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This is my second book by Markus Zusak, which I got after very satisfyingly finishing “The Book Thief“.

Messenger is a delightful read. Entertaining, funny … light. Most of all, easy on the senses. I finished the book in less than a week, reading it for about 30 minutes everyday.

It has memorable characters that stay with you long after the book has taken its place on your shelf: Ed Kennedy, 19 years old – an underage cabbie who is hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey – also a cabbie. Both in dead-end jobs. Ed driving from one destination to the next. And Audrey from one boyfriend to another. Both lost and without direction. They hang around with Ritchie and Marv, playing cards and lounging in Ed’s shack in the evenings. Ritchie is unemployed. Marv works as a builder. And oh, there’s the Doorman, Ed’s 17 year old Rottweiler/German Shepherd cross who smells every inch the stinky dog that he is. The Doorman loves coffee, and likes to sit by the door. Hence the name.

Ed’s our main guy and the story starts with him and his mate Marv being held hostage in a bank robbery. The scene inside the bank – with the staff and customers all sprawled out on the floor and held at gunpoint by a gunman – and the exchange between Ed and Marv about Marv’s wreck of a car being the funniest. One thing leads to another and next we see the police arriving and unsuspectingly orders the robber’s waiting getaway car to move from the front of the bank, leaving the robber stranded. Desperate to escape, he orders Marv to give him the keys to his car (thanks to their exchange about Marv’s car outside) and attempts to get away. The robber drops his gun outside and Ed seizes it and goes to corner the bungling robber before he can start the engine (there’s always a problem with the car’s ignition – amongst other things).

So Ed becomes a local hero, his face plastered all over the local newspapers. And that’s when the cards start arriving.

The first card has the names of streets and times. He visits the addresses and sees that each of them has a story to tell. For example, there’s the house on Edgar Street with the abusive drunk husband who comes back every night terrorising his wife and daughter. Then there’s the house with the old lady – Milla Johnson who keeps calling Ed ‘Jimmy’ (‘Jimmy’ being her husband who died in the War). Milla’s suffering from Alzheimer’s, you see.

Ed steps up to the house on Edgar Street, and hears the commotion inside. The little daughter comes running out, and sits on the steps. Ed’s there but he is powerless to do anything. So he does nothing. He goes home, and finds a gun in his mailbox. Long story short, Ed finds himself in the woods, with the abusive man kneeling in front of him. The gun in Ed’s hand to the back of his head.The man pleads for his life and Ed shouts his warnings to him about acting like a bastard to his family. The gun goes off, and the man runs. Never to be seen again. One mission accomplished and peace returns to the home on Edgar Street.

With Milla, Ed becomes Jimmy, visiting her, dining with her and being a companion. He reads Wuthering Heights to her on every visit, and spends time with her until she sleeps. He tucks her in and leaves. This goes on throughout the book and is very touching to read.

And so goes the story. Ed finishes the list of missions on each card and moves on to the next. In the process, he makes friends (think of the Tatapu family, Sophie, etc) and enemies (think of the Rose brothers) and slowly discovers himself and his own life. From a life of ordinariness, the missions give his existence meaning and he ceases to become “Just Ed” – much to Audrey’s dismay. We find out later that she (as do Marv and Ritchie and a host of other characters) has her reasons though not conscious of them.

An ordinary bloke delivering messages, changing people’s lives. In the end, Ed realises that his life is not so ordinary after all. He matters. It’s pretty much summed up when he says that “if a guy like him can stand up and do what he did, then maybe everyone can. Maybe everyone can live beyond what they’re capable of.”

Zusak’s Australian and you can read a lot of Aussie slang in this book. It brought back memories of my boarding school and University days in Australia, and that probably made the book that little bit more special to me.

This book was written before The Book Thief and in one part of it, there is already a reference to ‘colours’ – later a theme that features prominently in The Book Thief. I guess the idea came in this book and perfected in The Book Thief.

I enjoyed this book though I do find the ending a bit of a let-down. I was hoping for a resolution, but was left with more questions than answers. It felt as though Zusak rushed the ending. I never quite understand why anyone would go through such an elaborate plot involving a bank robbery, etc just in order to get to that kind of ending with Ed. And who exactly was the mastermind?

Perhaps these things don’t matter. We should just understand the book’s message, and not the book itself.

Yes, highly recommended. Read it.

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My verdict – Misleading.

Allow me to explain.

Death of a Murderer spans 249 pages. By the time I turned the 200th page, I knew something was very wrong because the “chill” that was supposed to run down my spine still had not manifested itself. Not only that, but the whole premise of the book (as represented on the backcover synopsis) – centered around the death of convicted child serial killer Myra Hindley – seemed almost non-existent.

Boyd Tonkin of the Independent reviewed this book as “Fearless … summons up the monsters that haunt both self and society”. Eve Magazine wrote that “this chiller is one to read with the lights on … an ultimate dark night of the soul.”

The backcover states: “One night in November 2002, PC Billy Tyler is called to a mortuary in Suffolk to guard the body of a notorious child-killer. But in the eerie silence of the hospital, the killer’s presence begins to assert itself … A vivid evocation of an extraordinary moment in crime history, Death of a Murderer is a dark and gripping meditation on the fears and temptations that haunt us all.

Let me tell you what happened in the eerie silence of the mortuary. PC Billy Tyler struggles to stay awake. He drinks coffee alone watching the mortuary fridges one of which contains Hindley’s body. He doesn’t have the key to open the locked fridge door so he sits there and he starts to daydream and have flashbacks of his wife Sue, his daughter who has Down’s syndrome and he has erotic thoughts of his ex-girlfriend Venetia who is half Scottish half Indian. Twice during the night that he is on duty guarding the body he hallucinates that he is talking to the dead woman, who appears wearing a lilac suit and smokes incessantly. She asks about the person he loved the most in his life.. A philosophical exchange.

Eerie? Chilling? No. Nothing of that sort. Nothing even close to that sort. And that left me so very disappointed. I had wanted to read a ghost story, something disturbing. But the cover of this book is everything that its story is not.

This book would more aptly be titled “Dreaming in a Mortuary” or “My Conversation with Myself in a Mortuary” or “Policeman’s Erotic Daydreams” and clearly not “Death of a Murderer”. Because there is nothing about Myra Hindley or her tormented soul coming back from the dead. There is nothing about her dark sadism that consumes PC Billy Tyler during his watch. Nothing at all.

Instead, we are treated to endless flashbacks of Tyler’s life before and during this time in the force. There are the adventures he had in Italy with his friend Raymond Percival, sex with Venetia … how he wore his police uniform and went to Venetia’s father’s house late one night to convey his daughter’s sentiments to him about their 6-year incestuous relationship, thoughts about Emma his daughter, etc. But nothing about the Myra Hindley murders or for that matter, any of her “presence”.

It’s not a bad book. Don’t get me wrong. It was an enjoyable read, but I read and read, turning the pages because I was led to believe by the covers that this was some kind of ghost story. In the end it was not. And hence my disappointed take on this book. I was misled.

Backcovers and Hindley aside, this is a book about Mr Everyman. About ordinary people living today, worrying about the future and pondering on the past. PC Billy Tyler is the sum of it all, and with him, we too are invited to think about our own lives and what we’ve achieved within the time given to us and all of our struggles for acceptance. Myra Hindley is just a backdrop to all this.

If you’ve read this book, I’d like to know what you thought of it. And on that same note, I’d appreciate it if someone could recommend a really scary book for me to read (No Stephen King, please).

I picked this book up simply because I could not find anything else to buy in the bookstore. The circumstances being such, I thought I should try reading something from a totally different genre. Forget the soapy stuff that Oprah would recommend, I walked over to the series of Action Adventure Thriller books and again, based purely on the cover, picked up Crossfire by Andy McNab. Guns. Terrorists. Mayhem. Simple enough, I thought – not too much thinking involved. A quick one before I launch into another deep novel.

It took me another 2 weeks before I actually came around to reading it. Ploughing through the thick My Little Friend, by Donna Tartt left me exhausted and I ended up watching a lot of television after that.

Crossfire features the lead hero, Nick Stone – a former SAS soldier now freelancing as a security contractor, providing bodyguard services to various news agencies (or anyone for that matter who pays) operating in the Middle East, specifically Iraq and Afghanistan. Stone is also a “K” – an agent working for the British intelligent services on ‘deniable’ operations. This is the first McNab book I’ve read and I understand that the character Nick Stone features in all his books as the central lead.

The plot is simple enough. Stone is protecting a reporter and his cameraman on the streets of wartorn Basra, Iraq. During an insurgent attack, Stone is knocked unconscious but is saved by the cameraman. Shortly after, he discovers that the cameraman is dead and the reporter, Dom – missing. Presumably kidnapped and held for ransom. What follows next is a fast paced adventure to London, Dublin and Kabul with lots of violence and action as Stone is ordered by the Intelligence Service to locate the whereabouts of Dom.

I didn’t think I’d come to this conclusion but I have to say that I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the killing and the fighting and never ever thought I could be so immersed in a gunfight scene purely based on written words – to the extent that my eyeballs felt like they were pulsating as they raced from one word to the next.

The dialogues are witty and quick. The action unforgettable – almost a learning experience as Stone gives pointers on how to sneak into a building, introduces and explains various weapons and my favourite, making a home-made taser using forks, a broom handle and a wall circuit point.

Now, I’m on the look out for Bravo Two Zero, another bestseller by McNab based on his true account of a mission inside Iraq with the SAS. Thanks to this book, I’ll never look at this genre quite the same way I used to.

As a parent of a one-year old baby girl, one of the most difficult things for me to read about and yet find so intriguing is the subject of children in times of war. Perhaps it is the stark contrast between childhood innocence (and helplessness) and the animal-like cruelty that Man is capable of inflicting to himself.

Children and war. It is a pain that strikes me in deep the heart, the same way I feel when I read about babies abandoned at birth or children neglected and abused. War is that great thief who robs children of their basic birthrights to unconditional love, to not hunger and want for food, to be protected, to grow, to learn what is right and what is wrong; to know joy and understand the revelations that come with curiosity.

So while it is true that in war, old men argue and young men die – it holds even more truth that children suffer the most. They must live through the fear and trauma without the ability to comprehend the events that consume their innocence. Sad stories abound of children in such times of cruelty and The Mascot is one such true story set during the Holocaust.

This is the third book after The Book Thief and the Hitler Book that I’ve read this year dealing with the subjects of Nazism and genocide during WWII. But this book is more explicit and very very much more personal. The Mascot is told by Mark Kurzem, who relates the journey of self-discovery by his aging father, Alex Kurzem who reveals to him the dark secret he has kept his whole life, from the time he was a boy in Belarus up until his eventual migration to Australia after the war. In short, 60 years of silence.

At the age of only 5, Alex Kurzem is told by his mother one rainy night that come morning, they would all be killed. He sneaks out early the next morning, leaving his mother and siblings and heads for the woods. In the dark, he falls into a pit and in it he finds people, dead and dying. He falls asleep in the arms of a woman who is half buried and before the sun rises, he wakes and continues on. A while later, from the hills, he witnesses his whole village – including his mother, brother and sister, being shot and bayoneted before being tossed into the same pit he had fallen in a short while before.

He runs away farther into the woods and there he wanders for the next few months. Alone, eating berries and sleeping up in trees, he survives the elements and is found by a Latvian SS unit. He is marched to a clearing where another group of people are huddled together. There, the soldiers push him towards the group. An old man holds him and tells him not to be afraid. He soon realises that this group of people were being lined up for extermination. Desperate to live, the small boy asks for bread and starts to do acts to amuse his captors. The senior officer of the unit steps out – Seargeant Kulis. Kulis pulls the boy out of the firing line, and with that spares his life. Given a set of uniform made to his size, the  young Alex Kurzem becomes a mascot for the SS unit and travels with them as they go on patrol, hunting for partizani (partisans) and exterminating Jews.

The Mascot is about the search by Alex Kurzem of his true identity, erased by his supposed captor-saviours starting with vague memories of his childhood (seeing his father saying goodbye to him and his family, playing with his best friend, picking apples from a tree in his backyard for his mother) to horrific scenes of massacres that he is forced to watch as a Corporal in the SS unit (the head of the unit, a Commander Karlis Lobe accepts Kulis’ request to keep the boy with the soldiers and after making him a Private, promotes him to a Corporal).

Unable to distinguish between what his real memories are, or what are images planted in his mind as a child by his captors, Alex endures the torment with the help of his son. They seek help from the Holocaust Center, and persist despite anonymous threats and intimidation by both elements within the Latvian community (who feel that the Kurzems’ actions will expose their complicity in genocide during the war) and that of the Jewish community (with visits by Israeli agents looking for more leads in their hunt for Nazi war criminals).

Through the help of an elderly lady working in the Holocaust Center – Alice Prosser, the Kurzems are able to network with historians in Latvia and from there, they travel to Belarus to find more information about two words that Alex Kurzem could remember from his childhood – “Koidanov” and “Panok”.

As if Fate had shown compassion and foresight in the midst of all the killing, these two words imprinted somehow in the mind of the young boy would somehow be the key to his journey home to where it all began.

I must admit that some parts of the book are just too amazing to be true – how can a boy of 5 have such a clear recollection of events around him? How could he have remembered things his father said to him, or the dialogue of adults surrounding him? But I put aside my disbelief and read on and what an amazing journey it turns out to be.

Father and son slowly confront the past, both sitting at the kitchen table every night in the wee hours – Alex recollecting, and Mark recording. Their travel to Minsk, Belarus and then to Dzerzhinsk (which is later revealed to be the name the Soviets used to replace the original name – Koidanov) reveal a clearer picture of who Alex Kurzem was before his capture. We learn of the Koidanov massacre that saw the extermination of his family, the meaning of Panok, and the discovery of a half-brother (Erick Galperin) from his father’s second marriage.

In Koidanov, he meets an old couple who remember him as Ilya Galperin, the eldest son of Solomon Galperin who survived Auswitch and came home looking for his family, only to discover them all dead (and never knowing until his death in 1975 that his eldest son had in fact escaped the massacre).

Through the arduous process, the pieces are put together and missing links discovered. But not everything is solved, and some questions remain. There is no finality to Alex Kurzem’s search for himself (as the reader soon finds out). The author himself admits to this much. We find out how Alex Kurzem survived the war, and how he eventually ended up in Australia. We also see the pain through the eyes of a 5 year old child, forced to see things no child should ever see, or even try to understand, and through that, we see also how it came to be that so much of his past became suppressed within himself for such a long time.

“Would it have been better if you’d never spoken of the past?’ Mark Kurzem asks of his father.

‘I honestly don’t know, son,’ Alex Kurzem answers. ‘Even after sixty years, it unsettled me in a way that I could never have imagined. I thought I was in charge of my life but it wasn’t so. How I survived even now dictates my life and all I can do is follow at a safe distance, chained to it. It’s as if there are two persons in my body. There is the Alex everybody knows and there’s another Alex who was a secret. They’ll have to learn to accommodate each other again.’

In closing, Mark Kurzem wrote – ‘I had my answers to the questions I had harboured since that day at the Cafe Daquise in London when my father had suddenly become a stranger to me. I believed that now I was closer to an understanding. There was no resolution, no absolution, no closure, no moving on, no getting over it, no pop psychology solution. Only an accommodation of the past. My father had somehow known this all along.’

Alex Kurzem today

Alex Kurzem today

This book is unforgettable and I doubt I will ever come across another book as special as this one. I find it hard to look at the black and white photographs without feeling sadness for the little boy in them. No child should ever go through this experience. Over and over again, it fills me with amazement that that child survived and grew into adulthood.

I am glad Alex Kurzem found the strength to break his silence and eventually brought to light the truth that so many had tried to hide for so many decades. Just as Alex came to realise, the reader will also come to the conclusion that behind the supposed kindness of his captors, there was something evil there as well. These men, Mr Dzenis, Commander Lobe, Sergeant Kulis – all had their selfish reasons for taking in the boy, and they made it very clear in the end when Alex Kurzem started to dig up the past.

I strongly recommend this book, not for any lessons that it may hold, but more for the amazing story of an old man’s search for the truth, and that common desire we as humans all share .. that simple need to belong to someone, to belong to somewhere.

To have a start, and a finish.

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