Saturday, 25 November 2006

Millions, Framed, Frank Cotrell Boyce

MILLIONS Frank Cottrell Boyce, Macmillan, 2005, 250 pages, paperback. ISBN 0-330-44130-2.

FRAMED Frank Cottrell Boyce, Macmillan, 314 pages, paperback.
ISBN 1-405-0458-1.

BODIES AND SOUL David Hill, Scholastic, 2005, 222 pages, paperback, NZ$16.99. ISBN 1-86943-658-X.

ONCE, Morris Gleitzman, Puffin, 150 pages, paperback NZ$17.95.
ISBN 0-14-330195-0.

KAITANGATA TWITCH, Margaret Mahy, Allen & Unwin, 2005, paperback, NZ$18.99. ISBN 0-1-74114-485-X.

For Younger Teens

These five books are reminders that the best writing in the world today is being done for younger teenagers. Each of these skilfully written stories has interesting characters, convincing settings, unexpected activities and a remarkable ability to capture the authentic voice of young people. Although humour is often important in these stories, they all confront serious issues head on.

To say Framed is another story by the author of the Carnegie Award-winning Millions is enough. (If you haven’t read Millions, or seen the film, the handsome film tie-in edition is just out.) Framed is even better than Millions. It’s one of those books you carry round, reading out bits to people until they laugh.
Dylan is the last boy left in Manod, a lively little Welsh town which has been in decline since its mountain slate quarry closed. Obsessed with cars, Dylan hopes his family’s garage business will improve when mysterious strangers start using the slate gallery to store precious objects. Instead, comic misunderstandings about pizza-eating ninja turtles and renaissance artists enable Dylan and his sister to carry out the art crime of the century.
With lively dialogue and quirky characterisations, including the world’s most inept hold-up man, Framed is a joy to read. It will make a marvellous movie. And there are some classic paintings you’ll never be able to look at again without laughing.

David Hill’s characters have the same optimistic approach as Boyce’s. Not that young Cal in Bodies and Soul has much to be optimistic about. In his grim world, the poor – made redundant by technology - survive by scavenging in the ruined cities and volunteering for Global’s medical experiments. Health and education services are only a memory; gangs and drug addicts are a constant menace. Cal is amazed at the luxury and health enjoyed by the Uppers in their walled compounds. When he learns the sinister truth about Global’s activities, Cal has to take refuge with the Misfits, outcasts who have survived transplant operations and are preparing to fight back. Their plan to overthrow Global from within is both ingenious and effective. Cal’s narration only hints at some of the horrors of a society where the poor are only valued for their body parts but his story is a fast-moving and exciting vision of a possible future, with a powerful ending.

In Morris Gleitzman’s Once, Felix is an even more optimistic hero; as indeed a Jewish orphan in Poland in 1942 has to be. While Felix is telling his story, the reader soon spots his determination to look on the bright side. Stormtroopers burst into the Catholic orphanage where Felix’s parents left him, and burn some of their books, Felix thinks they must be “professional librarians in professional librarian armbands” reorganising the library. When he finds an empty house and hears gunshots in the fields, Felix decides that everyone’s gone out hunting rabbits. Each time he encounters danger, Felix is able to survive by his amazing ability to make up stories. His trusting nature enables him to give the reader a vivid insight into the horrors of the extermination process without being overwhelmed. The tragedy is genuine – every corpse has a name - but it is also possible to believe that Felix’s indomitable spirit will enable him to survive. Once is an inspired miracle of sympathetic storytelling.

Margaret Mahy has transmuted the landscape of Lyttelton Harbour to create an amazing fantasy about the relationship between people and the ancient land they inhabit. Carswell, a local land developer, has unexpected motives for altering the island of Kaitangata which sits at the heart of a flooded ancient volcano. Meredith Skerritt finds that a series of minor earth tremors, known locally as the Kaitangata Twitch, resonate within her, reflecting the ancient forces that created the landscape. “Then the cliff opened a great eye and looked at her.”
While her family protest against a planned subdivision nearby, Meredith finds herself summoned in her dreams by Kaitangata. Mahy’s rich language evokes hints of bloodshed, sacrifice and mysterious disappearances, so that when Carswell confronts Meredith on the moonlit island the reader knows that his doom is sealed.
The vivacious family life of the Skerritts makes a fascinating contrast to the sinister, dream-like atmosphere surrounding Kaitangata, where ancient myths seem to be acted out. This story avoids clichés and creates a magical mood, with a completely satisfying conclusion.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, 2005.

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