Nuns and Severed Limbs … A Religious-Historical Murder Mystery: Book Review of “A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary” by Donna Fletcher Crow

newly-crimsoned-reliquary (1)Donna Fletcher Crow’s A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary is the fourth installment of ‘The Monastery Murders’ series. You can read an interview with the author here. I selected this title from the Book Club Reading List.

Summary

The Monastery Murders series center on the characters of Felicity Howard and Father Antony. Felicity is an American citizen studying at the Anglo-Catholic College of the Transfiguration in Yorkshire. Antony is a church history lecturer at the College of the Transfiguration. He and his estranged older sister Gwena became orphans when he was ten and she was fourteen. They were taken in by an aunt and uncle in Blackpool.

The action in The Newly Crimsoned Reliquary starts about three months prior to the wedding of Felicity and Antony. saintFelicity heads to an Oxford convent to translate an early Medieval Latin document on the life of St Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford. Antony plans to join her soon to deliver a series of lectures for his seminar titled “God in Oxford”. However as soon as Felicity arrives at the convent a series of chilling events unfolds. First dismembered body parts suddenly appear in ancient holy reliquaries. Reliquary-Shrine-of-St.-Amandus-1250-1275Felicity discovers that a relic has been replaced by a severed human hand at the celebratory patronal festival in honor of St Frideswide at Christ Church:

“Sister.” Her voice was raspy with the effort of controlling the scream she felt rising in her throat. “Say a prayer and send the people away.” Dorcas stared at her openmouthed. “Do it!” She repeated. “That’s no relic, no matter how well preserved. That hand is fresh.”

Another relic has been replaced by an amputated human foot at the Ashmolean Museum. Then there is the mysterious disappearance of Monica, the Mother Superior, assaults on Felicity and a nun, and a fire even breaks out at the convent. Antony experiences professional loss when one of his students is found dead. It might just be that there is a connection between the Latin document Felicity is translating and the repeated series of attacks.
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Evaluation

The Newly Crimsoned Reliquary is expertly written. Most impressive is Fletcher Crow’s interweaving of the past and present with vividly detailed descriptions of historical events and current life in Oxford.

At the corner of Cornmarket and High Street she paused at Carfax Tower, which marked the center of Oxford. 18941953.019955c6.240Carfax was the Roman designation for crossroads, and surely this was the busiest intersection in the city. She glanced up at the clock on the tower that was all that remained of St. Martin’s, which had once been the official church of the city for civic events. Ah, just a few minutes until noon. She would wait and hear the Quarter Boys strike the hour before she went on. The two Romanesque figures stood with their hammers at the ready below the motto Fortes est Veritas: The Truth is Strong.

Fletcher Crow provides a rich picture of religious culture and history. Some readers might get a bit impatient with the amount of religious detail or worry that it interferes with the story. However the careful detail is perfectly appropriate given the subject matter of religion practices from past to present-day and adds complexity to the story. There are thoughtful reflections on the role of religion in society today. Philosophical issues even emerge as Antony is called in at the last minute to debate the existence of God at the Secular Atheist Student Society.

After all, how did one prove the existence of God? His field was church history. He knew the classic approaches: the ontological argument, the first cause argument, the argument from design, and the moral argument. A full university course at the least. Better, a lifetime of study and thinking. How to present that in a limited time to a hostile audience?

Despite some of the more grisly details the personal element to the story is not lost. The romance between Felicity and Antony continues to flourish. Felicity becomes friends with Antony’s actress sister Gwena after she unknowingly sees her performance in a theatrical play at the Oxford Playhouse. Antony deals with family problems such as his uncle’s declining health and reconciling with his relationship with Gwena.

Conclusion

I highly recommend The Newly Crimsoned Reliquary to anyone who enjoys a good murder mystery. Although this is the fourth book in a series, the story stands alone. One does not feel the need to have read the previous books to understand the plot although it is extremely likely that they will want to go ahead and read them.


A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary (The Monastery Murders #4) by Donna Fletcher Crow (2014).
229 Pages.
Greenbrier Book Company, LLC
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Technological Suspense and a Musical Love Story: Book Review of “Love is the Bridge” by Denise Weeks

My first book review of 2016 is about Love is the Bridge by Denise Weeks.bridge-cover-final (2) You can read an interview with the author here. I selected this title from Cheap Kindle Books.

Summary

The story centers on the main character of twenty-two year old musician Paige Campbell who lives in Dallas, Texas. Paige has musical synesthesia:
rainbowpiano

she could not only hear the pitch of a note, but she sensed its color as well. B-flat was a warm silky green, F-sharp the bittersweet blue of a lonesome pond. Talk about a psychedelic rainbow organ, she had one built in.

Paige works for her Uncle Hans at his music store, Hans’ Music Haus. She also takes classes at the Dallas Music Academy and plays gigs playing piano and singing whenever she gets the opportunity. The action begins with a crank phone call at the music shop and a business meeting with Alan McConnell who hires Paige to sing radio jingles for his advertising agency and quickly escalates into a full-on suspenseful cyber-attack. The story follows Paige as she is increasingly stalked with endless phone calls, text messages and emails. Her email account, Facebook page and music files are all hacked and that eventually leads to her suspension from college and the loss of her job at the music store.

The key element that ties Paige and Alan together is the prototypical artificial intelligence test system designed by Alan for his business of writing advertising jingles. Alan notices that the artificial intelligence experiment does several strange things and cannot be turned off.

“The task he had set it was to analyze three successful commercial jingles and tell him what they had in common, what it was that made them so good at what they did. But the system seemed to have closed all those files and stopped working on the task around three AM. As if the software had gotten bored and gone off to do something else.

AIInitially Alan wonders if his artificial intelligence system has turned into a conscious free agent. But eventually he is forced to consider the possibility that perhaps his system is somehow become inhabited by a paranormal or spiritual entity. Together Paige and Alan must confront the “ghost in the machine” to find out who and what is after Paige to break the hold this system has taken over their lives.

Evaluation

Love is the Bridge is driven by lively and, at times, comedic dialogue between the main characters marked with pop culture and computer programming references. The realism of the dialogue in the urban Dallas setting provides a nice contrast to the more atmospheric and unique elements of the work such as the ghost or entity in the artificial intelligence system and the experience of the events from the perspective of Paige’s synesthesia.

The work successfully ties together many thought-provoking topics in a mix of genres. Philosophical issues to do with consciousness, the nature of mind, and body, truth, free will as well as implications of artificial intelligence and the role of technology in our everyday lives are explored.

The thoughtful and tense story of technological stalking is complimented by a romance. The electric attraction between Paige and Alan grows as they become more entwined in each other’s lives.

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And then he kissed her. For real.

She felt her blood racing around inside her, the corpuscles like slot cars about to fly off the track. Incredibly, she heard the music of the spheres with her skin, in a rainbow of Skittles colors.

The romance theme is heightened near the end of the book with the meeting and hint of budding passion between their respective best friends Anndréa and John.

Conclusion

Love is the Bridge will appeal to a wide audience. This book is for anyone who enjoys a fast-paced read and is interested in topics of technology, romance, the mind, artificial intelligence and music. The energy of the writing makes it easy to envisage the book as a great movie.
I give this work five stars.


Love is the Bridge by Denise Weeks (2014).
256 Pages.
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–Nighttime Narratives

Dark Family History and Psychological Drama: Review of Melinda Clayton’s ‘Entangled Thorns’

et-cover-200-x-300 (1)Entangled Thorns is the third book in Melinda Clayton’s Cedar Hollow series. You can read an interview with the author here. I selected this title from Cheap Kindle Books.

Summary

The story centers on the impoverished Pritchett family of the small town Cedar Hollow, located in the mountains of West Virginia. Each chapter of the book is devoted to the perspective of a single character. The two main characters are sisters Beth Pritchett Sloan and Naomi Pritchett Wells. Other members of the family contribute their point of view including Beth’s daughter, Marissa Elizabeth Sloan, Beth and Naomi’s mother, Geraldine Porter Pritchett, and Beth’s husband, Dr. Mark Sloan. The character of Kay Langley, whose family owns the local diner in Cedar Hollow, also sheds light on the family and its history.

The notorious Pritchett family dealt in the business of making moonshine in homemade stills and bootlegging.
vintage-still-was-once-used-to-produce-moonshine-whiskey-which-known-as-white-lightning-31111044

Mention the name Pritchett to nearly anyone in those parts and they’ll inevitably have a story to share, not just about whiskey running and illegal activities, but about drunken brawls and countless other outlandish behaviors.

mashbarrelsThe youngest members of the Pritchett family participated in the business in a variety of ways, ranging from guarding the ‘mash barrels’ (pictured right) from hordes of rats during the fermentation period to a task known as ‘taster duty’. Starting as early as age one, the children were forced to ingest the moonshine:

The more extreme our reaction to the squeezing forced into our mouths, the better the quality of the ’shine was believed to be.

After the unexpected death of their thirteen year old brother Luke, fifteen year old Naomi and seventeen year old Beth got on a train to Memphis never to return. Twenty-seven years later, Naomi is a successful novelist and Beth lives with her husband Mark and their two children in an upscale suburb outside of Memphis, Tennessee, using alcohol in an attempt to suppress unpleasant childhood memories and the death of her brother.

“I suppose I had thought— or hoped, at least— if I could just put enough distance between me and Cedar Hollow, I could erase the memory of Luke’s death. I couldn’t, of course. If anything, the older I got the more vivid the memories became.”

A letter from Kay Langley prompts Beth and Naomi’s return to Cedar Hollow together with Beth’s seventeen year old daughter Marissa to finally reconcile with the past.

Evaluation

hazy_morning_light_by_mashuto-d7brgj6Entangled Thorns is magnificently written. Clayton brings to life what it was like to grow up in poverty in mid-century Appalachian life. The striking descriptions of Beth, Naomi and Luke growing up amongst the rich flora and fauna in rugged mountain country gave realism to the story and remain unforgettable images to my mind.

I couldn’t deny the beauty of the sunrise, the colors stretched across the sky above the dark backdrop of mountains. A wispy haze hung across the valley, and dew still sparkled on the grass. Somewhere in the distance a mourning dove called, the solitary notes hanging in the still air. In another few minutes the haze would be gone, replaced by the sultry humidity of a West Virginia summer, but for a moment I was transported back in time, running barefoot through the wet grass on a cool summer morning, with Naomi on one side and Luke flying ahead, fishing poles bouncing on his shoulder.

Clayton also skillfully navigates the story through diverse viewpoints to compose a rewarding story. The viewpoints are depicted by an inner dialogue with six different characters. This allows the reader to experience first-hand what each individual character is feeling, gain an understanding of how the events turned out the way they did, and how each character perceives the events and each other. That Beth takes her daughter, Marissa, along as well back to her hometown means that we are given the outlook of three generations.

The stark reality of alcohol abuse is handled by Clayton with insight and sensitivity. The narrative reveals the effects of abuse on all members of a family as well as the abusive patterns that surround them at present. The individual development of the complex cast of characters illuminates how abuse tends to continue through generations. Yet this inspiring work is optimistic in that it explores how one may try to bring closure to the cycle of abuse and move forward in life.

Conclusion

The book is the third installment in the Cedar Hollow Series but the story is self-contained and stands on its own. Since I enjoyed this book so much, I intend to learn more about Cedar Hollow and all of Melinda Clayton’s works are now on my must-read list. I rate this book 5/5.

A final note: at the end of the book Clayton has included some reflective questions for book clubs to consider after reading her book. These questions are a useful tool for a first-rate book that is particularly suitable for discussion in a book club. The various points of view presented in the story mean that a great number of people will likely identify with one or more of the characters.


Entangled Thorns (Cedar Hollow Series Book 3) by Melinda Clayton (2013).
219 Pages. Thomas-Jacob Publishing, LLC
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A Dramatic Police Procedural Mystery: Review of ‘Murder in the Worst Degree’ by F. M. Meredith

Murder in the Worst Degree is the tenth book in F. M. Meredith’s Rocky Bluff Police Department series. You can read an interview with the author here. I selected this title from Cheap Kindle Books.

Summary

Set in the fictional town of Rocky Bluff on the Southern California coast, the book focuses on two cases to be solved by the Rocky Bluff P.D. The first case centers on the dead body of a wealthy elderly man, Harlan Knight, discovered on the beach by two surfers.

Except for the dead body washed up on the sand, conditions were perfect for surfing. Thanks to a big storm coming from Alaska, spectacular waves rolled in. They rose in dark blue-gray splendor with a magnificent header of sparkling foam before they crashed and rolled toward shore. Another set of perfect waves formed right behind.

It turns out that the cause of Knight’s death is not drowning, but an overdose of prescription pills. Detectives Doug Milligan and Felix Zachary investigate numerous suspects: the son, grandson, daughter, housekeeper, the housekeeper’s son, Knight’s three Marine friends and a secret girlfriend, all of whom stand to inherit from Knight’s will.

Meanwhile, Doug’s wife Police Officer Stacey Milligan and her partner Lizette Gibbs investigate two rapes cases in Rocky Bluff. When one of the rape victims gets a look at his face, the description she gives turns into a computer-generated composite sketch that the officers immediately realize looks a lot like one of their own, Police Officer Ryan Strickland. Strickland’s wife Barbara has just given birth to a baby girl with Down Syndrome. Strickland who at first was not sure if he is up to being a loving father to a child with special needs now faces more challenges as he becomes a person of interest in the case and is put on paid administrative leave.

Evaluation

A distinctive feature of the book is the interaction between the daily professional and personal lives of the officers in the Rocky Bluff P.D. As the inquiry into the murder and the rapes continue other crimes need to be dealt with, an assortment of drugs, car accidents, suspect chasing, burglaries and there is even an earthquake to contend with. The officers also adjust to a new police chief, Chandra Taylor. The book even touches on how small towns handle the pressure of rising crime with budget cuts and the shortage of resources.

It seemed odd to Stacey that the chief no longer had a full-time secretary and the office stood empty half of the time.

Along with this the officers deal with the usual run of love interests, family interactions and concerns. The blend of the ongoing police activities with each of the officers’ home life creates a satisfying story.

Despite being the tenth installment in the series the book is written to be self-standing and read on its own. Generally I do think the story holds up well for readers new to the series but it would have been a bit easier to keep track of and connect with some of the characters if you had read the earlier books. A list of the main characters with a brief summary of their background inserted at the front or the back of the book would have been a helpful resource. For readers new to Rocky Bluff it might often be difficult to know when was the last instance of a character and requires going back a number of pages to see who they are, their job title, who they are involved with or married to and the names of their children. In a long running series there are a numerous players whose relationship to other characters might not be always obvious. A cast of characters is a convenient place to refer back to place the narrative in context.

Conclusion

You will want to keep reading this book to find out how the cases will be solved. Rocky Bluff is a heartwarming place where you can get to know the characters while trying to figure out the mystery. I can imagine the Rocky Bluff P.D. stories as a great weekly television series that people look forward to tuning into regularly to see what else happens to each of the characters and how the mystery unfolds. I am now motivated to read all of the books in the Rocky Bluff P.D. series by F. M. Meredith.


Murder in the Worst Degree by F. M. Meredith (2014)
168 Pages. Oak Tree Press, Hanford, CA
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Family Court Legal Thriller: Review of ‘The Advocate’ by Teresa Burrell

The Advocate is a debut novel by Teresa Burrell. You can read an interview with the author here. ‘The Advocate’ is the first book out of seven in ‘The Advocate’ series. I selected the book from Book Club Reading List.

The Advocate by Teresa Burrell

Front cover of ‘The Advocate’ by Teresa Burrell

The book is about Sabre Orin Brown, a dedicated juvenile court attorney, living in San Diego. Sabre’s professional and personal life entwine as she investigates a particular domestic violence court case that relates to the mysterious disappearance of her older brother Ron some five years earlier.

Summary

The court case involves Gaylord Murdock, a southern gentleman from a prominent family in Atlanta, Georgia; Gaylord’s pregnant girlfriend, Peggy Smith; Gaylord’s ten-year-old daughter, Alexis; and Peggy’s two-year-old son Jamie.

As Sabre uncovers unsettling facts about the case, like Peggy’s missing daughter Honey, strange things happen to her. Occasionally she catches the scent of her brother’s distinctive aftershave. There are frequent calls with no voice on the other end at any time night or day; items in her home and office are moved or misplaced, a live red bat tossed into her office through the mail slot and a lizard in her bed. Eventually Sabre is kidnapped and her house burned down.

Evaluation

The work was engagingly written and conveyed well a sense of what it was like to be a juvenile court attorney without any of the legal jargon. Teresa Burrell, herself an ex-attorney, demonstrated through the writing that she is familiar with the courtroom.

“After the hearing, Sabre gathered her files and went into Department Four to wait for the other attorneys on the domestic violence case. It had been an easy morning so far with mostly old review cases. Just that new domestic violence case and she could go eat. […]
The door opened and the Public Defender entered with Gaylord Murdock, a tall man with sandy blond hair and cutting blue eyes. Murdock stared at Peggy with an intensity that made Sabre shiver. Peggy’s face tightened and she squirmed in her seat, unable to tear herself away from his gaze. After about three seconds, Murdock’s face softened and his lip curled up in a smile. No sign of remorse or shame emanated from him as he glided to his seat with his broad shoulders straight and his head held high.
Sabre watched their interaction and wondered what she failed to see.”

The story was compelling and there were some distinctive unexpected twists to keep interest in the story right to the end. One of the more satisfying elements of the story had to do with Detective Joe Carriage of the Atlanta Police Department. Joe Carriage helps Sabre with background information on the Murdock case and in the process helps to solve a connected case that his deceased colleague Steve Parker was working on before he was killed by a hit and run driver. The wide cast of characters were deftly portrayed from the variety of people encountered in the court house, the group home, social workers, police officers and it is easy to sympathize with Sabre who is strongly devoted to protecting children no matter the cost.

At times, there was a coincidence or incident in the plot that was a bit far-fetched. An instance of this is the role of the doctor who happened to look just like Sabre’s missing brother. Some of the recurring character and features of the story at times seemed to sidetrack from the plot, such as the character of troubled Carla, which had Sabre dealing regularly with visits and phone calls to Carla, and the little tattered red note book given to her by her brother Ron when she was a little girl. Nonetheless Burrell did well to tie all of these elements together by the end of the book.

Conclusion

Overall The Advocate by Teresa Burrell is a very good legal thriller and a fast-paced, heartwarming read. I am going to read the rest of the books in the series for sure. A warning: if you start this book in the evening you might not end up going to sleep until very late that night. For that reason I’m giving the book five stars.


The Advocate by Teresa Burrell (2009)

308 Pages. Silent Thunder Publishing

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–Nighttime Narratives