Packed with punch

4th August 2006 at 01:00
Linda Newbery enjoys strong male characters in novels for top primary readers and teens

Breathe: a ghost story. By Cliff McNish. Orion Children's Books Pounds 9.99.

Exchange. By Paul Magrs. Simon Schuster pound;9.99

A Note of Madness. By Tabitha Suzuma. Bodley Head pound;10.99

Just in Case. By Meg Rosoff. Puffin Books pound;10.99

Beast. By Ally Kennen. Marion Lloyd Books pound;6.99

Silent to the Bone. By EL Konigsburg. Walker Books pound;5.99

A farmhouse in winter - the new home for Jack and mother Sarah - is the setting for Cliff McNish's first stand-alone novel. When Jack tells his mother that a black-clothed woman has approached him as he slept, and that ghost children are present in the house, she attributes it to disturbance following the sudden death of his father. Jack's susceptibility to frightening asthma attacks matches the consumptive sufferings of a long-dead girl who appears to him. The ghost children, introduced in the first chapter, are prisoners of the vampire-like Ghost Mother, who gruesomely sucks strength from their mouths; in the most nightmarish episode, she takes possession of Jack's mother. But there's sympathy for this tragic figure, and a chance for redemption at the end. Readers aged 10 and above will be gripped and spooked.

The rest of these novels, with strong central male characters, are for slightly older readers. Simon, in Paul Magrs's The Exchange, has lost both parents, and must adapt to living with grandparents. A loner at school, he finds a kindred spirit in Kelly, the "Goth girl" who works at a book exchange. Grandmother Winnie shares Simon's love of reading; their regular outings for new swaps take on a conspiratorial air, while an increasingly resentful Grandad turns book-burner, with all the associations this action carries.

An attractive element of this story is that the older generation are seen to have desires and opportunities of their own, and problems which may not be resolvable. I would have liked to know which books Simon reads and what he finds in them; but Winnie really does "find herself" in fiction, as has Ada Jones, her shy childhood friend who's now a bestselling author.

Tabitha Suzuma's first novel concerns Flynn, a talented piano student who suffers from what used to be termed manic depression, now bipolar disorder; the pressure of performing brings panic as the notes jumble themselves before his eyes. Despite having supportive friends, a loyal would-be girlfriend, an understanding tutor and even a doctor brother, Flynn resists offers of help. His abrupt mood swings and his friends' concerns are dramatically charted. There's a difficulty, though, with a novel so dominated by a single strand: the author's responsibility to her readers dictates that the protagonist must eventually do the right thing, so the outcome is never really in doubt. However, many teenagers and adults will recognise themselves in Flynn, and it's important to present the subject of mental health so accessibly and informatively.

No label is applied to the condition afflicting Meg Rosoff's David (later Justin) Case. While an indifferent Fate figure looks on, making occasional contributions to the narrative, Justin persuades himself that he's a magnet for disaster, and that only bad things can arise from his actions. Helped by Agnes, an eccentrically-attired fashion photographer, Justin changes name and image to reduce the possibility of family catastrophe.

As in Meg Rosoff's award-winning first novel How I Live Now, there's abrupt and shocking carnage: to Justin, proof that Fate has him targeted; to Agnes, a callously-exploited photo-opportunity. Although we're faced with some of the big questions of life - is there a shape and purpose to human existence, and how far can we be responsible for others? - there's a wit and relish in the writing that engages on every page.

Ally Kennen's Stephen might well feel that he's cursed by trouble. At 17, abandoned by his parents, he's already committed arson and theft, and will soon be moved from foster care to a grim hostel. The "beast" of the title represents, albatross-like, the burden of his past, continually needing to be fed and appeased. Kennen toys with her reader, making us unsure whether the creature is real or metaphorical.

This thoroughly appealing first novel quickly enlists reader sympathy for the well-intentioned but misunderstood Stephen, while allowing space for well-drawn minor characters, including the creature itself, which turns from man-eating horror to victim of neglect, mirroring Stephen's plight.

A friendship is tested in Silent to the Bone, by American writer EL Konigsburg. Thirteen-year-old Branwell, accused of wilfully harming his baby half-sister, has retreated into silence. Narrator Connor - visiting daily and working out a communication system based on blinking - follows the clues that reveal what really happened with Branwell, the baby, and the English au pair. Helped by his clever, determined sister Margaret, Conor realises how Branwell has been manipulated.

Konigsburg excels at the nuances of dialogue, and every character - even the silent Branwell - springs from the page; the friendship between the boys, with their private games and codes, has an appealing wit and warmth.

This novel does not sensationalise, but is all the more powerful for being low-key.

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

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