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Thursday, Feb. 3, 2005

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Pirates!" "Mammalabilia"


"Pirates!" Celia Rees, Bloomsbury; 2004; 296 pp.

Celia Rees's "Pirates!" is a gripping read from page one: It gains on you like Blackbeard's fearsome pirate ships, takes you hostage, and holds you without mercy till the last page. Her story of two young women taking to a life at sea as pirates is so engaging, it carries you forward as effortlessly as the slickest Hollywood flick, and lasts for a delicious while longer.

There is nothing farther from the world of Nancy Kington, daughter of a Bristol merchant and heiress to a Jamaican sugar plantation, than the world of her attendant, Minerva Sharpe, born to an African mother and destined to be nothing more than a slave.

"Pirates!" is set in the days of slavery, when the high seas were full of ships ferrying African men, women and children to white shores and a life of endless toil. This is also the fag end of what is known as the "golden age of piracy," when a black flag emblazoned with skull and crossbones could strike terror in the bravest of hearts.

For Nancy, who has grown up in Bristol, these worlds could very well be the stuff of legend, until her father dies. She finds herself shipped off to Jamaica, where she meets Minerva and confronts, for the first time, the cruel institution of slavery upon which her family's fortunes have been made.

When her brothers try to force her into a "profitable" marriage with a cruel Brazilian, Nancy flees from her black-hearted bridegroom and her family legacy, with only Minerva for company. Two young women -- one black, one white -- escape slavery of a kind, looking for deliverance (even if it only comes aboard a pirate ship).

This is an adrenalin-packed adventure story with not one, but two strong female leads. Viva girl power, 18th-century style! Nancy and Minerva wield their cutlasses and pistols as well as any man. They fight other pirates, the Royal Navy and ultimately the Brazilian who comes after them to take vengeance -- all while discovering sisterhood and finding true love along the way.

Rees's writing is so detailed and vivid, it is as cinematic as it gets. None of the grittiness of a pirate's life is left out -- the scurvy-rotted gums, the amputation of a gangrenous leg, the gibbeting of a man. Neither is slavery spared from anything but the most truthful descriptions -- the public lynching of slaves, their exploitation at the hands of plantation owners, and the agony of a people dispossessed of country and family.

Passionate storytelling in the first-person voice, this is furious at times, poignant at others and always brutally honest. The author cannot help but betray her admiration for pirates, even at the worst of times, and their love for freedom above all else.

As spice-laden as a ship on the trade routes and as rich as pirate treasure, this one is a must-read.

Note: For teenagers 13 years and above.

"Mammalabilia," Douglas Florian, Voyager Books ; 2004; 47 pp.

This is linguistic showmanship from the word go. Douglas Florian's "Mammalabilia" is no ordinary collection of poems and paintings. The poetry (we'll get to the paintings soon enough) appears simple at first glance. After all, what can be so profound about a collection of rhyming poems about mammals, the longest no lengthier than 12 lines ("The Porcupine").

Take the shortest poem as an example of how good poetry doesn't need too many words. "The Lemurs" is just a single line, but oh, what a beautiful line it is. It sashays down the page quite like a monkey swinging from tree to tree. There's a big term for this kind of thing: typographical innovation. It means, simply put, using words and letters to create a sort of picture.

Let me explain. This is "The Lemurs" for you: "In Madagascar leaping lemurs breeze through trees without breaking femurs."

Now imagine Florian arranging the letters in the sentence above so that they undulate, adding meaning to the poem in a way that words alone could never do.

It helps the poet's cause that Florian can rhyme so perfectly and still manage to keep it funny, like he does in "Fox." It goes: "Clever. Cunning. Crafty. Sly. A fox composed this poem, Not I."

It takes a lot of cleverness to pack meaning into a poem that has only 11 words in it. You end up reading it once, then reading it again and enjoying it a little more, and then reading it a third time -- and loving it. Yes, it has that effect on you because the brevity of it makes your mind resonate with the power of all that has been left unsaid.

So it goes from one poem to the other, Florian springing surprise after surprise, using words like "Play Do," fashioning them into the double hump of a Bactrian camel or the sharp quills of a porcupine.

He flouts the rules of spelling and grammar with a casual ease that would make your English teacher frown. "The Aardvarks" is peppered with so many extra "a"s, like someone has typed out the poem using a keyboard with a faulty a-key. "The Giraffe" is a "Rubber-necker / Double-decker / Cloud-checker / Star-trekker."

Now for the paintings -- they only add to the wit of the poems. "The Lynx," for instance, says: "Some people wear fur coats of lynx, I think that stynx."

And the watercolor painting adjacent to the poem features a woman with a lynx wrapped around her throat -- and get a load of this: the lynx is holding its nose.

To give away any more of this would be unforgivable, but "Mammalabilia" is word-craft at its finest and funniest.

One last thing: If you are an "animal-phile" like Florian so evidently is, try reading some of his other books, too. There is "Bow Wow Meow Meow," "Lizards, Frogs, and Polliwogs," "Insectlopedia," "In The Swim," "On The Wing," "Beast Feast" and "Monster Motel." Their titles -- like this collection's -- are a dead giveaway that what's inside will be 10,000 miles from disappointing.

Note: For children 5 to 10 years.

Pirates! and Mammalabilia are available at online bookstores.


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