Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier: CBR5 #1

02/06/2013

runawy15705011As the coordinator of Cannonball Read 5, I just don’t have a lot of time to sit down and blog my reviews these days. I might post something on Goodreads, or exclaim! on! Facebook! that THIS BOOK is just the best. But it’s really got to be special to make me write a post.

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier is just that.

I’ve been a fan of Chevalier since I read Girl with a Pearl Earring, but some of her later works I found uneven or couldn’t finish. The Chevalier name was enough, however, to make me pick this book up and skim the premise at the library. The fact that it was from the library made me take it home. (That’s one library asset that I think is so unappreciated – the ability to check something out with no financial risk, the “What the heck” factor, if you will.)

The Last Runaway is the story of Honor Bright, an English Quaker who accompanies her sister Grace to  Ohio in 1850. Honor had been jilted and impulsively fled across the Atlantic with her sister who was engaged to marry a former neighbor, now an American. Honor’s circumstances turn tragic in the first few pages, and she’s forced to rely on people who are essentially strangers in an unfamiliar land.

Honor is also a skilled seamstress and quilter, and the details about her sewing rang true and added significantly to the story. Chevalier uses Honor’s thoughts on  the difference between English and Ohioan customs in clothing, sewing, hats, quilting as a segue into comparisons of the  English Friend versus American Friend communities and an examination of the strange American people.

But it’s not just the details of fabric and needles, the book is also set near Oberlin, Ohio, a major conduit of the Underground Railroad. The Fugitive Slave Act had just been passed, and a main character in The Last Runaway, a slave hunter, uses his new rights with impunity. The Quaker role in the abolition movement is not as clear cut as one would suspect, though, and it causes strife between Honor and her family as they struggle with the growing pains of a newly extended family.

The author skillfully weaves the various storylines together through Honor’s eyes, interspersing her story with the letters she has written to and received from England. Minor characters are also vividly drawn, and offset Honor’s quiet ways.  Chevalier deftly concludes the narrative, tying up the ends with “a double back stitch instead of making a knot in the thread.” Honor could only approve.

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Mswas’ CBR-IV Review #3 – The Boys Of Summer by Ciarán West

08/11/2012

The Boys of Summer by Ciarán West

I know Ciarán West through a friend of an online friend. That is to say, not at all, really.

When I saw that he had written a book, I bought it – to help a budding writer – but I didn’t hold out much hope.  As someone who’s known to friends and family as a big reader, and hobby-ish writer, I’ve been given  writing of a LOT of different qualities over the years. Most are people’s first stabs at writing anything at all, and most, honestly, are not very good. Even as the moderator of Cannonball Read IV, authors who’ve approached us with offers of their self-published novels have had skills that, shall we say, vary greatly.

But then, I read the book.

Wow.

West has created such a real world in his novel. Told from the viewpoint of Richie, The Boys Of Summer is the story of one summer week in 1989 Ireland.

It’d been boiling for weeks. Mam said last time we’d a summer like this was in 1977, when she was pregnant with me. I used to wonder what she’s looked like; twelve years younger, with a big belly on her. I seen pictures of her from before that, when she was young; people used to say she was beautiful. She just looked like Mam to me.

We view the events of that week through Richie’s 11-year-old eyes as he deals with the dynamics in the neighborhood, his home, his burgeoning love life, his parents, his friends.

Dermot, Shane, Joe, Dara, Seán, and Richie  hang around together that boring summer, and they pounce on the news that a violent crime against a younger child had been committed in the Quarry. Based on some personal information from one of their own, they decide who they think the culprit is and decide to to investigate.

But this is no Scooby Doo mystery. This is a real story with hard truths that takes a turn into the sinister, and I raced through it all along with the protagonist, Richie. Richie’s interactions with each of his friends, his mother, his father, Marian – the new girl next door, and others in the neighborhood.

Richie is like  little Jack in  Emma Donaghue’s Room. We read the words of his naive view of the world, but we know they are not completely accurate.   In seeing Jack or Richie’s skewed perspectives,  the reader sees the real truth of the matter. Jack, of course, had a completely distorted take on reality, but Richie’s viewpoint rang in that true/false way too at times.

..Mam would get cross if you took too long. ‘It’s just common sense,’ she’d say. She said that about a lot of things I was no good at.

Though the kids’ slang was not in my wheelhouse, I found myself sighing with recognition and approval many times at West’s prose. Richie’s comment over whether to tell Shane about his interactions with Marian.

I felt like telling him straight out what me and her had done. I didn’t though, cos you’re not supposed to tell. I wasn’t a gentleman, but I knew that. 

I also loved his interactions with his Mam.

‘You know I love the bones of you, don’t you?’ She turned off the gas under the kettle, cos it had started whistling.

‘Yeh-huh,’ I could feel a blush coming all over me, and I didn’t want her to see it. I loved her too, but you couldn’t really say it.

And the moment, the moment where the novel turns on a dime, West offers us a fervent hope that can only be dashed. We ride it out to the end, as he ends the novel with a quieter hope, a true hope for the future, for Richie.

I highly recommend this novel, and I am really looking forward to more from Ciarán West.

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Mswas’ CBR-IV Review #2 – Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

01/17/2012

Ready Player One cover.If you are in your forties and did anything with gaming or technology as a kid, go grab Ready Player One by Ernest Cline right now. This is a tremendous debut novel. I am not kidding. Go. Now. I don’t even have to check to see that Cline is pretty much exactly my age (four years younger, drat!). Apologies to both Susan and Libby to whom this book was dedicated, this book was written for mswas.

It’s  over thirty years in the future, and the founder of OASIS, a virtual reality, James Halliday , has died. His will enables a Wonka-esque contest of the digital kind. The tasks? Based in 1980’s computer, movie, and television trivia. Essentially the building blocks of my middle school years. Now I didn’t have as much of a gaming background a some, but I do have a passing knowledge of the essential trivia, and the movies and music I lived through. The mentions of War Games, Atari, Star Wars,  and much much more are more than token nods, they are integral parts of the story.

The fact that Wade and the other gunners are  obsessed with Halliday, and trying to find clues that he embedded in OASIS allows them to constantly assess and show off bits of trivia of the time. Some of the bigger tasks allowed Wade to participate in games or movies of the time; and it was a unique way to experience the movie. Take War Games, for example:

… a young boy walked into the arcade and came over to me.

“Hi David!” he said, his eyes on my game.

I recognized this kid from the movie. His name was Howie. In the film, Matthew Broderick’s character hands his Galaga game off to Howie when he rushes off to school.

“Hi David!” the boy repeated, in the exact same tone. As he spoke this time, his words also appeared as text, superimposed across the bottom of my disp-lay, like subtitles. Below this, flashing red, were the words FINAL DIALOGUE WARNING!

I began to understand. The simulation was warning me this was my final chance to deliver the next line of dialogue from the movie. If I didn’t say the line, I could guess what would probably happen.

Wade and his friends have an immense store of trivia about the time, and Cline works it all together brilliantly. The quest is intriguing and the trivia of the time was right up my alley, but Cline draws his characters vividly as well. He puts us clearly on Wade’s side, an underdog; and we root for him and the others as sympathetic characters. The scenes when they finally all meet each other in person were excellent, and Cline makes a strong point about the democracy of anonymity.

I don’t know how Cline can follow this up. To me it was just perfect. 5 stars for sure.

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Mswas’ CBR-IV Review #1 – Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indridason

01/14/2012

Operation Napoleon Arnaldur Indridason

“A blizzard raged on the glacier.

He could see nothing ahead, could barely make out the compass in his hand. He could not turn back even if he wanted to.”

So begins Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indridason. I picked this one up off the new book shelf at the library, hoping for something I could immerse myself in and speed through at a breakneck pace, turning pages like my life depended on it. Success!

This international thriller begins in 1945  Iceland, where a German bomber soars through the air,  all too close to a farm at the foot of a glacier. The two brothers stand outside, listening for the inevitable crash. But they head nothing. The plane does crash, but goes unheard and undiscovered, and the glacier eventually seals the plane and the fate of those inside.

Coming to present day, we meet Elias, a young man who inadvertently stumbles upon the wreck and the U.S. Army trying to remove it. He manages to contact his sister, Kristin, before vanishing, and the tale picks up with Kristin’s tale, a rollercoaster of a story.

The secret of the plane and its cargo is so important and embedded in Army procedure and history that no holds are barred in tracking and dealing with any unauthorized knowledge of the crash site. Agents are on to Kristin practically before the phone call with Elias ends, and she sets off on the run.

Enlisting the help of friends, strangers and aquaintances, Kristin decides to find her brother or his fate.  I won’t tell you much more than that, because I wouldn’t want to reveal any of  Indridason’s masterfully spun tale of espionage and intrigue in a frozen land. Moving back and forth betwen 1945, later recovery attempts, and modern time, and also between the crash survivors, the men on their missions, and Kristin racing to elude pursuers, the story moves  along at a breakneck pace. We genuinely root for Kristin as she seeks answers and the truth.

5 stars for this one – I highly recommend it.

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Mswas’ CBR-III Review #30-33 – Chet and Bernie series by Spencer Quinn

12/31/2011

Dog On It, by Spencer Quinn

What a great series!  Dog On ItThereby Hangs a Tail, To Fetch a Thief, and The Dog Who Knew Too Much feature two detectives, Chet and Bernie. Our narrator, Chet, happens to be a dog. A former K-9, Chet considers himself Bernie’s partner, and so does Bernie.

Chet is a wonderful narrator, funny, likeable and easily distracted by squirrels and clues alike. Chet’s perception of our world and his inability to understand why humans do some of the things they do are insightfully covered by author, Spencer Quinn. Chet tends to go off on tangents and no tale is told in a straight line.

“Her eyes glistened up. This was always pretty interesting, the crying thing; not the sound–Icould relate to that–but the waterworks, as Bernie called them, especially when Leda was on the producing end. They get upset, humans, and then water comes out of their eyes, especially the women. What is that all about? Bernie gazed down at the ground, shuffled his feet; he didn’t have a handle on it, either, although I’d once seen water seeping out of his own eyes, namely the day Leda had packed up all Charlie’s things. Charlie was their kid–Bernie and Leda’s–and now lived with Leda except for visits. We missed him, me and Bernie.”

Chet’s pretty astute, even when he doesn’t realize it.

The four books in the series were just as enjoyable, one after the other:

Dog On It

In this, the first in the series, we’re introduced to Chet and Bernie as they are hired to find a teenaged girl being held for ransom as her father’s business dealings went South. Russian gangsters, bikers, and a mine figure into Chet and Bernie’s travels. We meet the ex and Bernie’s son, as well as a reporter, Suzie Sanchez. Not everyone is a fan of Chet, or just dogs in general. The mother of the missing girl, asks if Chet is dangerous.

“He won’t bite you.”

Of course I wouldn’t. But the idea was planted in my head, for sure. I could tell by all the saliva suddenly pooling in my mouth.

An excellent first novel, I was hooked.

Thereby Hangs a Tail

The setting for the second novel is the dog show world, and we get to meet another of Chet’s ilk, Princess. We’ve already met Chet’s neighbor, Ike, and while we’re not privy to any other being’s thoughts, Chet’s ideas about Princess are very entertaining.

“The client is a dog?”

I sat up. Bernie was gazing at the photo. I could see it, too. One of my guys was in the picture? Where? And then I spotted her: a tiny fluffball with huge dark eyes, reclining on a satin pillow. I knew satin pillows on account of Leda having had one, although it got chewed up in a kind of frenzy, the details of the episode not too clear in my mind. But that satin taste: so strange and interesting, a vivid memory. I glanced around the Dry Gulch bar: no satin in view.

I went to the pond and lapped up a little drink. Princess appeared beside me. She didn’t have to dip her head to drink, already being right down on pond level. Out came her tongue, so tiny, and she started lapping. Lapping and lapping: it went on and on. How could all that water fit in her? At the same time I noticed how careful she was to keep her paws out of the pond. Why? I had no idea, but began to think that of all the members of the nation within the nation I’d come across in my career, there hadn’t been any like Princess.

To Fetch a Thief

What’s stolen in this the third novel, is big, very big. An elephant named Peanut is stolen from a small travelling circus, and his trainer, Uri, is missing as well.  Bernie takes his son, Charlie, to the circus and lo and behold, they stumble into a mystery! It’s not as trite as that, and the relationship between Chet, Bernie and Charlie is well done. Again we get Chet’s take on another animal, so in some sense this volume is a bit of a copy of the second novel. I still enjoyed it.

The Dog Who Knew Too Much

Another child is in trouble, and his mother has hired Bernie. This time he’s hired to pose as a “friend” of the mother during a visit to the summer camp the boy attends. Suzie Sanchez winds up with a much bigger role in this book, and her interactions with Chet are really great.

Suzie, part way to the car, had stopped and turned toward me. We exchanged looks.

“Ch – et?”

She said that just like Bernie. I left the doorstep and went over to her. We got in the Beetle and backed out of the driveway.

Suzie drove up the street, turned onto the next one, then the next one, and – hey! we were doing the round-the-block trick, one of our best moves, mine and Bernie’s! Suzie was catching on.

Suzie does catch right on, and saves the day if I may say so without being called out for too big of a spoiler.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the Chet and Bernie series so far, and I will definitely be looking for more. I hope you do too.

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Mswas’ CBR-III Review #29 – NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

12/07/2011

NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman was recommended to me by Yossarian and a big thank you to him. As the mother of two daughters, eight and twelve, I know we are in for some tough teen years. This compendium of  new studies in child development were extremely enlightening.

For example, I had heard about the need for a good night’s sleep, of course, and how some high schools were moving to a later start time to let their teens get an extra hour or more of sleep. NurtureShock lays out the details behind it. In children, the brain uses the hours of sleep to synthesize and store memories. With children today averaging an hour less sleep a night than children 30 years ago, this is a huge problem. In fact, many of the traits we associate with adolescence: irritability, lack of at wtention, and mood swings are all traits of sleep deprivation. We’re allowing our kids activities to eat into their sleep time.

For me, that means that I really need to be on the ball to corral the herd into bed in a timely fashion. I do find myself on the computer after dinner, leaving the girls to do what they need to do to get into bed on their own – which they are perfectly capable of doing – but they get distracted and lollygag.  Even an extra half hour of sleep is a bonus.

Another topic that I found very interesting is the effect of praise on a child.

“When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”[During a later, more difficult test]…the two groups of children, divided at random at the study’s start, responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.'” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”

So,  I tried an experiment that afternoon. I had my 8 year old cleaning her room, really reorganizing the closet and under the bed. It was a big job. When she was done, I told her how proud I was and how I could see that she really worked hard. She piped up, “I’m going to find another hard project tomorrow!”

Sounds like the study is right on the mark!

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Mswas’ CBR-III Review #28 – Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva

09/29/2011

Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva is the twelvth installment in his art restorer/spy Gabriel Allon series.  Gabriel Allon is a retired spy, focusing on the restoration of a painting – a hobby, but really his passion. While in London, Allon sees a man he believes to be a suicide bomber. After drawing his weapon on the man, he is tackled by London police and is thus unable to thwart the attack.  Called out of retirement by the head of Israel’s secret intelligence agency, Allon pus his former team back together to hunt down the mastermind responsible.

This series has always been a favorite of mine. A sympathetic character, Allon has lost a lot to terrorism. He’s passionate, skilled, and thoughtful, and his team would do anything for him.  The stories are taut and suspenseful, and Author Daniel Silva  always delivers a great story.

Portrait of a Spy follows the old formula, though, and is rather similar to a previous book in the series – especially with the introduction of a female civilian pressed into espionage at Allon’s request. I did enjoy catching up with the recurring characters, but it was a bit predictable. I do recommend the series, however, and as I always recommend in any series, start with the first book, The Kill Artist.