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Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2006

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The Monstrous Memories of a Mighty McFearless," "The Year the Gypsies Came"


"The Monstrous Memories of a Mighty McFearless," Ahmed Zappa, Puffin; 2006; 215pp.

The Monstrous Memories of a Mighty McFearless

So you know something your parents don't -- that monsters exist. Of course they do, but you can breathe easy: The world is about to become a safer place with author Ahmet Zappa's "The Monstrous Memoirs of a Mighty McFearless." This adventure tale of Minerva McFearless and her brother, Maxwell (of the famous monster-fighting McFearless clan) doubles up as an encyclopedia identifying all the different monsters in the universe, and better still, recipes to combat them.

Eleven-year-old "monsterminator" Minerva and her 9-year-old brother Maxwell find trouble when they stumble upon the "Monstranomicon," a book with poisonous paper teeth and a penchant for biting down hard on unwelcome readers. Now, what's their father doing with a catalog of every monster on Earth? He's referring to it as he "monsterminates" them, like his forefathers before him, that's what. Family secret revealed, Minerva takes it upon herself to read and write in Monstrosity (a language that all monsters use to communicate), to befriend Monstranomicon and to become an expert on every feathered, furry or scaly fiend that ever terrorized humans.

It all comes in handy when "a foul-breathed Snargleflougasaurus, a gargantuanly overweight Glorch and a seriously sticky Mouldren" lay siege to the McFearless home and take Dad hostage. Now that Dad is in the vice of none other than dreaded Zarmaglorg, the king of evil himself, the children must set off to Castle Doomstinkinfart to rescue him. Along the way, they meet a motley crew of monsters: Find out how the gluttonous Glorch, the largest of all monsters, can be put away forever; or how frozen mustard soup (with human hair in it) can keep you safe from the brain-sucking Swoggler.

This book makes it fun to be scared. The author comes up with an inventive cast of creatures, from the fiendishly fearsome sort to the absurdly hilarious sort. His illustrations of goggle-eyed monsters with pendulous tummies and teeth begging for braces make light of your deepest fears.

Go on, you can look under the bed now.

Note: For children 8 to 12.

"The Year the Gypsies Came," Linzi Glass, Penguin; 2006; 267 pp.

The year the Gypsies Came

If you're tired of teenage pulp fiction and want something more real and compelling, pick up Linzi Glass's brilliant young-adult fiction debut.

Set in late-1960s Johannesburg, the tensions in the Iris family home appear to mirror those of the apartheid-riven era in which the family lives. Told through the perceptive eyes of 13-year-old Emily, this is an account of how she and her older sister, Sarah, 15, must weather daily the differences of their parents. Their mother -- raised rich and spoiled silly -- stands in stark contrast with their quiet father. Particularly at night, the differences between the two turn into full-fledged conflagrations. The closeness of the sisters protects them, somewhat, from the yelling and the fighting beyond their bedroom door, but there's only one thing that keeps the family together: guests. When the friction between Emily's parents becomes unbearable, they invite someone to stay with them. In the spring of 1966, in comes a family of wanderers -- an Australian couple and their two sons, Streak and Otis -- but with the coming of the "Gypsies," the newfound tranquillity of the Iris family is soon shattered forever.

A mood of impending tragedy overhangs the whole book, from the poignant, wistful tone of narrator Emily to the characterization of trusting Sarah, who befriends oversize, mentally-hanidcapped Otis, even though there are strong suggestions to the reader that this is an ill-fated friendship. The author's use of language adds to the pathos. Parental tensions are likened to "untended weeds" growing in all the dark spaces of the house; Emily's being is compared to a cracked egg as she yearns for her mother's affection and for her parents to love each other.

In all that loneliness of two girls coming of age without their parents to guide them, a few friendships are forged: between Emily and Streak, both victims of aloof parents; and between Emily and the black night watchman, Buza. He is the grandfather figure whose Zulu stories bring relief to the troubled spirit of a neglected child. He is also the author's scathing comment on the apartheid era and the injustices it institutionalized.

Searingly written, breathtakingly told, this is an unforgettable story of a fractured family in a cleaved society -- and the inevitable falling apart of both.

Note: For teenagers 13-16 years. Parental supervision is advised (some scenes in the book are graphic incontent).



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