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Monday, Feb. 3, 2003

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The Wish List," "Winnie's Magic Wand"


"The Wish List," Eoin Colfer, Puffin Books; 2002; 200 pp.

If you couldn't get enough of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series, put this book on your wish list.

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Fowl fans will warm to yet another exciting tale that doesn't talk down to kids. As inventive as Colfer's Artemis books, with an irreverent sense of humor and an impressive cast of characters, this is a rollicking read. First published in Ireland in 2000, it's just been released worldwide in hardback (the paperback edition is due out in August 2003).

Like Artemis, the wickedly ingenious lead character in the Artemis Fowl series, 14-year-old Meg Finn isn't your everyday heroine. She plays hooky from school, shoplifts and vandalizes public property. Things take a turn for the worse after lowlife Belch Brennan persuades her to help him break into the home of pensioner Lowrie McCall -- and they get caught red-handed by the gun-toting old man. Belch's pit bull, Raptor, takes a bite out of McCall, and McCall's shotgun falls into Belch's hands.

Meg, horrified by the turn of events, intervenes to prevent Belch from hurting McCall any more. As the situation spirals out of control, the duo's ill-laid plan blows up in their faces. Literally. An ensuing gas-tank explosion blasts Meg, Belch and Raptor into the afterlife.

Belch and his mutt, melded together by the fireball into a part dog, part boy combo, go straight to hell. As it turns out, hell is full of dimwitted criminals like Belch. What Satan really appreciates, however, is an imaginative sinner, so he orders his minion, Beelzebub, to track down Meg.

Meanwhile, Meg's in limbo, her destination undecided. She would have been given a one-way ticket to hell had it not been for that little thing called a conscience, which kicked in during the break-in. Her tally of good and evil is 50-50, confusing both St. Peter and Beelzebub as to whether she belongs in heaven or hell.

So Meg is sent back to Earth, in spirit form, with a chance to redeem herself. To pass through the Pearly Gates, she must make amends with old McCall. But to achieve this, she must contend with Belch who's been sent by Satan to foil Meg's attempts to rack up any points with heaven. Satan's helper, a megabyte sprite called Myishisan, programs Belch (or what remains of him) to thwart Meg at every step. (If Belch fails, he'll end up shish-kebabed on Satan's sizzling pitchfork.)

Meanwhile, McCall's close brush with the pit bull has given him second thoughts about his own destiny. It's made him see how fragile life is and how little of it he has left. When Meg turns up to pay her dues, McCall draws up a wish list.

As Meg helps the old man make his wishes come true, she pursues one long-held desire of her own. Together with McCall, she discovers the value of living life to the fullest -- but also learns that some wishes are best left unfulfilled. This story about an unlikely friendship celebrates the value of second chances: There's a place in heaven even for those who don't live their lives well the first time around.

Colfer presents the afterlife as you've never pictured it before: St. Peter and 'Bub have a hotline connection; hell teems with lawyers and Oscar winners; and sinners get sentenced to scrape soul residue for eternity.

Here's the age-old tale of good vs. evil, rewritten Colfer-style. If you want to see how a small act of pure good can bend heaven and hell, read this one.

For children 10-14 years. Available at online book stores.

"Winnie's Magic Wand," Korky Paul & Valerie Thomas, Oxford University Press; 2002; 24 pp.

Here's the latest in a wacky witch series for younger readers. Even first-time readers will find Winnie's crazy capers thoroughly entertaining.

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She's an overly enthusiastic witch who waves her wand too often for her own good -- or for anyone else's. She's used it before, to turn winter into summer (in "Winnie in Winter") or to zap her black cat Wilbur electric-green (in "Winnie the Witch").

This time, she dunks it into the washing machine by accident. It comes out looking as droopy as a soggy sock and is as useless as one, too. This happens to be the day of the Witches' Magic Show. What's to become of Winnie's spanking-new spell without a wand worth the name?

This picture book's lively illustrations of Winnie's world are rendered mostly in monochrome, except for Winnie herself, who stands out in her striped tights, bright-purple jacket and peaked cap. On every page, Wilbur betrays his amusement (and alarm) at his mistress' peculiar ways.

This isn't a story about how magical powers rescue a witch in a fix, but instead of how a witch in a fix must be rescued from her magical powers.

For children 3 to 6 years. The Winnie series is available at online book stores.


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