24/01/2013

Just Shy of Harmony (by Philip Gulley)

Philip Gulley is a gentle (and sometimes controversial) Quaker pastor in the US, whom I had not heard of until one of his books was recommended to me by Amazon.  I read and very much enjoyed 'Home to Harmony' in May last year, so put the sequel on my wishlist.

I was delighted to be given 'Just shy of Harmony' for Christmas, and have read it in the last few days. It made pleasant and easy bedtime reading which was quite compulsive - I kept reading just another page, or even another chapter. It's not that it's particularly exciting, or that I wondered what was going to happen - at least, not much. But the people are warm and friendly and it's a relaxing, pleasant story.

There isn't really any overriding plot in this book. It's basically another sequence of anecdotes surrounding the life of likeable Quaker pastor Sam, who I assume is at least partly based on the author's own experience and personality.  In this book Sam, who is feeling overworked and very tired, becomes rather cynical. He begins to feel that he has lost his faith, and - in an attempt at integrity - decides to stop preaching for a while. This means that his rather mixed bunch of elders take it in turns to speak instead. This isn't a bad idea, except that one of them is convinced the Lord has led him to feed his chickens with Scripture verses, to pass out eggs for evangelism...

There are other people in the town, some nicer than others. Jessie is in a big moral dilemma, not feeling that she should accept a massive lottery win, because she does not believe in gambling, yet aware how much she and her husband are struggling just to survive.  Then there's Wayne, whose wife left him unexpectedly, and who takes a liking to a young lawyer... only to have his wife ask to come home, and eventually explain why she departed.

There's sufficient humour in this book, much of it ironic, to have me chuckling once or twice as well as smiling several times. There are also some quite moving scenes, as well as inevitable misunderstandings and disagreements.  It's a slice of what I assume is everyday life in small-town America, even if somewhat caricatured in places. We get to know several people as time moves forward in the lives of the mixed bunch who interact with Sam.

The only thing I found slightly annoying is that the tense of the writing changes - apparently randomly -from past to present and back again. However, unlike the first book, this is all written in the third person; it works much better to have a general standpoint which allows the author to delve not just into the lives but into the minds of each of the people as required.

Overall I thought this book an enjoyable light read. While smiling, and having my emotions gently pulled, I was also aware that it gently explores issues of faith and hope, of church unity and struggles, of the priorities that are - or perhaps should be - part of the Christian life. God is one of the many characters in this book, and in the end there is an overriding awareness that God can work through the most unexpected of circumstances.

Not for everyone, but for people who like the Jan Karon style of small town American church anecdotal novels, this is definitely recommended. Available in paperback in both UK and US, and also in e-book form for the Kindle.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 24th January 2013

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