TEEN FICTION OFTEN ATTRACTS angry headlines because of the subject matter it's more than willing to tackle. Questions of whether or not certain topics are suitable for young readers are repeatedly asked by adults. Melvin Burgess has long been in the firing line for these questions because of his uncompromising novels dealing with drugs, sex and all those taboos.
His latest novel, Nicholas Dane (Andersen Press 12.99), is the unflinching story of a 14-year-old boy trapped in an abusive care system, groomed then raped in the home that to all intents and purposes should be the young man's safe haven after his mother dies. Burgess's style insists you read on, demanding the reader doesn't look away no matter what. It's not a pleasurable read, it's long and challenging and obviously distressing. The devastating effects of child abuse are scrutinised. Yet if some young people are forced to deal with these issues in real life, surely there should be fiction aimed at purposely turning over heavy stones and revealing to those fortunately more privileged whatis lurking underneath.
Kevin Brooks has never courted quite the same amount of controversy as Burgess, but the title of his new book is bound to raise eyebrows. Killing God (Puffin 6.99) is the story of Dawn Bundy, a reclusive teenager living with her alcoholic mother. She loved her dad, adored him despite his many faults. But when he finds God he becomes a different person and after one terrible incident he walks out of the house seemingly never to return. Dawn blames God. She sets about looking for ways to kill Him, uncovering all sorts of hypocrisy in both Heaven and on earth. It's a clever, metaphysical thriller with Dawn – brave, imaginative and witty – turning out to be one of Brooks' most sympathetic characters.
Tender Morsels (David Fickling Books 12.99) by Margo Lanagan is a beautifully written, deeply wise fairy tale. It's a reworking of Snow White and Rose Red and in the genuine tradition of fairy tales it's also shocking, often brutal. Liga needs to escape her suffering in the real world to raise her two baby daughters in a safe haven, a magic place, her personal heaven. But, as her daughters grow up, the real world encroaches, the magic falters. Then, as a teenager, the restless Rose Red daughter, Urdda, manages to step back through to the world her mother was so desperate to save her and her sister from.
It's a rewardingly complex and emotional story told in highly imaginative prose. The worlds Lanagan creates are so rich and multi-layered it's easy to get lost in the book's 500 pages, never wanting to leave.
Edinburgh-based Nicola Morgan uses the capital as a backdrop for her slick and twisted thriller Deathwatch (Walker 6.99). Cat McPherson is about to become victim of perhaps the most disturbing of all crimes for a teenage girl, stalking. Cat is a successful young athlete and we get the feeling she might be able to handle herself physically, but her stalker is also playing mind games. In fact, the novel touches on psychological fear and torture in several different forms: phobias, Gulf War Syndrome and schizophrenia. For Cat, her fear is of insects and Morgan makes sure the novel is creepy enough for anyone with even a slight distaste of all things crawly. Plotted like a crime novel with plenty of cliff-hangers and red-herrings, this feels like a story aimed at teenage girls who want more grit, who find Twilight and its ilk too wimpy.
Gillian Philip is a new name in Scottish teenage fiction. Her debut novel was excellent, and Crossing The Line (Bloomsbury 6.99) is even better. It's yet another novel dealing with knife crime, although what sets this one apart is the surprising lighter touches and thoughtful humour. This is mainly due to the superb first-person narrative; Philips gives her protagonist a Chandleresque wit and a wry arrogance. Nick Geddes is in love with a girl whose brother was stabbed to death, and she blames Nick for that. Philips never shies away from the horrendous seriousness of her subject matter but this is far from a dreary, issue-led read. It's a book so much more in tune with its readership than many other heavy-handed, if well-intentioned, tomes.