Thursday, October 29, 2015

Book Review: FIND VIRGIL

Title: Find Virgil
Author: Frank Freudberg
Publisher: Inside Job Media
Pages: 356

The author seeks to imbue the story with an aura of realism by setting the period during which the events of the book began – 1995, the same year in which OJ Simpson was convicted, Forrest Gump won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Clinton was President.

Amid these real events is the fictional occurrence of journalist Martin Muntor being diagnosed with lung cancer. The illness comes as a shock to him because Muntor has never abused his body in any way. He has always treated it like a temple, eating right, keeping fit, working hard, going to church, and looking after his family. Yet in his illness, he is unemployed and alone, with just one year of life left in him.

The realization that passive smoking has driven him to this fills him with a rage against tobacco companies and smokers. Muntor decides to exact a unique form of revenge where he takes with him those who actually deserve to die.

Despite the pain he suffers, he takes the trouble to put together 6 large cardboard boxes with 700 Fedex envelopes inside. Each envelope contains a pack of 10 cigarettes, made up of a toxic mixture that ensures death within seconds of the first smoke. The wages of sin are death, Muntor believes, and he is ready to dole out that death himself.

Muntor fancies himself to be Christ, unbroken yet forced to atone for the sins of the world. Yet he is also crazy with a distorted, aggravated view of himself, as seen in the self-documentary he chooses to film to leave his story behind for posterity.

In W Nicholas Pratt, the President and and COO of Old Carolina Tobacco Inc, the world’s fourth largest cigarette company, Muntor has a formidable enemy. Pratt is a ruthless man who thinks nothing of increasing the nicotine content in cigarettes to get smokers addicted. Pratt ropes in Tom Rhoads, an ex-cop, currently a private eye, to find out the identity of the man who is wreaking vengeance on the tobacco industry. 

Meanwhile, the police, already intrigued by the disappearance of another accused in the company, make their own attempts to figure out the identity of the vigilante, who has nicknamed himself Virgil.

In between there are a host of characters, each with his or her own axe to grind. Some of them unnecessarily steal the spotlight from the main characters and that is annoying.

In the tradition of troubled heroes, Rhoads has his own drama raging on in his personal life, with his brother’s inability to stay sober, and that is what makes him more willing to accept Pratt’s offer, even though he and Pratt distrust each other.

Meanwhile, Muntor intensifies his terrorising activity against the tobacco industry. He claims that he will not stop until he has reminded the world about the evil of smoking. He will give up only if the cigarette companies donate $1.5 billion to research.

Before long, the police and the FBI, Pratt, Rhoads and Muntor find themselves in a race to outwit each other, as they attempt to bring down Virgil.

The name, Virgil, that Muntor assumes for himself, in his conversations with the police, and with Rhoads, who he insists on speaking to, comes from the Roman poet Virgil, who was also a character in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. I found this element particularly appealing. I love literary references, and I loved the fact that Freudberg got this part right.

But there were things that didn't work. There is the occasional inconsistency in tenses and a slight disregard for grammatical perfection. Often the author eschews the use of pronouns, and repeats proper nouns in every sentence until the usage begins to grate on our sensibilities.

Another inconsistency is that while Muntor sends out a letter to 700 smokers in the name of Matthew Doran, some chapters later, we have Pratt stating that it is Tom’s name on the letter.

This book could have gained so much from the services of a good editor. There are so many errors that could have been checked. For instance, in one chapter, Dr Trice is said to have hurried on her short legs to the restaurant. Why the derogatory reference to short legs?

Some of the chapters were far too short to be considered chapters. Chapter 56, for example, is just 42 words long.It didn’t feel good to have my attention uprooted and shifted to a different character just after a few paragraphs. 

While the plot piques our interest, the writing is far from compelling. There are only a few notable exceptions when the writing rises above the general. Of these I can recall, The corpses of things he had begun and later abandoned cluttered his life the way trash blows down dead-end alleys and stays there.

But I overlooked all that in favour of the pace of this thriller, and how Freudberg kept me engaged with the desire to know what happens next.

The character of Tom Rhoads did not come out to be quite the hero that Freudberg portrayed him as. But Muntor was an unexpected anti-hero. I found myself rooting for him, in spite of the crazy narcissistic self-documentary filming. After all, his intentions were good, even if the means he used weren't. 

The one thing I could not overlook, make that -- would not overlook, was the on-off romance between Tom and Mary Dallaness, an employee of Old Carolina. Mary was one of the most insipid women I’ve ever met in a book, and it was hard to believe that she had a hold on the romantic affections of a man like Tom, who was every bit her polar opposite. Also, her refusal to believe anything negative about the tobacco industry, insisting that it created jobs for ordinary people, irritated me so much, I longed to smack her hard across the face.

All in all, there was a lot of promise in this book, which could have been brought out in the hands of a good editor. The best feature of the book is that it confronts us with facts that I, as a non-smoker, felt terrified by. If these facts can terrify smokers into giving up smoking by bringing them face to face with some of the most insidious secrets of the tobacco industry and the nefarious tactics adopted by them to keep smokers hooked, it will be worth the effort.

That alone deserves a keen reading.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Title: Bradstreet Gate
Author: Robin Kirman
Publisher: Crown
Pages:  320

Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman follows the lives of three friends, Alice, Charlie and Georgia, in Harvard.

Charlie, Alice and Georgia are all troubled in their own ways. Georgia, whose artist father and teacher mother have separated, has had her nude photos shot and displayed by her father. Alice, daughter of Serbian immigrants, watches as her father adopts the American Dream with gusto while her mother clings to the Serbia that she has lost. Charlie, second son of his father, is increasingly disillusioned with his father, who distances himself from him and takes visible pride in his older, more macho son.

While in college, Georgia is enamoured with Rufus Storrow, a very popular and much admired professor, and she begins an affair with him. It is a relationship fraught with peril, for even though Georgia is not his student, the affair could still cost him his job and ruin him. 

Before long, Georgia is disillusioned with Storrow and she breaks up the affair, even as he uses his physical might to try to bully her into staying. Storrow’s insensitivity regarding the subject he teaches, Law and the Colonials, makes him more detractors than admirers. His fiercest detractor is Julie Patel, daughter of Indian immigrants.

When Alice, a budding writer, discovers the affair, she writes an article for the college magazine, exposing everything, sparing no details and widening the gap between herself and Georgia. The affair changes the dynamics of their friendship too. The news of the affair upsets Charlie, who has long adored Georgia, but has never been taken for anything more than a friend.

For Storrow, it is a fall from grace that unravels him. While he is not implicated of the murder, for lack of evidence, he isn’t completely exonerated either.

After college ends, and they get out into the real world, frustrations continue to dog them. Ten years later, not one of them is truly happy.

Charlie is the only one to have a measure of professional success, but even he finds it disillusioning.

It is in Mumbai where Georgia goes in pursuit of a volunteering job that she meets Storrow again, five years later. The descriptions of Mumbai are true to the impressions of a first-time visitor from the West, the chaos of sound, the smells and the stench, and the madness that they see, all perfectly regulated by some invisible means. 

But this part of the story serves no real purpose. Having taken Georgia to India and leaving her frustrated there when her passport is stolen and it turns out the volunteering job is fake, Robin does not bother to tell us about how she gets out of India and heads to Kenya.

Even though it seems as if the murder might take centre stage, the book isn’t about the murder at all. The mystery of who killed Julie is not resolved, not even 10 years later, when the class prepares to meet for her 10 year memorial service.

Robin reveals the characters in the best way possible, dropping stray hints here and there that say more about each character than whole paragraphs could have. That Nat Krauss, the Harvard reporter, brings his muddy feet into somebody’s house tells us that he is sloppy and careless of others’ feelings. Georgia’s own careless attire tells us about how her priorities have changed.

The Prologue is set in the present and Chapter 1 takes us back to the past 10 years ago into Georgia’s life. Thereafter, each chapter, almost biographical, takes us into the first person accounts of each of the friends, starting from their birth, childhood and early family life, in an attempt to help us understand their unique personalities and their motivations. These details, it is hoped, will help us understand their reasons for coming to Harvard.

Robin takes us into the lives of the three friends. She forces us inside the minds of the characters, giving us a deeper understanding of the events of their lives. The secrecies, the jealousy, the loss of love, the frustrations, and amid them all, the murder.

Georgia, Alice and Charlie are friends, but it is a friendship marked by needs and wants. Only Charlie’s friendship seemed genuine, and for much of the time, he didn’t seem to really care for Alice.

Robin’s characterization skills make the characters appear all too real, not stylized and fit to be within the pages of a book. Of the three, I liked Alice the least. She struck me as hollow, empty and yet she had her own motivations, strong ones, that led her to act the way she did.

The ending, though far from abrupt (it does, after all, offer closure to the characters), still gives us a sense of having faded off into nothing. The elaborate explanation of Storrow’s past shed no further light on the mystery and enigma of the man who started out as such a paragon of perfection and lost the plot along the way.

The plot is non-linear, and the narrator slips into the past and present now and again. It is a device which keeps the stories of all the three characters real, but doesn’t allow us to identify completely with any one of them.

I tried to like this book, but it didn’t really stay with me.

"I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

Thursday, October 08, 2015


Title: You are my sunshine
Author: Roberta Kagan
Publisher: Self published
Pages: 403

You are my Sunshine, Book II in the All My Love, Detrick series, takes off from the story of Helga, and the little girl, named Katja, that she gave birth to. But baby Katja is only a minor character in this story. She only serves as a peg upon which Roberta Kagan has hung this book.

The protagonists of this book are Manfred Blau, a German Nazi, and Zofia Weiss, a Polish Jew, whose lives intersect for a while.

The plot follows the life of Manfred Blau, a weak and puny German boy with low self-esteem who joins the Nazi party in an effort to improve his standing and his position. The move helps and Manfred finds himself rising in the estimation of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda.

His renewed confidence gives him the courage to woo and win Christa Henkener, a beautiful and rich classmate of his from school, who he would otherwise never have been able to befriend. Deeply in love, Manfred and Christa marry, even as he begins to move up in the Nazi hierarchy.

Meanwhile, Christa’s father, surgeon Dr Thomas Henkener, hates the Nazis and goes out of his way to help his Jewish doctor colleagues. He is caught and named a traitor. As punishment, Manfred is ordered to shoot his father-in-law. 

But the Nazi Party does not forgive easily. Manfred and his family, including baby Katja who they have adopted, move to Treblinka where Manfred is put in charge of the concentration camp there.

There Manfred discovers the cruel side of his personality as he revels in killing and sadistically beating and torturing the Jews under his control. Treblinka is also where he meets the other protagonist of this work, Zofia Weiss, who has had a baby girl, Eidel, out of wedlock.

Christa never recovers from the trauma of seeing her husband shoot her father, and she takes to her bed. Manfred brings Zofia into his home as a house-servant. There she is subject to sexual slavery, apart from looking after the household needs and little Katja.

A rebellion in the camp causes the Nazis to shut down Treblinka. Christa pleads for Zofia’s life and she is allowed to run for her life. In the woods, Zofia meets Isaac and Shlomie, and so begins a tender love story between Zofia and Isaac. It is also a time when they must avoid being captured by the Germans.

The book brings out the sense of loss, as the survivors lose loved ones, their homes and belongings. Many lose their faith, their minds. There seems to be nothing to live for.

Kagan expresses well the desolation that comes upon the Jews as they are forced into overcrowded trains, with only standing space, trains choked with the stench of vomit, urine and feces, and also of death. For it is not until the train reaches the concentration camp that they will be allowed off the train.

This book sees an improvement on the chapter front – only 89, but the tendency to have ultra-small 200-word chapters and the errors in proofreading and spelling persist. Sentences in which characters are thinking also show some seriously awkward construction. This book, like the first in the series, needed a good editor to bring out the best in it.

There is a continuity issue too. The Prologue informs us that Katja was born in 1939, but in 1947, she is still shown to be a small child.

The cover image, presumably baby Katja, is misleading; the book isn't about the child at all.

The ending was the most annoying, and felt like a real cheap trick to get the reader enthused about reading the third book in the series.

Earlier on, we read about Isaac being captured by four German soldiers just before the war ends. Zofia never finds him again.

However, just as she and Katja are set to board the ship Exodus, setting out on its maiden trip to the nation of Israel, someone calls out to Zofia by name.

It’s obviously someone significant, seeing who “her (Zofia’s) breath caught and her lungs tightened,” but we receive no hints as to the identity of this mysterious person. Kagan gyps us by not telling us who the person is, not even whether that person is a male or a female, forget about whether it was Isaac.

I was certainly hoping Zofia would bump into him again (I can’t help it. I have a thing for happy endings.)

We will have to read Part III of the series, The Promised Land, to figure that out.


Wednesday, October 07, 2015


Title: All my love, Detrick
Author: Roberta Kagan
Publisher: Self-published
Pages: 355

All My Love, Detrick by Roberta Kagan is a Holocaust novel of fiction that brings us face to face with the brutal reality of the darkest period in history, and the harrowing and horrific treatment meted out to Jews by one cruel and insanely ambitious man.

Detrick Haswell, a 7-year-old German Christian boy, forges an unlikely friendship with Jacob Abdenstern, the Jewish owner of a bicycle repair shop. The grown man is kind and compassionate and he becomes a solid father figure in the young lad’s life.

When Detrick grows older, in a Germany that has begun flirting with the Nazis, he shuns their doctrines, and clings to his friendship with Jacob, despite the risk it entails. When he falls in love with Jacob’s daughter, Leah, he becomes even more willing to undertake desperate measures to save them.

Meanwhile, Detrick’s best friend, Konrad Klausen, a puny youth who always depended on Detrick’s friendship and protection, joins the SS. Heady with the power that the SS’ black uniform gives him, he proceeds to give vent to his latent urge for domination.

Despite hating the Nazis and all they stand for, Detrick joins the SS, hoping the black uniform will offer him the cover he needs to protect the Abdensterns. But the attempt fails and Leah and her father are whisked off to a concentration camp.

While the love story of Detrick and Leah is the centre point of the novel, we also receive insights into the histories of some of the other Jews.

Jacob’s son, Karl, becomes angry at the growing anti-Semitism and longs for Palestine, a nation in which Jews can live without fear. When he is sent to the concentration camp at Treblinka, he befriends a group of people with similar yearnings and joins in their struggle, ultimately dying in the camp. His story forms a significant subplot of the novel.

In another subplot, the Silver family, their daughter Dorothy is Leah’s best friend, move to America to escape the persecution. I found this plot insignificant in the larger context of the story, beyond showing the plight of those Jews that relocated to distant lands to escape the persecution.

Dorothy’s story reminded me of Theodore Dreiser’s flawed heroines, girls from upright families, raised well, who lose their way on account of circumstances.

We also come to know of the Lebensborn Institute, a place that welcomes unmarried Aryan mothers-to-be, so long as they have had trysts with pureblood Aryans, through the story of Helga, Detrick’s sister. A torrid affair, followed by a single night of passion, with an SS officer, Eric, leads to a pregnancy. But Eric is married, and so Helga finds herself directed to the Lebensborn, where she gives birth to a child, named Katja. This subplot is taken forward in Book II of the series, You Are My Sunshine.

Kagan also leads us down another meaningless subplot about Eric and his married life. I call it meaningless because it does not prove its relevance either in this book or the next. Perhaps it will justify itself in Book III.

Beginning in Berlin in 1923 in the Prologue, the novel takes off ten years later in the city as it was in 1933, when widespread dissatisfaction had caused people to blame the Jews for the misery that Germany suffered following its defeat in World War I. It was also the time when Adolf Hitler is preparing to rouse Germany with rhetoric about Aryan supremacy and the Jewish “menace”.

The story beats time to the timelines of history, reflecting the tremendous amount of research that Kagan has put into this work. Interspersed with the life stories of the principal characters are italicized tidbits about Hitler’s appointment as the chancellor of Germany and later as the Fuehrer; the passing of the Nuremberg Race Laws, forbidding interaction of any kind with Jews; Kristalnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, when Nazis burned down a synagogue and attacked Jewish people and destroyed property in a mad rampage.

There are a lot of descriptions of the sexual act in the book, between Detrick and Leah, between Helga and Eric, and between Dorothy and Tony, her married lover. But they are all tastefully done, and do not cause you to cringe.  

Kagan’s writing is good, but there are a large number of proofreading errors and quite a few spelling mistakes that mar the effect that the book has on you.

Despite the author’s efforts, I didn’t find myself rooting for any of the characters. Neither Detrick nor Leah held my attention. One reason for that might have been the stories of the minor characters that competed for my attention.

I also found the sheer number of chapters, at 159, annoying and too painful to endure. I wish Kagan had seen fit to combine some of the chapters together. Many of the chapters are less than a page, too small to be called a chapter.

There are 27 chapters that are about 300 words long. Another 11 chapters include only about 120 words. Three others hold about 250 words, while six chapters include 100 words and yet another consists of 150 words.

Two chapters have about 60 words while three consist of less than 100.

Chapter 44 is exactly 30 words long and Chapter 155 has 37 words.

Also, the fact that Kagan has taken on such a large canvas and sought to do justice to so many characters, including minor ones, gives this work a slightly disjointed feel. You feel for each character while you are in the moment with them, but you don’t recall them for too long after that.

All in all, I found the book interesting, but only just so.

(Watch out for my review of Book II, You are my Sunshine tomorrow.)

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Book Review: THE WOOD'S EDGE

Title: The Wood's Edge
Author: Lori Benton
Publisher: Waterbrook Press
Pages: 400

The Wood’s Edge, set in the uncharted territory that was the America of the mid-18th century, beginning in the pre-Independence era, brings the history of that time alive. The story grows on you slowly, like an exquisite tea brewed to perfection.

The book traverses the life of the principal characters, beginning in 1757 in New York up to 1776 when they come of age. The call for surrender and the ensuing ceasefire bring relief to the besieged British colonials trapped within Fort William Henry. But for Reginald Aubrey, officer of His Majesty’s Royal Americans, there is no respite. With his baby boy dead just a half hour after being born, Aubrey takes a decision that will haunt him forever.

Espying a woman spent from hard labour, sleeping with two newborn infant boys, one white and one tawny, by her side, Aubrey picks up the white baby and leaves his own dead baby in its place. 

That woman is Good Voice of the Turtle Clan and the Oneida tribe and on waking up, she realizes that the dead baby by her side is not hers.

Aubrey has no time to rethink his decision, for the fall of the fort and the assault by the victorious French forces them to flee for their life. It is at this time, that they find a little girl, Anna, just months older than William, the son they call their own. But Heledd, Aubrey’s wife, has no room in her heart for Anna. 

Following the skirmish, the Aubreys receive succour at the home of apothecary, George McLaren, whose daughter, Lydia, proves to be the only woman friend that Anna has.

While no one suspects the truth about William’s parentage, Aubrey’s own guilt increases over time, alienating him from the boy he calls his son as well as from his wife.

Heledd, homesick for Wales, takes William with her. It is at this time, Anna, lonely and missing William, befriends Two-Hawks, a boy who looks a lot like William. It is a friendship that will alter both their lives.

Meanwhile, through their grief, Good Voice, her husband, Stone Thrower, and their son, Two-Hawks, never give up hoping that He-Is-Taken will be restored to them. We see this through the endless amount of waiting that they show themselves capable of, as their child and brother is lost to them more than once.

The omniscient voice of the author helps us sympathise equally with the predicaments of Good Voice, Stone Thrower, Two-Hawks, Anna, Lydia and Aubrey.

Through the story of Good Voice and her husband, Stone Thrower, Benton brings out the poignancy and pain of grief. This is a family forever defined by its loss.

The writing is poetically beautiful, eloquent and evocative. The similes are steeped in the local milieu.

The fort’s interior swarmed like an anthill kicked over.

Shaking off regret like a horse, shedding flies.

Dull as porridge.

Astonishment washed over Good Voice like a cold plunge in the creek.

Hanging Kettle, another one of the Indians, is a man who rarely smiled, even when he shook with silent laughter.

The women are all strong personalities. Even minor characters are drawn in positive strokes.

Good Voice is the strongest of the three leading women. With her heart cut open by pain, she struggles with grief and anger, and watches as her husband allows his grief to break him completely, allowing the family to disintegrate. In time, she accepts Christ and His message of forgiveness into her heart.

Lydia, the rebellious girl with an outlook that is centuries ahead of her time, is a great character, and we make her concerns our own as soon as we meet her. Living in a time when women do not have any identities apart from the domestic one, Lydia longs to be an apothecary. To heal life, and soothe pain.

In contrast, Aubrey’s wife, Heledd, for all her beauty, is petty and ungenerous.

Benton’s research is impeccable as she paints a beautiful portrait of early American history, painting the broad strokes immortalised in history, and the narrow strokes in the tiny details, that together help us to understand what life must have been like back then. Benton is truly a master of description, making the landscape come alive.

The chapters shift between the families, even as the years change and the children grow up. Each chapter is a year in the lives of the principal characters.

The inherent premise of the book throws up the debate between nature versus nurture as William, unaware that he is of the People, believes himself a white.

There are many dualities at work here.

There are two fathers, one burning for vengeance for his firstborn who was taken, the other with guilt for having stolen another’s child. 

There are two mothers here, one who never stops missing her son, and the other who, while expressing herself incapable of loving a stranger’s child, ends up making another woman’s child her own, unaware that he is not.

There are two brothers here, one who fiercely misses the twin he has never known, the other who is raised to believe himself white, never suspecting the truth.

There is the Christianity of Good Voice and Stone Thrower, which throbs with energy and transforms their lives, teaching them to forgive, and the Christianity of Reginald and Heledd, which exists only in name. Lydia’s own Christianity is seen in the faith with which she prays for others.

The book helps us realize how the missionaries made inroads into tribal areas and how the Indians embraced Christianity, in spite of how radical it seemed, reconciling it, where required, with their indigenous beliefs.

While the Indians are seen as uncivilised by the whites, their ways are in many instances far more empowering for women.

I had a catch in my throat when I read of Good Voice’s loss of her third child, minutes after he is born, the child that was meant to heal the brokenness of the family after their first-born was carried off. As also in the baptism sequence, when Good Voice, Stone Thrower and Two-Hawks publicly accept Christ as their Lord.

Benton brings out the nuances of various shades of love: the tender affection between Anna and William, the silently growing love between Anna and Two-Hawks, Lydia’s girlish love for Aubrey, which matures, as she grows, into a deeper love.

The romance between Two-Hawks and Anna is intimate and tender, and like the rest of this book, it is cooked on simmer. But then again, the best dishes are cooked that way.

The book ends on the cusp of another quest, as William, learning the truth of his own parentage, rejects it, and the two men, who call themselves his fathers, allow God to work in their lives and allow forgiveness and healing to take place.

This is truly an incredible book.

I can’t wait for Book 2.


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