I read books of all sorts, but mostly kids' lit and young adult literature and speculative fiction for all ages—usually from a feminist perspective.
I've adopted a personalized version of the CHOICE reviews approach to recommendations/star ratings:
***** = Essential, a.k.a. truly love, absolute must-read, buy it now
**** = Highly Recommended, a.k.a. this is a really good book; I would buy it as a gift
*** = Recommended, a.k.a. pretty good; worth reading
** = Optional, a.k.a. meh
* = Not Recommended; a.k.a. this is not a good book
The usual questions driving personal reviews—did you like this book; what did you like/not like about it; why did or didn't you—must, I feel, be dispensed with in this case. There are two questions I do feel are worth asking:
First, is the book worthwhile of its topic?
And the answer of course is yes. To explain the question, however, let me say that I hesitated to begin reading this, confused and not sure exactly how the book would unfold--was it fiction or non-fiction? Why was it written by an American journalist rather than by the person who experienced it? And then, would it feel like another American Journalist Writing About Atrocities In Other Countries story? Etc.
But put those concerns aside, if you share them. Told in first person and only a "novel" in the sense that artistic liberties are taken for the sake of forming a coherent narrative from the childhood memories of Arn Chorn-Pond, it is an absorbing story, and makes an important contribution as a book for understanding.
P.S. The "Author's Note" is placed at the end of the book but it's worth your time to read it first, to understand both the voice McCormick chose to use, and the blurry line between fact and fiction for this story.
Second, is this book really for kids?
Truly, I don't know. Usually the age of the protagonist is a pretty good gauge for the age of the intended reader, and the book begins with Arn at eleven years old, and ends with him at fifteen. Reading it as an adult with complete awareness that everything going on in the book really happened, I had a hard time processing the sheer scale of suffering. And my immediate reaction is to say that kids shouldn't have to go through that. On the other hand, it seems practically unjust to say so, when Arn Chorn-Pond and so many children in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge lived through it as children. But in the end I don't think that kids should be the ones to pay for the cruelty of adults. So: While I would certainly not take it away from a middle-grade reader mature enough to want to read it in the first place, I would recommend recommending it to high school-age and up.
What made me pick it up?
It was a much-lauded, starred-review new book last year. I also heard Arn's story on NPR a while back, although I didn't make the connection until after I checked it out from the library.
Overall recommendation: Highly recommended