Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review of "99 Red Balloons" by Elisabeth Carpenter

As the story opens a schoolgirl is abducted from a sweet shop in England, having been led to believe that the man in the woolly hat was sent by her mom. As the man drives the girl away, the song 'Ninety Nine Red Balloons' - which she likes - is playing on the car radio.


Stephanie arrives at her sister Emma's house to find her sibling near hysteria. Emma's 8-year-old daughter Grace hasn't arrived home from school, and none of the neighbors have seen her. The police arrive to hunt for the child, but Grace can't be found anywhere. DI Lee Hines and DS Rachel Berry question Grace's relatives about where the girl might go, but the family doesn't believe Grace would wander off on her own.

As time ticks by - and the situation looks dire - Graces's family draws together to support each other. This includes the parents, Emma and Matt; Aunt Stephanie and her 13-year-old son Jamie; and the widowed grandmother. When the police leave to continue their search elsewhere, the Family Liasion Officer (FLO) - PC Nadia Sharma - stays to assist Grace's relatives.....who are falling apart.

Across England, in another town, a seventy-something woman named Maggie is disturbed when she sees the news story about Grace. Maggie's granddaughter Zoe was abducted 30 years ago, and the loss destroyed the family. Maggie's son Scott turned into a drug addict and criminal; Maggie's grief-stricken husband Ron died; Maggie's son-in-law David left to search for his girl; and Maggie's daughter Sarah became an alcoholic and committed suicide.

Maggie's lived alone since then, and has continued to follow news stories of vanished children. Maggie always sends a card to the parents of missing kids - with her name and address - in case the current police investigation turns up news of Zoe....who's never been found.

Most of the story is told in the alternating voices of Stephanie and Maggie. There are also sections narrated by an abducted child, and glimpses into the thoughts and behavior of a kidnapper.

In Stephanie's chapters we get insight into a frightened family trying to deal with a dreadful situation. As days pass, family members blame themselves and each other; can't bring themselves to shower or change clothes; drink too much; ignore the food dropped off by neighbors; and generally fall into despair. Stephanie has the added responsiblity of looking after her son Jamie, who gets a break from the suffocating environment by visiting his dad and going to school.

We also learn that Emma is not Stephanie's biological sister. Emma was adopted at the age of 10 after being rescued from an abusive home. Nevertheless, the siblings have a very strong bond and are devoted to each other. Still, Stephanie and Matt (Emma's husband) have a secret between them, which causes added tension in the already strained household. This is exacerbated by the presence of PI Sharma - who's always around.....listening.

In Maggie's narrative she describes her family tragedy; her continuing depression; her day to day activities; and the discomfort she feels with local people - who seem to exude pity. Maggie also talks about her friend Jim - a caring man who comes by regularly to check up on her. When Maggie and Jim see a photo of Grace's family in the newspaper, someone looks familiar.

In the chapters recounted by the child she seems drugged and sleepy during a long car journey - and frightened by her situation. She continually asks when she'll see her mommy.

And finally we see a nervous abductor trying to keep a child calm while he disguises or hides her, to keep from getting caught as he crosses borders. (Uh-oh!) I wanted to know what this was all about.

The police investigation continues behind the scenes, and the family is kept updated by the detectives and the FLO. But the cops don't divulge everything they find out until the book's climax, which is appropriately dramatic.

I don't want to give away spoilers so I'll just say the author has a deft touch with misdirection and the story has some big surprises.

The narrative is proabably an accurate depiction of how families react when a child goes missing. If you've ever mislaid a kid temporarily - in a store or park - you've probably felt a little of this. I found the story compelling and was anxious to discover what happened to Grace..... and what secrets people were keeping.

I'd recommend this engaging book to fans of psychological thrillers.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Elisabeth Carpenter), and the publisher (Avon) for a copy of the book.

Rating: 3.5 stars