Tuesday 6 December 2016

Christmas treats for young adults

Celia Keenan's books list for teenagers covers everything from Viking tales and schoolgirl love to voodoo and atheism

Celia Keenan

Published 12/12/2011 | 06:00

At Christmas there can be no better gift for a young person than a carefully chosen book. Even in these hard times books are excellent value, many of them beautiful objects to treasure.

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Listed here are books for the most hesitant as well as for confident readers. If readers shop around they may find excellent bargains, such as two or even three titles for the price of one. We need to maintain the highest editorial standards in publishing. Young people deserve and need the very best models of writing, including spelling and grammar, given current concern with literacy.

Siobhan Parkinson offers these models via many channels and in two languages. Among books for pre- and young teens (11-14 year olds), her novel Bruised (Hodder, €5.99), is a searing account of the emotional and physical journey of Jono and his young sister in an effort to escape from a violent and abusive mother. Hope in this book lies in Jono's loyalty and care for his sister and for his persistent interest in life and story. Maitrioisce (Cois Life, €10), though very different in style and tone is a well-paced mystery focused on the missing last doll in a set of Russian dolls, a family story crossing the European continent told with real charm in Irish.

Language does not, of course, need to be complex to be good and exciting. Anthony McGowan's The Fall, a sharply focused story of bullying and betrayal, (Barrington Stoke, €6.99) is an excellent example. It shows how a book can be appropriate to even the oldest teenagers with reading problems, and can provide them with lively, interesting and thoughtful material appropriate to their age.

Another bullying story told in a very different kind of language is Playground (Quercus, € 8.99), by Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson. The narrator, nicknamed Butterball because of his weight, is a bully as well as a victim. The language is a lively New York African-American dialect. There is a strong, tense plot. Butterball grows up in the course of the novel.

Roddy Doyle's, A Greyhound of a Girl, (Marion Lloyd Books, €10.99) is a wonderful family saga and a very witty and original ghost story which focuses on four generations of women, the oldest a ghost and the youngest a contemporary teenage girl. It involves an exciting journey of life and death. Laughter and sadness go hand in hand. It is beautifully written, original and striking. Doyle is particularly strong in his depiction of mother/daughter relationships, the tensions and tenderness that inform then. The dialogue is excellent. It will appeal to readers of all ages.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, (based on Siobhan Dowd's idea and illustrated by Jim Kay (Walker, €15), also confronts loss and death in a very direct and intense way. The hero Conor is haunted by a monster and by sadness itself at the imminent death of his mother. It is a beautifully written and illustrated essay on grief and acceptance.

On a lighter note, no mother dies in Anna Carey's The Real Rebecca (O'Brien Press €7.99) It is a teen story, in diary form, in the broad chick-lit category. It treats the embarrassment of mother/daughter relationships wittily and realistically.

There has been something of a revival of historical fiction and fantasy. In Kevin Crossley-Holland's Bracelet of Bones, (Quercus, €14.99) teenage Viking girl Solveig, sets off to the city we now know as Istanbul in search of her father. This beautifully written and sustained story of a journey is based on an intimate knowledge of the Norse and Viking worlds.

Another book that would appeal to young people interested in the Viking past and Norse mythology is a time-slip fantasy that draws on that world, Alan Early's debut novel, Arthur Quinn and the World Serpent (Mercier, €8.99). This is an exciting adventure story, linking contemporary Dublin to the Viking past. It is written in excellent prose, has a vivid cinematic quality and good characterisation. It should prove attractive to boys and girls in their early teens.

Two titles from Eithne Massey, The Silver Stag of Bunratty and Where the Stones Sing (both O'Brien Press, €7.99) are set in Norman Ireland, one in Clare and the other in a plague-ridden Dublin.

The history of the Irish civil war is at the heart of Brian Gallagher's Taking Sides (O'Brien Press, €7.99).

For those with a taste for fantasy, Joe O'Brien's Beyond The Cherry Tree (O'Brien, €7.99) is a quirky somewhat eccentric fantasy which has elements reminiscent of CS Lewis's Narnia series and a strong sense of the natural world. Conor Kostic's Edda (O'Brien Press, €9.99) is the third fantasy in Kostic's series based on gaming and virtual worlds. In spite of the science fiction/futuristic challenges, at its heart are good-hearted clever teenagers confronting danger and oppression in an exciting series of adventures. Continuity is created with the earlier novels in the series, in the form of characters who we know and like, while at the same time there is inventiveness, especially in the figure of Penelope who is physically on a life-support system but whose avatar is free to roam worlds. Kostic challenges the young reader intellectually, but the heart is always in the right place too. This book would work equally well for younger and older teenagers.

There are a couple of graphic novels that should be of interest to this age cohort: The Etherington Brothers' Baggage (David Fickling, €9.99) displays a witty, engaged, interplay between text and pictures and a strong quest plot; to save his job, Randall, a worker in a lost-property office, has to find the owner of the oldest lost item in his office. Alan Nolan's Six Million Ways to Die (O'Brien Press, €6.99) is a witty Titanic tale parodying American hard-boiled thrillers in a series of adventures.

In the next age group, from 14 to 17 years, Mark O'Sullivan's My Dad is Ten Years Old (€8.99 Puffin) deals with a difficult topic; how its young-adult protagonists are affected by their father's brain injury. Eala and her older brother struggle to keep the family together for their younger brother.

Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's Dordan (Cois Life, €10), is the story of leaving-cert student Natasha, her friends and her dream of love. Her parents' failed love and her brother's problems create a painful background to her dreams. This is a well-paced, lively, passionate story of young adulthood.

Ni Dhuibhne, writing as Elizabeth O'Hara, has also written Snobs, Dogs and Scobies (Little Island, €8.99) an English translation of her earlier novel in Irish. Well paced, urban and contemporary, it deals with the lives of South Dublin teenagers as they finish secondary school.

In Geraldine Mead's Flick (Little Island, €8.99) the title character feels different from others. She is attracted to girls and not to boys. The challenge for her is to come out to her friends and family. This is a sensitive depiction of a girl dealing with her own sexuality. Mead does not present being young and lesbian as a problem. Flick's early feelings of sexual love are depicted naturally and joyfully. However, there is an undercurrent of sexual violence in the book that is troubling and perhaps sadly realistic. Flick is the victim of date-rape by a boy, a friend of her brother. Her efforts to deal with this are less happy than her acceptance of her sexuality. There is a dearth of Irish material for gay and lesbian teenagers so this is a very welcome addition.

Mal Peet's Life: An Exploded Diagram, (Walker, €9.99) is a historical novel with a complex and interesting structure; the story is of Clem, aged 16 in 1962 Norfolk, but it is narrated by older Clem in New York 2001. It deals sensitively with love across the English class divide against the background of the Cuban missile crisis and the terror of nuclear war.

Mikael Engstrom's Thin Ice, (Translation by Susan Beard Little Island Press,€8.99), is a thrilling story set in the far north of rural Sweden, where the hero Mik, abused and neglected by his drunken father and criminal brother, survives every manner of challenge to find love and trust among the most eccentric people. This book deals with teenage life with a frankness that is special to Swedish writing.

Anne Fine's The Devil Walks (Doubleday, €13.99), is a gothic thriller set in late Victorian England. It depicts quite a number of taboo subjects, among them evil, voodoo, the devil, child abuse, fractured identity, maternal madness and suicide, all with delicacy and sensitivity. There is a beautiful portrayal of Daniel, the youthful victim, hero and narrator of the book. Good wins out in the end, but at the huge cost of destroying the legacy of the past. I recommend this for older rather than younger teens. Its opening is truly terrifying, but it is thought-provoking and my favourite of this year's crop.

Neil Jordan's Mistaken, (John Murray, €22.99) is a tight psychological thriller with doppelganger/confusion of identity at the heart. It depicts life for a young man in Dublin in the Sixties. North/ South Dublin divisions are very cleverly explored with gothic undercurrents (including a house where Bram Stoker once lived). Although published for adults, this book with its themes of identity, sexuality, alcohol, drugs and music would be perfect for 16-17-year-old readers.

Another adult novel suitable for this cohort is Anthony Horowitz's The House of Silk (Orion, €21.99). A Sherlock Holmes tale, narrated by Watson but considered too shocking for publication in the good doctor's own time, it is a tight atmospheric thriller of dismal foggy London.

David Almond's The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean Telt By Hisself (Puffin, €14) disrupts the rules of spelling and grammar in a creative way. The cumulative effect is terrifying and moving.

My final recommendation comes from a Scrooge-like figure, who in his adult polemics challenges the very religious traditions of Christmas and would be most likely to say "Bah, humbug", Richard Dawkins. However his The Magic of Reality (Bantam Press, €22), beautifully illustrated by Dave McKean, is a celebration of life, the world and science.

It is thankfully free of anti-religious rudeness although its atheism is implied. Its positive engagement with science is ironically suffused with a quasi-religious enthusiasm. It is a thought-provoking introduction to the sciences for adults of all ages. "God bless us, every one!"

Celia Keenan teaches on the MA and PhD programmes in children's literature at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, Dublin

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