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Pretty Birds

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  1,269 ratings  ·  176 reviews
The universally respected NPR journalist and bestselling memoirist Scott Simon makes a dazzling fiction debut. In Pretty Birds, Simon creates an intense, startling, and tragicomic portrait of a classic character–a young woman in the besieged city of Sarajevo in the early 1990s.

In the spring of 1992, Irena Zaric is a star on her Sarajevo high school basketball team, a
Paperback, 368 pages
Published May 9th 2006 by Random House Trade Paperbacks (first published January 1st 2005)
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Average rating 3.83  · 
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 ·  1,269 ratings  ·  176 reviews

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Feb 14, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the worst books I've ever read. It had so much potential and I tried very hard to like, to get into it, but the author just makes it impossible.

Simon tries to develop the characters, but he tries to develop every character just a little, causing his "development" to seem like a lot of pointless paragraphs about different random characters, that just make the characters seem strange. I never felt like I had a clear understanding of how each character felt about another. For
Aug 22, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This book, also about the Siege on Sarajevo, really really hit me hard because it's from the point of view of a high school girl, star basketball player, who happens to be Muslim and her best friend is a Serbian girl on her same team. It follows her through the Siege where she has to endure such horrible things and she feels obligated to take care of and stay strong for her parents who are old, weak, and lose hope. I just felt like I could really relate to the a high school girl, ...more
Sep 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Always challenging and sometimes amazing this book will surprise you. Thank you Scott Simon for giving us a tender memory of what War could have been like through the eyes of a teenage girl. As the War in Bosnia starts Ilena and her family run for their lives only to be caught by Serbian men who have come to kill and taunt the Muslims. I wanted to read this book be cause my brother was in Bosnia but as I started to read I wondered if I could finish reading due to the sheer inhumane acts this war ...more
Feb 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Lots of people have given this book lukewarm reviews, but I thought it was wonderful, in a dreadful sort of way. The subject matter is very difficult, and the ending particularly so... but predictable.

It takes place in Sarajevo during the siege of 1992 when Serbs divided the city and attempted to wipe out the Muslims on the other side of the river. The depiction of Sarajevo as a sophisticated Western city ("we are Europeans!") torn apart and demolished feels accurate to this reader, who after
Sep 24, 2007 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Here's another book to add to the "I couldn't finish it" pile. Again, a bitter disappointment. So much potential, but I just can't get into it. After suffering through the first 200 pages, I've cast it aside.

The story is that of a family in Bosnia, captured in the midst of the war between the Serbs and the Muslims. Afraid to walk on the streets and risk sniper fire, falling asleep each night to the sounds of mortars exploding. In an attempt to fight back, the seventeen year old daughter becomes
Jun 29, 2008 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Jodi by: Megan Werely
I really wanted to like this book (as sad as I knew it would be) but I just had a hard time getting into it. Sometimes, I had a hard time following what was happening to Irena and other times the pages were so boring that I skimmed a few pages at a time. A lot of early references to Madonna, Marky Mark, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, etc. just made the story a little too "cheesy" for me. Also, there was a lot of sexual talk that I just found a little over the top (not that I am a prude or ...more
Nov 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history buffs, war curious & female interest
wow. this book, based on true events though not exactly a history of Sarajevo, is amazing. i cried out loud. i laughed out loud. i learned alot. it didn't answer the question of why we behave as we do toward one another, but illustrated the devastating effects of that treatment. here we were in the west wondering what was going on "over there", why they were fighting, why we were or weren't involved, the powerlessness of the UN peacekeepers etc etc. This book, by someone who was there, makes ...more
Feb 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
this book haunted me for weeks after I finished. I passed it along to a friend who endured the siege of Sarajevo and his comment was "this man speaks the truth." phenomenal read
Pretty Birds is the first novel by accomplished journalist Scott Simon, who weaves his own observations as a war correspondent during the crisis in Sarajevo into a fictional story about a teenage female Bosnian-Muslim sniper. In true journalistic style, Simon blasts his war-torn Yugoslavian setting with color and movement, packing in odd, obscure details with the authority of someone who was there: “The lemons seemed almost to hiss with the morning’s first low light. Irena trained her sight on ...more
Jun 12, 2011 rated it really liked it
This really was a book unlike any other I've read. The subject matter is weighty, yet Simon approaches it with developed characters who interact in unexpected ways. The amount of humor traded back and forth between characters in this war-torn country is unusual, and yet I found myself believing that such interactions might actually be plausible. We're inclined to believe that serious, fear-inducing, stress-producing events are tackled with somber resolve. However, I think the human spirit ...more
Lisa Hoenig
Dec 24, 2012 rated it liked it
A difficult read. Many terrible images, served with the knowledge that events like this occurred in a "normal" city -- the message that war, hatred, and genocide could happen anywhere. Most of the story is told from the perspective of a teenaged girl. Irena likes reading celebrity magazines, basketball, and her pet parrot. She's also been in a physical relationship with her basketball coach. I found it difficult to relate to pre-war Irena, and somehow liked her better after she becomes a sniper ...more
Oct 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
The novel is a scary, oppressive account of the siege of Sarajevo told from the point of view of a Bosnian teenage girl basketball player who is recruited to be a sniper in the 1990's war against the Serbians. We see how her family suffers violent encounters and increasing deprivations during the months covered by the novel. Teenage girls from both sides try to understand the conflict of cultures which has gone on for centuries. I recently visited these Balkan countries and the layers of history ...more
Sep 04, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I wanted to love it...I mean what's not to love...Scott Simon of NPR fame writes a novel about Bosnia - the land of my heart - one would think I would've been in heaven. Sadly, while the story itself is engaging, the way Simon writes his female characters lacks nuance and insight and at some points is actually just plain creepy - specifically creepy is the way he writes female teenage sexuality...YUCK! Overall this is an engaging story and seems largely historically accurate. I am just really ...more
Jul 20, 2009 rated it really liked it
See review of The Cellist of Sarajevo - reading these two books in tandem was a rich experience. Scott Simon, the reporter on NPR, brings that keen eye and ear to this novel about the first few months of the siege of Sarajevo. The protagonist is a high school basketball star who is the victim of "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims, brutalized and forced to flee to the other side of the river that bisects the city. Because of her athletic ability, she is recruited as a sniper. The evolution of her ...more
Jan 16, 2016 rated it liked it
This is a raw, compelling depiction of how warfare affects local populations. For those who are bothered by it, the f-bomb makes many appearances and there are some very graphic scenes, but that is how war and terrorism really are. The plot becomes a bit convoluted near the end, and at one point I thought I must have skipped a chapter. Scott Simon writes a powerful narrative with an ending I did not expect.
Jan 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: abs-favorites
I love a war-time novel and I had some students that were from Sarajevo, so I read this book to understand a little bit more about what happened in that city. It is a sad novel that really tears at your moral heart strings. It focuses on what people do in war-time that they would NEVER do in "normal" life. I really loved the role of the main character (Irena)'s parrot. Here we have this exotic African parrot in war-torn Sarajevo. The parrot becomes a symbol of the family's survival.
Good book.
Bethany Smith
May 17, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: unfinished
The idea of this novel intrigued me. But when I couldn't make it through the first chapter without reading about a sexual encounter and unnecessary cussing in almost every dialogue, I had to abandon it.If a reader isn't bothered by the intensity of those things, this has the potential to be a good book. I just couldn't bring myself to finish it.
Les Aucoin
Oct 22, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: literary-fiction
Captivating picture of the moment-to-moments between life and death experienced by Sarajevo Muslims in the Bosnian war. Based on Simon's NPR coverage of the war. Scott's novel reads like that of a veteran of long fiction. Puddled ending, though, a flaw in a lot of modern fiction.
Jul 28, 2008 rated it really liked it
A great read. It's a coming of age story of a young girl in Sarajevo. The twist is she comes of age as a sniper. I am learning a lot about the conflict between the Muslims and Serbs, made more interesting by the recent capture of Karadzic who is regularly mentioned in the story.
Jun 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
I read this book as I was preparing for a trip to Sarajevo. Beautifully written with good characters, but a tough read. Civil war, ethnic cleansing -- we have no idea what hell that it is, even as some segments of our society flirt with the idea.
Mar 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: listen-list-2012
This title was a Listen-Alike selection for the 2012 Listen List. For a complete list of winners and listen-alikes, please visit
Steven Raszewski
Feb 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
Good story, reminds me of City of Thieves. Many times historical fiction tells the story much better than nonfiction.
Nancy Rankin
Sep 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: audio
Beautifully written but very sad.
Amra Pajalic
Sep 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Before the war Irena is a basketball star, an athlete who only cares about her game. Then the Balkan War breaks out in Sarajevo and she and her family are expelled from their suburb by Serbs. She is recruited to be a sniper because of her athleticism but she yearns for the regular things a teenage girl does, for her life to be normal. Scott has written an amazing novel that captures the brutality of war, while also showing the heart that is needed to survive the sometimes ridiculous and brutal ...more
Dec 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This has been on my "to read" list since it was published. I have been a fan of Scott Simon's reportage and commentary since becoming an NPR listener more than twenty-five years ago.

This was a well crafted story about a difficult time and place. Like all of us, each character had strengths and weaknesses. There were no cartoon heroes or villains here.

I enjoyed the story insofar as a story of this type can be enjoyed and recommend it to anyone interested in a story of a place that might be
Jude Johnson
Apr 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I found this story heart wrenching - funny at times, sad because we know what happened in Sarajevo, and ultimately tragic. It's a well told tale based on Mr. Simon's experiences as a war journalist in Bosnia, so those who expect rainbows and happy butterflies at the end of every book they read should probably not bother. But if you want a tale to make you feel the roller coaster of human emotions, I highly recommend this one.
Scott Ralph
Aug 11, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting perspective from a journalist viewpoint. As a fiction writer he is competent.
Carol Scheidenhelm
Oct 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
powerful story of the utter futility of war.
J.K. George
Jun 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2007-books
Simon puts us in the middle of Sarajevo during the siege. A nasty, cruel war. We are there with real people.
May 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Disturbing facts of the war in Bosnia (1992-95) & the siege of Sarajevo.
Not enough history/back story--why did the Serbs so hate the Muslims & other non Serbs? Yugoslavia broke up into its ethnic--religious sectors when the USSR ended.
The Serbs are portrayed as indiscriminate killers--monsters, pitted against innocent peaceful Muslims. The author never provides a clear motive for either side.

This is the historical fiction story of a Muslim school girl Irena, her family, friends and
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SCOTT SIMON is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters, having reported from all over the world and from many wars. He is now the award-winning host of Weekend Edition Saturday. With over 4 million listeners it is the most-listened to news program on NPR. Simon has won a Peabody and an Emmy for his reporting and also has over 1.2 million followers on Twitter.