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Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"How I Live Now," "News photo"


"How I Live Now," Meg Rosoff, Puffin Books; 2004; 186 pp.

When a good writer writes, even if it is their first book, you can "hear" their voice.

News photo

Here, Meg Rosoff, the author of "How I Live Now," has none of the angst and apprehension of a first-time writer (or at least, she doesn't let you see it). Hers is a debut marked with confidence: It is as if she has rolled up her sleeves and just gotten down to the business of storytelling -- no hemming and hawing here.

My name is Elizabeth but no one's ever called me that. My father took one look at me when I was born and must have thought I had the face of someone dignified and sad like an old-fashioned queen or a dead person, but what I turned out like is plain More Daisy than Elizabeth from the word go.

The novel's opening is as much of an introduction as you'll get to Rosoff's protagonist, Daisy. She skims over details of her life so far (which, she tells us, has been rather unremarkable) and gets straight to the part that explains how she lives now.

What Daisy comes out and tells us early on is how her mother died in childbirth; how she had good reason to call her father's new girlfriend "Davina the Diabolical"; and how she has been sent all the way from the United States to England to be with her four cousins on her mother's side: That's Osbert, 16, Isaac and Edmond, both 15, and Piper, 9.

What she does not tell us outright (but we glean soon enough) is that Daisy has her own demons. Initially, she feels as out of place as any New Yorker thrown neck-deep into the English countryside. But there is something about an English summer -- walking in a blizzard of color, fishing under the open sky, swimming in a cold river, sleeping in the barn -- that is nothing short of salutary. And somewhere, in all this fecundity of nature, something more sensual is stirring between Daisy and Edmond.

This is not a teensy "does-he-love-me-does-he-not?" tale; nor is it a sentimental take on first love. What it does portray, with unselfconscious intensity, is the feeling of experiencing love and longing for someone who should be nothing more than a cousin. As Daisy puts it: It was the first time in as long as I could remember that hunger wasn't a punishment or a crime or a weapon or a mode of self-destruction. It was simply a way of being in love.

Rosoff's prose about this state of innocence is so evocative, you cannot read it without feeling with certainty that some of this has also happened to you -- or aching for this Paradise Lost when war breaks out and the cousins find themselves separated. The author creates a hypothetical World War III, without going into the finer details of how or why it breaks out. Instead, she keeps the narrative energy focused on what is more important, on how even the remotest corner of the remotest countryside cannot escape being scarred by war.

Rosoff retains Daisy's breathless voice throughout the story in long, run-on sentences that can't wait to say what they have to say. The irreverent tone conjures up a typical teenager thumbing her nose at the world -- and then watching with horror as the world thumbs its nose back at her.

This is lean, unapologetically beautiful writing. Rosoff eyeballs you over the page and tells you a darned good story that has no pause to doubt itself. It's the sort of thing only someone speaking straight from the heart can pull off, seasoned writer or not.

For children 14 years and above. Parental guidance is advised.

"Noisy Kisses," Barney Saltzberg, Harcourt; 2004; 14 pp.

There is no critic more unforgiving than a baby.

News photo

If you have a younger brother or sister, you'll know what I mean. When my 10-month-old daughter hates a book, she flings it across the room, tears it to shreds or just plain chews it to cud. But when she loves a book, she picks it off the shelf and plants a big, fat kisser right in the center of it. "Animal Kisses" has been smooched often enough for me to get the general idea.

"Noisy Kisses" is the latest of four bright and colorful touch-and-feel books by Barney Saltzberg. These are not board books, but the pages are thick enough to withstand rough handling. The other three books "Peekaboo Kisses," "Baby Animal Kisses" and "Animal Kisses" have been published in previous years, but this time, my column takes its tips from my in-house critic. "Noisy Kisses" goes down well too, but she seems to like "Animal Kisses" the most.

What makes "Animal Kisses" work? Babies learn a lot from touch, and here the young reader gets to feel the grating sensation of a scratchy cat kiss; the stickiness of a dog's tongue; the slipperiness of a fish kiss; and the squeaking of a pig kiss (and yes, the book does have a squeaker that keeps baby entertained for hours on end).

If your parents are looking for touch-and-feel books for a toddler or a young reader, they might also try "Tails" by Matthew Van Fleet. This board book is about all kinds of tails -- long ones, stumpy ones, stringy ones and fluffy ones, scaly ones and stinky ones. It has no story (which is perfect because readers this young don't exactly follow the narrative). Instead, it gives toddlers the chance to pull, tweak and stroke every tail imaginable. If you're up for it, you even get a chance to scratch and sniff what a skunk's tail is like (and it smells true to form). There are tabs to pull and flaps to lift so that foxes wag their tails and pigs swat at flies with theirs.

Imaginative, eye-catching and thoroughly interactive, these books are a great way to introduce toddlers to reading.

For children up to 6 years. "Tails" and all the "Kisses" books are published by Harcourt.

"How I Live Now" and the "Kisses" series books can be ordered from Tower Records Shibuya, 7F, (03) 3496-3661. "Tails" is available at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku, (03) 3354-0131.



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