly 300 pages, yet its short sections and accessible style encourage the reader to zip through.

Set in a fictitious northern town, its characters include leaders of a BNP-like campaigning group; young male "patriots" whose aggressive energies are manipulated by adults with political ambitions; a Muslim boy provoked into violent acts which fuel the opposition; his intelligent, ambitious twin sister who seeks a rational solution to the conflict.

Characterisation is sometimes less than subtle - a racist leader dresses up in SS uniform, an Irish father is a drunken wife-beater - but brisk viewpoint-switches give both immediacy and the sense that each person's actions contribute, intentionally or not, to the volatile situation.

Oakington may seem mired in resentment, with adult attitudes ranging from resignation to bigotry, but it's teenage Rabia and Mike, meeting on the judging panel for a local book award, who aspire to a more hopeful future.

Nick Manns characteristically faces his main character in Dead Negative with a big moral dilemma. He also gives an entirely convincing picture of school and urban life. At the ironically-named Belle Isle School, it's jungle law - this isn't overdone, though narrator Elliott sees that staff are at best ineffectual, at worst blinkered, with regard to racial taunting. Following an incident on a bus, Elliott's best friend Jaspreet, a Sikh boy, is threatened - but bothered less by physical bullying than by the theft of his khanda necklace, a coming-of-age gift.

A wider issue concerns the work and death of Elliott's father, a war photographer. His photographs and negatives are to be sold to clear debts - Elliott, who's convinced that the work holds a clue to his father's death, sees this as a betrayal. The elliptical, impressionistic style carries the reader into school and street life, and into Elliott's realisation of just what his father witnessed in the Balkans. The thriller elements will appeal strongly to teenage boys who need encouragement to read, but there's much to attract more sophisticated readers, too.

Anne Cassidy's Blood Money combines thriller with morality fable in a modern take on Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale. Jaz and two male friends find a bag containing pound;30,000 in notes, the illicit property (they assume) of local hard man Mickey Duck. When they decide to hide the money and later split it three ways, their friendship begins to disintegrate. Narrator Jaz suspects the others of deception and disloyalty, but has a few tricks to play herself. Cleverly plotted, it will keep readers hooked.

Finally, two strong American novels. Big Mouth and Ugly Girl are private nicknames for Joyce Carol Oates's 16-year-old viewpoint characters. "Big Mouth" (Matt) lands himself in escalating trouble when he makes a flippant remark, overheard by Christian fundamentalists, about blowing up the school. "Ugly Girl" (Ursula), whose truculent exterior masks low self-esteem, becomes his defender. Characterisation is strong, tone sharply witty. The closeness which develops from tentative beginnings - Matt at first deleting all the emails he writes to Ursula - is touchingly but unsentimentally handled, as is the trauma that results for Matt's 10-year-old brother when the family dog is stolen.

In Catalyst, Laurie Halse Anderson shows her versatility by following Fever 1793, about the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, with an engrossing contemporary novel. In witty, strongly individualised first-person narrative, Kate Malone, an ambitious high-school student, tells her story - having counted on a place at MIT, she is crushed by rejection.

It takes the graceless, down-at-heel Teri, "a living, breathing Greek tragedy", at first neighbour, then reluctant lodger after a fire, to change Kate's perspective. On the way there are genuine shocks for the reader, and the controlled pace and power of the writing really make us feel we've lived through Kate's experiences with her.

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