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Thursday, May 27, 2004

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time," "Fergus Crane"


"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time," Mark Haddon, Random House; 2003; 272 pp.

You know from the first paragraph that this is no ordinary book.

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"It was 7 minutes after midnight," it begins, "The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears' house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead."

It takes author Mark Haddon just six sentences to arrest your attention and thrust you into the skin of his narrator, a 15-year-old autistic boy. Christopher Boone has a form of autism known as Asperger's Syndrome. Haddon doesn't explain what Asperger's is -- he doesn't need to. Through 268 unputdownable pages, we see the world through Christopher's eyes -- and what a bewildering world it is.

Christopher has a photographic memory. He notices the kind of details (a hole in the tights of a policewoman's left ankle, with a red scratch in the middle of the hole) that most of us are oblivious to. He's a whiz at math. Ask him what 251 × 864 is and he'll tell you in a second.

What Christopher doesn't get are other human beings. He does not like being touched by them; he can't figure out how to "chat" with them; and he keeps saying things that other people find rude.

But dogs, they're easier to understand than people, so why would anyone kill his neighbor's dog, Wellington, by sticking a garden fork into him? Christopher decides to find out.

Christopher's search for Wellington's killer adds a new dimension to Haddon's first-person account of autism; it also makes it a detective novel, of sorts. Although Christopher has the makings of the perfect detective (even the book's title is a reference to a remark by literature's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, in Conan Doyle's "Silver Blaze"), he's totally unprepared for what Wellington's murder teaches him about people. He ends up stumbling upon a truth that rips his carefully ordered universe apart.

When writers use the first-person voice, they do a kind of disappearing act. They create a character, then get out of the way and lets the character tell the story. Haddon is a master at this. Artfully and sensitively, he portrays life through the eyes of his autistic narrator. The long, winding sentences, often curiously constructed, make you believe that it's Christopher talking.

As Christopher draws toward an understanding of his world, you find yourself inching closer to understanding him. Many books about people with disabilities become preachy, but not this one. It tugs at your heartstrings without degenerating into a tearjerker. Difficult people, the book suggests, often have a difficult time of it. By the time you've read "Dog in the Night-time," Christopher will have won far more than just your empathy: He'll have your admiration, too.

For children 12-15 years

"Fergus Crane," Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell, Random House; 2004; 215 pp.

Looking for a character to love -- a Harry Potter for younger kids? If I were you, I'd search inside the pages of "Fergus Crane." Everyone in Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell's marvelous account of the adventures of Fergus is, well, a real character.

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But the hero, Fergus -- Riddell's illustrations show a short fellow with a shock of honey-color hair -- is the obvious choice. His father was lost at sea before he was born. Now Fergus lives with his mother, who works at Boris Beiderbecker's famous bakery, whipping up walnut eclairs, almond meringues, and most delightful of all, caramelly, chocolatey, nutty Florentines. (Someone with an incurable sweet tooth wrote all this.)

Fergus' neighbors are a colorful set, too. Not the least fantastic thing about them all is their names: Miss Jemima Gumm; Major and Mrs. Bartholomew Bigsby-Clutterbuck and their Persian cat, Prince Caspian; Miss Eugenie Beecham; and Arturo Squeegie.

Not forgetting Fergus' teachers -- Captain Claw, Lizzie Blood, John Gilroy and Jack Woodhead -- on a school-ship named the Betty-Jeanne. They don't just sound like pirates; they are pirates.

There are more people here than can fit easily into one novel (yes, there is a sequel), so first a quick overview: Fergus goes to school on a ship because his mother can't afford to send him to a regular school. One day, he gets an unusual visitor: a tiny, metal box with wings. The flying box contains a letter from "long lost Uncle Theo."

"Fergus Crane, you are in great danger," the letter says. "I am sending help."

Help soon arrives in the form of a flying metal horse -- but what is Fergus in danger from?

Things start making sense when he discovers that there was more to his father's disappearance than mets the eye. Meanwhile, the Betty-Jeanne goes vamoose with Fergus' classmates on board. Now Fergus must journey to the Emerald Sea to rescue them, with assistance from Uncle Theo, head of the Fateful Voyage Trading Co., and his three associates, Finn, Bill and Jackson -- penguins all. (Yes, penguins.)

It gets better. At the heart of this crazy adventure is Fire Isle, source of the elusive and ultra-precious "fire diamonds." Guess who wants them -- and guess who gets them.

This is thoroughly enjoyable stuff -- as you read, you can almost hear the author chuckling as he wrote. So if you're looking for something that's light, flakey and absolutely scrumptious, this is the next best thing after one of Beiderbecker's pastries.

For children 7-9 years


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