The Merit Birds by Kelley Powell: Book Release May 2, 2015.

May 1, 2015

Book Review by:View Post
Sharon Powers.

     I grew up in the Sacramento Valley in California. I love driving down the roads smelling the different seasons as they come and go, the rice paddies, the sweet smell of harvest time as the alfalfa is cut, the corn and sunflowers harvested, and the tomatoes shipped off to the cannery. I love the wet earthy smell after a rain and crazy as it seems, I even love the dry, hot valley summer sun. And though the terrain is somewhat flat until you get to the coastal mountain range, I have come to love the wide open landscape and the many oaks that populate the valley and foothills.
     I have traveled to other places, like Ireland, where the beauty of the landscape cannot be denied. Yet, I always long for home, so here I am. I live where the sights, smells, and sounds are engraved on my mind and fill my memories with their delights.
     In our story, today, The Merit Birds, by Kelley Powell, we meet Cameron (Cam) who loves his home in Ottawa, Canada. Cam loves his basketball team and the welcome familiarity of the area in which he lived. And, like a plant, Cam was uprooted and planted in the alien environment of Vientiane, Laos; moreover, since Cam could not speak the language of the people of the area, didn’t have his basketball team and his comfortable, familiar, homeland, Cam felt uprooted, resentful and angry. So, will Cam ever fit into this new environment? And, will he ever be able to let go of his anger?
Elgin Street, Downtown Ottawa. [3]

This is a simple little street in Vientiane, Laos. [4]
     At some point in our lives most of us feel that we’ve been stopped from going somewhere or doing something that we really wanted to do. This may be true for most teens as they gradually grow into adulthood and want to get on with their lives. Let’s see what Cam does to adjust to this new life.
   Cam, an eighteen-year-old young man, loves Canada, and loves his Ottawa basketball team, but he doesn’t love being forced from his Canadian home to live in a strange country, Laos. Cam’s mother, heading for a new job in Vientiane, Laos, must take Cam with her to this strange alien country. Although moving with his mom to Laos was not an experience he looked forward to, Cam gradually began feeling more comfortable when he makes friends with a young neighborhood man named Somchai. 

Merit birds for sale. These birds can die of hunger before they
even get a chance to be bought and released. Many who are
released hardly have enough energy to fly away. See article:
Bird Merit Release at Phnom Penh Riverside[5] These birds
are like the prisoners in the story we review, The Merit Birds.

Cam begins to feel somewhat better with Somchai’s friendship and, even more so, when Cam begins to fall in love with a beautiful young Southeast Asian woman by the name of Nok. Cam not only learns to accept his life as it is, but also learns about building up merit for oneself, or karma, from Nok–through the simple, soulful acts of doing good deeds for others, or by buying caged birds–often called “merit birds,”–in the market and releasing them to freedom.


One of the rules of KARMA
that Cam learns from Nok. [6]


     It is just when Cam is finally settling into this life in Vientiane, acquiring a true friend and having a romance with a beautiful Southeast Asian woman, that his life takes a jarring change. Tragedy strikes, and Cam is accused of murder and jailed…now, he is like the caged birds.



     What will happen to Cam? Will he face the death penalty? Cam despairs as he daily faces hunger, hard labor, and possible torture at the hands of his jailers. Little does Cam know that his freedom will only come if the murderer turns himself in and confesses.




     When I started reading this book and read the prologue, I put the book down and tried numerous times to pick it up and begin reading again. The prologue dealt with a murderer watching a funeral procession of a character, I surmised, was a major character. I didn’t want to read any more of the story. Still, I struggled with reading it for a couple of weeks, but eventually, knowing I had this blog post to publish, picked up the book and began reading again. I am not sorry I did.
In the book and movie, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy
is swept away by a tornado and lands in Oz.[7]
     On its face, the story about Cameron (Cam) from Ottawa, uprooted and planted again in Laos, is a story that many people face, not unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, who is swept up and away by a tornado and dropped in a land of witches and munchkins. Although Cam didn’t land in Oz, he did face things he did not understand and trying to communicate in a language he did not speak.
     So, literally, this could be anyone facing a new situation they may not want, and having to plunge feet first into a life that feels not like home. The author gives us this very situation because she knows we all have had similar experiences, if not similar feelings; now we can identify with Cam, no matter the age of the reader. Plus, now that we know what “merit birds” are, and we know that Cam’s girlfriend, Nok, taught Cam about gaining merit for himself, we might deduce that Cam will learn some painful lessons. And he does.
     The author Kelley Powell, does something very beautiful with her story weaving. Since the title of the book is, The Merit Birds, we need to look very closely at the title to see what we might garner about the rest of the book. It may not sound like much of a trick, but I learned in school that authors often name their books in such a way as to name it, first, for the obvious; here, it is the poor little merit birds being sold from cages in the market.
     Second, I also learned that authors use the first book naming trick to point the way to the second, or more, meanings in the story. In other words, I learned that I had to look beyond the author’s obvious title and seek out a second meaning.
     I have a secret tool in my arsenal that helps me determine where to look in any story. The secret question I ask myself whenever I am trying to figure out the tie-in from the title to theme threads is as follows: “Who is (or who are) the real ___________ ? In the case of Kelley Powell’s book, we should ask, “Who are the real merit birds ? When I was in college and writing a paper on The Merchant of Venice, I had a much easier time by asking, “Who is the real merchant of Venice?” It helped a lot, and I got an A on my paper. Now you have a neat trick you can use to help you assess books that you read. So, now that we have this new tool, let’s look at Kelly Powell’s book and put the tool to practice.
From the book: This is (the monk) Sai’s One Minute Breath instructions. [8]
     To begin, Kelley Powell uses Cam as a vehicle to point out the main theme of the story: That we all can help save others just by putting ourselves out there at, well, whatever the cost may be, and by doing so, we can save not only others, but ourselves, as well…all are, in essence, merit birds. Who are the real merit birds?
     Well, since we realize we are not just looking at the obvious reason for the title (the caged merit birds in cages in the market), we should start looking throughout the book at anyone who is in some sort of cage (physical, mental, or emotional), and someone teaching or freeing the caged bird substitute (i.e. Cam).
     My personal favorite example of this trope is the monk who gains merit by teaching–and in essence freeing–Cam from his anger and self preoccupation. I don’t want to mislead you, because Cam actually had many teachers in the book from Nok, and Somchai (Cam’s friend), to the monk and Cam’s mother. I hope you enjoy using this new tool to enrich your reading and understanding of books.
     Remember that when you are seeking a theme in a novel, themes are not patently obvious; the theme is ascertained by looking at the characters in a book, action that is occurring, and perhaps even the setting of the novel. The author will not tell you what the main theme is about, it takes detective work to figure it out for yourself. This is why I have given you one little tool about the book’s title to help you with finding major themes. Good luck.
     Finally, I would love to tell you more because I am so excited about this book. I just can’t divulge to you about what leads up to the climax or what happens in the climax, itself. I would have to give away the whole of the plot to do that. Just know that Kelley Powell writes a very realistic portrayal of life that is nothing short of high adventure, action, and a contemplative psychological portrayal of a young man growing into…himself. We also see a very realistic slice of life in Laos, as well as a realistic portrayal of a young man coming of age. [11]
     This book is not one for small children or those sensitive to physical trauma, violence, and death. Those of a sensitive nature should consider the book’s material before beginning reading.
     Given all the points I have addressed, above, I rate this wonderful and engaging book four stars out of five. Consider buying and reading this beautiful portrait of Canada and Laos and the wonderful and horrible people that inhabit both countries. The story is satisfying and emotionally gratifying.
     Thank you for joining me this week as we got to look at a book that will be out very soon for your reading pleasure (May 2, 2015). My next blog post we will be visiting the world of the imagination and fantasy as we look at Marvel’s Age of Ultron and Marvel’s Age of Ultron Companion by Brian Michael Bendis. The U.S. movie release date is May 1, 2015.     I know many fans want to know about these books; I will be providing photographs of my own graphic novel and companion guide so that you will get a chance to see more about the books before you commit to purchasing it for yourself or for a family member or friend fan. Thank you, again, for visiting my blog and checking out this wonderful NetGalley book, The Merit Birdsby Kelley Powell.


Until next time…
This flower is a double white Rose of Sharon. [14]

…many happy pages of reading!

All my love,


[1] The Merit Birds.” Retrieved 04-26-15.
[2] DSC_3459 (web).” [Jeff Chea] [sunflowers in Sacramento Valley] Retrieved 04-29-15.
[3] Elgin Street in Downtown Ottawa.” [photo only] Retrieved 04-29-15.
[4] Experimental Travel in Vientiane, Laos.” Retrieved 04-29-15.
[5] Bird Merit Release at Phnom Penh Riverside.” [12-11-12; Cambodia Birding News] Retrieved 04-30-15.
[6] Karma Quotes.” Retrieved 04-30-15.
[7] Hey Dorothy – There’s an App for That! Retrieved 04-30-15.
[*] NetGalley.” Retrieved 04-30-15.
[8] One Minute Breath.” [10-20-14; urban yoga chicago] Retrieved 04-30-15.
[9] Theme: The Central Message.” Retrieved 04-30-15.
[10] Be Your Own Detective.” Retrieved 04-30-15.
[11] Theme.” Retrieved 04-30-15.
[12] Four Stars out of 5.” Retrieved 04-30-15.
[13] Age of Ultron.” [Kelley Powell] Retrieved 04-26-15.
[14] Pictures From My Garden.” Retrieved 03-29-15.

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