Monday, August 22, 2016


Title: The Couple Next Door
Author: Shari Lapena
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Pages: 320

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena was a well written thriller, that left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied.

I wouldn’t fault the writing for that. The author kept the pace right, offering us little details that pulled us into reading.

Anne and Marco Conti have been invited to a dinner party by next door neighbours Cynthia and Graham Stillwell. As Cynthia insists on a child-free evening, they have to leave six-month-old baby Cora in her playpen at home. When the babysitter cancels at the last moment, Anne is unwilling to go ahead with the party, but Marco convinces her otherwise. They decide to check on the baby every half hour.

At the party, Marco, who is reticent and moody at home, becomes the life of the party, flirting openly with the glamorous Cynthia, which becomes a comment on the state of their marriage.

A little after midnight, the Contis return home to find their baby taken. The police are called in, and Detective Rasbach is touched by the obvious distress of the parents yet something feels off. He also feels the strain in the marital relationship. 

The parents become his prime suspects, Marco, because of the financial ills plaguing his company, and Anne, because of her tendency to be violent when under severe stress. And yet he can’t quite figure out what they have done wrong, other than leave their child unattended, and how they are implicated in the kidnapping of their own child.

Soon he finds the treadmarks of another car, and reasons that either the kidnapper acted on his own or was Marco’s accomplice.

The police do everything in their power to trace the baby. Yet they are unable to trace the whereabouts of the infant. Then Marco gets the idea of offering the kidnapper $3 million to bring Cora back and not face prosecution. Alice and Richard Dries, Anne’s extremely wealthy mother and stepfather, who dislike Marco, fork up the money. The Drieses add their own drama to the mix.

When Detective Rasbach interviews Cynthia, he discovers a whole lot of secrets tumbling out. But the truth is even stranger than we, the readers, imagined.

I won’t tell you whether baby Cora is found and what happens to the other characters, but I will tell you that the ending was completely unexpected and completely blew me away. I wish it didn’t have to be quite that way.

I found the title of the book more than a little misleading. At the beginning of the story, we see two couples so we don’t know which one the title refers to. Very quickly we figure out that the couple refers to the Contis, but the novel isn’t written from the POV of the Stillwells, so calling the Contis the Couple Next Door continues to be misleading.

While the story  is written in the 3rd person present tense, the writing takes us into the minds of Anne, Marco and Detective Rasbach.

I am not too sure about the use of the present tense. Maybe the author intended to render a certain urgency to the narrative, as it should be when a little baby goes missing. But there are times when it becomes necessary to slip into the past, and the author couldn’t quite give the transition into flashback mode the fluidity it needed. Sentence construction becomes awkward.

I thought the author should have given us a little more about the dynamics of the relationships between the characters. A little more of what was going on inside their heads would have added a more interesting dimension to the story.

(I read an ARC from First To Read.)

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Book Review: DELILAH

Title: Delilah
Author: Angela Hunt
Publisher: Bethany House Publishers
Pages: 352

I vaguely knew of the Samson and Delilah story from the Old Testament of the Bible. Years ago, in Sunday School, we read of the story, and all that remains of that reading is a faint memory of a woman called Delilah who is loved by strongman Samson, and how she betrays him by exposing his weakness to the enemy.

That reading had given me the impression that Delilah was a prostitute. Here, Angela Hunt paints her in gentler hues and we see the traumatic back story that prompted Delilah to betray Samson. We understand her motivation for doing what she did.

I enjoyed this fictional retelling of this Old Testament story. It was a good reminder that people are all too human and frail and prone to error, and that all too often, we make the wrong decisions, plagued by poor motivation.

Initially Delilah came across as more likeable than Samson, whose only motivation seemed to be to get a beautiful wife.

After the death of her father, Delilah’s mother marries Adinai, a prominent and wealthy yet kind man whose son, Achish, resents their presence. After Adinai’s death, Achish sells Delilah’s mother’s and maintains Delilah herself as his sexual slave, violating her every night. The young Delilah loves her mother deeply and is determined to rescue her from a life of slavery.

Escaping from their home, Delilah’s first thought is to save her mother. While on the run, she encounters three brothers who help her onward. 

It is in Chapter 13 that Delilah and Samson arrive at the same place, though they don’t meet. It is the wedding of Samson and the innkeeper's daughter. Achish is there too.

Samson is disillusioned by his bride-to-be, and he leaves without even claiming his bride. Delilah is anxious for Samson to take up her cause and avenge her mother’s humiliation and death in servitude. She tells herself, Unlike the men of Judah, I would never betray him. It is an ironically prescient statement.

Because, as we know from the Bible, eventually, she does betray him. But at least here we know why. The reasoning may or may not be true, but at least it makes Delilah seem more human.

The brothers take her to the widow who takes Delilah under her wing at the request of the three brothers. The widow, who has deep faith in Adonai, teaches Delilah how to grow flax, and then how to spin yarn and weave cloth. Living with her, Delilah gets a mother figure and a home. But she never forgets her own mother.

While she lives with the widow, Delilah gives birth to a son, the child of Achish. She feels little love for the boy who she names Yagil. The child’s care is enthusiastically taken up by the elderly widow, who remains unnamed through the book.

And all along, Delilah longs to win over Samson to her cause, to get him on her side and to fight Achish and seek vengeance for her mother who dies even as Delilah struggles to earn enough silver to buy her back.

Upon a day, when Samson comes to drink at their well, Delilah who is living there with her son after the widow's death, lures him with her beauty and by magnifying her attractions.

Samson and Delilah fall in love with each other. They begin to live together and Samson becomes the father figure that Yagil never had. For a while, all is good. Delilah convinces herself that this happiness will last forever.

But it is not to be. The fear of Achish endures. One day he espies her at the well. He threatens to break her again, rape her endlessly, unless she brings Samson to him. With her back against the wall, she is unsure if Samson can beat the Philistine army. If his Adonai could accomplish such a seemingly impossible task. So she makes a deal with the rules of Philistia that she will lead them to Samson, but his life must be spared, Achish killed and herself reinstated to her stepfather’s glory.

What happens next we all know, but it is the manner in which Hunt tells the tale, while simultaneously causing us to feel for both Samson and Delilah, who are, in a sense, both victims, that makes them both real people. 

This book caused me to read up on the stories of Delilah and Samson in the Bible. There I learned that Samson was to have saved Israel from the Philistine oppressors. That was the promise given by Adonai to Samson's parents who had been childless for many years before Adonai blessed them with the miracle of this child.

I liked the characters of Hitzig, Regnar and Warati, the three brothers. They were immensely likeable, and their willingness to stand up for her showed that they were good men.

The chapters alternate between the first person points of view of Delilah and Samson.

Israel is under Philistine rule and the Jews have absolutely no rights. The author weaves the political situation of the time and the attendant conflicts in very smoothly.

I could not understand how Samson could kill 30 Philistine men for their garments and still be perceived as having done the righteous thing.

Rei was an understated character who was always with Samson. He was a servant of Samson, but it is in the end that I realised who he really was.

Samson’s character too undergoes a change. From being brash, he became more gentle and sensitive, in my opinion. More than the love of Delilah, I think, it was the love of Yagil that made him that way.

In the end, I felt sorry for both of them. For how things turned out. 

I would like to recommend this book to anyone who loves Biblical fiction.

(I received a free copy of this book from Bethany House. I read it on NetGalley.)

Tuesday, August 02, 2016


Title: The Smaller Evil
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Pages: 256

The Smaller Evil by Stephanie Kuehn is one of the most bizarre books I have ever read. 

Seventeen-year-old Arman Dukoff runs away from home with $2800 stolen from his meth-dealing stepfather, turning his back away from his dysfunctional family, which includes a mother that doesn’t care about him, a stepfather who hates him and a father who has his own set of issues to deal with, to join a retreat that promises to change his life. 

Arman struggles from mental health issues, including ADHD, GAD and GERD. He takes medication to deal with the ills he suffers. The pills held him together the way a plastic bag might hold the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that had long since lost their box.

The retreat is run by Beau, a man who is almost like the founder of a cult. Beau is glib with words. He seems to have all the answers, all the wisdom. Arman looks up to Beau, while Beau, for no apparent reason, seems to take a special interest in him.

Beau promises to cure Arman through quarantine, recuperation and inoculation, processes that make as little sense to Arman as they do to us.

Meanwhile, Dale and Kira, two cool youngsters, have also been invited by Beau and are heading to the retreat. Beau is about to show them a whole new reality. Arman looks forward to the camp, hoping that it will make him a different person, a better one.

The campground where the retreat is to take place is so secluded that Arman believes he might actually be able to change for the better. Before long, he gets into a sexual affair with the cook at the camp, when the cook, again for no reason at all, makes sexual advances to Arman the very first time she sees him.

Very soon, Arman finds that the retreat is very vague about its teachings. Freedom, Discovery and Personal Journey are just words that are mouthed at the camp. Also, there are no rules here. Social mores aren’t followed and there is no privacy at all.

He can’t seem to fulfill the bizarre initiation rites and rituals he encounters at the retreat. And yet he can’t help believe that Beau sees something good in him.

The newcomers are told that they must not take about the past. This is a place for rebirth. For rejuvenation. We make our own stories here. They don’t make us. All very well in theory, except that a while later, the youngsters are asked to talk about their past.

Arman soon realizes that his impressions of Beau and the retreat are quite different from reality. Now he can’t figure out what’s real and what’s not.

Realizing that he is unwanted, Arman decides to slip away while it is still dark. On the road, he meets Beau, and a while later, he find Beau, bleeding to death. He brings Beau back to the retreat only to have the van and Beau in it disappear. Something sinister is clearly afoot.

Now nobody believes him. In an environment where everything is strange, he has only himself to rely on, no matter how strange that may seem to him.

Nobody believes that Beau is actually dead. And then Arman finds evidence that he himself may have killed Beau. What is a guy to do?

Arman has no friends, and cannot connect with anyone. He is described as wasted potential. As a lead character, it is hard to connect with him. A lot of the vagueness in the book seeps into our impressions, and our judgement too.

The brief switch to second person was confusing, in the 11 chapters that are subtitled with such vague names as Always; Someday; Doing your best; Exact payment; Nothing more; Hope you can; So long to answer; The destiny of other men; The yet unknown; As it should be and Everything. 

It is hard to tell whose perspective or observations are described in these chapters, nor of who they are speaking. Everything is vague.

Fittingly, Arman runs to the retreat with a copy of Espedair Street by Iain Banks in his bag. I looked up the book on GoodReads and thought that was a clever touch. Daniel, the lead character of Espedair Street, is not unlike Arman, almost as clueless about the past and the future.

I plodded through this book because it is not in my nature to leave a book halfway through. But I am not going to recommend it to anyone. I haven’t read something so strange in a long time.

(I read an ARC from First To Read.)


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