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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Mini-reviews: The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr & Only Daughter by Anna Snoekstra (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


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OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: This book is a must read for all history fiction aficionados, set in the late sixteenth century Spain, we the readers are introduced to a land which is fraught with religious fervor, suspicion & persecution of the other as well as plain bigotry (laced by religion of course). The focus of the story is on Belamar de la Sierra, a small village/town in the Aragon province near the France-Spain border. There has been a brutal murder of an allegedly corrupt Catholic priest and all fingers point towards the “moriscos” or converted Moorish Muslims. Our main protagonist is Bernardo de Mendoza, a veteran soldier of the Reconquista and who now serves as a magistrate (Licenciado).

He gets tasked by King Philip II of Castile to investigate this murder and find out the killer(s). Mendoza sets out with a small company consisting of his page Gabriel, his cousin Luis de Ventura, and three other soldiers. When they arrive, they find the place to be rife with sectarian tensions and potential violence for the death of the priest who himself was involved in the death of a “Morisco” family.

This story sets upon explaining the details of the Spanish Reconquista and what exactly does “Morisco” mean (Muslim Moors forcibly converted to Catholicism)? I loved the in-depth detail to the surroundings and history afforded by the author. The story is a murder mystery which reads very much like a thriller and there’s the usual cast of characters to help propagate the plot and tropes. Bernardo as a main character is a nuanced one, we get to know his background and family history which is fascinating in itself. It will be great if the author decides to make a series about him and some of the characters introduced within. The surrounding character cast however needs to be better developed as in this book, it all hinges on Bernardo's able shoulders.

The author puts into play several plot threads which neatly come together in the end to make up a satisfying tapestry. I loved how neatly everything fell into place and didn’t seem contrived at all (Your mileage may vary on this point though). The best part part about the book is the author’s love and detailed descriptions of Spain in the sixteenth century. He very adroitly lets the readers know about the life and hardships that the people faced in those times while never making it an infodump or slackening the pace. The factoids and the history minutiae are neatly mixed in so as to make it seem completely natural. Kudos to the author for this aspect of the story. The author also mixes some nice action pieces within the mystery plot and for those readers who covet action, you will get it in spades towards the latter half of the book.

CONCLUSION:Get ready to immerse yourself in a land that seems very much like any troubled piece to be found in recent times. There’s bigotry, xenophobia, violence but also bravery, honesty and simple good folk who are trying to survive these brutal times. This was one historical debut that I can’t recommend enough and Matthew Carr seems to be an author whose books I will not be missing out in the foreseeable future.


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OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Only Daughter is a book that caught my eye solely due to its mysterious blurb. I loved the dual timeline aspect of the story that was advertised and I dove in with some trepidation & major anticipation.

The story unlike most thrillers doesn't waste time in much of a set-up and quickly drops the readers in to the happenings where we find the then unnamed protagonist, who is caught shoplifting to and to escape the law, quickly blurts out that she is Rebecca Winter. The same Rebecca Winter who has been missing for close to eleven years and whose trail has long gone ice cold. This revelation then sets into motion several series of events. The most prominent one being that the Winter family is quickly called in about the reappearance of their daughter. The newly-found Rebecca has to pass a DNA test to prove who she is and then come up with an explanation as to what happened eleven years ago? Not to mention also follow up with where she was all of this time and why didn’t she contact the police earlier?

All of this is very craftily explained in the book and I don’t want to spoil how it all unfolds. Safe to say, the author has thought up a nice, twisted way for our main character to prove who she says she is. She then is reunited with her original family and slowly tries to reintegrate herself. Around the same time, we are given a parallel track of Rebecca Winter in 2003 and we see her mindset back in that time. These twin strands are nicely contrasted with first person (2014) and third person (2003) narratives. In both timelines we slowly are also introduced to a wide cast of characters. In the present and past timeline, we meet Rebecca’s family consisting of her father, mother & her twin siblings, all of whom seem to be weird in their own way. Then we also get to meet more characters in the past timeline such as Rebecca’s best friend and colleagues over at the fast food restaurant, as well as her best friend’s family, & her neighbor. There is a large number of suspects introduced and the author does her best to spread the intrigue and make the reader doubt everyone.

What I loved about the book was its frantic pace, the story’s dual timelines will have the readers constantly flipping the pages to see what happens next and also try to make sense of what actually happened. The story-line also has lots of twists to it and they are interspersed through both the timelines. The author also does her best to keep the tension taut as we are constantly shown hints as to who could have possibly happened. Lastly when the climax comes, it does usher in a lot of surprises and the final reveal does make sense.

What didn’t quite make this a five star read for me was that there are several things that are left unexplained. These mainly occur in the past and while they add to the creepy factor, they aren’t explained at all in the end. These events just occur and we aren’t conclusively told what lead to their occurrence (I’m being purposefully vague here). Lastly the other thing that didn’t quite gel for me was the ending revelations felt a bit rushed and even though the ending makes sense, I wish it was properly flushed out. This book is on the shorter side and few more pages setting up and explaining everything would have elevated this book into a five read for me.

CONCLUSION: This is a fine thriller that will appeal to a lot of mystery-thriller readers and marks Anna Snoekstra out as an exciting thriller writer from down under. Only Daughter is a very good read and I can’t recommend it enough in spite of the reservations I experienced because of how well-written it is and the excitement it offers. Miss this one at your choice, I know I will be looking forward to Anna’s future works.

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