A magnificent tribute, not just to the Sarajevans whose siege Simon reported, but to the indestructible human spirit.

PRETTY BIRDS

More civilians die in today’s wars than soldiers. But this extraordinary debut illuminates a time and place where civilians fought back: Sarajevo, 1992.

How do you write a novel about the savage ethnic cleansing of the Balkan Wars that isn’t unbearably depressing? Simon (award-winning NPR journalist) has the answer. First, you focus on a sidebar story, with a sympathetic protagonist (the movie Hotel Rwanda took the same tack). Second, you don’t minimize the horror, but you get the worst of it out of the way early. Sarajevo’s agony began in April 1992, when the multiethnic, cosmopolitan city’s belief that it was immune to ethnic hatred was smashed like an eggshell. The protagonist here, 17-year-old Irena Zaric, is a high-school basketball star. Her father is Serb, her mother Muslim; her brother is out of the country. The remaining member of the family is Pretty Bird, a beloved parrot with an amazing repertoire of sounds. Serb paramilitaries roust the family from their apartment building; Mr. Zaric is roughed up; Irena is raped. They trek to a Muslim neighborhood only to find grandmother shot dead; they camp out in her apartment. No heat, no light. Irena is recruited as a sniper by the wily Tedic, who, as an assistant principal, understands the adolescent: her athlete’s reflexes make her ideal. In a coming-of-age no parent would wish on his or her child, Irena asks the hard questions: What about innocent Serbs? How are we different from Serb snipers? But she overcomes initial misgivings and excels at her work, and the story zips along with crisp dialogue and plenty of gallows humor. Simon has an eye for the telling detail (the fascination with Western pop icons) and for the larger picture: the ineffectual Blue Helmets (UN troops), the shaky alliance between Bosnian Muslims and fundamentalist Arabs. He even manages a cliffhanger ending.

A magnificent tribute, not just to the Sarajevans whose siege Simon reported, but to the indestructible human spirit.

Pub Date: May 3, 2005

ISBN: 1-4000-6310-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2005

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THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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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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