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July 14, 2002|Reviews are provided to Book Review by Publishers Weekly, where they first appeared. Copyright 2002, Publishers Weekly.

LEMONY SNICKET

The Unauthorized Autobiography

By Lemony Snicket

HarperCollins: 240 pp., $11.99

Acertain maniacal glee went into the creation of this archly humorous volume. Beginning with the suggestion on the front flap of the dust jacket to disguise its "dangerous" contents ("Make use of this book's reversible jacket immediately"), readers will know they're in possession of something deliciously left of normal. The jacket reverses to display a hilarious parody of Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" covers, titled "The Pony Party!" and featuring "The Luckiest Kids in the World!" by Loney M. Setnick.

Meanwhile, the contents lead readers on a merry goose chase. The 13 (naturally) chapters burst with red herrings, non sequiturs, mysterious letters, diary entries and so on--not to mention fading black-and-white photographs with captions such as "Total strangers" and "W?H?O?" The narrative makes for a most satisfying tease, larded with such Snicketisms as: "For various reasons, portions of this chapter have been changed or made up entirely, including this sentence."

It would seem that Snicket's obituary from the highly unreliable Daily Punctilio (which is reproduced in the book) is premature, and that there will indeed be more installments about the Baudelaires, though nothing is certain in the end and readers are left nearly as in the dark about Snicket as they were at the start. Of course, this is all part of the fun, guaranteed to make the author's fans itch to get their hands on a copy of this devious romp masquerading as an autobiography. (Ages 12 and up)

*

FARMER SMART'S FAT CAT

By James Sage

Illustrated by Russell Ayto

Chronicle Books: 26 pp., $14.95

Their cornfields overrun by mice, two feuding farmers compete to build the best mousetrap. " 'Those mice will soon learn who's boss around here!' bragged Farmer Boast. 'With my invention they don't stand a chance,' gloated Farmer Bluster."

After the rodents mock their convoluted devices, which involve a junkyard's worth of wheels, wire, old teakettles and wooden tools, the tall, slouching Boast and red-bearded, gnomish Bluster beat a path to Farmer Smart's mouse-free acreage. They plot to steal his big orange tabby, but when they find her, "she's not quite so fat anymore."

Smart's cat has had kittens, and each farmer gets one: problem solved. Although the title divulges Smart's secret weapon, James Sage ("Where the Great Bear Watches") spends most of the book on Boast and Bluster's rivalry; the cat's introduction is anticlimactic.

Russell Ayto ("You'll Grow Soon, Alex"), whose sputtery, tense ink line and eccentric characters recall Ronald Searle's and James Snow's work, likewise fails to follow through on the dueling men and their Rube Goldberg contraptions. When he abruptly shifts his focus to the tranquil cat, she does little more than flex her claws. (Ages 4-7)

*

PIG GIGGLES AND RABBIT RHYMES

A Book of Animal Riddles

By Mike Downs

Illustrated by David Sheldon

Chronicle Books: 26 pp., $13.95

In this simple but sharp joint debut, Mike Downs and David Sheldon make a game of rhyming word pairs. Each right-hand page asks two questions and insinuates the answers in a crafty cartoon.

For example, as a jaunty purple kangaroo and a rust-brown bird use a boardwalk shower on a sunny stretch of beach, the text inquires, "What do joeys use to wash their hair? / What do hooting birds use to dry off?" The page's verso supplies the solutions in a curly typeface: "Kangaroo shampoo / Owl towel." After a few tries, readers will get the hang of guessing what "an octopus like[s] to sip" (ink drink) or the name of "a crustacean musical group" (sand band).

All told, Downs presents 20 riddles and a smattering of open-ended jokes (a blue canine and a green amphibian on the title page wonder, "What rhymes with dog?"). Resembling animation stills with their undiluted colors and refined edges, Sheldon's splashy, nearly three-dimensional illustrations add plenty of punchy fun. (Ages 4-8)

*

ONE HOT SECOND

Stories About Desire

Edited by Cathy Young

Alfred A. Knopf: 218 pp., $10.95

The title is more titillating than the content of this collection, but there's truth in the 11 sometimes humorous, sometimes haunting, short stories. The authors approach the topic of desire from a variety of angles.

The main character of Sarah Dessen's "Someone Bold," for example, has lost 45 pounds, but has yet to shed the feeling of being undesirable; in Victor Martinez's "The County Fair," race and class intersect with attractiveness.

Three entries focus on gay relationships, and one of them, Jacqueline Woodson's lyrically wrought "Lorena," narrated by a New York City girl whose lover overdoses, is among the standouts of the volume: "[Death] takes away everywhere--a little bit of your mind here, someone else's smile there, the quiet beauty of cappuccino with lots of foam in an East Side cafe."

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