Reviewed by Emma Crowley
When Liv and Nora decide to take their husbands and children on a holiday cruise, everyone is thrilled. The ship's comforts and possibilities seem infinite. But when they all go ashore in beautiful Central America, a series of minor mishaps lead the families further from the ship's safety.
One minute the children are there, and the next they're gone.
What follows is a heart-racing story told from the perspectives of the adults and the children, as the distraught parents - now turning on one another and blaming themselves - try to recover their children and their shattered lives.
Penguin Airlines invites you on a journey to Central America where the forecast is for sunshine, blue skies and most unexpectedly missing children. A return journey is not guaranteed but what can have led to the ultimate holiday dream turning into every parents worst nightmare? I had never heard of author Maile Meloy until Do Not Become Alarmed popped through my letter box with a ticket accompanying it, this certainly aroused my interest and although not the biggest fan of thrillers I was more than willing to give this one a go. Perhaps my biggest issue with this book was the way it was marketed because after reading several chapters I could see this was not going to be the thriller I was expecting. If I was reading that sort of book I expect to be rapidly turning the pages with twists and turns on every page packed full of edge of your seat stuff as the main characters battle through to identify the culprit or solve the problem.
It soon became apparent this wasn't the case as the story develops from two perspectives and the reader is aware of what is going on at every step of the way. I had questioned whether I was reading this all wrong or were my expectations totally incorrect given the marketing material accompanying the book. But then I read a comment from an author I follow on Twitter and she felt the exact same way so it wasn't just me. Pushing all this aside and getting over the fact I was reading a different book from what I had been expecting, Do Not Become Alarmed was a good book, not without its flaws, and quite slow in parts but essentially it was a good read perhaps focusing more on the development of characters and how the characters coped with the fall out of such a traumatic, heartbreaking event that befell them on a holiday which turned from delight to disaster.
Liv is a pragmatic woman, a problem solver who likes to have control of everything. She is married to Ben and has two children Sebastian (8) and Penny (11). Sebastian has diabetes and this will play a major part at various points throughout the book. Nora is Liv's cousin and she has recently lost her mother to cancer. She is married to Raymond and again has two children, Marcus (11) and June (6). The two families are about to embark upon a Christmas cruise. They both feel they need the break away, they need time to reconnect and to just chill out and enjoy the sunshine and all the activities the cruise has to offer.
So far so good right? But soon things change and the story takes a more sinister turn. What ensues is dramatic and at times there are scenes which are very difficult to read. Yes there is tension but again the fact we knew what was going on took away the element of surprise for me. I like to be kept on my toes guessing the outcome. OK so the eventual outcome the reader was never certain of but if we knew nothing as to the whereabouts of the children it would have made for a very different read.
While on the cruise Liv and Nora meet Camila and her husband Gunther - Isabel and Hector are their children. So a connection is established between all the couples. Deciding as much as they are enjoying cruise ship life they need a break onshore and they take a day trip to a zip line in the forest. The men decided golf is their priority and so the women take the children with tour guide Pedro. Unfortunately a burst tyre leads to a change of plan. The group make their way to a beach/cove of sorts near to the forest where they can chill and relax before going back to the ship. Zip lining is all but forgotten as Nora makes her way into the forest to look for 'birds' with Pedro and Liv and Camilla fall asleep in the sun. Surely the kids are fine messing about swimming in the water. But they're not, the water changes direction and soon they are brought away upstream.
So while Nora has been busy with Pedro and the other two women dead to the world, the children are gone and they may never see them again. I understood and felt the panic and desperation once the adults had realised the children are gone but in all fairness one adult should have at least been watching the children. It’s really an unwritten rule. Throughout the rest of the story each woman puts the blame on others without I ever really felt stepping up to the mark and saying well each of them were at fault. When you are going through the situation of losing your children you are just trying to get to the next stage, to cling to that hope that they will be found safe and well. You can't bear to think about the ultimate consequences of what they could be going through.
What sets this book apart from the rest I felt was the fact we knew exactly where the children were and what they were going through at each given stage. As they disappear the story is split into two distinct narratives, that of the children and that of their parents. I never thought I would be saying this but I preferred reading from the children’s point of view and I found myself racing through the parents sections in order to get back to the children. I initially thought should the children's perspective be here at all, would it have made the book better to focus on just Nora and Liv and co, but the more I read I felt following Isabel, Sebastian, Marcus and the rest that this was a stronger element to the book.
The parents in this story did nothing for me as characters, I was meant to feel sympathy for their plight and to an extent I did but they just seemed to have no get up and go in them. They were wallowing in misery which is natural but there was no communication between the couples or even between each husband and wife. At some points I felt their torment but honestly they were a frustrating bunch of people who I couldn't warm to at all. Nora seemed to distance herself from everything and in the worst way possible. Surely a situation like this would bring people closer rather than further exposing the cracks in a relationship. A call for unity rather than separation. The worst has happened that can ever happen to a family and how they dealt with it left a lot to be desired.
As I have mentioned it was following exactly what happened to the group of children that made this book redeem itself for me in some sort of way. It was far stronger and better written than that of their parents. At times I forgot they were all so young given some of the older children had to step up to the mark and deal with what they had stumbled upon and in turn its nasty consequence. The author exposed a very seedy side to Central America but one which I'm sure is rampant and very true to everyday life. What the children bear witness to and endure is not for the faint hearted. Enjoyed is not the read word for the children's aspect of the book but it did keep me hooked as just when you thought OK there could be positive outcome from all this something else turned up to throw a spanner in the works. The group had become embroiled in a very dangerous situation but Isabel and Penny stepped up when they need to for the sake of the younger members of the group. If the parents section followed how they dealt with the fall out of the children’s disappearance then the children’s chapters showed us how they attempted to overcome adversity, corruption and thuggery. It exposed a side of the world people would best left closed and pushed to the back of their minds.
Was there resolution for all? Does every book have a happy ending? Well if you read Do Not Become Alarmed you will find out. It's not the Summer thriller of 2017 but still push aside some of the faults within the book and a good story is waiting to be found. As someone said to me, OK it's not the thriller I wanted but I still had to keep reading to discover what happened to the children. I suppose that's what made me keeping reading this book as I always have to have the answers to everything. This probably won't feature in my top books of 2017 but if you want a quick read exposing every parents worst nightmare and how they deal with the fall out then this is the book for you.
Many thanks to Penguin-Viking for my copy of Do Not Become Alarmed to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.