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Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2005

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Barkbelly," "The Sign of the Black Dagger"


"Barkbelly," Cat Weatherill, Puffin; 2005; 352 pp.

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Courtesy of canny marketing and the J.K. Rowling Effect, too many children's books are being lauded as "magical" even when they're short on the magic. Cat Weatherill's debut novel, "Barkbelly," is one of them.

Barkbelly is a wooden boy. He hatches from a wooden egg and grows up super-fast (as all wooden boys do, apparently) in the little town of Pumbleditch. Here, he forgets -- though never totally -- that he is an outsider. But when a terrible accident happens, everyone blames Barkbelly. He flees in search of a home where he truly belongs.

His journey takes him to the other side of the world and back: He gets a job as the Cannonball Kid with the Carmenero Circus; he sets sail with pirates in search of a land where there might be other wooden people like himself; and he finds work at a jam factory in a gray industrial town.

The jam factory of Tything & Son Jam Makers, where giant vats of hot, bubbling fruit jam are looked after by Stir Boys, is wonderfully realized by Weatherill. So is Pumbleditch, a world similar to our own in most ways, but not without its quirks. Here, Barkbelly gets a job at Muckledown Farm, farming urchins. Yes, you read that right. But urchins in Barkbelly's world aren't poor street children; they're giant hedgehogs who giggle with laughter when their long quills are extracted.

It is one thing to imagine such a world, and quite another to find the words to communicate it. This Weatherill does superbly: Her verbs are strongly active and her adjectives evocative. But not even the author's wonderful way with words can rescue the book after it reaches the halfway point. Barkbelly starts touring with the circus and sleeping under the stars on a pirate ship, an oft-traveled territory of adventure fiction that makes the book descend almost into cliche.

What's more, Barkbelly's motivations never become totally clear. In a world where being wooden isn't met with much resistance, why does he feel like an outsider and yearn so much for his roots? "Barkbelly" has all the makings of a great adventure novel about chasing your dreams and often finding that they are not quite what you made them out to be. Weatherill's eccentric world is a delight to discover, but what "Barkbelly" needs is a boy-hero who isn't, well, as wooden as this one.

Note: For readers 10-12 years.

"The Sign of the Black Dagger," Joan Lingard, Puffin; 2005; 184 pp.

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There's nothing like a good mystery novel, and Joan Lingard's "The Sign of the Black Dagger" has all the trappings of one: a missing person, a newly retrieved 200-year-old journal, and the menacing specter of a black dagger. But the jacket of the book doesn't play straight by calling this a "murder mystery." It is terribly annoying to get to the end and find that no one is murdered.

What happens is this: Will and Lucy's dad disappears, and a stranger turns up at their door looking for him. Although the synopsis of the book describes him as "a sinister sort," he's only a persistent debt collector, nothing more. And as the siblings discover when they find an ancient family journal, bad debts seem to run in the family.

This is actually two stories in one: Will and Lucy's story, and the story of William and Louisa, their ancestors. The latter story is by far the more interesting. The year is 1796, and William and Louisa's father, Ranald Cunningham, is forced to take refuge in a sanctuary till he can pay off his debts. "Sanctuary" refers to the grounds of an old palace called Holyrood House in the city of Edinburgh, where William and Lucy live. It is a safe haven of sorts for debtors.

Meanwhile, the Comte d'Artois has escaped France and also taken refuge at Holyrood House, and the children stumble upon a plot to get rid of him. (This part of Lingard's story is based on historical fact. The Comte d'Artois did take shelter at Holyrood House, later returning to France to become the last Bourbon king, Charles Philippe X.)

All this does connect with the mysterious disappearance of Will and Lucy's father, but they only have to read William and Louisa's journal to find out how. And while William and Louisa's story is a dramatic read, the story of Will, Lucy and their debt-ridden father is far from engaging. In fact, it's one we could have done without.

For readers 10-12 years.


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