Mad, bad and delightful

10th June 2005 at 01:00
TEN SORRY TALES. By Mick Jackson. Illustrated by David Roberts. Faber. Pounds 10.99 (hardback)

DOMINOES AND OTHER STORIES. By Bali Rai. Hodder Children's Books. Pounds 5.99

THIRTEEN. Edited by John McLay. Orchard Books. pound;10.99 (hardback)

David Buckley reads the disturbing and the lyrical

Mick Jackson tempts us into his world of macabre dottiness like a fairground attendant at the entrance to the house of fun. If Ten Sorry Tales were accompanied by music, it would have the uneasy squeak of a slightly out-of-tune barrel organ.

In the first story two ageing spinsters, Lol and Edna, live out lives of unlovable eccentricity in a shack by the shingle, selling kippers and smoked mackerel. When they rescue a drowning man from the sea, he's so spooked by the sisters' dead-eyed stare, captured in David Roberts's wonderful illustrations, that he tries to escape over the pebbles only to be "lamped" by Lol and thrown back in like an unwanted sprat. A few days later he becomes the first in the sisters' collection of drowned men who sit in their parlour "nice and quiet", and nicely smoked, giving the sisters no trouble at all.

Mick Jackson uses his characters' quaint obsessions as a route into lyrical explorations of privacy and coming to terms with the past. Remembering a childhood holiday on Windermere, Mister Morris occupies his retirement by building a rowing boat in the cellar but he cannot get it out of the door.

He lives for the floods which allow him to row around his cellar and eventually tunnels through to an underground lake peopled by a fellowship of other secret rowers, united in their silent, eerie hobby.

A young girl collects a bucketful of bones she finds around the Gower Peninsula, unaware she is coming to terms with the loss of her grandfather, who died two days after complaining of "tired old bones".

A small, argumentative boy runs away from home with a suitcase of balled-up socks, all he can think of to pack; years later, it reminds him of the cottage to which he never returned. Ten Sorry Tales is a unique mixture of pathos, humour and cruelty, delightfully disturbing for an adult or child.

The stories in Dominoes may be more disturbing for an adult than the teenage audience at whom they are aimed. Bali Rai's voices from the street reflect the ethnic variety and danger of the inner city, where expensive clothes are essential for a night's clubbing and kebabbing even if they are likely to get ruined in a fight.

Asian, West Indian and white boys and girls move around one another in uneasy allegiances and enmities, spitting defensive dialogue and insult, easily hurt and anxious not to look foolish. The characters are linked by going to the same school and belonging to the same area, but at first they are just names, and the reader cruises the streets alongside, scooping up clues about their personalities and realising it would be safer to keep your children at home until they are 40.

The stories shift around in time. The psychotic Mo moves from 14-year-old thug to murderer, but appears in the final story as a sad younger character, stealing his brother's CD player so he can buy some "wicked trainers".

It's a hypnotic collection. Bali Rai's unfussy prose and authentic dialogue present both comedic and disturbingly violent action without comment, apart from the teenager's own occasional moral judgments about loyalty and feeling bad about letting your mum down with your shopliftin'. Adults occasionally lurk in the background, the thought of them a reminder that losing your three-year-old brother in a carnival really does mean it's time to put on a few years. But Bali Rai never condescends, and his characters are left to work out their world for themselves. Streetwise teenage readers should enjoy doing the same.

Bali Rai has also contributed to Thirteen, an anthology by a range of children's authors about crossing the line from 12 to that unlucky-for-some age. Bali Rai's story is less impressionistic than those in Dominoes, and all the stories here are solid, well-crafted tales. And all are reassuring that the uncertainties and confrontations of being 13 will resolve themselves happily.

In Eoin Colfer's The Seal's Fate, Bobby Parrish is worried his fisherman dad will look down on him for not wanting to club a seal to death, but realises his father will let him be his own person.

The adopted narrator of Jean Ure's Hey! This is Me! longs for a less embarrassing mum with dress sense but, offered a meeting with her stylish birth mother, throws her arms around the loving figure who can never get her hair right. This is a warm and enjoyable collection.

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