Hidden depths

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Adele Geras finds heroism, secrets and love in absorbing novels for key stage 3 and beyond

Malvolio's Revenge

By Sophie Masson

Hodder Children's Books pound;5.99

Harriet's Ghost

By Bridget Crowley

Hodder Children's Books pound;5.99


By Mal Peet

Walker Books pbk pound;7.99

The Mrs Marridge Project

By Pauline Fisk

Faber pound;9.99

Sophie Masson couldn't have known about Hurricane Katrina when she set this novel in New Orleans. It's a tremendously atmospheric book, and you rejoice when the very first page has torrential rain, live oaks, Spanish moss and a carriage hurtling towards the unknown. The events that follow, complete with dazzling special effects, have a strong link to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and the house that Toby, the hero, and a band of travelling actors end up in is called Illyria. The characters, from the beautiful Isabella to the dastardly - well, I can't say who, because it would be wrong to give away a secret - speak and act in the best traditions of old-fashioned melodrama.

From that excellent beginning, we go on to surprises, reversals of fortune, disguises, hauntings and revelations. We also learn about the Jim Crow laws of Mississippi and we even meet the young Louis Armstrong. The city of New Orleans is a perfect backdrop, and the whole story is hugely enjoyable, swashbuckling fun for both boys and girls. Masson's cover image has been changed, though, and not for the better. Her previous novels for Hodder were much more stylishly jacketed, but this is a small quibble.

Bridget Crowley's enjoyable book about the world of the ballet has also been given a rather lacklustre look, which is a shame. This novel is about many things, all of which are of great interest to many girls. First, we have the modern-day ballet school setting, with its rivalries and bitchiness and also its close and supportive friendships. Then there's a plot strand which tackles the difficult subject of body-image and anorexia and the struggle dancers have in keeping their bodies permanently underweight.

On top of all that, when the company Harriet belongs to goes to Paris to dance at the Opera, there's a ghost story based on historical fact and this takes us back to the past. Then we have Marianne and her mother (who is distant and uninterested in her) and the wonderful, well-drawn Madame Dupont who loves Marianne and who also looks after Harriet. Boys who harbour ambitions of a Billy Elliott variety would also like this novel; Crowley is careful not to exclude male dancers and choreographers. This author has worked in the ballet world and knows what she's talking about.

Mal Peet, who won the Branford Boase Award in 2004 for Keeper, has written a complex and rewarding novel which is two stories in one. Tamar is called after the river, and in the present-day story, she is mourning a grandfather who has just died. He's left her some things in a box and from these clues she has to piece together the truth about him and work out what happened to him and her grandmother during the Second World War. The narrative interlocks Tamar's story with that of a group of men and women, British and Dutch, who carried out Resistance operations when the Netherlands was suffering hunger and deprivation under the Nazi jackboot.

The themes of both stories are secrecy, bravery, love and what it makes us do, and, above all, those two enormous moral perplexities: is it permissible to do bad things for good reasons? And does the end justify the means? Peet moves effortlessly and skilfully between the 1940s and the present and the characters are strong and well-drawn. Terrific stuff.

Pauline Fisk's heroine, Elin, decides that what she really wants to do is get married. She makes a special study of all things to do with matrimony with a thoroughness she's learned from GCSE coursework. We learn a great deal about her, her family and her worries, and we go through her adventures (which include running away and meeting a dodgy person on the internet) at her side. Because this book is written in the first person, we're right there with Elin through everything. There are funny moments, and some of the actual "Project" is hilarious, but the message, which comes towards the end of the story, is: "Scratch the surface of life and you'll always find love. Sometimes you can't see it, but it's always there." A comforting message and one that many teenagers will greatly appreciate, as they will this clever and positive novel.

* Adele Geras's latest book for young adults is Ithaka (David Fickling Pounds 12.99)

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