Friday, June 23, 2017

Book Review: SAY NOTHING

Title: Say Nothing
Author: Brad Parks
Publisher: Dutton Books
Pages: 448

Say Nothing by Brad Parks is a thriller that had great potential that it somehow failed to live up to.

Scott Sampson is a good father to six-year-old twins Sam and Emma, a loving husband to wife Alison and a federal judge in a rural area in the US. His beautifully constructed life is unraveled when he gets a text from his wife, saying that she will pick up the children after school.

But she never sent it.

The children are kidnapped by dangerous people who warn of terrible consequences if the authorities are brought in. Say nothing, Scott is told.

Soon, he learns that the kidnappers want to control the verdict of a case, US versus Skavron, which Scott is to hear the following day.

The kidnap sends the loving couple to our own sections of the house and our own separate hells, totally upturning their lives and bringing about a rift in their marriage. In bed, two feet apart… felt like a thousand miles.

At work, Scott can barely concentrate. His lack of focus begins to affect his work. When the kidnappers seek to influence his judgements on pain of hurting his kids, it seriously impairs his ability to function with effectiveness and integrity.

At first it seems that they want to influence his judgement with regard to Skavron. When he gives them the judgement they seek, Sam is released, while Emma is detained further. It is at this time that Scott becomes aware of another case he is to hear: A multi-billion dollar patent infringement case, Palgraff versus ApotheGen. 

Scott has no idea which of the two parties might have kidnapped Emma, and therefore what verdict he is expected to deliver to get Emma back.

He hires a private investigator, intent on finding Emma, but all his efforts prove fruitless. When the PI is murdered by the kidnappers, Scott is no closer to finding his daughter.

As the date for the hearing nears, will he and Alison find their daughter? Or will they suffer the greatest loss of their lives?

The book is written in the first person past tense point of view of Scott. We also get the third person past tense point of view of the kidnappers, two brothers of unknown ethnicity who have kidnapped the twins on behalf of an unknown person. 

Because we have the kidnappers’ perspective, we know what condition the twins are being kept in. but that does not diminish the sense of anxiety we feel at the thought of the six-year-old Emma, who is asthmatic, suffering at the hands of the brutish and sadistic kidnappers.

Since Scott is a judge and the fate of his children hinges on a court case, we get a lot of what goes on behind the scenes. At first, he thinks that the kidnappers want Rayshaun Skavron, a smalltime drug dealer freed, but they want him sentenced on two counts, subsequently.

Scott’s views on parenting stem largely from the author’s own, that’s easy to tell. It’s something that all parents will agree with.

Scott’s love for his children leads him to speak at length about the bond between parents and children. He says, There’s something about having genuine fun with your kids that’s good for the soul. Another time he says, Watching your children sleep is one of the great joys of parenting.

It is this bond that helps him realise that It’s far more distressing when something happens to your kids than when it happens to you.

Even after Sam is returned, you can feel his pain at the loss of Emma when he says, each of us trying to adjust to a family that had so unexpectedly morphed from square to triangle.

He also makes comments about the bond between Alison and her three sisters who play an important role in supporting the couple, Internally fractured yet externally united. The world over, it’s the very definition of sisterhood.

I also liked the description of sociopaths. They were like houses. Where all the wiring is done, except the electrician has forgotten to make that final connection to the thing that makes us human, leaving the entire dwelling dark and unfit for occupation.

The story becomes powerful when you realise that Scott, who began his story by telling us he is content and that he has it all, is about to lose everything valuable in his life. One by one, all the props upon which his life depended are taken away from him.

And yet the drama of it all, of a harried judge about to face impeachment proceedings, a wife in the final stage of breast cancer, a little girl in captivity, gets diluted with the revelation of the person responsible for the kidnap.

The ending, though inevitable, was very sad.

(I got a free ARC from FirstToRead).

Thursday, June 15, 2017


Title: We Were The Lucky Ones
Author: Georgia Hunter
Publisher: Viking
Pages: 416

At first, I wondered about the appropriateness of titling a book set during the Holocaust We were the Lucky Ones.

But that is exactly that the Kurc family, resident in Radom, Poland, at the start of the war in March 1939, turned out to be. Despite suffering the worst excesses, this family emerged alive through the War, ready to make a fresh start in the post-war world.

Each chapter of this story is told from the third person present tense point of view of a different family member. 

It is in this manner that we meet Sol and Nechuma Kurc, a prosperous Jewish couple, and their children. Eldest daughter, Mila, is married to Selim; they have a two-year-old daughter, Felicia. Son Genek is married to Herta. Addy, still single, is working in Paris, Jakob is in love with Bella, and youngest daughter, Halina, is in a relationship with Adam, the family’s tenant.

When World War II breaks out, the men, Selim, Genek and Jakob, are conscripted to fight. Jakob asks Bella to join him in Lvov where they live, and she does so, nearly losing her life as she makes the perilous journey. Those left behind are assigned new jobs. 

Halina is sent to pluck beets at a beet farm and Mila to sew clothes at a garment factory, where she goes to work, with Felicia strapped to her chest. At the factory, the child plays under the table all day. Meanwhile, Sol and Nechuma work in a cafeteria. Nechuma smuggles home potato peels to season their meal.

And then there comes a day when the family is assigned to a new shabby home while their spacious five-bedroom apartment is usurped by Germans. The Kurcs may only take their clothes and valuables.

Meanwhile, in France, Addy is sent a summons for conscription. He secures a time-bound visa to travel to Brazil. But the ship that he is travelling in is refused entry into Brazil because of the political picture of the continent has altered in the months in the interim period. 

The ship docks at Casablanca, where he gets into a relationship with Eliska, a rich Jewish girl.

At the end of each chapter, we get the historical events that transpired then, the ones that led to the War and saw Jews being persecuted and subsequently exterminated in concentration camps. Each chapter shows us things getting worse.

Genek and Herta are taken away from their home in the middle of the night and transported by train over the next 42 days in horrific conditions to Siberia. There they are made to work felling logs, surviving on meagre rations and facing Siberia’s horrible winters. It is here that Herta becomes pregnant and gives birth to baby Jozef.

Meanwhile, Halina joins Adam, with great difficulty, just as Bella had once done. Around this time, Bella discovers that her sister, Anna, and her husband are killed. Living in Lvov is fraught with danger, and so Jakob, Bella and her cousin, Franka leave for Radom again. Adam is taken to a work camp. Halina gets him released, using her grandmother’s silver cutlery as a bribe.

Each member of the family lived through such a harrowing time, and for long years, it seemed that things only got worse. I kept looking at the timeline, longing for 1945, when the Allies would win and the War would be over.

Portions of it made for difficult reading. I couldn’t read beyond these parts, imagining the plight of these people.

During the course of Genek and Herta’s terrible journey to Siberia, we read the heartrending account of the mother who sat for days with a dead baby in her arms, and stopped eating when the baby was thrown out by the Soviet soldiers. Later, the soldiers threw her out of the train too. 

I was also upset by the part in which little Felicia, who has been hidden in a sack and told to act like a statue during a Nazi inspection of the factory is nearly discovered by them.

There is so much that members of this family went through at the concentration camps. The holes in the ground that served as toilets. The demeaning lack of privacy. The anxiety of not knowing whether one would survive from one minute to another.

In the midst of difficulties, things start looking up for Addy. He finally reaches Brazil and after seven months of doing odd jobs, gets his work permit and a job. He and Eliska grow apart as he misses his family and Eliska fails to understand his sorrow.

Jakob and Bella return to Radom. As the political situation alters, allies turn into foes and vice versa, worsening the plight of the Jews depending upon where they find themselves.

Genek, Herta and Jozef are released by the Soviets and taken by train to Kazakhstan.

Hitler allows some Jews to emigrate to America. Mila and Felicia are on the first train, on the first leg of their long journey. But the train is led to a wilderness where the passengers are told to dig their own graves.

Jakob and Bella get a job in a factory outside Radom, in German-occupied Poland.

As the political situation worsens, the most fragile of securities slips away. All the siblings make efforts to help each other. Of them, Halina is the feistiest of the lot.

But my heart went out to Mila and Felicia. Mila’s circumstances were truly heartrending as she took the biggest risks to safeguard herself and her child. And Felicia herself, seeing such horrors at her age.

As their bodies waste away for lack of food, the author tells us of Bella, Her cheekbones grew more pronounced, and under her shirt, her ribs jutted from beneath her skin like a keyboard made up of only sharps and flats.

It was only at the end of the book that I became aware that it was a true story and that the author is the granddaughter of Addy. Truly a beautiful and touching recountal.

The writing was good, and the descriptions more than adequate. The author could so easily have resorted to using abusive language against the hateful Nazis. But she keeps to the facts, and gives us this fictionalized retelling of historically true events.

I was glad to read this one through to the end.

While we remember the millions that died in the Holocaust, we can rejoice with this family that lived to give thanks to God for seeing them through the worst.

(I got a free ARC from FirstToRead).

Monday, June 05, 2017


Title: The Roanoke Girls
Author: Amy Engel
Publisher: Crown
Pages: 279

The Prologue of this extremely dark story is written in the first person point of view of Lane. It is here that we come to know of Roanoke, beautiful in a little girl’s fantasy of a princess castle, in a dream she had about her mother’s childhood home, a place she had never seen. But Lane’s mother, Camilla, disabuses her of the fantasy when she asks her, Did you wake up screaming? Was it a nightmare?

That is our first taste of Roanoke.

A month after her mother commits suicide, 15-year-old Lane is sent to Roanoke, in Osage Flats, Kansas, where she meets her maternal grandparents Yates and Lillian Roanoke, and Allegra, her cousin, daughter of her mother’s older sister, Eleanor.

Allegra is exceptionally beautiful, just like Lane, just like all Roanoke girls before her. Like Lane’s mother, she had the same mercurial spirit. Like she was walking a tightrope between light and dark, joy and sorrow.

The Roanoke women consist of Granddad’s sisters, Jane and Sophia; Penelope, Jane’s daughter; Eleanor and Camilla, and Baby Emmeline. Except for Baby Emmeline, who died a few months after she was born, her mouth tasting like breast milk and formaldehyde. At her funeral, the others all had similar stories. 

As Allegra says, Roanoke girls never last long around here…In the end, we either run or we die.

Lane, whose mother had never been good at expressing love, finds a family. Gran shows no affection, but Granddad more than makes up for it, showering the girls with warmth and affection.

Granddad shows tremendous moral rectitude at the dining table, insisting that Allegra cover up, wear something decent.

If only there wasn’t a dark side to him.

In Osage Flats, Lane meets Allegra’s friends Tommy, who has a deep crush on Allegra, and Cooper, with whom Lane embarks on a sexual relationship in which both can’t seem to get out of a vicious cycle of love and hate. 

Cooper too has had a difficult life. His father used to physically beat him, and his mother and sister, and Cooper has had to fight his instincts hard, to prevent himself from turning into a monster like his own father.

Cooper's character is good for Lane, good to her, sometimes better than she deserves.

At first, Lane doesn’t realize just how dysfunctional it is. But then she comes to know the truth, and she runs, leaving Roanoke and its nightmarish hold on her behind.

Running away, she flits from one bad job to another, bearing with her the debris of a broken marriage and broken relationships, unable to make a success of her life. Yet one thing she is sure of: she will never return to Roanoke.

And then one day, 11 years later, Granddad calls her in the middle of the night to tell her that Allegra is missing. She returns to Roanoke, and is caught up in the nightmare again. And yet, she cannot leave till Allegra is found. She feels a sense of guilt for not having taken Allegra with her all those years ago, for not having responded to Allegra’s emails.

Now Lane believes foul play is afoot, even as others insist that Allegra has run away, that it was only a matter of time that she did so, like most Roanoke girls before her.

The book is written in alternate chapters of Then and Now. The Then refers to Lane’s first summer at Roanoke. The Now takes place 11 years later, when she returns to Roanoke. The Now is in present tense, the Then in past tense.

Chapters alternate between Then and Now, each Then helping us understand the Now and vice versa.

Lane, like us, receives hints about the truth from the start, from her grandmother. How all the girls look alike, as if the Roanoke genes were so strong they bulldozed right over anyone else’s DNA. 

Another time her mother looks at Lane and tells her she looks like her father, but when Lane looks in the mirror, she can only see a resemblance to her mother. Yet again, Gran says to Lane, in speaking of the relationship between Lane and Allegra, You two are practically sisters.

We come to know the truth even before the Lane of the Then chapters learned of it. This knowledge comes to us through the third-person past tense accounts of all the other Roanoke girls, Jane, Sophia, Penelope, Eleanor and Camilla.

But we still read on, anxious to know what happened to Allegra in the Now, whether Lane and Cooper will ever get together again, and how Lane figured it out back in the Then.

It’s all very strange, because behind the secrets and the horrible truth, under the shame and anger that beat like a heart, there still lives a terrible kind of love.

The mystery of Allegra's disappearance is also answered in time, strangely by Allegra herself. She scratches words out on wood, her feelings. Inherent drama of knife against wood…leaving a trail of word confetti behind her.

Through the course of the book, we develop a grudging liking for Lane, a woman who is much more comfortable …with cruelty than with kindness. A woman who has never received anything but barbed-wire affection.

At first, we feel upset. We feel Lane's pain, on account of the fact that her mother did not love her the way a mother should, with kisses, and kind words, and hopes for my future. It is only later that she, and we, understands her mother’s love for her.

But redemption is not easy. The worst is when Lane realizes that even while she hated it, a part of her wants it – the destiny it was possible to run from but one I would never escape.

My only grouse against the book was that there was far too much swearing and too much sex. Fortunately, it wasn't gratuitous.

The Roanoke Girls reminds us of how the wounds attained in childhood leave their scars behind all through life.

(I got a free ARC from FirstToRead).


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