Author :  Tom Rob Smith

Publication Date :  April 29, 2008  (Hardcover)

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

ISBN-10: 0446402389

ISBN-13: 978-0446402385

No. of pages : 448

The Story :

It is 1953.  Stalinist Russia is adamant at being a utopian state  where equality and  contentment are the core of its existence.  For where contentment thrives, there could be no crime or evil, the spawns of Western capitalism.

Leo Demidov is an officer of the MGB, the state secret police and guardian of these ideals.  Leo believes in the system and sees the necessity of arresting anyone that is remotely suspected of undermining those very goals.  Unfortunately in an environment that breeds mistrust, Leo falls victim to suspicion as well.

With a humiliating demotion in which he and his wife, Raisa, are shipped to a small town and his parents sent to live in squalor, Leo comes to terms with finally realizing the futility and wrongness of the communist system.

Meanwhile, the impossible has been happening.   Children are being murdered across one side of the country and all murders are brutally done in the same fashion.  A serial killer is on the loose,  but authorities refuse to consider the possibility of a Western style criminal in their midst.

To survive emotionally, Leo must have a purpose.  With a strong patriotic sense despite his disappointment in the government, Leo with his wife, Raisa, make it their personal missions to stop the murders and prove the existence of an insane killer,  one no one wants to admit to.

The Review

If I were to list books that have made an impression on me, Child 44 would definitely make that list.  It opens with a gripping first chapter which promises to keep you glued to the book ’til its end.

Tom Rob Smith does an admirable job of depicting the Soviet Union under the dangerous and repressive regime of Stalin with vivid descriptions of a dystopian society (only this was real) blanketed in fear, mistrust, and poverty.  His well-reasearched background aptly describes  Stalinist Russia where  its control-paranoid government assumed guilt until innocence was proven so that most of those arrested were summarily sentenced without adequate trial.  Moreover, in the pursuit of contentment and equality,  ideals of a communist society, it  was inconceivable for the system to admit to the existence of crime outside the political sphere;  hence criminal acts such as serial killing was an aberrant phenomenon maintained to be strictly a by-product of Western freedom and capitalism and therefore cannot exist logically in a communist state.

It is in this environment that his character, Leo, must root out a serial killer, defying official state denials of the existence of such a criminal.  Leo,  is an ardent believer of the Soviet system.  Everything Leo works for is for the collective  good.  As a ranking officer of the KGB’s predecessor, the MGB, he flushes out dissident citizens or those deemed to be dangerous to the state’s equilibrium and ideals.    But when Leo suddenly realizes that his latest prisoner was undoubtedly innocent,  his purpose of helping maintain the perfect state crashes to meaninglessness.   A real patriot at heart and despite a humiliating demotion, he decides to still have faith in his country , just not in his government, and sets about making a personal mission of rooting out a serial child killer, despite the dangers of incurring the disapproval of the MGB.

Smith injects great realism in this book.  His very much flawed hero deals with events that rarely reward his efforts,  believably true in such a milieu.   Moreover, he draws from genuine events in Russian history such as the Holodomor, the horrendous famine between 1932-1933 where millions, especially in the Ukraine, perished of starvation.  Accounts have mentioned numerous cases of cannibalism at this time.  These, the Gulags,  the excesses of  party leaders, the general misery and hopelessness  were hushed behind an Iron Curtain which trapped all that did not conform to the Communist ideals of a utopia.    The angle of the serial killer is patterned after a true-to-life Soviet child murderer,  Andrei Chikatilo, nicknamed The Butcher of Rostov or The Red Ripper, who sexually abused, tortured, and murdered women and children,  from 1978-1990.  The author simply borrows his story and places it within the timeframe of 1953.

The writing is predominantly narrative;  characters’ spoken lines aren’t many and are all in italics, a rather uncommon lay-out which veers from the traditional presentation of a dialogue.   It’s refreshingly different but it works quite well.

As a debut novel, Child 44 is superb.  The strongest asset of this book  is it’s well developed atmosphere.  The setting is palpable, the characters and events seem so real that I could not stop turning the pages until I reached the end at 3:30 a.m.  However, it isn’t perfect and sadly, events toward the ending came out a bit contrived and questionable which tarnished the reading experience a bit.   It is just a teeny blight, however, not enough to render the book a disappointment.    In fact, other readers may be perfectly happy with its conclusion.   Overall, a marvelous, marvelous read!


My Mark :  Outstanding!   (Would have merited Excellence, if not for that little smudge)

Advertisements

Author :  Allan Folsom

Date of Publication :  May 1999  (mass paperback)

Publisher :  Warner Books

ISBN-10: 0446604534

No. of pages :  667

The Story :

A Cardinal’s confession seals Father Daniel Addison’s fate as a VIP target of a conspiracy rooted in the highest echelons of the Vatican.  Before he disappears, he leaves a desperate message for his brother, Harry.  The cardinal vicar of Rome is suddenly assassinated and Father Daniel is blamed. Soon after, a bus explodes with Father Daniel onboard.

Harry Addision flies to Italy to claim his brother’s body, only to discover that his brother is alive but missing and himself, framed for the murder of an Italian policeman.  An American on the run in a foreign country, Harry relies on his wits and luck while on the trail of his brother, to unravel the horrific conspiracy he had unwittingly become the target of.

The Review :

Folsom tries to a spin a thriller of a grandiose scale and fails miserably.  The basis of his conspiracy encompasses elements too immense in scale and too opposite (i.e. China, the Vatican) to be woven together believably.  Well, at least by his attempts in this book.  The plot to get the Vatican to have a strong religious hold in China is just way too preposterous.

Even the characters behave unrealistically, by whom I mean:  the evil Cardinal who believes he is the reincarnation of Alexander the Great (Catholics do not believe in reincarnation);  a young nun who just has the temerity to face a man in a sheer nightgown; a very sick priest still able to fight from a wheelchair.  Moreover, the sex scenes seem forced into the story.  The story could actually do without them.

On the whole, though, Day of Confession isn’t a very bad read, if you like books equivalent to B movies.  As a thriller, it still fast-paced enough;  it’s just some stuff are hard to swallow.

In A Nutshell :

This is a book to skip if you have other options in line.  Day of Confession feels like a contrived piece by an author who needed to come up with something for a deadline.

If you were to look into other reviews, it seems people picked this up on the merit of Folsom’s earlier work, Day After Tomorrow, which everyone agrees was a smashing good thriller.  I’ve read Machiavelli Covenant last year (my review here) and it was rather enjoyable.  Perhaps, Day of Confession just happened to be this writer’s dud.

My Mark  :  Fair

After two books on the supernatural in succession, I had the taste for something more grounded, more real.  Ironically, Exile was in my list for the Fall To Reading Challenge.  It’s a novel that can’t be anything but so painfully present— a fictitious story but one wholly based on current world events, dealing  in particular with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Author :  Richard North Patterson

Publication Date :  January 9, 2007  (Hardcover – 1st edition)

Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.

ISBN-10: 0805079475

ISBN-13: 978-0805079470

No. of pages :  576

The Story:

The hopes for a beginning toward peace between Israel and its Palestinian inhabitants are dashed when Jewish Prime Minister Amos Ben-Aron is assassinated by a Palestinian suicide bomber on American soil.

A brilliant Jewish lawyer and  promising politician,  David,  witnesses the horrifying murder of the man whom he admires and believes to be the catalyst for peace in the Middle East.  Suddenly he gets a call from a woman whom he had allowed himself to forget.  Hana Arif, the Palestinian law student he had been helplessly in love with  thirteen years ago,  suddenly calls and says she has been accused of being instrumental to the crime.   Would David help her?

Against the certainty of becoming a pariah in his Jewish community, of irredeemably breaking his engagement with his Jewish fiance,  and of wiping out the brilliant political career path he had been so ambitious of, David with his ideals and buried passion, takes up the cudgels of a seemingly impossible case to exonerate Hana.

The case impels him to take a closer look at his culture and at the long-standing enmity between Palestinians and Jews, by going through their histories and understanding both sides’ perspectives.  David follows a dangerous trail for information which takes him to Israel, the West Bank,  and Lebanon as he chases the elusive truth to save his client.

The Review :

I am writing this review just after I have turned the last page of this book.  I’ve been so riveted by it, turning page after page well into the night, as I came to understand much more about the volatile Palestinian-Israeli crisis.

Patterson has written a rare combination of a page-turner and an educational read which explains the present complex issues in the Middle East conflict.   Although couched in fiction, this book is a definite eye-opener  to those who do not understand or had been indifferent to the crisis that presently is, I believe, the greatest and most urgent threat to world peace.

Exile is the type of fiction novel that through its entertainment value, compels you to know more beyond it.  I am inspired to research more on the subject of the ongoing war between the Jews, Palestinians, and the Arab world at large.  It is scary in its magnitude of hatred and seemingly hopeless for its dearth of solution as each side believes so absolutely in the right of its cause.   Basically a war of land rights and sovereignty,  it draws its complexities from bringing  religion, racial history and culture, internal factions, and international politics into the fray, a tangle of elements that cannot be extricated singly to make solutions.

Patterson’s courtroom scenes are energetic,  intense, and a good read.  There is a lot going for this book as a suspense-crime-courtroom-thriller.  But the true merit of this book comes from the extensively researched issues backgounding this novel and the humane and impartial way the author represents the conflict for both sides that one cannot help but be emotionally moved at the plight of both Palestinians and Jews.

The novel never takes sides.  It simply presents the conflict from both perspectives and leaves it up to you to decide who is right.  Since it is impossible for one to make such an opinion with this book alone, Exile goads you to delve and learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with an open  and unbiased  mind.  Current events will never seem so one-dimensional and so distant after this.

To Read Or Not To Read:

Indeed, an important read!  To those, like me, who have been partially oblivious to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, this book should constitute the top of your TBR pile.  This novel is a good starter to point our way toward informing ourselves of a current volatile dilemma facing the world today.   Muslim, Christian, Jew, atheist…whatever your leanings, we still cannot ignore that we are all inextricably connected and therefore will be involved, one way or another,  in this war.

It’s a thick novel but once you’re in it, you’d never feel its length.  In fact, you may end up wanting to know much more.

In A Nutshell:

Exile has successfully given an impartial yet emotional account of the Mid-East crisis.  It is not a finger-pointer ; no side is singled out to blame for starting this whole mess.  As it is, it is everyone and no one and but really the sordid side of human nature that has foisted this problem on us all.  As the author aptly writes:

“…The Promised Land, which many of each side believed was promised to them alone, might be consumed not merely by hatred and violence but also by the most banal of human faults—a failure to imagine the life of another.  The only common denominator of occupation was that it degraded everyone.” —- p. 401

“You know what amazes me, Zev?  it’s that so many Jews and Palestinians don’t give a damn about one another’s stories.  Too many Palestinians don’t grasp why three thousand years of death and persecution make Jews want their own homeland, or how suicide bombings alienate Jews and extend the occupation.   Too many Jews refuse to acknowledge their role in the misery of Palestinians since 1948, or that the daily toll of occupation helps fuel more hatred and violence.  So both become cliches:  Jews are victims and oppressors; Palestinians are victims and terrorists.  And the cycle of death rolls on… In three short weeks I’ve seen all kinds of suffering, from the families in Haifa to the misery of Hana’s parents.   But they live in different worlds…” — p.  407

Please pick up this book and be aware.  It’s a superb read, a must-read,  and will be well worth your time.

My Mark :  Excellent! +++

To get into the spirit of R.I.P. IV (and as my first read for Fall into Reading 2009),  I settled down under my toasty comforter in a cold room with only my lamp on and this book.  A good way to get spooky-filled thoughts while reading.  The first few pages hit my creepy cravings spot and soon I was on my own towards horrorville.

Author :  Graham Masterton

Date of Publication:  April 29, 2008

Publisher  :  Lesiure Books (mass market paperback)

ISBN-10: 0843957905

ISBN-13: 978-0843957907

No. of pages :  325

The Story :

Three Los Angeles crime lords have allied themselves with black magic through four powerful witches imported from voodoo-practicing countries.  These witches wreak gruesome havoc on the Los Angeles Police Department, undermining its leaders and violently neutralizing law enforcement with regard to their cabal.

Only Detective Dan comes to wholeheartedly believe in witchcraft and seeks to fight fire with fire.  He turns to his neighbour, good Witch Annie, to combat this evil nemesis.  Both have to face hell to save the whole city from this unstoppable evil.

My Review:

At the start, Masterton strongly wields his mighty horror pen, and I think, “Ooooh…yeah!…Finally, something deliciously shivery…”    The first few chapters are riveting, nauseating grippers that dish up scenes like this one:

“Cusack’s stomach churned again, even more violently.  He felt a tickling right at the back of his throat, and he couldn’t stop himself from letting out a cackling retch.  He spat into his hand and spat again, and when he opened it three live cockroaches ran across his fingers and dropped onto the floor…but Cusack was gripped by another hideous spasm, and this time…with his eyes bulging as a huge gush of cockroaches poured out of his mouth and into his lap…”

Just as I’m really into the whole thing, frantically turning page after page, Masterton’s pen starts to gradually peter out of horrific ideas.  It isn’t abrupt but it’s a slow descent toward a lame end so that I am left with just a cold room without the chills. Then I wonder where had that gut-churning terror— the kind that inspired me to keep to the story til 3 a.m.— gone to?

Sigh.  It was kind of a letdown;  I was all so revved up by the voodoo and visceral violence.

Later on it also struck me that if these hideously powerful women had all that magic at their fingertips, why couldn’t they just dispense with the crime lords and be the ruling gang instead?  That’s one angle in the story I felt the author didn’t quite think through.

But hey, it wasn’t all that bad. There are definitely worse out there.  It’s good enough though to get you through a long plane ride, being the fast easy read that it is.

In A Nutshell :

Masterton is a multi-awarded author of the horror genre.  But since even multi-awarded authors have their duds; I guess “The 5th Witch” has to be  one of those efforts that just didn’t work out.  He starts out strong but loses steam along the way so that the novel begins reading like a “B” movie.  Still, some of you may enjoy it especially if you love yucky stuff and gore.  As for me, disgusting and gruesome is ok as long as it’s got a great ending.

My Mark  :   Mediocre

P. S. :

The conclusion also left me in a puzzle.  What was that about the cat?  Didn’t get it….If you do, I would appreciate your two bits on this.