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Books in brief

CHILDREN'S

Cold Cereal by Adam Rex; Balzer & Bray, 432 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 and up.

Arthurian legend, a nefarious plot involving breakfast cereal, a Masonic-like organization, imprisoned magical creatures and corporate villainy on a grand scale are wrapped into one wild romp in this madcap first installment of a trilogy.

Twins Erno and Emily are used to the secret brain-teasers their guardian, Mr. Wilson, gives them to solve. (Emily always solves them; Erno never does.) Meanwhile, joining them in gifted class Project: Potential is newcomer Scott (real name Scottish Play Doe), who keeps seeing strange things -- including a leprechaun in a red tracksuit and a talking rabbit. Soon the three are caught up in a battle to save the world from an evil cereal company which has imprisoned magical creatures for nefarious purposes. There are strange disappearances and appearances, a Bigfoot-like guardian, a mysterious treehouse, a fire, a chase, a terrifying threat of disembowelment and a cliffhanger finale.

Rex peppers his prose with hilarious references that speed his ambitious plot along, even when it sometimes threatens to derail. For example, "Project: Potential" is taught "in a mint-green room that smelled like mentho-lyptus" by "Ms. Wyvern, a musty, clown-faced woman who spoke with an unplaceable accent that was thick with gurgling r's and sneezy vowels." Next book in the series: "Unlucky Charms."-- Jean Westmoore

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FICTION

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey; Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown (389 pages )$24.99)

This debut novel takes the Russian tale, of a woodcutter and his wife who build a child from snow, and weaves it into the lives of Mabel and Jack, a middle-aged couple living in a cabin in Alaska, who buried their stillborn child 10 years before the book opens.

One night, they build a snowgirl. In the morning, she is gone. Footprints lead off into the woods.

At first it seems that the child, who Jack and Mabel see with increasing frequency, must be a fairy. She leads Jack to a moose, which keeps them alive through a lean winter.

Mabel remembers the story of the snow maiden. As she turns the pages, she sees her own story unfolding. Ivey sets up the two most powerful forces in any story: fear on the one hand, potential for the miraculous on the other.

-- Newsday

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NONFICTION

The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice by M.G. Lord; Walker & Co. 224 pages ($23)

There's an interesting idea lurking in this book, but it's obscured by insights that are simultaneously thin and overreaching. Which is kind of a shame, since anything that gets you past the glitter and into Elizabeth Taylor's movies isn't a bad thing.

Lord, the author of the cheeky and smart "Forever Barbie," argues that Taylor carried the banner of feminism sometimes without knowing it but always without apology. And Lord has Taylor carrying that banner from childhood, when she starred at 12 in 1944's "National Velvet."

Let the quibbles start right there. As a contract employee with MGM until 1960, Taylor had little control over what movies she made. She was not taking a stand for something; she was just working. Second, for every movie in that period of her career in which she played a strong, independent woman there are a couple where she's the opposite.

Once Taylor was in firmer control of her career, she did pick some roles that fit Lord's feminist mold: "Cleopatra," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" But she also picked parts that are anything but feminist, playing exiled idealists ("The Sandpiper"), cougars ("The Only Game in Town") and desperate women defined by the men in their lives -- not exactly Gloria Steinem material. In other words, Taylor was, again, just working.

Lord even folds Taylor's AIDS activism into her feminism. It's not entirely off the mark, but it feels like she's got things in reverse order: Taylor's passion for fairness and humanity made her in tune with feminism, not the other way around.

"The Accidental Feminist" offers a glimpse of the daunting task biographers will have: In death, as in life, people will find that slapping a label on Elizabeth Taylor that will stick is pretty difficult to do.

-- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel