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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Endymion Spring," "The Legend of Captain Crow's Teeth"


"Endymion Spring," Matthew Skelton, Puffin Books; 2007; 439 pp.

Endymion Spring

If you think that the only mysteries you'll find in a library are in the Mystery section, think again. Matthew Skelton's unputdownable thriller, "Endymion Spring," makes the libraries of Oxford University seem as terrifying as a dark, deserted alley in the seamiest part of town.

There's no murder (although a couple of them almost happen); there's no mad carchase (although the hero Blake finds himself shadowed often enough); and there's no gun-toting villain. This is a book lover's version of the mystery thriller, where cloak-and-dagger games are played in academic circles, and the villains are the harmless, bespectacled types you'd think would be busy leading classroom discussions, not hatching evil. And of course, at the center of all the fuss, lies a book.

Blake senses right away that it's no ordinary book, because its pages are blank to everyone but him. They are about Endymion Spring, but what -- or who -- is Endymion Spring? That quest takes Blake and his sister, Duck, through the labyrinthine aisles of Oxford's famous libraries, into a world of scholarly intrigue and conspiracy.

The narrative is intercut with the slow revelation of who, or what, Endymion Spring is as the book goes back to Germany in the year 1452, when Johann Gutenberg was planning on printing the world's first book, the Bible. In that sense, the story builds upon the historical facts around how Gutenberg revolutionized the written word by developing movable type so that millions of books thereafter could be printed -- and made available to the masses -- instead of being written out, word for word, by scribes.

The narrative strain is compelling enough, but the real strength of Skelton's tale lies in the imaginative power with which he evokes the steeples of Oxford University: the college buildings tower above like massive shadows; glaring gargoyles grip the ledges; trees shiver in the breeze; and even the applause at the end of a conference paper delivered somewhere sounds like a hundred startled birds taking flight.

This is masterful storytelling at its fearful best. It will make you jump -- more than once.

Note: For kids 13 to 16 years.

"The Legend of Captain Crow's Teeth," Eoin Colfer, Puffin Books; 2006; 92 pp.

Captain Crow

Nine-year-olds are clever that way.

More than 300 years ago, there lived the cruelest, meanest, smelliest pirate ever, known as Captain Crow. He got axed by a 9-year-old cabin boy who got the better of him.

Wicked Captain Crow has been seeking revenge ever since -- and he's not real picky. If he can't find that cabin boy, any other 9-year-old will do.

At least, that's what Will's big brother Marty says. And it's not the sort of bedtime story Will wants to be told, especially when he's the only 9-year-old around.

Thus begins one of the funniest stories of the year. Will's family spends every vacation in a caravan by the sea, with long days for Will and his four brothers to swim, fish and build rafts -- and long nights keeping awake after one of Marty's Captain Crow stories. But this year is special: Will is finally old enough to attend the Sprats' Jig, a weekly disco for 9 to 11-year-olds. The place is a bike-ride away in the dark, and Will's biking partner is none other than Marty.

To say anything more would be to spoil the fun entirely. Let's just add that our 9-year-old hero will have to leg it home after the jig, past the rocks known as Captain Crow's Teeth. Marty says the rocks light up some nights, under the sea, when the spirit of our bloodthirsty pirate is lusting for revenge, but Will knows this is just a scary ol' story. Or is it?

Living with an older brother who likes to torment you for fun is no laughing matter -- except in author Colfer's hands, that is. We all know how scary stories have a nasty habit of seeming more real after dark, when you're alone. In this deftly told, laugh-out-loud tale, Colfer makes light of what every child has been through. And of course, it wouldn't be giving away the end to say that Will doesn't get carried off by pirates.

Nine-year-olds are clever that way.

Note: For kids 9 to 12 years.


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