The First Phone Call from Heaven (by Mitch Albom)

Browsing a church bookstall a few months ago, I spotted a book with an intriguing title:‘The first phone call from Heaven’ by Mitch Albom. I remembered having liked very much his first novel, ‘The five people you meet in Heaven’ (though I am shocked to discover that it’s almost fifteen years since I read that!). So I bought it, and decided to start reading it a few days ago.

We meet, in the first chapter, three different people who have unexpected phone calls. They hear the voices of loved ones who have died in the past few years. Each one tells the listener that they’re in Heaven, where there’s lots of love and everything is forgiven.

Tess is the first person mentioned: she hears her dead mother’s voice on the phone. Then Jack, who hears his son, a young man who died in military action. Then there’s the excitable, rather dramatic Kathleen, who hears the voice of her dead sister.

The last part of the first chapter - and it’s a short chapter - introduces Sully Harding, emerging from jail. He is greeted by his young son and his parents, and it’s immediately clear that someone important is missing. We gradually learn his story through the course of the book.

My only real problem with the book is that the characters are not very well developed or memorable. Although I read the bulk of the book in one sitting, I often had to check back to remind myself who was whom. Indeed, in writing this, I had to open the book to look for a couple of the names of these most significant people. I really didn’t keep track of most of the others. The most sympathetic, I thought, was the librarian Liz, who I liked very much, but she doesn’t appear until the later part of the book.

However it’s not really a character-based book. It’s ‘literary fiction’, which means it doesn’t fit in any other genre, and despite my not really relating to any of the main characters, I found it difficult to put down once I’d started. Were these people really hearing phone calls from heaven? If so, what was so special about their small town in Michigan? If they were all deluded, what caused it? Or was it some kind of elaborate hoax…? If so, what was its purpose?

The writing is very good: terse, nicely paced, and often intriguing. There’s a strong spiritual thread running through; inevitably the local churches become involved, and the general public starts believing in God and doing more to help other people. But the point is made that faith doesn’t need proof, and that these phone calls are in some cases quite disturbing. People think they would give anything to hear from someone they love who is no longer with them; but maybe it’s not such a good thing.

Inevitably, too, the population - not just of the town, but of a much wider area once the story makes national news - is divided, and polarised. It’s set in the United States, where many people see issues in a cut-and-dried fashion, with no grey areas or even room for compromise.

I didn’t relate to the hysteria or passions that drove people to drive hundreds of miles and camp out in the town - I assume this was meant to be light-hearted exaggeration, poking fun at some extremists. But I liked the way that the people of the town reached out to the visitors, giving them food and shelter when possible, and not turning them away.

So despite the oddity of the premise and the lack of clear main characters, I enjoyed the book very much. It’s not one I’ll necessarily want to read again, but certainly worth keeping on our shelves. I would recommend it to anyone looking for something a bit different, who doesn’t mind a ‘religious’ thread.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews


Off-Balance (by Mary Sheepshanks)

When I first discovered Mary Sheepshanks' books, nearly twenty years ago, they were not all easy to get hold of, and I acquired them gradually. She only wrote four novels under this name, and by the time I read ‘Off-Balance’, I had not noticed that it was - in a sense - a sequel to ‘Facing the Music’. But I re-read that just a couple of months ago, and the name Flavia is an unusual one…

Not that Flavia is the main character in this book. She doesn’t appear until about half-way through, as a guest musician. The main characters are the Grant family who live in an old mansion in Scotland, part of which they are turning into a performing arts centre. The building work is complete, and at the start of the book they’re expecting a young and talented artist called Daniel who will come to paint some backdrops.

Giles and Isabel are happily married, and have two children. Ten-year-old Amy is a very talented violinist, but her twin brother Edward has quite severe special needs: nobody quite knows what they are, but there’s much that seems like autism, and some other difficulties. Amy loves him and often defends him against nasty comments, but inevitably he needs a lot of attention, and even his parents sometimes find him frustrating.

Isabel is sociable and they have a wide circle of friends. They have two Australians working with the family, who deal with a lot of the chores and take on some child-minding, and they’re all reasonably contented. Then Isabel’s sister Lorna arrives after a divorce, and offers to help with some of the administration. She’s talented in this respect, but also very manipulative with a jealous and vindictive streak. Edward takes an instant dislike to her, and Amy is unimpressed too.

I found Lorna a difficult character to believe in. There’s a bit of back-story, and we see her as a well-behaved, polite and very pretty little girl who adores her little sister. She finds it upsetting that Isabel, despite being very mischievous, rarely gets into trouble - people laugh about her, and roll their eyes, but seem to find her cute. But when Lorna does something she shouldn’t, nobody laughs. I could understand and even sympathise with this child who feels usurped, and unappreciated by her family. I could see too why, when she starts to fall in love, she doesn’t want to introduce her boyfriend to the family - and why she is deeply upset when, after she takes a break, her boyfriend (Giles) has become engaged to her sister.

But none of that seems consistent with the really nasty person Lorna has become by the time we meet her. She’s so unpleasant that everyone - other than Giles - finds her almost unbearable. But Giles seems to have a blind spot… and Lorna is determined to win him back.

It’s a character-based story, revolving around this mostly likeable community of people, with a bit of music as an extra theme. The plot is mostly gentle, exploring relationships and friendships, testing love and integrity. Other than Lorna I found all the main characters three-dimensional and believable. There are some caricatures amongst the neighbours; that doesn’t matter with minor characters, and adds a touch of humour to balance the more serious issues.

It’s extremely well-written and overall I found it a very enjoyable story. I did remember odd incidents, mostly the ones involving Edward, although I had forgotten all the details. I found myself moved to tears in an incident near the end.

I had not remembered how the story ended, nor whether Giles and Isabel managed to stay together. And I had totally forgotten that, after the book seems to have finished, there’s an epilogue which paves the way for a sequel. It took me a long time to realise that there actually is a sequel - ‘Secrets and Shadows’, by the same author under her alternative name of Mary Nickson. I look forward very much to re-reading that in another month or so.

Very highly recommended. It’s not necessary to have read ‘Facing the Music’ first, but I find it adds to the enjoyment to know some of the past history of someone who has appeared in an earlier book. 'Off-Balance' is long out of print, sadly, but often available second-hand.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews


Writing from Life (by Lynne Hackles)

When I’m interested in a topic, I tend to collect rather a lot of books on the topic; as soon as I’ve bought or acquired a couple, I get recommendations for others, and they all seem interesting in different ways. One of those topics is writing - I have an entire bookshelf devoted to this topic, and am trying hard not to want any more. Instead, I determined to re-read some of them this year, and work my way through the advice or exercises.

I don’t know how I came across ‘Writing from Life’ by Lynne Hackles. A note at the front says that I have had it since 2011, but not whether I bought it or was given it, nor how I came across it. Perhaps I read a recommendation in a writing magazine, or perhaps Amazon suggested it. I can recall having dipped into it a couple of times, and found some interesting insights. But I had never read it from cover to cover, so I started doing so at the beginning of the year and have just finished.

The subtitle of the book is ‘How to turn your personal experience into profitable prose’. The author succeeds in explaining how to do this in a variety of ways. The first chapter is called ‘Writing and your life’, and contains exercises which seem quite simple: jotting down earliest memories, making lists of happy or sad occasions, looking through photo albums to trigger emotions and to bring to the surface some events we might have forgotten.

I did several of the exercises, hoping they would inspire me to do some writing, but that didn’t work too well. However these exercises, as I gradually realised, were meant more as a storehouse to pick from rather than triggers in themselves. At one point the book asks for a list of ten interesting people we know. Later in the book, the author explains how to take one of them, to change the name and other obvious characteristics, and to mix and match with other people - using incidents from our own past, perhaps - to begin a piece of fiction.

We’re encouraged to make notes of conversations we hear, odd incidents in the news, things we observe that others might not notice. The author tells us to ask, ‘What if?’ about events, even if they don’t seem all that interesting in themselves. For instance, the postman delivers a letter and it’s a note from a friend. But what if it was something else…? What if it was a blackmail letter, unearthing a deep secret? Or what if it was actually intended for a neighbour, and we opened it by mistake, and saw something private…? We can invent far-fetched ideas and choose one of them to move our story forwards.

I’m most interested in fiction, but the chapters about short stories and novels come towards the end of the book. Before that are ideas for letters and articles - advice I’ve seen before, and have taken up several times. So there wasn’t really anything that was new to me, and in places I had already written some of the things the author suggests. But I found the writing style encouraging - it’s nicely paced and lively, with a mixture of advice and anecdotes about the author or other folk who followed her advice.

I didn’t do all the exercises; I got the general idea, however, and think it could be very useful for someone who doesn’t really know where to start with writing. It’s probably more useful for non-fiction than fiction, but that’s a good place to start. I very much liked the idea that we all have stories that are of interest to others, even if they don’t seem all that exciting ourselves. And, indeed, my first ever published article (a very long time ago!) was about an experiment we tried, when my sons were young, of renting an allotment for a couple of years.

Despite not finding anything actively new, I enjoyed reading ‘Writing from Life’, and would recommend it to anyone starting out on writing. We often read advice to ‘write what we know’ - Lynne Hackles explains how we can do exactly that.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews


More Lives than One (by Libby Purves)

In slowly re-reading my novels by Libby Purves, I reached ‘More Lives than One’. I was given this at the end of 2003 and read it in July 2004. But whereas I had almost entirely forgotten the plots of other novels which I hadn’t read for fifteen or more years, this one was so powerful that I recalled the outline, the climax and the unexpected, traumatic revelation.

It was with a little trepidation that I started reading this again, a few days ago, not sure if I wanted that emotional trauma repeated. I had only the vaguest memory of the first part of the book. Kit, a strong, athletic guy in his late twenties, has led a lot of expeditions scuba diving or exploring. He has no time for a long-term relationship, until he meets and falls for Anna, a sweet, confident and likeable girl of nineteen.

After the introductory chapters in which the two meet and become close, the story jumps forward nine years. They are married, and both work as teachers at the same secondary school. Anna teaches modern languages, and is universally liked and respected. Kit teaches English, and has something of a reputation as a rebel: instead of following the curriculum he tries to inspire his students. He uses unorthodox methods which most of his students appreciate, but some of his colleagues do not.

The school has an unusual bequest; each year a group of students must be taken somewhere in Europe, where they must do something cultural and light candles for the donor. If they don’t do this, they lose the funding permanently. But it has been quite an effort, and has devolved into brief visits, not doing a great deal, and of little obvious benefit to the students.

Kit has other ideas. We don’t learn what most of them are until he arrives in Venice with fifteen students after persuading the school head to let him lead a much more ambitious trip than has happened in the past. Unfortunately, at the last moment he has to take one of the colleagues who most disapproves of his methods, but it’s not until the last evening that anything goes wrong…

I hadn’t remembered most of the details of the story. I had forgotten what was making Anna stressed; I had forgotten, too, how she and Kit are both portrayed as such likeable people with a strong relationship.. Nor had I remembered what an excellent teacher Kit is. It can be depressing working in a school where the children have no ambition beyond claiming welfare and (perhaps) staying out of prison. But Kit is an idealist and in some cases he succeeds in firing enthusiasm and helping the children see beyond their dreary surroundings.

The educational part of the book is interesting in itself; I hope that nowadays there are more teachers like Kit and Anna, particularly in struggling schools. The message is clear, that children can be helped and inspired by the right kind of teaching. Libby Purves was a journalist, and education - in the broadest sense - was clearly an important issue to her.

The first time I read this, I was half expecting something terrible to happen - an unexpected disaster, or betrayal, perhaps. But I was gradually lulled into the hope that it was mainly about the importance of educational methods to suit the children rather than the curriculum. That’s still an important message from the book, but I doubt if it will be read by many teachers.

On re-reading, I knew the revelation that was coming, and what provoked it being acknowledged. It was interesting to read with that benefit, to see just a few hints in the earlier chapters of what would eventually be revealed. But once again I became caught up in the storyline, which is well-written with just the right amount of description for me (minimal) and some believable characters, both major and minor.

I had not remembered what came afterwards. I thought it extremely well handled; some readers who see things in black and white would be quick to condemn. Others, like me, will find it all very thought-provoking. I thought the final chapter very encouraging. It’s more positive than I had recalled, although the future is left open. But love prevails, and is seen as the most important force for all concerned.

It’s a controversial novel, and one that shocked me deeply the first time; this time I think I enjoyed it more. Very highly recommended.

No longer in print, though it can often be found second hand; but 'More Lives than One' is available in Kindle form.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews


A Farewell to Mars (by Brian Zahnd)

I did not think I had heard of Brian Zahnd, until I realised that I had - a few years ago - read his book 'Unconditional' on my Kindle.  In addition, I am not generally very keen on political books. But ‘A Farewell to Mars’ was in our Christian bookcase, probably acquired by my husband. I picked it up in an idle moment, read the blurb on the back and thought it looked like an interesting read.

The author is an American pastor, and starts the book by confessing what he considers his worst sin: that he prayed a war-mongering nationalistic prayer at the start of 1991, as the Gulf War was beginning. He then recounts, with plenty of reference to Scripture, his about-turn. As the subtitle of the book says, it’s ‘an evangelical pastor’s journey toward the biblical gospel of peace’.

The book is well-organised, divided into eight chapters (the ninth is a single sentence only). The author takes us straight into the life of Jesus at the start of the book, showing many of the places where he talked about peace. Jesus was not hated by the authorities because he told people to be nice to each other and forgive their close friends and family. His message was far more radical: that we should love our enemies, and do good to those who persecute us.

Moreover, Zahnd argues, this does not just apply at the personal level but also for ethnic groups and entire nations. Jesus was not the political, war-mongering Messiah expected by the Jewish people of his time. He rejected violence, and continually promoted peaceful resolution of problems between individuals and larger groups.

I’m not from the United States and have always inclined to pacifism. I dislike conflict of any kind, so for me this was not at all a radical message. Perhaps there are, occasionally, reasons to defend one’s country against evil; but I don’t believe it’s ever right to be proactively aggressive. But I didn’t grow up in a culture that promotes nationalism or military strength.

The author then takes us on to see that the Kingdom of God is now; that Jesus brought it into being, and ascended to the right hand of God after the ascension. From there he rules the world. I have no problem believing that the Kingdom of God is among us; that those of us who follow Christ are part of his kingdom, here to help it grow in whatever way we can. Many authors have been writing about this recently; it’s not a new or radical idea.

That Jesus is currently ruling the world is perhaps a tad harder to swallow. The world has suffered through many wars and other conflicts in the past couple of thousand years. Yet I would agree that humanity in general is more aware of the horror of suffering, less inclined to glorify individual violence than even a hundred years ago, even if some countries still tend to idolise the idea of ‘just’ wars.

The title of the book is a reference to the Roman god of war. It's also, of course, a nod to Hemingway's classic novel 'A Farewell to Arms'.  Zahnd, in some of the more provocative passages of the book, suggests that in places the evangelical church, particularly in the United States, worships Mars rather than Jesus. This may anger some readers, but it’s worth taking a step back, re-looking at the gospels, and asking whether he has a good point.

There’s a lot to think about in this book. The writing is good, some of the references to Scripture are quite thought-provoking. I’m no academic; I’m sure some would disagree with what he says. But Zahnd’s interpretations seem reasonable to me. In places I re-thought through familiar passages and agreed that some of the traditional understanding of them may have been biased.

The author says that he’s not a pacifist as such. That’s a political label, one that is often taken by those with no faith in God at all. Nor does he criticise those who are in the armed forces, many of whom he respects and admires. He is vehemently opposed to empires, while endorsing individual nations and co-operation between nations. He sees his role as promoting peace and non-violence (not exactly the same thing), because that’s what Jesus did.

All in all I’m very glad I read this book, and would recommend it to any followers of Jesus, whatever your views on conflict or war. But take it slowly and read it with an open mind; it could lead to severe cognitive dissonance if you are generally pro-war or believe that any country or ethnic group is superior to another.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews