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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Cross Your Heart, Connie Pickles," "Hunter's Heart"


"Cross Your Heart, Connie Pickles," Sabine Durrant, Puffin Books; 2005; 247 pp.

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This one is for the girls! The book cover of Sabine Durrant's debut teenage novel gives it straight: It promises "Boys, Bras and Ooh la las" and it delivers the goods packaged in pink with hearts on top. "Cross Your Heart, Connie Pickles" reads like the diary of Bridget Jones (at half her age), with all the usual fumbling around to find your place in a world where your first bra isn't the only thing that's uncomfortable.

Take Connie's Best Friend No. 1, Julie, who's great at spinning yarns and will do anything to have things her way. Then there's William, Best Friend No. 2, who sends all the other girls into a tizzy but cannot seem to make a dent with Connie. Best Friend No. 3 Delilah, meanwhile, is boy-crazy (this seems to be the natural fallout of going to a girls-only school). And there's Connie's young, widowed mother, who's French and oh-so-dateable if only Connie could find a man good enough for her.

So Connie teams up with Julie on Operation New Man for Mom, and finds that modern-day matchmaking is as fraught with dangers as it was in Jane Austen's time. The right men turn out to be the wrong ones, and perhaps the man Connie considers Mr. Wrong will turn out to be Mr. Right.

Meanwhile, Connie's got a few problems of her own. She gets her first Valentine's Day card from William (of all people!); she finds herself attracted to the man who gave her a weekend job; and she finds herself admitting that knee-length tweed skirts don't do much for her looks (even though her mother can't afford to buy her anything better.) Now all that Connie needs is a bigger budget, smaller breasts, more attention from her boss and less attention from William. If only it were that easy!

Couched in Connie's puzzled voice is the perceptiveness of a young woman coming to terms with a world in which her body, her heart and her relationships are all changing a little too fast.

Julie starts playing hot and cold; Delilah's easy ways with the boys are getting her a reputation; and Connie finds her friends becoming strangers. But as she heads out for her first teen party (and this is a turning point of sorts), she discovers that her friends might know their tweeds from their denims and the boys from the men, but they don't always have it all down pat.

In fact, neither does she. Humorously and affectionately, Durrant explores a teen life of love, infatuation, flirting, and friendship, of parties, "snogging" and drinking. In short, the works. There's nothing wrong with being a teenager, Connie discovers. It pays to go on that first date (even when it's awkward) and to attend that party (even when it's boring). This is Durrant defending all the pleasures and pains of being a teenage girl and how essential it is to experience it all if you are to get any wiser.

"Hunter's Heart," Julia Green, Puffin Books; 2005; 259 pp.

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If Julia Green's disturbing portrayal of male adolescence is to be believed, boys have a much harder time growing up than girls do. Connie Pickles' tussles with teen parties and first crushes look like kid stuff next to the demons haunting Simon, the protagonist of "Hunter's Heart."

A first love threatening to become an obsession; a growing awareness of self that is more anguishing than exhilarating; the secrets and the silence of a teenager who cannot tell grownups what is bothering him -- this is the darker side of growing up, caught in disconcerting close up.

Fourteen-year-old Simon, his mother and his 6-year-old sister Ellie have just moved to a new house. While Simon's mates go off with their families for the summer holidays, Simon and his not-so-complete family are stuck getting used to their unfamiliar surroundings.

Rocky beaches, mist-shrouded cliffs, ruined mines, deserted quarries and ancient burial mounds characterize the terrain of Simon's new home town. The craggy, hostile surroundings are also quite possibly a symbol, for Simon's state of mind, or at least, the world as he sees it.

At first, the story meanders rather aimlessly, threatening to get lost in all these wonderfully oblique surroundings that the author has imagined. It seems to be Green's intention to put storytelling on the backburner for a while, so that she can concentrate on building up the vague sense of unease that then pervades the novel until its last page.

There is a skeletal storyline, so to speak. As the summer days progress, Simon finds himself attracted to his 16-year-old neighbor, Leah. His mother starts dating Mr. Davies, Simon's art teacher. He bumps into an old school bully called Rick Singleton more often than he should. And he finds himself being watched, shadowed even, by Mad Ed, an army veteran who has lost his mind. He cannot shake off Mad Ed; or fight Rick Singleton; or act upon his attraction for Leah; or stop his mother from dating Mr. Davies. Things happen all around him, but in some sense, he is powerless to change them.

The only time that Simon feels in control is when he is hunting with his catapult, killing rabbits or birds. Then he orders an air rifle and the violence in his head finds an outlet. The novel suddenly thrusts forward as everything that Simon has kept pent up inside him finds its way out. In a dramatic twist, Simon makes his tragic mistakes and finds redemption in an unlikely source.

The only problem with "Hunter's Heart" is how long it takes to make its point. It's a fascinating read if you can stick with it, but Simon's dilemmas and doubts seem so overwhelming, it's hard not to bail out midway. Green's skillful use of the present tense gives the novel an overpowering sense of urgency, like we are being told of things as they happen and watching them unfold for ourselves. In a practiced deadpan tone of voice, she explores coming of age at its most painful. This is Green's rejoinder to all those grownups who thinks kids have it easy.



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