Living on the brink

25th August 2006 at 01:00
A giant squid, the living dead and a manipulative Gothgirl feature in Linda Newbery's selection of novels

Do the Creepy Thing

by Graham Joyce Faber pound;6.99

Playing in Traffic

By Gail Giles

Simon Schuster pound;5.99

My Swordhand is Singing

By Marcus Sedgwick

Orion pound;9.99 hardback

The Highest Tide

By Jim Lynch

Bloomsbury pound;5.99

The dare carried out by Caz and Lucy in Do the Creepy Thing - breaking into a house to stare closely at its elderly occupant as she sleeps - makes for uneasy reading. But it's Caz who gets a shock when her wrist is seized, and a bracelet clamped on it. Removed, this bracelet leaves a strange, glowing impression. Curse or gift? Is Caz possessed, or guided by a kindly spirit? What becomes clear is that the violent attacks on Lucy by her father must be challenged and stopped.

Joyce's style - as in his previous novel TWOC - is engaging and pacy, though he sets up too easy a target for ridicule in the happy-clappy evangelists Caz visits at the urging of her mum's new "maths geek"

boyfriend. Less obvious, so more powerful, is the abusive family situation which is never referred to, even by friends as close as these two girls.

Caz must decide when to show quiet loyalty, and when to take a stand.

"Richard called me from UT asking about my GPA, my ability to pay frat dues, and my feelings about early rush." At times like this, in Gail Giles'

fast-paced novel Playing in Traffic, UK readers might feel in need of a translation. But elsewhere, the economy of style ("The note in my locker said, 'Park, 9'. I considered not going. She was there before me...") neatly shows the influence wielded by "Gothgirl" Skye over narrator Matt. Danger signs hang all over the disturbed and self-dramatising Skye, but Matt is in thrall, keeping his doubts at bay until he realises how thoroughly he's being manipulated - and not only into the role of protector, which he relishes. Matt has problems of his own to face; where he's left at the end of his traumatic involvement with Skye, which includes first sex, is for the reader to ponder.

Marcus Sedgwick's last novel was set during the First World War, but in My Swordhand is Singing he returns to the gothic fantasy for which he is better known. Drawing on eastern European myth and folktale, he tells the story of woodcutter Tomas and his son Peter, who come to live near the village of Chust. Peter doesn't know what they're running from, nor why they've settled on a tiny island in a fast-flowing river, nor what's in his father's wooden box. The undead, or "hostages", are at the centre of this atmospheric tale, but Sedgwick wisely avoids calling them vampires, a term which too readily conjures the capes and pointed teeth of cartoon graphics.

The threat - not spoken of by village people, but all too evident in the fears, the closed doors, the garlic and buckthorn stakes - is all the more powerful for being understated.

The Highest Tide is published on an adult list but has an engaging 13-year-old narrator, Miles O'Malley, who tells of the summer "in which I was ambushed by science, fame and suggestions of the divine". Living on Puget Sound, Washington, Miles, whose Bible is The Edge of the Sea by pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson, is an alert observer of marine life and tidal changes. A giant squid is the first of several rarities he discovers; when local media take up his story, Miles reluctantly acquires seer status: "The sea speaks to Miles O'Malley". The truth, as he points out, is that he's simply around to notice subtle changes; but he passes on a premonition from an elderly clairvoyant, Florence, that an exceptionally high tide will occur soon.

If Miles's daily attentions to this fading old lady and his composure in the glare of celebrity make him appear a little too saintly, this is balanced by his exploration with friend Kenny of sex books and a chat line, and his furtive lust for an uninhibited girl singer, Angie. But what most impresses is the real sense of the wonder and immensity of the natural world, how little is known and how much remains to be investigated. The Edge of the Sea is now on my summer reading list, as well as Richard and Judy's.

Linda Newbery's latest young adult novel, Set in Stone, is published by David Fickling Books

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