Walk on the wild and soapy side

Geraldine Brennan

WHEN YOU CAN'T SAY NO by Sylvia Hall AdlibScholastic Pounds 5.99. - 0 590 55669 X. KISS ME, STUPID by Alison Creagham Point RomanceScholastic Pounds 2.99. - O 59O 5552O O. PLEASE COME HOME by Michael Hardcastle Faber Pounds 9.99. - 0 571 17041 2 Age range 13 - 16

After years of sexual abuse by her outwardly benign father, Lisa's self-esteem and ability to trust are at rock bottom. Sylvia Hall's skilful, unsparing and finally hopeful novel sees Lisa through successive waves of terror, anger and isolation.

When You Can't Say No explores the many facets of the family secret, documenting Lisa's emotional and physical decline, the history of her "special relationship" with her father and the unwitting compliance of her self- absorbed mother.

Lisa's voice rings true throughout. When the story opens she is a textbook abuse survivor, skulking in corners, sabotaging her appearance and career prospects, shunning overtures of kindness or professional interest. Her narrative is saturated in the shame and humiliation that make it impossible for her to confide even in her best friend.

The appearance of Mike, a potential boyfriend, leads Lisa to contemplate non- abusive closeness with a man. She is forced out of her terrified stupor into a crisis which could prove liberating or devastating - Sylvia Hall makes either option plausible and sensitively negotiates the minefield which sex and intimacy present for Lisa. Sex has been the only currency to exchange for affection and safety for so long that a new relationship feels like part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Even for the relatively secure and well-adjusted young women in Kiss Me, Stupid, Alison Creagham's down-to-earth, relaxed anti-romance, boys seem like too much trouble. Bright, ambitious Lorna and her friends Abby and Sulvinder swear to stay single, at least until after GCSE. Lorna and Sulvinder grass on the deal before you can say "true love".

When Lorna falls for Joe, her grades plummet too. The book tackles the complexities of class background and family expectations that cause hiccups in their alliance.

One aspect of this that is often overlooked is the predicament of girls who are brighter than their boyfriends - when Joe feels intellectually insecure, Creagham notes that that insecurity becomes Lorna's problem.

The three girls' characters are well drawn. Sulvinder, in love with Jazz and running into parental opposition, is the pragmatist of the group. She takes the view that it might be all over by university.

Meanwhile Abby, a social climber who is much admired but unfulfilled, hugs a secret in a sub-plot that needs more development, or could have been saved for another title. There is enough material here for a Sweet Valley High mini- series.

Creagham and Hall weave plausible fictions from everyday predicaments (depressingly everyday in Hall's case) by never losing grip on reality or letting the pace flag. Michael Hardcastle seeks to inject drama into Please Come Home, in which Rachel flees to London to search for her missing mother, but the tale is encumbered by slab-like characters spouting wooden dialogue. The attempts at soul-baring scenes between Rachel and her father are particularly dull.

The implausible plot depends on the mother sending cryptic notes to her employer, complete with half an address (if it was all or none, there would be no story) while not even managing a postcard for her desperate daughter.

Rachel's best friend is a token gesture of a character and Rachel herself a mixture of impossible naivety and sensible runaway role model. She takes enough money for a few nights in a modest hotel but - here's the naive bit - almost gives it away to a thief.

This book reveals a family in a lot of pain, but generates no interest in them healing themselves.

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