Friday, May 27, 2016


Title: The Devils of Cardona
Author: Matthew Carr

Publisher: Riverhead books
Pages: 416

The Devils of Cardona is worth every minute of the time you spend reading it. Beginning as a murder mystery set against the backdrop of inter-religious tensions, events quickly degenerate into a conspiracy of violence and more that keep you glued to the page.

Corrupt priest Juan Panalles, parish priest of the church at Belamar de la Sierra, is untrue to his vows. Sex, gambling, and drinking, he is familiar with all the vices that should have been anathema to him. The region is home to the Moriscos, Moorish converts to Christianity. The parishioners look upon Panalles with fear and loathing.

When Panalles is brutally murdered, and the church desecrated, it seems as if everybody is relieved. Worse, it seems that somebody, calling himself the Redeemer, is inciting revolt in Aragon. This Redeemer is also indulging in blatant sadism and mutilation of the dead bodies and blasphemy of religious symbols.

Licenciado Bernardo Mendoza, a criminal judge with a reputation for being incorruptible, even though his moral codes might not always be aligned with what the Church prescribes, is sent to investigate the murder and glean the truth about the Redeemer. He journeys to Aragon, accompanied by his scribe Gabriel, soldiers Martin and Daniel, constable Necker and his cousin, Luis Ventura.

There is something swashbucklingly reckless about Luis, and it is ably tempered by Mendoza’s discipline, the bravery of soldiers Daniel and Martin, and of constable Necker and the innocence of Gabriel. There is an air of rivalary between them but they still make a good team. Such is the party that sets out on the investigation. So good is the writing that it felt as if I was also one of them.

The investigations begin in right earnest. When two nuns are raped and suspicion falls on three Moriscos, it escalates tensions. Very soon, the region witnesses a deterioration of the law and order situation as avengers attack the Moriscos. In a Spain in which religion and business are not mutually exclusive, there is a lot at stake.

The widowed Countess of Cardona, in whose domain the Moriscos live, treats them with dignity and compassion, irking Mercader, a high official of the Inquisition, and the Baron of Vallcarca, a neighbouring domain, who dreams of being the master of Cardona.

The more that Mendoza and his team investigate the case, the more convoluted it appears.

Who is orchestrating the mayhem? Is it the Redeemer or somebody else? Will peace ever come to Cardona?

I’d advise you to find out for yourself.

The story is set in 1584 during the Spanish Inquisition when heretics were burned at the stake and the Church was all-powerful. The sale of indulgences was rampant. The Reformation had begun and attempts were being made to squash it. The Protestants were deemed heretics and executed. I find this period of history intriguing and morbidly fascinating at the same time.

The author paints a scary picture of the atrocities practiced at the time, as the Inquisition routinely arrested people on the flimsiest of reasons such as for not having paid attention at Mass, or not going to confession during Lent, thereby reducing matters of faith to rituals that must be followed mechanically on pain of death.

The description of the tortures that the accused were subjected to in an attempt to get them to confess was particularly brutal.

It is a time when goodness seems under grave threat and villainy is rife. Mercader, Baron Vallcarca, and many others are all villains, but the Inquisition is no less villainous.

Mendoza seemed weighted down by his responsibilities, which added shades of truth to his personality. His work is stymied by the lack of information and the rumours that swirl around the villages. Yet, he is fair and stands for the defenceless.

The enmity between the Moriscos and the Church is strong. Life is hard, and the law and order situation tenuous.

The book has a rich cast of characters and, initially, I struggled to keep up with them, especially given the plethora of Spanish names and titles, both very long, of minor and major characters, which added to the problem.

Pretty soon you find yourself getting carried away by the sense of adventure and excitement. The author transports us to medieval times, every detail perfectly expressed.

The meanings of the Spanish words are embedded in the story, which is the way I like it. It annoys me when authors resort to footnotes and glossaries.

The author’s own sense of irony shines through when Gabriel asks, “How do you tell the Old Christians from the Moriscos?” and Luis replies, “The Moriscos are the ones with horns and tails.” Lines such as these endear Luis to us.

The amount of research and knowledge of old Spanish history seen in these pages is amazing. One gets an idea of the terror that the Inquisition wreaked in those times and the horrors it was allowed to get away with. Carr also displays indepth knowledge of the tenets of Catholicism. We also get beautiful descriptions of the Spanish countryside and Church architecture. 

I was particularly impressed with the author’s research into the law and order situation then, besides other details like the art of fencing. These make the story more authentic and alive.

I admired the Countess of Cardona as a character for her nobility of spirit and the true Christianity she displays, going to the extent of openly defying the Baron of Vallcarca.

There is a scene in this book where Mendoza describes a book of a time as being much prettier than the reality of the time. Books always are, he says.

Not this one. 

The Devils of Cardona is a hard-hitting story that goes beyond a murder mystery to encompass issues of faith and the atrocities meted out in the name of religion. Packed with adventure and a cast of truly colourful characters, this book will provoke you into thinking and stay with you long after you put it down.

(I received a free digital copy of this book from First To Read.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Book Review: JUNE: A NOVEL

Title: June: A Novel
Author: Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
Publisher: Crown
Pages: 400

June: A Novel is as much about the girl-woman June as it is about events that took place in June 1955, events that had a bearing on their descendants 60 years later in June 2015.

This story begins in the most delectable manner possible with a house, Two Oaks, as the centre of a drama that unfolded in the past. The house, long deserted, is alive, dreaming of the past and longing to recreate its glory.

It is a massive mansion into which June and her mother, Cheryl Ann, moved, through the kindness of Lemon Neely, the millionaire owner of Two Oaks, whose wife, Mae, was June’s father’s aunt.

Chapters alternate between Cassie in June 2015, having just moved into the now-crumbling Two Oaks, having inherited it on the death of her grandmother, June; and June in June 1955, just a month away from becoming a bride. The two eras alternate back and forth over chapters and I felt a sharp sense of disappointment as the last chapter on each era ended.

But June’s fiancé, Arthur Danvers, is absconding. It is a match that Cheryl Ann, and Clyde, Arthur’s brother, have planned, and one that June has reconciled herself to. Arthur is a good man, what more could she want?

June is friends with 14-year-old Lindie who dreams of being cast as an extra in a Hollywood move to be shot in their town, St Jude. Lindie lands a job on the set of the film, starring legendary matinee idol Jack Montgomery and Diane DeSoto.

June meets Jack on the day she is supposed to meet her fiancé off the bus. But Arthur doesn’t show up.

Over the course of 10 days, they meet secretly every day, a midnight tryst that is far from sexual, yet filled with a delicious sense of possibility. But the romance is cut short when Diane arrives.

In 2015, Cassandra “Cassie” Danvers, aged 25, suffering from depression, moves into Two Oaks. She learns that aged film star Jack has died, willing her $37 million, besides a few lavish houses. Jack’s daughters from different mothers, Elda and Tate, are upset, and Cassie cannot understand why Jack would leave her everything.

Soon Tate appears on the scene, along with her assistant Nick and girl-Friday Hank, to find out if Cassie’s father was Jack’s son, anxious to subject Cassie to a DNA test.

Nick and Cassie seek to find the truth about Jack and June. Talking with the locals, they discover nothing. But Cassie, haunted by her dreams, is sure there is something. Until a letter from Lindie in Chicago to June reveals that there was some intrigue that has lain hidden all these years.

And all along, we get June’s story, seemingly through the dreams that Cassie dreams in her grandmother’s house, the vibrant scene of all those doings six decades ago.

The characters have their own back stories and complexities. Lindie has feelings for June, feelings that June is clueless about. This makes Lindie even more intriguing as a character. It is her machinations to secure June’s happiness that drive this story onward. And yet it seems that she seeks happiness for June at her own cost. You also can’t help but be drawn to Lindie, her earnestness, her desire to help, the fact that she is bullied by the spoilt rich girls in town.

Clyde is determined to secure June’s marriage with her brother, and her fortune. He is also hellbent on profiting from the developments that will transform St Jude.

Of all the women, and there are so many from Cheryl Ann to June, Lindie, Diane and Apatha in the past and Cassie, Tata, Elda and Hank in the present, it was Apatha who left her mark on me in her solid, no-nonsense manner. Her comment about famous people, They sit on the toilet seat, same as you and me is something I shall remember to use when the need arises.

Among the men, it was Eben, Lindie’s father, I liked, for his moral uprightness, for the way he had raised his daughter after his wife ran away, the indulgence and respect with which he treats Lindie, for saying to his more-boy-than-girl daughter that You should wear what feels right to the party.

Clyde is determined to profit from every one of his associations.

Adelbert, Cassie’s father, and Marvin, June’s father, are absent as is Lorraine, Lindie’s mother, but their shadows linger over the others.

The author builds up the atmosphere, relying on colours in the past, and sounds and noises, the faintest of them, in the present.

I’d enjoyed Miranda’s writing earlier in Bittersweet, and this book did not disappoint as far as the writing was concerned. As in Bittersweet, she reveals her ability to make the reader a part of her story. Her omniscient voice, charming and homely, that draws us on. We find ourselves in St Jude, Ohio, as surely as the characters, one with the residents of the town, frowning upon the outsiders  -- the Hollywood set in both 1955 and 2015 – as they look down upon the town.

It is the details that enliven this book. The details in the descriptions and the emotions, until you’re one with Jack and June, and Lindie, and even with Cassie and Nick, Tata and Elda.

Ultimately, June is the story of murder, greed, deceit and desire, of betrayal, and rejection, of friendship and above all, of love. It is also the story of a torrent of emotion, stemming from infidelity and rejection. Hearts are broken and trust is lost, and yet it is all redeemed by the forgiveness and acceptance that characters in the present demonstrate.

(I received a free digital copy of this book from First To Read.)

Monday, May 09, 2016

Book Review: MIRIAM

Title: Miriam
Author: Mesu Andrews
Publisher: Waterbrook Press
Pages: 320

Miriam holds a very significant place in the Bible. She was a woman who was not afraid to take risks and she was instrumental in saving the life of her baby brother, Moses, in what was a highly ingenious manner. 

Here, Mesu Andrews breathes life into the character of Miriam, imbuing her with strength born of her faith in God, El Shaddai. At 86, long past her prime according to our standards, and even according to the standards of the time, she is a most unlikely heroine. A respected seer, healer and midwife, her abilities are thrust into the limelight when she is brought to the court of Pharoah Ramesses to interpret his nightmares.

At Pharoah’s court, she and Eleazar, the son of her brother Aaron, who is also the personal guard of Pharoah’s second firstborn son, Prince Ram, meet Taliah, a young girl who is punished by Pharoah for her failure to protect his young son from getting hurt while playing. Miriam offers to interpret Pharoah’s nightmares in exchange for Taliah’s life. She foretells ruin for Egypt.

Both Miriam and Aaron long to meet Moses, but Eleazar no longer believes in the God of his forefathers, nor cares much for Moses, the Hebrew man who was raised an Egyptian and who abandoned his family.

Miriam, having lived a lifetime in the shadow of God’s grace, suddenly experiences God’s silence, at the beginning of the story. She is further upset when it becomes clear that He has chosen her brothers, and not her, to lead their people to deliverance.

Soon Moses and Aaron, driven by God, ask Pharoah to let the Hebrew people go. But Pharoah is unwilling to offer the Israelites their freedom. And so, God smites them, visiting upon the Egyptians a series of plagues, each worse than the last, culminating finally in the smiting of the firstborn among all of Egypt’s males, man and beast alike.

Through it all, the Hebrew people, bent under four centuries of servitude to Egypt, learn to renew their faith in Yahweh and to await their deliverance with bated breath.

There are many who doubt, but Yahweh shows that He has the answers to all their questions and that His might can overpower ever hurdle.

Eleazar, in particular, is also stubborn and wilful, and he refuses to acknowledge God's intervention in his life. As a proud soldier whose loyalty to Pharoah is unquestionable, Eleazar faces the tyranny of not being able to decide whether Pharoah deserves his loyalty, or whether God does.

While the focus is on the plagues that God brings upon Egypt, until the great Exodus when God’s chosen people are freed spectacularly from Pharoah’s oppression, we receive a detailed look at everyday life, and how the people lived their lives, living under oppression yet trusting in their ultimate deliverance.

Interestingly, the author does not re-tell the Biblical story. Instead she focuses on what might have transpired behind the scenes and with the other characters in the story.

I admired Miriam as a character. Her unrequited love for Hur added a shade of realism to her character and made her more likeable. She was feisty and not afraid to speak her mind. But she is not the only strong woman here. 

Taliah is an independent minded young woman, fiercely resentful of the slights she is dealt and unwilling to rely on others.

In many ways, Miriam and Taliah are alike. The quick retort, the humour with which they often deflect unpleasant situations, the sense of family. They differ only in their age and the amount of reliance they place in Yahweh, in Taliah’s case, none. Between them, there grows a bond of sisterhood.

Each chapter begins with a verse from the Old Testament, Genesis or Exodus, as also from the Psalms, Chronicles, Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, reminding us of the fact behind the fiction.

What I found most heartening was that Miriam, Aaron and Moses, all began from a place of confusion and doubting. It was a reminder that faith does not come easy. It makes too many demands of us, and at least in the initial stages, it makes no attempt to meet us halfway.

As God reveals His grace and His love, each of them learn to live their faith and to believe that the Lord will provide what they need, no matter how dire their circumstances.

There is a breath of humour that suffuses this story, that makes it all the more real, saving it from becoming too serious and bending under the weight of the gravity that its subject imposes.

The author’s own faith shines through Miriam, particularly as the latter realizes the wonder of an all-powerful God letting His people choose not to love Him, instead of forcing our obedience and imposing His will. Truly, only a God-sized love could restrain His power.

This is a beautifully written story that stays with you.

"I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

Wednesday, May 04, 2016


Title: Blood of a Stone
Author: Jeanne Lyet Gassman
Publisher: Tuscany Press
Pages: 333

Blood of a Stone projects the blood shed through violence against the blood willingly shed by Jesus.

Demetrios is a slave, sold to his Roman master, Marcus, by his own father. As a slave, Demetrios is ill treated and starved by Marcus. The brand of a slave that his master sears into his flesh is, in truth, seared upon his very soul. 

When he kills Marcus in self defence, Elazar, Marcus’ Jewish servant, helps him to dispose of the body. Together they escape to Nabatea, a region free of Roman authority. 

Eventually they reach Tiberias, settling there as traders and caravan drivers to the Holy City, Jerusalem. As their business becomes profitable, many ask to join their caravan. One of them is Judas Iscariot, who wishes to hire their services to fulfil the spiritual prophecy of the Son of Man entering Jerusalem, seated on a white donkey.

Demetrios cannot shake off the sense of guilt he suffers at having killed Marcus. Even though he is now free, in his mind, he is not. He is afraid of every stranger, afraid of retribution, of the law catching up with him.

It is in Chapter 9 that we hear of John the Baptist and Jesus for the first time. When Elazar wants to walk out of their thriving partnership in order to follow Jesus, and even later, confesses his part in disposing of the body of Marcus, it sets Demetrios on edge. He begins to fear that Elazar will be his undoing, and that Jesus will betray him to the Romans.

Jesus’ coming spells hope for Demetrios who seeks love in the wrong places or so Elazar says. But what is Demetrios to do, when Jesus Himself seems like a charlatan to him.

The slave consults a sorceress, Endorah, to quiet the fears and misgivings that arise from the guilt of killing Marcus. The blood from the stone he used to still a life weighs heavy on him. Endorah tells him that he must kill Jesus if he wishes to be free. And so begins Demetrios’ quest to kill Jesus.

The author does a great job of painting vivid word pictures of the surrounding countryside but her tendency to keep using the same first names multiple times in a single paragraph, when a pronoun would have worked better, rankles. In one case, there were four mentions of Demetrios in a single paragraph. Fortunately, she gets a grip on this problem after only a few pages.

Once she gets comfortable with her story, she draws you on. I found myself reading page after page, rather than shutting the book. The writing got better and it felt as if I had travelled back in time to the era when Christ walked.

But there were some inconsistencies that struck me. Even though Judas offers to pay for 13 people to join Demetrios’ caravan, eventually Jesus and His disciples do not enter Jerusalem with them, and we are given no explanation as to the change of plans.

Also, in chapter 9, we are told that rumours abound about John the Baptist and about Jesus. But the author leaves us in the dark about the passage of time during this occurrence. So we hear of some gossip relating to the Jewish prophet living in the wilderness who foretells the coming of the messiah. Then over the course of the cold winter months, Demetrios hears stories of the miracles. Elazar leaves the caravan to follow Jesus. And just a few days later, Judas asks to join their caravan. Shouldn’t three years have passed between the news about Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John the Baptist and the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, seated on the donkey? But there is no telling how much time has actually passed. We get a sense of vagueness.

The resemblance to Biblical events is only in passing. For example, the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, which Christians celebrate as Palm Sunday, is missing. Also, when Jesus goes into the wilderness to pray, the Bible tells us that He prayed in the Garden at Gethsemane, but the author makes no mention of that.

Very early in the book, the author places before us the dichotomy between the Roman god Mercury that Demetrios adopts as his own and Elazar’s God.

The author paints a realistic picture of the crowds that used to follow Jesus. Not all those gathered were true believers. There were many there with their own agenda and Demetrios’ confusion, distrust and fear sit well among them.

The author’s descriptions are forbidding and ominous, yet beautiful, much as I imagine the landscape of Israel to be. The description of the lepers was particularly heart-rending.

While the writing is beautiful, and manages to evoke just the right atmosphere, I got the feeling that Demetrios was getting all worked up for no reason at all. His paranoia is so strong that he fails to realize that Jesus poses no threat to him.

The idea of seeing Christ through the eyes of a Gentile slave was interesting. But the author takes far too long to introduce Demetrios to Christ. The life-changing transformation that would have elevated this book comes too late, literally at the feet of the crucified Jesus, to sound convincing.

(I read a Kindle edition of this book through NetGalley.)

Monday, May 02, 2016


Title: Counted With The Stars
Author: Connilyn Cossette
Publisher: Bethany House
Pages: 352

I’ve read a lot of Biblical fiction that saw the characters walking with Jesus. But this was my first experience of reading fiction set in the times of the Old Testament, specifically, around 1448 BC, the time of the Exodus, and the years preceding it.

Kiya, a young Egyptian girl from a wealthy family, is sold as a slave to her father’s friend when his own business suffers losses, plunging him into bankruptcy. Her new mistress, Tekurah, is mean and harsh. Abandoned by her fiancé, Akhum, Kiya has no choice but to submit to Tekurah’s oppression.

Befriended by a Hebrew slave, Shira, Kiya learns of Shira's God, and His power and love for His people. An unwilling and unbelieving listener, Kiya's mind slowly changes as she receives visible proof of the power and might of Shira's invisible God. Nevertheless, she retains her doubts, and it is not until she throws her lot with the Hebrews that she faces an opportunity to resolve her doubts.

That opportunity comes soon enough. When God says that He will smite the first-born among the Egyptians, Kiya and her mother flee to the Hebrews in order to secure the safety of her physically challenged brother, Jumo. They leave Egypt along with Shira’s family, even as Kiya harbours fears that the Pharoah’s army will track down the Israelites and advance upon them, for the sake of wreaking vengeance.

One by one, it seems to Kiya, that Shira’s faceless and nameless God is waging war against each of her Egyptian deities. When Tekurah beats her mercilessly and has her chained in the cellar, Shefu signs her release and tells her to take her brother and mother to the Hebrews and to seek shelter there. For this is the night when Yahweh has made known that all the firstborn Egyptian males will be killed.

The story follows the first person point of view of Kiya, and explores her relationships with her mother, brother.

The pace of the book is slow at first. Long chapters are spent with the wayfarers as they wait for the Lord to reveal Himself. This wait is emblematic of the patience displayed by the Hebrew people over the course of over 400 years spent under Egyptian servitude. Imperceptibly, the pace picks up.

The character of Kiya undergoes a change. Initially, she is a proud and even slightly haughty Egyptian, and we don’t feel too much sympathy for her. The fact that she is heedless of the friendship offered by the slave girl, Shira, also makes her seem unworthy of that friendship. 

The suffering she undergoes at the hands of Tekurah helps her character undergo a transformation, and she begins to see the suffering of the Hebrew slaves she has taken for granted. She also begins to see the worth of Eben, Shira’s brother.

The other characters are all well etched. Tekurah, the tyrant mistress, who showed no mercy to her slaves; Shefu, the kind master; Shira, the Hebrew slave who is ever optimistic, and Eben, who goes on to become Kiya’s love interest. Even Jumo, who we meet much later in the story, endears himself to us.

Shira’s faith, even in captivity, infects Kiya and soon she finds herself pleading to Shira’s God, praying for mercy and release when her own gods seem unwilling or powerless to help.

Moshe, the great deliverer, is but a presence here. Only once does he walk across the pages, in a brief interaction with Kiya, where he assuages her fears. But it is unmistakably his actions, and the Pharoah’s reactions to them, that drive the story onward.

The writing is beautiful. The author leads us straight into the Egypt of the Old Testament. I was impressed with the research about Egyptian gods, their calendar and the Egyptian way of living prevalent at that time.

I had always found the Exodus narrative very interesting. The story of the plagues visited by Yahweh upon Pharoah and the land of Egypt for his refusal to let the Israelites go, it has always seemed to me, to be one of the most colourful parts of the Old Testament. Back in Sunday School, decades ago, we used to enjoy the story narrated by our teacher.

A later viewing of the Charlton Heston starrer, The Ten Commandments, served to reinforce the perception of a Pharoah receiving his just desserts. We barely spared a thought for the thousands upon thousands of Egyptians, men, women, children, and livestock, that suffered those plagues.

This book enabled me to see the plagues through the Egyptian eyes of Kiya, and to understand the agonies, horrors and discomforts her people went through. Her descriptions made those plagues seem more real. Each plague is worse than the preceding one. The plagues beat down the spirit of the Egyptians as also their faith in the invincibility of their Pharoah and their gods.

Of course, despite being well written, I realize that this is historical fiction and not realism. The real plagues must have been far deadlier than anyone’s mind could have imagined.

The author’s victory lies in the fact that she got us to even consider their point of view. When was the last time you read the Exodus narrative and felt the least bit of sympathy for the Egyptians?

Above everything, this book is a love story, between Kiya and Eben, and beyond them, a love story between the Israelites and God.

I would recommend this to anyone who has a taste for Biblical fiction. 


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