Tuesday, May 22, 2018


Title: Orphan Monster Spy
Author: Matt Killeen
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Pages: 423
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Orphan Monster Spy is the rapid progression evident in the life of 15-year-old Sarah, blue-eyed and blonde, surname unknown, whose mother is shot dead by Nazi soldiers at a checkpoint, just as they are about to flee.

Life is about to get very dangerous for Sarah. It is August 28, 1939, the beginning of World War II when Nazi supremacy is at its height in Germany. Not a propitious time to be an orphan and the worst time to be a Jew.

The Jewish Sarah, daughter of a non-Jewish German father who turned away from them once Hitler proclaimed war on Jews, must now fend for herself, live by her wits, and escape she knows not where.

By chance, she is led to Helmut Haller, a Nazi. But Haller is only pretending to be a Nazi. His true self, Captain Jeremy Floyd, is a spy against the Nationalist Socialist regime, and nurtures Jewish sympathies. He is also a consummate actor and he teaches Sarah to hone her innate skills.

Meanwhile, the threat posed by the Nazis is growing. They are like mold. They’ve grown and now they’re everywhere.

Hans Schafer is a Nazi scientist who is developing a bomb that can flatten a city. Schafer has a daughter, Elsa, who is Sarah’s age, and is studying at a prestigious school. Haller gets Sarah admitted to the school and entrusts her with the task of infiltrating Fraulein Schafer’s life, and her home and stealing the blueprints relating to the bomb.

But the mission is not going to be easy. It is a tough job even for a 15-year-old, let alone one that is undernourished enough to pass for 11.

Sarah’s peace of mind is threatened by Von Scharnhorst, the head girl, also known as the Ice Queen, who could spell the end of her mission. For Elsa belongs to the Ice Queen’s coterie. To make matters worse, the spectre of the Reich hangs over the school, making it far deadlier than the average battlefield of American High School.

In a culture that stresses on the survival of the fittest, the timid girls are bullied. The girls are known by their surnames, all personal touch and individuality erased. The strongest girls are drunk on notions of supremacy.

Survival means identifying yourself with the Nazi cause. Each time Sarah chants the Fuhrer’s name, she feels as if a piece of her has died. Increasingly grubby and unwashed.

As each step takes her closer to her mission, she feels more miserable, understanding the inherent dilemma of being a spy. Joy and misery cooked in the same pot, tasting of both and neither.

The story makes the war come alive, the horror of it, the meaningless deaths, of people caught unawares by events larger than they should have been. We hear of Kristallnacht, the terrible night when Jews were attacked in their homes and establishments, the violence becoming mainstream for the first time.

As the horrors mount in magnitude and intensity, we see the pain inside Sarah increase. At first the pain is tiny, like something her mother would keep expensive jewelry in. Over the six years of Nazi power, it becomes a traveling trunk, varnish blistered and swollen, until Sarah imagines herself becoming the box.

We suffer many heart-in-the-mouth moments on behalf of Sarah and there are so many of these moments. No child should have to suffer fear the way Sarah does, and yet Sarah is only a fictional representation of the countless kids that did.

I liked the character of Sarah, her resourcefulness. I adored her naivete and childlikeness and admired her precociousness and maturity. How she acts like a little girl, yet is capable of thinking on her feet when the need arises. I found it interesting that she looks at people’s bookshelves to see what kind of people they are.

There are many facets to Sarah. She quotes from the Arthashastra, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” She is a gymnast who practiced at home when Jews were forbidden to compete. Who saw Jesse Owens live and experienced vicariously the thrill of beating the “superior race.”

She is a good person, who is forced into the character of a Monster, while at the school. But she is still a child, even if she is forced into adulthood. When she is happy, she feels a happy little ripple of tingles like the night before a birthday.

Sarah grows on us. We get recollections of her early childhood when she was starving, her mother too ill to work. It’s hard to tell whether this part of the narrative is a memory or a nightmare. Perhaps it is both.

The book is peppered with German words, which lend a great degree of authenticity to the story. There are some beautiful lines that stand out, a lot of them coming in the dead mother’s voice.

Sarah’s mother’s voice eggs her on. It teaches her to pay attention to the other characters in the cast, to feed off them.

You play the part all the way into the wings, on into the dressing room. You don’t stop until the final curtain.

Take the horror and use it.

Stay in character. You can be at the back, stuck in the chorus, but there will be one person staring right at you if you drop your mask.

Haller tells her further, Never lie when you can tell the truth.

Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth, Haller says at one time. Orphan Monster Spy is also a piece of art that helps us understand better the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime.

At another point, Haller describes the insecurities thrust on them as a result of Nazism in this way: Like a badly written book that had to be read to the end.

Orphan Monster Spy, on the other hand, is an extremely well written book that I savoured to the end. I was sorry to say goodbye to Sarah and Captain Floyd.

I sure hope there’s a Book 2.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

Thursday, May 10, 2018


Title: The Punishment She Deserves
Author: Elizabeth George
Publisher: Viking
Pages: 692
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Lately, it seems I’m only reading series, and clocking in too late. The Punishment She Deserves is the 20th book in the Inspector Lynley series, a series I’d never heard of before. But one that I liked enough to consider reading the other books.

The story begins on December 15, year unknown, when Gaz Ruddock, a police community service officer, breaks up the merrymaking of college students gathered at a local pub. The students include Finnegan Freeman, Dena Donaldson, Bruce Castle and Melissa Lomax.

On May 4, the following year, we presume, we meet Barbara Havers from the Metropolitan Police department. She is a detective sergeant at New Scotland Yard. She reports to Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, who in turn reports to Detective Chief Sergeant Isabelle Ardery. DCS Ardery and her superior, David Hillier, are both fed up of Barbara and her unconventional behaviour and are looking for an excuse to transfer her.

Ian Druitt, a deacon, is arrested on charges of paedophilia. Taken into custody by Ruddock on a night when the regular police staff is busy with a spate of burglaries, Druitt dies in custody, and investigators deem it a case of death by suicide.

Druitt’s father, a wealthy man, refuses to believe the allegations against his son, or the judgement of suicide, and calls for an investigation. Isabelle and Barbara are assigned to Ludlow, the site of the incident, to determine whether the investigation was properly handled.

While Isabelle is convinced, Barbara believes that there is more to the situation. She soon becomes convinced that Druitt might have been murdered. She succeeds in convincing Lynley that her suspicions are right, and before long they are both sent back to Ludlow to investigate the truth behind the allegations against Druitt and the death.

Since the dateline does not include the year, it is initially hard to figure out the order in which events take place and which event influences which one. The story starts on December 15 and then jumps months forward to an entirely different set of characters, leaving us clueless about what might have happened on the 15th.

There were so many characters in this book. Initially it was hard to see how they were connected, and the point behind them all.

Each character seems to be on its own trajectory. We learn that Melissa, a brilliant student at college, suddenly decides to drop out and get married. That Finnegan’s mother is worried about him and has assigned Ruddock to keep an eye on him. That Finnegan’s parents’ marriage is on shaky ground. That Dena and Bruce have some relationship drama going on. That Dena has been through something unspeakably horrible in the past. That Melissa’s sister has killed herself and the family is disintegrating, even as the marriage of her parents has completely fallen apart.

There were some common themes that showed through these stories. Of men and women, several of them mothers, making terrible mistakes, but eventually, seeking to right things, make amends for what has gone wrong. And so, while there were terrible sins, there was also forgiveness and redemption.

As each of these stories played out, I wondered what they were doing there, and how they were related to the death that Barbara and Lynley were investigating.

My interest flagged just a wee bit but then again the delays and parallel track stories made this police procedural seem more realistic rather than the stories of Holmes and Poirot making deductions out of thin air, which though fun (and I speak as a huge fan), aren’t real.

I liked Barbara right from the start, and resented the derogatory tone with which Isabelle looked down upon her, and I positioned myself firmly by the side of Barbara. I was also impressed with the characterization of Lynley, who is an anachronism, a good man and a good policeman, wrapped in the body of a thorough gentleman.

There is drama in everyone’s lives. Barbara has the professional fear of transfer, besides the tap dancing class that colleague Dorothea cons her into taking up.

Isabelle is about to lose her twin sons as her ex-husband and his wife are planning to take them to New Zealand, her alcoholism might cause her to be fired from the force. Lynley has relationship troubles.

I liked the author’s style of writing: She decided to hold that on another burner of the cooktop.

Of Rabiah Lomax’s solicitor, Aeschylus King, He always sounded like a combination of an eighteenth-century gentleman, Confucius, and a fortune cookie.

What ran between them would have kept a refrigerator operational for at least a month.

I also liked the banter between Thomas Lynley and Barbara, where retort follows repartee, and they can finish each other’s sentences. It was good to see the manner in which they worked together. There were many lines when I chuckled softly to myself.

The conversation on the murder scene in Psycho was funny, as was the bit about Peace on Earth, the all-rounder at their hotel in Ludlow. There was also a reference to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca de Winter who was murdered. There is a Shakespeare quote, the lady doth protest too much, and a reference to Cinderella’s coachman turning into a pumpkin, besides Lynley’s reference to Oedipus.

The author did a good job of bringing England to life. The descriptions conjured up images of the countryside of England. The British slang, with its repeated references to words like bonk, chuffed to bits, bloke etc, was interesting, though a little confusing at first, but I ‘twigged on’ to it eventually.

Initially, it seemed to me, that we were given far more information about the personal lives of the characters than was necessary for the resolution of the crime. As the book plodded on, I realized that since this is a series, loyal readers would welcome the chance to know more about the characters.

Overall, I liked the author’s style and the slow, simmering way with which everything came together.

But be warned that at 692 pages, the story took far too long to reach its conclusion. Also, be warned that the book contains references to sexual activity and some bad language.

I would have appreciated a few hundred pages less. Fortunately, every single loose end was tied up satisfactorily.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

Wednesday, May 09, 2018


Title: Murder On Union Square
Author: Victoria Thompson
Publisher: Berkley Books
Pages: 304
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐

Murder on Union Square was the 21st book of the Gaslight Mysteries series, and so there was much that I could not relate to. Even so, I plodded through, hoping the mystery would make for enjoyable reading.

It didn’t.

Sarah and Frank Malloy want to adopt Catherine, the illegitimate daughter of David Wilbanks and actress Emma Hardy. Emma’s husband, actor Parnell Vaughn, is willing to sign away his custody rights, but actress Eliza Grimes, who claims to be his fiancée, insists on payment of $1000.

On the day when Frank goes to the theatre to get Vaughn’s signature, he comes across the bloodied body of Vaughn. Just then Eliza shows up and accuses Frank of having murdered Vaughn.

Frank is arrested and later released on bail. The lawyer assures Frank that he can bury the case so he is free to live his life. But Frank is determined to solve the mystery and expose the real killer.

Sarah and Frank work jointly on the investigation, with Frank’s assistant Gino and the couple’s nanny, Maeve, also aiding in the investigation.

The suspects are Adelia Hawkes, who played the part of the leading lady to Vaughn’s leading man, despite being Vaughn’s senior by 15 years, and who professed to be in love with him. There is Adelia’s husband, Baxter, who must have resented his wife’s sexual relationships with Vaughn.

There is Eliza, who claims to be Vaughn’s fiancée, and Armistead Winters, the man who is in love with Eliza, and resented her closeness with Vaughn.

Lastly, there is theatrical agent Dinsmore who was the last to see Vaughn alive.

The background became clear soon enough. Apparently, Frank ran a detective agency, after having unceremoniously lost his job in the police force. And Sarah is a former midwife who is building a maternity clinic.

Right away I must say that I wasn’t too impressed with the mystery. It didn’t seem solid and airtight, which is the impression that a good murder mystery should leave you with.

The author indicates that the mystery is compounded by the fact that the murder happens in the theatre so anyone could have killed him and washed the stains off. What’s more, all the suspects are actors, and therefore, capable of playing roles, and lying artfully.

While the story starts with the couple wanting to adopt Catherine, we don’t see much of the child. The plot revolves totally around the murder.

Because the state of forensic medicine and investigative methods are far less developed, Frank and his team have no option but to question the suspects in an attempt to get at the truth. So they end up splitting hairs over the details in suspects’ accounts in their bid to tease out the killer.

Even so, it is annoying when they keep asking repetitive questions, hoping to catch suspects lying or hoping to encounter inconsistencies in the stories. 

Each time they think of something new, they return to the same suspects with a few more questions. I’m surprised the suspects allow them to hang around for so long.

Also, the part where Frank, Sarah, Gino and Maeve sit down and chat with each other, exchanging findings and trading suspicions was tedious.

The senior Mrs Molloy was another irritant. Apparently, her role was to innocuously suggest some breakthrough, on account of the fact that she devours film magazines. She was a very tepid character, despite the author's attempt to pass her off as someone formidable.

Another thing that rankled was that when most characters expressed unwillingness to speak with Frank because he was the prime accused, he defended himself saying, if I had killed him, would I be so eager to find out the truth? Pretty lame defence.

What’s more, even after they figure out an important clue, they don’t solve the mystery, but keep going around and around in circles.

The pace does not ever speed up and there is no sense of a deadline menacing over them. As a reader, I didn’t feel compelled to guess the identity of the killer. On the contrary, I felt a huge sense of boredom, hoping they’d come up with something quickly.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).


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