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NONFICTION

The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice by Vanessa M. Gezari; Simon & Schuster, 368 pages ($25)

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During the presidential campaign of 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama spoke out about how the United States had taken its eyes off the ball in Afghanistan and was fighting the wrong war in Iraq. But on Nov. 4, 2008, the day he was elected president, an attack took place that seemed to sum up all the horror of war and also the challenge of putting combat soldiers in a country whose culture and social mores were so different from America’s.

Vanessa M. Gezari, a journalist who teaches writing and war reporting at the University of Michigan, set out to chronicle the work of a little-known project, the Human Terrain System, involving teams of social scientists working as battlefield consultants to the military in Afghanistan. The aim was to pair soldiers and scholars in an attempt to better understand the complexities of an Afghan tribal culture.

Blending strong in-depth reporting with narrative writing, Gezari has written a military thriller, but also much more, as she tells the social scientists’ story.

At the time of Obama’s election in 2008, the American approach in Afghanistan was changing to counterinsurgency, which requires winning support of local civilians.

But it’s difficult to win such trust when, for example, a U.S. Apache helicopter mistakes the celebratory gunfire at a wedding ceremony for insurgents and responds with rockets and gunfire, killing 40 people.

Gezari’s main character is Paula Loyd, a Texas native who enlisted in the Army after graduating from Wellesley College in 2002 with a degree in anthropology. She had years of experience in Afghanistan and was especially interested in empowering women and helping girls attend school in a country that frowned on both activities.

In an attack on Election Day 2008, Loyd was doused with gasoline and set afire, apparently by a man who was mentally unstable. Severely burned over 60 percent of her body, Loyd, 36, died two months later at an Army hospital in San Antonio. Her assailant was shot and killed by another member of the Human Terrain project. The book is an excellent examination of a project with idealistic aims that runs up against the ugly realities of war.

– David Tarrant, Dallas Morning News

CHILDREN’S

Junket Is Nice by Dorothy Kunhart; New York Review of Books Children’s Collection; 72 pages ($16.95). Children 3 to 7.

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The author best known for “Pat the Bunny” is being introduced to a new audience with this republication of her whimsical first book, originally published in 1933. Eighty years may as well be a millennium considering that 21st century children haven’t the foggiest idea what junket is or how something that sounds so terrible could actually be a “delicious custard and lovely dessert.” (A previous edition changed “junket” to “pudding.”) That aside, this rambling tale, of an old man with a red beard and red slippers, eating endless amounts of junket from a big red bowl, may still amuse, as a crowd of onlookers tries to guess what the man is thinking about (“I am going to give you a little help: I am not thinking about a walrus with an apple on his back” or “an old lion blowing out the candle on his lovely birthday cake.”).

– Jean Westmoore

MYSTERY

Bitter River by Julia Keller; Minotaur (400 pages, $25.99)

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The Bitter River that runs near the small, economically depressed town of Acker’s Gap, W.Va., has myriad meanings.

For residents who have ambitions to leave, Bitter River represents hope as it flows way beyond this “shabby afterthought” of a town. For others, whose goals don’t reach beyond the town limits, seeing only a future of poor wages and even drugs, Bitter River offers a handy spot to dump garbage, unwanted appliances, used beer cans, the discards that represent the detritus of many lives.

This metaphor of a river as both a life force and a dead end makes a superb background for Julia Keller’s second strong novel about Bell Elkins, who escaped her traumatic upbringing in Acker’s Gap by “perfecting the dark art of emotional survival,” only to return as the prosecuting attorney.

The intelligently plotted “Bitter River” moves at a brisk, elegant pace.

Bright, popular 16-year-old Lucinda Trimble was one of those who saw the roiling river as a way out, adding to the tragedy when she is murdered.Few knew that Lucinda was pregnant, which makes her boyfriend, scion of a wealthy family, a prime suspect.

Lucinda’s murderer may have been a local resident, but Acker’s Gap also is under attack from the outside after a sniper fires at the county courthouse. Keller’s careful storytelling ties the plots together in an intriguing tale. “Bitter River” merges the teen’s death and a gripping view about innocence and hope lost.

– Oline H. Cogdill, Orlando Sun Sentinel