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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.

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Mswas’ CBR-III Review #27 – The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party by Alexander McCall Smith

08/21/2011

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party
The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party by Alexander McCall Smith is the twelfth installment in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.  The proprietor of said agency, Precious Ramotswe, believes that she has seen a ghost  – that of her tiny white van. The other storylines in this novel include the mystery of two cows that have been killed, the return of Mma Makutsi’s nemesis, Violet Sephotho, and the impending nuptials of Mma Makutsi and Phuti Radiphuti.

I just love this series. Finding a new one on the shelf is like a little present, just for me. McCall Smith has a way with a simple storyline of a once loved van being seen in the streets, and makes it quietly thrilling. We’ve come to know and love all of the characters in the series and they all make an appearance in this novel. Mr Maketoni’s apprentices have a good bit of the storyline dedicated to them, and it’s nice to see Mma Makutsi taking the time out of her wedding preparations to address “the Charlie problem” – twins born out of wedlock.

But McCall Smith is never preachy, and his characters quietly find their way to thoughtful and kind resolutions. That’s something we could all use a little more of in our lives.

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Mswas’ CBR-III Review #26 – I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to The Blind Side, and Beyond by Michael Oher

08/21/2011

My brother and his wife are huge Ravens fans, and I think one of them had forwarded me something about Michael Oher early on in the making of The Blind Side. That’s one of those movies that we constantly have  on in our house, so I was really excited to find I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to The Blind Side, and Beyond by Michael Oher on the shelf at the library.

Of course I knew that there would be discrepancies between the movie and Oher’s life, but hearing the story of his life in his own voice, I was really surprised about what was left out of the movie: how close Oher’s family was, how driven Oher was as a kid, and more.

But Oher is kind and straightforward about it. He states his goals right up front: this book will  “make sense out of it all” – his life, truth versus fiction. But it’s Oher’s second goal, to reach out to children who are in the custody of the state like he was and explain exactly what happened to him, what he thought was happening at the time and how he got through it, but also what the state was really trying to do for him and his family.

There was one woman who we were especially afraid of: Bobbie Spivey. She was a no-nonsense social worker in Memphis who always seemed to be snooping around, talking to neighbors, asking questions about our family and living situation, and trying to figure out what was going on…Of course now when I look back on it, I realize that she genuinely cared about our well-being and safety. She didn’t want us having to live in terrible conditions or missing out on an education. She had our best interests at hear and was fighting to give us a chance. But as kids, all we could see her as was the lady who was going to take us away from one another. So in our minds, she was just someone mean who didn’t want our family to live together.

Oher sprinkles advice and lessons throughout the book, but the twenty pages or so – the last chapter, he really just sits down and lays it all out for kids who might not have someone to give them fatherly advice: if you want to be a writer, read a lot; seek positive influences; learn how to manage your money; and more. With the success of The Blind Side, I hope there are a lot of kids who are interested in learning more about Oher and pick up this book, and so does Oher.

While I may quibble with how I was depicted in the movie, I am truly grateful that my story has been such an inspiration. I hope it continues to inspire people to step up to help–to tutor, to coach, to become a foster parent. And I hope struggling kids are inspired to make choices that will empower them in life. My story is their story. Let’s beat the odds together.

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Mswas’ CBR-III Review #25 – God Said, Ha! by Julia Sweeney

08/21/2011

I heard Julia Sweeney being interviewed on NPR recently about atheism, and decided to get one of her books. God Said, “Ha!” is an account of her brother’s battle and loss of life to cancer. I like Sweeney a lot, and her book is just as funny and touching as she is.

I recently reviewed Betty White’s book where I commented that it was lacking due to the  wide margins and white space. God Said, “Ha!” is similar in format, but what I think works here is that it’s conversational and brief about a very hard subject, whereas the other book just muses about life and some of the things Betty White has done lately. God Said, Ha! is definitely Sweeney’s voice. And while the book is really about Mike’s cancer, and then Sweeney’s own cancer, her stories about her parents and family are hysterically precise.

My mother also has a thing about elevators. I discovered this while we were at the hospital in Rochester, where we took elevators many, many times a day. My mother would always act as if she were seeing an elevator for the first time, that it was some kind of miracle invention and she would react with awe whenever we approached one. Every single time.

Sweeney’s keen observations are particularly poignant as her brother’s health really fails. The passage about his actual passing was a tearjerker, and hit very close to home. I won’t reprint it here, but it was really sweet.

I would also encourage a library borrow on this one, due to its brevity. But God Said, “Ha!” is worth it.