Clouds Among the Stars (by Victoria Clayton)

I have very much liked all the novels I have read by Victoria Clayton, an author recommended to me by a friend with similar tastes in books. So I have gradually acquired more of them, all second-hand so far as they are mostly out of print. Recently I decided to read the next one - in order of writing - and finished it yesterday.

‘Clouds among the Stars’ is narrated by Harriet, aged 22, the middle child in a large and bohemian family. The youngest, Cordelia, is twelve. The first sentence of the novel hooked me instantly: ‘The day my father was arrested for murder began promisingly’. There are then a few pages describing Harriet’s family; she is considered the plain one daughter amongst beauties, the one without dramatic talent in a family of actors. But she considers herself happy, and probably in love. Her boyfriend, known as Dodge, is an anarchist who drags her into all kinds of political demonstrations and is evidently not to be trusted…

This is billed as a social comedy, but unfortunately, the early chapters of the book are rather sordid. Harriet takes part in a demonstration that turns unpleasantly violent, and then learns that her father has been accused of a crime. It appears that he is the only person who could possibly have committed it, and the scene is described in a little too much detail. Meanwhile one of her sisters suffers extreme humiliation and abuse, and there seems to be very casual use of recreational drugs. The first sentence of the novel, I thought, was a self-fulfilling prophecy as it too was very promising… and went downhill from there.

I nearly gave up after about 150 pages, but decided to keep going. I was mildly curious about the outcome of the murder enquiry, although by that stage most of the plot is revolving around the family dealing with a financial crisis. The bizarre mother goes to have elective plastic surgery rather than play any part in the chaotic household; quite a relief to me as a reader, since she spends her time quoting Shakespeare rather than answering questions or doing anything to relate to her children.

I’m glad I decided to persevere, because the novel improves shortly afterwards. Harriet and Cordelia are invited to stay at a stately home, by their childhood friend Rupert and his flamboyantly gay friend Archie. It’s not their house, but that of an elderly peer and his welcoming but downtrodden wife. Harriet, by this stage, is working on a series of articles about haunted houses, and looks forward to investigating their destination, as it boasts several ghosts.

There were still parts of the novel I found disturbingly unpleasant, particularly the elderly Lord Pye’s prediliction for teenage and pre-teen girls, and the way he seems to despise - or ignore - his wife and children. But there are plenty of light-hearted moments too. Harriet as narrator shows herself as having a great deal of common sense combined with an overactive imagination, and terrible self-esteem. But she’s a likeable person; I particularly admired her commitment to giving her young sister as pleasant a Christmas as possible.

The writing is good, as with all this author’s novels, and the pace exactly right to hold my attention. The conversation is mostly believable, and the humour is understated. The ending includes parts that are predictable and parts that are not, and if a tad abrupt, it works well. Overall I didn’t like this book as much as the earlier ones by this author, but I still look forward to reading more of her works.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


Liberated Parents, Liberated Children (by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish)

I don’t remember when I first heard of the books by Elaine Mazlish and Adele Faber. Perhaps it was only fifteen or twenty years ago, but I feel as if their principles have always been tucked away in my consciousness. The best-known of their books is probably ‘How to talk so kids will listen, and listen so kids will talk’. They wrote some variations on that book, too: for instance, one related to teachers and school children, and one is specifically for dealing with teenagers. ‘Siblings without rivalry’ is also well-known and highly regarded in the circles I was part of as a parent.

So I’m not sure why I had never heard of ‘Liberated Parents, Liberated Children’. I came across the title while browsing the AwesomeBooks site recently. When I make an order, I like to find at least ten books, as the postage to Europe is a fixed charge. So when I saw this, in good condition, it was the work of a moment to add it to my shopping cart. My sons are adults now, and my grandchildren are currently the other side of the world; but I know from experience that these books are helpful in any kind of relationship, even if primarily intended for families with children and teenagers at home.

Unlike the other books I’ve read by these authors, this one is in semi-fictional form. That’s explained at the beginning: the authors wanted to described some of the growth they went through, while learning about principles of dealing constructively with children, and the new styles of speaking and relating that they had learned on a course. But they didn’t want to embarrass anyone, or reveal family secrets. So they invented a family, somewhat of a blend of their own families, and a circle of women who met regularly to learn and talk about progress dealing with communication and anger problems in the home. Each incident described was based on something in reality, but without any individual being identifiable.

Not everyone would like the format of ‘creative non-fiction’ (as it’s called elsewhere) but I found this book very readable. It didn’t exactly teach me anything new; the principles are those from the authors’ better-known books, but instead of being teaching guides with explanations, diagrams and lists, they are written in the form of discussions, experiences, and family struggles.

Jan is the name of the fictional narrator. She is married, and has three children: two boys and a girl. One of her problems is that her sons fight a lot, with the older one becoming very angry, sometimes bullying his brother. Jan tends to sympathise with her youngest, remembering her own life as a younger sibling. But she comes to realise, over the course of the book, that this helps nobody. Instead she learns new ways of talking to both sons, enabling them to come up with their own solutions to their differences.

Other situations covered, in other families, include children forgetting things for school regularly, making excessive demands on parents, yelling and making mess, and forgetting to feed a family pet. The motivator of the group the women attend is a calm, friendly presence offering suggestions and positive feedback, mirroring his philosophies in his responses to the women

What I particularly liked is that, rather than everyone trying the principles and living happily ever after, there are stories of setbacks and failures too. There are discussions about anger, about the dangers of making someone feel guilty, and about the importance of parents taking care of their own needs as well as those of their children.

Inevitably it’s somewhat idealised, and not every difficult situation can be improved in this way. It's also American; not every situation would necessarily apply elsewhere. But the principles still hold.  It is not about permissive parenting, nor is it about parents being doormats, giving into their children’s every whim. For any parents - or grandparents, or anyone in authority, or indeed anyone struggling to communicate in any relationship - I would recommend this very highly, as a gentle guide to non-punitive non-coercive parenting.  It’s well-balanced, well-presented, and, in my view, very well worth reading.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


Good Wives (by Louisa M Alcott)

I re-read Louisa M Alcott’s classic novel ‘Little Women’ about four months ago, so decided that it was time to re-read the sequel, known in the UK as ‘Good Wives’. She apparently wrote it in response to a huge demand from her readers to find out what happened to Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March, the four girls in her original story. In the US it is still apparently considered to be part two of ‘Little Women’.

The book opens with quite a lengthy introduction, which I had completely forgotten about. Perhaps I read an abridged version last time, although as it’s sixteen years since I last read this book, my memory is quite vague. I had of course recalled the main points of the story but few of the details. The introduction takes us through a three-year period, telling us what has happened to each of the girls and some of the other important characters.

We are then taken directly into Meg’s wedding to John Brooke, evidently the first ‘interesting’ thing that happens since the announcement of their engagement at the end of ‘Little Women’. The wedding is simple, with family and close friends present, and we then hear nothing more of Meg and John until a few chapters later, when we see the first tensions arising in their domestic bliss.

Meanwhile we see Amy, youngest in the family, attempting to develop different artistic skills. She joins a class, where she finds it hard to make friends, and then decides to host a picnic lunch. This makes an amusing chapter, although I could also feel Amy’s stress and embarrassment when things go wrong. That chapter is followed by a look at Jo, the strongest character in the family, and - based on the author herself - a writer.

There’s not a great deal of plot, as these books are character-based. Each chapter gives an incident in the lives of one or more of the girls, with some humour, some stresses, and one very sad chapter towards the end. Inevitably there’s a fair amount of authorial aside, including some preaching and moralising - but the author evidently expects it to be taken with a large pinch of salt, and even comments, sometimes, on her commentary.

Inevitably a book first published in 1869 - nearly 150 years ago - is in places very dated. Feminists may decry the expectations put upon women of the era, and the idea of a husband being the head of the household. But the girls are surprisingly modern in their outlook, with distinct personalities. None of them, except perhaps Beth, is too good to be true. They all have their faults, and we see them mature and develop over the course of the book. Meg and Amy learn to be less envious of the good fortune of others, for instance, and Jo learns to be less outspoken.

‘Good Wives’ was originally written for teenage girls, but I suspect some modern teens today would find it too slow-moving. They might not have the maturity to appreciate the slow-moving but tender love stories that develop, or appreciate the morals and philosophies expounded.

However, I have always loved these books, and enjoy them just as much in my fifties as I did when I was in my teens. Highly recommended, but it’s best to read ‘Little Women’ first. Regularly re-printed, including some inexpensive and free editions for the Kindle as it is long out of copyright. Widely available second-hand. Make sure you get hold of un-abridged versions, as the shorter ones miss out rather a lot.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


Above All (by Brennan Manning)

I have very much appreciated the books I have read, over the past decade or so, by Brennan Manning. He was a Franciscan priest, as well as a speaker and writer whose main message was the love of God for even the worst of sinners. I first came across his writing in 2006 when my son gave me ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ and have gradually acquired several more of his books over the years.

Browsing the AwesomeBooks site a while ago, I looked to see if there were any more books by this author. I spotted ‘Above All’, one I had not previously read. It was in the ‘Bargain Bin’ so I added it to my order, and have been reading it for the past few days.

My copy is hardback, in excellent condition. And it’s a gorgeous looking book. There’s a peaceful picture on the front, line drawing illustrations in between each chapter, and even in the middle of each chapter. The cynical part of my says that this is to make it longer; my one criticism is that it’s really a very short book. It's just under 140 pages, and would have been nearer 120 without the drawings. There are only six chapters, divided into two sections.

The focus of the book is the song ‘Above All’, which was becoming popular in 2003 when this book was written. Sung by Michael W Smith, it moved Brennan Manning deeply, and he wrote this as a devotional study of the words, and the theology behind them.

The writing is inspiring and encouraging, with a few personal anecdotes and much to ponder. It doesn’t exactly offer anything new, but looks at the words of what is now a well-known song, and reminds readers what they mean. Manning takes a look what Jesus did when he died, and how the love of God is, for each of us, ‘above all’.

There’s not much more I can say. Had I paid full price (I have a US edition that was apparently $16.99) I would have been rather disappointed because it’s so short, although it would make a lovely gift. But I liked reading it very much, and would recommend it to anyone, particularly those who might be feeling discouraged or unloved. No longer in print, but widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


A Slip of the Keyboard (by Terry Pratchett)

I’ve been a fan of Terry Pratchett for over twenty years now. After he died in 2015, as I awaited publication of his final novel, I discovered that there were a couple of books he had already published, which I had not previously come across. One was a collection of short fiction, and one a collection of non-fiction. I put them both on my wishlist, and was very pleased to be given them.

However, ‘A Slip of the Keyboard’ - the non-fiction collection - has sat on my to-read shelf for nearly a couple of years. I finally picked it up to read a few months ago and have dipped into it, off and on, particularly over the past few weeks when I was determined to finish it. The subtitle is, ‘Reflections on life, death and hats’, which was intriguing, but told me very little.

The book is in fact divided into three main sections, the longest of which is entitled, ‘A Scribbling Intruder’. This gives fascinating snippets into Pratchett’s life as a writer, including some ‘scribbling’ from his very early days. It’s not arranged in chronological order, which is a tad confusing; I have no idea how it was all organised. The pieces range from just a couple of pages through to quite long articles, and are collected from a wide variety of places - some are speeches he gave, some are introductions he wrote, some seem to be random jottings.

As a writer myself, albeit on a far lower scale, I found this section mostly quite interesting. I liked learning a bit more about Terry Pratchett too; he clearly felt that he’d led quite a charmed life, falling into literature and writing pretty easily, really. He writes with irony and low-key humour about - for instance - book tours, and the ways authors are treated; about science fiction; about fans, and much more. There was some repetition, which is a bit annoying, but since it’s reporting from different events, that’s not surprising.

The second section is even more random (at least, I couldn’t find any organisation) and is entitled ‘A Twit and a Dreamer’. Essentially this is more speeches and introductions that don’t bear any relation to writing or book tours. I thought some of these were interesting too, light-hearted and easy to read, although, again, there was quite a bit of overlap between some of them.

The final section, ‘Days of Rage’ is much heavier. Here the author writes openly and honestly about his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease, and what it means. He talks about medication - and having to pay for it - and a great deal about his belief in ‘assisted dying’. As it happened he died naturally, rather than having to fly to Switzerland to choose the day, but he did a great deal of research into ways of ending his life, should it have reached the stage where he was no longer able to function as a rational human.

I found the last part rather morbid, and - again - repetitive. I found myself skimming quite a bit as the same ideas were repeated. Again it’s not a surprise - this collection reflects entire pieces Pratchett wrote for different occasions, and it’s inevitable that there will be overlap. As a book to dip into, that’s fine; reading from start to finish, it was, at times, a bit annoying.

Still, I’m glad I’ve read it. It gives quite a bit of insight into Terry Pratchett and his ideas, and it makes a good addition to our large collection of books.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


Scandalous Risks (by Susan Howatch)

Re-reading books by favourite authors, I decided it was time for another Susan Howatch. Since I have re-read the first three in the Starbridge series in the past year, I picked up the fourth one, Scandalous Risks. I didn’t remember enjoying it, particularly; but then I didn’t remember how good the previous one, ‘Ultimate Prizes’ was, despite an entirely unappealing narrator and main protagonist.

This novel continues the story of Neville Aysgarth, now Dean of Starbridge Cathedral. However it’s told through the eyes of Venetia Flaxton, a girl whom, in the previous novel, very much admired Aysgarth when she was a child of nine. The novel opens in the 1980s, when Venetia takes a wrong turning and finds herself in Starbridge, somewhere she had determined never to see again. She meets her ‘talisman’... and then the majority of the book is a lengthy flashback to 1963, when Venetia was in her late twenties.

Venetia is an interesting person, youngest in a long family, not convinced that her father cares for her at all. She’s highly intelligent but fought against going to Oxford, and indeed almost anything her parents suggested. But, deciding she must leave their orbit for a while, she goes to stay with her friend Primrose Aysgarth (daughter of the Dean) for a few days in Starbridge. There she meets the upright and theologically conservative Bishop, Charles Ashworth (who was the main protagonist in the first Starbridge book, ‘Glittering Images’) and his wife Lyle. She also becomes re-acquainted with the Dean, and realises that even though he’s twenty-five or more years older than she is, her feelings for him are much stronger than that of admiration or friendship…

In theory the book stands alone, but with so many people from previous books, a great deal would be missed if this was read without the benefit of knowing Charles and Lyle’s story from the first book, as well as that of Neville and his unlikely wife Dido. The writing, as with all Howatch’s novels, is excellent. The style is terse, without irrelevant details, and the conversations feel realistic. The depth of character is superb; Venetia is naive and yet knowledgeable, insecure and, in other ways, confident. Neville is still, in my view, a rather disagreeable and manipulative person, and somehow this is conveyed through Venetia’s words, even though she herself adores him.

The storyline, however, becomes more and more unpleasant, raunchy in its implications, although the author wisely keeps the smutty scenes to a minimum, and undescribed other than in passing. The focus of the plot keeps returning to the book ‘Honest to God’ by John Robinson, which in theological circles in the 1960s was apparently quite controversial. It attacked traditional views of God, and proposed a very different kind of morality. Bishop Charles spends much of the book dictating his refutation of the book, while Neville tries to convince himself and Venetia that it portrays reality.

There are psychological twists and turns, as ever in this author’s books, and some fascinating - and, at times, very disturbing - insights into the hierarchy and practice of the Church of England in the 1960s. I think I’m glad I read it again, as I plan to keep going with the series. At times, particularly towards the end, it was almost impossible to put down. I’d remembered the main storyline, but forgotten most of the details and the outcome. Yet I didn’t really enjoy it, and was pleased to get to the end.

Worth reading if you're a fan of the author, and reading the Starbridge books in sequence.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


Soul Keeping (by John Ortberg)

I have very much appreciated John Ortberg’s books over the years. He’s an American evangelical pastor, which could be off-putting to many; but he’s neither a fundamentalist, nor judgemental. He writes from a gentle, loving perspective focussing on people’s real needs and stresses. So whenever I discover that he’s written a new book, I put it on my wishlist. I was delighted to be given this one for my birthday a few months ago.

‘Soul Keeping’ (Ortberg has evidently given up on the long unwieldy titles of his earlier books!) is a book about the soul. Some might call it the ‘psyche’, but then that’s the Greek word for ‘soul’. Most of us are a little vague about what actually constitutes the soul, and I’m not sure I’m a great deal clearer even after reading the book - but although it's an overtly Christian book, it could be of interest to anyone who is willing to look beyond the material world.

The writing is clear, well-presented and structured in a way that each section builds on the one before. I read this over a couple of weeks, mostly covering just a chapter per day. The author gives some anecdotes from his own life as a father and pastor, and some relevant episodes in the lives of other people he’s known, in particular his friend Dallas Willard, as illustrations for what he is writing about.

The first section attempts to explain what the soul is, or at least how the author sees it, and certainly explains what it is not. It’s not our physical selves; it’s not our mind (by which he includes both thoughts and feelings) and it’s not our will. Instead, it’s something that makes us who we are; it encompasses our personalities, and is affected by the health of our bodies and minds, and the actions we choose with our wills. Ortberg gives plenty of Scriptural references to the soul, but I eventually realised it was never going to be clear to me. Perhaps it’s impossible to define the essence of who we are, in relation to God, and to other people.

The second, longest section of the book is divided into several chapters, each focussing on different qualities that the soul needs. A centre, for instance, a future, rest, freedom, gratitude, and more. By this stage I had a vague, fuzzy idea of the soul, and what the author said made a lot of sense. To be whole, authentic and integrated people, we need to be centred on God, aligning our wills with what we know to be right. We need to keep our bodies and minds healthy by eating the right foods and concentrating on the right things. When we do something we know to be wrong, we become fragmented: damaged in our souls.

The final part of the book looks at suffering, and the ‘dark night of the soul’ when we feel a long way away from God despite no known sins or unhealthy decisions. The author does not use cliches or false comfort; he acknowledges that this can happen, and that it’s not the fault of the person concerned. It’s not particularly reassuring, in that he gives no ways out other than time and a great deal of patience.

I don’t know that I found any great new insights into this book, but I found it encouraging and helpful in beginning to get a glimpse of what the soul might be. I was particularly challenged by the idea of ‘blessing’ (a jargon word, but there’s no real alternative) others in all we say and do, and that the opposite of blessing is cursing.

Definitely recommended if you’re interested in this topic.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


Starting Over (by Robin Pilcher)

In my ongoing re-reading of books by favourite authors, I came to this one by Robin Pilcher. Son of the women’s novelist Rosamunde Pilcher, he has clearly inherited some of her gift for characterisation. I was delighted to discover his first novel, written around the time his mother retired from writing, and collected his subsequent books avidly. He only wrote five in all, but I enjoyed them all.

It’s fifteen years since I first read ‘Starting Over’, a title which has been used by other authors: I have at least two other different books by this title. It’s a useful generic title for stories about ends and beginnings, and that’s what this novel is focussed on.

It’s a bit confusing at first, with rather a large cast of characters. We first meet Liz, who has worked on a farm all her life. We quickly learn that her husband left her six months before the story starts, and that she and her student son Alex are now living with Liz’s father. It’s a bit awkward, because her husband lives on the neighbouring farm, and the two have been combined since their marriage. Worse than that, both farms are struggling to make ends meet. An offer has been made to purchase most of the land to turn it into a prestigious golf course, but Liz really doesn’t want any more change in her life…

The first few chapters introduce us to Liz, Alex, and some of their local community, then there’s a slight jar as we switch focus to one of Alex’s university lecturers, who is living with a very pernickety landlady and keeps breaking her rules. Then suddenly we leap across the world to Australia, where we meet Roberta, a single woman in her late fifties who has been living with her elderly parents. The only, rather tentative connection is that she and her father love to play golf… although her father, at ninety, is becoming increasingly frail.

Inevitably the different storylines are woven together, and the story features several different subplots: primarily the fate of the farms, and the various relationships that develop. The writing is good, and the conversations believable. However, there are rather too many detailed descriptions of places for my tastes. I didn’t need to know the names of streets, and what exactly a character could see as they looked from a hotel window. I mostly skimmed these parts, but felt a little irritated at what felt like an attempt either to educate the reader, or to demonstrate the author’s research skills.

It’s not Rosamunde Pilcher, and I was aware several times of the author being male. The women in the book are very well-drawn; the author clearly likes women. Liz is strong, intelligent and knowledgeable about both farming and machinery. She’s a great role model. But at times she seems to respond to other people in what felt like a rather masculine way. There’s a tad more bad language than I’m comfortable with, although I was pleased that intimate scenes are non-existent, relying on hints and memories rather than any detail.

All in all, I liked this book very much, particularly the ending. After fifteen years I had entirely forgotten the plot - it’s not particularly memorable, as there are so many different storylines - and I look forward to reading it again in another ten or more years.

No longer in print in paperback, but available in Kindle form. Sometimes found second-hand, either on its own or in an omnibus edition with one of the author's other novels.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews