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)

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Finally, my last book for the Fall Into Reading Challenge 2009.  I made very good time despite adding two more books to the list.  But early as it is, I’ll have to wrap up as the Holidays draw near and my chances to read more books decrease as things are starting to get hectic.

I’ve wet my feet in breadmaking and I’m experimenting on perfecting scrumptious cinnamon rolls and ensaimadas (Filipino brioche) for gift-giving.    As I’ve never baked anything except for the occasional brownies, I forsee myself ambitiously wrestling with bread recipes, baking my day away, and snatching up my book only in between rising times.  So, let’s see how many more reviews I can dish out.

This book was a great finale to the challenge, albeit  a dark and brooding one.

Author :  Tobsha Learner

Publication Date :  January 2, 2007  (Mass Market Paperback)

Publisher :  Tor Books

ISBN-10: 0765350467

ISBN-13: 978-0765350466

No. of pages :  480

The Story :

Ruth bas Elazar Saul is daughter of the chief rabbi of the Jewish quarter of Cologne and a very good midwife with very unconventional methods.  Her  advanced  midwifery skills coupled with her studies in Kabbalah, taints Ruth’s reputation with suspicions of witchcraft in an era paranoid about heretics and devil worshippers.

She becomes the unfortunate target of the malevolent obsession of a Spanish friar and head of the Inquisition to Cologne.  Solitario takes his vengeance on an unknowing Ruth simply because she is the daughter of the woman who had jilted him and shredded his pride many years back.  Ruth is tried for witchcraft; but in the process gains the interest of the cleric, Detlef  von Tennen, cousin and close aide to the Archbishop of Cologne.

Detlef falls madly in love with Ruth and does everything in his power to avert her fate.  He succeeds and both start a love affair that in its time,  was unforgivable to both Jews and Catholics alike.  Amid this difficult union, Ruth and Detlef must struggle to live in a dangerous century at war with new philosophies threatening to overthrow its established beliefs, power and social structures.

The Review :

The book opens with “a woman writhing in labor”  which gave me the correct impression that I’d have a toe curling time with this one.

Learner is  an intense,  graphic writer who writes with a sensuality that is both raw and elegant.  Her torture scenes feel  horrendously realistic ; her descriptions of everyday life and her characterizations are rich and intimate, full of vivid details of seventeenth century Cologne, its lifestyle, its predominant psyche, and its prevailing social and religious atmosphere.

This novel is first and foremost a microcosmic representation of  a Europe inexorably marching toward the Age of Enlightenment, torn at one end by traditional society clinging tenaciously and fearfully to established institutions of power, thoughts, and morals and on the other, by radical philosophies and emerging new acceptances by free thinkers or the libertines of that time.

Solitario, the Spanish  Inquisitor, is the embodiment of the 17th century Roman Catholic Church, an institution reacting dangerously to threats to  its centuries-old European dominance by the emergence of new thoughts, values, mores and the new Protestant religion.  He is obsessed about bringing onto the Inquisition table  the Jewess, Ruth, and the breakaway cleric, Detlef, both of whom represent radical opposition to the faith which have begun to erode the Church’s right to absolute power.

Stories like these make me glad I was born in the 20th century, where we have education, modern conveniences, good medical knowledge and practices, and in most parts of the world, respect and freedom for all sorts of religions and ideas.  Imagine living in fear of torture and death because your ideas are heretically opposed to the prevailing beliefs of a Church which hold both  secular and spiritual domains in its grip.

It was also interesting for me to find out that Judaism has its own brand of occultism.  It has its own demons, grimoire, incantations, spells, and talismans.  The Kabbalah is practiced by a certain Jewish sect which does not find ready acceptance in the general Jewish populace; but nevertheless is a recognized albeit esoteric branch of the Jewish religion.

To Read Or Not To Read :

I have read reviews that slam this book for its love angle and gratuitous sex (which I didn’t find unwarranted at all).  The romance here is simply a support angle to the overall story of the book and is not the author’s point at all.  So if you are looking for a nice historical romance,  pass this up; this novel would be way out in left field.

However,  if you just want a well written story with a good historical background, The Witch of Cologne will be just the thing.  Although, be prepared for a very dark and somber tone (well matched with the era) throughout its entirety and for a substantial amount of graphic elements assiduously detailed in this book.

In A Nutshell :

Learner’s unconventional writing style marries quite well with her  objective of presenting a glimpse of medieval Europe in the cusp of social change, a dark and fearful transition for many,  when institutions of power, both political and religious, clawed desperately to maintain the status quo.  The story poses intelligent questions, some of which must have influenced how modern Europe evolved.

Don’t let the suggestive cover fool you into thinking this book is a shallow, sleazy read.  The book has the complexity and depth that makes it interesting and well worth your while — a perfect example  to heed the the adage:   “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

My Mark  :  Outstanding