Adrian Jackson reviews some recent publications
This group of paperback originals is a fairly typical slice of what’s on offer for teenage readers apart from the fact that there’s only one American novel. Some focus on the way the world is. In Tall, Thin and Blonde by Dyan Sheldon (Walker, 0 7445 2438 5, £4.99), the sole American book, Jenny is amazed when Amy suddenly develops an interest in boys, clothes and cheerleading. She is one of the beautiful people of the title, but Jenny isn’t. Cue the story where the beautiful people are shallow, unreliable and terrified of being different while the uncool and unslim Jenny shows her social conscience (demonstrating against the dissection of frogs) and gains a thinking boyfriend. Michelle in Hands in Contrary Motion by Sue Mayfield (Adlib, 0 590 55168 X, £4.99) is similarly troubled: her three brothers call her `monsterthighs’. There are more problems when dad leaves home to live with a young girl. Piano playing is the means by which Michelle expresses her sense of a better life and through her piano teacher, who manages to combine various kinds of apparent perfection (she’s artistic, sympathetic, calm, religious, happily living with a male nurse and expecting a baby) she comes to a sense of her own worth.
It’s the worth of animals which concern the characters in Jean Ure’s Always Sebastian (Bodley Head, 0 370 31536 7, £7.99). We are back to the Maggie and Sebastian story that this author has dealt with before. Sebastian is involved, yet again, in animal rights campaigns. Maggie is mostly left to the background while her two daughters take up the ethical battles of what not to eat, what not to wear and the protection of the environment. Chris Westwood seems to thrive on being more destructive and sinister. In his Brother of Mine (Viking Kestrel, 0 670 847704, £7.50) twin brothers share a similar appearance and a hatred of each other. When Tony allows his brother’s girlfriend to mistake him for Nick, Nick tries to exact revenge. It’s powerful writing, particularly when it deals with strong feelings of anger and hatred.
A strange inversion seems to leave these novels of the present looking like fantasies while the fantasies give a sharp edge to our view of the present as Jean Ure shows in A Place to Scream (Doubleday, 0 385 40013 6, £6.99). In the not too distant future, old people are abandoned, beggars crowd the streets, only the lucky few have employment. Gillian, striking out against conformity, loses her precious job and then, in tracking down her beloved Gramps, decides to help look after dumped geriatrics. This is no simple fantasy and we are continually reminded of the bleaker elements in our present world. The Obtuse Experiment by Malcolm Rose (Adlib, 0 590 55169 8, £4.99) is also set in the future. 350 `unsettled’ (delinquent) schoolchildren are packed off on an educational cruise. Creatures from another world, who dedicate themselves to righting disasters from the past, know that all the children die when their ship hits an iceberg. Mel, one of the aliens, is sent to avert this disaster and finds himself caught up in a wonderful piece of intrigue. While fighting diseases to which he has no immunity, he has to enlist all the talents of the students, including computer hacking, to confound not an iceberg but a submarine. It’s tense and very moving. In Mark Haddon’s Gridzbi Spudvetch! (Walker, 0 7445 2425 3, £4.99) aliens also come to earth, but not to help. They want to steal humans and repopulate their own planet, but they haven’t bargained for Charlie and Jimbo who uncover the plot and finally destroy it.
Placing Diana Wynne Jones’ The Crown of Dalemark (Mammoth, 0 7497 1255 4, £3.99) against these other books is probably unfair. She writes with a skill and subtlety that creates her fantasy world in sharp colours and hues of tones and meaning. It’s a half-brick of a book, the fourth and grand conclusion to the ‘Dalemark’ sequence, with almost 100 pages at the end devoted to a guide to Dalemark. Once read, it’s hard to forget it or remember the stumbling awkwardness of first getting into this slice of richly detailed and invented history which confounds any notion of fantasy. This is solidly real in a way few writers can achieve.
Completing the range are three distinctly individual books, all of which I would want in school. Well, I’m Still Here (Pan, 0 330 32714 3, £2.99) by Joanne Gillespie, is the second account by the young Joanne of her life since twice having cancerous tumours removed from her brain. It’s a mixture of styles, part account and part poems with additions from mum and dad, together with pictures by her younger sister. It’s easy to read, moving and thought-provoking – particularly in the way pity is seen to change to jealousy as Joanne ceases to be a tragic victim. Tony Robinson’s latest TV storytelling, Blood and Honey (ill. Adam Willis, BBC, 0 563 36234 0, £7.99) makes its appearance in book form, which is mostly good news. There’s a determined attempt to make a good story available to a modern audience but also a concern to see those historical events against present day politics. The style of the telling does this, helped by striking contrasts ,with contemporary photographs. The use of cartoon illustrations makes it all accessible, but their comic style and the dreadful use of pink colouring throughout finally jar with the text. Travel Writing edited by Geoff Barton (Oxford, 0 19 831283 0, £4.25) is a reminder of the quality of educational publishing and the way a good editor can make a whole genre available and accessible to students. This collection is full of nuggets, continually opening up texts and’ writers for further exploration, and the juxtapositions are often intriguing, particularly setting Jules Verne and Michael Palin together in their very different versions of Around the World in Eighty Days.