political corruption and economic dictatorship. Adults are seen as having brought the world to its knees; salvation and hope lies with the young. This is not new territory, nor can Oblivion lay claim to great originality in its themes. Here is the story of the saviour/hero with his companions, one of whom will betray him. He will face temptation and despair before confronting the final challenge. This is the archetype, but Horowitz manages to give Matt and his four companions distinct and recognisable characters. The villains however, are all unremittingly nasty, and rarely more than stereotypes. It is in his imagining of Oblivion and the apocalypse that Horowitz paints an extraordinary and terrifying picture of what could happen if the extreme situations he has described come to pass. This ethical undercurrent gives added weight and though it may seem rather obvious to the adult, will be less so to its intended audience.
Horowitz is a great storyteller, and while not everything in Oblivion works, nevertheless, this is a fitting conclusion to The Power of Five sequence and will delight fans who waiting for its appearance.
FH Dead Romantic HHHH
CJ Skuse, Chicken House, 352pp, 978 1 908435 41 5, £6.99 pb
Can’t find the perfect boyfriend? Then why not build one? That’s the opportunity offered to Camille. She may be naive, but sees a passion and honesty about school-freak Zoe that Camille’s so-called friends lack. The fact she meets her when Zoe is digging something up in a graveyard only intrigues Camille more, despite the rumours that Zoe’s dad was a crazed scientist who murdered people for his experiments, before being locked up in a mental asylum.
After Zoe demonstrates in a dissection class that she can bring dead hamsters back to life, Camille helps her gather the parts for a bigger project, one that will prove Zoe’s father was a genius: to create and animate a boy – and if he can be the perfect, gorgeous boyfriend for Camille, who will make everyone jealous at school and show her what love really is, so much the better.
But Camille finds there’s only so far you can go before morals and second-guessing a potentially psychotic friend start making you nervous. Soon she’s wondering if maybe true love is lurking in a heart that’s already beating, and what it means to be a friend.
By turns hilarious and poignant, this dark comedy is pervaded with such sassy, teen-speak candour that few won’t be won over if they lose themselves in the premise.
MH Geek Girl HHHHH
Holly Smale, Harper Collins, 390pp, 978 0 00 748944 2, £6.99 pb
Fifteen-year-old Harriet is a school outcast – a bona fide geek, and not in a cool way. She gets her homework done way ahead of time, is accident prone and has a random fact for every
occasion. She’s even stalked by a besotted uber-geek. But there are people who are more concerned with what’s on the outside; when her best friend Nat drags her to The Clothes Show Live, Harriet is spotted by a modelling agency, and in particular by male model Nick.
Harriet’s more concerned about how this affects Nat, her best, and only, friend who has always longed to be a model herself, but when school bullying gets particularly intense, a genuine reason to take up this opportunity for reinvention emerges and Harriet seizes the chance to become the swan instead of the socially-awkward duckling. It’ll just mean lying to her best friend, her step-mother, skipping school – and surely nothing could go wrong with that plan…
This novel skirts the ground you might expect it to cover – there’s some insight into the fashion industry (based on the author’s own experiences), but it mainly provides background to the more everyday concerns of readers. It’s a brilliantly funny and fresh take on not only figuring out who you are, but being proud of it, and doing what’s right by the people around you too. A feel-good, satisfying gem that will have teens smiling from cover to cover, and walking a little taller after reading.
The Great Unexpected HHHHH
Sharon Creech, Andersen Press, 224pp, 978 1 8493 9092 7, £9.99, hbk
How many books are there within these 220 odd pages? Here’s the starkness of a Border Ballad, while here’s the ironic gentility of Jane Austen; and here are a couple of sudden deaths which turn everything upside down. On this page, we might be in the rural poverty of the American Depression; and on the next, in an Ireland with transatlantic jets and taxis and telephones but certainly not computers and i-pads and cellphones. Here’s an adventure charged with childlike simplicity and imagination and there’s a drawing-room where a visiting lawyer greets a lady with, ‘You are always the epitome of refinement’. And then there’s the question of what or who is what you might call ‘real’. If two children can both believe they have met and talked with a strange boy called Finn who is one moment at death’s door and the next as fit as a flea, does that mean he must really exist – exist in the way we usually mean exist? And if he is a ghost, can ghosts chat and touch and even kiss? Of course they can.
Sharon Creech has the affirmation of both Newbery and Carnegie Medals in her cv. More than most novelists, her writing reflects someone exploring as she pleases, taking whatever risks she cares to take, to be enjoyed by those who want to listen. And they’ll be constantly rewarded and surprised too, for the language here is exhilarating and amusing in its new-minted invention. Two small girls, Lizzie and our narrator, Naomi, both orphans, are best friends, somewhere and somewhen in the States. Their horizons extend no further than the boundaries of their parish. Both have power ful, but different, imaginations, echoed in every word they
speak or sing. Both ache for their parents; one is secure in the love of her foster parents while the other is desperately scared that hers will give her away any day soon. A boy called Finn literally drops into their lives, falling dead (but not dead) out of a tree. Across the ocean in Ireland, another story now stirs into being, this time among people at the other end of their lives; and that story interplays with those of Lizzie and Naomi, first running alongside, then converging and then driving forward together (though still echoing across the ocean).
More detail of the plot, or of character, would do this book and its potential readers no favours and no justice. It’s about loss and longing, searching and finding, recognitions about yourself and others; about love and jealousy which are hard to understand on first meeting. It is tender and delicate and then suddenly violent and risky. Despite those passenger jets, it feels outside time. We are asked to share the perspective of a child which may be more literary than literally credible in a mundane sense; but in a book where strangeness and the supernatural are elusive but possible – not to say unavoidable – that works just fine. It is as though, much of the time we are looking through dappled shafts of sunlight at once illuminating and shadowing, entranced not by the extravagant, but by the everyday.
Perhaps Naomi herself, in a moment of new clarity, offers some kind of summary (the context doesn’t matter): “‘But what is “a story”? It’s in here now’ – I tapped my head – ‘with all the other stuff, so maybe everything is a story.’” And maybe everyone she has ever known or ever will know has a part in the pattern of the same story. With a bit of luck.
The Fire Chronicle (Book 2 of The Books of the Beginning trilogy) HHHHH
John Stephens, Doubleday, 448pp, 978 0 857 53085 1, £12.99 hbk
For once, a fantasy trilogy that avoids pastiche or plagiarism: no echoes of Tolkien (Mighty Names to suggest authenticity), no races against Time (one-damn-fight-after-another), no easy escapes from inescapable danger (...th
en she remembered - The Amulet!). An intriguing structure sustains the many elements of this second novel in ‘The Books of the Beginning’ trilogy by American John Stephens.
The three Books of the Beginning must be brought together and it is prophesied that three children will do so, despite ferocious opposition. The story of Kate, the oldest Wibberly, began in The Emerald Atlas, and her narrative continues as one strand of this, the second in the Books of the Beginning trilogy. The main focus is now on her brother, almost-thirteen-year-old Michael – bespectacled, unheroic, self-conscious – and his search for The Fire Chronicle. His sister, Emma (only-just-thirteen, and that’s very important to Michael) will continue the hunt in the final volume, for her adventure has already begun in this novel’s closing pages.
The stakes are high; the future of a world in which magic and life-as-we-know-it co-exist, sometimes at enmity. As if that were not enough, the children are desperate to find and save their parents, who have also played a wizardly part in this tale. Their two quests often confront the children with conflicting, impossible choices. Saving the world may be commonplace enough in fantasy literature, but the treatment of the task here is highly original. There is a fusion of rapid adventure, energetic melodrama, witty dialogue, teenage angst and sensitivity. The narrative slips through time to settings ranging from The Edgar Allan Poe Home for Hopeless and Incorrigible Orphans to the 1890s streets and gangs of New York and then to a fertile volcanic valley in deepest Antarctica populated by elves, dwarves, an entranced dragon and a bad bunch of bad guys. Magic is not an easy way out; it’s dangerous stuff and needs to be deployed responsibly. All this could so easily whirl out of control, but Stephens keeps his plot deftly in hand – or plots, for the adventures of Kate are interleaved with those of Michael and Emma, who might be in another century and on another continent at the time.
There are individual episodes and excitements, usually driven by extraordinary characters: a demoralised wizard hiding from himself and his past on an Italian hillside; the elvish Princess Wilamena who, once freed from the scaley body of a dragon, fancies her liberator Michael like crazy, much to his embarrassment. But these encounters are not digressions, they develop the plot. They also develop the main characters themselves, for the trilogy reflects growth through adolescence far more convincingly than most YA novels. What perhaps adds conviction to adventure is ambiguity; you never know whom you can trust, including yourself; the boy Kate is falling in love with, to his own confusion, is destined to be her greatest enemy, the Dire Magnus. In such situations, knowing yourself and your limits is critical.
GF Shiverton Hall HHH
Emerald Fennell, Bloomsbury, 248pp, 978 1 4088 2778 9, £6.99, pbk.
Arthur Bannister is a boy of fourteen years. For reasons initially unstated Arthur has to leave his London school. Out of the blue, Arthur is awarded a scholarship to a boarding school named Shiverton Hall. His mother is surprised but pleased by the news.
The school turns out to be a Gothic heap with a very spooky aura. George Grant, Arthur’s new pal, has a grandfather who wrote the history of the school and George is quick to inform Arthur that there is such a thing as the Shiverton Curse. Arthur is sceptical, but before long weird events start undermining his certainty.
The Shiverton Curse takes a form designed to alarm the imaginative child. If a child had an imaginary friend, that friend would appear in the child’s nightmares, prompting the child in the waking world to undertake wildly perilous tasks like climbing up trees and out of
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