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Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The Devil's Breath," "Mr. Putter — Tabby Spin the Yarn"


"The Devil's Breath," David Gilman, Puffin Books; 2007; 377 pp.

Close on the heels of Charlie Higson's highly successful Young Bond series comes another adrenalin-pumping adventure story that reads like a Robert Ludlum thriller tailor-made for teenagers.

The Devil's Breath

It kicks off explosively with our young hero, 15-year-old Max Gordon, being stalked by a stealthy assassin who's about to send him packing into the afterworld. Needless to say, Gordon survives the assault, but with his life threatened at least once in each chapter of this fast-paced action novel, it isn't fun being Gordon, that's for sure.

Gordon makes James Bond look like a 40-kilo weakling: He's an expert at white-water kayaking, mountain-biking and snowboarding. So when his father goes missing in Namibia, Gordon races off to find him, dodging school authorities, a couple of hired killers and a suspicious school professor called Peterson, who seems to be liaising with the enemy to track him down.

Of course, once he gets to Namibia in one piece, things only get worse. His father's trail leads to Skeleton Rock, the fortress lair of Shaka Chang, a ruthless businessman plotting a major ecological disaster. The road there takes Gordon through the Valley of Bones and Snake River — the sort of places that don't figure on tourist itineraries. While he's navigating the Namibian desert, all Gordon has to rely on is a young Bushman called !Koga, whose tribal wisdom saves them both from hungry lions and poisonous snakes — though, of course starvation could finish them off just as well.

Gilman packs a powerful punch with this racy ecothriller, leaving out none of the essential ingredients: exotic locations, a story line with never a dull moment and a villain who'll stop at nothing to get rich. He also manages to inject a sense of respect for Bushman culture, the old ways of an ancient people who have been systematically reduced to destitution.

However, the author introduces an all-too-convenient twist to his tale by suggesting that Gordon imbibes the skills of "shape-shifting" from a shaman who treats him for a scorpion bite. So when our hero is in the tightest of predicaments, the author doesn't really bother to bail him out convincingly. Instead, Gilman suggests that Gordon has help from a jackal-like spirit, a sort of animal alter-ego, who warns him of impending danger and rescues him.

Apart from that little detail, this is a story that is destined to become a Hollywood script. Catch it in book form first.

Note: For teenagers 14 years and up.

"Mr. Putter — Tabby Spin the Yarn," Cynthia Rylant, Harcourt; 2007; 44 pp.

Mr. Putter — Tabby Spin the Yarn

This is only one book from the "Mr. Putter & Tabby" series, a warmhearted set of vignettes for early readers.

Mr. Putter, a fine grandfatherly man, lives with his cat Tabby, right next door to Mrs. Teaberry, a fine grandmotherly lady, and her pet dog Zeke. The two neighbors have a wonderful little friendship — even their dog and cat like each other! Mrs. Teaberry is always plying Mr. Putter with her bakes of the day, everything from raspberry roll-ups to brown-sugar bonbons. And Mr. Putter, well, he polishes off whatever she sends him.

In this particular story, Mr. Putter starts thinking of a way to return all that goodwill. So when Mrs. Teaberry decides to start a knitting club, Mr. Putter offers to pour tea for the ladies. It's a good idea to begin with, but then Tabby sees all those balls of yarn, just waiting to be played with, and . . . all hell breaks loose.

The nearest ball of yarn happens to be connected to a sweater that Mrs. Fitzwater has slaved over for months. Then Zeke takes a fancy to Mrs. Gertrude's outrageous fruit hat and decides to find out for himself whether the fruits are detachable. What started out as a tame little knitting get-together degenerates into a mad melee involving at least two very cross old ladies. But leave it to Mr. Putter to be the ladies' man and settle all the ruffled feathers — or rather, fruits — here.

This delightful series of easy-to-read tales are full of the sort of good-natured hilarity that young children will enjoy. And of course, a special mention must be made of Arthur Howard's illustrations, without which these books would be half as good as they are.

Note: For kids 6 to 9 years.


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