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Thursday, March 20, 2003

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Coraline," "Frankenstella and the Video Shop Monster"


"Coraline," Neil Gaiman, Bloomsbury; 2002; 171 pp.

    "We are small, we are many
    We are many, we are small
    We were here before you rose,
    We will be here when you fall."

If you think this song is unnerving, here's what makes it positively eerie: It's sung by 25 red-eyed rats.

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Their audience is a young girl named Coraline, who has just moved into an old house with her parents. Her neighbors are rather strange. Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, old and plump, live downstairs with their Highland terriers; upstairs is an old man who says he's training his pet rodents to sing in a circus.

And their song is just the prelude to what follows as Coraline enters a world that seems familiar but not quite right, just like her name.

It all begins when Coraline discovers a door in the house that's been locked for a long time. It once led somewhere, her mother tells her, but after the house was divided into smaller flats, this doorway was bricked up. Coraline accepts her mother's explanation (reluctantly), but after the old man upstairs brings her a message from his rodents ("Don't go through that door"), Coraline knows she must. She's bored, her parents are too busy to entertain her -- and the promise of adventure is too much to resist.

As Pandora once peeked into a certain box, Coraline opens the door. Instead of a brick wall, she finds a cold, musty corridor with what appears to be a mirror-image of her own house at the end of it. A man and woman welcome her on the other side and introduce themselves as her "other parents." Although they seem so much like her parents -- in fact, they're better cooks and seem to have all the time in the world to entertain her -- it's their eyes that give them away. Or rather, what they have in place of real eyes -- black, shiny buttons.

The ominous becomes steadily sinister when Coraline's other parents imprison her real parents and don't want her to leave -- ever. Coraline must rescue her real parents and get back home. All she has in the form of help is a black cat -- and a stone in her pocket that Miss Spink and Miss Forcible have given her.

This potent horror story is big on the chill factor: a place that bears a murky resemblance to home lurking beyond a bolted door; a pair of malevolent impostors pretending to be Coraline's parents; a disembodied hand skittering across the floor on its own; toys that seem alive; singing rats -- this is Stephen King for children.

You can have too much of an adventure, as Coraline does. All the terrifying things she encounters make her quite grateful when the adventure's over for the safety of the ordinary, everyday world. This might not make for the most satisfying ending to the story -- far too much is left unexplained -- but that won't stop you from thinking of Coraline the next time you come across a locked door.

For children 10-14 years. Available at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku (03) 3354-0131.


"Frankenstella and the Video Shop Monster," Herbie Brennan, Bloomsbury; 2002; 28 pp.

A monster is at large -- and he's in the video shop.

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He's an ugly fellow who lurks in the darkest corners of the store and eats the customers when he's hungry.

This humorous picture book with a girl-meets-monster story has a persuasive message for younger children and their parents: Stop watching so many movies -- settle for this entertaining read instead.

Stella's mother feels like renting a video. Stella warns her of the monster (apparently, small children can sense monsters quite easily, whether they're under the bed or in the video store). But of course, her mother won't listen. She writes off the monster to Stella's imagination -- until it eats her.

Now that gets Stella really angry. And when kids get really angry, they transform from cute little tykes into rather terrifying creatures. Stella's eyes turn red, horns spring from her forehead, her teeth become fangs, she grows so fast you'd think she had a super-hormone shot -- and Frankenstella comes to life!

Frankenstella eats monsters for breakfast, and the video-shop monster might be hungry, but he's not dumb. He runs. This is far better than those car-chase scenes on the telly: a girl twice as tall as the Eiffel Tower in heated pursuit of a pint-size bully (who, incidentally, should really pay a visit to the dentist).

This monster adventure is vibrantly illustrated in collage work. Bright swatches of paper -- wrapping paper, notebook paper, magazine clippings, graph paper -- have been used to create the trees, the houses and the skyscrapers of Stella's hometown.

Of course Mother gets saved, but is she grateful? No. She still insists, in typical Mother-style, that monsters don't exist. But Stella knows better -- and so do we. As for our hungry monster, he's somewhere in the middle of the ocean, feeding on salty sailors. The video store is safe -- for now.

For children 6 years and younger. Will be available in April at Tower Records Shibuya, 7F (03) 3496-3661.


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