THINGS CHANGE

By Patrick Jones. Walker. 216 pp. $16.95; ages 14-up

KISSING THE RAIN

By Kevin Brooks. Scholastic. 320 pp. $16.95; ages 14-up

Even as contemporary young adult novels push the raw and seamy edges of the literary envelope, the classic coming-of-age quest remains the heartbeat of the genre. In his first novel, Things Change, Patrick Jones addresses this durable theme by way of an abusive relationship between a pair of troubled teens. He tells the story from alternating viewpoints as the victim and her boyfriend struggle with the powerful forces that drive their actions.

"I want you to kiss me," demands good-girl Johanna in the opening line. Johanna surprises no one more than herself when she acts on her desire for bad-boy Paul. But patterns of anger and abuse emerge from beneath Paul's class-clown persona as he strikes out at every girl he dates. Paul speaks through letters to his dead dad, typed on a computer in the shelter of a mini-storage unit while he nurses a six-pack of Stroh's. The narrative device is a stretch and most of his attempts at humor fall flat, but Paul's point of view offers flashes of insight.

Most of the story comes from Johanna, who suffers huge blind spots when it comes to Paul and the bruises he leaves on her body, even though otherwise her narrative bubbles over with painful self-awareness. "Although I wanted his approval, I felt so shy about getting it," she says of her teacher, Mr. Taylor, the only adult in her life who shows any compassion for her. Other characters echo her unlikely remarks. "You're seventeen. I'm seventeen. This is how we think," says Paul's friend Brad. Even Johanna's new best friend Kara dishes out platitudes. "Johanna, the heart always knows," she says, and Johanna marvels at her wisdom.

Jones weakens his premise -- that too much parental control drives kids to self-destruct -- with thinly drawn adult characters, from Paul's Jesus-loving mother to Johanna's ex-Marine dad. Johanna's insensitive, chain-smoking mother gets the most exposure as the primary force behind Johanna's poor choices. "I sensed maybe my mother was watching me," Johanna says later, after embracing Paul. "I must have smelled the smoke in the air, so I held the kiss for a very long time." From the Springsteen lyrics rumbling through the deck of Paul's Firebird to the trickles of Johanna's frequent tears, this dark story winds its way around the tension between freedom and control. Jones, author of several books for librarians, writes with considerable passion. Though his approach is heavy-handed, readers will feel for Johanna and Paul as they try to make sense of their problems.

In Kevin Brooks's latest novel, one of the most memorable narrators since Holden Caulfield sloshes through the angst of his mundane, fat-filled life to confront a complex moral dilemma. Brooks, a British writer who made a huge splash with his first novel Martyn Pig, returns with a perfect ten-point dive in Kissing the Rain. Moo, the protagonist, tells us straight-away that he's sick of the FAT stuff and sick of the TRUTH. In the hands of a less talented writer, Moo's use of capital letters could fast become ANNOYING, but Brooks has created a compelling narrator who is humorous, compassionate and possesses a genuine desire to be heard.

Moo has spent most of his life dealing with what he calls RAIN -- the taunts, the jeers and the bullying dished out by his classmates. "It ain't what you IS that puts you in your place -- it's what you AIN'T," he explains. He's a nobody, plain and simple, and his first response to a challenge is to hide within his ample person. "I ain't telegraphic," he says, sporting wry humor. "I ain't no magicman. I ain't GOD, for GOD's sake."

Everything changes when, from his favorite quiet spot atop a highway bridge, Moo witnesses a murder. Complexities pile one atop the other as he discovers this is no ordinary RAIN that he can "umbrellarize." The good guys and bad guys are all mixed up, and as Moo struggles to sort it all out, he becomes the object of a new kind of attention immersed in layers of ambiguity.

If there's one thing Moo understands after all he's suffered, it's human nature. He weighs his choices, approaching them with understated insight. "Even if it looks like you're doing it for someone else," he says, tapping at the thin shell of his own motives and those of the twisted folks around him, "you're doing it for you." Though he feigns apathy, Moo, the master of forgetting things that hurt, is compelled to action when the good/bad guys threaten his dad and pummel his best friend Brady. He has to find some way to get things under control, but it's not easy in the middle of his moral quagmire. "Bad=good. Good=bad. TRUTH=lies. Lie=TRUTH," Moo says, summing up his dilemma in the simplest of terms. He struggles and sweats through his ambivalence and his questions about justice. He is as crass and flawed as everyone else, but that doesn't stop him from grasping, in his own Moo-like way, at nobility and truth. It even seems appropriate that he speaks to us from the bathroom, where he's "all ears and no pants," listening in on what becomes yet another turn in the twisted maze of secrets surrounding the murder.

Though readers may be unsettled by its ending, Kissing the Rain will certainly provide great fodder for discussion. After all, if, as these books suggest, coming of age means getting control over one's own life, how many of us can say we know all about THAT? *

Deb Vanasse's most recent young adult novel is "Out of the Wilderness."