Book: Pilate’s Wife

This book is well out of the norm for my reading, but the topic caught my attention, as well as the dearth of information with which the author had to work. It is hard to write a good novel about a historical character when almost nothing is known about that character. It doesn’t really matter what you write, somebody is not going to like it.

The first thing to note about this book is the subtitle: A Novel of the Roman Empire. Those who are expected a Biblical novel, one primarily oriented toward Biblical characters, themes, and goals will be sorely disappointed. The setting is primarily Rome and Roman social life in the provinces; Palestine only plays a small role when Pilate is sent there. In a Christian novel, Biblically based, one might expect a great deal said about Jesus and other Biblical characters. That is not the case here.

Second, one should be aware this is written about a woman by a woman, and it focuses on the woman’s perspective. In historical novels of this period that is not all that usual, because it is hard to keep things interesting when men are running the show and all the chief characters are women. I got the annoying feeling that the lead characters spend their time largely being pushed around by other people, with only brief moments when they can be themselves. Of course, that feeling is probably an accurate reflection of what it was like to be a woman at that time.

For historical connections, the author uses a couple of less probable reconstructions about Jesus, but those elements are not impossible, merely not proven, so that can be forgiven. It does make for some added interest in the story.

I have to rate this book at 3, because I found it interesting but not exceptionally so. I must note, however, that this is not due to any weakness of the book, but rather to my limited interest in the subject matter. Within its necessary constraints it is a good book.

Book: Previewing Genesis by Paul Chafe

Way back when I wrote a note on Destiny’s Forge by [tag]Paul Chafe[/tag], which I called (and still call) a great book. It has pretty much all the characteristics I like in a book. More recently, I posted a notice about Paul Chafe’s forthcoming book Genesis which will be released November 6th (according to Amazon.com). I said I looked forward to November with pleasure.

Well, I didn’t have to wait that long. I received a pre-release copy and permission to write about it, and so I have now read the new book. I still want a copy to sit on my shelves, but it’s nice to get the story ahead of time.

Unlike Destiny’s Forge, this book labors against some of my prejudices. I have found that I like relatively few books about the near future. I’m a bit wary of books or series that cover large periods of time, and I often avoid a new series until it’s either complete or well under way. None of these are absolutes, and this book had one major thing going for it–it’s written by Paul Chafe. It’s simple truth and not flattery to say that up to now I have loved everything he has written, and I think now I have read it all.

Now that I have read Genesis it goes back up near the top of my list. Truth be told, I had more fun in Destiny’s Forge simply because there are the battle scenes, more strategy, and an alien culture to develop. In Genesis we have humans, other humans, and yet more humans.

The scope is breathtaking, and the characters, whether you love or hate them, are inspiring. From a person involved in religion on a professional basis, as I am, the handling of a mass religious movement is excellent. As a student of history as well as somewhat of theology I’m well aware of how the pieces can be put together in odd ways, and the damage an unthinking, mass movement can cause.

Chafe uses that movement in interesting ways. I don’t want to hint at them, because I think the story reads better without anticipating some of the interesting corners that are turned as it develops.

I understand this will be a trilogy, and I’ll certainly be here for the whole ride. I have to say that I wonder how a trilogy can actually tell a story of the scope that is laid out by the first volume.

The style is excellent and very readable. It doesn’t have my favorite alien cultures or battle scenes, but still, I’m giving this a numerical rating of five. Y’all be sure and go out and buy one, or even pre-order on Amazon.com right now!

Book: Unashamed

My wife handed me this book because she has been trying to get me to read one of [tag]Francine Rivers[/tag]’ stories about various Bible characters. I’m generally a bit slow to pick up this sort of book because production of a good story is very difficult. On the one hand you can stick closely to the [tag]Bible story[/tag] and ignore any problems that may cause for your story. On the other you can ignore the facts and create a story, but for me that doesn’t work because it isn’t consistent. Why write a story about someone with the name of a Biblical character if you are not actually going to use the Biblical character?

My preference is that someone create a story about a person consistent with the characteristics of that person as claimed in the Biblical text. If one has to play with the facts a bit, that’s OK. What is invented to fill in the blanks is fine, as long as it stays consistent with the character.

Unashamed takes on the story of Rahab, and I consider that a daunting task. First, Rahab becomes an exception to the order to destroy all the Canaanites, and the explanation given in the Bible doesn’t cover it. The spies swear an oath, and thus the Israelites keep that oath. This is consistent, though they seem to do so ungrudgingly, quite unlike their response to the oath they swore to the Gibeonites, which was kept only with great reluctance.

Second, Rahab is a prostitute who becomes part of the genealogy of King David. That is an unusual thing and any proposed understanding requires some imagination.

Rivers doesn’t really try to deal with the oddity of allowing a Canaanite to become part of the congregation. What she does manage is provide believable story elements to explain the position [tag]Rahab[/tag] was in so as to hide the spies, and how she might succeed in that. I find Rahab’s attitude toward her own people just a little bit cold and bloody-minded. Simply because they don’t grab hold of the God of Israel as she has, she shows very little sorrow for their deaths. She truly goes over to the side of the enemy. While that kind of cold-blooded attitude is a bit hard for me to accept it is quite realistic. To survive and have her name remembered favorably on the Israelite side, Rahab must have truly turned with vigor to the Israelites.

I didn’t find the story overwhelmingly exciting. That is probably unavoidable in a story that connects to the Biblical story at all possible places. It’s hard to get into the tension of waiting in Rahab’s house while the Israelites march around the city when you know precisely what is going to happen! But that same characteristic makes this story an excellent example to use in studying the Biblical story. One of the procedures I suggest in the participatory Bible study method is to try to retell stories from different perspectives. People often find that hard to do with Bible stories. We are often afraid to let our imaginations work, but if you want to get the full benefit from a story, you need to think about that person’s attitudes and feelings, and that is going to require imagination. In my article Interpreting Stories, I try this process from the point of view of Ahab.

If you have a study group and would like to try working more effectively on Bible stories, and by this I mean learning from the stories and making them relevant to your life, this little book would be a valuable contribution. Read it, think, imagine, and imitate.

Book: Cat’s Eyewitness

OK, here I am with another book with [tag]cats[/tag] in it, and another one in a series I’ve already written some about, a [tag]Mrs. Murphy Mystery[/tag]. My most recent entry was on reading The Tail of the Tip-Off, which I rated a 4. [tag]Rita Mae Brown[/tag] and [tag]Sneaky Pie Brown[/tag] are just too good not to keep on reading.

I’m getting into more contemporary times with “Harry” Harristeen now having resigned from the post office, and wondering what to do next. The kind of touch and go romance between her and Fair continues, as do her friendly collisions with the sheriff who thinks she’s going to get herself killed. As usual, by listening to their fellow creatures, the animals get ahead of the game and let the reader in on the action just a bit ahead of time.

In this case I suspected, but did not know who was actually responsible, and I missed a key point of evidence that would have confirmed the bad guy to me. The clues are all there if you read carefully and don’t assume anything that isn’t explicitly stated.

The mystery centers around a monastery, which seems an unusual setting for a murder mystery, but it turns out that the brothers are people too, with all of the potential for trouble that means in their lives. The story comes complete with a weeping statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary!

As it says on the cover, “it takes a cat to write the purr-fect mystery”–excessively cute, yes, but true and forgiven.

Again, my rating is a 4 out of 5.

Book: Engaging the Enemy

Elizabeth Moon doesn’t fall into my top tier of gotta-read-everything authors, but she’s near the top of my second tier. I’ve been following the Vatta’s War series for some time, but as you can see, I’ve been following it a long ways off. There’s another book out that I haven’t read.

Having said all of that, I really do enjoy these books and generally get to them before too long. Kylara Vatta is a fairly convincing female lead character, and I’m a sucker for stories that involve decisive women. Kylara has plenty of doubts about herself, but when things get really tough, she does what needs to be done whether she’s sure of herself or not. Most of that uncertainty can be–and is–traced to her age and lack of experience.

In this book we see Kylara figuring out that there is a major attack going on, and that if the worlds don’t get together to deal with it, they will be at the mercy of the pirates. Somebody ought to do something, and whether that’s lucky for her or not, Kylara Vatta appears to be the one tagged with the mission.

There are plenty of surprises and some interesting new cultures in this one. I rate it a four on my numerical scale.

Book: The Cat’s Pajamas

From a book I liked, I turn to a book that I didn’t. This was my first book by Gilbert Morris, and I had high hopes because there is a silhouette of a cat on the cover, and it says it’s “a feline mystery by Gilbert Morris. Further I quickly discovered that it’s a Christian book, and I like to find good Christian fiction.

To start out with, there was very little feline mystery involved. I’ve encountered books in which the cats were present as characters, but weren’t consciously contributing to the solution of the mystery, though they might do so accidentally. Other books have the cats talk and actively and consciously work to solve the mystery. Suspension of disbelief is then the name of the game. This is the first time I’ve encountered felines in the story who were apparently conscious and discussing the situation, but were nonetheless largely irrelevant. It’s a story, and there are cats, but the cats are barely in the story.

Then there’s the Christian angle. I like a book in which Christian characters live out Christian principles and confess that they’re Christians while living a Christian life. I dislike recognizing the clear “conversion target” in the first chapter. And I didn’t do that in this book, because he didn’t “get converted” in the book, but he is working on it. Not only that, there are several more that everyone is working on. There are Hollywood types who are totally amoral, or perhaps immoral, which the author informs us through a character, is worse. There are corrupt small town politicians.

In general there’s an implausible background (and note that I live very near the scene of the action), very few clues provided for a solution of the mystery, and then suddenly the cat pulls out something that . . . solves the mystery entirely without any need for further detective work. That’s it. Basically everyone flails around until someone finds the one thing that totally solves the mystery, even without any other clues.

To put it bluntly, I haven’t disliked a book this much in a long time. I’ll rate it 2 out of 5, because I did finish reading it, though I was tempted to quit. Gilbert Morris is a bestselling author, so I assume my dislike is my own idiosyncrasy, but there it is!

Book: Prince of Sunset

I have enjoyed a number of books by Steve White written with David Weber, but this was the first individual book by him that I’ve read. My guess, after reading this, is that Weber writes all the battle scenes in their joint books. The battles here just don’t exhibit the tension and certainly not the detail that Weber presents. That’s not entirely a bad thing, either, though I tend to like those scenes myself. I do know that they annoy people. There is also much less of the “heroic people who win despite the odds” theme, and a great deal more about people who are right and yet have things that don’t go so right with their lives.

The story covers a very long period of time, though within the lifetime of the characters, and through an epilogue covers an even much broader timespan. That part didn’t excite me that much either.

At the same time, Steve White is a good storyteller, so having presented the things that irritated me, let me say that the characters are good, there is some mystery as to what’s going to take place along the way. In other words, I didn’t say “obviously” at every plot turn, a situation that makes me happy when I’m reading. There is some politics, though again in less detail that Weber tends to do, and there is some interesting strategic stuff from both the political and the military point of view.

I rate this a 3 out of 5, though I generally rate the author higher.

Book Announcement – Paul Chafe: Genesis

Put this one on my “must have” list. I got notice today that this one is coming November 1, 2007, and also found it available for pre-order on Amazon.com. The link should be to your right as you read this.

No, I have not read this book, but based on my reading of Destiny’s Forge, which I called a great book, I would be ready to grab this one sight unseen. Any reader of this blog can tell that I have very eclectic tastes, and enjoy a wide variety of books. But there are only a few that are truly exciting, that I would read over and over. There are only a few authors whose work is so good that I go out hunting for it, and will buy, beg, or borrow it as necessary.

It’s good to see Paul Chafe move from writing in the Kzin universe, as much fun as that is, to open a new series of his own. I am looking forward to November with anticipation.

Book: The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers

One shouldn’t really complain about how much mystery there is in this series, since it’s pure, light fun all the way, but it does seem that we’re getting more and more personality and less and less mystery even within that formula. It’s also too soon for me to be writing notes on another book in this series, but it showed up at the library, so here goes.

Basically these are still light bedtime reading, and as such they work for me, but earlier books had much greater suspense and mystery, while the last couple have tended to slow down. At this point, I read just because I like the characters and the setting and I can manage the light reading time to keep up with their lives, but it would be nice to see Qwill and Koko in a bit more trouble, the kind of trouble that I might have to wonder how they’d get out of.

In any case, we have good characters, we have cats, and we have good background, so I’ll go on reading. Much of what I wrote about The Cat Who Dropped a Bombshell still applies, so having done my complaining, it’s on to the next book.

Book: The Tail of the Tip-Off

I previously wrote about Claws and Effect, and though I’ve read a couple of other books in this series I hadn’t posted anything about them. So I thought I’d write a few notes on another in this series.

I want to warn you right off that this is a series in which the animals can talk, or perhaps better communicate with one another, even carrying on fairly sophisticated conversations. The humans (stupid us!) can’t understand them, though they can understand the humans. Some folks don’t like this sort of thing. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief that much, especially since the animals generally behave appropriately for their species.

We’re again in Crozet, Virginia (where else?) and someone has died in a very mysterious way. I found pretty much all aspects of the murder better than the average for this series. The method is intriguing and the motivation works for me.

I always enjoy the assortment of small town characters, and I don’t suppose I’ve mentioned more than a dozen times or so in various entries on this blog that I am a major pushover for books featuring cats. The main dog character is not bad either, but I have a soft spot for cats.

The ever curious Mary Minor “Harry” Harristeen is up to all her usual antics, regularly getting herself in considerable trouble. She always show so much more intelligence in finding clues than in comprehending the fact that some people may not be too happy she’s trailing them.

This is another light reading book; excellent mystery, but generally not requiring you to be in study mode when you read it.

Numerical rating: 4.