Jan Mark chooses boy-friendly fiction
Sabine. By Tim Kennemore. Andersen Press pound;5.99
Avenger. By Pete Johnson. Corgi Yearling pound;4.99
Secret City. By Jan-Andrew Henderson. Oxford University Press pound;4.99
Mister Monday. By Garth Nix. Collins Children's Books pound;5.99
Tim Kennemore's Sabine is no sword-and-sorcery epic; her story of a boy and his dragon is about a terribly ordinary family undergoing a wholly believable misfortune. The dragon is a virtual pet off the internet, and part of the book's charm is the author's teasing refusal to let on just how virtual it is.
Josh's little brother, born three months premature, is almost a virtual baby. Although he has been allowed home from hospital, he has not yet reached the date when he should have been born. His sister Molly, significantly, lives in an imaginary world of talking animals, their mother is an exhausted wreck and Dad is just about holding things together. In addition to Josh's domestic woes, he is bullied at school and has lost his best friend. When the baby becomes ill matters reach crisis point and Josh acquires his dragon's egg to take his mind off his troubles, expecting to follow its progress on screen. Instead, it materialises on the mouse mat and Josh and Molly have another baby on their hands. Unlike their ailing and unrewarding baby brother, this one responds to the care and affection they lavish on it. The story is deeper than it appears and raises all kinds of questions about the power of the imagination, but for a reader who just wants to enjoy an entertaining tale of everyday magic, it delivers in spades.
Gareth also has problems at school in Pete Johnson's Avenger. He is initially befriended by a glamorous new boy, who is a glossy phony and possibly psychotic. Gareth inadvertently falls foul of his new best mate and finds himself the victim of a campaign of intimidation. He gets help from the ghost of his late grandfather, who in life had been a wrestler called Avenger. He always wore a mask in the ring, which he later gave to Gareth. His ghost imparts some of the Avenger's confidence to the embattled lad.
The narrative touches reality only occasionally - the living characters being scarcely more vivacious than the ghost and the dialogue sounding oddly elderly in the mouths of 11-year-olds. However, the story does go along at a fair lick and keeps you turning the pages, even if you don't believe a word of it.
Secret City by Jan-Andrew Henderson starts with some fascinating ingredients, but ends up by over-egging the pudding. Charlie, who visits Edinburgh during the festival, sets out to explore the Old Town - not just the towering superstructure south of Princes Street, but the tunnels that honeycomb the rock beneath it, in the Secret City. In his first excursion underground he discovers a diary apparently left behind by a legendary drummer boy who was once lost in the labyrinth.
This is not a long book, but as well as the festival, the Old Town, Greyfriars cemetery and the diary, Henderson shoehorns in revenants, monsters, lost treasure and the sword Excalibur. Past and present co-exist, as they tend to do in stories where neither is considered interesting enough on its own, and since we are told on page one that before the tale is over Charlie will become an explorer, a magician, a detective, a grave-robber and a killer, a certain element of surprise is sacrificed.
Mister Monday is the first of seven "Keys of the Kingdom" tales from Garth Nix. It is vaguely futuristic (horrible plagues blight the land) and tells of Arthur Penhaligon, who is scheduled to die of an asthma attack, but is instead snatched away to venture through time and space at the service of the Will of the Architect, incarnated as a frog - don't ask. There are flashes of vivid writing, but the effects owe more to computer-generated images than to words. The experience feels like being trapped in an interminable computer game, which will probably suit many readers.
* Mister Monday is also featured on page 13