Radical thinking

5th August 2005 at 01:00
Nicholas Tucker reads novels about young people who seek a fairer society

The Whisper

By Bali Rai

Corgi pound;4.99

Girl Underground

By Morris Gleitzman

Puffin pound;4.99

Checkmate

By Malorie Blackman

Doubleday pound;12.99

These three novels all focus on teenagers who feel set apart for various reasons and who do their best to put adults' wrongs right. Bali Rai's The Whisper is a sequel to his memorable story The Crew, set in the same low-life streets where armed drug dealers rub shoulders, and sometimes more, with families trying to live a basically decent life. Although only eight months have passed in book time since The Crew ended, one of the original gang has now become a heroin addict, while Billy, the mouthpiece for the story, is in great danger, having been accused of being an informer.

Told in a mixture of dialects sprinkled with four-letter words, this expertly paced novel, described on the cover as "Not Suitable for Younger Readers", still seems sure to find many takers in most age groups. The various trusted adults within it are integral to the plot, rather than conveniently going missing in order to allow younger characters to have even more outlandish adventures. The ending is tragic, but the energy and verbal brilliance evident on every page also convey hope. Bali Rai remains a writer to watch out for.

Morris Gleitzman's Girl Underground is an extended good joke with thoughtful undertones. Set in Australia, it features teenage Bridget, the daughter of parents deep into a lifetime of crooked dealings. Hoping to improve their daughter's chances by sending her to a posh boarding school, Bridget's family then just can't leave her alone, showering her with dubious merchandise from Eastern Europe in the hope that this will sweeten an already unamused headteacher.

When Bridget makes friends with Menzies, the aptly named son of a leading Australian politician, things get more serious as both swear to liberate some children currently interned in a refugee detention centre with their asylum-seeking parents. Not an easy assignment, but some well placed television interviews help Bridget persuade the Australian public that locking up children is no way for any civilised country to carry on. The novel ends on a gush of feel-good sentiment as an army of well-intentioned local citizens invade the camp and manage to reverse Australia's harsh immigration policy at a stroke. But there are still plenty of good jokes to entertain any hard-nosed young readers for whom the plot is losing credibility. Historical and cultural background notes are provided on the Puffin website for anyone wanting to continue thinking about the points raised by this lively tale from an accomplished storyteller.

Checkmate is the last volume of Malorie Blackman's best-selling Noughts and Crosses trilogy, set in an alternative UK where black people have all the power and white people are the repressed minority. Readers who have already agonised over the personal tragedies described in the two previous novels will surely want to discover how everything works out in the end.

Those new to this story will soon understand why "bitter and twisted" Callie Rose, the daughter of a mixed marriage, now hates her mother Sephy and her dead father. Sephy, in turn, hates her mother-in-law Meggie who, for her part, now hates her evil son Jude. As mother, daughter and grandmother all live in the same cramped house, the amount of hate per square metre risks becoming oppressive until, at the very finish, it is replaced by equally boundless love.

Blackman is an expert plotter, spinning her narrative with great skill in the voices of five narrators. This means that everyone gets their say, including Jude, now general of the secret Liberation Militia which aims to destabilise a government beginning to take the first steps towards a fairer society. The deadening effect of racial prejudice is well conveyed, and Blackman's prose style is expertly tailored to the needs of teenage readers. But 511 pages leaves room for too much repetition, labouring points that have already been made several times. Fans who have already bought 200,000 copies of the first two novels probably won't mind, but the book could have afforded to lose a hundred pages or so as this trilogy thunders to its appropriately melodramatic end.

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