Dads, gags and udder stories

KRAZY KOW SAVES THE WORLD - WELL, ALMOST. By Jeremy Strong. Illustrated by Nick Sharratt. Puffin. pound;3.99.

SPOOFER ROONEY. By Jonathan Kebbe. Corgi. pound;4.99.

DOGS DON'T TELL JOKES. By Louis Sachar. Bloomsbury. Children's Books. pound;4.99.

Skeleton Key. By Anthony Horowitz. Walker Books. pound;4.99.

From bovine superheroes to centre-court sleuths, Michael Thorn uncovers some great reads for the over-nines

There's no shortage of fresh new fiction to keep children reading into the new term.

Jeremy Strong's popularity is set to rise yet further as word gets around that his new book is better than ever - really funny, as always, but with a serious side. With the notable exception of Jacqueline Wilson, British authors have not always found it easy to mix humour and sensitivity in the manner of the Australians Morris Gleitzman or Paul Jennings. Krazy Kow Saves the World - Well, Almost does this in fine style. It's a real chocolate box of a novel that includes, alongside Strong's trademark funny flavours and slapstick soft-centres, some nutty truths about the power of perseverance.

Jamie Frink has invented a comic-book superhero, a cow with a Swiss Army udder armed with all kinds of James Bond gadgetry. Obsessed with making a film about Krazy Kow, Jamie enters a competition - and wins. But to realise his invention, and not to make the laughable pantomime version envisaged by Mrs Drew at school, involves a great deal of subterfuge, imagination and fortitude.

These qualities are also to the fore in Spoofer Rooney, a feel-good novel set in Dublin. When Hopper Rooney's dad goes into hospital, Hopper has to stay with his aunt and uncle, his mother having long ago moved to England with her "fancy feller". This temporary home is a scary place. Uncle Maddy is a belligerent old codger and Auntie Grace has painted eyes "like fake flowers". Kebbe is a stylish writer and children will soon adjust to the colloquial quirk of beginning a sentence with a present-tense verb, as in:

"Jump on me bike"; "Pedal hard to Chapelizod".

Hopper's discovery that a 17-year-old refugee from Ghana is sleeping in his sick dad's shed neatly segues into a secret plan to reopen the family car repair business. An uplifting book in which the volatile family feuds of an older generation are repaired by the energies and optimism of youth.

In Dogs Don't Tell Jokes, Louis Sachar has created a memorable goon of a character, Gary Boone, whose only interest in school is the forthcoming talent show, which he wants to enter as a stand-up comedian. He has no shortage of material and spends all day telling jokes - bad ones and not-so-bad ones - to the despair of his family and the derision of his classmates. He does have one supporter - his girlfriend, Angeline. Gary avoids racist jokes by inventing a character called Mrs Snitzberry, who stands in for all nationalities and racial groups. The book is a triumph of tone and timing, as, after a shaky start, is Gary's performance in the talent show.

Anthony Horowitz's third Alex Rider novel, Skeleton Key, initially finds Alex posing as a ball boy at Wimbledon, not the most glamorous of guises for a would-be James Bond. But the stakes are high, and Alex is soon coping with more than strawberries and cream.

Horowitz is never less than convincing, and has clearly been given access to the corridors of Wimbledon. However, he knows that what his readers want is foreign espionage, so Alex is soon dispatched overseas to save the world from evil schemes.

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