Julia Eccleshare reviews fiction for teenagers… and beyond.
The danger of the dubious argument that teenagers don’t read is that books won’t be published for them. If we ever lose sight of the concept of publishing for the serious teenage reader, we’ll be in real trouble. These youngsters are on a reading cusp between ‘children’s’ and ‘adult’s’ books. My first two choices begin that cusp – fitting happily into the children’s book tradition. The second two move to the end of it and lead seamlessly into adult books.
Gillian Cross has a rare talent for making each of her books different in both style and content. What remains consistent is the quality of her writing. Here the style and tone are tough and hard-edged as befits a story interweaving computer technology and game playing. New World (Oxford, 0 19 271723 5, £8.99) pushes the make-believe world of the computer game towards a frightening reality. Miriam and Stuart are invited to take part in the secret testing of a new virtual reality entertainment. Screen terrors gradually become real as Miriam realises the ‘game’ is tapping into her own most secret fears. Behind the technology Gillian Cross unravels a realistic family story as Miriam learns that sharing fears and feelings is strengthening rather than diminishing.
Jenny Nimmo’s Griffin’s Castle (Methuen, 0 416 19141 X, £9.99) is less optimistic in its conclusion as Dinah has no supporting adults on whom to fall back. It’s the insecurity of her background – an absent father and young, weak-willed mother – which causes her to rely on a powerful imagination. Housed in a once fine, now dilapidated house by her mother’s latest admirer, Dinah allows her fantasy and fancy a free rein. She’s determined to make the house a home. In her imagination she recreates the main room for Christmas – ‘She decided to visit the harp room to arrange the furniture and choose a place for the Christmas tree. There was a spruce sapling in the garden, only a metre high. She could dig it out and hang her silver bottle tops on it. She would ask Jacob or Barry to help her move the griffin mirror and place it above the fireplace. Reflected candlelight would fill the room with stars.’
Dinah rouses the stone animals set into the walls of Cardiff Castle to keep her safe and give her strength but, in the end, it’s her own resilience that enables her to cope with the shortcomings of her situation. Jenny Nimmo is sensitive and sympathetic but never sentimental in her understanding of Dinah’s predicament.
Susan Price’s ‘Ghost World’ sequence leaves reality far behind and is breathtaking in its imaginative range. Ghost Dance (Faber, 0 571 17182 6, £9.99), the third so far – and there may be more – is a book of such intensity it’s almost painful to read. It is violent, shiveringly but never gratuitously. Though ostensibly about the reign of Ivan the Terrible, it’s also about political dictators anywhere, any time and any place. It’s about the frailty of human nature. It’s about the need for magics and beliefs to shore up inadequacy. It’s about human destruction of the countryside. All bleak subjects… and this is a stark book, but not gloomy, and through its few but powerful good characters it offers hope and optimism.
Like the previous ‘Ghost World’ titles (Ghost Drum and Ghost Song), the storyteller is the cat. As it paces round and round the tree, it unfolds the story so the book has the qualities of a tale told by an itinerant ballad seller. Set in a distant past and in a far-off country with shamans, wizardry and cold lands where reindeer and bear wander, it’s full of exotic and vivid pictures. Details of clothes and buildings, smells and shades of light and dark are crystal clear, managing to evoke visual treats as well as offering a literary delight. ‘The stink of sweat that hung in the air around the crowd changed its note, became a blunter, more clubbing smell in Shingebiss’s nose: a loathsome smell of fear and hunger. It tainted the air like the stink of bad meat, and made Shingebiss’s skin prickle.’
Susan Price has the ability to create a mythological style all of her own which combines an aura of authenticity with stunning originality.
Janni Howker also uses a ballad-like narrative in Martin Farrell (Julia MacRae, 1 85681 225 1, £8.99) which, like Ghost Dance, is set in a distant (though nothing like as distant) past. Family feuding in the borders provides the background to a dark story of revenge. Apparently all alone in the world after the death of his step-father, Martin Farrell finds that a complex and vicious web of family lies engulfs him. Unravelling what he can, he uncovers the truth about his inheritance, a truth which must have terrible, murderous consequences. Martin Farrell is a slim book and Janni Howker’s characters are more sharp silhouettes than flesh and blood. But, the tautness of the story construction, with tiny episodes picked out in the sparest of prose, and the sharpness of her ear for elliptical dialogue makes it a difficult but deeply rewarding book to read.