Fiona Lafferty finds summer fiction that's relatively strange
The Race for the Lost Keystone
By Valerie Rutt
By Angela Woolfe
Sam and the Griswalds
By Emma Barnes
Illustrated by Tim Archbold
Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;5.99
The Rise of the House of McNally: unlikely exploits 3
By Philip Ardagh
By Debi Gliori
By Sue Lawson
Lothian Books pound;4.99
By Gillian Johnson
Hodder Children's Books pound;6.99
The Ballad of Cauldron Bay
By Elizabeth Honey
Allen amp; Unwin pound;5.99
Wacky families and technology run wild seem to have replaced wizards at boarding school in much of this summer's new fiction for 10-year-olds and above.
Top of the heap for ingenuity, fun and sheer pace is Val Rutt's first novel, The Race for the Lost Keystone. Kate and Phil Reynolds have always believed themselves to be part of a perfectly ordinary family, until they meet their great-aunt Elizabeth, a sort of female James Bond with a touch of Mary Poppins.
She whisks them away on a secret mission on her motorbike and sidecar with its interior expansion device created by Harold, a madcap inventor. They must thwart the highly dangerous Lorabeth Lampton, who is threatening to destabilise the Earth's structure by harnessing geothermal energy from the Earth's core for her cosmetic company's anti-ageing treatments.
Time travel, heavy-handed thugs, a talking dog and cat, and weird and wonderful gadgets, including a machine that can change humans into animals, are mixed into this inventive and satisfying read for 10 to 12-year-olds.
Avril Crump is another first novel and difficult to outdo in the "technology run wild" category, involving, as it does, three clones: Bonaparte, a 7ft man in Napoleonic uniform, Augustus, a talking dog, and Edna, a seemingly perfect little girl. Their appearance from the coming together of an old chemistry set and a "replication chamber" precipitates a decidedly manic race from various scientists of differing degrees of madness, led by the strange-looking, doughnut-loving Dr Crump. Although this absurd adventure occasionally loses its way, over-10s should be able to keep up.
In Sam and the Griswalds, Emma Barnes introduces a decidedly unconventional but likeable family, reminiscent of Helen Cresswell's chaotic Bagthorpes.
Sam, an only child with an overprotective mother, first meets his boisterous new neighbours Jake, Spider and Elfrida Griswald, when they set fire to his hair, dowse him in ginger ale and drop a hamster on his head.
Despite this inauspicious encounter they end up friends, and together stand up to the unpleasant Bullock children and their obsessively tidy mother.
Barnes's lively style is perfect for 10s and over, and this is a terrific comic adventure with many a hair-raising episode.
Families do not get much wackier than the McNallys and the Strega-Borgias, both, by now, old favourites. In The Rise of the House of McNally, Philip Ardagh completes the aptly named Unlikely Exploits trilogy and "explains" the unusually complex phenomenon of the outbreak of holes that started it.
His prose style is quick, funny and thoroughly anarchic.
Debi Gliori continues to devise bizarre predicaments for the eccentric ScottishItalian Strega-Borgia family. In Deep Trouble, the fourth title in the Pure Dead series, an ominous presence looms over the stately Strega-Schloss castle. Flora McLachlan, their stalwart nanny, has more than an idea of who or what is behind it.
Gliori's plot and language retain the freshness of the first title. Both series will appeal to bright readers of 11 and over.
Several books first published in Australia deserve to be brought to the attention of readers in the UK. Tessa is a warm and understated story about a girl who desperately wants a puppy for her birthday and whose mother gets her a bantam chick instead. She overcomes her initial disappointment when a lonely old lady in the village offers tips on how to tame and train Chook, as she calls him.
The relationships that underpin this story are beautifully portrayed and the way in which Chook eventually enables Tessa to stand up to the neighbourhood bully and his dog is heart-rending, to say the least. This story will appeal to thoughtful young readers.
Thora, another eponymous heroine, is the offspring of an unlikely match between a mermaid and human, who must spend 10 years at sea and 10 on land to be free. She has lived 10 years at sea in a houseboat with her mother and Mr Walters, her guardian angel; now she must start her decade on land wearing a wetsuit so she can walk and a spiky hairstyle to cover the blowhole on top of her head. Her quirky behaviour creates amusing situations as the people of Grimli try to make her conform. An attractively illustrated and uplifting story pitched slightly younger than the others.
Finally, The Ballad of Cauldron Bay hits just the right note for pre-teens and teens. It chronicles the events of one summer in the lives of Henni and her family and friends from Elizabeth Honey's Stella Street stories: 45 and 47 Stella Street and Everything That Happened and Fiddle-back: when Stella Street went bush.
In the latest book, a holiday in a remote old house on the beach is going swimmingly until outsider Tara, a teenage girl in need of a break from a difficult home life, is thrust upon them. Loyalty, responsibility and growing up are the key to everyone getting along in this perceptive book.
This is the third story about Henni and friends, and it should make first-time readers want to seek out the other two.