Linnets and Valerians (by Elizabeth Gouge)

I am very much enjoying re-reading the books by some of my favourite authors, and looked forward very much to re-reading this one by Elizabeth Goudge. Although she wrote several thoughtful novels for adults, she’s perhaps best known for her children’s book ‘The Little White Horse’. However I always preferred ‘Linnets and Valerians’ , which I came across in my teens, and last read eighteen years ago.

I remembered liking it so much that when I couldn’t find it on any of our shelves, I assumed someone must have borrowed it without returning it, and promptly ordered a second-hand edition from the AwesomeBooks site. I started reading it a week ago and was surprised to find that I had forgotten most of the plot, other than the main outline - that four children in the early part of the 20th century run away from their rather strict grandmother, and find themselves at their Uncle Ambrose’s house instead.

Uncle Ambrose, who was once a teacher (now a Vicar) decides to educate the children in a classical way, insisting that he doesn’t like children at all, but growing fond of them fairly quickly. He is looked after by Ezra, an intriguing and delightful character who functions as butler, cook, chauffeur and more. The children explore their neighbourhood, and as with many of Goudge’s books there’s an interesting mixture of Paganism and Christianity, of practical real-life adventures and mysticism.

Not that this is a fantasy story: it’s set very much in the real world, and the obvious theme is that of family relationships, of loss and reunion, of friendship and loyalty and hard work. But there’s also a strong good vs evil thread winding throughout, with gradual healing and forgiveness and restoration, in a way I enjoyed very much.

The four children are nicely drawn: Nan, the oldest at twelve, is responsible and kind, but also gifted with a special kind of insight. Robert, at ten, is an adventurer, forever imagining himself in heroic roles; he has a good imagination in a dramatic sense, yet is not very observant, nor does he have any real intuition. Timothy is eight, and the frailest of the children; he’s also extremely observant and highly intelligent, and his imagination is of a very different kind to his brother’s. The youngest, Betsy, is a delightful six-year-old who tags along with the family and has a great sense of her own importance.

Inevitably some of the storyline reflects upper-middle-class culture of a hundred years ago. Children are expected to obey their elders, particularly when given plenty of freedom to go out and about, and there are unpleasant threats made, some of which become realities, should they fail to meet their obligations.

In places the story is a little slow-moving, with a tad more description than I would have liked as a child, but I think it would appeal to avid readers from the age of about nine or ten, and of course adults who remember it fondly from their own childhoods.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

(Note that in the United States, it's published as 'The Runaways')

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

The Secret Message of Jesus (by Brian McLaren)

I’ve very much appreciated the books by Brian McLaren, one of my favourite modern Christian writers. He has challenged labels, including that of evangelicalism, and stirred up a great deal of controversy, yet still manages to write in an intelligent, thought-provoking style.

I was intrigued, therefore, to find ‘The Secret Message of Jesus’ on our shelves; I think it’s something my husband was given. The title gave an air of mystery, as did the subtitle ('uncovering the truth that could change everything') and the introduction. And, like McLaren’s other works, this book is well-structured, clearly written with good Scriptural backing, and gives plenty to think about.

The theme is essentially related to the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven) as understood in the first century, and today. The first section of the book looks at the historical and Jewish cultural background in which Jesus lived as a man, and how his message would have been seen by his followers and the different sects of religious leaders of the time.

Those who follow Christ are described as ‘agents’ of the Kingdom, our job being to spread the message of Jesus - of peace, reconciliation, healing, and so on. The book looks into parts of the ‘sermon on the mount’, and reminds readers about the meanings of the ‘parables of the Kingdom’, which can be lost, sometimes, in strict or reformed evangelical theologies.

However, I’m a bit puzzled about the idea of this being a ‘secret’ message. Despite having read the book from cover to cover, some sections twice, I still haven’t really grasped what it is that the author considers ‘hidden’. What he describes is how I understood the Christian message as a child growing up in somewhat ‘broad’ Anglican Church in the UK. At senior school, doing ‘Scripture’ O-level exams, we looked in some depth at the Kingdom parables, among other things. It has always seemed clear to me that the Kingdom of Heaven is ‘at hand’, something which grows at a tremendous rate if the right seeds are planted.

Indeed, reading books set in the early and mid-20th century, it would appear that this message - of Christ and his Kingdom being with us, offering grace, healing and forgiveness to all - was the standard theology of the time, only challenged by the ‘neo-orthodox’ (what we might call ‘reformed’ or even ‘fundamentalist’) viewpoint which emerged after the first world war. Evangelical churches in the US - and indeed the UK - often stress the latter, but even in the most reformed of churches, there is encouragement to do the work of the Kingdom, even if the main emphasis is on being ‘saved’.

Still, this book is one of the best about the Kingdom of God in a large number of aspects, and gave me a great deal to think about. Critics complain that the author has missed out significant parts of the message of Jesus, but I don't have a problem with that; they are well covered in many other books, after all.

My only real complaint, then, is the insistence throughout the book that Jesus' message has been 'hidden' for two thousand years, and is only just being uncovered in the 21st century.

Recommended to followers of Jesus who want to know more about the Kingdom of God, and indeed anyone interested to know what the message of Jesus was, rather than how it's sometimes interpreted in extremist groups.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


Ultimate Prizes (by Susan Howatch)

In my slow meanderings through books I have previously enjoyed by some of my favourite authors, I decided to re-read the third in Susan Howatch’s gripping Starbridge sequence. I re-read ‘Glittering Images’ for the fourth time in 2014, and ‘Glamorous Powers’ last year.

I hadn’t remembered ‘Ultimate Prizes’ with a great deal of fondness; I last read it in 2007. I knew it featured the Archdeacon of Starbridge, Neville Aysgarth, whom I never much liked in this or the later books that featured him. When a book is written in the first person by an unsympathetic narrator, it takes a very gifted writer to make the book enjoyable. Susan Howatch succeeds admirably, however.

The novel opens with an intriguing sentence about the morning after the Archdeacon ‘nearly’ committed adultery. The first time I read the book I was hooked. This time, recalling vaguely that plot point, I realised how clever an opening it is, and how the author gently misleads the readers all through the first sections of the book, so that when the act is ‘almost’ committed, it comes as something of a shock.

Immediately after the introductory section, explaining how clergymen in their forties don’t do such things, we are taken back three years to a dinner party where Neville meets a young and rather exciting society woman known as Dido. We learn at the same time as Dido does that he is married to a wonderful woman called Grace, and has five children, and also that the book is set in the early 1940s.

Howatch uses the technique known as ‘unreliable narrator’ to excellent effect. Neville is clearly deceived about many things in his life, and is holding together several stresses (and temptations) with a tight rein. His personality is such that he lives in the moment, regularly ‘bringing down the curtain’ on unpleasant situations or disagreements, so as to present a positive face to the public. He is dedicated to winning what he calls ‘prizes’ - achievements in life, the love of his family, and as much success as he can.

It’s not long before we begin to see cracks in his life - his wife is exhausted but determined to stay on the pedestal he has put her on; his children behave as well as they can, but wish he would be more ‘real’ with them. And he has a great antipathy to Jon Darrow, an older clergyman who is more Anglo-Catholic in his leanings, with a lot of intuitive insights and apparently mystical ability. So Neville is not happy when Jon sees him at his worst…

The storyline is complex, with many subplots, some of them relating to the previous books although it’s not necessary to have read them first. We see Neville with many different characters: as the administrator to his current bishop, as a close friend of a retired bishop, with his family, and with other acquaintances and friends. I found myself feeling quite sorry for him, and as the story progressed, surprised how much I liked him despite his brusque and pragmatic approach to life. The more his past is unpacked, the more three-dimensional and sympathetic he becomes.

I was intrigued, too, at the theological clashes that pepper several of the conversations: between the high Anglo-Catholics (like Jon), the lower evangelical modernists (like Neville) and the neo-orthodox, a new movement in the mid-twentieth century. I was surprised at how the terms were used then, rather differently from how they are now. Neville takes the Bible very seriously, but not literally, even discounting some of the miracles. However he stresses the immanence of Christ, and the importance of forgiveness and compassion, in a way that the neo-orthodox (in his perception) do not.

There are many issues raised but not solved: how to deal with war, whether pacifism is a valid response or not, and what to do with those on the ‘enemy’ side who do not believe in the principles of their leaders. These are less significant than the unravelling of Neville’s own past, and the discovery of what makes him the man he is, with his many hangups and failings, but the historical context and theological discussions help to flesh out the conversations.

That probably all sounds rather dull - yet it’s an excellent book, in my view, which I was almost unable to put down at times. Howatch’s style makes it thrilling, intriguing, and ultimately very satisfying. It’s over 400 pages of quite small type, but I finished it in under a week, often reading long past my preferred bedtime, and sometimes during the daytime too.

Highly recommended.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


To Live is Christ (by Beth Moore)

I don’t remember how I came across a series of free downloads for my Kindle from the American Christian writer Beth Moore about three years ago. I had heard of her in context with devotional writing and teaching, and was interested to see what her studies would be like. I selected this particular one almost at random, and started reading a chapter most days while I was away in the middle of January, and have just finished it.

‘To live is Christ’ contains fifty short chapters about the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul. The author has done a great deal of research, and is knowledgeable not just about the Bible passages that feature him, but about the typical life of a Jewish family in the first century. So the earliest chapters set the scene: she acknowledges that some of what she writes is speculation, but based on historical evidence it’s likely to be reasonably accurate.

It was interesting to read some of the details about how Paul - or Saul, as he was known as a child and young man - would have been welcomed into his family, and what kind of education and life he would have led before becoming enraged with the new ‘heresy’ - or so it seemed to him at the time - involving a risen Messiah.

The book moves seamlessly into what we know about the apostle from the Bible, particularly the book of Acts, but also some of his letters. It’s essentially a biographical account fleshed out with Beth Moore’s knowledge and research, and with plenty of application to modern believers. As we see Saul’s dramatic conversion, his changed lifestyle and his continual growth and development, there’s a great deal to reflect on.

The writing is good, there are some interesting personal touches here and there, giving insights into the author’s own life, and on the whole I thought it excellent. The only chapter that made me cringe a little was the one where racism is addressed, but I’m aware that, in the South of the United States, there are still people who see other nationalities or skin colours as different ‘races’, rather than different flavours of the human race.

Beth Moore herself writes against the evils of racism and the need to treat everyone the same, but I found it shocking that her friends and daughter asked whether a ‘Hispanic’ young man could be acceptable as a boyfriend to a white American. I couldn’t imagine why he would not! Still, this perhaps helped me to see some of what Paul was up against in the bias of early Jewish Christians against the Gentiles, something which is also hard to comprehend in the 21st century.

My other mild irritation was with the author’s assertion that Luke, author of the Gospel bearing his name and of the book of Acts, was the doctor who travelled on some of Paul’s journeys. While that’s the traditional view, and may be correct, modern scholarship suggests that it’s likely not to have been the same person. In any case, to draw any conclusions based on the traditional view isn’t particularly helpful.

However, those were blips in what was otherwise a well-written and sometimes thought-provoking book. I liked it so much, on the whole, that I’ve now started reading another one by the same author.

Note that the Kindle version of 'To live is Christ' is no longer free, and there are several variations in print: leaders' guides, audio books, members' guides, and so on.  So it's important to check exactly what you're getting if you order this online!

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


The Horizontal Epistles of Andromeda Veal (by Adrian Plass)

I have been reading and thoroughly enjoying books by Adrian Plass for almost thirty years now, since his book ‘The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass age 37 ¾’ became a major success in the Christian world. Based on a diary that originated as a magazine column, it’s both thought-provoking and extremely funny. I re-read it last year, so it was time to re-read the first sequel, which I last read in 2002 as part of a trilogy when I owned at the time.

‘The Horizontal Epistles of Andromeda Veal’ is in a different format, and revolves around letters supposedly written and received by eight-year-old Andromeda, in traction in a hospital with a broken femur. The first time I read it, I recall skimming somewhat to find more ‘diary’ sections, and being disappointed that there were only a handful of them, amongst the correspondence.

However, this time, knowing what to expect, I read more carefully. Andromeda’s spelling is erratic, as might be expected of a child her age, and she makes amusing mistakes in words. Some of them feel a little overdone after three or four instances (she talks about being ‘an attraction’ with a broken ‘lemur’ in several letters, for instance) but that’s not a major issue.

There’s an underlying story: Andromeda’s parents have separated, after her mother, who has strongly socialist principles, became involved in demonstrations on Greenham Common with a rather pushy friend. Neither of them is visiting their daughter, so she writes a note to her friends Adrian and Anne Plass, and they rally round and encourage members of their church to write letters and visit Andromeda.

Not content with replying to the various - and diverse - letters she receives, Andromeda also writes letters to world leaders, both political and religious, which display both her grasp of some politics and her confusion about a great deal else. As the book progresses Andromeda herself grows up a little, and begins to understand the idea of God and faith, although this is quite low key.

It could be read as a standalone book, although the number of correspondents is quite high, and a lot of the humour might be lost if a reader had not already met Leonard Thynn and the Flushpools in the first book. More of a problem for modern readers under the age of about fifty is that many of the politicians and issues were contemporary to the UK in the late 1980s, and some of the points could be lost entirely.

Still, as one who can remember most of the names and issues, and who in any case enjoys everything Adrian Plass has written, I am very glad to have re-read it and hope it won’t be another fifteen years before my next re-read.

Definitely recommended. Not always in print, and sometimes only available as part of a trilogy, but fairly widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


An Ocean Apart (by Robin Pilcher)

About sixteen years ago, I discovered that while my favourite modern novelist Rosamunde Pilcher had just about retired from writing, her son Robin Pilcher had started writing novels. Intrigued, I bought this book (second-hand, although it was only a couple of years old) which was his debut novel. I didn’t know what to expect, as I tend to prefer family saga/romantic fiction when it’s written by women. But once I’d started I could hardly put it down.

So it was more than time for a re-read, and I picked up ‘An Ocean Apart’ just four days ago. I was slightly daunted by the length - well over 500 pages - and thought it would last me a couple of weeks as bedtime reading.

The story is primarily about a thirty-something Scot called David, who lives with his parents in their manor house. He has been working in his father’s business, a large whisky manufacturer, but as we quickly learn he suffered a tragedy shortly before the book options, and is seriously depressed as well as deeply grieving.

I was delighted to learn that the author has evidently inherited (or absorbed) some of his mother’s immense skill in characterisation. I would not expect to have anything in common with a wealthy upper-class depressed businessman, but David quickly got under my skin. His parents were rather more ephemeral, but I very much liked their housekeeper Effie, and also what I saw in the early chapters of David’s children, Sophie, Charlie and Harriet.

I had almost entirely forgotten the story, but vaguely recalled that David gets called back to work because he’s the only person who is available to fly to the US for some important business meetings; by the time I reached that stage in the story I was hooked. One chapter was nowhere near enough for me to read at bedtime, and I often found myself reading far later than I had intended. I then read a lot at the weekend, and finished it in just four days.

While some of the subplots relating to the business went a little over my head, it didn’t matter; I got the general gist, and what mattered to me most were the relationship aspects. David, who is an extremely likeable person, discovers that he can make a difference in the lives of some lonely people. The bulk of the story takes place over about a month, and the pace works well.

The writing is excellent, with the right amount of description, believable dialogue and some strong emotion. There was one particularly moving scene, towards the end, where I found myself in tears. The romance, inevitable from fairly early on, is very low-key, only coming to resolution towards the end.

Perhaps the final scenes are somewhat abrupt and a tad contrived; I’d have liked a little more, rather than just a hint of what the future might hold. But it’s better to stop a novel leaving the reader wanting more rather than trying to tie up every loose end. I shall think about Robin Pilcher's characters for days to come.

Very highly recommended. Several editions were printed, but sadly it's currently out of print. Fairly easy to find second-hand, however.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


Many Waters (by Madeleine L'Engle)

In my gradual quest to read through Madeleine L’Engle’s fiction for teenagers, some of which I have never read before, I have just finished the fourth in the ‘Time Quintet’.

‘Many Waters’ is sometimes recommended to be read as the third rather the fourth book in the series which begins with the classic ‘Wrinkle in Time’, but I don’t see what difference it makes, as it stands alone. Whereas the first three mostly involve Meg Murry and her youngest brother Charles Wallace, this one is almost entirely about their twin brothers Sandy and Dennys, who play much smaller roles in the other books.

The twins are around sixteen in this book, and unlike their siblings are not science geeks. They’re still fairly academic, one planning to be a doctor and the other a lawyer. But in their brilliant and somewhat quirky family, they are considered the ordinary, practical ones who enjoy sports and gardening rather than obscure scientific theories.

The story starts when the twins, hunting in their parents’ lab for some cocoa powder, feeling fed up with the wintry weather outside, type a few things into their father’s computer which leads to their suddenly being transported to a different - and very hot - climate. They have no idea where (or when) they are, although it quickly becomes obvious to the reader as they meet people whose names are familiar from a Bible history context.

The novel is primarily historical fiction with some low-key fantasy which is almost indistinguishable from supernatural elements. Seraphim and nephilim mix with humans, and have the ability to change into different creatures at will (I wonder if JK Rowling’s animagi were inspired by them - indeed, it occurs to me as I write to wonder if her Weasley twins were in some measure inspired by Sandy and Dennys). Unicorns appear when summoned, by those who believe in them, and mammoths, smaller than their name might imply, function as family pets. El - the name for God in the book - speaks to some people directly, and there are also those who can hear messages from the stars.

There’s not a great deal known about this era of pre-history, but L’Engle has created a very believable world, based in an oasis, with people living in tents. Family feuds, jealousies, even a form of class consciousness are all common, but there are gentle, caring people too. Sandy and Dennys, at first considered alien giants, are gradually drawn into the community with growing awareness of what story they are unexpectedly part of, and what is to come.

Since this is the first (and, I believe, only) book to involve the twins as major characters, it could easily be read as a standalone novel rather than as part of the series. The science parts are minimal, and as a non-scientist myself, I felt that I could almost begin to comprehend the idea (if not the actuality) of quantum particle physics as demonstrated by the unicorns.

I thought the ending rather abrupt, and would have liked more about the twins’ family at the end, but it’s really my only minor complaint about what was otherwise an excellent book. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The blend of history, fantasy and faith works extremely well, in my opinion, and could be read by anyone, whatever their belief (or lack thereof). In the introduction to my paperback edition Madeleine L’Engle says that she often wrote to help her explore difficult questions that occurred to her about time and space; she doesn’t make the mistake of trying to answer questions, instead she encourages readers to think outside the box.

It’s not a book for younger children, but could be read by anyone from the age of about ten and upwards who enjoys intelligent historical fiction and doesn’t mind a bit of fantasy.

Highly recommended.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


Following Jesus Without Embarrassing God (by Tony Campolo)

Browsing around our shelves for Christian books I hadn’t read, I came across this one by Tony Campolo, an American pastor, sociologist, speaker and writer whose work I have found helpful and thought-provoking in the past. I have no idea where this book came from: perhaps it belongs to one of our sons.

I was particularly struck by the title: ‘Following Jesus without embarrassing God’. And indeed, as one inclined to cynicism from time to time, and fairly easily embarrassed, I thought the book encouraging and helpful.

It's divided into five sections: everyday life, spiritual growth, what you believe, social action and family life. Within each section are between three and five chapters, each focussing on different ways in which followers of Jesus can emulate his lifestyle and follow his principles without going overboard or putting people off.

So, for instance, the author talks about wise use of resources and technology, while avoiding extreme positions of (for instance) giving everything away and relying on welfare, or avoiding all use of mobile phones and computers. The book was written twenty years ago so is inevitably a bit dated, but the principles still hold good.

Other sections look at prayer without being pushy or over-wordy, finding guidance without expecting writing in the clouds, understanding basic theology without being an intellectual snob, and - in the family section - raising healthy children without guilt trips or getting too far into popular psychology.

I liked the structure of the book, each chapter being complete in itself, with some clear explanations of the author’s point of view interspersed with relevant anecdotes from his own experience, both in family life and as a pastor.

There are a good selection of relevant quotations from the Bible too, and therein lies my only slight problem with the book: every quotation is from the King James version. Perhaps that was the only version easily available in copyright-free form back in 1997 when the book was written, but despite my familiarity with the passages concerned, I find the KJV language awkward and stilted, meaning it was all too easy to skim over these verses.

That apart, I thought it a sound and positive read, nicely balancing the author’s passion for social justice and living the Christian life with his strong evangelical (in the best sense) beliefs. Tony Campolo was a voice of common sense at the end of the 20th century, and I would recommend this book, in a low-key way, to anyone interested in knowing more about being an ordinary person living as a follower of Jesus.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews