Widen horizons

31st March 2006 at 01:00
RED MOON. By Rachel Anderson. Hodder pound;5.99

THE YEAR THE GYPSIES CAME. By Linzi Glass. Penguin pound;10.99

THE FORETELLING By Alice Hoffman. Egmont pound;5.99

ENDYMION SPRING. By Matthew Skelton. Puffin pound;10.99

THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING. By Guus Kuijer. Young Picador hb pound;7.99

Gaye Hicyilmaz seeks out novels for young adults that engage their readers by taking a stand

Red Moon is a convincing drama, prickly but never preachy and sometimes funny, with believable male characters and an oddball hero.

Hamish is an asthmatic, anxious know-all whose sympathies for local racists develop frighteningly and recognisably from his personal situation.

It's so well done: Rachel Anderson skilfully recreates the mix of experience, feeling and knowledge that makes us all. She then lets us watch it unmake, and re-make Hamish, in a gripping contemporary story about refugees and migration, about moral choices and responsibility. The climax is terrific. It's just the everyday theft of a passport, but Hamish and his mother (another oddball) applaud the thief. As does the reader, delighted at this subversion of the expected.

The Year The Gypsies Came, another page-turner and a first novel, scratched at my conscience and got under my skin in the same way as Red Moon. It's the story of a nice family rotten at its core, whose dislocation and wretchedness replicates the apartheid schisms that are ruining 1960s South Africa. Two sisters and two brothers are sacrificed as families collide in this well written and deeply affecting book in which things don't come right in the end. I've a couple of quibbles, however. I feel uneasy at the idea of a "demon" child and at the perpetuation of the myth that sexual knowledge is somehow fatal for girls. But this is a testament to how good this book is; readers don't expect or need to agree with the views expressed in a novel but they do need to be engaged by them.

The Foretelling, set firmly in a world of young warrior women, reminded me of a Gauguin: it summons up images of brilliantly coloured riders astride brilliantly coloured horses, except that all these riders are female and this is a landscape of rolling steppes. Men and boys are absent, except for brief appearances as rapists or once-only lovers. Rain is a warrior princess, who discovers the meaning of pity and the burden of empathy. When she realises that she can rule in a different way, we see this passionately imagined land and its culture begin to crack and change. This is a haunting book and a lyrical read. As with the previous two books, I couldn't put it down.

Endymion Spring, another first novel, comes with a huge publisher's fanfare which is a disservice to author and book. Promises of "the most exciting literary debut of 2006" raised expectations which were not fulfilled.

The book itself is a gorgeous object, which is important in a pound;10.99 hardback. The story is such familiar territory, however: contemporary Oxford, distant academic mum, infuriating little sister. Our hero, Blake, isn't good at anything much, except missing his dad. Yet he takes up a quest, among a cast of mad medieval book-collectors, and saves the world from damnation by securing a magic book printed on dragon's skin. Blake's predicament is mirrored by that of a young printer's apprentice in 15th-century Germany. The story, with its final climactic struggle between good and evil, would make a terrific cartoon film, but it disappoints as a novel. Ideas are shaken about but not experienced or examined with any rigour. The result is a light read in which no risks are run and no view is taken. Did it need an editor, perhaps, able to help the author uncover some of the excitement and originality that I'm sure lie within?

Finally, we come to Guus Kuijer - a true original - and his superb literary debut in English, with not a cliche in sight. The Book of Everything takes a quiet but uncompromising stand. No one who reads this short, undemonstrative parable in its elegant hardback will move on, unconcerned; it enters the heart and the brain.

A quiet nine-year-old, Thomas, finds the courage to say "no" to his demon father in a gentle domestic nightmare, set in post-war Holland on a suburban street. There's not much of life that this book omits with its unblinking gaze and comic, hushed tone. I want it to be available everywhere where there are miserable tyrants who make others cringe and tremble and weep, whether they are in families or schools or places of worship. It's a classic; so, if you can't buy it for someone else, treat yourself, and then lend it to everyone you know.

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