Mature reads for maturing minds

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Linda Newbery takes a look at more challenging fiction for teenage readers

The Innocent's Story By Nicky Singer Oxford pound;12.99

Hell Bent By Anthony McGowan Doubleday pound;10.99

TWOC By Graham Joyce Faber pound;6.99

Angelmonster By Veronica Bennett Walker Books pound;5.99

This is All - The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn By Aidan Chambers The Bodley Head pound;14.99

Nicky Singer couldn't have known how relevant her book would become by its publication date. Narrator Cassina, killed in a bomb attack at a station, finds herself in vaporous limbo, inhabiting the minds of others. This plot device - unusual, to say the least - takes us into various heads, including that of a suicide bomber, where few authors would boldly go. The drawback is that Cassina can only observe, but Singer makes inventive use of the rules she has set herself. Although Akim, the would-be terrorist, comes from a background very like the Middle Eastern conflict, Singer prudently invents a religious group, the T'lannis, who aspire to holy martyrdom.

Misguided but not evil, Akim is driven to despair by the deaths of family members, yet attempts to "save" his child hostage, Mary, training her to recite the T'lanni creed. On the other hand, no sympathy is evoked for the manipulative plotter, Habril, who discounts the lives of non-believers.

This tense, gripping novel could hardly be more topical, raising questions of faith, loyalty and responsibility.

Hell Bent is, as narrator Conor would say, "a different kettle of ballgames". The cover claim, "The most disgusting book you'll ever read", is no exaggeration. Killed by an ice-cream van, Conor spends the rest of the novel in Hell; imagine Hieronymus Bosch interpreted by Viz magazine and you'll have the idea. Planning to swap his punishment regime for something more congenial, Conor endures various situations in which bodily functions and emissions are lovingly evoked, but there's also a wit and relish to the writing, garnished with references to Shakespeare, Sartre, Marx and Dante, that will appeal to clever boys of 14, especially if they think they've found this book by themselves.

Another sharp-witted narrator is Matt, in TWOC, whose flippancy hides the deep disturbance which has afflicted him since his brother's death. On probation following the stealing and accidental burning of a car, with serious injury resulting, he's sent to an outdoor education centre with two other damaged teenagers; episodes of caving and riding alternate with his pot-hazed memories of the night in question. But he's not telling the truth; only with acceptance from Amy and Gilb, his new companions, can he face what really happened and who's to blame.

Amusing, despite its seriousness, and ultimately moving, Frankenstein has a unique place in the collective imagination, and Veronica Bennett draws on this to write Mary Shelley's account of her relationship with her poet husband. The Angelmonster of the title is partly Shelley himself, whose selfishness leads to the death of a child, and partly the germ of Frankenstein in a story told to Mary on a Rhine cruise. It's mature in tone, but, in covering such a swathe of time, events aren't given sufficient weight; babies die in such swift succession that the reader almost loses track. But the picture of a young woman who feels herself stifled by domestic responsibilities, yet quietly works on her astounding novel, makes an enjoyable read, worth recommending to students of Romanticism and of women's history.

It's been a long wait for Aidan Chambers' new novel, since his Carnegie-winning Postcards from No Man's Land was published in 1999. The voice belongs to Cordelia Kenn; her belief in herself as a writer makes plausible this substantial record (more than 800 pages) of her life from 15 to 20, in which she attempts to make sense of herself, her world, and her love for William Blacklin. Both of them independent, demanding and obstinate, they try, fail and try again to make their relationship truthful and fair. As always, Chambers writes with the fierce intelligence and honesty which distinguishes his work. If more novels of adolescence had this quality and seriousness, we wouldn't risk losing those readers who feel patronised by teenage fiction.

* Linda Newbery's next novel Lost Boy is published in October by Orion

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