- Operation Oleander by Valerie O. Patterson
It's difficult to nurture a close relationship with a father who's off at war, but Jess Westmark has found a way to stay connected while her dad is in Afghanistan. Jess runs a small grass-roots charity called Operation Oleander, in which she and a pair of long-suffering friends collect donated school supplies for a girls' orphanage in Kabul, where Dad and some of his colleagues distribute the supplies and send pictures back home of the recipients. It's a win-win situation, until the orphanage is bombed in an attack coordinated with the arrival of the soldiers making the delivery. Jess' father is badly injured and flown quickly to Germany for treatment, and her best friend Meriwether's mother, also on the mission, is killed. Now Meriwether, who was never too keen on Operation Oleander to begin with, holds Jess responsible for her mother's death, and the press and military pundits are suggesting that military involvement in charitable work actually makes recipients into targets. Patterson writes with compassion for both sides of this thorny issue, and her steady focus on the emotional trauma of the stateside teens keeps the story from devolving into a coolly cerebral exercise in anti-terrorism strategy. Moreover, she's a deft hand at pacing, ably conveying the those pivotal moments in which time seems to be distorted or suspended—when Jess spots government cars outside her house after news breaks of the bombing; when Mom packs to fly off to Germany; when Meriwether confides her shame at parting with her mother on bad terms. This slim novel casts a long shadow, and readers won't toss their pocket change in the next charity bucket without pausing to consider consequences.