Children's books

Geraldine Brennan

CALLING A DEAD MAN. By Gillian Cross. Oxford University Press pound;6.99.

POINT BLANC. By Anthony Horowitz. Walker Books pound;4.99

COMPASS MURPHY. By Stephen Potts. Egmont pound;4.99

Gillian Cross's polished thriller, Calling a Dead Man, is the most sophisticated of these three cold-climate tales, with appeal for adult readers (perhaps those who liked Robert Harris's Archangel) as well as teenagers.

Hayley's brother John, a demolition consultant, is believed dead after an explosion in Siberia where he was working. In fact, he has lost his memory after collapsing in the forest while on the run from gangsters who faked his death. The only remnants of his old life, his mobile phone and notebook, are hidden in the village where he convalesced before resuming his quest to find a route into his past.

When Hayley and Annie, John's wheelchair-bound fiancee, set out on his trail, they unwittingly put him in renewed danger. The tension is almost unbearable as brother and sister's paths interweave with crooks in pursuit, but there are other aspects of this well-told tale to relish: the messy, mutually dependent relationship between the two young women; the place alongside satellite technology of the ancient stories told on a painted trunk's panels and a redundant church's walls; the scenes from the emergence of a new Russia, with its extremes of good and evil, and glimpses of the old Russia, mired in a huddle of frozen shacks.

There is less subtlety and more seat-of-the-pants action in Point Blanc, which opens with a perfect murder and closes with a tantalising pay-off. Anthony Horowitz's second rollercoaster-style novel about Alex Rider, a junior James Bond, is pitched younger than Calling a Dead Man: it's a page-turner for upper primary readers and beyond. Boys in particular will enjoy the cliffhanger chapter endings, daredevil stunts and laconic humour. Alex, introduced in the highly successful Stormbreaker, is still MI6's secret weapon, living on his wits when his manipulative masters break their promises and his gadgets don't deliver.

This time he tangles with Dr Grief, a stereotypical crazed scientist whose Alpine finishing school for the prodigal sons of the rich disguises an ingenious cloning operation. The doctor, his sidekick Mrs Stellenbosch and their MI6 adversaries are caricatures, but enjoyable ones. Alex is becoming more complex, but his finest hour comes in comic-strip style as he charges down a perilous peak on a customised ironing board.

Point Blanc has been shortlisted for the Askews Children's Book Award, which highlights good fiction for nine to 12-year-olds (see below). Compass Murphy, also shortlisted, is an adventure story in which Joshua stows away on the Aurora, a 19th-century Whitby whaler, to search for his father's missing ship in the Arctic. Perseverance with the land-bound build-up (Joshua sets sail on page 82) is rewarded with the salty tang of life at sea, the drama and mixed emotions of the whale hunt and the harshness of the far North, where Joshua learns to distinguish "ice-blink" from "frost-smoke" or "water-sky" when the Aurora is beset for the winter. The boy's gift for finding magnetic north ensures him a place in future seamen's tales, but the wonders and the terrors of the tale are all drawn from nature. Joshua's quest ends as the reader fears it might, with no magic solution.

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Geraldine Brennan

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