A Decent Ransom

‘A Decent Ransom’ is not only a wholly well spun tale of a bungled kidnap caper which is not what it initially appears to be, but it is also an exercise in creative writing that places Hrubá in a high echelon of contemporary writers. One of the many aspects of Hrubá’s writing that marks her as an artist of note is her ability to create a varied cast of characters – from young teenagers to old men sugar daddies and used loose women, immigrants with issues particular to their backgrounds to average middle class couples in brittle relationships, older relatives with perversions, to women with neuroses/psychoses who converse with their alter egos. And in bringing such animation to vivid life, Hrubá elects to allow the reader to hear from each of these many characters, divided for convenience into individual brief chapters, in the first person singular. Rarely have characters bristled with life as vibrant as the strange folks involved in ‘A Decent Ransom’. Hrubá has a way with conversation, not only allowing the young Phoebus to speak in the innocent voice of a forgotten youth, but also in presenting the wisely phonetic mispronunciations by the German immigrants and the Chinese girls. Hrubá keeps things clipped to short chapters and offers just enough information with each character's voice to allow the reader to stay on track. After many twists and turns in the plot, brought to brilliant life by the fact that we are privy to the thoughts and vantages of each of the characters, the story winds to a surprising and satisfying climax. Grady Harp, February 2009

The author challenged the usual boundaries of contemporary fiction and bravely narrated the novel in the 1st person and through multiple perspectives of both male and female characters. The story time-line is not straightforward and it keeps the reader engaged; it gets complicated throughout the story but still, it remains amazingly clear to the reader. There are a few things that make this style of writing very distinctive:

The way the author presents various foreign accents which makes a platform for the comic element in the novel. The author also challenges the usual written sentence structure which also contributes to the funny side of the story.

“We had a conversation. In the truck, going down the mountain. I didn’t like it. I didn’t. Like it.” (the opening of Chapter 84)

There are very distinctive and elaborate monologues that quite often switch to dialogues between the character and another part of the character; such as consciousness or “Me” which I understand is an inner voice vocalizing fear and stressing the adherence to what is proper as a response to the character’s desires.

Further, there is somewhat surreal atmosphere at some points in this story. E.g. A dying character seeing “Them” coming, which may indicate some surreal being/s but it is up to the reader to imagine who “Them” might be.

A mesmerizing piece of fiction; Ivana Hruba lets her readers use their own intelligence to figure out things for themselves and also gives them space for imagination which gets topped off with the open ending. Thank you, Ivana:)
Goodreads reader review, April 2014

'A Decent Ransom' is a deliciously twisted story told by multiple narrators; these shifting perspectives keep the pace quick and the reader guessing. Bold, quirky and outrageously entertaining. Booklist, Sept 15, 2008 issue

A Decent Ransom begins with a kidnapping which, from the point of view of the kidnappers, appears to get rapidly out of hand. Then, just when the reader thinks he/she has predicted the ending, the story takes a unique twist... No, I don't wish to spoil that wonderful ending, so I'll just say that after a certain point, you'll be on the edge of your seat while reading this sometimes humorous, always interesting tale. The characters are well developed, the plot engaging enough to keep me turning pages. Recommended for adult readers who are looking for something different to add to the regular routine reading. 1dragones, LibraryThing Reviewer, May 2011

A Decent Ransom is engrossing -- I highly recommend letting it grow on you and sampling its varied fruits. Reviewed by Kaolin for GUD Magazine, January 2010

A DECENT RANSOM is a story of a kidnapping gone right (according to the tag on the book).  More than that it's a story about a bit of a misfit that somehow ends up okay, despite all the odds being stacked against him.
The storyline is pretty simple to start off with - two young (as is revealed) half-brothers, each a misfit in his own right, coming from a totally dysfunctional background, live in the dire circumstances that their mother deserted them in.  The elder comes up with a classic get-rich quick scheme, the younger brother Phoebus is the one who deals with the majority of the consequences.  Their intended victim, Kathy, is the beautiful, yet mentally fragile, young wife of a seemingly wealthy man.  Her husband, Rupert, is a womaniser and when he opts to refuse to pay the ransom asked, the brothers are presented with the dilemma of what to do with their captive.  What A DECENT RANSOM has done with this scenario however takes the reader on a substantially more complicated journey.  
Told in multiple character points of view, the author somehow has designed a story that elegantly presents each character’s viewpoints without the need to label or overtly lead the reader.  There are subtle pointers to the voices of the various characters that the reader will pick up as they go along, as the viewpoint is silently switched, and you launch into a new chapter without necessarily knowing who you're listening to up-front.  That ability to be inside the heads, to see what they see, to hear what they are thinking - rather than see "the character" first, creates a very intimate portrayal of a bunch of people in extraordinary circumstances.  There's a lightness of touch, a sense of humour, a subtle drawing out of the absurdity of the mess that these people have gotten themselves into.  There's also some fitting light and shade, particularly in the relationship between the two brothers, and the group of prostitutes, particularly a young Chinese woman, who seem to be their best friends.  These are people who care about each other, and care about what they have done.  
Obviously the reader is going to assume that the scenario for this kidnapping is prey turned predator, that Rupert's refusal to pay the ransom will mean that Kathy sides with the brothers to "get him".  Nothing is ever that simple.  A DECENT RANSOM requires some concentration and an ability to roll with the author. You're not going to get the story handed to you on a plate, but you are going to get something that is original, clever, and and just flat out entertaining. AustCrimeFiction, Book Reviews, May 2009

A Decent Ransom is a fascinating first adult novel from Ivana Hruba that takes us deep into the psyches of the main protagonists. It is the story of a simple kidnap plan that goes horribly wrong because our inner lives can be so different to outward appearances and physical realities.
Set in a large country town or the outskirts of a city in Australia it is the story of Phoebus, a 15-year-old boy who lives with his brother Kenny, a young adult, in an isolated farmhouse. They are marginalised kids from a background of abuse and poverty. Abandoned by their parents and abused by an uncle, they fend for themselves working at a truck stop. Phoebus has left school and is basically Kenny's domestic slave, subservient to his needs. Kenny is a borderline psychotic who behaves wildly, egged on by substance abuse. However, there is a lot of love between them. They only have each other.
They have befriended two young Chinese prostitutes, Janelle and Lien. Kenny is in love with Janelle. Wanting to start a better life for them all he comes up with a plan to kidnap a local woman, Kathryn, and extract a ransom from her rich husband, Rupert.
Things start going wrong when Rupert won't pay the ransom.
The story is told through the eyes of Phoebus, Janelle, Kathryn and Rupert. We are taken into their thoughts and the truths about their lives, which are not what they appear to be from the outside. Phoebus and Janelle convey the character of Kenny to the reader. His character, actions and philosophy on life drive the story and affect everyone in it, but he never speaks for himself as the others do.
Finely layered and compelling, this is a well-written thriller about the rich inner landscapes that can exist in bleak surroundings. Hruba does particularly well developing the relationship between Phoebus and the kidnapped woman. He looks after her and protects her through to the end, even though he is aware that she has an agenda he doesn't agree with to get revenge on her husband.
How often is there an enormous difference between what we think and what we say and do? This is conveyed particularly well in the book by Janelle, whose beautiful expression of her yearnings and inner feelings to herself is contrasted in the story with how she is perceived. She has a poor command of English and a degrading job as a dancer and prostitute in men's club with a mind that resonates with hope and love and poetry.
In A Decent Ransom the fates of all the characters, driven by madness, greed, love, revenge and hope for something better, come together within a clever plot that moves with humour and pathos to a satisfying conclusion in this well crafted and totally absorbing story. Bernadette Gooden, Matilda Reviews, May 2009

"Riveting, surprisingly complex story of human weakness and yearning with a satisfyingly uplifting ending..." James McKinnon, Editor-in-Chief, Kunati Publishing

"Original in its conception and delivered with terrifying authenticity, A Decent Ransom is absolutely riveting..." Lynne Bradley, Executive Director, Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre 

A Decent Ransom is a page-turning drama laced with humor, intrigue, betrayal and manipulation, with more dark twists than an octopus playing Twister with an agitated lady squid. It’s like nothing I’ve read before. Switching between the well-developed characters, the story spools out gradually, teasing and taunting the reader, giving just enough information to hide the hook, and then the author reels you in for the sucker punch finale. Like the movies Babel and Crash, one of the great things about this book is the way the author skillfully connects her characters when you’re least expecting it, making for a story that you won’t want to put down...” Amanda Richards, Amazon reviewer

In her first adult novel, author Ivana Hruba tells the story of a kidnapping gone awry. I suppose saying so beckons a definition of a successful kidnapping, which would depend on one's perspective -- as either the kidnapper or the kidnapped. We have in "A Decent Ransom" the perspectives of both. It is perhaps, then, up to the reader to determine if the unusual twists in this particular kidnapping end well or not.
     A Decent Ransom is well written, fresh, fun, creative. Hruba knows what she's doing on a keyboard. Her characters have shape and color and voice. They are capable of pulling heart strings as well as tickling funny bones. It works. They work. And, that rare jewel too few writers wear? Hruba has it pinned front and center. She can tell a story and she can also tell it well (two markedly different skills). Sample this:
     The hundred-thousand-dollar question has the face of a sad clown balancing across a tightly stretched rope. One false step and ...
     "The boy is no fool. He waits patiently. Slumped in the corner like a bag of wet clothes, he evokes the smell of familiar things. Chopped garlic. Cold pie. Lonely old men. Pool shop owners dissatisfied with marriage. Burnt oil and burgers. Hair grease. Jasmine tea. And somewhere in between, there's Bid. Steaming like a bucket of warm pee in the hot, dusty weather, he pumps petrol. Up and down, the old fashioned way he cleans the windscreens. Smiling at the tourists but watching me. Always watching. His eyes like a fish's. His cheeks like an old woman's ass. His hands like a turtle's claws. And always I said no.”
     See what I mean? Bravo! Hruba plays on all the reader's senses and that's what makes a story memorable. Add a quirky storyline of kidnapped young wife, straying husband, simple-minded kidnapper, the used (or is she the user?) mistress, the abusive partner in crime, the oriental stripper, stir it up with intrigue and revenge, and you are in for a fun ride. As long as you can keep them all straight -- enjoy! Zinta Aistars, editor-in-chief, The Smoking Poet

Often forgotten are the many sides of the usual two-way interaction between kidnapper and kidnapped. Not so in Ivana Hrubá’s debut novel, A Decent Ransom. In 258 pages, Hrubá explores in poignant first person the worlds of 15-year-old Phoebus; anxiety-distorted housewife Kathy; Janelle, a young Chinese immigrant turned prostitute; and Rupert, Kathy’s womanizing husband.
Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the primary characters. This practice carries the double-edged sword of preventing character fatigue which often plagues narratives using first person point of view, but runs the risk of confusion among the novel’s players as the author introduces them. Hrubá’s skill with characterization, however, assists the recognition of voice as fashioned here with Phoebus’ stutter: “I asked him his name. R-Rick-ky, he whispered, pronouncing the word reverently as if it were a new and precious thing.”
Hrubá takes on a fresh look at the prey-turned-predator concept and the dynamics between individuals struggling for a better life as plans unravel and worst fears come to bear, weaving the lives of all her characters, from Rupert’s reckoning, to Phoebus’ denouement as the unlikely hero, into a lithe web that illustrates how just one event can alter the destiny of others. A Decent Ransom’s sojourn into the world of an unscripted kidnapping sets a standard for thinking outside the often myopic view of commercial publishing.
Reviewed by Scott Bowen for Prick of the Spindle Literary Journal, February 2009

A Decent Ransom is a seriously clever book. I literally could not put this down. The plot in this psychological drama is seemingly simple - a beautiful mentally fragile woman is kidnapped for a ransom that never arrives, leaving the kidnappers out of pocket and with a serious moral dilemma about what to do with the girl. The twists that follow are truly surprising and unpredictable. Just when you think you've got it worked out, the action takes an unexpected turn; I can't reveal what happens without spoiling it - suffice to say nothing in this novel is as it seems. The characters are well developed and multi-dimensional; with the exception of the young boy Phoebus who is the quintessential hero in every sense, there isn't a clear cut villain or hero, which is what makes the story so real. The multiple perspectives work a treat. This is a thoroughly entertaining and engrossing read. B. Douglas

Although this story is written by an author in Australia, I kept envisioning various landscapes in the U.S. that I am familiar with. Pristine Mountain could be a mountain in rural Colorado or Arkansas or many of the other states in America. It has universal appeal in that the characters could be seen walking down ANY road…maybe even YOUR road!
Where to begin telling the tale that our author tells so well? With the boy? With the kidnap victim? With the victim’s husband? With the kidnapper? The author spins a tale of suspense and intrigue, drawing us farther and farther into the story, until we realize that she has really taken us on a ride on a huge Mobius Strip. If you are not familiar with a Mobius Strip, a model can easily be created by taking a paper strip and giving it a half-twist, and then joining the ends of the strip together to form a single strip. Now, take a pencil and put it down on any spot on the strip…and draw a line the length of the strip. Your line will go round and round, on the outside AND inside of the strip, until it meets itself once again. This is what the author does as she weaves the stories of the characters’ lives! All of the characters flit in and out of each other’s lives, all interconnected along that Mobius Strip. She begins with one character and tells the story from that point of view. Then she steps into the skin of another character and tells you their tale. She goes on and on and little by little, you eventually find that you are in possession of the WHOLE story and you are totally stunned by the truth of it all. You didn’t count on this, you tell yourself. Each character is on that strip, and their lives all bump into each other in the most unusual ways. What a delicious tale this author weaves for us. What a wonderful slippery slope we must climb to get to the whole truth and nothing but the truth. How delightful it is to find the true hero of the story.
I hope you take the time to hunt down “A Decent Ransom” and make it a part of your life! You will come away with a whole new perspective on kidnappings! So, come ride the Mobius Strip of the author’s imagination! It is a trip well worth taking!"... Mary Aycock – Front Street Reviews, October 2008

A Decent Ransom is an intriguing, genre-bending crime novel. Ivana Hruba is no Dashiell Hammett grinding out the story in dark, sinister phrases, no Raymond Chandler wannabe playing hard-boiled detective. Instead, she has a uniquely soft voice for the genre, one that seduces you into the world of a gang of kidnappers whose flaws and foibles make the story sing. The author's use of multiple voices and a time line best viewed in a fun-house mirror gives the book a dream-like tone that is perfectly appropriate to the nightmare that is a kidnapping that didn't work out quite the way anyone imagined it.  Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds: A Novel of Scandal, Love and Death in the Congo

Very very clever and creative. Ivana keeps you guessing and finally delivers a satisfying ending. As an author, she'll do just fine and I look forward to more books. I hope she turns more traditional in one of the future books. I would love to see her prose talent in basic form.  Phillip Jennings, author of Nam-A-Rama, and New Mexico

"If you're looking for the unusual, this is it! While this book is certainly a crime novel, it is like no other crime novel I've read. Instead of butting the reader forward with the rapid-fire prose characteristic of the genre, this story washes over you, fully jelling in a leisurely, almost dreamlike way. Told from the viewpoint of four characters (interestingly enough, NOT the ones you'd necessarily consider central), going back and forth in time, it allows you to see the action in a uniquely multi-faceted way. There is greater complexity in this 258-page book than, I think, any of us are used to seeing in this kind of fiction. Unusual pacing and depth of story -- that's what makes this book stand out. I hope to see more from this interesting author..." Doni Tamblyn, author of Laugh and Learn

This is a "must read" for serious readers

This book delighted and thrilled the writer in me. I loved the turns and twists in the storyline and found the five primary characters fascinating. Each evoked either compassion or empathy and I "cared" about what was going to happen to them...something every writer wants their reader to feel...and something every reader hopes for.

The structure choice may confuse some, but I suggest " letting go" of expectations. In this novella, as the story unfolds, each of the major players express how they feel about the very same experience from their singular point of view. This drives the drama forward and I,for one, could not wait to see how these very different people would come together to create an event that none of them could possibly ever forget.
(Review from Barnes & Noble attached to A Decent Ransom: the Kidnapping) 

Cabbage, Strudel and Trams


What grabbed me, kept me reading Cabbage, Strudel and Trams is the use of language. It’s the language, the descriptions, the play with words, and that Ivana Hrubá not only tells a story in a unique way, but also has fun with what could otherwise be a morose tale in the reading. Hrubá still shares difficult times, doesn’t make less of them, but she makes them lighter to read. After I finished it I took a moment to let the story set in, to absorb it, and I really feel her writing style is the winning factor. I found the story entertaining and humorous, the characters uniquely portrayed and fleshed out enough to be planted in one’s memory, and just enough depth in description of surroundings to paint a picture. I also really enjoyed the use of narration with the story not being told via first person in the sense of Vendula (the person we are following), but instead told by Franta who appears to be an imaginary friend. There are illustrations all through the book to show and emphasize the characters and the story itself. Some of them are quite comical, setting off the wonderful sense of humour, and some are just plain cute. Cabbage, Strudel, and Trams is something I’d recommend to those who have an interest in biography, Communist communities, and what it’s like to immigrate to a new culture, but only if those people appreciate a sense of humour and don’t want something that dwells on the downside.
Dutchie, Bookish Ardour, February 2011

Cabbage, Strudel and Trams

Hurts so much that all you can do is laugh, it seems. The Soviet Union, or Soviet Onion, as Ivana Hrubá writes, encompasses the occupation of many European countries, marked by human rights abuses and atrocities. Laughing yet? With clever wit and satire, Hrubá finds a way to make it all tickle until you do.

In this something like an autobiography, but not quite, the author writes about a Czech family living under communism--the girl Vendula, who is the novel's heroine, her brother Pavel, her parents, and grandparents babka Zlatka and Deda Anton. The story is told in the narrative voice of invisible Franta, a kind of wise, imaginary friend who lives in Vendula's head. The family escapes to West Germany and later resettles in Australia.

Opening on a scene of the family discussing the unexpected defection of Uncle Stan from communist Czechoslovakia to West Germany, the reader comes to understand what it was like to live in a world based on a daily diet of propoganda. Standing in long queues outside empty shops in hopes of buying something, anything, cutting newspapers into squares to use as toilet paper, navigating adolescence through poverty and depravity, falling in love with the boy who dares to be an individual--it is all great fodder for the author to create a side-splitting circus of oppressed humanity coping in whatever way they can to live as normal lives as possible.

Between laughs, Hruba manages to insert pointedly serious scenarios without ever slipping into soapbox mode. Vendula's adolescent friends include Marcela, the pretty Czech girl that is seduced into performing for pornography. The venture seems to start as something exciting and rewarding--all that money in a world of poverty--but ends with the young girl's drowned and naked corpse floating up in a river, hands tied behind her back.

The point seems to be that human beings are ever so human, regardless of where we live and under what government, all of us trying to get ahead, chase a dream, find love, live in a world where we can feel some pride in achievement and hope for a little more. Wrapped in comedy, the author manages to expose human frailty and weakness while maintaining a compassionate sympathy for every character. We may all respond a little differently when pushed to the wall, but our common dreams are not so dissimilar.

When Deda calls out in a family discussion comparing communists to capitalists, black humor blooms while Babka Zlatka, cutting squares of newspaper for toilet paper, finds it easier to try to defend the madness of the world in which she lives:

"Do you have any idea what impact we've had on the Americans?" he called to Dad just as Vendula opened the door.

"None," Dad answered without looking up from his pile.

"Precisely!" deda thundered. "None! No impact whatsoever."

"And why? Why, I ask you?" he cried theatrically, pushing his deerstalker off of his forehead with his crooked finger. He looked pointedly at babka, expecting a response.

... She didn't need it, didn't want it and was happy to go with the official propaganda which stated that all capitalists were losers, regardless of their gross national income.

Deda Anton was not discouraged.

"We've had no impact on them because they don't care! They got that much wheat they don't know what to do with it! You think the Americans worry about our f--king five-year agricultural plan? ..."

... Babka took. "Buy low, sell high," she retorted contemptuously, waving a hand in deda's face. "Any old fool can do that. That's nothing to be proud of."

Deda, delighted with the direction the conversation was taking, laid his crooked paw over babka's scissors in a gesture of bravado. "Isn't it? I beg to differ. The Americans know how to do business. They've got no housing crisis over there, darling, they don't live eight to a room like your Soviet friends."

... "Who walked on the moon first, Anton?" she fired at deda, confident she had him by the short and curlies... "I tell you who walked on the Moon, you silly man! The Soviets did! They landed there first!"

... To this deda eventually replied with a resigned sigh... "Who knows?" he sarcastically intoned. "This might be just the thing to end the housing crisis." (page 72-73)

Right or wrong, good or bad, we all get attached to the places and people where we spend most of our time, and this point comes through, too, as we escape across the border with Vendula's family. Suddenly, they enter a world of plenty. And still, they must struggle, and young Vendula longs for the friends she left behind, even if that was in a mad, mad world. Only gradually does the family readjust, and comic moments abound as Vendula learns a new language and the family finally moves into a house of their own in the land down under, Australia.

It is a story of many poignant Moments:

Things happen.
Things you would never have dreamed of.
Things you might have thought about just maybe happening on the other side of the galaxy but you'd never imagine them happening in your own life.
But they do.
There is always the Moment. (Page 92)

Hruba's novel teaches important lessons without being obvious, subtle pointers to what matters and doesn't matter in life. This is a window on Soviet life few Americans understand (deda Anton is right--Americans weren't even paying attention) because it was a life nearly incomprehensible to those in the west. With quaint pencil drawings that appear to be the scribblings of a bored adolescent, the novel is rich with, as Vendula would say, Moments.

I found myself so enjoying a good story wrapped in a good laugh, that I read the novel more quickly than I had anticipated. It is the second work I've read by this author, and her vivid imagination and wit come through as well in this as in her first adult novel, A Decent Ransom: A Story of a Kidnapping Gone Right.

As did her character Vendula, Ivana Hrubá was born in the Czech Republic, lived under communist rule, and then walked across the Alps with her family to escape to the free world in 1983. After living in West German refugee camps, her family resettled in Australia, where she lives now with her own family.
 Zinta Aistars, The Smoking Poet, 2011

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