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“The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers


I rarely review books written for the adult market, but I must make an exception for debut author Kevin Powers’ exceptional new Iraq War novel, “The Yellow Birds.” This is a devastating novel about the effects of war, a topic, sadly, that remains ever relevant. Our local high school students read Ernest Hemingway’s WWI novel “A Farewell to Arms” and Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War short story collection, “The Things They Carried.” “The Yellow Birds” is at least as relevant, at least as gut wrenching, and certainly as timely as those now-classic novels. When our nation’s wars are primarily being fought by teenagers and those in their early 20s, high school students should damn near be required to read a book like “The Yellow Birds.” In my humble opinion, anyway.

Private John “Bart” Bartle, a 21 year old native of Richmond, Virginia, has been deployed to Al Tafar in the Nineveh Province of Iraq in the fall of 2004. This is a volatile region, with streets taken and surrendered in brutal fashion, with random violence, mortar attacks, gunfire, and, everywhere, without end, death. The action flashes back and forth to Bart’s pre-war training in Fort Dix, his drunken despair at a German bar / brothel with the heroic and deeply flawed Sergeant Sterling, and Bart’s lonely disconnection and unraveling at home in Virginia. We know early on that Bart’s closest friend, 18 year old private Daniel “Murph” Murphy, is dead. We slowly discover what happened and how Bart failed to fulfill a spontaneous promise to deliver Murph home safely. What we see clearly, even without knowing the details of Murph’s death, is Bart’s pain, his jagged grief at his perceived cowardice, the disorientation of living in a constant war and adjusting afterward, and the soul-crushing burden that witnessing, causing, and ignoring so much death creates.

There are many scenes that depict the terror and chaos of war: an interpreter is shot on a rooftop in mid-sentence; a disemboweled boy dies in agony after a gunfight in an orchard; a human bomb explodes, raining human matter down on a bridge; and a young girl feebly tries to drag an old woman’s dead body across a dirt road. There is dust and blood and all manner of sickening odors and deafening sounds. Everywhere. All the time. Powers, a veteran himself, does an astounding job of conveying how war floods the senses, overtakes the brain, and strangles even basic human compassion.

There is a stark grace in Powers’ word choice and descriptions. He mainly writes in spare, evocative language. This quiet lyricism is contrasted with long, almost run-on passages as Bart delves into his inner turmoil. In these instances, we are caught in a swirling midst of Bart’s cycling thoughts and his version of psychic tail chasing. These philosophical ramblings — Bart’s breakneck effort to reason out a meaning in memory, guilt, death, and forgiveness — are extraordinary. I had to stop and re-read so many passages in an attempt to distill their larger meaning, digest their emotional weight, and savor the beauty of the words used to describe such ugliness and pain. These are two of my favorite sections, in which an agonizingly depressed Bart has returned to Richmond and is completely broken:

You want to fall, that’s all. You think it can’t go on like that. It’s as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can’t go back. So you want to fall, let go, give up, but you can’t. And every breath you take reminds you of that fact. So it goes …

Or should I have said that I wanted to die, not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off of that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was like just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you’re taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sight posts and made people crumple and they were not getting up ever and yeah they might have been trying to kill you too, so you say, What are you gonna do?, but really it doesn’t matter because by the end you failed at the one good thing you could have done, the one person you promised would live is dead …

Powerful stuff. For all barbarity of war and the awful claustrophobia of alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder, Bart achieves a measure of peace by novel’s end, giving “The Yellow Birds” a kind of quiet victory in simply showing the soul’s ability to survive. Some years later, alone in a mountain cabin, Bart is able to, as he says, become ordinary again. “There are days ahead when I won’t think of him or Sterling or the war.” Yes, that’s a small triumph, but it is still a hopeful note in a novel about how violence ravages its victims, perpetrators, and our larger society.

I think high school students, or those young people with the maturity to handle some incredibly jarring — but never gratuitous — imagery and language, should read, analyze, and discuss “The Yellow Birds.” In a mere 226 pages, Kevin Powers has created what is destined to become a masterpiece of modern fiction. Please read this National Book Award-nominated novel now. You will never forget it. And keep this stunning book in mind the next time some politician somewhere argues for the deployment of US troops.

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Posted by on October 20, 2012 in Uncategorized


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“Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys


“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
~ Albert Camus

Ruta Sepetys’ “Between Shades of Gray” is one of the most beautiful, evocative pieces of historical fiction I’ve ever encountered, teen or otherwise. It sheds much needed light on a largely hidden moment in history, when Soviet Premier Josef Stalin deported and imprisoned thousands of political prisoners from the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These innocent people — men, women, and children — were ripped from their lives, transported like cattle in filthy conditions, only to be beaten, starved, and worked to death at prison camps in remote areas of Siberia. Their only crime? Being deemed a danger to the repressive Soviet regime that had annexed their Baltic nations. Their real crime? Nothing other than being professors, teachers, doctors, army officers, and librarians.

We meet 15 year old Lina on the night in June of 1941 when Soviet NKVD (secret police) officers storm her house in Lithuania, taking her, her mother Elena, and her 10 year old brother Jonas into custody. (Lina’s papa has already disappeared.) Lina’s family has all of 20 minutes to gather their belongings before being herded onto a truck and, eventually, a train, bound for parts unknown. Mind you, they have done nothing wrong. The train car is a true horror: people are packed in with no room for movement and no bathroom facilities other than a hole in the corner of the car. Ona, a woman who has recently given birth, is left bleeding on a plank in the car, her infant daughter dying slowly from starvation. Author Sepetys captures the fear, humiliation, and anger that Lina and her fellow travelers feel, this utterly awful sense of shame and bone-chilling terror at what will happen next.

Eventually, over the course of six weeks, the Lithuanian prisoners make their way to Altai Province, in the southern portion of Siberia. Lina’s family, thin and weak, is thrown into a hut with a brute of a local woman, Ulyushka. Everyone at the Altai camp is forced to work at least 12 hours a day to earn one meager bread ration, which is barely enough to keep a person alive. Lina and Elena are eventually assigned to farm beets and potatoes, while Jonas works with Siberian women making shoes. The mother of the lone teen boy on the trip, Andrius Arvydas (his mother bribed an NKVD guard to have him deemed feeble), is forced into prostitution at the NKVD officers’ barracks. Many nights, the Lithuanians are roused from their sleep at gunpoint and threatened by the sadistic Commander Komorov to sign a “confession” condemning them to 25 years of hard labor. It is a lonely, miserable existence, filled with pain, hunger, and far too much sickness and death.

Lina’s escape from this wretched life lies in her sketches — of Lithuania, Jonas, Mrs. Arvydas, Andrius, her missing papa — and memories of a better life in Lithuania. Lina could be killed for her “treasonous” sketches, which she hides in the lining of her suitcase, but they are a lifeline for her. Many references are made throughout the novel to the works of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, whose depictions of raw emotional pain are models for Lina’s work. [Click here to see an image of Munch’s most iconic work, The Scream.] Lina is one brave and talented girl.

After nearly a year in Altai, Lina and her family, along with hundreds of Lithuanian and other Baltic peoples, are ferried by train, truck, and ship to Trofimovsk, an absolutely desolate land that lies above the Arctic Circle. Trofimovsk makes Altai seem like a luxury resort. The polar night (continuous darkness) lasts for months on end; dangerously frigid temperatures and continuous blizzards threaten the group’s very survival; starvation, typhus, dysentery, and scurvy are constant killers; and the prisoners’ living conditions — crude, self-built mud huts in a polar region — are subhuman. Without the late appearance of Dr. Samodurov (a real figure, as described here), all the prisoners would have perished during that first miserable winter.

In discussion materials and an author note afterward, Sepetys describes “Between Shades of Gray” as, ultimately, a love story. The Baltic people survived by using love as their sustaining force. I agree. Despite its devastating subject matter, this novel is warm, uplifting, and hopeful. Lina’s love for Elena and Jonas, for her imprisoned father and lost homeland, and, finally, for the strong, kind Andrius, buoys what otherwise may have been a bleak and depressing tale. There is so much life and love in these pages, so much hope and triumph, that it goes a long way in easing some of the pain. The prisoners continue to maintain their national and familial pride — Lina creates patriotic artwork, the Lithuanians celebrate their holidays in the depths of work camp blight, and the homesick and heartbroken share cherished family photographs that were hastily grabbed after arrests — which is beautiful and inspiring. Even small kindnesses, like the Siberian co-worker who saves Jonas from the ravages of scurvy, add to the impression that although we have seen the worst of humanity, the best of humanity still quietly endures. So, yes, love IS the central theme here. And what a necessary message that is for young people to receive.

“Between Shades of Gray” also impressively tempers even its most beastly characters, including some of the heartless NKVD officers, the stoic native Altains, and the “bald man,” an embittered Lithuanian prisoner who constantly criticizes his fellow detainees. Sepetys uses one NKVD officer, the young Nikolai Kretzky, most dramatically to show the withering effect of these atrocities on a basically decent Russian who is “just following orders.” The real villain here, the one never actually seen, is Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, who masterminded the deaths of MILLIONS of innocents. As a stand in, we get all the people who spared themselves but made that devastation possible — Lithuanians who gave information, Soviets who abided by a culture of fear and secrecy, and NKVD officers who channeled their own personal failings into either wholesale prisoner abuse or, at the very least, willful ignorance of the horrors surrounding them.

I absolutely recommend “Between Shades of Gray” to students in upper middle school and higher. This is a difficult book, and I don’t mean to minimize that in any way. There is violence, death, and depravity, but much of it is handled “off screen” and little of it is overwhelming in detail or presentation. As mentioned above, the sum effect of this novel, the feeling you are left with at the end, is one of joy and promise. Please, give “Between Shades of Gray” a try. You will be glad you did.

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Posted by on August 23, 2012 in Uncategorized


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ALA Youth Media Awards

At a ceremony in San Diego this morning, the American Library Association announced the finalists and winners of its annual Youth Media Awards. These awards, which are divided into different categories like picture books, middle grade literature, and non-fiction, are selected by librarians. Here are a few of the honored books and authors in the area of teen literature:


"Ship Breaker" by Paolo Bacigalupi

"Stolen" by Lucy Christopher
"Please Ignore Vera Dietz" by A.S. King
"Revolver" by Marcus Sedgwick
"Nothing" by Janne Teller


Middle School:
"After Ever After" by Jordan Sonnenblick

High School:
"Five Flavors of Dumb" by Antony John


"Almost Perfect" by Brian Katcher


"Will Grayson, Will Grayson," by John Green and David Levithan
"Love Drugged" by James Klise
"Freaks and Revelations" by Davida Willis Hurwin
"The Boy in the Dress" by David Walliams

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Posted by on January 10, 2011 in Uncategorized


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National Book Award Finalists

The National Book Foundation recently announced the finalists for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. National Book Awards recognize literary excellence in American literature and are awarded to writers by other writers.

Past winners of the National Book Award for Young People's Literature include "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," "True Believer," "House of the Scorpion," "Godless," and "What I Saw and How I Lied."

This year's nominees are shown below and can also be found here. The winner will be announced on November 16th.

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Posted by on October 22, 2010 in Uncategorized


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“How I Live Now” by Meg Rosoff


Meg Rosoff's "How I Live Now"won the American Library Association's Printz Award back in 2005 as that year's outstanding novel for young adults. Ok, I realize I am a little late in reading this one — hey, I have a pretty big "to-read" stack! — but since I thought this novel was so striking and original, I just had to write up a review for our blog readers.

Quick summary: Daisy is a 15 year-old American sent away from New York City by her apparently exasperated dad and stepmom. She arrives in rural England to stay with her eccentric Aunt Penn, a slew of cousins (precocious 9 year-old Piper, 14 year-old, seemingly empathic twins Isaac and Edmond, and 17 year-old would-be-man Osbert), and a healthy assortment of sheep dogs, goats, and other animals. Aunt Penn quickly departs for a vague peacekeeping task in Oslo, leaving the kids the run of their country house and surrounding farmland. Daisy, a cynic who struggles with anorexia, finds herself quickly opening up to her cousins, especially compassionate, insightful Edmond. While she recognizes it's technically wrong — they are, after all, first cousins! — she falls into an obsessive, all-encompassing love with Edmond, which makes her days fly by in sheer bliss. Even after a London bombing leaves thousands dead, plunging England into chaos and war and preventing Aunt Penn's return, Daisy can't help but savor the delicious freedom inherent in her new, unsupervised life. One glorious day, all the kids, including the aloof Osbert, spend a magical afternoon picnicking and frolicking by the river.

Unfortunately, the once unseen and distant war soon reaches into Daisy's life. An occupying army, never identified for the reader, lands in the countryside, and the few remaining British forces commandeer Aunt Penn's house as a barracks for their troops. Daisy's newfound family is wrenched apart, and she and the gentle, resourceful Piper are left on their own to make a long, arduous journey back home.

I'm not sure if my plot synopsis conveys it, but "How I Live Now" is a fantastic read for so many reasons. First, Daisy's narration, which occurs in an almost frantic, run-on manner, is captivating. This is the way a teenager thinks, with intense, sometimes jumbled ideas rampantly speeding along. Daisy's description of her intoxicating affair with Edmond is portrayed in a dreamlike, hazy fashion. It's as if she and Edmond share a bond that transcends the mortal and physical, which we soon learn may be the case; Daisy can literally feel Edmond in her mind during their painful separation. I also loved Daisy's unrepentant honesty and brashness, which, again, make her such a realistic teen character.

What else was great? Hrm, where should I start!? The ruthlessness necessary to endure hard times is beautifully portrayed, particularly during Daisy and Piper's struggle to reach home. Yet, despite the often brutal conditions, both dignity and humanity survive in, say, the brotherly attention of a soldier or the knowing advice of an army major. These small touches of compassion have so much more meaning in a landscape of brutality. I also thought Rosoff's depiction of England encountering a faceless enemy and a war with no stated purpose or goals was absolutely brilliant, giving the story a futuristic feel while glancing back to Britain's history of self-sufficiency during two world wars. Rosoff's subtle descriptions of Daisy's eating disorder are similarly wonderful, including the climactic moment when a starving Daisy realizes just how hungry she has been for so long. Finally, the mutually protective relationship between Daisy and Piper is believable, lovely, and occasionally heartbreaking; Daisy mentions holding an exhausted Piper's "paw" on the night their lost dog returns, which is simply beautiful. Readers may find this relationship similar to the touching bond that developed between jaded Katniss and the doelike young tribute Rue in Suzanne Collins' stunning novel, "The Hunger Games."

"How I Live Now" is a compelling, unique, fast-paced novel that has a little something for everyone (love, self growth, action, danger). It is written in an exceptional manner, with insight, hard-earned emotion, and a gripping sense of drama and tension. I would definitely recommend this short novel with a powerful impact to teen readers, both boys and girls, in grades 8 and higher. While there is both sex and violence present here, neither is depicted in a gratuitous manner. Although this novel may challenge you, I think it's a worthy, rewarding read.

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Posted by on January 21, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“The Spectacular Now” by Tim Tharp


Tim Tharp's "The Spectacular Now" was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature (please click here to read an interview with Tharp on the NBA website). After reading this almost stream of consciousness peek into the last few months of one teen guy's senior year of high school, I can definitely see why. "The Spectacular Now" is authentic, lively, and ultimately disturbing in a way I can't identify.

Sutter Keely is the senior guy in question, and he's quite literally the life of the party. Sutter is so precisely portrayed that I understood exactly who he was. You know that charming, exuberant, scruffy, kinda lovable screw-up that girls always think they can tame or protect or somehow fix? That's Sutter. He can talk to anyone, making that person feel special and magical for those few moments in his spotlight. He's all about fun and adventure and maybe even a little danger. Sutter's problem? He's also a closeted, mostly functioning alcoholic ("god's own drunk," as he says), driving around Oklahoma City with a Big Gulp 7UP generously laced with whiskey. Sutter drinks constantly, from the time he wakes up right on through the day, even getting loaded for his job at Mr. Leon's men's clothing store and before a dinner at his uptight sister's house. Sutter's easy, natural charisma helps deflect many of the consequences of his drinking, and he's in full-on denial mode about any other problems it might be causing. See, Sutter's all about "embracing the weird," and he's hit on something so many anti-drinking crusades miss: drinking can be a lot of fun. That's why kids do it. So while we as readers see all the scary issues raised by Sutter's drinking, he thinks he's living it up right in the moment. In the spectacular now.

Sutter's life is already careening pretty far out of control when he meets the shy, nerdy, sci fi geek Aimee. Well, "meet" might be too strong a word for what actually happens. Sutter blacks out after a night of drinking, waking up to discover that he's in an unfamiliar neighborhood — sitting on someone's front lawn! — and being roused by a quiet newspaper delivery girl. Sutter initially takes on Aimee as a kind of project, thinking he can boost the confidence of this gentle, meek girl and really do something right in his life. Along the way, he learns that Aimee is pretty spectacular herself, despite — or perhaps because of — her love of horses and Commander Amanda Gallico and her unquenchable, maybe naive capacity to dream big dreams. Unfortunately, Sutter, in "helping" Aimee, also introduces her to the lure of near-constant drinking. All this leads to a climax that is touching, real, and unexpectedly sad.

I'm not entirely sure this book will be fully appreciated by its target audience of high school age readers. As a (cough) somewhat older reader, I recognized Sutter's character and knew exactly how pathetic he'd be with another 10 or 15 years of "partying" under his belt. While Tharp capably conveys this very point when we meet Sutter's estranged dad in Fort Worth, I'm still not convinced those without the life experience will fully appreciate the utter depth of Sutter's impending decline.

Regardless, this is a real "wow" kind of book. Sutter's voice is so compelling that I felt like I was strapped into some sort of amusement park ride run amok. That's what the narration of his life feels like. You will absolutely root for this terribly flawed but well-intentioned guy, who will disappoint you and surprise you in equal measure. Plus, Sutter's relationship with Aimee is so hopeful and tragic (at the same time!), that it's reason alone to read this outstanding novel.

Please know there are lots of drinking (well, duh!), drug, and sexual references here. Even beyond that, I think the somewhat subtle nature of this story lends itself more to high school age readers. Finally, although my description here might make "The Spectacular Now" seem like a dull "issue" book, nothing could be further from the truth. The great feat of this novel is how it manages to make self destruction seem so incredibly attractive. Truly, although it may sound odd, this is an energetic, almost bouncy story of one boy's slow descent into real despair and heartbreak. It is definitely worth reading.

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Posted by on January 5, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“What I Saw and How I Lied” by Judy Blundell


I'm on a roll now! I read Judy Blundell's absolutely wonderful "What I Saw and How I Lied" in two nights, and I'm so eager to share my thoughts on it.

As many of you may have heard, "What I Saw and How I Lied" recently won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. (Click here to see a video of the author's acceptance speech.) Wow, what a well-deserved honor! I read a lot of books, both teen and adult fiction, and since I read an ARC of Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" back in June, I've said that was my favorite book of the year. I may need to rethink that assessment, because "What I Saw and How I Lied" is a true masterpiece of precise tone, setting, and writing style. I love the old noir mysteries from the 1940s, and this book perfectly captures that smokey, shadowy, double-crossing, staccato vibe from back in the day. But what's really fantastic is that Blundell has also crafted a compelling, multilayered story that somehow manages to combine all the elements of noir mysteries — murder, blackmail, deceit — with deeper issues of personal and family relationships, the lasting consequences of wartime actions, and the varied meanings of truth, justice, and responsibility.

I don't want to give away too many plot points — after all, this is a mystery! — so I'll try to provide only a general outline. It's the fall of 1947, and Evie Spooner, just shy of her sixteenth birthday, has grown up watching her gorgeous, sexy mom, Bev, turn heads (and raise jealousy and suspicions) nearly everywhere she goes. Evie thinks she's content existing safely in the background, but part of her longs to grow up already. Evie's stepfather, Joe, has returned from World War II and launched a chain of successful appliance stores throughout the New York City area. Evie desperately wants life to be perfect, and it seems that everyone — including Evie — is trying a bit too hard to prove that's the case. Still, even Evie can't help but notice that Joe is usually anxious and jittery and that her folks are arguing and drinking way too much. After a series of phone calls from a mysterious man, Joe abruptly packs up Bev and Evie and drives them down to Palm Beach, Florida for a "vacation."

When the Spooners arrive in boarded-up Palm Beach — the resort town doesn't really open until December — they find themselves among only a handful of guests at Le Mirage, including Mr. and Mrs. Grayson, a wealthy, secretive couple from New York City. They're also quickly joined by Peter Coleridge, a handsome, seemingly wealthy 23 year-old who served with Joe's unit in the war. While Evie is immediately smitten by the worldly, charming Peter, Joe seems increasingly disturbed by his very presence. As the fall passes, Evie falls in love with Peter, who has been spending many afternoons with Evie and Bev, driving, taking walks on the beach, or watching movies in a local theatre. Evie finally stops acting like a shy child and attempts to gain Peter's affections by showing him the woman she has become, setting in motion a chain of events that results in death, a cover up, an intricately enmeshed web of lies, and, ultimately, Evie's decision to reveal or keep hidden the real truth.

I hope I've done this wonderful book justice in my description. Rest assured, it's a winning combination of mystery and coming of age tale, and, along the way, the book raises some unsettling questions about justice, sacrifice, and redemption. Evie is a fully fleshed out character, and although you may recognize what's going on long before she does, you will still feel every moment of her shock, pain, and devastation at learning the truth. I loved how none of the relationships in the book — Evie and Bev, Bev and Joe, Evie and Peter — are ever exactly as they might appear at a given moment; both alliances and affections shift and change throughout the story, keeping the reader off balance.

Without any reservation, I would absolutely recommend this book for both boys and girls in grades 8 and higher. While there is ample smoking and drinking among the adults and two scenes that involve sexual situations, there's nothing here that should offend or alarm older middle school students. Instead, readers will find a tense mystery that will keep them eagerly turning the pages and a moral drama whose ramifications will linger with them long afterward.

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Posted by on December 5, 2008 in Uncategorized


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