When the going gets tough

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Linda Newbery selects novels by American and Australian authors whose characters must deal with difficult issues in their lives

DREAMLAND. By Sarah Dessen. Hodder Bite, pound;4.99

WIPE OUT. By Mimi Thebo. HarperCollins, hardback pound;7.99

A PERFECT SNOW. By Nora Martin. Bloomsbury, pound;5.99

WHERE IN THE WORLD. By Simon French. Little Hare, pound;4.99

FEVER 1793. Laurie Halse Anderson. Hodder, pound;4.99

The distinctly unfeminist phenomenon of cheerleading fortunately hasn't crossed the Atlantic. Sarah Dessen's confused main character Caitlin becomes half-heartedly involved with her high school squad as a way of finding a role for herself that is unassociated with her elder sister Cass, who has abruptly walked out of home and makes only intermittent contact with her family. The title Dreamland denotes Caitlin's passivity, which extends to accepting regular, demeaning violence from her possessive new boyfriend - a middle-class drugs dealer who is brutalised by a demanding father. Yes, we're in the land of American Beauty. With its all-sorted ending, this is closer to being an "issues" novel than Dessen's earlier book Last Chance, but Caitlin's convincing downward spiral and loss of identity will provide an engrossing read for teenage girls.

Wipe Out, which is written by an American author living in England, is aimed at slightly younger boy-readers. It concerns 11-year-old Billy, whose mother - a well-known surfer - has recently died and who feels that his world has since become monochrome. At Aunt Mary's he finds himself in grey surroundings, seeing bright colours only in dreams of his mother. Readers may be disappointed that the only surfing action is to be found there, too. What we get instead is a "what-not-to-wear" style transformation for Aunt Mary, accessorised by a convenient instant romance, while Billy assuages his grief through a "changing-rooms" assault on her lounge. The style is flat and none of the action very plausible.

Far more engaging is Where in the World. German-born 11-year-old Ari is a talented violinist who has settled in Australia with his mother and stepfather. He lost his father at an early age and his German grandfather Opa, who has inspired his playing and composing, has also died. The story is told partly in the present and through flashbacks to Ari's travels with his mother, and in the emails he writes to Opa but cannot send. It is noticeably short on plot and conflict, but is likeable for its affectionate character-drawing and its sympathetic portrayal of a boy finding confidence and purpose.

The snowbound landscape of Montana is the setting for A Perfect Snow. Propelled by the resentment Ben feels about his father's unemployment and the family's trailer-park home, he is attracted to a racist group and finds a sense of power in torching cars and vandalising buildings. Dismayed when his younger brother becomes involved, he withdraws, finding new friendships more rewarding, but can't put his crimes behind him or control David's excesses. The deeper issues of Nazi-inspired racism are only hinted at, but the consequences of the brothers' actions on their family and community are serious. Although I'm not convinced that the Ben who torches the Jewish car is the same Ben who gives us this thoughtful first-person narrative, it's a very compelling short novel.

From the publicity for Fever 1793, I expected the kind of historical fiction that plonks a 21st-century girl into a past setting, then asks us to applaud her defiant flouting of convention.

"Life wasn't that different in 1793," claims the cover blurb. But, as Laurie Halse Anderson deftly shows through details of food, clothing, attitudes and daily work, life in 18th-century Philadelphia was very different. When deadly yellow fever sweeps through the city, neither herbal remedies nor new medical ideas can cure it or control its spread, and the sight of bodies being carted away becomes commonplace.

"Mattie has to get serious," as the cover copy puts it. Leaving her widowed mother's coffeehouse for the safety of the countryside, she has no way of knowing whether friends and relatives are alive or dead. The novel is informative and gripping, and doesn't - unlike its blurb-writer - patronise readers in order to engage their interest.

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