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Thursday, July 24, 2003

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Fox," "Stravaganza: City of Masks"


"Fox," Matthew Sweeney, Bloomsbury; 2002; 176 pp.

Every city has its ghosts. I don't mean spirits of the dead, I mean real people who might as well be invisible because no one takes notice of them.

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Gerard finds his ghosts in the Irish city of Cork after he moves there with his parents. Exploring the streets on his bicycle, he comes across a homeless man and his pet fox. Gerard is intrigued by the pair at first: The man has long red hair, a red beard and a matching beret; the russet fox usually walking by his side, or wrapped around his neck like a "living scarf." He starts visiting them -- first in a street doorway, and later, when the days grow colder, in an abandoned van in a garbage dump.

He has plenty of questions, but the man spars playfully with the boy, at times dodging his inquiries, at others, yielding brief but illuminating replies. This is the story of an unlikely connection between two people far apart in age and experience.

As Gerard thinks to himself, "I wondered if they sat there all day. And where did they go to the toilet?"And a little later, "Being out here on the streets was different, wasn't it? Most people lived in houses."

Stories don't get much simpler, or more moving. Sweeney pares this down to its bare essentials. There are no dramatic plot twists, no startling revelations and no overt moralizing. It's just an exercise in straightforward storytelling, more feeling than frills, so heartfelt I cried.

The man is nameless for most of the story, yet both he and Gerard are unforgettable characters. Having once traveled all over the world, he is now as much a fixture of the city streets as a lamppost.

Gerard is an outsider of sorts, quiet and sensitive, who draws and writes to fill the empty hours. Essentially, both the man and the boy are lonely and they seem, intuitively, to recognize this truth about each other.

Sweeney obviously admires the homeless for the way they cope outside of mainstream society while preserving a sense of humor and courage in the face of adversity. Not all the homeless people Gerard encounters in Cork are kindly -- in fact, some of them seem to have lost their minds and frighten him. The author, however, presents all of them with a sympathetic eye.

What makes Gerard stand out in these days of Harry Potter and know-it-all kids is that he's so real. He's not trying to change the world or whip up magic. The only "action" he's involved in is in his head -- he thinks about and responds to a world that most kids grow up without even noticing. In fact, he's the wisest boy I've come across in children's fiction.

For children 10 years and up. Available at online book stores.

"Stravaganza: City of Masks," Mary Hoffman, Bloomsbury; 2002; 344 pp.

If you think the concept of alternative worlds in children's fiction is a tired idea, think again.

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It all started in 1865 with Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Much closer to present-day fiction, Philip Pullman's Lyra explores parallel universes in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy. And Julie Hearn (in fact, a writing student of Pullman's) sends her hero, Tom, diving into the gap in the basement floor, and into 18th-century London (see this column, June 26).

Mary Hoffman sends her protagonist Lucian on a similar kind of travel, but the flair and imagination with which an alternative, olden-day Venice is depicted keeps the idea fresh.

Lucian is fighting cancer -- and losing. After his father brings him a book about Venice, he finds himself traveling, in his dreams, to the city of Bellezza, in the country of Talia. The book is a talisman that has found its way into the right hands, those of a sick young boy who has no idea that he is a Stravagante -- a person gifted with the ability to wander between worlds.

Whenever Lucian falls asleep with the book in his hand, he wakes up in the city of Bellezza. It's almost like Venice, but not quite -- although it has handsome gondoliers (called mandoliers in Bellezza) steering their craft skillfully through the canals of the city, it's ruled by a masked duchessa, not a doge.

A 20th-century British boy would find it hard to go unnoticed in 16th-century Bellezza, but Lucian blends in with the help of Arianna, a girl his age who dreams of becoming Bellezza's first female mandolier. His sudden appearance in Bellezza doesn't escape the notice of Signor Rodolfo, though, an experienced Stravagante who takes Lucian under his wing.

This is a glittering world of ritual and ceremony, intrigue and betrayal. As Rodolfo tells Lucian, the Chimici, one of the oldest families in Talia, are after the throne of Bellezza and the secret to stravagating. If they were to discover that Lucian doesn't belong in Bellezza, that he is, in fact, only a visiting Stravagante, they'd stop at nothing to get their hands on his book. If he were to lose it or allow it to fall into the wrong hands, he'd be trapped in Bellezza forever, with no means to get back to his parents and his own world.

Despite its perils, Lucian welcomes the thrill that is Bellezza. Here, he is Luciano, handsome and healthy.

Before he knows it (though, of course, seasoned readers will see this coming), he's in an imbroglio: He's got a city to save in one world, an illness to survive in the other, and finally, a hard decision to make about where he belongs.

Hoffman's gripping tale gives truth to the adage: Don't judge a book by its cover. The hard edition's cover is smothered in purple swirls with a tacky silver glitter mask on it.

But once you've gotten past that, you'll find that "Stravaganza" makes an entertaining read. It reminds us again why parallel worlds makes good fodder for children's books -- and why we won't be seeing the last of them.

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


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