Christmas is almost right around the corner.  With the rush beginning to build, I felt it was good to touch base with Christmas’ origins — the story behind our gilt laden trees, the frenetic shopping, carols, and festively wrapped presents.  Should the Season start to get overwhelming, the story will be with me to sustain my perspective of joy and thanksgiving.

Author :  Angela Hunt

Publication Date :  October 25, 2006

Publisher :   Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

ISBN-10: 1414314620

ISBN-13: 978-1414314624

No. of pages:  224

The Story :

A young virgin, Mary, betrothed according to Jewish customs to a carpenter, Joseph, is blessed by the appearance of Angel Gabriel who tells her some extraordinary news.  She is chosen to bear the Messiah, the Son of God who shall be conceived by the Holy Ghost.  Mary accepts God’s will without question.  But, now she is faced with a dilemma: how to convince  Joseph and her family of this divine conception?

With understandable doubts and disappointment threatening to break his betrothal, Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him of God’s will for Mary.  Joseph embraces this revelation and takes her to wife unconditionally.  Despite the sardonic regard and the barely concealed distaste of the Jewish community for what it considers a blatant disregard of morals,  Joseph and Mary carve a life for themselves with a great and also anxious anticipation of the Miracle soon to be born to them.

As it was the time of Caesar Augustus, a Roman edict for a census was passed which forced everyone to travel to their place of birth.  Joseph had  no choice but to take Mary, who was close to her time, on a long, perilous journey to Bethlehem.

The couple arrived in Bethlehem at nightfall to find no accomodations available.   Because of the edict, every home and inn in Bethlehem were full to the rafters of travelers.   By this time, Mary was going into labor and Joseph had to find a place.  They were directed to the only space available, a holding pen for animals.  So, the couple settled there for the the Birth of the Messiah.  And the rest is Biblical history…

The Review :

Angela Hunt treats us to a more vibrant retelling of the otherwise bland Biblical rendition of the Birth of Christ.  This is a novelization of the movie of the same title by Mike Rich.

Hunt tries to recreate the Jewish lifestyle under Roman rule in the first century.  We read about the helplessness of Jews under Roman law and under their own  corrupt government, the stringent social rules governing male and female roles and behavior, the perils of travel in ancient times, and the wonderment of spiritual appearances that had to do perhaps with people’s total God-centric lives then (a life alien to most modern lifestyles).

The focus of this book is Mary and Joseph (whose contribution is often overlooked), as a couple who had to face social distancing from their community which considered an unmarried woman’s pregnancy as taboo, the gravity of which was perhaps akin to adultery.  The fact that Joseph was willing to wed Mary despite her condition only made them marginally socially tolerable to their Jewish community.

It is refreshing to know that a usually Biblically downplayed or  often ignored person such as Joseph is wonderfully characterized and given importance here.  He is depicted as a staunch, reliable, faithful, strong and patient man whose love for Mary is quite touching.  Hunt’s portrayal of Joseph will endear him to readers who will come to be more aware of the sacrifices this saint had to undergo as Jesus’ stepfather.

Hunt’s Mary is not the doormat she may be perceived to be.  Although always pure and good, she is courageous and has a stubborn streak in this book that serves her well when she needs to be firm about going away to visit her cousin Elizabeth or going through the rough journey to Bethlehem.  She is quiet and docile but  definitely not spineless, no siree!

Hunt’s writing style is simple, actually on the average, mundane level which however, makes for very fast, easy reading.  There isn’t any flair to her style but the book is still well-written and enjoyable.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Read the book, why not?  For Christians, it  will give you a better appreciation of the Christmas celebration. Although the personalities of the characters are enhanced, they all still remain true to their core characterizations in the Bible.

If you’re a non-Christian, this story will be another interesting one to add to your knowledge should you have a curiosity on the beginnings of  interesting Christmas symbols and traditions  like gift-giving, the star on the tree, the Christmas tree itself (which I think represents the triangular rays of the Star of Bethlehem shining down on Christ’s birthplace–hence the ubiquitous decorative star topper), etc.   You may or may not believe in the story; nonetheless, it is still a good story about great things starting from humble beginnings.

In A Nutshell :

The Nativity Story by Angela Hunt adds a new and delightful dimension to the famous Biblical First Christmas.  It does pique an interest in the movie as well.  But most importantly, this book will bring the essence of Christmas closer to our hearts.

As the author has succeeded in accomplishing this purpose, despite an ordinary, simplistic style, I give :

My Mark  :  Outstanding!

Finally, my last book for the Fall Into Reading Challenge 2009.  I made very good time despite adding two more books to the list.  But early as it is, I’ll have to wrap up as the Holidays draw near and my chances to read more books decrease as things are starting to get hectic.

I’ve wet my feet in breadmaking and I’m experimenting on perfecting scrumptious cinnamon rolls and ensaimadas (Filipino brioche) for gift-giving.    As I’ve never baked anything except for the occasional brownies, I forsee myself ambitiously wrestling with bread recipes, baking my day away, and snatching up my book only in between rising times.  So, let’s see how many more reviews I can dish out.

This book was a great finale to the challenge, albeit  a dark and brooding one.

Author :  Tobsha Learner

Publication Date :  January 2, 2007  (Mass Market Paperback)

Publisher :  Tor Books

ISBN-10: 0765350467

ISBN-13: 978-0765350466

No. of pages :  480

The Story :

Ruth bas Elazar Saul is daughter of the chief rabbi of the Jewish quarter of Cologne and a very good midwife with very unconventional methods.  Her  advanced  midwifery skills coupled with her studies in Kabbalah, taints Ruth’s reputation with suspicions of witchcraft in an era paranoid about heretics and devil worshippers.

She becomes the unfortunate target of the malevolent obsession of a Spanish friar and head of the Inquisition to Cologne.  Solitario takes his vengeance on an unknowing Ruth simply because she is the daughter of the woman who had jilted him and shredded his pride many years back.  Ruth is tried for witchcraft; but in the process gains the interest of the cleric, Detlef  von Tennen, cousin and close aide to the Archbishop of Cologne.

Detlef falls madly in love with Ruth and does everything in his power to avert her fate.  He succeeds and both start a love affair that in its time,  was unforgivable to both Jews and Catholics alike.  Amid this difficult union, Ruth and Detlef must struggle to live in a dangerous century at war with new philosophies threatening to overthrow its established beliefs, power and social structures.

The Review :

The book opens with “a woman writhing in labor”  which gave me the correct impression that I’d have a toe curling time with this one.

Learner is  an intense,  graphic writer who writes with a sensuality that is both raw and elegant.  Her torture scenes feel  horrendously realistic ; her descriptions of everyday life and her characterizations are rich and intimate, full of vivid details of seventeenth century Cologne, its lifestyle, its predominant psyche, and its prevailing social and religious atmosphere.

This novel is first and foremost a microcosmic representation of  a Europe inexorably marching toward the Age of Enlightenment, torn at one end by traditional society clinging tenaciously and fearfully to established institutions of power, thoughts, and morals and on the other, by radical philosophies and emerging new acceptances by free thinkers or the libertines of that time.

Solitario, the Spanish  Inquisitor, is the embodiment of the 17th century Roman Catholic Church, an institution reacting dangerously to threats to  its centuries-old European dominance by the emergence of new thoughts, values, mores and the new Protestant religion.  He is obsessed about bringing onto the Inquisition table  the Jewess, Ruth, and the breakaway cleric, Detlef, both of whom represent radical opposition to the faith which have begun to erode the Church’s right to absolute power.

Stories like these make me glad I was born in the 20th century, where we have education, modern conveniences, good medical knowledge and practices, and in most parts of the world, respect and freedom for all sorts of religions and ideas.  Imagine living in fear of torture and death because your ideas are heretically opposed to the prevailing beliefs of a Church which hold both  secular and spiritual domains in its grip.

It was also interesting for me to find out that Judaism has its own brand of occultism.  It has its own demons, grimoire, incantations, spells, and talismans.  The Kabbalah is practiced by a certain Jewish sect which does not find ready acceptance in the general Jewish populace; but nevertheless is a recognized albeit esoteric branch of the Jewish religion.

To Read Or Not To Read :

I have read reviews that slam this book for its love angle and gratuitous sex (which I didn’t find unwarranted at all).  The romance here is simply a support angle to the overall story of the book and is not the author’s point at all.  So if you are looking for a nice historical romance,  pass this up; this novel would be way out in left field.

However,  if you just want a well written story with a good historical background, The Witch of Cologne will be just the thing.  Although, be prepared for a very dark and somber tone (well matched with the era) throughout its entirety and for a substantial amount of graphic elements assiduously detailed in this book.

In A Nutshell :

Learner’s unconventional writing style marries quite well with her  objective of presenting a glimpse of medieval Europe in the cusp of social change, a dark and fearful transition for many,  when institutions of power, both political and religious, clawed desperately to maintain the status quo.  The story poses intelligent questions, some of which must have influenced how modern Europe evolved.

Don’t let the suggestive cover fool you into thinking this book is a shallow, sleazy read.  The book has the complexity and depth that makes it interesting and well worth your while — a perfect example  to heed the the adage:   “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

My Mark  :  Outstanding



I wanted a respite from the dark-themed books I had been reading for the R.I.P. IV Challenge. Something opposite these, I thought.  My eye settled on this religious fiction by Rebecca Kohn which had been  forever in my TBR pile.

Author :  Rebecca Kohn

Date of Publication : 2005

Publisher : Penguin Books (mass paperback)

ISBN-10: 0143035339

No. of pages :  384

The Story :

This is a story of how a young Jewish orphan, Esther, became Queen to one of the most powerful rulers of the ancient world, King Xerxes. But her story is unique because she goes down in Biblical history as one of those really rare heroines in the Old Testament who succeeded in saving her people from annihilation.

Hadassah, for her own survival, embraces the name Esther and becomes a closet Jew when she is abducted to serve in Xerxes’ harem as part of a crop of young virgins from which he would choose his new bride. (Xerxes had banished his beautiful but cruel wife, Queen Vashti, in a drunken pique for her refusal to appear before his party guests on his command.)

Esther comes to live in the harem, doing the best she can to get along with everyone.   She learns that in such an autocratic and hierarchical-sensitive environment,  the virtues of obedience, submissiveness,  generosity, respect of and deference to authority make life tolerable and endows her with the ability to influence others.

Upon her first presentation to the King,  Esther captivates him and in one night, makes a meteoric rise to Queen.

But her new life is threatened when Xerxes’ issues an edict calling all Jews to be annihilated, as per Haman’s, his corrupt chief advisor’s, whim. Haman is incensed that the Jew, Mordechai, the treasury official and in secret, Esther’s cousin, refuses obeisance to him, and so extends his wrath to all Jews.

Queen Esther is faced with a dangerous dilemma :   save her people by exposing her true lineage and forcing an uninvited audience with the King (an unsummoned presence before the King can earn one the death penalty) to plead for her people’s lives or keep mum about her Jewish parentage to save her own life and her position as Queen.

And so goes one of the most romantic stories in the Old Testament.

My Review :

The tale of Esther is a very powerful and moving story of courage and selflessness.  It is a tale of  a woman’s style of patriotism that necessitated giving up her life for one’s country/people.  It also has very significant religious points that reinforces the belief in (1) God’s existence;  (2) His constant vigil over His Chosen People and (3) His divine will and purpose for each person’s existence.

Rebecca Kohn  tries to capture this with by sticking quite closely to Esther’s story,  narrating it in her florid, romantic style  that makes her descriptions so rich and vibrant:

” The eunuch stopped before the door to the harem court.  On the doorjambs before me, a molded relief of the king fought a rearing lion monster with no more than a dagger in his bare hands….the eunuch rasped,…’You will live here in great comfort until your breasts sag and your sweet honeycomb shrivels…’….I looked at the eunuch , my eyes wide with terror…The lion monster on the doorjamb lunged for me.  I fled from the creature’s wide mouth and sharp claws into the harem court.”   — p.43

Her character, Esther, is a refreshingly different take on the ideal of a strong woman. Here, we see a girl who was strong without having the usual feminist aggressive, adventurous, stubborn, iron-willed character that a lot of writers favor to make their heroine so interesting.  Instead, Esther’s subservience and obedience coupled with her grace and feminine charms realistically favors her successful adaptation  to a masculinely dominated world where women’s subjugation are part of  its culture.   She succeeds without having to be obvertly defiant or wilful;  she simply does what she morally thinks is right in her own firm, quiet, patient way.

However, as a whole, the novel just didn’t quite make it to my standards for an outstanding rating.  Somehow, it just fell a little flat for reasons I cannot really define.  Perhaps, it was the ending which I felt wasn’t quite satisfactorily resolved and  rather anticlimactic at that.

In A Nutshell :

As a debut novel though, “The Gilded Chamber” is a good first effort.  I’ve taken to her writing style so that I’m not put off  from reading other novels Kohn may have churned out by now.    Moreover, for those looking for a fast read, this novel is it.   Aside from being a light read,  it’s got much more intellectual “meat” than say, a vampire or chick-lit novel;  so a good choice for that next beach read.

My Mark :  Very Good