Jill Burridge reviews current hardback fiction for teenagers.
You can’t judge a book by the cover but I have to confess that I do fall for titles. Melvin Burgess hooked me with The Baby and Fly Pie (Andersen, 086264 461 5, £8.99). Fly Pie and his accomplice, Sly Sam, are rubbish kids, orphans who work for Mother Shelly sorting the tips in East London for anything that can be turned into cash. You wonder at first if this is set in the past, till you come to the chilling realisation that this is the future. No welfare state cares for Fly Pie (he got his name when he baked a chocolate pie for Mother Shelly and accidentally included a large bluebottle with the filling). Mother Shelly just keeps him and others like him to sift the rubbish. But everything changes for Fly and Sam the day they find a baby on the tip, a baby who’s been kidnapped and is worth a £17 million ransom. It sounds bleak and the tension of the story is such that you know there can be no last-minute rescue. But the tale is compulsive and its wry tone brings flashes of humour and occasional warmth. Gritty and realistic, this novel touches and challenges, and certainly can’t be put down.
If money was the root of evil for Fly Pie, it’s also the root of all the problems which beset Inez and her brother Maro in Geraldine McCaughrean’s Gold Dust (Oxford, 0 19 271721 9, £9.99). Again, it isn’t money for the sake of wealth, it’s money for the sake of survival. Inez and Maro live in modern-day Brazil, in a village called Serra Vazia on the edge of the rainforest. Life exists in a time warp, the juke box still plays Nat King Cole and Doris Day, until one day two local layabouts dig a hole in the main street and start excavating for gold. Soon Serra Vazia is a mish-mash of intriguing characters, strongly drawn and warmly portrayed. The close attention to detail takes you right into the heart of this community to share their sadness and laugh at their eccentricities. In their own way, everyone falls prey to the lure of wealth. Inez’ ideals are undermined, her illusions shattered, but she comes to understand human nature, as she and her brother retrieve the situation with a climax that’s credible, exciting and amusing.
Jan Needle goes straight to the heart of the matter with his novel, The Bully (Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13381 5, £8.99). It’s a provocative piece of writing which makes you question your own attitudes. On the face of it, Simon Mason is a bully; he’s clumsy and withdrawn, a loner who gets picked on by his classmates and the only way he can express his frustration is to lash out physically. He’s intimidating Anna Royle, her brother David and her friend Rebekkah. Well, that’s the way it seems to the teachers, even to Simon’s mother. But reading between the lines a very different story emerges. It’s Anna who is articulate and intelligent enough to manipulate the situation to her advantage against Simon. She’s devious and malicious and her vicious intentions know no bounds, even when one teacher, Louise Shaw, is perceptive enough to question what’s going on. What this story offers is the disturbing psychology behind events that sadly often make the news.
A school setting of a very different nature comes with Rachel Anderson’s The Working Class (Oxford, 0 19 271717 0, £9.99). A class of fifth-formers is assigned a fortnight’s work experience and each chapter pursues the students as they get their first taste of a nine-to-five job. There’s Julie dying to imitate the doctors and nurses on her favourite TV programme, until she discovers that her sort of nursing involves cups of tea, tidying the ward and hiding in the sluice. Almost despite himself, Leroy finds an outlet for his particular brand of music and ends up playing the organ in the local funeral parlour. Some of the stories work better than others – introducing historical flashbacks, that give an insight into the world of work for youngsters in the past, was perhaps a mistake since it disturbs the continuity of the theme, but here you have a quietly observed, varied and well-characterised selection of stories.
For those who prefer folk tale to reality, Susan Price has written Head and Tales (Faber, 0 571 16914 7, £9.99), another collection of short stories which are chilling and sober, and make compulsive reading. The macabre setting focuses on Linnet, a storyteller, whose dying wish involves cutting off his head, wrapping it in cloth and giving it to his two children, First Born and Little Un, to carry with them to their grandmother’s house far away. Don’t be put off by that because, though devoid of emotional involvement, these narratives have a power of their own. As each stage of the journey brings some new threat or hazard, the head comes to life and tells a story to avert disaster and help the children on their way. The tales are sharp and succinct, a mixture of fable, myth, even legend. It’s the story of Alexander, the knight in golden armour, which finally gains the head a burial and provides us with a well-crafted conclusion. Susan Price has the ability to mesmerise her readers, haunting them with the aura of the story. She writes with a dispassionate, but thought-provoking voice.
Jill Burridge is Producer of Treasure Islands, Radio 4’s children’s book programme. She’s just written, with Michael Rosen, a book based on recordings from the programme over the last six years. It’s called Treasure Islands 2, BBC Books (0 563 36773 3), and costs £5.00.