Janni Howker is unparalleled at evoking the rough texture of life among the poor folk in times gone by. Here she deals with the border reivers in the Middle Ages: the times of all the old ballads, of feuds and raids, of long-nursed tragedies and swift treachery, of Celtic magic and fearful villagers. Whether it was really like this, who knows? But Howker's powerful, poetic prose makes you believe that it was, and feel for the young lad caught up in dark doings that were none of his making.
The Snake-Stone. By Berlie Doherty. (Collins Pounds 3.99. Age. 10-16)
James's dad wants him to be a champion diver. But what does James want? And what would James's real dad have wanted? And where is his real mum? Taking the only clue he could find, his shiny ammonite stone which was tucked into his baby basket, James bunks off to the north country. He does find his mother, but he also finds his place in the world and returns home as a much more complete person. Moving and finely written, this is another success from a prize-winning author.
Throwaways. By Ian Strachan. (Mammoth Pounds 3.99. Ages 10-15)
Once a BBC series, this is another in the mushrooming genre of dystopias. In this version of a gloomy world to come, parents abandon their six and 10-year-old children and walk off to a better future, in a land where the haves are protected by machine guns and the have-nots live by scavenging, prostitution and thievery. Is this a dystopia or one of the big Latin American cities? An uncomfortable, but also thought-provoking read.
The Mysterious Mr Ross. By Vivien Alcock. (Mammoth Pounds 3.99. Ages 13-16)
Felicity is a clumsy teenager longing to be glamorous and successful. One day she saves the mysterious Mr Ross from drowning (or does she?). Suddenly she is the heroine of the moment and, unsurprisingly, it goes to her head. Luckily she has an unglamorous friend, Bony, who is less easily swayed. In a skilful and disturbing narrative, Felicity finds out that grown-ups are more complicated than she thinks - and that she is as well. Very much a girls' book, very much about relationships.
Hunter and Moon Mysteries: The Weird Eyes File; The Alien Fire File; The Skull Stone File. By Allen Frewin Jones. (Hodder Pounds 3.50 each. Ages 10-15)
These engaging little chillers are straight out of the cash-in-on-The X-Files mould. Instead of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, there's a pubescent boy and girl next door; there are non-nuclear families instead of the sinister but faintly comic apparatus of government; and there are the daft "flying aliens stole my gerbil'' type of plots. However, the books are altogether more modest and reassuring, with a lot of comedy mixed in with their "good-humoured goodies versus bad-tempered baddies" action. A typical gem: "Ghosts are just Monday people who have left their keys in their Sunday purse."
No Turning Back. By Beverley Naidoo. (Puffin Pounds 4.99. Ages 10-18)
A kind of Journey to Jo'burg updated in the new South Africa, this is as compelling as all of Naidoo's books. Here, Sipho runs away from his home with his mother and violent step-father and goes to Johannesburg, where gangs of children live on the streets. It is a very hard life and even when a shopkeeper takes him in, their relationship is poisoned by old inequalities and mistrusts. Sipho ends up in a shelter for street children, half reconciled to his family and with some new relationships. It is a tribute to Naidoo's talent that she makes you realise that this is not the end of Sipho, just one stage in the emerging complexity of his life and that of his new country.