Tales of derring-do past and present

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Fiona Lafferty finds great reads for older primary readers and above


By Geraldine McCaughrean

Oxford University Press pound;8.99

Peter and the Starcatchers

By Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson Walker Books pound;12.99

Lionboy: The Truth

By Zizou Corder. Puffin pound;12.99

The Diamond of Drury Lane

By Julia Golding

Egmont pound;6.99

For anyone coming to the legend of Cyrano de Bergerac for the first time (and I confess this applies to me), this is an enticing retelling.

Universally ridiculed for his overly large nose, Cyrano is an unlikely, but none the less sincere, suitor to the beautiful Roxane, his cousin. Unaware of his feelings for her, she seeks his help in attracting the attentions of Christian de Neuvillette, an attractive young cadet in his Company of Guards. Handsome Christian may be, but eloquent he is not, so cruel indeed is the twist of fate that then makes Christian employ Cyrano's literary genius to woo Roxane in conversation and letters. The ensuing events elicit high farce, mingled with true poignancy when Cyrano and Christian are sent off to war, with tragic and heartbreaking consequences.

If Geraldine McCaughrean's proficiency as a storyteller can be encapsulated in a single talent, it is in her ability to create a strong and distinct atmosphere in everything she writes. Her delicately crafted prose, combined with the exquisite production makes this a stylish classic for romantics of all ages.

McCaughrean has been commissioned to write a sequel to Peter Pan by Great Ormond Street Hospital, to whom Barrie bequeathed the work's royalties. The recent announcement of the title of this forthcoming book (Peter Pan in Scarlet, to be published in October), was somewhat eclipsed by the imminent publication of a "prequel" to Barrie's story, written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson to explain to Pearson's daughter how Peter Pan met Captain Hook. Peter and the Starcatchers, already a bestseller in the US, is a fine swashbuckling adventure.

Peter and four young orphans are bound on a ship, the Never Land, to serve the unpleasant-sounding King Zarboff. Peter is suspicious about a mysterious chest on board, and becomes more so when he sees Molly, a young fellow passenger, talking to porpoises. He is not the only one intrigued by the chest and soon the Never Land is being hotly pursued by the fearsome pirate captain Black Stache. Molly reveals that the chest contains "starstuff", which falls from shooting stars and can change people and animals in extraordinary ways. It is down to Starcatchers (whose number include Molly and her father) to find and return it to safety before it falls into the wrong hands. The complex and fast-moving plot includes shipwreck, encounters with strange tribes, mermaids and, of course, a terrifying crocodile, to explain just how Peter becomes the famous flying boy. An immensely readable style belies the book's length - 450 pages and 71 short chapters - making it hugely accessible to readers of nine and over.

Another sequel, Lionboy: The Truth, brings another first-rate adventure story to a conclusion. This is the third book about Charlie Ashanti, the boy who can speak Cat, and his scientist parents who were kidnapped by the evil Corporacy intent on destroying their formula for a cure for asthma.

Charlie and his parents have just been reunited in Essaouira and the lions freed into the wild, when Charlie is seized by the ruthless lion-trainer, Maccomo, and the action starts all over again. The story lacks the intensity and suspense of the first book, as the reader now suspects that all will end well (it does). Nevertheless, it is a thoroughly enjoyable romp and there are wonderfully comic inventions in Ninu, the chameleon that can change language as well as colour, and wicked humour, when Fidel lends the adventurers his super-speedboat to get to the Corporacy's island, off Cuba. Fans aged 10 and over will not be disappointed.

The star of The Diamond of Drury Lane is a feisty young girl, Cat, short for Catherine, who was taken in as a young foundling by a Mr Sheridan, playwright and proprietor of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and raised by its company of actors. Set in 1790, this is a spirited and atmospheric tale of gang rivalry, shady dealings and political activism. Cat gets involved with members of the aristocracy, and implicated in a jewel theft, while trying to help her friend Johnny escape punishment for an act of treason.

First-time author Julia Golding has just won the second Ottaker's Children's Book Prize, which recognises new talent, for this light and lively evocation of theatrical, political and street life in 18th-century London. It should appeal to historical enthusiasts of 10 and over.

Fiona Lafferty is librarian at St Swithun's Junior School, Winchester

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