London reaching five miles high

4th September 1998 at 01:00
By Rhiannon Lassiter
Macmillan #163;9.99
By Philip Gross
Scholastic #163;5.99.

By Roger J Green
Oxford University Press #163;5.99
By Brian Keaney.
Orchard #163;4.99.

By Gillian Drake
Pont #163;4.50.

By Lynne Markham
Mammoth #163;4.50
By Ursula Dubosarsky
Penguin #163;4.99,

One reason why many read-a-holics turn away from fiction between the ages of 11 and 13 is that good books become harder to find. It's left to teachers, librarians and reviewers to recommend books with strong storylines to those who have moved beyond junior fiction but are not yet ready for authentic teenage novels such as Junk by Melvin Burgess.

Hex, a riveting first novel from Rhiannon Lassiter, is being energetically marketed on the basis that it was written when the author was 17 (she is now 21). The book is eminently worthy of the publisher's excitement. Its science fiction setting - in the 23rd century -is both familiar and fantastic. London has grown into a grotesque five-mile-high city. Lassiter's movement of her characters about this landscape in "flitters" and "skimmers" will appeal to lovers of high-velocity video games. But the novel has more than special effects.

There is a compulsive page-turning narrative that involves the rescue of a younger sister from a research laboratory, complete with a shoot-'em-up finale and a satisfying resolution. Because it is essentially a first-rate action thriller, Hex will appeal to those whose tastes don't normally include science fiction.

Psylicon Beach by Philip Gross is more for the seasoned reader of cyberfiction. It is shimmeringly well written, in a style which matches its vision of a coastal landscape scorched by toxins.

Cuckoos by Roger J Green depicts a frighteningly realistic, contemporary scenario. Sam's last year at primary school is being ruined by the malicious attentions of a brat called John. Green knows how these things work. No big showdowns, just a strategic tripping-up on the way back from the video room, and an unremitting cycle of menacing attention.

The headteacher is also being bullied: by John's mother, chair of the governors.

Green is as intent on getting inside the mind of the bully as the victim.He delivers some ironic satire on school management ideologies and classroom practice.

Brian Keaney's The Private Life of Georgia Brown is about bullying of a more oblique king that is no less hurtful. A new girl arrives and steals Georgia's best friend. In reaction, Georgia finds herself acting out of character.

She lives alone with a jazz-playing, whiskey-tippling father, and the antagonistic but loving relationship between the two of them is well drawn.

Rhian's Song by Gillian Drake is about two runaways chastened by their experiences on the road. Although it is an optimistic novel that captures the impatient, poetry-writing phase of adolescence exceptionally well, it is not moralistic because the main characters are never in any serious danger of dropping over the edge.

The central character of Lynne Markham's extraordinarily powerful novel Finding Billy is only ever encountered at one remove - through the recollections of Aunt Madge, which are being recorded by young Jack for a school project. Jack slowly discovers the truth about his uncle Billy through Madge's wonderfully well-written monologues. There is an exciting climax, which is cathartic for the family, particularly Jack's mother.

There are always eccentric characters in Ursula Dubosar-sky's books. In The First Book of Samuel, she hilariously unravels two sides of a family tree. Samuel and Theodora are half-siblings sharing a father, a larger-than-life opera singer. A brilliant novel, full of twists and Biblical echoes.

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