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Thursday, Feb. 5, 2004

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The Pig Scrolls," "Blood Red Horse"


"The Pig Scrolls," Paul Shipton, Puffin Books; March 2004; 224 pp.

Author Paul Shipton warns us at the outset of his (sort of) Greek-style epic that though every effort was made to ensure the accuracy of the material, the Great Library of Alexandria was closed on the Tuesday afternoon he tried to go there. (Err, actually, it's been closed 24/7 since before Christ was born, so our author was about two millennia too late.)

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Without the guidance of the great tomes of Alexandria, what Shipton gives us is the product of an overactive imagination -- the tallest pig tale of them all.

So move aside, Odysseus! Out of the way, Achilles! Gryllus is here! And Gryllus is a pig. Yes, you read that correctly. He's a talking pig with a profound distaste for poetic convention. The invocation of this prose epic doesn't call upon the Greek muses for inspiration. "If the Muses don't like it, they can lump it," he grunts.

If there's one thing Gryllus hates more than poetry or pork chops, it's adventure. He'd rather keep his snout in the mud, thank you. In fact, he was no pig to begin with -- he was a garlic-peeler in Odysseus' army. But while returning from the Trojan War, he got turned into a pig by the goddess Circe and liked pighood so much, he decided to stay that way.

But even though Gryllus tries running as fast as his trotters will take him (which isn't fast enough), adventure catches up with him in the form of a young priestess called Sibyl. She's heard that the end of the world is nigh, and -- glory be -- only a smartypants talking pig can save things now.

Together, reluctant pig and driven priestess embark on an epic journey, picking up a motley crew along the way: a naked goatherd who speaks only in unintelligible monosyllables, a budding poet called Homer (rings a bell?) and the world's first scientist who's trying to split the atom (we know how this one ends, don't we?).

Chaos conspires to take over the Cosmos, the Greek gods are reduced to quivering lumps of jelly, and our porcine protagonist is pursued by everything from chimeras to razor-beaked Stymphalian birds, from Thanatos, the embodiment of Death, to Epicurus, Greek god of food and drink (who likes only one kind of pig: the kind that comes on a silver platter with an apple in its mouth).

Monsters, gods, humans and pigs battle it out in this clever spoof on the traditional Greek epic. If you've had enough of what Gryllus calls that "bunch of pumped-up he-man types," here's a hero who is gluttonous, cowardly, self-centered, lazy and oh, did I mention, entirely lovable. As our piggy puts it: "Perhaps that's what it came down to with all the great heroes of the past. Perhaps they had all been terrified out of their wits, they'd just found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there was simply no one else to get the job done."

In telling this brilliantly original tale of an unlikely hero, our author goes the whole hog. Consistently comical, hopelessly hilarious, this is a must-read-at-one-go.

For children 12 years and up.

"Blood Red Horse," K.M. Grant, Puffin Books; Feb. 2004; 224 pp.

Pick up the newspaper any day of the week and you'll find that there's almost always some mention of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. All the turmoil in this region, the rising casualties and the continual failure of peace talks, makes you wonder where it all started -- and whether it will ever end.

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In its vivid glimpse of the age-old wrangles between the cross and the crescent, K.M. Grant's debut novel offers young readers a historical foundation for contemporary events. Her fictional account is set in the wartorn 12th century, where the Christian kings of Europe are united under the direction of the pope to fight in the Crusades against the "infidels" and deliver Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim control.

Twelve-year-old Will and his elder brother, Gavin, are the scions of the De Granville family, growing up at Hartslove, a sizable estate in the north of England. They embark upon a quest to the Holy Land after their father, Sir Thomas de Granville, is called upon by Richard the Lionheart to join the Crusades.

The two brothers are polar opposites, but if there's one thing they agree upon, it is that there is nothing more exciting than the prospect of riding into battle in the name of God. Gavin selects a great charger for his war steed, but Will is drawn to a rather unlikely horse called Hosanna, a chestnut foal with a white star between his eyes. Will's choice proves to be a good one as he discovers that there is something very special about his steed.

Exposed to the skirmishes between the Christians and the Muslims, the brothers find themselves forced to grow up fast. Gavin's reckless nature, which has gone unpunished at Hartslove for so long, brings harsh consequences. Will finds the romantic veneer of the Crusades wearing away as the fight for the control of Jerusalem turns brutal. He is faced with an age-old moral dilemma -- is it worth killing anyone in the name of God? -- and finds his answer in Hosanna.

Hosanna teaches his master what nobility and courage are really all about. Hosanna has lessons for both his masters, in fact. Kamil, the young and ruthless protege of the Muslim leader, Saladin, captures Hosanna . . . and undergoes a change of heart.

The author uses Hosanna's capture as an opportunity to depict the dramatic encounters between soldiers from both sides of the battlefield. There are no villains in Grant's sympathetic account, only heroes: on one side, Will, a staunch believer in Christianity; on the other, Kamil, an equally staunch follower of Islam. The legendary battle between Saladin and King Richard eventually culminated in a truce between the two.

It takes a horse, though, to teach humans a lesson that we desperately need to be reminded of today -- that religious faith is misguided, even dangerous, without tolerance of the faiths of others.

For children 12 years and up.


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