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Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2007

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Happy Feet," "Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony"


"Happy Feet," Adapted by Kay Woodward, Puffin Books; 2006; 121 pp.

Typically, the book comes first; then some smart film director gets his hands on it and turns it into a movie. With "Happy Feet," though, it was the film that came first. But if you haven't watched it -- or if you want the adventures of Mumble the penguin to be your own imaginings -- try the book. Woodward's straightforward "novelization" of the film has no real surprises, apart from the ones in the original film, of course. But the story of the emperor penguins of Antarctica who find their one true love through their "heartsongs" is a moving one. Every emperor penguin has a heartsong, and it's the voice he hears inside. That's how Mumble's parents, Memphis and Norma Jean, found each other, by crooning their heartsongs. But Mumble can't sing to save his life; he can only tap away with his feet in a beat that's all his own. The conservative penguin colony cannot accept anyone so different and blames Mumble for the fish shortage they have been facing. Shunned by everyone he has known, Mumble embarks on an epic journey to save Emperor Land by finding out who's taking all the fish. Turns out the culprits are humans (are we surprised?), and now Mumble must confront them to change their ways. Can his feet -- for they are the only language he knows -- get the message across? This heart-warming tale gives you an inside glimpse into the ways of Antarctica's penguins and makes you admire them. It also has a powerful environmental message: We must learn how to want less; how to take only what we need; and how to share the bounty of this beautiful planet with all the others who live here.

Note: For children 6 to 10 years. If you like this book, also worth watching is "March of the Penguins," another remarkable film about emperor penguins.

"Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony," Eoin Colfer, Puffin Books; 2006; 376 pp.

This is a first. Eoin Colfer comes out with the latest adventure of his boy-genius Artemis Fowl, and there are mostly bad things to say about it. Particularly for Artemis fans who have read Colfer at his writing best, "Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony" will come as a huge letdown.

In this latest installment, Artemis comes up against a second juvenile "genius," the beautiful Minerva Paradizo. And yes, of course, the fact that both of them are named after Greek goddesses should be a signal that there's going to be chemistry here. Trouble is that this sort of chemistry -- also spelled F.I.R.S.T. C.R.U.S.H. -- takes a back seat because the author is too busy making a hotchpotch of chemistry, physics and biology in a mad bid to describe his latest work of imagination, the demon world. See if you can follow this: The demon world of Hybras was a moon-rock that came down to Earth during the Triassic Period. In the battle of Taillte, the demons were defeated by human beings, and a magic circle of warlocks attempted to lift Hybras away to another space and time. The magic circle was broken by an errant demon called Abbot, and Hybras was blasted into Limbo, basically, neither here nor there. In Limbo, they fester, this rather tiresome race of demons, screaming and bashing everything in their path and plotting revenge on humankind. Groan. How we wish that they would just remain there -- end of story. Minerva, who is far dumber than her name suggests, decides to capture a demon for scientific study. If she succeeds, humans will learn about the existence of demons, and all the Fairy People will be in peril. Enter Artemis Fowl, criminal mastermind who has turned over a new leaf; his bodyguard, Butler; and Holly Short, an elf who works for a covert police division of the Fairy People. Together, they must face off with Minerva, her bodyguard Billy Kong and that pesky demon, Abbot.

It's not much of a fight, though, and that's the most disappointing part. Far from being a convincing adversary, Minerva is nothing but a foil for Artemis. Billy Kong is no match for Butler, and Abbot is such a cliched villain -- all violence and no strategy -- that it is almost funny. The only salvation in this labored read is Mulch Diggums -- remember the mud-eating dwarf who can fart his way out of anywhere? -- and the centaur Foaly, whose inventions (mind-wipes, invisibility suits and night-vision visors) bring back fond memories of a time when Artemis Fowl books were treats, not torture. The repartee is still as witty; the plot still takes you, spy-game-style, to Barcelona and Paris and yes, even Taipei; but all this talk of time-travel and Limbo gives the book the feel of a cheap sci-fi flick. Colfer is in his element when he talks about smart technology. Vague notions of magic and power are really not his forte. Needless to say, the book unravels as fast as the time-tunnel that separates Hybras from Earth. And though I would hate to see Artemis Fowl retire, his latest adventure really makes me think it's time.

Note: For children 10 to 14 years.


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