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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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“The Pact” by Jodi Picoult


So I was on vacation at my very favorite beach in the entire world, sitting under an umbrella, listening to the sounds of the waves … and, duh, obviously reading a book. I am a librarian, after all! I read an absolutely fabulous new novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” that is clever, insightful, quirky, and weirdly heartwarming. Check it out! Alas, I do not review it here, because it is an adult novel with little YA crossover. [But the narrator is an eighth grader AND I LOVED IT. Hee. That is all.]

Luckily — or unluckily! — for you good people, I also read Jodi Picoult’s 1998 teen-themed novel “The Pact,” and that, my friends, I am all over in the review department. It’s the story of lifelong friends, teenagers, who become a couple because of love, remain a couple because of expectations, and ultimately confront a promise of mutual suicide. Yeah, that’s heavy stuff, and Picoult, for all her many literary talents, does tend to dip into the old melodrama at times. But, overall, “The Pact” is a gripping novel that deftly explores the complex web of family, friendship, love, hatred, and grief. If it’s a little soapy at times, eh, so be it, because when it’s good, it’s seriously, ridiculously good.

Chris Harte and Emily Gold literally grew up together, as we discover in a series of extended flashbacks. Their moms, Gus Harte and Melanie Gold, are best friends and next-door neighbors who are both pregnant at the same time in 1979. [Remember, folks, this book is a little old, but other than a few jarring technological details — Gus has a beeper! — it’s not at all outdated thematically.] While Chris and Emily begin life as instant friends and constant companions, they eventually fall in, out, and sort of back in love again. I know “The Pact” is a book about suicide — and I’ll get to that issue, I promise! — but I felt that aspect of Chris and Emily’s relationship, that pressure to be something together at almost all costs, was so strikingly real. Emily’s crushing disappointment in not living up to that long-ordained love, in loving Chris but not LOVING him, sends her to a dark place. That pain, coupled with buried sexual abuse, an unexpected occurrence, and a crushing bout of prolonged depression, leads her to contemplate not just her own suicide, but Chris’ as well. Indeed, as the book opens, Emily tells Chris, “I love you,” which is followed by this line:

And then there was a shot.

So the kicker here — and there’s really no way to avoid spoiling it, because it happens at jump — is that following the night of the pact, Chris remains very much alive. While he’s suffering from a gaping but hardly life-threatening head wound in the ER, Emily arrives DOA. As the respective families (and friendships) just about disintegrate from pain, rage, and confusion, we start to learn more about Chris, the survivor at the center of this storm. Chris was the stalwart one, the reliable, smart, kind boy who excelled at two things: swimming and loving Emily. When Chris is arrested for Emily’s murder, it’s not too hard for us to believe that while he may not have killed her out of malice, he clearly could have done so from a toxic mix of adoration and perceived loyalty. Chris’ arrest further rips apart his family and the Golds, while also strangely bringing Chris and his distant, repressed father closer together.

Chris is imprisoned for months while awaiting trial. Picoult flashes back and forth from his prison life, filling in more and more details of Emily’s deepening pain and Chris’ ceaseless devotion. While the jail scenes can play out as a bit over the top, Chris’ pervading sense of fear and heartache is nicely conveyed, and the legal wranglings are easily comprehended. We’re ultimately set up for a splashy trial, complete with surprise witnesses and “shocking” testimony. While perceptive readers will likely view Chris’ confession as telegraphed, the details themselves — and his palpable shame and guilt — trump any obviousness. I saw much of this coming and was still utterly shocked by the depth of Chris’ misguided loyalty and sacrifice.

One of our neighboring school districts requires high school students to read “The Pact” over the summer, and I can see why. From a purely cautionary standpoint, it provides lots of useful information about the warning sides of suicide, and it depicts, with incredible emotion, the devastation left behind in the wake of such a death. Chris and Emily’s evolving relationship — complete with all its joys and disappointments — is also incredibly authentic and will likely resonate with many teens. Perhaps best of all, this book is a page turner, y’all. Beach or no beach, I would’ve devoured it in a day. It truly is that engaging.

“The Pact” is out there, so please give it a read if it now seems interesting. I should note that this one is definitely a high school book, as it contains sexuality, language, drinking, etc. If you really like “The Pact,” the Lifetime network created a movie version a few years back. Check out the trailer below. Happy reading! Wouldn’t you like to be back at the beach right about now? Sigh.


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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in Uncategorized


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“Columbine” by Dave Cullen


Although most teens likely have no firsthand memory of the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, they've undoubtedly heard of the tragedy. 13 people were killed and dozens more injured when a pair of seniors, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, stormed their school with guns and bombs before ultimately killing themselves. In gripping detail, author / journalist Dave Cullen's phenomenal book "Columbine" recounts the events of that awful day and the years of botched investigation that followed it. Just as powerfully, drawing on a decade of research and their own harrowing personal journals, he provides stunning insight into the killers' mindsets in the years leading up to the attack. Along the way, Cullen explodes many of the myths that reigned in the popular press, including that the boys were bullied outcasts, the county sheriff's office had no warning, and the slain evangelical proudly affirmed her faith before being shot.

I approached "Columbine" fearing it would be a dry, perhaps stale book documenting a horrific day of violence. I could not have been more wrong. It reads like a fictional thriller, with a frenetic pace and page after page of shocking — and sometimes truly disturbing — revelations. It's impossible not to be gripped while reading passages from Eric Harris' cold, angry journal, but Cullen expertly places his and Klebold's writings into a larger context. What emerges is a complex portrait of a psychopathic personality leading a depressive friend into unspeakable violence, all in a calculated, painstakingly planned manner. This is chilling stuff.

The poorly executed rescue, during which teacher Dave Sanders bled to death awaiting help, and the years of cover-ups by the sheriff's office add greater depth to the story, as we see exactly what went wrong and why it was never revealed. Cullen also had access to several of the survivors and some family members of the victims, so the investigative aspect of the book is always balanced by the human side, reminding us who paid the heaviest price for these killers' actions. Cullen's depiction of Danny Rohrbough's father, whose pain and anger eventually found an outlet in extremist politics, is especially searing.

I strongly recommend "Columbine" to parents, educators, librarians — anyone who works with teenagers. I also think teens themselves will find this an extraordinary, incredibly moving book with a lasting impact.

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Posted by on September 17, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“Love is the Higher Law” by David Levithan


David Levithan's new novel, "Love is the Higher Law," is one of the few pieces of September 11th-related YA fiction that I can recall. It's an occasionally talky yet emotionally resonant novel that features Levithan's usual mix of multiple narrators, lyrical language, and meditations on the power of music.

Our narrators here are three New York City teenagers. We have sweet, giving high school student Claire, her music-loving pal and classmate Peter, and snarky college guy Jasper, whom Peter is set to date for the first time on September 11th. The kids' responses on the day of the attack, that awful mixture of horror, confusion, dislocation, and longing for normalcy, are superbly depicted. Anyone who lived through that day, particularly in the immediate NYC area, will absolutely relate to the whirlwind of emotions experienced by the teens. Levithan is particularly adept at using small details — Claire steadily lighting memorial candles at Union Park in a driving rainstorm or Jasper desperately picking up scattered papers from the World Trade Center site — to convey the almost overwhelming sense of sadness and powerlessness that followed the attack.

For the most part, the three narrators are an effective device, nicely presenting the wrenching recovery from different perspectives. The boys' voices, especially when describing their terrible first date, are spot-on. We see so clearly the mixed signals, hurt feelings, unspoken words, and, above all, the longing that the characters both miss in the moment itself.

Both Peter and Jasper are so flawed yet cautiously hopeful — so real — that I found myself irritated by Claire's distance from the readers. She seemed too perfect and selfless, too much of an idealized type rather than a human being. At one point, Claire remarks that if she hadn't met Peter and Jasper, she fears she'd be living her whole life inside her head. And that's the problem — too much of Claire's passages are devoted to big ideas and reflections that lack any emotional connection. For me, Claire's thoughts started to feel like weighty abstractions or philosophy lessons, which often undercut the novel's impact.

Still, there are such moments of poetry here, so many lines of text that scream out to be savored and reread, that the intermittent failings of one character can be overlooked. Besides, Levithan's ability to evoke music as a force of nature and present its ability to heal a community or allow one boy to lose himself for awhile is stunning, as always. All the best music-related parts of "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," are matched here by the sheer joy and power of a Travis or U2 concert.

I'm somewhat concerned about the audience for this book — how much do today's teens remember about an event from 8 years ago? — but maybe fans of Levithan's other novels will give this one a try. There is ample strong language here, but nothing beyond the ways in which real teenagers talk every day of their lives. Overall, while there's much here for adults to like, I'm hoping there are teen readers out there as well. "Love is the Higher Law" is a somewhat sad, beautiful, and largely optimistic novel about one of the most important moments of our lives. It's definitely worth reading.

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Posted by on August 21, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“Hurricane Song” by Paul Volponi


Paul Volponi's timely novel "Hurricane Song" lets us experience firsthand some of the degradation, fear, and confusion experienced by New Orleans residents who evacuated to the Superdome to escape Hurricane Katrina's devastation. While slim in size, this book leaves a powerful impression.

Miles is a transplanted New Orleanian, having only recently come to the city to live with his jazz musician father, Doc. Unlike his dad, who lives and breathes jazz, Miles is more interested in football. He's only come to New Orleans because his newly remarried mom has literally run out of living space for him. While in New Orleans, Miles rarely sees his dad, even while living in the same apartment, and they struggle to make any meaningful conversation. Miles often suspects his dad will never love him with the depth and passion that he reserves for jazz.

As Hurricane Katrina approches New Orleans, Miles, Doc, and his Uncle Roy try to drive out of the city in search of a safe haven up north. After the car dies while idling for hours in traffic, the three end up in the Superdome, a covered football stadium hastily converted to house storm evacuees. While the National Guard is supposedly in charge of the facility, it quickly becomes apparent to Miles and his family that mob rule is in effect. Roving gangs — including several of Miles' football teammates — set fires, vandalize the building, commit assaults, and rob and terrorize the other evacuees. At the same time, the stadium is plunged into repeated darkness, clogged bathrooms overflow and become stench-filled swamps, dead bodies are left to fester in the brutal indoor heat, and there is little if any food to be found. In the midst of all this chaos and violence, a mentally deranged man leaps to his death from the upper deck seats, much to the horror of his daughter and grandchildren. Doc, Uncle Roy, and a local preacher organize a modified jazz funeral for the man, with Miles banging away on an African drum his father gave him. Later, Miles and Doc leave the Superdome only to discover that conditions in the city are even worse than they feared.

Author Paul Volponi does a masterful job of conveying the suffocating horror experienced by Hurricane Katrina evacuees at the Superdome. He provides harrowing descriptions of the rank conditions while also exploring the issues of race and class that combined to make Katrina a disaster on so many levels. "Hurricane Song" would be a wonderful novel and gripping piece of social commentary only for these reasons. Even better, though, Volponi gives us great insight into both the worst of human nature (the Superdome thugs and the twitchy, hostile National Guardsmen) and the best (the dignity of the preacher and the bravery of Miles in standing up to the mob). By the end of this short novel, Miles and Doc have begun to find common ground in both music and family, and they start to form the bonds of a real, lasting relationship. Their personal journey in the shadow of one of America's most shameful incidents will be appreciated by both boys and girls in grades seven and higher.

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Posted by on September 8, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Sunrise Over Fallujah” by Walter Dean Myers


If there's another teen novel about the current Iraq War — is there? — I don't know of it. That's why I was so excited when I heard the venerable Walter Dean Myers had written "Sunrise Over Fallujah," since I knew he'd handle the subject with his usual combination of raw power and sensitivity. I was not disappointed.

We're right at the start of the war, in April 2003, when Robin "Birdy" Perry, a new Civil Affairs (CA) Army recruit from Harlem, is in Kuwait with his squad waiting to make the arduous drive into Iraq. Birdy is right out of high school, and he joined the Army out of a sense of duty and a desire to have his life matter. Birdy's letters and emails to mom and his Uncle Richie (from Myers' Vietnam War saga "Fallen Angels") are interspersed with first-person recounting of the initial formation of his CA squad and their collective experiences in Iraq.

Birdy's CA squad is accompanying an Army Infantry unit, the idea being that the infantry guys will make the area safe for the CA group, which will then try to make a human connection with the Iraqi civilians. (You know that whole bit about "winning hearts and minds"? That's the deal here.) While Birdy and his mates are not supposed to encounter any violent resistance, the instability created by the initial American strike and the subsequent insurgency make every encounter a potentially deadly one.

Birdy quickly makes friends with two of his squad mates, the friendly, blues-loving Jonesy and the steely, worldly Marla (ok, he's also kind of crushing on Marla). Their banter during terrifying Humvee rides in hostile areas adds a nice sense of camaraderie and even humor to the story. There's a large cast of characters in the novel, some of which you may at times confuse; I know I did. One of the other important players in the story is the physician's assistant Captain Miller, whom Birdy comes to deeply respect. Miller tries valiantly to retain her sense of compassion and her faith in the fundamental goodness of people despite some truly awful experiences. Birdy, too, ends up seeing and even doing things that he has a hard time believing are right, despite the reassurances of his military superiors. We see firsthand his sense of confusion — both literal and moral — as life in Iraq becomes more and more frantic and chaotic.

I found "Sunrise Over Fallujah" to be a gripping, troubling coming of age story. The Iraq War is presented here in all its contrasting nobility and ugliness, and we discover just how harrowing its consequences can be on Birdy and the rest of his squad. I realize the subject matter may be a bit heavy for some folks. However, while the issues raised here are challenging, the book itself moves at a fast pace and is fairly straightforward. Birdy is so believably portrayed that you'll be frightened, disgusted, hopeful, and angry right along with him. If you're looking for a serious and timely read as we move into summer, I think "Sunrise Over Fallujah" is an excellent choice. It's an easy enough book to read, but it's one of those that will remain with you afterward. Recognizing the war-related violence depicted here — even just the weight of the subject matter — I'd recommend this novel to readers in grades 8 and up.

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Posted by on May 8, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Hurricane” by Terry Trueman


Author Terry Trueman is well known in summer reading circles for "Stuck in Neutral," his gripping tale of a boy in a vegetative state. In "Hurricane," he explores the devastation wrought by 1998's Hurricane Mitch by focusing on one 13 year old boy in one tiny pueblo (or town) in Honduras. When we first encounter Jose, he is helping his older brother Victor tear down an outdoor barbecue. Jose, as a typical young teen, soon abandons the hard work to play soccer in the main road with his friends, while the good-natured Victor completes the task. It's a lovely opening scene, as we readily discover that Jose has a normal life with friends, caring neighbors, loving family, and even a loyal dog. This is important because (a) it helps us immediately identify with Jose, and (b) since the novel is set in Honduras, a country possibly unknown to younger readers, it instantly makes the story seem connected to our own lives.

Flash forward six months, and Category Five storm Hurricane Mitch is bearing down on Jose's pueblo of La Rupa. While the rain is pounding and the winds are battering his small house, Jose, his mom, and three siblings huddle together under tarps. Even as the storm slowly passes, they become increasingly worried by the absence of Jose's dad and two older siblings (including Victor), who were traveling when the storm hit. Jose is also upset because his beloved dog, Berti, has gone missing. Just as the storm seems to have subsided, Jose hears a violent, ear-shattering roar, which turns out to be a mudslide. As the pueblo endures a torrent of mud from a nearby deforested mountainside, most of La Rupa's houses are destroyed. Worse, many residents are instantly killed and what little remains of the town lies completely buried in mud. By sheer luck, Jose's house is spared, and it soon becomes a makeshift shelter for his few surviving neighbors.

In the days that follow, Jose, scared yet determined, has to grow up quickly and assume the responsibilities of his father and older brother. This means rescuing trapped people; unearthing dead neighbors; literally scraping through mud for stores of food; searching for medical care for his desperately ill little brother, Juan; and, finally, making a lonely, dangerous trip along mud-buried roads to locate his missing family members. Throughout his journey, Jose is believably brave and frightened at the same time, as any young boy would be.

In typical Trueman style, the impact of this novel far outweighs its slim size. While it's a quick read, "Hurricane" is the type of story that will linger with you long afterward. I'll add that it's also great to find a novel set outside the United States that is still so accessible for young American teens. Indeed, I'm sure most middle school readers will easily identify with Jose and his struggle to protect his family in the face of devastating conditions. "Hurricane" is a powerful and inspiring story, and I recommend it for all middle school readers.

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Posted by on April 21, 2008 in Uncategorized


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