A deeply thoughtful tale that skillfully depicts the origins of Judaic tradition.

A HOUSE IN THE LAND OF SHINAR

In this historical novel set in 3500 B.C.E., a Bedouin tribesman travels to Sumer in search of a new god.

Tiras grows up as part of a Bedouin tribe in central Saudi Arabia worshipping Martu, the bull god, an unmerciful master who exacts terrible sacrifices as punishment for even minor transgressions. Always inquisitive and even skeptical as a child, Tiras questions the tribe’s allegiance to such a vengeful god, a defiance that fatefully leads to tragedy. When he angers the tribe’s priest, Abu-Summu, Tiras’ daughter, Shallah, is summarily sentenced to a beating so vicious it kills her. Utterly despondent, Tiras blames himself for Shallah’s death, and when he hears of gentler gods in Sumer, he travels there to learn more. He is driven by a need to find a god superior to Martu but also by a “hunger for knowledge of the world.” There, he meets Mah Ummia, a physician and scholar happy to teach Tiras about his own religion, one in which the gods resemble men and not beasts, show pity toward the suffering, and promise a new life after death in paradise. Tiras returns home, eager to proselytize about “a powerful new god, El, who’d conquered all the other gods.” The traveler is excited about his new discoveries, but he meets fierce resistance, particularly from Abu-Summu. Tiras even fears punishment from Martu: “But how to tell his tribe about those gods? Surely Martu would grow jealous and demand terrible retribution. Dare he risk his family’s life to help his people?”

Miller deftly explores a historical possibility in literary terms—the emergence of Judaism out of contact between Bedouin Arabs and Sumerians. The author intelligently traces a potential theological genealogy, a captivating and nuanced account of how one religion emerges out of the influence of another. Tiras is first motivated by personal grief but then by curiosity and astonishment, a remarkable amalgam of practical and theoretical concerns, and a moral attraction to more than just gods: “Tiras listened intently, his eyes squinting in surprise. The Sumerian gods were smiling? Gentle? No human sacrifice? How had the Sumerians learned to attract such sympathetic gods?” Eventually, with the help of Tiras’ sons, a new mythology is born, one in which the protagonist is transformed from a grieving father into a prophet heralding a new faith. Miller doesn’t allow the historical elements of the story to overwhelm the dramatic ones—the plot is by turns as gripping as it is moving. Nonetheless, this is a historically impressive work, and it is precisely this authenticity that is the book’s principal strength. The author’s research is admirably rigorous—painstakingly meticulous as well as astonishingly expansive in scope. While she permits herself some considerable artistic license, especially given the timeline of this religious transmission—“the time period in the novel has been compressed to spread events over several generations rather than several millennia”—none of that literary latitude diminishes the work’s dramatic or historical power.

A deeply thoughtful tale that skillfully depicts the origins of Judaic tradition.

Pub Date: April 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4808-8444-1

Page Count: 346

Publisher: Archway Publishing

Review Posted Online: Nov. 22, 2021

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Unanswerable questions wrapped inside a thought-provoking yarn.

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THE STRANGER IN THE LIFEBOAT

An inspirational novel about a disaster and an answered prayer by the author of The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003).

What if you call out for the Lord and he actually appears before you? Days after billionaire Jason Lambert’s luxury yacht Galaxy suddenly sinks in the North Atlantic with many illustrious passengers aboard, a few survivors float in a life raft. Among them is Benji, a deckhand who narrates the ordeal in a notebook while they desperately hope for rescue. Lambert is a caricature of a greedy capitalist pig who thinks only of himself and his lost ship and mocks Benji as “scribble boy,” but the main character is a young stranger pulled out of the water. “Well, thank the Lord we found you,” a woman tells him. “I am the Lord,” he whispers in reply. Imagine the others’ skepticism: If you’re not lying, then why won’t you save us? Why don’t you answer our prayers? I always answer people’s prayers, he replies, “but sometimes the answer is no.” Meanwhile, the ship’s disappearance is big news as searchers scour the vast ocean in vain. The lost survivors are surrounded by water and dying of thirst, “a grim reminder of how little the natural world cares for our plans.” Out of desperation, one person succumbs to temptation and drinks ocean water—always a bad mistake. Another becomes shark food. The Lord says that for him to help, everyone must accept him first, and Lambert, for one, is having none of it. The storyline and characters aren’t deep, but they’re still entertaining. A disaffected crew member might or might not have sunk the ship with limpet mines. And whether the raft’s occupants survive seems beside the point—does a higher power exist that may pluck believers like Benji safely from the sea? Or is faith a sucker’s bet? Lord knows.

Unanswerable questions wrapped inside a thought-provoking yarn.

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-288834-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2021

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As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

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CLOUD CUCKOO LAND

An ancient Greek manuscript connects humanity's past, present, and future.

Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you” wrote Antonius Diogenes at the end of the first century C.E.—and millennia later, Pulitzer Prize winner Doerr is his fitting heir. Around Diogenes' manuscript, "Cloud Cuckoo Land"—the author did exist, but the text is invented—Doerr builds a community of readers and nature lovers that transcends the boundaries of time and space. The protagonist of the original story is Aethon, a shepherd whose dream of escaping to a paradise in the sky leads to a wild series of adventures in the bodies of beast, fish, and fowl. Aethon's story is first found by Anna in 15th-century Constantinople; though a failure as an apprentice seamstress, she's learned ancient Greek from an elderly scholar. Omeir, a country boy of the same period, is rejected by the world for his cleft lip—but forms the deepest of connections with his beautiful oxen, Moonlight and Tree. In the 1950s, Zeno Ninis, a troubled ex–GI in Lakeport, Idaho, finds peace in working on a translation of Diogenes' recently recovered manuscript. In 2020, 86-year-old Zeno helps a group of youngsters put the story on as a play at the Lakeport Public Library—unaware that an eco-terrorist is planting a bomb in the building during dress rehearsal. (This happens in the first pages of the book and continues ticking away throughout.) On a spaceship called the Argos bound for Beta Oph2 in Mission Year 65, a teenage girl named Konstance is sequestered in a sealed room with a computer named Sybil. How could she possibly encounter Zeno's translation? This is just one of the many narrative miracles worked by the author as he brings a first-century story to its conclusion in 2146.

As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

Pub Date: Sept. 28, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982168-43-8

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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