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Books in brief


Tina's Mouth, an Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap; illustrated by Mari Araki; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 242 pages ($18.95).

This marvelous debut graphic novel offers a humorous and probing existentialist take on high school drama, coming of age, ethnic identity and finding the path to enlightenment at the tender age of 15. Written as the existential diary of Tina M., youngest child of an affluent Indian immigrant family, as an English honors elective assignment -- "the sort of new-age malarkey teachers at my school are into" -- at elite Yarborough Academy in Southern California, it begins: "Dear Jr. Jean-Paul Sartre: I know that you are dead and old and also a philosopher. So on an obvious level, you and I do not have a lot in common..." Tina's experience of the universal suffering of high school (she has just been dumped by her best friend, she has a hopeless crush on a popular guy, she anxiously anticipates her first kiss) is tempered by her unique perspective as an outsider (the subject of curious questions as "Can you levitate?" "Do you have a guru?"). The graphic novel format is marvelous; a party scene with her relatives is especially funny with its riot of dialogue balloons. All the characters, both teens and relatives, are drawn in wonderfully vivid detail. Tina's ascent from depressed loner on her "bench of existential solitude" to finding peace of mind through getting busy, joining the school play and making new friends, is a beguiling tale of a smart, funny teen's quest to find out who she really is.

-- Jean Westmoore


The Rope by Nevada Barr; Minotaur, 368 pages ($25.99)

Since 1993, Nevada Barr has given readers solid, intriguing tours of America's national parks from Texas to Michigan to the Florida Keys, via her series heroine, park ranger Anna Pigeon.

Her 17th novel goes back to Anna's past for a gripping, suspenseful story about why she decided to become a park ranger and what led to her complicated persona. "The Rope" is a tightly coiled story about trust and rebuilding a life, set against a stunning landscape.

Anna is 35 when she arrives by bus from New York City to spend the summer working at the 1.2 million-acre Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Older than the other "seasonal" workers, Anna keeps to herself, not joining the daily potlucks, nor making friends, not even with her housemate, Jenny Gorman. What they don't know is Anna is in a deep state of grief over the death of her husband. Working the parks can be grueling and isolating and many summer workers end up quitting with no notice. Which is what the other workers think happened to Anna when she doesn't show up for work a couple of weeks into her job.

Instead, Anna went hiking by herself and languishes at the bottom of a dry, natural well caused by softening of limestone. But Anna didn't just fall -- she was pushed. She's down there naked, with water that has been drugged and a horrific discovery. There doesn't seem to be any way out.

Anna's maturation from a timid, grief-stricken widow to a strong, uncompromising woman with a new plan for her life adds to "The Rope's" power.

-- McClatchy Newspapers


Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron; Algonquin Books, 384 pages ($24.95)

When a book wins an award for promoting social justice -- in this case, the Bellwether Prize, established by Barbara Kingsolver -- one might expect it to be heavy-handed or preachy.

"Running the Rift" is neither of those: it's a nuanced, complex portrait of people in a nation riven by conflict.

"Running the Rift" is unsparing in its depiction of the hatred and violence of the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, but doesn't let that crowd out the goodness of family and friendship and the power of hope.

The book isn't a war story; it's the story of a boy growing up in Africa, a boy who can run very fast, fast enough to dream of Olympic gold.

Jean Patrick Nkuba, the runner, is a Tutsi, a distinction that shouldn't matter but does. Because people are focused on the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi, and are willing to kill because of it, his country is forever changed.

As a boy, Jean Patrick loses his father to a car accident. He and his family leave their home at the school where his father taught to move in with an uncle, but because Jean Patrick is a skilled student as well as a gifted athlete, he is able to continue his schooling. As he pursues higher education -- and moves up the ladder of competitive track -- he becomes more aware of the tenuous political situation in Rwanda. He watches with alarm as longstanding tensions flare between Tutsi and Hutu. As he closes in on his goal of the Olympics, he realizes that there is far more to it than winning a medal for himself. "Run as if your life depended on it," a friend's father tells him. "As if all our lives depended on it."

-- McClatchy Newspapers