The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds. Kevin Powers. Book Review: 4 stars

In Al Tafar, Iraq, Privates Bartle and Murphy fight for their lives, together against what seems less like any particular enemy and more like the grueling, senseless odds of war itself. Told from the perspective of Bartle, looking back on the events of the war that most altered him, and a crime committed that he still doesn't fully understand, The Yellow Birds might be the best war novel I've read.

4 stars

It is beautifully, viscerally written. The language and imagery of the book are exquisite, though the feelings and situations described are harrowing. I had to put the book down a few times, nauseated, but I always picked it back up eventually due to the engrossing story and Powers's strong voice. It was a fantastic read up until the sudden ending, which was unsatisfying—and based on the news articles I've read, a pretty unlikely fate for Bartle. While I'm sure this book had special meaning to Powers, an Iraq war veteran, I hope it is only the beginning of his work.

Good for: Fans of realistic or memoir-style fiction—and it has a lot in common with The Round House.


The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

The Round House. Louise Erdrich. Book Review: 4.5 stars

Joe is thirteen the year his mother is brutally attacked and raped. She is traumatized and terrified, and won't discuss the details of the crime. As his father, a tribal judge, tries to use official channels to find and punish his wife's attacker, Joe watches his mother slip further and further away into solitude and seclusion. With answers not forthcoming and his father's efforts constantly blocked by complicated questions of reservation and U.S. jurisdiction, Joe enlists his friends to help with his own investigation.

The Round House is a suspenseful crime drama, a coming-of-age story, and a treatise on reservation rights all at once. It's a great read—thought-provoking, affecting, hard to put down. I think it's Erdrich's best work so far. I wanted to give it 5 stars, but the lack of any kind of demarcation of dialogue drove me a little nuts. Worse than NW, which at least marked dialogue in some way, though not with quotation marks, there was no marker for dialogue at all. I'd often get halfway through a paragraph before figuring out if it was dialogue or not.

Good for: Fans of mysteries, crime novels, memoir-style fiction, coming-of-age stories. People who like Stand By Me.


NW, by Zadie Smith

NW. Zadie Smith. Book Review. [Image: Outline of Northwest London] 4 stars

When I read the description of The Casual Vacancy, I thought, "Huh, this is like a Zadie Smith novel." Indeed, NW has similar subject matter: economic stratification, racism, the social effects of British Imperialism, technology, drug use, and all their effects on modern life. Of course, Zadie Smith got there first.

NW is ambitious, telling the stories of two girls growing up in Northwest London, along with the stories of other residents of that area, in chapters with changing focuses and narrative styles. Smith captures universal feelings of unease, of being caught in the tide of cultural expectation and economic hardship, and unable to break free.

Quotation Marks

While the alternating chapters are an interesting device, the changing methods of marking dialogue–or not marking it, as the case may be—are just distracting. What's wrong with quotation marks?

Good for: Fans of Zadie Smith. Don't know if you like Zadie Smith? I recommend starting with White Teeth.


The Casual Vacancy, by JK Rowling

The Casual Vacancy. JK Rowling. Book Review. 4 stars

The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling's first book not set in the wizarding world, has gotten review ratings all over the map. Many reviewers are passionately disappointed that is is not a Harry Potter book.

Broken wand.

The major departure is not just the lack of magic, but the relative lack of optimism. This book has a fundamentally different view on human potential, and on bravery and heroism, that may leave fans of Harry Potter, a series primarily about the great effectiveness of these higher ideals, dejected. Rather, you've got a story that is horrifying in its depiction of mundane normalcy. It's about the human tendency to turn a blind eye rather than help a neighbor, and the hopelessness of change without that help.

But I tell you what: I thought it was quite good.


Where’d You Go, Bernadette; by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Maria Semple. Book Review.

Bee's mother isn't like the other mothers at her Seattle private school. Bernadette is stylish, sharp, impulsive, uninterested in PTA meetings, and Bee's best friend.

Bernadette is a constant, orbital presence in Bee's life. But when Bee claims her chosen reward for acing her classes (or the closest she can get in a school without real grades), it starts a chain reaction that leads to her mother's mysterious and miraculous disappearance.

Bernadette is funny and fascinating, Bee is confident and tenacious, and this story, cobbled together from e-mail records and Bee's notes of the events leading to her mother's absence, is a crazy, funny look at life in the 21st century. Also, because of it I discovered that you can take a cruise to Antarctica!

Good for: You, if you like humor and coming-of-age stories about wacky families. Also: huge nerds will giggle through every Microsoft and TED Talk reference (I did!).


The Devil in Silver, by Victor Lavalle

The Devil in Silver. Victor Lavalle. Book Review

Pepper gets in a fight with a couple of cops, and finds himself suddenly committed to a mental institution. The fact the he is not mentally ill doesn't seem to matter, and he begins doubting his own sanity when on the first night, he is attacked by a horrifying and vicious creature with the body of an old man and the head of a bull.

It might be considered horror, or suspense, but it is less a genre novel than a commentary on society's treatment of those on the bottom.

When the economy tanks and everyone is worse off, people in mental institutions and residential care have the least power over their lives and little recourse to poor treatment. Society allows them to be sacrificed, like offerings to the minotaur of the recession.

The shifts in tone and story focus can be a little confusing. Sometimes it's like the book is trying to tell too many very different tales at once.

Good for: Good for horror and suspense fans and those who like their cultural commentary in the form of fiction. The cheeky narration reminded me a lot of Junot Díaz.


The Fifty Year Sword, by Mark Z. Danielewski

The Fifty Year Sword. Mark Z. Danielewski. Book Review.

Narrators tell the story of Chintana, an East Texas seamstress who went to a party against her own inclination, and there in the company of five children, with the woman who destroyed her marriage in the house below, heard a disturbing and familiar tale of vengeance.

4 stars

This was a creepy, crafty little horror story. It's an enjoyable, short read, laid out in an experimental style, with interesting language choices and really fitting textile art illustrations.

On the other hand, some of the experimental elements were more distracting than intriguing: the text is full of white space (some of which created rhythm, but much of which seemed purposeless) and the book is full of blank pages. The different colored quotation marks didn't add a single thing to the tale for me. I'd like to see this formatted just a bit more simply, so the story itself can shine.

Good for: Fans of Danielewski will know what they are getting into.


Every Day, by David Levithan

Each day, A wakes up in the body of a different person.

A can access some of their memories, and makes an honest effort not to royally screw up their lives. But one day, A meets Rhiannon, and falls in love. And A wants to be with her, from day to day, and body to body.

Every Day. David Levithan. Book Review

The best thing about this book is the short snippets of each teenager's life, showing there are infinite possibilities in lives and ways of living, and exploring different problems kids face depending on their circumstances.

The worst thing is, it's an interesting thought exercise that doesn't go much farther than that. The story of A is incomplete, and the romantic plot isn't thoroughly fleshed out.

Good for: It's an unusual premise, and it's pretty interesting to go along for the ride, even if you're not a huge fan of young adult romance.


The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley

In the rain, surrounded by unconscious attackers, she opens the envelope in her pocket. It says her name is Myfanwy Thomas. It says, "The body you are wearing used to be mine."

The new woman in the body of Myfanwy Thomas discovers she is a high-ranking official in a secret organization protecting the UK from supernatural threats. With only the research of a complete stranger—herself—and instinct to guide her, she must find the traitor in its ranks—the operative who erased the original Myfanwy.

This book is suspenseful, kind of creepy, and extremely funny. Plus, it's got some top-notch world-building. I would love to read a sequel!

The Rook. Daniel O’Malley. Book Review

Good for: I love this book. All the people I forced into reading it love this book. I honestly do not see how you could not love this book. It's like an amazing cross of Thursday Next and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.


Summer and Bird, by Katherine Catmull

Summer and Bird. Katherine Catmull. Book Review

Sisters Summer and Bird awaken one morning to find the house empty and cold. Their parents—and the family cat—have disappeared. Following an encoded message from their mother, they head into the woods.

There they find a passage Down, into the winter world where the birds have been waiting thirteen long years for their queen to return, and to lead them to the Green Home of summer.

The heart of this book is the relationship between Summer and Bird, who feel both sisterly affection and jealousy toward each other, and the differing skills and concerns that set them apart. Those with siblings will find their journey somewhat familiar.

Their family unit, its history, and its future are the focus of this magical story, which is surprisingly epic for its short length.

Good for: fans of The Chronicles of Narnia, Wildwood, The Dark is Rising, A Wrinkle in Time, and similar stories of adventure and secret magic.