Riding in a beat-up bus among bald hills and scrub on his way to Namibia, Paul Theroux wondered what was compelling him to take yet another arduous trip. At 72, here he was again: in a parched climate, traveling alone, crossing more borders. In his latest book, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, the prolific and highly regarded American writer of travel literature packs his bags for one final journey to Africa and up the little known western coast, where he seeks harmony not just with the continent he has come to love but also himself.
Theroux is no stranger to "the greenest continent." He spent his happiest years in Africa as a young Peace Corps worker almost 50 years ago and has returned several times, writing insightfully along the way. Suggesting this 2011 trip is his last, he dives into the gut of this complicated place. From the slum tourism of Cape Town to the Tsumkwe village crossroads of one of the world's oldest cultures, to being stranded in the Angolan bush, Theroux observes countries slowly sliding into one another. He transports readers smack into the middle of a vividly wrought landscape with his richly detailed, elegant prose, adding his characteristic wry, at times dark, commentary. He is at his best telling stories of the local people he meets while showing no patience for meddling foreigners, like the "trophy hunting for dummies" set or those simply "busybodying.''
With over 40 books behind him, including the classic The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, Theroux seems to be signaling that this is the end of the line. His aptly titled last chapter is in the form of a question, "What am I Doing Here?" Yes, the Africa he leaves has a plethora of problems, but for fans of this acclaimed literary nomad the answer is simple—bringing us his world.
The underworld stinks! Ten year-old Hades is on a quest through the smelly underworld with his companions, Zeus and Poseidon; fighting Titans, dodging monsters and avoiding licks from a three-headed dragon dog. Hades seems to like it there, though. It smells great to him and the groan-inducing jokes of the ferryman, Captain Charon, crack him up. Hades and the Helm of Darkness, by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams, is a lighthearted, fun read and a great introduction to the Greek myths. The third in the Heroes in Training series, Hades and the Helm of Darkness continues the saga of the Olympians' rise to power which began with Zeus and the Thunderbolt of Lightning and continued with Poseidon and the Sea of Fury. Following the fuzzy prophecies of the Oracle of Delphi, who, unfortunately, has foggy eyeglasses, the heroes in training must find and use their powers in order to save the world from the Titans. Next up in the series will be Hyperion and the Great Balls of Fire.
Holub and Williams also co-author the Goddess Girls series. These books send the Greek goddesses to an ancient middle school with Zeus as the principal. The classic myths are retold in a middle school setting complete with teenage drama and angst. Start with Athena the Brain. Twelve-year-old Athena finds out she is the daughter of Zeus and is summoned to Mount Olympus Academy, where she comes up against mean girl Medusa (and manipulates some mortals as a class assignment). The eleventh book in the series, Persephone the Daring, is due out in August. Fans of the Monster High and Dork Diaries series are likely to enjoy Goddess Girls.
Comic artist Lucy Knisley reveals that her strongest memories are associated with flavors, from the chalky Flintstone vitamins she snacked on in front of the TV as a kid to the flaky, buttery apricot croissants devoured in Venice as a college student travelling thorough Europe. In her graphic memoir Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, she draws some of her favorite food-related stories, each with specific “taste-memories”.
Born in New York City, Knisley (apparently never going through a picky-eater phase) was raised a child of foodies, so her experiences transcend those of an average teen. Her mother worked in restaurateur David Bouley’s kitchen, her godfather was a food critic, and her uncle was the owner of a gourmet food shop. Nevertheless, teens with some interest in cooking (and eating!) will find her to be a likeable, relatable narrator. Knisley’s experiences stretch beyond Manhattan when her parents divorce and she moves to rural upstate New York with her mother. Living in Rhinebeck allows them to have an abundant vegetable garden and a flock of hens that supply a steady stream of fresh eggs, which ultimately gives young Lucy a greater appreciation of where her food comes from. Her first foray into independent cooking comes thanks to a craving for chocolate chip cookies. And since no parent can keep their child completely "pure", she credits a middle school friend for introducing her to such junk food delights as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and Lucky Charms cereal.
What sets this graphic novel apart is its cookbook component. Each chapter relates a particular story, rendered in full color comic panels, that ends with a detailed, easy-to-follow, fully illustrated recipe for an appealing dish. Relish is recommended for both teens and culinary-minded adults. Knisley’s first graphic memoir, French Milk, which tells of a trip to Paris with her mother, is also available. Readers interested in even more of her work can check out her website.
Actress Lauren Graham delivers a delightful debut novel featuring Franny Banks, a struggling actress, in Someday, Someday, Maybe. Graham, familiar to viewers of Gilmore Girls and Parenthood, drew on her own history in sharing the story of a young woman finding her way in New York City. The novel opens in January, 1995 – six months before Franny’s self-imposed deadline to make it as an actress. So far all she has to show for her two and a half years in The Big Apple is a coveted waitress gig and a television commercial for ugly Christmas sweaters. Things are looking grim and all her hopes rest on the upcoming showcase put on by her acting class. Although her performance doesn’t go exactly as planned (think wardrobe malfunction), she does receive two offers from prominent agents and lands a guest spot on a sitcom. Franny’s Filofax is soon packed with auditions, appointments, and dates with James Franklin, her sexy and successful classmate.
All too quickly, the agent stops calling, the auditions dry up, and the sitcom is on hiatus. Her Filofax is now filled with soap opera viewing and cheese doodle consumption. Through the highs and lows, Franny is supported by her father and her roommates, Jane and Dan. When her agent offers her a movie role that involves nudity, Franny comes to a career crossroads. And when Dan starts to feel like more than a roommate and James’ self-absorption grows tiring, she faces a romantic muddle. This is a funny and optimistic coming-of-age story about an audacious young woman fighting for her dreams and overcoming self-doubt. Graham has said that there is a little bit of her in every character and her own experiences as an actor struggling to make it adds an added layer of authenticity.
Two long-running manga series come to a close this month, but not without captivating final volumes. In Dance in the Vampire Bund, a seinen manga by Nozomu Tamaki, vampires have been secretly living among humans until one day a vampires-only island (the “Bund”) is created off the coast of Japan. Humans and vampires fear what they do not understand about each other, but this separation creates a fragile peace. As the series unfolds, the princess and head of the vampires, Mina, has been kidnapped by a faction of extremists and replaced with an imposter. Her friends, werewolf Akira and once-human Yuki, must free Mina and together retake the Bund from the radicals. Shades of romance and impressive supernatural powers fuel this fourteen-volume series to its climactic conclusion.
A very different shojo series, We Were There, by Yuki Obata, is a contemporary romance in which several older teens age into their twenties as the series progresses. After Yano’s girlfriend dies in a tragic accident, he begins to date Nanami. However, Yano cannot stop thinking about his late love and heads off to help his unstable mother. In the interim, Nanami begins to date Yano’s best friend, and various love triangles and connections among close-knit characters perpetuate through the sixteen volumes in this series. In a fitting close, a reunion at the graveside of their long-gone friend ties loose ends and promises the potential of a happy ending.
Her by Christa Parravani is a powerful memoir that explores sisterhood, the bonds of twins and the nature of grief. Christa Parravani is an identical twin to her sister, Cara. Cara dies a tragic death and Christa nearly destroys herself, in an attempt to follow in her footsteps. Her is the biography of the twins but it also serves as a lovely and unflinchingly honest memorial to Cara.
Cara and Christa did not have an easy childhood. As teens and young adults, their behavior veered toward the destructive, including eating disorders and drug abuse. Both sisters were incredibly creative, with Cara as the writer and Christa, the photographer. Cara and Christa remained close throughout their adulthood and continued to experiment with unhealthy habits. After Cara is raped, she begins a downward spiral and never really recovers.
Her is a fascinating memoir about the highly unique dynamic between identical twins. Parravani addresses all the usual perceptions people have about twins such as “twin language” and “twin ESP.” Given the intense connection between twins, the death of one can nearly destroy the other. This is essentially what happened to Christa after Cara’s untimely death. She tried to follow her into death, taking up her most damaging habits, just to be closer to Cara. Parravani has written a touching, raw new memoir. Her love and grief for her sister is almost palpable. Although Her is a very emotional book, Parravani writes in clear, crisp prose, telling the story in an almost matter-of-fact tone that results in powerful, clear-eyed memorial to her twin, sister and best friend.
Anne Perry is an award-winning, bestselling crime and mystery writer, but few know that nearly 60 years ago, she herself was a defendant in one of New Zealand’s most infamous murder cases. Peter Graham details this case in his book Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century. Born Juliet Hulme, an adolescent Perry and her best friend Pauline Parker shocked the country and the world when they brutally murdered Parker’s mother in 1954. The subsequent trial and conviction of the girls led to prison sentences, after which the two partners in crime went their separate ways. Hulme eventually reinvented herself as Anne Perry and launched a successful writing career, while Parker vanished into obscurity and lives a reclusive life on a Scottish island.
Graham does an amazing job bringing the story of the girls’ friendship and the sheer barbarity of the murder to life. He provides the back stories of Hulme, Parker and their family members without bogging down the writing. Hulme and Parker both suffered from illnesses as children, and as a result spent long stretches of time isolated from family and friends. Although professional opinions differ, it’s hypothesized that because of this isolation, both girls developed vivid imaginations and were drawn to each other when they met as young teenagers at school. The girls created their own complex fantasy world which overtook reality, and when threatened with separation from each other, they plotted to kill the person they saw as responsible.
Interest in the case was renewed in the 1990s, with newly published research and several dramatizations of the murder, most notably the critically acclaimed film Heavenly Creatures. For true crime aficionados, this book will leave questions about the true nature of Anne Perry. When asked in one interview if she ever thought of Parker’s mother, she replied, “No. She was somebody I barely knew”.
From the imagination of Liesl Shurtliff comes a fractured fairytale without equal. Many are the authors who have drawn upon the fairy and folk tales of their youth to inspire new and unusual retellings. Perhaps because of our shared experience of the originals, these "fractured" fairytales have a way of resonating with readers, filling in gaps and answering the myriad questions left in the wake of so many beloved ̶ yet characteristically brief ̶ stories. In Rump: the True Story of Rumpelstiltskin, Shurtliff casts her discerning eye and powers of imagination over a most unlikely hero.
On The Mountain where he is born, your name is your destiny; as influential as the stars. When Rump is born early ̶ too early ̶ his mother has only enough strength left to whisper his name to him before dying. Though she strains to hear, his Gran can only make out "Rump" and so he is known. Though he has just marked his twelfth birthday, Rump hasn't grown an inch since he was eight years old. Life is not easy on The Mountain, especially for a diminutive boy whose name makes him the butt of more than a few jokes. Food rations are perennially scarce, and The Mountain's natural resource (gold!) seems scarcer still as time goes on. Yet when Rump chances on his mother’s old spinning wheel he discovers an unexpected talent. Soon, Rump is spinning the finest strands of pure gold. However, magic comes at a price, and Rump’s new talent has not gone unnoticed by the village’s greediest inhabitant, the miller.
A series of increasingly tangled predicaments will lead Rump from his home on The Mountain all the way to The Kingdom, Yonder and Beyond. Alongside the trouble though, he’ll discover friends, family and the truth behind his name and his destiny.
Two new books for teens unleash anger, revenge, and, well, fury of mythological proportions. Both are based on the ancient Greek characters Erinyes, better known as The Furies. These three, Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone, embodied anger, jealousy, and vengeance, and, in myth, made sure justice was meted out by whatever means necessary. In Vengeance Bound by Justina Ireland, teenager Amelie Ainsworth is near death after being manipulated by a conniving psychiatrist, who also caused the death of the rest of her family. Amelie prays for guidance, when unexpectedly, the Furies answer her call. A few years later, rechristening herself as Cory Graff, she reappears at another high school and with the help of the Furies, plots her revenge on the mad doctor. Handsome Niko, a classmate at her new school, is a calming influence to the fury she feels, but Cory is hard-pressed to explain her otherworldly "assistants" to him. Short chapters and incredible situations fuel this paranormal novel to its shocking conclusion.
Furious, by Jill Wolfson, finds three wronged classmates, Meg, Stephanie, and Alix, under the spell of Ambrosia, a charismatic popular girl who has her own rage issues to contend with. After Ambrosia has convinced the three of their Furies status, the group becomes unstoppable in wreaking havoc and vengeance on those that deserve their comeuppances. Overwhelmed with the power that they now possess, the trio must wrangle with managing both vengeance and justice in equal measure. Their friend Raymond provides grounded counterbalance and hilarious asides to the spiraling intensity of the angry group. Satire, witty humor, and surprisingly well-handled issues of bullying and appropriate retribution make for a winning combination in this contemporary take on classic characters from mythology.
Small town life, folklore, Norse mythology and a senseless murder are all threads skillfully woven together into the amazing literary work Little Wolves by Thomas James Maltman. A farming community, inhabited by descendants of the first German families to settle the area, is rocked when a troubled teen murders the town sheriff and then commits suicide. The boy’s father is left devastated and confused; unable to understand what possessed his son to perpetrate such an awful crime.
As the new pastor tries to help his congregation heal, his pregnant wife Clara struggles with the knowledge that she was also an intended victim. She believes herself to be haunted by the boy, who was a student in her English class at the high school. Clara, herself a student of ancient literature, focuses on Old English words and phrases to calm herself in times of stress. As a result, the novel is peppered with interesting vocabulary from a lost era, which adds an almost mystical element.
The mystery of what really brought Clara and her husband to this remote area from the city, as well as the unanswered questions from the shooting, keep the reader captivated. A reoccurring element of the story is the presence of the wolves. Wolves play an omnipresent role in the tales Clara’s father would tell her as a child, now wolves have started coming into the town at night; they haunt her dreams and fill the residents with fear. This is an intriguing novel, beautifully written and full of suspense.