On the wings of time

23rd July 2004 at 01:00
Fiona Lafferty flies through the future and back to the past

The Supernaturalist By Eoin Colfer Puffin pound;12.99 hbk

Jumpman: rule 1 By James Valentine Corgi pound;4.99

A Coyote's in the House By Elmore Leonard Puffin pound;9.99 hbk

The Gladiators of Capua By Caroline Lawrence Orion pound;7.99 hbk

Jason and the Gorgon's Blood By Jane Yolen and Robert J Harris Collins Children's Books pound;5.99

Biggles and Co; Biggles Flies West; Biggles in France; Biggles in Spain; Biggles and the Black Peril, Biggles Goes to War; Biggles and the Rescue Flight; Biggles and the Cruise of the Condor By Captain W E Johns Red Fox pound;4.99 each

Fans of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl novels will not be disappointed by The Supernaturalist, a superbly cinematic book that will grip good readers of 11 and over. If Artemis Fowl was acclaimed as Die Hard with faeries, then The Supernaturalist could be glibly billed as Terminator meets the Blue Meanies.

Set in an indeterminate future, the story opens in Clarissa Frayne, a dismal orphanage in which the inmates are human guinea pigs for chemical testing. In a freak accident, Cosmonaut Hill and his friend Ziplock manage to escape, and Cosmo sees his first blue parasite suck the life out of his friend before being rescued by Stefan, the 14-year-old leader of a gang of eco-warrior street children whose aim is to wipe out the parasites. The plot twists and turns so fast that at times it is hard to keep up. Colfer's ability to convey action merely in dialogue is dazzling.

Jumpman, by Australian James Valentine, is also set in the future, in 15 billion and 73, to be precise (counting from the Big Bang), where time travel or "time jumping" is commonplace. Theodore Pine has just won a competition to travel back in time with the latest version of the TimeMaster JumpManPro, but something has gone drastically wrong and, far from reaching a hugely exciting site, he has ended up in a girl's bedroom in a suburban house, in "Mil 3" (our present), or 3,000 years earlier.

Worse still, it seems he is visible to Jules and Gen, the teenage boy and girl sitting there, staring in amazement at Theo in a long talking coat with pulsing colours in his hair and a silver sphere floating above him.

Time travel lends itself to wonderfully humorous situations; one of my favourites is the idea that a young delinquent Bill Gates escaped back to Mil 2 just as computers were getting going, and stayed. James Valentine's is a fresh voice, and the JumpMan idea is clearly going to run and run.

Cult author Elmore Leonard unleashes another fresh voice in his first children's book, A Coyote's in the House. Wild coyote Antwan hunts with the Diablos gang in the Hollywood Hills, sometimes straying as far as the dustbins of movie stars for exotic leftovers. On one such foray he finds himself in the house of a German shepherd, whom he recognises as Buddy, the star of such films as Buddy to the Rescue, Buddy on Safari, and Buddy and the Kidnappers.

The two dogs become intrigued by their opposing lifestyles, and decide to change places. Leonard captures the essence of all the animal characters with dry humour and magnificent understatement, particularly Antwan, as he tries to suppress his instincts and become a family pet. For the sake of readers of 10 and over with a sophisticated sense of humour, let's hope this is not Leonard's only foray into children's books.

The Gladiators of Capua is the eighth title in the "Roman Mysteries" series, and anyone between the ages of nine and 12 who hasn't come across them could spend a happy summer immersed in Roman history. Four friends, Flavia, Jonathan, Nubia and Lupus, have honed their detective skills solving mysteries in and around Rome.

This book opens with them mourning the death of Jonathan in a fire at the end of The Enemies of Jupiter. Before they have finished their sad lament, Lupus brings news that Jonathan is still alive somewhere in Rome. An invitation to the inaugural games, to be held in the new amphitheatre in Rome, is all that is needed to allow the young detectives to discover whether the news of Jonathan is true and to save him. A word of warning for readers with delicate stomachs: some of the descriptions of the games, particularly the beast fights, are gruesome.

Jane Yolen and Robert J Harris do for the Ancient Greeks what Caroline Lawrence does for the Romans in the Before They Were Heroes series, which started with Odysseus in the Serpent Maze. In this second book, a young Jason is presented with the challenge of finding the jars of Gorgon's blood stolen from Chiron's cave. Initially, Jason has problems exercising his leadership and persuading his friends to follow him. This is good old-fashioned adventure for nine-year-olds and above.

Which brings me to the recent, stylishly jacketed reissues of the classic action-packed Biggles books. As a newcomer to these tales of the intrepid wartime hero, I was pleasantly surprised by the adventures of James Bigglesworth and pals Algy and Ginger, in which useful footnotes explain the military terms and slang of the First World War and beyond. I can see many a father-and-son bonding session taking place on holiday this summer, and phrases such as "What a slice of luck!" perhaps replacing "That's well good!"

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