Thursday, December 29, 2005
Early in the story, Hezekiah confronts the possibility of not having an heir, and considers various scriptures and their meanings. Thus he learns that God’s promise to David – that David would always have a descendant on the throne – does not necessarily mean that Hezekiah must have a son to continue the line. When Hephzibah again urges Hezekiah to take another wife, in hopes of producing an heir, Hezekiah considers again the Jewish law that a king must not have “many” wives and concludes that not having “many” does not mean only one. Soon thereafter, however, Hezekiah takes ill and nearly dies as a result of an accident. As with so much of the story, the author fills in the gaps, providing an exciting story full of tension and betrayal to explain the cause of Hezekiah’s illness referenced in the Bible.
The Strength of His Hand picks up plot threads and characters developed in the previous two books, so that again Hezekiah himself has a rather minor part. Jerusha is back, now as Eliakim’s wife and a mother to several children. The conflict between Eliakim and Shebna continues, along with embellished accounts, based on verses from the book of Isaiah, regarding Shebna’s monument to himself and the subsequent exaltation of Eliakim.
Overall, the story presented is entertaining and dramatic, along with the message of God’s forgiveness and compassion. However, in several aspects the story remains shallow, especially in its poor application of Old Testament scripture. For example, scripture passages from Isaiah about Israel as the barren wife, rejoicing in the many children given her – clearly understood by Biblical scholars as referring to the returning exiles from Babylon almost 200 years later – are completely misinterpreted and applied directly to Hephzibah for her own personal meaning. The characters present to each other not an Old Testament understanding (the historical setting), nor even a New Testament one, but a weak, modern-day “God loves you” theology. The “gospel” presented to Hephzibah -- who has worshipped an idol and vowed to sacrifice her first child to Asherah – is the weak, modern-day evangelical message that she is a child of God and God forgives her, and so she must forgive herself. Nothing is said about repentance, or an understanding of who God is (versus the idols) including His sovereignty and holiness – much less the required sacrifices for sin that were still required of His people under the Mosaic law during this time.
Friday, December 23, 2005
Though nothing ever happened to Hunt after his pledge of loyalty to the British, Davis injects a fictional “trial” to explain to a modern-day audience all the details of events during this part of the Revolution. Davis’ story takes the form of a courtroom drama transcript, in which we read each character’s dialog part. The dialog is well written, though the very use of this style makes the content – conveying the events to 21st century readers -- rather unrealistic. In an actual court trial of the times, the characters would not elaborate in such detail about things that were commonly known to all. Also, at various points in the dialog one side or the other “objects,” and the objection would normally be valid; but since the real purpose is to enlighten modern day readers, of course the characters are allowed to elaborate and explore seemingly non-relevant material.
Though at first the story is hard to get into, the material draws itself out for an interesting and educational reading, complete with photocopies of original (though very hard to read) documents from the time. Not surprisingly, we soon learn that indeed Abraham Hunt’s actions were not traitorous but actually helped the Patriotic cause. (After all, in reality nothing happened to Hunt, and thus his contemporaries at least understood what was really going on even if later historians have not.) Still, the story is interesting, a little-known episode of the American Revolution. The Trial of Abraham Hunt: An American Christmas Story is a nice, brief account (182 pages, including photocopies of original documents) concerning the amazing, Providential events of Christmas 1776.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
Kathleen suffers the hardships, and struggles with feelings of anger and vengeance against such great cruelty and injustice, as her family connections are severed. Her ailing mother dies during the journey to the rocky land, but the landlord is unwilling to delay their departure even for a burial, and then prohibits the family from returning to bury her at the family gravesite. Her brother-in-law Charles soon departs for the city to find work, while her father has nothing to live for in the new place – and they will all soon starve. The Highlanders also face unfriendly neighbors, and must face the unpleasant outside world: the truth of how others view them and their backward ways.
Farewell Rhilochan presents a compelling story, rich in well-defined characters and strong conflicts, generally from the outside world (including their minister, a clergy man more interested in helping the rich landlords and berating the people he is supposed to help) and especially the villainous Henderson, who oversees their forced move. We see how even those who have left the Highland clans to do service for the military are poorly treated, even forced to help clear their own people off their land.
The Highlanders’ lifestyle is always present, in the background yet included in various references throughout the story. A glossary at the book’s end defines several terms used, such as “burn” to describe a brook or stream. Each chapter begins with a short quote about the Highlanders and the clearance, and the quote’s source – a good way to show the author’s bibliography. Throughout the story we learn of the Highlanders’ illiteracy, their superstitions, “the Evil Eye,” their practice of keeping animals in their own homes, and even their rather raunchy wedding traditions. All these are mentioned from the Highlanders’ perspective, and not elaborated on. Still, I could relate at least some of the material to the novel Christy (Catherine Marshall), in which an outsider describes customs of the Highlanders 100 years later in East Tennessee. Farewell Rhilochan describes the historical situation that brought many of the Highlanders to the U.S., where later generations continued in the old ways. For Kathleen and her friends, however, it appears that the Highlanders and their way of life are being eradicated and scattered; some go to Nova Scotia, while some learn to adjust to life in Wick. Yet there is hope, for a new life, and Kathleen finds unexpected friendship and kindness even in the midst of tragedy.
Farewell Rhilochan is a well-written story, educational and interesting, with strong, likeable characters. Through this novel the reader can learn more about, and more fully appreciate, the story of the uprooted Highlanders and their plight.
Tuesday, December 6, 2005
The brief account above can be readily learned through online encyclopedias, though with few details. Schumacher brings his great research and knowledge of the Dark Ages into this novel, expanding on the known story with a wonderful “coming of age” account of young Hakon. Taking as its subject Hakon's earlier years, the story is well written and easy-to-read, with a character we can easily relate to--whether as a young, frightened 8-year-old sent far from home, or the teen who would have preferred to stay in England yet recognizes his destiny to rule his own people. We see how the Christian faith was then practiced, though the author makes no external comments, good or bad—the events speak for themselves. Yet in spite of the bad aspects—an official baptism declares someone a Christian, rather than a pagan, regardless of whether the person has even heard the gospel message—the moral and civilizing aspects of Christianity in England clearly strike a contrast with the monstrous, barbaric acts of the pagan Northmen. Through young Hakan’s experiences, we witness his maturing from a rebellious, if sheltered, child, to someone with a tender heart of compassion, truly horrified and sorrowful, when he sees firsthand the barbaric deeds of his own people.
God’s Hammer especially brings out Hakan’s own struggles of conscience: the desire to “fit in” and be accepted by his people, versus his Christian repulsion at the pagan rituals such as wishing on the Yule log, and human sacrifice. As he once tells his young friend, Toralv, he “will not change” his beliefs. Yet time and again he faces a new political reality and must admit the truth of (his counselor) Sigurd’s political savvy.
The historical research clearly shines through, in both the secular and religious aspects of life for the English and the Northmen. God’s Hammer has a good narrative flow, including action and dialogue, with the political / historical backdrop of the time and place: the English, Danes and Northmen. I highly recommend this historical fiction novel, both for its entertaining story and historical information about specific events from a time little known and studied today, the Dark Ages.
Tuesday, November 8, 2005
Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks is set in seventeenth century England during the time of the plague. The novel is based on the real village of Eyam, Derbyshire, in the Pennine Mountains. Members of the small village begin dying one by one as the plague seeps into their town in the year 1666. The living face a difficult choice that their survival depends upon- leave the village and find refuge in towns that the plague has not yet hit or stay behind and quarantine themselves to protect other innocent people? The young, charismatic town vicar, Michael Mompellion, convinces the villagers that they have a better chance of survival if the village seals itself off from the rest of the world. A few decide to risk it and leave, but the majority of the people prepare to stay in the village and combat the plague head-on.
The story is told from the point of view of 18-year-old Anna Firth, a widow with two young sons. Anna works as a maid for the vicar and his wife, Elinor. Anna and Elinor develop a close friendship, and Elinor teaches Anna to read. The vicar, his wife, and Anna come to the aid of those infected with the plague and care for them as best they can with herbal medicines and words of comfort. At the same time Anna is caring for others, she must also deal with the tragic loss of her two sons as they succumb to the disease. As the plague begins to decimate the population, many people turn against the vicar and believe that his advice was wrong. The villagers begin to mistrust friends and neighbors and start to turn against each other in their confinement. Some let their superstitions get the best of them and believe that there are witches among them that are responsible for the suffering.
The characters in this novel are well-developed. Brooks is able to accurately portray the range of emotions that people would exhibit in such a difficult time when faced with disease, death, and dwindling supplies. Her portrayal of how some members of the village are driven to madness and desperate measures are extremely accurate and convincing. Readers will identify with Anna as she copes with the loss of her children and with the suffering of the neighbors that she helps. Anna reacts to her situation in a believable way, by throwing herself into her work, hoping that soon the plague will pass and life will resume once more. Geraldine Brooks is a superb storyteller that skillfully portrays this tale of everyday people learning how to cope during an extraordinary time in history.
Thursday, October 27, 2005
Finding Anna, by Christine Schaub, is the first in a new series called “Music of the Heart.” Each story in this series is an expanded, fictionalized account of the characters behind a great hymn, beginning with the story of the Spafford family. Beginning with the fire in October 1871, the story starts with great suspense and horror as it describes the raging inferno. Gates is out amongst the crowd watching the fire at first, then is caught up in the panic and rush of people fleeing as the fire amazingly crosses the Chicago River. Strong winds push the fire closer and closer, and Gates narrowly escapes, after retrieving the most important business papers, yet realizing his great financial loss.
The fire and its aftermath are well incorporated into the story, and accounts of destruction, the homeless refugees, and the rebuilding effort seem especially relevant today, in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, a similar –though on a much larger scale-- disaster.
Soon the emphasis changes to the domestic scene, and especially to Gates' wife, Anna. We are told that Gates is busy, working long, hard hours in the rebuilding effort. Yet we see little of him, and instead read of his wife Anna and the domestic issues with servants and children. Dwight L. Moody is introduced, with some good dialogue and interaction with other characters, including one lost young man; but it is his wife, Emma, that we see more of, along with Anna – complete with her gardening project, and her loneliness and depression. Clearly this story was written for women readers, with its seemingly undue emphasis on the wives rather than the important historical characters (D.L. Moody and Horatio Gates Spafford). From Anna's perspective, we see the family falling apart under the stress of constantly helping others in need. No doubt this version of the story greatly exaggerates what actually happened in the Spafford family, but it does move the story along to explain what actually did happen: that they decided to take a much-needed vacation in the fall of 1873.
I was troubled by the author’s stated disregard for historical accuracy and research. In the book’s forward -- after briefly mentioning that the story and the actual facts uncovered in her research turned out not to agree -- the author glibly quotes her editor’s remark that if the story is good, the reader won’t care if it’s true or not. Then the author simply says that she won’t tell which parts are and are not true, that it’s up to the reader to guess! Certainly the story is always important, to any book, whether historical, futuristic or contemporary. However, the historical fiction genre is especially characterized by good research, and a successful blending of entertainment with education, by which the reader learns something about the historical events. Even within the sub-genre of evangelical Christian historical fiction, most authors show more serious attention to the history, often with notes at the end elaborating on which story aspects and characters are historical.
To its credit, Finding Anna does include the words and music of the hymn “It is Well With My Soul,” and brief notes about what happened to Horatio and Anna in their later years. Many readers of the audience, primarily adult women, will no doubt enjoy the book for its emotional, woman-focused emphasis. However, such callous disregard for the historical part of a historical fiction book will not sit well with serious historical fiction readers. If the author wants to just write a good story (and who cares if the history part is accurate or not), she (and her editor) should stick with contemporary fiction.
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Katharine Louise (“Kate”) is a modern-day 79-year-old woman, relating the story of a train trip with her maternal grandmother (Louise Dunbar) when she was 23 in 1947. She accompanies her grandmother to see a dying friend, Mollie Brown. During the trip to California, and again on the return trip, Gran tells the story of her own upbringing and relationship with her friend Mollie Brown during the late 1870s and early 1880s in New Jersey. The Dunbar family live year-round in Long Branch, New Jersey, a summer vacation home to the many famous and wealthy, including the Garfield family. As Gran relates, Long Branch was the "Gilded Strand" of the Gilded Age.
We soon learn that Mollie Brown’s maiden name was Garfield, and that she was the daughter of President Garfield. From this point, the story becomes even more exciting. Through the double first-person narrative, we get to know the various members of the Dunbar family and some details about the Garfield family. An early section of the book, in which Gran names off all the various relatives in the Dunbar family tree, is confusing and overwhelming—a visual family tree diagram would help. After a while, though, it becomes clear that only a few of the many named characters are relevant to the story; the reader can focus on that part rather than try to keep up with the larger Dunbar family
As with Foster’s previous book, First Ladies, this book includes excellent research and attention to historical details, including the political power structure of the day. Other famous characters have a part, including former President Grant and even Susan B. Anthony. Some narrative parts, where Louise tells what she was aware of at age 13, seem rather unrealistic for the average girl of that age to recall – especially after “Gran’s” self-admission that she really had not been that knowledgeable of politics (and Kate notes the contradiction, too!). Yet the author also skillfully inserts “notes” sections with additional material at various places: material that Kate gathered, either in 1947 or more recently.
Garfield’s Train is another entertaining and educational historical novel from Feather Schwartz Foster. The historical material is presented in a fun way, nothing like a dry history textbook, in a rather short novel (226 pages) that can be read quickly -or not so quickly-- and enjoyed by all. The historical insights and trivia bring the period alive--in all its glamour as well as political dirt-- to remind us also how little some things have changed.
Friday, October 7, 2005
The other main characters include Balthaser Beck, who later marries Margaret, and several key Anabaptist figures from history: Conrad Grebel, Christman Kenlin, George Blaurock, and others. In fact, nearly all the characters named are actual historical figures, except three minor characters noted up front by the author. Margaret’s last name is never given, presumably because her name (before marriage to Beck) is not known.
Unlike many historical novels, the subject matter IS the history itself, with the characters meeting and discussing their theological views on various subjects, and even commenting on the latest news from Luther and Zwingli. The chapter names provide a guideline to the book’s topics, including marriage for preachers and adult believers’ baptism (re-baptism, hence the name given the group, Anabaptists). Other history from the time includes a peasant revolt, and the general persecution the Anabaptists faced, even from the other Reformers.
Margaret’s Print Shop is clearly written for church history enthusiasts, and especially for people belonging to the modern Anabaptist groups (Mennonites and Brethren groups), who would have more familiarity with the names in the story. As a story, this book is more serious and educational, rather than page-turning suspense, action or romance. The characters themselves lack depth and defined characteristics. The ideas themselves, and the history surrounding the ideas, are the main focus, with the characters secondary; their purpose is to explain and clarify the ideas.
Still, Margaret’s Print Shop is an excellent narrative look at the Anabaptist reformation, with a scope appropriate to the book – events in and around Strasbourg in 1525. Yoder has clearly done his research, and includes maps and a list of characters, to help the reader with the story’s context. The author’s notes at the end are helpful too, to learn what happened to Margaret, Beck, and several of the other characters.
Saturday, October 1, 2005
O'Brien's Desk is the debut novel by author Ona Russell. Some of the issues addressed in the book—political corruption, drug addiction, anti-Semitism and homophobia—could easily be ripped from today’s headlines, but when Russell read of them, the newspapers they came from were anything but current. The clippings she pored over were from the 1920s, hidden for more than 70 years in a dusty pile of scrapbooks. These articles—chronicling the life of O’Brien O’Donnell, a highly public yet secretive judge—became the foundation for Russell’s first historical mystery, O’Brien’s Desk, hailed by NPR’s Richard Lederer as “terrific” and “riveting” and by novelist Anne Perry as “an intriguing and thoroughly researched story that gives us insight into the moral dilemmas of 20th Century America.”
The year is 1923, and O’Brien O’Donnell, called Obee by his friends, is a well-loved judge in Toledo, Ohio. His progressive politics and humanitarian strides make him one of Ohio’s most admired figures. At 59, he has recently married and become a father for the first time. Soon after the birth of his daughter, Obee receives a chilling blackmail letter that takes him to the brink of insanity. From his hospital bed, he turns to his trusted colleague, Sarah Kaufman (who was also a real person), for help. Sarah is a woman ahead of her time—a single, Jewish, career woman of exceptional intelligence and strength. She is eager to stop the blackmailer from ruining Obee’s chances for re-election and launches an investigation to clear his name. In doing so, she risks her own life to save his.
An interesting note about O’Brien’s Desk is that the real-life O'Brien O'Donnell was Russell's grandfather-in-law. When her mother-in-law passed away, she came across O’Donnell’s scrapbooks, and she began work on her first novel based on information she gained from them. The scrapbooks weren’t her only source however; Russell did meticulous research to make the story more authentic.
Equal parts rich history lesson and can’t-set-down mystery, this novel has already left a wake of enthusiastic readers in its path. Many of them are eagerly anticipating Russell’s next novel in the series, set during the Scopes “Monkey” trial, also with Sarah Kaufman as the heroine. Russell's attention to detail, especially in describing 1920s Ohio and its political climate, add to the quality of the novel. O'Brien's Desk would be a great read for any fan of historical fiction.
More information about this book:
Sunstone Press, April 2004
Thursday, September 1, 2005
Finally the Stump Neck plot, minimized to only a scene or two per book for the last few parts, returns; some story points make a full circle back to Stump Neck’s true identity as Pariah West. An encounter between Old Smoke’s traveling entourage and Stump Neck’s raiding band makes for some excellent page turning adventure. Indeed, the enlarged role for Stump Neck in this story reveals more about this mad-man, even as it places him at an appropriate point in the overall story (the raiding bands of the wild frontier in 1755). He really didn’t belong in the earlier books, which dealt primarily with George Washington and the British and colonial soldiers; but the dangling Stump-Neck plot from these earlier parts finally enhances the overall series.
As with previous books, Outrageous Interlude includes some obscene language and crude, bawdy remarks (from the raiding French and Indian characters). This book in particular deals also with the savage cruelty of the Indians against innocent settlers, and gives some rather graphic depictions of torture, told through several brief episodes of various settlers and their fates. Outrageous Interlude does not sweeten the truth, but tells it realistically.
Outrageous Interlude does a great job of blending great historical research with an interesting story. As part of the “Neophyte Warrior” series, this part holds up as well as the earlier ones, showing the same appreciation for historical accuracy and character development.
Monday, August 15, 2005
Most of the characters from the previous books are back – at least all the ones that participate in the battle, on both sides of it. George Washington himself is actually a minor part of the overall story – still an aspiring young military leader, now aide-de-camp to Braddock but not a major player in the struggle.
The author expertly describes all aspects of the battle, both through the various characters as well as direct narration from the unseen writer. Factual details are included, along with dialog to expand the stories, including the role of Tom and Joe Fausett in the slaying of General Braddock. From the French and Indian perspective, we read with amazement how inadaptable the British leaders were -- so stubborn in their beliefs that they must only fight with the tried and true British tactics, so stuck in that way of thinking that they fail to realize their own defeat – and conclude along with the author that the British pride led to their downfall.
Old Smoke is back, offering good perspectives from his mixed background of Jesuit Catholic teaching and his native Shawnee Indian practices. This time his hot-head friend Striking Eagle goes too far, though, and dies early in the story.
The continuing episodes of the madman called “Stump Neck” again seem misplaced, filler incidents that do not relate to the rest of the story. This time, Stump Neck’s major scene early on involves some extremely graphic depictions of animal cruelty along with some profanity. Without this short episode added in, the story flows much better, with its focus as it should be: the day of the battle, and its participants. Other scenes near the beginning of the book include some bawdy jokes and vulgar language, related to the subject matter of George Washington’s illness.
Aside from these incidents, however, Massacre at the Forks is generally clean and acceptable reading material. The story does well at building the suspense to the upcoming confrontation, complete with strong dialogue and descriptions appropriate to the battle. The author again does a good job of blending the seriousness of the matter with an appropriate level of humor, with a few breaks from the intensity of the situation. We even see a few glimpses of hope, the inner thoughts of young George Washington, as we consider what his future years will bring. Providence, too, makes its case, as the characters realize that God has protected George Washington from harm, even as his very coat is riddled with bullets that don’t touch his body. Though the proud British fall, young George has a future purpose that keeps him alive.
Monday, August 1, 2005
Forced by economic circumstances to marry Daniel, whom she likes but does not love, Rebecca travels with Daniel to his home in Queensland, Australia. Throughout the rest of the novel, Rebecca adjusts to a very different life in the desert lands of Australia, a world that is socially and technologically behind the times -- from her perspective. Yet the greater conflicts come not from the place and time, but from family relationships, including a dominant, overbearing father-in-law.
The story is primarily told from Rebecca’s perspective, with only occasional glimpses at Daniel’s thoughts. Accordingly, Rebecca is a well-defined character, strong and willful, and we experience Australia through her views: the beauty of some parts of Australia (and the barrenness of the Thornton property); her desire to help the black (aborigine) servants; her uncertainties as well as her rebellious attitude and behavior.
Unfortunately, the other characters are less developed, and some are unlikable. Her husband, Daniel, is weak-willed, firmly under his father’s control, a young man who has forgotten the biblical command to first “leave his father and mother” when he cleaves to his wife. Even when Rebecca pleads with him, even to consider their living in a separate house on the same property, Daniel refuses.
The father-in-law, Bertram, is well spoken of by all other family members as well as others in the community, with several even telling us the specific good things Bertram did for them. Yet we never see any demonstrations of that inner goodness so attested to. He instead is shown, through numerous scenes, to be harsh and unyielding, completely dominant over everyone else’s lives. A man who is truly good, underneath a “rough exterior,” would have those qualities somehow revealed during the story. Instead, even Bertram Thornton’s stated beliefs – in God’s sovereign election (a brief reference to Calvinist theology) – are twisted, to show a character that objects even to Rebecca’s teaching the aborigines how to read, and who furthermore says that the blacks are not in God’s plan of salvation.
That Daniel and Rebecca’s marriage declines from bad to worse is no surprise. Daniel never changes, and neither does Rebecca. It would be nice to see some character growth and development, such as Daniel growing to trust his wife and assert himself rather than remain a coward. Rebecca, too, makes choices -- in how she finally deals with Daniel -- that appear inconsistent and for no good reason, since Daniel clearly has not changed any. (Contrast the moral choices here with, say, the characters in Lawana Blackwell’s “Tales of London.”) Without such growth and maturity from either character, the book leaves us feeling that their relationship is still doomed, that nothing will change in the future.
Perhaps the next book in this series will introduce some growth and change, especially after the death of the dominant father-in-law. This series’ setting, too, is unusual, with a good glimpse of life in rural Australia, a setting not often seen in contemporary Christian historical fiction.
Sunday, July 10, 2005
City of Man’s Desire: A Novel of Constantinople, by Cornelia Golna, appeared some months ago, brought out by the small, independent-minded publishing company, Go-Bos Press. Before examining the content of the book, I feel bound as a critical reader to note that we are dealing here with an exceptional publication in the literary world. It is clear from the start that Cornelia Golna’s debut novel was an ambitious project, as the historical novel genre – of which, in my opinion, this book is an excellent example – is not only demanding but full of pitfalls. This may also be the reason why so few writers nowadays venture to enter its terrain, not to mention the relatively little interest the general reading public shows for it. This is especially the case if the novel deals with the history of places that for various reasons do not rank high in public opinion. And it holds doubly for the Balkans and their tumultuous history. As a writer you have to be very motivated indeed to embark on such an undertaking, knowing that you are going against all prevailing prejudices. In order to be successful, you must be prepared to put on a tight straightjacket. The historical novel offers relatively little room for unbridled imagination and boundless subjectivity if it wants to avoid degenerating into a pulp scenario. The crucial feature of a responsible historical novel, in contrast to other forms of literary fiction, is the believability of the framework in which the plot unfolds and of the characters involved in it. And it is here that Cornelia Golna excels.
Little by little, in the beginning chapters, the lost world of Constantinople at the start of the twentieth century comes to life, so that after a few dozen pages, the reader experiences it as a natural reality. The movements of the characters in the first part of the book seem aimed at giving a topographic description of the city. The reader is guided as it were by the characters through the quarters of the city in which they lead their daily lives. Thus emerges the image of a city that inspired the fascination of many and was the object of desire of its conquerors.
In 324 A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine made the city his capital. Because of strong Greek cultural predominance during the late empire and the wealth of the Greek cities of Asia Minor, the center of power had moved gradually eastward. At that time, the notion of two worlds within the borders of the empire did not exist. The various divisions of the empire were the result of measures taken to combat internal instability or withstand the pressures of violent attacks from the outside. The effect of this shift was that Rome declined and Constantinople prospered. Almost a thousand years would pass before the first signs of the city’s tragic fate were revealed. The Crusades can be considered the first meeting between the two by then very different cultures, which had crystalized within the same European tradition. The fourth Crusade, with the capture of the city in 1204 by the Crusaders under the leadership of the Republic of Venice, was the prelude to the complete decline of Byzantine power. The Ottomans sealed the fate of the pillar of Eastern Christendom with the conquest of the city in 1453. Thus the separation of the two worlds became complete, for the pearl of the East became the seat of mighty Islam, which immediately took over and assimilated its symbols of power – with all the pomp and magnificence that went with them.
All the layers of this momentous history come to life in Cornelia Golna’s book, as do the various ethnic groups with their traditions and religions, who at the beginning of the twentieth century lived in relative harmony alongside each other in this metropolis. The reader becomes witness to a cosmopolitan world which in fact finds itself on the verge of its demise, for the small human drama which is the book’s plot is closely interwoven with the great drama of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, whose fate is ultimately sealed with the dethronement of the last sultan, Abdul Hamid II, in 1909, during the revolution of the Young Turks.
The main character in the story is the young Greek girl Theodora Vlachos, the daughter of one of the many Greek families that lived in the city. In that environment of Greek merchants, who together with the Armenians and the Jews formed the empire’s middle class, traditional Greek cultural values were fostered and passed on, albeit in a petty bourgeois manner, which the author describes from time to time with the necessary irony. You could say that the time span of a little more than a year covered in the book is the period in which Theodora crosses the threshold into adulthood and concurrently the period in which the first steps were taken toward the emancipation and modernization of Turkey. Of course, this process could not take place without bringing up life’s great questions, which incite doubts in the young woman. Nor could the modernization of the empire take place without clashes between the wisdom that comes from tradition on the one hand, with its mystical aspects, and rational thinking on the other, with its axiomatic-deductive approach, which takes on a dogmatic value for its proponents.
The representative of the new thinking and thus the champion of the modernization of the empire is to be found in the person of the fanatic, uncompromising Young Turk, Murad. Through the contribution to the plot of the Russian adventurers, the brother and sister Vladimir and Natalya Petrov, as well as the Western intellectuals John Townsend and Nils Pettersson, the cast of characters seems to represent all the forces present in the declining years of the old capital of the Turkish Empire. Cornelia Golna’s Constantinople is not only a city on the dividing line separating the feudal-traditional way of life, in which, thanks to privileges granted by the sultan, there was room for the different cultures and religions, and modernization in the form of the introduction of a secularized, democratic system. It soon becomes clear that the ideal of the nation-state, for which the Young Turks fought, left little room for the rich variety of cultures that had made up Constantinople throughout its long history.
The way in which Cornelia Golna presents these contrasts and seeming paradoxes while never losing sight of the narrative, makes City of Man’s Desire an exceptionally successful historical novel. Written with love and respect, it is a story very sensitive to the human dimension, against the backdrop of a fascinating historical period. Moreover, the author builds up and balances the tension such that after the last page you find yourself somewhat reluctant to have to awaken from its spell.
Professor of Romanian studies, University of Amsterdam,
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Purchase information for this book: Netherlands website (Bilingual site, English and Dutch) -- www.gobospress.biz
Also available via Google Print for $27.50.
Friday, July 1, 2005
Biblical characters of whom we know little come to life here, especially Hezekiah’s cabinet members Shebna, Eliakim, and Eliakim’s father Hilkiah. Hephzibah also is back, with elements of her character foreshadowing what must happen later on: as the mother of Hezekiah’s successor son, Manasseh, Hephzibah is the one that must supply Manasseh with his pagan beliefs.
Song of Redemption also introduces a major secondary plot outside of Hezekiah’s story. A young Israelite woman, Jerusha, and her family show us the plight of the neighboring Israelites during Assyrian aggression, as well as the unimaginable brutality of the Assyrians. As the story progresses, the subplots become the main story, and we see more character growth in those around Hezekiah rather than in Hezekiah himself. Jerusha changes through her experiences. Conflict develops between Shebna and Eliakim, and Eliakim’s character is further developed.Song of Redemption is an entertaining story with good action, conflict, and character growth. Throughout the story we experience the underlying message of forgiveness, the redemption promised to the characters as they turn to Yahweh, the heavenly Father who loves them and restores them.
Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Tabitha soon arrives home, and life at the Brooke home is never the same, as various family secrets are revealed. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of David, Jocie, and Aunt Love, and along the way we learn more about tragic events in their past. Jocie in particular matures, as she learns to appreciate Aunt Love, who she always resented for her scripture-quoting discipline, and learns more about her family. Serious moral issues are brought forth, including out-of-wedlock children, adultery, and child abandonment. Yet throughout all the troubles, The Scent of Lilacs is told in a light-hearted way, with interesting, likeable characters in their ordinary lives in a small town.
With its more recent setting, The Scent of Lilacs has more of a nostalgic than historical feel, as a story that could happen today as well as then. The characters, and their relationships with each other, are more central than the background time period. Most importantly, the characters’ Christian faith brings them closer together through the experiences of the summer of ’64.
Friday, June 3, 2005
Slow at times, Pontius Pilate is nonetheless very informative and well-documented, complete with chapter-by-chapter historical notes. As with Flames of Rome, Maier again brings a strong “documentary novel,” in which all the character names are valid and all known story points are presented factually. Yet also, the subject matter simply has too many gaps, and here Maier has developed a good narrative story of what might have happened. The dating of events is interesting as well, since the important New Testament events –When John the Baptist began his ministry, and especially the year of the crucifixion – are not even known today. Though some historians place the crucifixion earlier, no later than 30 A.D., in Pontius Pilate the event occurs in 33 A.D., with plenty of time for the story to build up towards the great, climactic event towards the end of Pilate’s Judean career.
The known material presented, and expanded on, include Pilate’s confrontation with the Jews (early during his governorship) concerning the Roman soldiers’ icons (of Tiberius Caesar), and Pilate’s improvements to Jerusalem’s waterways – all of course minor things now compared to the crucifixion of Jesus, yet described by various writers including Josephus. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are references to Bible events: a mysterious star “about 30 years ago” and the late King Herod’s actions; the scandalous marriage of Herod Antipas to his brother Philip’s wife Herodias (who was also Antipas’s niece), and the rise of John the Baptist. The story moves inevitably forward, with Pilate himself acting in ways that seem of minor importance at the time, but would later have drastic consequences.
Predictably (after all, a book’s main character ought to be likeable), Maier presents Pilate in a more favorable light than do the historical documents of the time (i.e., Josephus and Philo, with their obvious pro-Jewish, anti-Roman bias). Maier’s Pilate is more of a pragmatic politician: a secular governor trying to do his job, to please his superiors by keeping order and peace in this very troublesome part of the empire. He is amazed time and again by the obstinacy and seemingly non-rational zeal of the Judean Jews, and the reader can relate to his frustrations.
Pontius Pilate by Paul Maier is an excellent companion book to Flames of Rome, and together the two books offer a very informative look at the Roman Empire during the 1st century. Pontius Pilate gives a great summary, in the historical fiction narrative style, for an entertaining as well as educational story.
Sunday, April 10, 2005
“Kit Shannon” series fans will enjoy this book, which introduces the lawyer again: now in her early forties, widowed, and still practicing law. Yet she is clearly not the star of this book, but more in the background. The courtroom drama is also at a minimum in this book – a few scenes of a pre-trial hearing, but nothing more. As with the previous books, the author does a decent job of portraying the setting – in this case, early Hollywood, bootleggers and the general crime of the early 1920s, within the Los Angeles setting. Bell’s research in Christian Apologetics and history is well done, too, with some biographical information about evangelist R.A. Torrey. Torrey is the only historical character in this book (aside from brief references to well-known movie stars, never directly featured, such as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford), yet Glimpses of Paradise brings forth interesting information about this man. The information on Torrey, though – including a brief biography at the end of the book – is generalized, without reference to his particular beliefs; no mention is made of his involvement with the Keswick movement (part of the Holiness movement, a precursor to modern-day Pentecostalism).
The main weakness in Glimpses of Paradise is perhaps that the main characters are not particularly likeable, especially at the beginning. We all know about the returning soldiers from war, including the ones that had trouble readjusting to society. Yet these typically included soldiers that came back without a leg (or other physical impairment) and/or those that lacked strong family support. Doyle returns physically unharmed, and has plenty of love and support from many family members. He isn’t exactly shell-shocked, but just seems to have an incredibly bad attitude (exhibited to some degree even before the war), as he callously rejects and runs away from his family. Zee Miller doesn’t seem any better – a selfish, self-centered brat who takes rebellion to a level not usually demonstrated by young women raised in small-town America before World War I.
For all these initial shortcomings, the story does improve later on. We soon forget the original setting and focus on the activities of both characters in Los Angeles. Some new, likeable characters, such as Molly, are introduced along the way. The author uses the characters Doyle and Zee to provide great contrast in character study, as we observe how they react to their circumstances. Indeed, both characters left to themselves are hopeless and sinful (as we all are), yet through the grace of God at least one character changes and grows. Still, both Doyle and Zee have to learn life the hard way.
Glimpses of Paradise is overall a nice addition to Christian historical fiction. It offers fans of Kit Shannon a follow-up, and for readers generally an interesting story about life in Los Angeles (and the depths of depravity) during the early 1920s.
Friday, April 1, 2005
Each First Lady, from Martha Washington through Mamie Eisenhower, “contributes” their story, for fairly short and readable segments. As such, the book can be read out-of-sequence, if you just want to skip around and read different short stories. Yet as a whole, the stories build a more complete history of life among Presidents and their wives for nearly two hundred years. We learn about 18th century etiquette, the excitement of the early years of the country, and the subsequent aging of the White House building, in bad need of repairs by the late 19th century.
Adding to the enjoyment, each story includes boxed comments, skillfully placed on each page -- off to the side or in the middle between paragraphs of the main page – in which the other First Ladies add their commentary. The “modern” ones, Jackie Eisenhower through Hillary Clinton, sometimes add their comments here as well, and all comments contribute to the overall material; the earlier First Ladies relate a particular story to themselves and their knowledge, and the later ones add modern insight, what history now says.
Ladies: A Conjecture of Personalities is definitely for women readers, and promotes their need to feel important, regardless of political persuasions. The stories especially bring out each woman’s personality, describing what kind of person she was: her temperament, background, and personal interests. Many were rather ordinary, living upright, godly lives as pleasing to their husbands and society, and some seem more likeable than others. Yet they all have interesting stories – some quite unique and entertaining.
Foster’s book is overall a great enjoyment, an easy and entertaining way to learn many interesting and trivial things about people now forgotten, a look at history that we don’t usually get from a history book. Above all, the information in this book clearly reveals how much history repeats itself, and how we are all so much alike. (If you thought, for instance, that the 2000 Election debacle was the first ever, you will learn differently here.) Ladies: A Conjecture of Personalities is definitely a good read, and brings out the best in Foster’s research and knowledge regarding this subject, of the Presidents and First Ladies.
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
This first novel in the series covers the reign of King Ahaz, Hezekiah’s wicked father – of whom the Bible authors had nothing good to say. Much of the story focuses on Hezekiah as a young boy, traumatized from experiences of child-sacrifice to Molech, who then learns to call on Yahweh. The story ends at the beginning of Hezekiah’s reign, leaving several plots unresolved and awaiting a sequel.
In this story we see the common theme of a family member’s godly influence on a young child, who then forgets but later recalls the things of God as an adult. Gods and Kings also employs good language and story to relate the central issue – idolatry – to modern times. The gradual falling away of an apostate, and liberal characters who champion "change" to "modern times," are as relevant to our culture as theirs.
As with any Biblical fiction story, the original source material is limited (though much more in abundance here than, say, some of the characters from Genesis), and the author invents full stories about people who are only named in the Bible – Hezekiah’s mother Abijah, his grandfather Zechariah, his wife Hephzibah, and even Hilkiah (father of Eliakim). Unlike some works of Biblical fiction, all of these major and minor characters refer to actual names of people from Hezekiah’s day. Yet in the above cases, all that is known is their relationship to another person. Even Hezekiah’s wife is only named once, as the mother of Manasseh, Hezekiah’s son and successor. The author’s imagination supplies us, though, with very interesting characters and plots. The last part of the story (Hezekiah as an adult) seems less-developed and disjointed from the larger, earlier section of the story – perhaps largely because of the passage of time, with little reference to the earlier time, reflecting the adult Hezekiah’s spiritual condition.
Overall, though, this is an excellent book with well-researched history and plot relevance to our day, a great story that makes this period of Bible history come alive.
Tuesday, February 1, 2005
In 1564, Eighteen-year-old Anne McGregor, daughter of the McGregor clan leader, finds she must make the peace with the stronger Campbell clan – by her handfasting to the Campbell clan’s future leader, Niall Campbell, for a year. Anne is also a healer, learned in the methods of herbal remedies – a skill which has earned her the title "Witch of Glenstrae." Though spirited and proud of her McGregor clan, Anne reluctantly submits to the betrothal -- but soon faces the Campbell clan’s hostility toward her. Complicating matters further is an unknown traitor who will do all in his power to prevent Niall from taking his rightful place as the next "tanist," clan leader. Throughout the next few months, Niall and Anne discover their love for each other, amidst the many trials from within and without.
Kathleen Morgan does an excellent job of blending romantic storytelling with the rich historical background of Scotland. Through this story we see the day-to-day life of those in the Castle, with characters from the leading family as well as the servants, and even the customs of the day. (Contrary to popular opinion -- due to e-mail "urban legends" – people in the 16th century did bathe regularly.) The author shows also her knowledge of herbal remedies, and through some interesting plots incorporates this aspect of medieval life. On one point, concerning the use of CPR to revive infants, the story perhaps changes the facts – such a technique was apparently considered common practice among midwives in Europe, even long before this story takes place – but maybe the Scottish clansmen were behind the times.
Yet the story is clearly the main focus here, with strong, vibrant characters who grow through their situations. Stubborn, pig-headed Niall Campbell is constantly dogged by suspicion and mistrust, always considering the others’ motives, even twisting around the apparent actions into those of a scheming traitor. He meets his match, though, in Anne, and learns to love again, another love after his now-deceased first wife. Anne, for all her fiery independence, has her good traits as well, including ardent loyalty, the desire to please God by helping others around her – and then giving her loyalty and devotion to Niall.
Child of the Mist has been recently republished by Baker Books, as the first in the new series "These Highland Hills." The author’s comments at the end of this publication (2005) indicate that a follow-up book may soon come. I eagerly await such a sequel, a follow-up with Iain perhaps. Regardless, Child of the Mist is an excellent story, warming to the heart and soul through the wonderful characters and their experiences.
Monday, January 31, 2005
As always, the story keeps a good pace, with excitement and suspense as we share Alex’s desperation and growing problems with the Soviet government. Though we expect everything to turn out okay, the story’s circumstances certainly show a bleak picture at times, as we wonder how the author can get the character out of a very grave situation. A few other plot lines also seem unrealistic, but bring a nice closure to the "Daughters of Fortune" series.
Our old friends, including the Federcenko family, and Alex’s friend (Anatoly Bogorodsk) are back, and we get a closer look at a previously minor character, Cameron and Alex’s contact Robert Wood.
As with most historical fiction novels, especially a series’ conclusion, this book gives a nice, happy ending for all the characters. After all the tragedies of the previous parts to this series, it is nice to enjoy the lighter, happier parts of Homeward My Heart. Of course, along the way some of the characters still suffer, and work through some serious issues (such as the Japanese American racism).
Homeward My Heart is an excellent addition to the "Daughters of Fortune" series. I only wish it were not the end. Judith Pella has done a great job with character development and plots for these young women, with their relationships to each other and their family, against the backdrop of active World War II involvement.
Saturday, January 15, 2005
Bodie Thoene’s Shiloh Legacy series includes two more books after the great beginning of In My Father’s House. The next two books, A Thousand Shall Fall and Say to This Mountain, are written as a double-novel, one continuous story that takes place ten years after the first book’s end. Through these two books, we explore the world of America in the last half of 1929 – the Stock Market Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression.
A Thousand Shall Fall sets the scene in the last two months before the crash, a snapshot of life during the crazy days of the booming Wall Street right before its collapse. The concluding book picks right up where the previous one left off, at the beginning of the actual stock market crash in late October, through the end of that year. As with the first book in the series, the novels again follow the lives of several World War I veterans in their lives across America – Oklahoma, Ohio, and New York City – to give a broad picture of classic American life in the late 1920s.
Of course, ten years have passed, and so new characters are introduced – especially Birch and Trudy’s young boys Tommy and Bobby, and Max Meyer’s son David. While the Tucker family portrays the idyllic rural family living out in the sticks of Shiloh, Arkansas, David Meyer is a street-wise city kid living in Philadelphia, who seeks out his father living in another big city, New York. A Thousand Shall Fall thus provides plenty of contrasts – life out on the farm, small-town gossip and racial strife, as opposed to the dark life of gangsters and the free-wheeling wealthy consumed with the Stock Market. Though the Tucker story is interesting enough, the New York plot is a much greater page-turner; Davey Meyer is an especially fascinating character, in a story somewhat reminiscent of Charles Dickens novels.
After resolving some of the suspense in A Thousand Shall Fall, the concluding book deals more with characters and their relationships. How will the Tucker family, Jefferson Canfield, and Max and his son survive the Great Depression? After wondering about the Warne family in Ohio (never mentioned in the first half of the 1929 story), we also get their view – and that of Jefferson’s family -- living in the Rubber Capitol of Akron, Ohio. This last book focuses more on personal religious faith, as Max continues to come to terms with his life – beyond just finding out about David. The black characters, mainly the various family members of Hock and Willa Mae Canfield, are also well-developed and strong in their hope in God against all the terrible circumstances they face.
Apparently many of the characters are featured in other Thoene books (Zion Covenant and Zion Chronicles), but "The Shiloh Legacy" only has brief references to characters in the "Zion Covenant" series. One line mentions Max’s "rookie reporter" John Murphy, but even more interesting is the revelation of the "D’Fat Lady" singer, as the identity of Hattie Canfield, one of Jefferson’s sisters. But several of the characters, including Ellie Warne (briefly introduced here as a 9-year-old, nicknamed "Boots"), show up in the "Zion Chronicles" series. As I read these books I could not help but consider, too, that the children of 1929 would indeed grow up to be the young adults of the World War II era. The "Shiloh Legacy" is another excellent series from Bodie Thoene, one that could easily go beyond the three books in the set.