Friday, June 06, 2014

Book Review: FOR SUCH A TIME

Title: For Such A Time
Author: Kate Breslin
Publisher: Bethany House Publishers
Pages: 430

For Such a Time by Kate Breslin makes the horrors of the Holocaust come alive. We come to know of the unspeakable acts of cruelty that the Nazis perpetrated and how, among other horrible acts, they used hunger as a weapon to break down the Jews.

Hadassah, the heroine of the novel, is a true heroine in every sense of the word. A Jew, she is sent to the concentration camp at Dachau only to find herself spared the horrors there. She is able to cheat death too, all on account of the false papers that her uncle, Mordecai Benjamin, made for her in the name of Stella to prepare for just this kind of eventuality.

Col Aric Von Schmidt, SS commandant at the transit camp at Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia, rescues Stella and takes her to his own home as a secretary. Stella is a “bald, bruised scarecrow of a woman” and there is no reason why the colonel should have picked her for a secretary, other than that he completely believes in the accuracy and validity of her false Aryan papers.

Beginning with hostility, Stella finds herself softening towards him as she becomes aware of his vulnerabilities and also his deep compassion not only to herself but also to the Jews that are prisoners in the transit camp at Theresienstadt.

While Stella herself is comfortable as part of the colonel’s household, she is painfully aware of the horrors that plague her fellow-Jews in the camp. Even though the plight of the Jews at Theresienstadt, despite its severity, is much better than the plight of other Jews in other concentration and death camps. 

Soon Stella feels morally compelled to speak up on behalf of the Jews, particularly an elderly gentleman, her uncle, all of whom are the brunt of the brutalities of the colonel’s men. Captain Hermann and Lieutenants Brucker and Koch think nothing of assaulting the Jews, including the old and the frail, and the children.

A Jew who has lost faith in God, Stella finds her faith and moral spine renewed with every reading of a Bible that she finds in her room. Relating the verses in the Bible with long forgotten verses from the Talmud, Stella prepares to meet the biggest crisis of her life.

Her attempts to do her bit to save the lives of at least some of the Jews expose her to the attentions of the colonel’s men, who are determined to kill him and take over the transit camp. Before long, the truth about her beliefs and faith is exposed and Stella is sent to the concentration camp, from where she and thousands of others will be sent on the ‘death’ train to Auschwitz.

Interspersed with the narrative are Stella’s memories of the time she spent in the concentration camp at Dachau, and the oppression she suffered at the hands of the Nazis, particularly the officers of the Gestapo.

The narrative is mostly from the viewpoint of Stella, with the colonel as the unmistakable enemy, the Nazi and Jew killer. Occasionally it shifts to the viewpoint of the colonel, and we find ourselves undergoing a change in our attitude towards him.

The story mirrors in its barest outline that of Esther and Mordecai in the Old Testament of the Bible. Kate draws parallels between the Biblical story of Esther (also known as Hadassah), her cousin Mordecai and the king, and Stella, whose real name is Hadassah, her uncle Mordecai Benjamin, better known as Morty, and the colonel.

Reading this story is a grim reminder of the worst excesses of the Holocaust. How the Nazis meted out the harshest of punishments for the smallest of crimes. How the Jews had to put up with terrible consequences for the most innocuous of actions. How young children were forced by the war and by the atrocities of the Nazis to grow before their time.

The Holocaust was the bleakest and the darkest period in the history of human cruelty. To see hope and love and faith and redemption would have been well nigh impossible for those who lived and survived its horrors as well as for those who fell prey to its many atrocities. And yet Kate Breslin has dared to build a romance in this tumultuous time, a time of genocide and senseless killing, particularly of the old and the very young, and of others who served no purpose in the agenda of one insane man. That’s not the only gamble that Kate has pulled off.

At a time when millions were struggling against hopelessness and despair, she has breathed faith, strength and courage and the willingness to sacrifice all, even one’s life, for one’s fellowmen.

Her writing is poignant and beautiful and invites you to understand the pain that millions of Jews suffered on account of one twisted mind.

Worth reading. And re-reading.

(I received this book for free from Bethany House Publishers in exchange for my honest review. I read it on Netgalley.)

Monday, June 02, 2014

Book Review: THE 7TH WOMAN

Title: The 7th Woman
Author: Frederique Molay
Translator: Anne Trager
Publisher: Le French Book
Pages: 220

The 7th Woman should have been better titled Seven women in Seven days. Calling it The 7th Woman is an exercise in anti-climax and puts altogether too much emphasis on a character that is the weakest of the many that people this book.

Nico Sirsky is the chief of the Paris police department. Over the course of a week, he and his team find themselves challenged by a serial killer who announces his intention to murder seven women over seven days. The case quickly becomes high profile and Nico finds himself struggling to catch the killer before he strikes again.

Soon the police become aware that the killer is particularly vicious and demented. They find themselves working around the clock, battling fatigue and despair as the clock ticks on and yet another body is discovered, day after day.

Along the way, Nico falls in love with Dr Caroline Dalry, and this thread is a significant part of the story.

I was impressed with the book for the most part. The pace is relentless since the entire action happens over the course of a week. We get caught up in the story, waiting anxiously for the body of the day’s victim to be found, feeling ourselves part of the investigation.

Every detail is included to involve us in the investigations. Handwriting analysis, forensics, regular questioning, routine police work, autopsies, photographing and bagging of evidence – they are all here.

While these details were important, there were many instances when I got the impression that some details were adding nothing to the plot of the story.

The excessive use of pronouns, combined with the third-person points of view, was interesting in the beginning, creating a tantalizing air of mystery. But the novelty paled after a while. There were simply too many characters to be sustained. Even Dimitri, Nico’s son, got a paragraph to himself to gush over the virtues of Caroline.

The conclusion was not convincing enough. It seems hastily put together. While most victims are given space, Saturday’s victim shows up, like an afterthought, in Sunday’s chapter.

Frederique M thinks of spicing up the plot by seeking to throw us off the scent. The ploy fails. All kinds of people get bit parts told from their point of view, making them out to be more important than they are. For example, psychologist Dominique Kreiss’ sex-crazed lover, Remi.

Another major flaw, to my eyes, was the love element. That Nico, the chief of the police, even finds the time to make love, go out on dates and generally act like a giddy teenager, is surprising and off putting, particularly when there is a vicious serial killer on the loose. One that has threatened to kill seven women in seven days. One that openly taunts and challenges Nico.

Considering that this book is one of a three-part series, the romance could have been given time to grow, instead of taking Nico from 0 to 80 kilometres per hour, as if he were a high-speed Jaguar, and not a stressed out, ulcer ridden top cop contending with crime every day. It dents Nico’s credibility to give the impression that he would pursue a romance with a serial killer on the loose.

As a woman, Molay has created strong women characters. Dominique and Armelle Vilars, the coroner, are both shown as feisty. Amelie, a cop from Nico’s team and one of the victims, shines brightly before her death. Even the clingy and depressed ex-wife Sylvie is stronger on the page. Even in bit roles, the women push the story forward. The list includes Nicole Monthalet, the commissioner of police; Mrs Pasquier, the dean of the Sorbonne, Tanya and Anya, Nico’s sister and mother, and each of the victims.

The only woman who appears weak and boring is Caroline. She is singularly flat and one-dimensional. One reason for this could be the fact that other than the time when she is examining Nico, Caroline has very little dialogue.

Consequently, the attraction seems totally physical. We are told that Caroline has worked hard to get where she has. In the early part, she has a busy schedule, but once she goes out on a lunch date with Nico, she doesn’t ever get back to work, merely passing her time giving in to Nico’s passionate declarations of love. Molay spends so much time building her up in Nico’s imagination that she comes across as insipid and weak when she shows up in the flesh.

The mother-son relationship is another strong theme played out on many levels. Between Sylvie and Dimitri, between a suspect and his mother, Nico and his own mother, and finally between the killer and his mother.

In the midst of the sordidness, Molay finds time to give us two bite-sized pieces of philosophy.

In one case, Armelle muses over Nico’s unavailability, looking as he is for the ideal woman. She hopes that he may find his ideal match before it is too late as “too late” happened all too often as the “corpses that piled up reminded her every day.

Another time, Kriven, a policeman worries that there are never enough witnesses to any event. He says, “People didn’t pay much attention to what was going on around them anymore… Was the twenty-first century going to be the century of indifference?

I’d recommend The 7th Woman to anyone who is curious about how the police departments of other nations function. Reading this novel is like being part of a French episode of CSI. If the Caroline Dalry love thread had been missing, I would have been a lot more enthusiastic.

(I got a copy of this book through Netgalley. I read it on Kindle.)


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