Shakespeare did it with a wherefore; Dion and the Belmonts said it with oohs and waahs: “Each night I ask the stars up above, why must I be a teenager in love?”
It’s an age-old truth that, when you’re growing up, love sucks, love bites, and love stinks. Especially if you’re in love with a potential werewolf, who does all three.
Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce (Hodder, R114) is a surprisingly scary story about two werewolf-hunting orphans, Scarlett and Rosie March, one of whom accidentally falls in love in between practising her knife-throwing skills and running away from packs of very, very bad shapeshifting men. It’s Little Red Riding Hood for grown-ups and, while the narrative runs a little thin on folklore, it’s a (literally) bloody good read: a red-velvet cake of girl-power action with just enough romance for icing, not so much, though, that you’ll gag at the central characters getting lost in each others’ gaze.
Doomed love and swirly eyes are, however, central themes of Sophie Jordan’s Firelight (Oxford; R110), another supernatural inter-species affair (this time its dragons and humans) thick with the usual “ancient secrets” and forbidden lore, and teenage boys with perfect hair … and names such as Cassian and Xander. In Firelight, a rebellious draki – a descendant of dragons with the ability to shift into human form – named Jacinda gets herself into all sorts of trouble and proceeds to sulk and pout her way into a risky romance with her kind’s mortal enemies: dragon hunters (high-school cheerleaders coming a close second). It’s not a bad book, but it’s not a particularly good one either. Which, of course, means the movie rights have already been sold and the book has gone into its fourth reprint. The sequel, Vanish, released in September.
As a parent, a writer and a reader, it’s hard to say kids – of any age – should only read “good” books. What constitutes acceptable literature is always subjective, and reading is reading. Without the insipid glossy bestsellers, publishers would have no money to print the better stuff. I’m slowly coming round to my parents’ way of thinking: faced with a daughter who, left to her own devices, would only read books that had spaceships, dragons, pixies, elves and magicians, I was allowed to alternate between science fiction and fantasy (my genre) and what they deemed “proper” books which, when I was a teenager, included adult novels such as Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird – a darkly told story about a young boy during World War 2, one which haunted me for years and, if I recall, taught me the word “pederast”.
Provided parents or guardians are around to guide young adult readers through some of the more graphic elements – sex, violence, human brutality (which, in any event teens are exposed to online and on-screen) – there’s no reason why young readers won’t appreciate the exquisite dark longing of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume or even Umberto Eco’s murder mystery The Name of the Rose, rich with trembling and unspoken desires.
This idea of parental engagement and disengagement is key to the teenage experience – and it’s one of the devices that drives the simple, brilliant plot of South African author SA Partridge’s third novel, Dark Poppy’s Demise (Human & Rousseau; R129). Dark Poppy – the online pseudonym of a miserable, self-obsessed, lovelorn Cape Town teen named Jenna – stands out for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its complete reliance on real life – rather than made-up creatures – to tell a story. As most adults know, the real world is often much scarier than any fantasy one.
In Dark Poppy’s Demise, Partridge rather accurately captures the unguarded intimacy and dark isolation of teenagers in an age of cellphones and Facebook as Jenna, rejected by her crush at school, unable to relate to her single-parent father, awkward with her real-life friend, meets who she thinks is her dream man on the internet.
There’s no doubt, right from the start, that things are all going to go horribly wrong, but it’s such a well-crafted little thriller that you’re unable to look away as Jenna speeds towards a terrifying collision with very bad things.
Partridge is a master at exploring the nuances of emotionally awkward teens, through fast-paced dialogue and detailed (but not overwrought) description, rendering Cape Town in affectionate Gothic tones that create a suitably brooding, sombre mood.
Given what I know about teens, they’re much more at risk of mean girls and predatory adults than falling prey to vampires, dragons or werewolves. I think Dark Poppy’s Demise should be compulsory reading for adolescents and parents.
[This article originally appeared in the Sunday Times]