the observer Sat 03 April 2010
Just when teen fiction seemed to be recovering from the Stephenie Meyer vampire effect, the publishers of young adult novels seem, perhaps inevitably, to be latching on to another megabucks grown-up literary phenomenon: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Helen Grant's publisher is marketing her as "the Stieg Larsson of teen fiction", but don't let that put you off. Grant is an original, accomplished author in her own right and with The Glass Demon, her second novel, she brings us a gripping and atmospheric adventure, involving murder, family break-up, chilling folklore and warped religion.
The story centres on 17-year-old Lin, the daughter of a failed academic who drags his entire family from their home in an English university town to rural Germany in search of some missing medieval stained glass he believes will make his name and his fortune. The glass is said to be haunted by a demon who will punish any efforts to remove it from its hiding place. As soon as the family arrives, a spate of gruesome murders begins, with the bodies always surrounded by shards of broken glass.
There are shades of Larsson in the way the murderer takes his cue from biblical stories, but the dark, chilling mood is really closer to the Brothers Grimm. Grant builds the suspense cleverly, maintaining the tension with a light touch, and Lin is an appealingly spunky narrator. It is barely a year since this author's impressive debut, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, earmarked her as a writer to watch, and this follow-up will consolidate her reputation as a talented new author.
Murder and occultism also lie at the heart of Sarah Singleton's The Island, which opens with every parent's gap year nightmare scenario. Fresh off the plane to Goa, 18-year-old Otto falls for a mysterious, tattooed beauty on the beach, then discovers her dead body on the sand after an all-night rave. He finds himself a prime suspect in her murder. Then he disappears. Two English friends set out to track Otto down and together the trio unravel the mystery behind the girl's death, encountering violence, corruption and a "natural high" drugs racket along the way.
Like Grant, Singleton, knows exactly how to create and maintain suspense. Deftly and delicately, she also weaves emotion into the mix, evoking through the relationships between the central characters the unforgettable intensity of teenage friendship and first love.
Falling in love for the first time is also the primary theme of William Nicholson's compelling and funny Rich and Mad, now out in paperback. An astonishingly versatile author, who has written plays and screenplays (Shadowlands and Gladiator among them), as well as adult fiction, Nicholson began writing for children a few years ago and this is his first novel for young adults. I would definitely place it at the adult end of the spectrum, since there is plenty of graphic sex and a disturbing subplot concerning violence against women. But within that it is a tender, moving, unexpected and intelligent take on family life, sibling relationships, mid-life angst and, above all, first love and first sex, which examines why we always want what we can't have and don't want what is there for the taking.
The central characters are wonderfully believable and in Rich, Nicholson has created a lovable, geeky antihero who worships Larkin and gets his ideas about love from a battered copy of The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm's 70s classic on human behaviour, which his friends suspect is a sex manual. He feels so real you suspect he might well be based on the author's young self. Alone among his peers, Rich refuses to have a laptop or a phone, reasoning that anyone who really wants to talk to him will actually come and find him. That's what I call brave.