By Craig Silvey
Published by Windmill Books
ISBN 978 0099 537540
A knock on his bedroom window one summer night in 1965 changes the comfortable, innocent life of 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin.
He looks outside to see Jasper Jones, 15, an outcast in the Australian mining town of Corrigan. Charlie is surprised by Jasper's visit; the two boys aren't friends, or even alike. The older, mixed-race boy is rebellious and unpopular, while Charlie is studious, and has a passion for reading. As Charlie says: "Jasper Jones has a terrible reputation in Corrigan. He's a Thief, a Liar, a Thug, a Truant."
But Jasper desperately needs Charlie's help.
If he's honest, Charlie finds Jasper's dangerous nature intriguing. So, even though he's a little scared, he wants to impress Jasper and agrees to go with him.
They walk through town to Jasper's secret hideout in the bush, where Charlie is shown a girl's body: Jasper's girlfriend, Laura, is dead.
Charlie wants to tell the police, but Jasper believes someone is trying to frame him for her murder. He fears that, if the police find Laura's body, he'll be the prime suspect. As Jasper tells Charlie: "This town, they think I'm a [real] animal ... They don't need any more than what they see right here."
Instead, Jasper wants the terrified Charlie to help him dispose of the body in a nearby lake and then help him find the real killer.
Stunned and not thinking straight, Charlie - who makes an unlikely, geeky hero - agrees to help.
This is a superbly written young-adult novel set during a time of rising racial tensions between locals and Vietnamese immigrants - among whom are Charlie's friends, the Lu family - in the middle of the Vietnam war.
Despite the book's title, it is Charlie's friendship with another boy - Jeffrey Lu - that forms the emotional heart of the book. We see their story unfolding through the eyes of Charlie - just as he lives it.
Despite the gripping opening, this is not, as you might expect, a murder mystery. Instead, the story sensitively touches on a range of topics, such as growing up, the loss of innocence, secrets, prejudice and fear.
Aside from the shocking discovery of the dead body at the start, the tone of the novel is not serious. Some of the dialogue between the boys is charming and humorous, particularly the amusing schoolboy banter between Charlie and Jeffrey, who, because of his Vietnamese background, is just as much of an outsider as the wayward Jasper.
Author Craig Silvey is one of Australia's best new writers. His first novel, Rhubarb, won critical praise and a number of awards.
Although his latest story - touching on small-town racism and the relationship between law and justice - won't suit everyone's tastes, it stands out among the many more trivial offerings swamping young-adult fiction bookshelves.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com