Funny, fresh, and not afraid to draw blood, this is an unusual gem of a book.

RED BIRDS

A satire of American military power that skirts didacticism while skewering our nation's misadventures in the Middle East.

Hanif (Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, 2012, etc.) sets us down in an unidentified Middle Eastern country, where a darkly cynical American fighter pilot named Ellie has been sent on a possibly unethical bombing run by a mysterious institution called Central Command. Ellie—whose military training combined deadly firepower with cultural sensitivity lessons like "Eat and Drink with the Enemy"—bows to pressure from Col. Slatter to flatten a compound he insists is "a real bad place full of bad bad people. You can smell the evil from the skies." Ellie crash-lands on his way to the compound, though, and finds himself wandering the desert, desperate to survive. That bad, bad compound turns out to be a refugee camp for victims of the American war. Momo, a wisecracking teenager with delusional schemes of capitalist grandeur and a world-weary suspicion of everything around him, lives there with his grieving mother, feckless father, and brother, Ali. Momo is given to dark proclamations on the world's moral state. "How're you gonna keep your integrity in a place where thievery is not only accepted but also expected?" he asks early in the book. He tromps around the camp wearing an "I Heart NY" cap and drives a Jeep through the desert. By the time the novel opens, Ali, who was an informant giving bombing targets to the Americans, has gone to work at a nearby American military facility known simply as the Hangar—and never returns. Ever since he's disappeared, American bombings have ceased. Momo is determined to figure out what's behind Ali's disappearance, and when Ellie arrives at the camp at the same time as an American aid worker and academic nicknamed Lady Flowerbody, the boy hatches a plan to retrieve his brother. Amid all this, supernatural occurrences are happening in the desert beyond the compound. Momo's journey to get his brother back will take him into the heart of the American presence in his country—and that presence is not at all what he expects. Narrated in the first-person from multiple perspectives—Ellie's, Momo's, and even that of Momo's dog, Mutt—Hanif's novel maneuvers between compelling, hilarious voices with the fast pace of a slapstick comedy, albeit a comedy with teeth. In a surreal flourish, the book climaxes with a final act that is a little too frantic for its own good. Thankfully, by the time the ending arrives, we've gotten to spend quality time with Hanif's indelible characters.

Funny, fresh, and not afraid to draw blood, this is an unusual gem of a book.

Pub Date: May 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8021-4728-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Black Cat/Grove

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2019

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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Less bleak than the subject matter might warrant—Hannah’s default outlook is sunny—but still, a wrenching depiction of war’s...

HOME FRONT

 The traumatic homecoming of a wounded warrior.

The daughter of alcoholics who left her orphaned at 17, Jolene “Jo” Zarkades found her first stable family in the military: She’s served over two decades, first in the army, later with the National Guard. A helicopter pilot stationed near Seattle, Jo copes as competently at home, raising two daughters, Betsy and Lulu, while trying to dismiss her husband Michael’s increasing emotional distance. Jo’s mettle is sorely tested when Michael informs her flatly that he no longer loves her. Four-year-old Lulu clamors for attention while preteen Betsy, mean-girl-in-training, dismisses as dweeby her former best friend, Seth, son of Jo’s confidante and fellow pilot, Tami. Amid these challenges comes the ultimate one: Jo and Tami are deployed to Iraq. Michael, with the help of his mother, has to take over the household duties, and he rapidly learns that parenting is much harder than his wife made it look. As Michael prepares to defend a PTSD-afflicted veteran charged with Murder I for killing his wife during a dissociative blackout, he begins to understand what Jolene is facing and to revisit his true feelings for her. When her helicopter is shot down under insurgent fire, Jo rescues Tami from the wreck, but a young crewman is killed. Tami remains in a coma and Jo, whose leg has been amputated, returns home to a difficult rehabilitation on several fronts. Her nightmares in which she relives the crash and other horrors she witnessed, and her pain, have turned Jo into a person her daughters now fear (which in the case of bratty Betsy may not be such a bad thing). Jo can't forgive Michael for his rash words. Worse, she is beginning to remind Michael more and more of his homicide client. Characterization can be cursory: Michael’s earlier callousness, left largely unexplained, undercuts the pathos of his later change of heart. 

Less bleak than the subject matter might warrant—Hannah’s default outlook is sunny—but still, a wrenching depiction of war’s aftermath.

Pub Date: Jan. 31, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-312-57720-9

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2012

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