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Thursday, June 30, 2005

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Silverfin," "Baby Touch Playbook"


"Silverfin," Charlie Higson, Puffin Books; 2005; 372 pp.

For James Bond's legions of males fans (this possibly includes your father), Charlie Higson's "SilverFin" is news of the best kind. Not for this reviewer, though, who belongs to the female half of the planet and whose grouse is that there are already way too many films and books about this world-class spy (and world-class cad). So a children's book about Bond as a boy could only be approached with grave misgivings -- and admittedly just a little curiosity about what Bond was like as a boy. Come to think of it, was he ever a boy?

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Evidently he was, and led a life no less exciting for being younger. The opening chapter is dramatic enough. Boy goes fishing to Loch Silverfin; boy catches more than he bargained for; and the reader is hooked (pun intended).

From gruesome beginning to climactic end, Higson seems to constantly remind his readers that this is no mystery novel for the feeble-hearted. Bond may only be cutting his teeth here, but the world is just as ruthless as it will be when he grows up to save it.

The first third of the book about Bond's early days at Eton in the 1930s offers a thoroughly entertaining glimpse of that stiff-upper-lip culture that the Brits are always getting the rap for. The new boy at school, Bond gets lost on the sprawling campus; fumbles with Eton's confounding traditions; squirms in his itchy trousers and "fiddly little black tie"; and runs up into the school bullies, led by American golden boy George Hellebore. Hellebore is a hell of a bore, actually. And he cheats in the school races, beats up the younger boys and basically running through the "to do" list for your standard school bully. Thus far, "SilverFin" reads like a long line of children's books about boarding school, except for that opening bit that reassures you that the exciting parts are yet to follow.

Bond gets called back to Scotland where he lives with his Aunt Charmian and ailing Uncle Max (his parents have been killed in a rock-climbing accident). He befriends a redheaded Irish boy named Kelly and the two are drawn like magnets to Loch Silverfin, where Kelly's cousin Alfie went fishing and never came back. And who should be the wicked "laird" of the castle on Loch Silverfin, but Lord Randolph Hellebore, whose son George is back for the holidays. How the pieces all fall into place!

From this point on, the book is pure joy. Higson has sussed out everything it takes to tell a thrilling adventure story. Scotland's craggy mountains and Castle Hellebore make for a dramatic setting as James and Kelly discover the writhing menace that lurks in the waters of Silverfin Loch and the fiendish plans of Lord Hellebore to destroy the world. This is dark stuff: Dead bodies turn up in the loch; young boys get captured and tortured; and grotesque mutants run around scaring the daylights out of everyone.

"The real world didn't work like that. You didn't hide behind a door and hefar the chief villain telling a crony exactly what he'd done, how he'd done it and what he was going to do next."

This is vintage Bond, apart from the fact that the only martini in this book is a horse by that name; and that there are no fast cars because Bond is still learning to drive his uncle Max's 1.5-liter Bamford and Martin Sidevalve Short Chassis Tourer, whatever that is. The man (or in this case, the boy) is in charge; the villain is well, villainous (and irredeemable); and there is a long-legged female beauty with a lowly bit-part (and all poor Bond gets from her in this book is a peck on the mouth ).

You have to grant it to Higson, though. This is riveting storytelling that should shut up even its critics for as long as it takes to read the book. Bond lover or Bond hater, you end up rooting for that boy who gets captured, tortured and pursued all the way to the grand finale. With a superhuman energy that only his boy-hero can match, Higson carries his readers on a mad adventure that leaves them shaken and stirred.

For children 10-14 years. Available at online book stores.

"Baby Touch Playbook," Fiona Lane (illustrator), Ladybird; 2005; 10 pp.

This delightful board book for older babies and toddlers is remindful of those plastic, battery-operated activity tables you can pick up at any toy store -- only the book version is nowhere as noisy and infinitely cheaper.

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"Baby, touch," the first line urges, and from here on, babies will have a whale of a time discovering the fluffy wool of a white sheep; the yellow downiness of a duck; the bumpy green texture of a frog; and the slippery shimmer of a fish.

Basic everyday materials are used resourcefully -- corrugated paper, fleece and glitter -- to introduce babies to the tactile. Cut-outs and windows invite prying fingers to poke and delve from one page to the next. They are also a clever way of introducing babies to shapes -- circles, triangles, squares and hexagons.

The lift-up flaps in this board book don't survive beyond a few reads, I'm afraid. But while they last, they make the reading experience so interactive. A child can flap the bee's wing, or lift the elephant's trunk. Besides, they are a great way of teaching babies that what is out of sight still exists; you only have to lift the flap up once again and find it.

An embossed rainbow introduces babies to the color spectrum. Geometrical design concepts are suggested in the spiral of a snail shell, the waves on the ocean, the concentric circles at the center of a flower, and the spotted, checkered and striped wings of the butterfly. And there's a friendly baby face to be found on every page to keep the reader company.

Not a single image in this playbook is wasted. Everything -- texture, color, image, shape and design -- has instructive value without losing the interest of a baby. Touch 'n' feel, peek-a-boo, hide 'n' seek -- the possibilities are endless. You'll be reading this book again and again with your toddler, long after those lift-up flaps are torn, shredded and ripped out.

Note: For babies and toddlers. There are two more must-buy books in this collection: "Baby Touch Rhyme Book" and "Baby Touch Picture Book."


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