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Thursday, April 17, 2003

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The Sands of Time," "Smile, Crocodile, Smile"


"The Sands of Time," Michael Hoeye, Penguin Putnam Books; 2002; 277 pp.

Once in a rare while, there comes a book in which the characters outlive the story. It was certainly not easy to say goodbye to Hermux Tantamoq, the dignified little hero of Michael Hoeye's terrific debut novel, "Time Stops for No Mouse."

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Luckily, Hoeye felt the same way.

In this unputdownable sequel, the watchmaking mouse is back again -- and he's still in love with Linka Perflinger, the dashing aviatrix who bewitched him and drew him into his first adventure.

In the first book, Hermux discovered a sinister plan to bring eternal youth to the rodent race, but at a terrible cost. In this followup, just when he thinks things are settling down, his artist-friend Mirrin Stentrill unveils the theme of her latest art show: cats.

Sure, the word "cat" exists in mouse language to suggest something nightmarish. However, the idea of selecting an unpleasant subject such as felines for the purpose of an art exhibit is a preposterous one in the complacent town of Pinchester. After all, this isn't your conventional mouse universe in which the poor rodents are a cat's favorite delicacy. This is a sophisticated mouse civilization in which it's common knowledge that cats have never existed -- or did they?

If painting cats isn't scandalous enough for the citizens of Pinchester, there's worse to come. Long-lost academic, chipmunk Birch Tentintrotter, who was assumed dead, is alive -- and he's got evidence that the Mouse civilization isn't the most ancient one.

But who's going to believe a discredited scholar -- and a chipmunk at that. And what self-respecting mouse would buy the notion that mice weren't the pioneers of science, art and all the other achievements they've been taking credit for, and that the cats came first?

So did they?

To find out, Hermux must fly with Linka into the desert to find the Lost Kingdom of Cats. It's a journey fraught with dangers -- there are those who would stop at nothing to prevent him from discovering the truth.

The climax of Hermux's last adventure may have been a bit improbable, but in this sequel, Hoeye -- and his Hermux -- have come of age. "The Sands of Time" doesn't rest so much on the tiny shoulders of Hermux as on the newfound confidence with which Hoeye tells his story. It's brimful with cliffhangers, totally unpredictable and sparkling with humor.

What makes this such an endearing read is how it echoes our own lives -- the department-store sales, the pretentious art openings, the coffee-shop prattle. The players in this cat-and-mouse game are familiar character-types, too -- the shrill fashion diva who is always plumping her own feathers (for those who've met her in the last book, Tucka Mertslin's back); the notorious playboy; the unscrupulous academic who'll claim credit for what's not his; the journalist on the lookout for the next juicy story.

In many ways, this is a deftly told tale of cats, mice -- and men. The rodent civilization's reluctance to confront the truth about its own history -- and its censure of all those who will -- rings true not just in Pinchester, but in our world, too.

Hermux is not your standard hero, but he does repair watches and know a thing or two about setting things right. He goes out looking for the truth even though he's not sure what he'll find -- that makes him an adventurer. And when he finds the truth, he defends it against all odds -- that's what makes him a hero.

And I have it, from a good source, that you won't be saying goodbye to this hero for too long. The next installment of Hermux's adventures is already on its way.

For children 9-12 years. Available at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku (03) 3354-0131. The Japanese edition of Michael Hoeye's Hermux series, entitled "Nezumi no Tokeiya-san Hermux no Boken" will be published by Sony Magazines later this year. "Tsuki no Ki no Maho (Time Stops for No Mouse)" is scheduled for release June 2003; the Japanese version of "The Sands of Time" will be out October/November 2003.

"Smile, Crocodile, Smile," An Vrombaut, Oxford University Press; 2003; 24 pp.

One of the ways to tell an alligator from a crocodile is that crocodiles always show their teeth. It's like they're saying "cheese" to the camera, 24/7.

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So you can only imagine Clarabella Crocodile's plight: She needs to be flashing her smile all day, but brushing all those teeth takes so long that her friends have gone to bed by the time she's done. For the others in the Mango Tree House -- Ruby the rabbit, Liam the leopard, Max the monkey and Zoe the zebra -- brushing is a quick affair, followed by playtime and tumble-time and munching-on-mangoes time. But Clarabella? She's still furiously scrubbing away . . .

What are all these characters doing in a mango-tree house? Yes, this cheerful picture book is pretty bizarre, but who cares? The easy rhythm and repetition of the sentences make this a lulling bedtime read for younger kids.

The ingenious -- and rather obvious -- solution that Clarabella's friends come up with at the end to make the croc smile will also give you a good laugh.

For children 3-5 years. Available at online book stores. E-mail Payal Kapadia about this fortnightly column or about the Education page in general at payal@japantimes.co.jp


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