Rattling good reads

26th March 2004 at 00:00
How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found; By Sara Nickerson Egmont, pound;4.99

Boy2girl; By Terence Blacker Macmillan, pound;9.99

The Simple Gift; By Steven Herrick Egmont, pound;4.99

The Lost Boys' Appreciation Society; By Alan Gibbons Orion Dolphin, pound;4.99

How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found is a gripping and quirkily original story: a chunky mystery with an engaging team of oddball puzzle-solvers at its core. The reason for the two free pieces of jigsaw in the flyleaf becomes clear as we find Sophie is always trying to complete "the hardest jigsaw ever made", while her older sister, the narrator Margaret, cracks on with investigating the watery death of their father.

This is a chunky book with a dark and twisty plot involving a boy who has spent some time as a rat and now makes comic strips for children from his experiences, a drowning and a very strange librarian. At its heart are children who take over from damaged secretive parents to open up a new, more open and trusting world for themselves and lay lots of ghosts, or in this case rats, to rest. And, while we're talking about quirky originality, what about a boy who, for a dare, starts his new school dressed as a girl?

In Boy2girl, Sam arrives from the US after the death of his hippy mother to live with his English aunt's staid family in a London suburb. Multiple voices tell the story, which rattles along tracing Sam's relationships and musical progress (he forms a rock band) through daily school life to the slightly crazed crescendo at the Talent Night. Although the book is good humoured, the cover warning that "this book will make you laugh" perhaps invites dissent. But Terence Blacker has an admirably light touch with gender differences and creates a convincingly drawn multi-racial cast of characters. A positive message emerges for fractured families, confused adolescents and their parents everywhere.

I can't tell you how much I wasn't looking forward to reading a novel about teenage love written in blank verse, which is how the publicity information trailed The Simple Gift. How wrong I was. This is a beautiful book, sparely written, convincing and optimistic. The young hero, 16-year-old Billy, follows the railway away from his home to escape from his abusive father.

He sets up house in a disused railway carriage, next to "Old Bill" a drunk with a tragic past.

A warm and warming relationship builds up between the two as well as between Billy and Caitlin, a young girl who, in contrast to the two Bills, has everything that money can buy. It's a potentially cliche-rich situation, but in Herrick's hands the story is made both emotionally rich and fresh. The sex between the two young people is treated tenderly, discreetly and with respect: as Caitlin says, "It's like steppinginto heaven,no less than perfect". It's so good to see an author taking joyful risks with both form and content.

Alan Gibbons can always be trusted to be on the side of the angels and The Lost Boys' Appreciation Society is no exception. The Cain family is blasted apart when Lisa, mother to Gary and John, wife to "Dad", is killed in a car crash. The story, told by John, traces the aftermath of the tragedy, particularly for Gary, his vulnerable younger brother, who falls prey to bad influences and ends up brushing with the law.

This is a compelling read that presents a very positive picture, particularly for young male readers, of the strength of family ties.

Gibbons does not shy away from the problems that could besiege his audience, from girlfriend trouble to joyriding and drugs. But why the coy and incomprehensible description of someone built like a "brick hithouse" in a book facing up to serious issues? Is this bizarre censorship or sloppy editing?

Jo Klaces Jo Klaces is on sabbatical from teaching English at St Philip's sixth-form centre, Birmingham, and was a judge for the first Booktrust Teenage Prize in 2003

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