Adele Geras chooses novels with compelling, unconventional households at their heart
The Wish House
By Celia Rees
By Hilary McKay
The Unrivalled Spangles
By Karen Wallace
Simon Schuster pound;12.99
Children often think that other families are more interesting, have more fun, and are altogether more glamorous than their own. In these books, the households are nothing if not artistic and unusual. But at least two of these three novels will leave the discontented quite glad to be living with their own parents and siblings.
Celia Rees is a versatile writer and is best known for her historical novels. In this book for older teens, she goes back to the hot summer of 1976. The shoutline on the cover, "first love, first sex, first death", sums the plot up well. Richard, 15 years old and on holiday in South Wales, is entranced by Clio. But the spell is cast also by her father, Jay, who is a painter, and by the other inhabitants of the Wish House.
There are poisonous plants in the garden, Jay seems obsessed by his daughter, and years later Richard understands better some things that puzzled him as a lovestruck youth.
One of the best features of this involving and engrossing novel is the way Rees describes Jay's paintings. We can see them in our mind's eye as though they were in front of us. She is also very good at drawing us into the innermost thoughts of her young characters, and knows how to withhold information only to reveal it later to great effect. Her characters spring out of the pages, and the mesmerising stare of the young woman on the cover will draw in existing fans and new readers alike.
The father of Hilary McKay's Casson family, revisited in Permanent Rose, is a painter too, but quite a different sort of parent from Jay. He's feckless, charming and often absent, and his children are all named for colours. This family story, pitched younger than The Wish House, is simple enough on the surface, but has many intertwining strands of plot that cover an enormous emotional range most economically.
In this story, the youngest Casson child, Rose, is unhappy because Tom, who was visiting them from the United States, hasn't written since he went back. Her brother Indigo is reading Le Morte d'Arthur and Rose gets caught up in Malory's story, which she applies to her own life. CaddyCadmium, her sister, is dealing with the problems of being engaged to someone she's not 100 per cent sure about. SaffySaffron, another sister, wants to know who her father was. She is the daughter of Rose's dead aunt and has been adopted into the family.
Then there's David, a school friend who has a crush on all the Casson girls, but especially Rose. He blossoms during the course of the novel in most unexpected ways. The ending is enormously satisfying and the whole book is so well done that you feel you've moved into the Casson family home and have been living and not reading. The style doesn't call attention to itself at all, but it captures feelings, relationships and especially humour in a most remarkable way. This is a must-read, along with the rest of Hilary McKay's work: try her other family series about the Conroy sisters, starting with The Exiles.
When you're a Victorian paterfamilias, you can be stricter than your modern counterpart, and in Karen Wallace's latest book, Fred Spangle owns a circus. This allows him to be flamboyant as well as overbearing, and the novel gives us an interesting glimpse into a corner of 19th-century life that is not often written about.
Two young sisters, Ellen and Lucy, are bareback riders: the eponymous unrivalled Spangles. There's love, death, drama and conflict of every sort in this book, and it would be a shame to spoil things by giving away who finds their heart's desire and who dies a horrible death. The characters come both from the circus and from the middle classes. The technical aspects of life in the ring are fascinating.
The lion, Claudius, is a character too, and a very sympathetic one. The novel is not overburdened with descriptive passages, but relies more on dialogue and internal monologue, and this will appeal to children who might have been put off a book that overdid the Victorian decor and atmosphere.
Adele Geras's latest book for teenagers is Other Echoes (Red Fox pbk Pounds 4.99)