, Research Paper
Falling pants and other worries’Her green eyes were looking right at him. “You want my phone number?” “I guess,” he said. He stretched again. As he raised his arms, the drawstring on his trackpants became untied and his pants fell down. In one motion, he turned, pulled up his pants and ran.’ That episode is just one of the trials of David, the hero of Louis Sachar’s The Boy Who Lost his Face ( Bloomsbury £4.99, pp198 ). Not that David really is a hero, of course. At least not at first and certainly not in a way that he or his peers would understand. In fact, all the best books aimed at teenage boys (and this comic but thought-provoking story is one of them) have engagingly ‘unsorted’ protagonists who are struggling to make sense of their lives. And whatever the plot, the same themes recur: anxieties about girls and sex, guilt about almost everything and fears of being different. Unsurprisingly, given the long history of the quest to prove one’s manhood in folk legends and classic picaresque novels, the plots usually concern a journey. Sometimes, the journeys are metaphorical and sometimes literal, as in two very different books, K.K. Beck’s compelling Fake ( Scholastic £7.99, pp281 ) and the richly intense Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn ( Macmillan £12.99, pp332 ). In Fake , Danny has been diagnosed as ‘oppositionally defiant’, which roughly translates as ‘typical teenager’, but his stepfather is fed up with him and his parents decide to send him on a ‘wilderness survival experience’. After being effectively kidnapped from his home by the thuggish security guards who work for the organisation that tackles ‘out-of-control teens’, middle-class Danny finds himself heading for the desert with streetwise Keith. It doesn’t take long for Keith to outwit the guards and hijack the car, and Danny finds himself on the road from California to Seattle, leaving a trail of stolen cars and credit-card thefts. He has vague plans to track down his real father in Seattle and Keith agrees to help. But Keith has ideas of his own, and somehow the wrong ‘long-lost son’ gets taken in, while Danny goes on the run. However, he doesn’t get very far before being ‘adopted’ himself. This is a great thriller with subtle and empathetic insights, not just into the teen characters but also into the befuddled grown-ups. Across the Nightingale Floor is a fantastic (in both senses of the word) tale set in a mythical feudal Japan. Tomasu returns to his village to find a massacre has taken place. He runs for his life and meets Lord Otori who adopts him and renames him. Tomasu has special powers that he barely understands and he finds himself caught up in a dangerous web of intrigue. It is impossible to know whom to trust, and the suspense builds as Tomasu tries to weave his way through to the truth while kidnap and killings interwoven with the most exquisite ritual ceremonies whirl around him. Tomasu and Otori are both in love with ‘forbidden’ women. Their affairs parallel and contrast with each other, but the feeling of fate – and possibly doom – hangs over them both. This is an original and exquisitely wrought adventure story. The sense of being haunted by the past in a way that represents teenage fears about identity and guilt is dealt with in two novels by Robert Cormier and Margaret Mahy. Cormier’s posthumously published In the Middle of the Night ( CollinsFlamingo £4.99, pp192 ) is up to this author’s usual standard. Denny’s father has been receiving strange phone calls in the middle of the night for years, and Denny has been warned never to answer the phone. This year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fire for which his father was blamed and in which 22 children died. When Denny decides to pick up the phone, the voice on the other end is tantalisingly seductive and Denny finds himself drawn into a deadly game of revenge. Margaret Mahy’s Memory ( CollinsFlamingo £4.99, pp282 ) is a funny, surreal tale about 19-year-old Jonny, haunted by the death five years earlier of his sister. He decides to find the only other witness to the event, but gets hooked up with the maddening, engaging Sophie, whose crazy Alzheimer’s world seems more acceptable to him than reality. Margaret Mahy has the uncanny ability to perceive the world empathetically equally through the eyes of a teenage misfit and a confused old lady. Paul Magrs’s Strange Boy ( Simon & Schuster £7.99, pp289 ) is about another outsider. David is convinced he has special powers. It’s a way of dealing with his confusions about his sexuality and the plethora of families and step-families that threaten to overwhelm him. The novel is set in the Seventies, and is full of contemporary references: Basil Brush, Fine Fare, Bird’s Eye mousse, Spangles_ (there’s a glossary). Warm and blackly hilarious. David Skipper’s Life on the Line ( Walker Books £4.99, pp166 ) is the story of a friendship against the background of the railway line, which turns from being somewhere to play to a place of terror. Simon and Darren are friends but their relationship is put under strain when Simon experiments with drugs, and Darren goes on the run after accidentally knifing his stepfather. How can everything be put back together in the boys’ lives? A realistic and sensitive novel where the theme of heroism is interestingly explored. It may be tough being a teenage boy, but with writers such as the above articulating the intensity of the comedies and tragedies in a relevant and entertaining way, at least there’s less need to feel that nobody understands.