In on the action

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Gripping reads selected by Elaine Williams

Blood Fever By Charlie Higson Puffin pound;6.99

Jane Blonde Sensational Spylet By Jill Marshall Macmillan pound;5.99

Dawn Undercover By Anna Dale Bloomsbury pound;10.99

Spymice: The Black Paw By Heather Vogel Frederick Puffin pound;9.99

Venus Spring Stunt Girl By Jonny Zucker Piccadilly Press pound;4.99

North Child By Edith Pattou Usborne pound;6.99

Inside everybody is a superhero trying to get out. Nothing passes the time better at school (or the office), when the afternoons are long and work is a struggle and your peers are being a pain, than daydreaming your way through an heroic personal feat. The preference is for David-over-Goliath tales of single-handed sleuths saving populations from the brink of disaster in the nick of time thanks to superior wit and physical agility.

A clutch of action-packed spy adventures for 9 to 12-year-olds might be just the thing to keep children in the swing of reading during the latter days of winter when they are at their groggiest. Traditionally spy stories have been decidedly macho in tone, but this latest batch includes some sparky supergirlies.

Charlie Higson's Young Bond debut with Silverfin proved that the nation's obsession with James Bond's suave public-school cool in the face of adversity is undimmed. In Blood Fever, the second Young Bond novel, our fresh-faced but tough Eton boy sees off school bullies as well as Aegean pirates to rescue the daughter of an admiral on a school archaeology trip.

Higson has a winning formula in his light fluid style and humorous characterisation.

Young Bond is obviously destined for great things, being privileged, clever and good-looking, but the next two books feature the most unlikely spy material. Jane Blonde Sensational Spylet by Jill Marshall and Dawn Undercover by Anna Dale are laced with irony. Both Janey Brown (who becomes Jane Blonde in Jill Marshall's book) and Dawn Buckle are chosen as spies precisely because they are unremarkable. Dawn, "timid, bland and nondescript", has been selected by secret intelligence organisation PSST - Pursuit of Scheming Spies and Traitors -because her face is utterly forgettable. She fades into the furniture at home, too, where she is overlooked by a career-obsessed mother, a grandfather glued to the telly and a father absorbed by the restoration of antique clocks. Dawn lacks cool even on her spying adventures; she takes Clop, her knitted donkey, along for comfort. This funny, quirky story about an unlikely but utterly engaging heroine has some deliciously eccentric episodes.

Jill Marshall has created an equally off-beam character in G-Mamma, Jane Blonde's exotic spy-queen godmother with a weakness for jam doughnuts and stretchy pink skirts into which she squeezes her rolls of flesh. Jane falls into all sorts of bother when G-Mamma's spy gadgets malfunction, and her plans to foil the sinister spying group Sinerlesse go awry. Jane Blonde takes a playful swipe at the macho Bond phenomenon, but this does not detract from an adventure which romps on absorbingly.

Heather Vogel Frederick's The Black Paw, the first in a series, also describes the underdog turning the table on its oppressors. Oz Levinson, the school's chubby new boy, and his one friend, scrawny Delilah Bean, are also the butt of bullying, until they team up with skateboarding spymouse Morning Glory Goldenleaf. "Mousepower" gives Oz courage to outwit the schoolboy "sharks", and it takes his sensitive, generous nature to help Glory take on Roquefort Dupont, the leader of Washington DC rat underworld.

An adventure with a rattling pace that will keep readers hooked.

More action-packed heroics in Jonny Zucker's novel when Venus Spring, a fearless teenager, joins her grandfather's stunt camp as his secret apprentice and is soon drawn into a plot involving a threat to the surrounding countryside. Venus Spring Stunt Girl is a gripping page-turner with feisty girl appeal.

North Child by Edith Pattou presents us with a courageous but altogether more lyrical heroine who will appeal to the same age group. Rose makes a pact with a white bear to travel far from home to save her family. Inspired by the Norwegian fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon", Pattou has created a haunting, epic love story. Rose, a child born facing north and therefore destined for a lonely icy death, is drawn into the bear's own tragic fate. Pattou has fashioned an archetypal yet fresh and intriguing narrative. Told in the first person of the key characters, it sweeps along with memorable grace.

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