Monday, November 11, 2019

Grace in Deep Waters

Readers with good memories will recall how much our family enjoyed Christine Dillon’s fiction books: Grace in Strange Disguise and Grace in the Shadows, so we were lining up to get our hands on the final in the series: Grace in Deep Waters.

Again, this starts just where Book 2 left off. Because I don’t want to ruin the storyline for new readers, I will be vague with the description!

Naomi, Rachel and Blanche are coming to terms with the loss of a dear sister in Christ. Blanche is also estranged from her husband William, having come to realise just how much he clings to reputation and status, rather than Jesus. Having avoided numerous issues for years, Blanche has finally stood up to him, and has had to leave the home as a result, for William is incapable of having people around him who disagree with him.

The story shifts focus in this book, so those who are keen to hear more of Rachel’s story may be disappointed. It is William and Blanche that are on view here, and it switches between their perspectives. Blanche is working through her grief, yet also finding more of herself, with a job and a realisation she has skills that are of value to others. William, on the other hand, has lost his way and his once steady confidence has taken a hit. To avoid dealing with the problems he sees brewing, he takes a two month posting on Lord Howe Island, where he becomes friends with Reg, a key lay leaders of the local church. In time both come to question if and how God is at work in their lives.

I’ll leave the description there for those who want to read it themselves.

Dillon has again captured the key issues of our hearts in this book. What is our idea of success built on? How do we react when our carefully created lives start crumbling down around us? Can we forgive ourselves when we have done things that seem unforgivable? Will we come before God dressed up in our own achievements, or open, honest and facing our sin?

The storytelling focus is not as strong in this book, there is more of an emphasis on prayer, particularly long-term faithful prayer.

Some Christian fiction books make you uncomfortable with their message – the platitudes, the neatness, the idealized romance. I have found Dillon’s books make me uncomfortable too – but in a good and very different way. They challenge me to consider how I would react in similar circumstances. They challenge me to consider my faithfulness, my prayerfulness and how I speak of Christ to others. That’s an uncomfortable I need to feel, and I am thankful for her skills as a storyteller.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Last Christmas

I’ve found it hard to know how to review this movie.

In the beginning, it’s a funny and heartfelt story about a girl who has lost her way. Katarina, or rather Kate, as she insists (played by Emilia Clarke) lives with no regard for her health or wellbeing; she drinks, sleeps around, and keeps trying out for unlikely singing parts, while working as an elf in a all-year round Christmas shop. As her sister comments, “you are the furthest thing from an adult I know”. Even though she regularly manages to sabotage her friendships, everyone continues to give her leeway because last year Kate was sick, really sick, and in many ways she is still recovering.

Her boss at the store, aptly named Santa, is played wonderfully by Michelle Yeoh, she is both funny and acidic.The store is gorgeous, full of both charming and awful Christmas decorations and knickknacks. As Kate says, “Santa loves Christmas more than taste or sanity”.

Kate’s family emigrated from Yugoslavia and her overbearing and protective mother, Petra (cleverly acted by Emma Thompson) guilts and harangues her adult children, yet thrives to be needed. Kate describes her family: “anger, shame, resentment, embarrassment, and that’s just my mum”.

It’s a close collaboration with the music of George Michael and Wham! and much of the storyline hangs on the opening lines of ‘Last Christmas’. Hit song ‘Faith’ is also used, as is the Five Young Cannibals line 'She Drives me Crazy', being the ringtone Kate uses to alert that that her mother is calling.

Then there is Tom (played by Henry Golding). He appears outside the shop and hangs around to get to know her. As they spend time together, he encourages her to ‘look up’ and she begins to see all the decorations above eye level spread around London. He takes her to his own secret garden, a charming nook hidden in the city. He doesn’t have a phone, because he got sick of looking at his palm and left it in the cupboard. A friendship and then romantic relationship develops between them, but something is a bit off. He disappears for days at a time, and warns her at one point “you can’t depend on me”. Throughout the first half of the movie, I kept thinking, there is something not right about this guy, he seems both an empty character and too good to be true.

But one thing he says really does get her thinking “every action of a common day makes or breaks your character”. Slowly she starts to change, she helps others, she offers time at the local homeless shelter and she works to repair damaged family and friend relationships.

All of this makes for a story that has real potential - it was realisitic, funny, quite well-crafted and very prettily filmed.

Then comes a twist that requires you to completely suspend reality. And it’s how you feel about that that will determine how you feel when you exit the cinema.

Personally, I don’t mind silly, I don’t mind soppy romance, but what I want is something believable. I thought it might finish well, but once the story changed you had to reinterpret the whole movie. And I still can’t figure it out in a way that made any sense looking back. In the end, it was emptier than it needed to be. As my friend and I analysed it after, we thought it had great potential and could have been a great message about people growing and changing as a result of living through hard times, but in the end it was quite unsatisfying.

I was guest of Universal Pictures.

Monday, November 4, 2019

God, You and Sex

God, You and Sex, David White

This thorough book by David White considers God’s views on sexuality and what that means for believers living today. Because this is an area highly relevant for the marriage ministries we are involved in, as well as for today’s culture, this a detailed review (and also refers to some specific sexual practices).

White begins by introducing why a book like this is needed, noting four trends in the church: the rise and normalisation of pornography, the increased sexual activity amongst Christian dating couples, the confused Christian teaching about sex, and the shift in views on same-sex intimacy.
“I want Christians to have a thorough biblical understanding of why God’s design for sex is a lifelong union between a man and a woman. And I want you to be able to connect Christian sexual ethics to a broader Christian worldview.”
He states the book is for everyone, while noting,
“These pages will be easiest to read for those who are happily married and who experience a passionate and fulfilling sex life. Your experience of this good gift naturally leads to worship of the Giver. But that’s a small percentage of people who will pick up this book.”
So he acknowledges those in hard marriages, who are single, who live with same sex attraction and survivors of sexual abuse. There is a wise, gentle and understanding tone here, and he also shares his own story of sexual brokenness and redemption.

There are helpful warning words at the end of the introduction:
“Sexual experience will always be more like a piece of chocolate cake than a source of life. It is a gift to be received with thanksgiving that should lead to a heart of increasing gratitude, but it will not change your life. Only living in relationship with the Lover of your soul will do that.”
Starting with God’s work in creation, White points out how God made sex as a good gift to be enjoyed that reflects the unity within the godhead and that because of God’s trinitarian nature, love predates creation.
“From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is unashamedly positive about marital sexuality. As we will see, a robust understanding of God’s design for human sexuality is a beautiful proclamation of the gospel promise that God will be our God and we will be his people.”
Sex in marriage is a ‘reunion’ of God’s image bearers designed to bring forth life as well as oneness and intimacy to the couple, to really be known.
“It is the coming together emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically, that makes human sexuality a reflection of our Creator.”
Chapter 2 expands what it means for God to be our lover: “God created marriage and sexuality for us to know his heart toward us”. He considers the extensive use of adultery imagery to explain Israel’s turning from God. He tells of his experience of his first wife’s death, coming to understand God’s extensive love for him which is more than any spouse, and then moving towards remarriage as he fell in love again. He asks the reader to consider:
“How would your relationship with God change if you pictured him as a lover, rather than a judge? Even if you feel more comfortable with God as your Father or Redeemer, how does it alter things to see him as your husband? What do you think is missing from your understanding if you do not have this crucial piece?”
Chapter 3 expands the idea of union with Christ and what that means for sexual union.
“Our union with Christ is the adoption into the extended family of the Godhead. Because union with Christ is at the center, marriage as a “one flesh” relationship provides a poignant metaphor to describe the wonder of our relationship with Jesus.”
It is the covenant bonds of promise and faithfulness that make sexual union a delight and a treasure:
“The issue is whether this couple is willing to make public promises committing their entire self and future to one another. Only this is good enough to merit the glory of godly sexuality because only this mirrors the radical commitment of our God who is zealous for us and longs for our sexual union to reflect his commitment of love made by promise and oath, ratified by his own blood.”
He then extends this to consider that sexual pleasures reveal a God of delight.

Chapter 5 considers sex in relationship and the damage of sexual sin, noting
“Simply put, sexual sin violates the fundamental reflection of the most glorious union—our connection to our Lord through his Spirit—which is implicit in God’s good design of marital love. That’s why God cares so much about sexuality and why sexual sin is so profoundly damaging.”
Yet sexual sin is also universal, and therefore needs to brought into the light,
“It is because sexuality is so glorious, not that sexual sinners are so despicable, that sex requires such care.”
Chapter 6 starts to examine sex as service to the other. “Sexual pleasuring in marriage is a wonderful obligation that spouses are blessed to repay each other.” I appreciated his analysis and explanation of 1 Corinthians 7, addressing the issues it can raise, especially the expectation of sex on demand. He takes the time to deal with this pastorally from a number of angles, concluding,
“God gave us 1 Corinthians 7:1–5 because spouses need to be taught that selflessness must govern the marriage bed and serving each other is the path to deep joy and fulfillment. This conforms us further to the image of our ultimate Bridegroom.”
He considers the need to talk openly about sex in a marriage. He includes oral sex and differences in desire amongst a discussion of what mutual giving would look like. He also turns to consider areas he thinks are problematic.

Chapter 8 addresses single sexuality, both the opportunities, but also the grief and loneliness that may also be present. He encourages the reader to see that singleness has a place in the kingdom of God, proclaiming to the world that the idols of companionship and sexual expression in this world can be truly found in Christ:
“Your commitment to live chastely as a single Christian proclaims to a watching world that there is another King, whose own willingness to embrace a different kind of life disarmed the lies of the enemy (see Colossians 2:15). You testify to the truth that sex is not necessary to have a rich, powerful life.”
Next he focuses on the worldview behind fallen sexuality, and then various sexual practices that he believes do not fit God’s design, including masturbation, pornography, sex outside marriage, and gay marriage, but finishes with the reminder that:
“The real problem is that broken sexuality is universal, affecting every person and community on the globe.”
All of us have a sexuality affected by the fall. He consider some of the norms of our culture today and the lies behind them, most notably the overarching view that sex is all about me and what I/we want. In the end, he encourages the reader to:
“focus on your own sexual redemption. Like me, that will keep you plenty busy. And if you have already made great strides there, ask God what new ethical issues he’d like to tackle in your life”
He turns to the challenges of parenting today and encourages all parents to be willing and ready to discuss these things often with their children. Some topics covered include masturbation, technology use, LGBTQ+ issues, and the hook up culture.
“Given the cultural messages and mounting hormonal pressure, our kids need compelling reasons to obey God in their sexuality, especially as they approach their teen years and beyond. When it comes to talking to your kids about sex, getting out of your comfort zone means being willing to have multiple conversations with your kids.”
He then considers biblical sexuality in public, “the last few decades have marked a dramatic shift toward a sexuality that wildly diverges from Christian orthodoxy.” So that “The sexual ethic once taken for granted is seen as oppressive and harmful to society, and people who uphold biblical morality are going against the flow, often ridiculed as quaint and progressive.”

“The only way we can show perfect courtesy and have gracious, salty words is if we are daily aware of our own need for God’s grace.” We should invite friendships with those with whom we disagree over their sexual ethic, and we are called to love everyone.

The final chapter raises the vision for everyone, and points us towards the end times when we will glory in our complete and satisfying relationships with Christ.

We recommend numerous books on sexual intimacy for married couples. The advantage of this is the biblical basis and detail of the theological considerations and perspectives. Many focus on how to have sex in marriage, this offering adds much more, giving a reason why to have a high view of sexual expression in marriage. From there, one can consider the challenges presented for people and couples with their own issues, as they face the challenges of an ever changing sexually expressive and permissive culture.


I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, October 28, 2019

God Friended Me

I was drawn in by the enjoyable, clever and interesting pilot episode of this series.

Atheist podcaster Miles, who has rejected the faith of his family, is sent a friend request by God. Convinced it’s a hoax, he keeps ignoring it, but it is insistent and he finally accepts. He is immediately sent a friend suggestion for a man who just happens to be walking past him, who he follows and ends up stopping from jumping in front of a train.

The next friend recommendation is for journalist Cara who is having some family issues of her own. The two of them start to investigate what is going on, trying to hack the account and track the IP address, along with Rakesh, Miles’ coworker.

The strands get tighter between everyone as various connections are discovered between them.

***

As I continued to watch the rest of the season, I found myself intrigued. Miles’ father is a minister, his sister is a social worker who owns a local pub and is in a committed lesbian relationship, and his mother died in a car crash when he was eight. Cara has her own complicated past with a mother who deserted the family. All of the story lines become prominent at various points and are very well done.

They continue to search for the real person behind the God account, using hacking and tracking to do so. If you wanted to question the ethics, they use their workplaces to hack accounts, seem to rarely be at work and often use dodgy and deceptive methods to track people down.

Yet, each time the God account swings into operation and Miles is sent a friend request, they end up helping someone in a specific and detailed way, almost all to do with restoring relationships. Miles, Cara and Rakesh all discover they love helping people.

At one level, it’s very neat. Every episode has a storyline that ends neatly wrapped up in a bow, in a great feel good moment that often brings a tear to the eye. Yet even saying that in a somewhat cynical way, I didn’t feel cynical watching it. There is a real understanding of humankind and their struggles, the complicated lives that people have as well as their desires and dreams. The writers clearly have remarkable insights into human behaviour. Miles and Cara come to see that helping people isn’t a burden, it’s an opportunity.

At the same time, the larger mystery of who is running the God account keeps developing an overarching plot line. They are all convinced it’s a very sophisticated hacker, not that it could actually be God.

It’s an interesting premise that I have enjoyed watching. I think it could raise questions for people and be a good conversation starter. The faith represented here is not Christian (that is, Christ is never mentioned), in fact is almost entirely fits the definition of “moral therapeutic deism”. Yet, it is one of the few shows I have seen that is willing to even raise questions of faith, reason, atheism and put them together in an intelligent and even nuanced conversation. Big ideas are addressed: suffering, grand design, faith, hope, calling, unity. And over it all - why is the God account operating at all? Why operate with Miles?

Over all of this are the excellent visual effects. It’s set in New York City and the filming is fantastic. The shots are filled with beautiful light and it shows off the city in a way I haven’t seen before. The images are clean and clear and as a result the whole show feels light and positive. I don’t recall any swearing, violence or inappropriate intimacy, and I suspect you could watch it quite happily with teenagers and have some good conversations with them as a result.

I watched all of Season 1 and enjoyed both the storylines and the characters, and how they have were slowly drawn to intersect together to a quite satisfying finale.

The first series is currently available free to air on the 7Plus website, and Season 2 has just started showing.

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Moon is Always Round

The Moon Is Always Round, Jonathon Gibson

It’s not often that a children’s book brings me to tears, but that is just what The Moon Is Always Round does each time I read it. Gibson has written a heartfelt book teaching children the truth of God’s goodness, in the midst of especially hard times.

Dedicated to his son Benjamin, the little boy in the book is meant to be him. Told in the first person by the little boy, he and his dad have a game they play when they look at the moon. Whatever shape it looks at any point in time, when Daddy asks “what shape is the moon”, little Ben always replies ,“the moon is always round”, and it means that “God is always good”. It’s their little catechism to talk about no matter what things look like and though it can sometimes be hard to see, God is always good.

So:
When Dad told me I was getting a little sister, the moon looked like a banana.
But Dad said, “The moon is always round.” 


When the mummy’s tummy looks like a watermelon, the moon looked like a shrivelled orange, but dad still says that the moon is always round.
Even when I was told that my little sister wasn’t coming to live with us after all the waiting, Dad said “The moon is always round.”
When the little sister can’t come home, and little Ben asks why, Dad replies: “I don’t know why. But the moon is always round.”

When they are at the funeral they remind each other that the moon is always round, and that means that “God is always good”.



There are helpful instructions at the back to talk to children about the moon and Good Friday, explaining the story behind the book, and giving a little catechism about the moon.

The illustrations by Joe Hox perfectly match the feel of the book, and it’s particularly the mother’s face at various points of their loss that keeps moving me to tears.

I am so thankful that Gibson found a simple, yet profound way to explain God’s goodness at all times to his own son in the midst of their family’s loss, and that has now chosen to share it with others. In many ways it deals with a very specific subject (the stillbirth of an infant), and so would be a very helpful resource if that were needed for your own family situation. However, the idea of God being good in all circumstances, even if we don’t understand them, is relevant for young children across a whole range of circumstances, and many parents and children will benefit from this tender, gentle, yet honest story.

Monday, October 14, 2019

The Good Name

The Good Name: The Power of Words to Hurt or Heal, Samuel T. Logan, Jr

This book came from honest, humble beginnings, written by Logan analysing why it was right for the Westminster Theological Seminary board of trustees to dismiss him as president for ‘shading the truth and bearing false witness’ after speaking a lie in a faculty meeting. To be honest, many of us would have hardly counted it as a lie. He introduces the story and uses it to explain how it led to a lot of soul searching and analysis of the meaning of the ninth commandment.
“My purpose in writing is to show that, as Christians, our words exist to reflect Christ’s character—his holy concern for God’s good name, his constant love for others, and his absolutely reliable truth. When our words are scornful, selfish, or false, they dishonor Christ. And especially when we speak such words to or about fellow Christians, they can cause great damage in Christ’s church.”
“Perhaps this little book will help all of us to live according to what Scripture says about bearing true witness, so that Jesus is honored as he should be.”
He turns first to consider the power of words, noting:
“Serious students of Scripture simply must take account of the fact that God, in his written revelation, has even more to say about how we speak to and about one another than he does about our sexual activity or theft or murder.”
God’s word is powerful: it creates and sustains, it also judges and redeems. As we are created in the image of God, we have a responsibility with our words as well:
“Given the enormous power of words, and the way they connect us to God himself, we must take great care with them and use them for the life-giving purposes God intended.”
In God’s word we usually find follow redemptive words following judgment words:
“Perhaps that would be a good pattern for human words to image. If we ever find ourselves in situations which call for words of judgment, redemptive words should quickly follow.”
Chapter 2 addresses how scripture defines true and false witness. He deals with how words of judgment can look, and are often unloving and unkind by humans. He addresses the ninth commandment, and then explanations and interpretations of it in various catechisms. Along the way, he notes the following:
“The problem of inappropriate judgment has plagued the church since its very beginning and the results continue to be devastating.” 
“how we speak is as important as that we speak, because the good name ultimately at stake is the name of Christ.”
“The point here is really a simple one: even as we speak against the sin and error that we perceive in others, our own sin may play a significant role in how we respond to those others. There can be sin mixed in with our good motives. It is usually when we really do see someone sinning that we end up defaming them—and sinning ourselves. So it takes the utmost prayerful commitment to make sure that our response is as God-honoring as we desire the words and deeds of other people to be.”
Chapter 3 addresses some of the damage done by false witness. Starting with the first lie told in the bible (the serpent to Eve), he considers numerous cases of lying or bearing false witness in the bible, and then extends to the evidence of false witness in the early church, noting for then as we learn as now:
“The lesson is clear: how Christians talk about one another can facilitate actions by secular governments that undermine what Christians on both sides of any argument actually desire. How we use our tongues matters.”
He notes that the Reformation was an overall blessing to the church, “but its positive impact was significantly undermined by how Protestant Christians talked about one another.” He asserts the same happened in the Great Awakening in America, and continues to today when Christians argue with each other, call each other names and accuse each other of heresy.

Chapter 4 starts to examine principles for bearing true witness. We should analyse our hearts and consider why we speak the words we do. We need to remember that we do not know other people’s hearts and therefore cannot speak with any authority about their actions or choices. He warns about the use of labels and particularly suggests that we avoid using either liberal or conservative to categorise others. He then delves into the mire of word usage online and has some great advice and warnings for Christians as they seek to honour God in the online space. There is consideration given for now to deal with error, suggesting we should communicate with governing church bodies as appropriate, rather than use online forums to air grievances.

Chapter 5 fleshes out the guidelines in some current, specific areas of controversy: abortion, evolution, women in church leadership roles, social justice matters, same-sex marriage and dealing with sexual misconduct allegations. He starts with four preliminary points: our words matter, check your motive, stay on point and cast no aspersions, and secure slippery slopes. All of these are helpful ways to interact specifically with what he has said over the course of the book in conversations that are currently very relevant. No answers to these issues are given, but guidelines on how to have constructive conversations. As such, it is relevant and instructive, and much Christian dialogue would be greatly improved and be much more God-honouring if we all gave weight to such considerations.

A timely book that challenges the reader to consider the power of their words, the easy tendency to sin in this area, and ways to honour the Lord as we choose wisely the words that we use.

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  

Monday, October 7, 2019

God Made Me books

New Growth Press have released two more children’s books in their God Made Me series.

God Made Boys and Girls by Marty Machowski is subtitled explaining it helps children understand the gift of gender.

It's set in a class when one little girl outruns all the boys and one boy suggests she might turn to a boy. The teacher uses it as an opportunity to explain the differences between boys and girls by simply explaining genetics. He uses the correct terminology of XY and XX to explain male and female genes and links it all back to God's creation in Genesis 1-2.



Variations in skills and interests among boys and girls are all explained as part of God’s creative plan. Sin is explained as us wanting our own way and not God’s way, but that God dealt with our sin by sending Jesus. In the end, we are called to love people and be kind to them, even if they are different to us.

Machowski has done an excellent job of explaining gender in a way that a 4-7 year old would grasp and understand. It is balanced in explanation, gentle in tone and does not try to do too much (eg explain gender dysphoria).

There is another book like this for slightly older readers here in Australia, Patricia Weerakoon’s Learning About Gender and they would both be good to have on a shelf when you have younger children.


God Made Me Unique is authored by Joni and Friends, the ministry group advocating for people with disabilities started by Joni Eareckson Tada. Subtitled: Helping Children See Value in Every Person, this book helps children realise that there are many differences amongst people in the world, but we are all still made by God and loved by him.

Set in a Sunday School class, one morning the teacher announces there is a new student arriving, Brie. The teacher starts an explanation of special needs and how various children in the class have some differences: Jamal has a wheelchair and Wyatt plays with toys to help him focus and keep hands to himself. Brie finds noises a bit too much sometimes and wears headphones to manage it.



The teacher goes on to explain that all parts of the body work in different ways together, and like that, the church has many members with different skills and gifts and abilities.

“Even if some parts don’t work right! We’re still important to God and never out of his sight.”

This one is in the usual rhyme format that others in series also have and for the most part it reads out loud well and easily.

Trish Mahoney is the illustrator for both (as well as God Made All of Me and God Made Me and You), and so each book has a distinct yet familiar feel, with clear, fun illustrations

The whole series is worth having for those with young children.


I was given ecopies of these books in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Love and Muddy Puddles

Love and Muddy Puddles, Cecily Anne Paterson

After enjoying Invisible and Invincible, and knowing that Miss 12/13 had also enjoyed them, I turned to Paterson’s two novels about twins Coco and Charlie Franks. Love and Muddy Puddles focusses on Coco, in Year 8 at an exclusive girls’ school in Sydney, where she is perfectly happy having finally made it into the popular group at school. But her Dad has taken a redundancy after years of high stress work and decided the family is going for a full tree change and moving to the Kangaroo Valley, to build their own home. Twin sister Charlie and older brother Josh are thrilled, but Coco is horrified. Such a move will be social suicide, why would she possibly want to move away from friends and the city? Refusing to talk to her father, she begrudgingly goes with them, hanging out for the promise of the chance to return to boarding school in a year. She’s pretty badly behaved and has no real idea of just how rude and condescending she can be. Not surprisingly, country life is a bit of a shock at first, but along the way Coco figures out what real friends can be like, how much she loves horse-riding, and that her family might not be so bad after all.

Charlie Franks is A-OK charts Charlie’s exploits the following year, in a new school in the Valley. She has taken up show jumping, and her usual competitive nature might just be causing some problems with the girls at school. Not only that, but things at home are all out of kilter with her mum not being well. Again, Charlie learns what matters with family and friends, and has to rise to a challenge when really needed.

As with the other books of Paterson’s these two also have some reasonably intense storylines. I was somewhat surprised by the intensity of the bullying in Love and Muddy Puddles (as with the Jazmine books) and one creepy boy and his behaviour. I did love the bullies’ names though in the popular group: Saffron and Tiger Lily. I felt it was a shame that none of the friends seemed to grow or change in a positive way, except the main characters. I would have liked to see some of the mean girls come to some realisation of what they were like, and consider change, but I understand they were backdrops to the main character. Miss 14 and I have talked about them and think that while they are well-written, descriptive and evoke heartfelt emotion at points, both the bullying and the early love infatuations were a bit over the top.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Maze Runner Series

The Maze Runner series, James Dashner

Some books really make you stop and wonder about the imagination of the author. I have read a fair amount of dystopia in recent years: Tomorrow, When the War BeganThe Hunger Games, Scythe and so on. Most have intrigued me when their concepts, creativity and premises. But The Maze Runner series has horrified me. Dashner has created a truly awful post apocalyptic world.

I’ll give an outline of the overall story, because I think parents may want to know what it’s about before they decide to recommend it or not to their kids. (I am giving away some things now that it takes a while to figure out while reading).

Extreme sun flares have left the earth barren, boiling hot and mostly empty with rising sea levels. In the years following, as communities of survivors started to rebuild and form basic groups; remaining governments formed the Post Flares Coalition. To complicate things, a man made weapon virus made its way into the populace. Named The Flare, death rates were astronomical, but more terrifying are its effects: the slow decline of all features of humanity, so that by the end people are lower than animals with no cognitive function, turning to self harm, mutilation and cannibalism.

It seems a very small proportion of the remaining population are immune and so the race is on to develop a cure. Enter WICKED, a scientific subset of the PFC working around the clock to map the killzone (brain) by extended tests and challenges, all on teenagers.

All of this becomes clear as Books 1 and 2 unfold. The Maze Runner starts with Thomas waking up in a large metal box which delivers him to the Glade. Greeted by the approximately 50 boys who already live there, who are maintaining their community though farming and supplies delivered from The Creators. Thomas has no memory at all and it becomes clear that no other boy did either when they arrived. They have managed to provide for their needs, and certain boys spend their days mapping the enormous maze that surrounds them. The next day Teresa is delivered to the Glade. It soon become clear that no more supplies are coming and they must escape from the as yet unsolvable maze.

Book 1 charts the final weeks of the Maze project, as they try to find their way out. They have to battle terrifying creatures called Grievers, bulbous fatty creations with numerous weapons attached that maim, sting and kill. Tensions rise between various boys and justice is meted out as necessary. They have developed their own language which has given Dashner the ability to insert a massive among of swearing among the boys, even though they are not words we would use for the purpose. (e.g. shuck). When I finished this book, the words I wrote down immediately were: action packed, extreme, violent and imaginative.

Book 2 The Scorch reveals that the vast experiment of the maze was actually only Phase 1. In this Phase 2, the kids are dropped off in an equatorial region, now blinding desert and populated only by Cranks (those infected with The Flare). They have to make their way through the region to safety on the other side. Again, it’s all part of one massive experiment. My thoughts through this book were that is was overwhelmingly, unnecessarily violent. The back of this book summed it up in three words: adrenalin-fuelled, horrifying and page-turner. That’s pretty spot on.

Book 3 is The Death Cure. As it becomes increasingly apparent that WICKED will stop at nothing to try to formulate their cure for The Flare and continue the survival of the human species, Thomas and his friends are aware that they will never escape, and their trials will never be over. It’s one very extreme version of ‘the ends justify the means’ at all costs. The conclusion was inevitable, but it took a long time to get there.

Books 4 and 5 are prequels. The Kill Order gives the back story both to the time immediately after the sun flares, as well as when the Flare virus was released. The Fever Code charts the lives of Thomas, Teresa and their friends in the years prior to going into the maze, once they are the property of WICKED. They are interesting, but just as violent and disturbing in different ways.

At this point you are possibly wondering whey I kept reading them all. I am wondering the same. They were an interesting premise and they were imaginative, but as I have said, also confronting and disturbing. I kept reading them because Miss (almost) 12 loved them. I kept asking why, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. My reflection is that the story drew her in, and she cannot conceive of a world where this could actually happen. So, it was interesting but complete fantasy. I, on the other hand, could actually see a grain of truth in much of it and therefore found it much scarier. As I thought about it further, I can see that this is an author who has a true dense of total human depravity.

Personally I think Tomorrow, When the War Began, Hunger Games and Scythe are better at opening up some larger issues, without the extreme violence (and for those that have read the others, that’s saying something). But, perhaps like my daughter, your kids may love it too! Having said that, I wouldn’t have recommended it to her, and am a little surprised it was available in the primary school library. The publisher’s website does suggest 13+. There is definitely no way either of us want to watch any visual representation of it.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Radically Different: A Student’s Guide to Community

Radically Different: A Student’s Guide to Community, Champ Thornton

This 13 week program by Champ Thornton is a guide for middle schoolers and young teens as they consider what it means to live as Christians in community and in their relationships.

Helpfully, Thornton starts with the big picture. Week one starts with considering God and who he is. The next three weeks further explain the structure of the rest of the book, looking at creation, the fall and redemption (which he terms, the good, the bad and the new). The following nine weeks look at different topic areas, all applying the lens of good, bad, new to each. These include their relationship with God under the headings of listening to God (in his word), talking to God (prayer), and worshipping God. Then it turns to earthly relationships with parents, friends, family, and church as well as difficult and broken relationships.

It is intended to be discussed as a group with a leader, but to have the youth prepare in advance. There are three short studies provided for the student each week (probably each 10 mins maximum), and there are also leader’s notes for further discussion and how to use the time spent together. As such, it would be a great resource for a Sunday School program for about 10-13 year olds. The diagrams and illustrations are probably a bit young for kids older than 13, but the concepts could be extended to promote in depth discussion across that age range as appropriate. In our Australian context, I’d be thinking a Year 5-8 group would be about the right age range.

It’s not the type of material that our kids have generally used in their programs at church, but I can see the benefit and would recommend it to groups considering options with this age range.

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

The Mission-Centered Life

The Mission-Centered Life, Bethany Ferguson

Bethany Ferguson has spent 15 years in Africa (Uganda, South Sudan & Kenya) in cross-cultural mission. She has written this bible study guide to assist those who are considering what it means to live in a mission focussed way. It’s not only for those who are considering cross-cultural mission, although there certainly is an emphasis on that. However, anyone who wants to be challenged how they consider mission in any context will benefit.

It’s designed for small group use. There are ten chapters; each starts outlining the big idea, then there is a short bible study, a few pages of written reflection and questions to discuss after reading it all. For those who want to push a little further, there is another few pages by the author at the end of each chapter, and further options for discussion or private journalling.

She describes the book as follows:
“This book is about rhythms of missional living. It is about how God meets us, moves us forward, gives us reasons to celebrate, and draws us deeper into himself. It is about finding possibilities within the impossible and being transformed as we discover grace in the broken places.”
She covers a wide range of topics, under short word headings. Starting with ‘going’, she directs the reader to reflect that: “Everywhere we look, we are confronted by the paradox of a world that is both beautiful and broken.”

Other topics addressed are prayer, service, suffering, repentance and joy. She addresses issues of identity and where we find our value:
“God didn’t need me. But I needed to witness the work of God in Bundibugyo. And to do that, I needed to be confronted by the brokenness of a world of death and loss. I needed to start by asking hard questions about suffering in the world and about a Christian’s role in a world broken by sin. And only by allowing Jesus to transform my assumptions about myself, the world, and ultimately about God could I become someone who actually participates in God’s mission in the world.” 
“One privilege of living cross-culturally is that it shakes up all of your assumptions about your identity.”
I appreciated the honesty about her own struggles with sin on the field. She judged people or made assumptions, assuming she was going there to help people and teach them, while coming to realise how much she learnt from the people she lived with. Her heart was challenged in numerous ways and she is open and realistic about it. She can see how God has used these times to grow her faith, to find her worth as his child and find less value in what she has to offer.
“It’s important for a missionary to have talent and training, but abilities are not identity. What matters is not that I am capable or incapable, having been good or having been evil, but that I have received God’s gift and was swept into his family. I have a new home.”
She considers what it is like to view suffering and poverty up close, and how you could react:
“During my years working in areas impacted by war and poverty, one of my fears is that I will move from hope to cynicism ... Cynicism also makes you miss so much of the beauty and power of redemptive grace at work in our broken world. Cynicism keeps you from working for change. Cynicism also keeps you from the cross.”
It could be used for personal reflection, but I think there would be real value in doing it with at least one other person. There would be benefit for bible study groups and the like to also work through this material together. It would be eye-opening and challenging, whether or not anyone in the group was considering overseas service. Couples or family units considering cross cultural work could do it together with great benefit as they ponder Christ, the gospel, world mission and their potential place in it. As such, it could be a resource to assist with decision making to enter the mission field and further training. At the same time, I suspect those already on the field could benefit as well as they take a step back and reconsider the truths of the gospel in light of their service, and reconsider their own hearts in it.

Something that might have made it even better would have been having others included in the writing, that is, other missionaries in other situations. We know missionaries working in countries all over the world, in various roles and circumstances and perhaps the voices of others in the essays, who are in different situations would have added to the book’s depth.

I appreciated Ferguson’s final comments:
“I don’t know where your missional life will take you. But I do know the world needs people radically transformed by the love of Jesus. I hope these weeks spent considering the mission-centered life have renewed your love for Jesus and the world he came to save. I hope you have seen in new ways the beauty and neediness of the world, the sufficiency of Christ, the power of the cross, the gift of grace, and the calling to care for the world. Through that, I hope you have a richer vision for living out a resurrection life in the midst of a dying world. As you seek to live a life on mission, may you find that God’s love and resurrection power are greater than all you could have hoped or imagined.”

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, September 2, 2019

Blind Spots

Blind Spots, Tim Riddle and Fil Anderson

This new offering by Tim Riddle and Fil Anderson challenges the reader to open their eyes and be aware of their blind spots. They start with a general definition.
“We finally decided that a blind spot (to us) is anything that stands in the way of being all that God has intended for our lives. Yes, many of those blind spots are sins, but others are rooted in ignorance, immaturity, circumstances, and sometimes the sins of others against us.”
Much of what this book addresses though are the blind spots that you could categorise as sin. It’s a way of defining the sin that we don’t tend to identify because we don’t realise it’s there.
“The problem with our blind spots is not just that they lead us into a life of frustration, disappointment, and feeling overwhelmed with life, others, and ourselves. They are also potent hindrances to our spiritual growth. To the extent that we are blind to what is motivating us, we aren’t free to grow. Discovering our blind spots helps us embrace the truth that God has a plan for our lives that’s better than ours.”
A later chapter elaborates that we can have blind spots in areas we are uninformed or prejudiced, areas we have been hurt, or where have a gap in perception. They can affect relationships, workplaces and our relationship with God. They continue to exist because we are in denial or we are prioritising other things over that issue. There are some analytical questions provided to help the reader begin to identify areas where their own self-perception may be lacking.

There is a perusal of some of the history of blind spots, and they bring in illustrations like the lack of binoculars on the Titanic, or Lance Armstrong’s drug use despite constant denials. Coming to scripture, there is the first blind spot in Genesis 3 as Adam and Eve think they deserve what God denied them; and later examples including the pride and entitlement of King David with Bathsheba. All of us have blind spots and people have had them since the fall:
“Blind spots start small, changing the narrative ever so slightly. Over time we lose sight of reality, which opens the door for all kinds of harmful behaviors to emerge from the shadows of our souls. Each sinful behavior creates distance from God even though God never steps away—the distance is always created by us.”
The authors identify a disconnect they see in theology today. While theologians like Calvin have noted that all of doctrine is about knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves, they posit:
“While we have focused on knowing God, we’ve tended to overlook the importance of understanding ourselves. The consequences have been harsh and dramatic. Blind spots abound, resulting in betrayed marriages, decimated families, shipwrecked ministries, and endless numbers of people ruined.”
They make a point, but I think all humanity has tended to hide from their sin and blame others since the beginning of time. In the end, this is a book that tries to identify and name the sins we struggle to identify due to our own spiritual blindness. We do need to face our sin, particularly the sin that we are unwilling to see, and it takes courage and maturity.
“Having your sins and blind spots exposed can be shocking, humiliating, painful, and disappointing. It helps to have a tough hide and a tender heart. A direct seek-and-destroy attack on your blind spots, whether they’re the result of innocent ignorance or blatant denial, is not child’s play.”
Each chapter finished with a “Be Encouraged” and a “Get Engaged” section. The first helpfully summarises the chapter and the second prompts ways to think actively about the material, whether it be self-analysis, prayer or talking with others. Those who engage in these will obviously get much more out of the book.

I liked this book, but I didn’t love it. While the bible was used throughout, more attention was given to modern and current day examples. I felt there was an overuse of illustrations, so much that the core parts of the gospel message were almost hidden in the midst of stories and anecdotes. This is probably because the truths of the gospel were not clearly laid out at the beginning, but rather scattered throughout the book. Also, much of the language is about coming back to God and his love, which of course, we are to do. Yet it felt incomplete, because there wasn’t as much about the grace of God extended to us despite our sin. There is more emphasis on Jesus as a wise teacher who pointed out his hearers’ blind spots, than the amazing sacrifice Jesus paid to die for our sin and our blind spots. None of what they have said is wrong, I just didn’t always feel the balance was where it could have been.

As I have reflected on this further, I think it was the overall message that didn’t sit quite right. I agree we have blind spots, and much of it is sin and we need to deal with it. But, in this book, I felt the reason given to deal with them was a personal growth message: so that I can fulfil the plan God has for me.

I think the emphasis of the gospel should be a little different. I wanted to see assurance that I am made in the image of God, and he has made me to live out that image. He knows the depth of my sin, yet offers abundance grace and forgiveness in return, through his son Jesus Christ. My fulfilment comes from knowing I am a beloved child of God, forgiven and redeemed, now able in the Spirit to live in ways that honour him, which includes discovering and dealing with my blind spots.

So, it’s a helpful book, but I think there are better treatments on sin and sanctification available.

Having said that, I totally agree with their concluding statement:
“When I look back on my journey with Jesus, I’m fascinated at how much I thought I knew about God and myself when I was younger. After nearly fifty years of following Jesus, I now recognize that I’m unfinished, incomplete, imperfect, and I have a long way to go. But I’m confident that God is neither surprised nor disappointed by my need for further development. God’s work in me will never be finished until I meet Jesus face to face.”
I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Friday, August 30, 2019

Shazam!

Regular readers will know this family is rather into superhero movies. So, Husband and I were keen to check out Shazam! This one fits into the DC universe and is a fun addition to the collection. It has no connection to any others (that I could ascertain), so works well as a stand alone (unlike any offerings in the Marvel universe).

It starts in 1974 where a young boy, Thad Sivana, is magically transported to a cave where a final remaining wizard is charged with containing the captured seven deadly sins. He has to find someone who is pure in heart and strong in spirit, a champion to inherit his job. Thad is deemed unworthy and sent back to earth. Fast forward to present day and Thad is still searching for ways to get back into the wizard’s lair, to gain the power of the sins that he glimpsed while there.

Meanwhile, 14 year old Billy Batson, is a child of the state, in care since he lost his mother at a fair when a young boy. He has been searching for her ever since. After yet another failed placement, he is placed in a foster home with a lovely couple and 5 other foster children, ranging from about 5 to 17 years old. There is another boy there Freddy with a leg disability, who soon becomes a good friend.

The wizard brings Billy to him and tells him that as he is in his final days, he must choose someone. He needed a “a truly good person, strong in spirit, pure in heart”, but concludes that after years of searching, there is no one like that and Billy is all he has.

With the magic word Shazam, Billy is given the powers of the six superheros whose first letters make the name: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. He is now transformed into a powerful adult male (Zachary Levi, amusing for previous fans of Chuck).

Not surprisingly, quite a lot of fun ensues as Billy and Freddy figure out what Shazam can do. You can imagine what 14 year old boys get up to when given superpowers. Lots of testing skills and releasing YouTube videos, showing off and some mild abuse of power. He needs to decide if he is going to use his powers for the good of others or only for own benefit.

In time, it becomes clear that Thad has indeed harnessed the power of the seven deadly sins for himself, and becomes the arch villain that Shazam is going to need to face. The sins themselves were quite graphically scary, so that would be a warning for younger audiences.

The foster family is lovely, and the parents are caring, kind and involved. As they say: “we give them a place of love, if they want to call it a home, it’s up to them”. The siblings all learn to look out for each other, and Billy has to decide whether to invest in this family or keep searching for his mother. In time, Billy decides that “if a superhero can’t save his family, he’s not much of a superhero”. There are some fun twists and turns along the way, all is all it’s another enjoyable superhero movie, with the overlay of teenage life across it. I probably prefer the recent Spider-Man (e.g. Homecoming, Far from Home) movies that combine teenagers and superheros, but it’s still pretty good.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Grandparenting with Grace

Grandparenting with Grace, Larry E. McCall

One of the privileges of reviewing books is reading outside of my current life stage. As a mother of teens and tweens, I’m unlikely to pick a grandparenting book off a shelf, but I have been richly blessed by this little offering by Larry E McCall.

If you are a grandparent, there are treasures to mine here as you consider your relationship with your grandchildren. He has suffused the book with grace, bringing grandparents back again and again to Christ and the gospel which calls us to live lives that honour God and to love our children and grandchildren faithfully:
“This is a guidebook—a book designed to serve grandparents by guiding them in how to apply the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ministry of grandparenting. My objective in writing this book is to take the glorious truths of the gospel and apply them very specifically and practically to the ministry of grandparenting.”
It is succinct, clear, gospel focussed, loving and gentle, addressing numerous areas that Christian grandparents could be considering.

He challenges the current culture of “I’m too busy for time with grandkids” as well as the idea that once we get to a certain age we are entitled to more time to ourselves and not be so involved. He reminds grandparents that no matter how special they think their grandchild is, they are a sinner who needs saving: they need the gospel and they need prayer. Grandparents can have a key role in showing the love of God and his grace to their grandchildren.

McCall emphasises that grandparents need to honour their grandchildren’s parents (both their own children and children-in-law). Ideally this will mean talking with them about the level of involvement everyone wants and how to be helpful and supportive of each other. It may mean some grandparents try to heal wounds that exist with their own children, apologising for past mistakes. It could mean grandparents invest more time in their relationships with their adult children:
“Don’t rush through your conversations with your child or child-in-law when you call, anxiously getting through the polite preliminaries so that you can talk to your grandchild.” 
“Are our adult children hearing words of encouragement from us as they continue their own journey of parenting?”
He encourages grandparents to be much more intentional: making their homes welcoming places for children, planning activities, following their lives and staying connected. Grandparents can reach out with meaningful conversations, affection, time and energy. They should consider what they are modelling: will their grandchildren conclude they care more about how their furniture is treated or that they are generous with their home and contents? Will they see that lots of money is spent on travel or that a lot is given away to people in need?

A detailed chapter helps grandparents consider how to pray for themselves: for their own hearts, understanding, wisdom, and perseverance; and to pray for their grandchildren and grandchildren’s parents. There are biblical suggestions to pray for salvation, heart change, character and godliness. There is great encouragement to pray with your grandchildren, whether in person or using technology.

Some time is spent considering various challenges of grandparenting. There are practical suggestions for when grandparents are long distances away, including planning trips and holidays, as well as using available technology. He challenges some grandparents to consider moving closer to grandchildren. Other challenges he addresses are divorce (of their parents or you as a grandparent), remarriage, adoption, having to care for your grandchildren, and defiant relationships.
“There is no reason to assume a standoffish posture toward newly gained grandchildren. God has not been standoffish with us, has he? He chose to move toward us, even when we were not moving toward him.”
All of these are dealt with biblically, wisely and sensitively. He even challenges to those not in these situations:
“If your own family has not experienced the situation of an absentee father or mother, is there a family in your community or church that could benefit from the involvement of a surrogate grandparent?”
McCall finishes with a challenge to grandparents to consider their legacy.
“As grandparents, we want to leave a legacy for our grandchildren—not just a legacy of money or things, but a legacy of faith, love, and dependence on Jesus.”
Focussing on Titus 2, he encourages grandfathers and grandmothers to be mature men and women of God:
“If we are going to leave a godly life-legacy for our grandchildren, we must continue to passionately pursue Christ and Christlikeness in daily life. Our lives will impact those of the coming generations. To some measure, our character, our priorities, and our perspectives on life and eternity will be reflected in them. May they see Christ in us!”
This is a book soaked in the truths of the gospel, and applied wisely and biblically to the situation of grandparenting. There is also an appendix for grandparents who are not sure they really understand the gospel, inviting a personal response.

Any warnings? Some grandparents will find this hard reading. You may regret mistakes you may have made. You may be struggling with estranged family relationships. There is wisdom within for those whose children are unbelievers and for those who are out of touch with their grandchildren, but overall it assumes you are in contact, and in a position to model faith to your grandchildren.

What if (like me) you are the parent in the middle of this grandparenting arrangement? Perhaps you are thinking “great – the perfect gift for my parents this year!” If you have a strong relationship and share your faith, consider giving it to them – they will probably be encouraged. But if you want to force them into your perception of what a grandparent ‘should’ be, perhaps reconsider your motive. I know some grieve the lack of involvement of their parents in their children’s lives (or conversely, their over-involvement), but this book would unlikely be the way to address it.

Who should read it? Christian grandparents (and grandparents-to-be) who want to foster strong relationships with their children and grandchildren that are founded on the gospel of Christ. Highly recommended.

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
This was first published on The Gospel Coalition Australia website.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Blinded by the Light

This new movie offering by Universal Pictures focusses on Javed Khan, a Pakistani teenager growing up in Luton, England in the 1980s. The family struggles to make ends meet: father Malik works at Vauxhill Motors (until they fire half the workforce) and mum Noor works long hours sewing. Javed (Viveik Kalra) knows the expectations upon him: get through school, get a good job, earn money and marry a nice Pakistani girl. But Luton is a hard place to live: unemployment is rife, and political and racial tensions overshadow their lives.

Making a wish on his birthday sums up his dreams: “make loads of money, kiss a girl, get out of this world”.

Javed has written a diary since he was ten, and writes pages of poetry as well as song lyrics for his best friend Matt’s band. A new English class, with committed teacher Miss Clay (Hayley Atwell), begins to open Javed to future opportunities of writing.

Struggling to balance his own dreams while meeting the expectations of his family, friend Roops puts two of Bruce Springsteen’s tapes into his hands, claiming “Bruce is a direct line to all that is shitty in this world”. Albums Born to Run and Darkness of the Edge of Town become two of the soundtracks that now help Javed to put words to all that he is feeling.

I loved these scenes. There are real highs and lows of emotion. In one, Javed is outside in the middle of a wind storm at night, pages of his poems floating through the sky, while the words of the songs are projected on buildings around him. As a love interest develops for classmate Eliza, there is a great serenade scene with a street group singing Thunder Road. Later he, Roops and Eliza, run through the streets of Luton singing Born to Run. This scene is so overdone and ridiculous, that it’s great fun (note: Husband thought it was just ridiculous.)

Many of you are aware that Husband and I are big Bruce fans. We saw him in concert five years ago and I have reviewed his recent biography. It was amusing to see how Javed changes as he follows Bruce. He dresses like him: white T-shirts with rolled sleeves, flannelette shirts and denim jackets. His language is infused with song lyrics. For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, it’s pretty funny. Even for those who are less familiar with Bruce or his music, chances are you will have heard these some of the tracks (eg Dancing in the Dark, Hungry Heart, The River, Blinded by the Light, The Promised Land, Cover Me)

There are external tensions throughout as we see the everyday racism shown to the Pakistani community. Little boys urinate in the mail slots of their homes, they regularly have to clean off graffiti, and personal safety is often under threat. A major clash occurs when a family wedding coincides with a day of Far Right protests.

Family tensions are also constant, it is a traditional home and all the money earnt is handed over to Malik daily, as Javed notes “In my house, no-one’s allowed opinions except my dad”. It would have been easy to make the father an overly extreme character, but there is depth to him as well, as he feels the burden to provide for his family, and weeps over the amount of work his wife has to do.

These are common themes in movies: the tensions between generations of a family, and the tensions of immigrant families working hard to provide for their children, but uncertain what to do with the more modern Westernised offspring that result. It was honest, sensitive and real.

The soundtrack, both the Springsteen songs and other 1980s artists (e.g. Pet Shop Boys, A-ha) are fantastic, and well placed in the story. The reality of life in Luton for immigrants is a little confronting. We can empathise with all members of the family as they struggle to find their way. It’s even based on a true story. I won’t give any more away for those who want to see it, but it’s a solid movie with a fun premise behind it. In the end, sometimes songs really can give you a soundtrack for your life.

I was a guest of Universal Pictures. This movie will be released on Oct 24.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Five Feet Apart

Five Feet Apart, Rachael Lippincott with Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis 

There is something about books that cover teen romance combined with major illness. They grab you in, draw out your emotional energy, and spit you out again hopefully more understanding and empathetic at the same time.

Stella has CF (cystic fibrosis), and has spent the last decade coming in and out of the same hospital, and is loved like one of the family by the medical staff. Over the years her Mum and Dad and sister Abby have already been by her side, and her sister’s drawings illustrate each hospital visit. However, things at home are complicated and this time she has come to hospital on her own. Delighted to learn fellow CF teen friend Poe is also in at this point, they reconnect quickly mainly via video chat as CF sufferers cannot get closer than 5 feet apart due to high risk of infection transfer.

At the same time, Will is in the same hospital. He also has CF, but combined with a deadly infection B. cepacia, which means he is no longer on the lung transplant list and only has a few years to live. His mother has made it her mission to find a cure and so has dragged him all over the world in hope. Will, however, is over the treatments and is counting down the days till he turns 18 and can refuse treatment.

As Will and Stella connect, neither is impressed with the other to start with. Stella thinks Will is arrogant and too risky. Will thinks Stella is too controlling and organised. But as they start to learn more about each other, the walls come down. Yet, how do people really connect, when they can never get closer than 5 feet from each other?

You know tragedy will strike at some point, but you can’t always see which way it comes from. We learn Stella has come to believe she has to survive for others. Will starts to realise just how dangerous his infection could be. Both grapple with the realities of facing death, major medical treatments and complicated family and friendships.

There are lots of similarities to The Fault in Our Stars. It doesn’t shy away from medical realities. It touches nerves, is funny as well as highly emotional, and sits with you for a while after. Highly recommended for teens about age 14 and up.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Any Ordinary Day

Any Ordinary Day, Leigh Sales

How do people live when tragedy strikes? How do you go on when in the midst of one normal day, things change forever? This is the story Leigh Sales wanted to address in this book, and she has done an excellent, insightful job. She opens with her own story of one day drastically changed, when she had a uterine rupture with her second pregnancy putting both her and her baby’s life in danger. This springboards into a reflection and investigation into how people cope and change when they have faced a major event.

Sales is a long-standing experienced journalist and perhaps this is why she has been able to interview so many people. Included in her list are:

  • Louisa Hope, survivor of the Lindt Cafe hostage crisis who also has multiple sclerosis.
  • Michael Spence, Sydney University Vice-Chancellor whose wife died four weeks after a cancer diagnosis, leaving him with five young children.
  • Walter Mikac, who wife and two daughters were killed at Port Arthur.
  • James Scott, who survived 43 days lost in the Himalayas and then become the centre of a publicity storm.
  • Stuart Diver, the only survivor of the Thredbo landslide, who has since also lost his second wife to cancer.
  • There are others too whose names we might not recall as readily or know at all, but have suffered their own private griefs and shocks.

What is highly valuable is some of her analysis along the way. She interviews past Prime Minister John Howard, who over his 11 years in office was the voice that consoled a nation through Port Arthur, the Thredbo landslide, 9/11 and the Bali bombings. She talks to coroners, police officers and priests and gives helpful comments on the legal profession, police force and those who help others, how they can be helpful or harmful to those grieving and suffering trauma.

She also considers how journalists help or hinder these tragedies, all in the name of reporting what the public want to know about it. She acknowledges there’s always a tension between landing the scoop and treating people with dignity. She is strikingly honest about her own failings and shame in this area, noting that many were due to a lack of empathy:
“There is an unfortunate collision between two forces. Maximum public curiosity and therefore maximum media harassment coincide with the peak vulnerability of the people involved.”
What I found interesting was that three of the people she interviewed have a strong personal Christian faith. I appreciated Sales’ honesty about her struggle with this, almost a sigh when people told her, yet an openness to try to understand how personal faith affected people: “Michael Spence is an extremely intelligent, accomplished, insightful person. If he finds value in Christianity then surely there are lessons for me to draw from that.” Later she comments,
“Religion is an extraordinary helpful tool at times of grief and loss because it offers both an explanation for the inexplicable and a supportive community…For me it has been equally heartening to meet many people who’ve had the courage the face the worst that life can throw at them without faith.”
She makes astute observations along the way about how people are drawn to hear about other’s people tragic circumstances but do everything they can do avoid their own. How people think they could never survive what others have had to go through. How many people can’t stand being that close to people who have suffered as they have no idea what to do or say, and so avoid it altogether.

Most people’s reflections acknowledge that there has been growth through whatever they faced, whether personal change, or a greater sense of purpose or meaning, or seeing communities change for the better as a result. While she does refer to some people who have really struggled with tragedy, it is clear they are not the main focus of her research. In the end, many people reach similar conclusions:
“That in pain, there’s also joy. You can’t be in the presence of just one though, that life is good, or life is bad, or life is sad. There’s all these things. And there are so many good people in the world, actually, so much kindness,. It’s everywhere.” 
“‘Somehow we need to be aware that we’re mortal, that this time is finite,’ she says. “It’s knowing this is all going to end, so let’s make it matter.’” 
“The random distribution of misfortune is perhaps the only thing in life that is fair. No amount of money, fame, power or beauty can save you from tragedy, illness or death if they’re coming for your family. I have a heaping plate of things in life that aren’t fair – nice parents, a peaceful country, a good brain, sound health and caring friends. I didn’t do anything to deserve any of that.”
It’s an engrossing read. Sales has done an excellent job with confronting but also uplifting subject matter, providing analysis and research while keeping a very personal and caring touch over it all.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Juliet, Naked


Husband and I both enjoyed this movie about living with the consequences of your choices, yet still trying to make the future better.

Annie (Rose Byrne) is the museum curator of the sleepy seaside town of Sandcliffe, England. For fifteen years, she has been living with boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd). They decided early on not to have kids, and Annie now regrets it, but they are both set in their decision. In fact, as she acknowledges early on, much of the issue is that Duncan is in love with another man. Not in any romantic way, but as a super intense fan of once mildly famous singer Tucker Crowe. He runs a website where 200 sad, middle-aged men gather together to debate various parts of his music and speculate on where he is, since Tucker has not been seen in public for over 20 years.

Opening the mail one day, Annie discovers someone has sent Duncan ‘Juliet, Naked’, that is, his seminal album but a pre-recorded version prior to the final release. It’s a dreary collection of his work, but Duncan thinks it’s brilliant. Frustrated by his lack of ability to find anything to criticise with Crowe, she posts a critique of it on Duncan’s website. To her great surprise, Tucker himself (Ethan Hawke) gets in touch to commend her on her review.

This kicks off an email exchange where they get to know each other and compare the realities of their current lives. While Annie laments her choices resulting in the lack of children, Tucker is facing his own past with four ex-partners and five children. As he notes, when you stuff up the first two decades of your adult life, it gets messy for the rest of it, and there is a lot you are trying to make up for. These exchanges are lovely: they are honest, candid and funny.

For those that want some content indicators: there are a fair number of f words, and a shot of batteries being removed from a vibrator. Duncan ended up being adulterous, and Annie’s sister Ros was a reasonably aggressive lesbian, who kept misreading women’s interest in her.

I won’t give away anymore, but we found ourselves reflecting that both Tucker and Annie were very realistic characters and we liked them. They were honest about their lives, their choices and where they lead them, yet also optimistic about change and positive about the potential future. Neither were over-the-top characters, not overly dramatic.

It’s an enjoyable film containing both humour and heartfelt reality.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Invisible and Invincible

Invisible and Invincible, Cecily Anne Paterson

These two very good books for younger teen/tween girls deal realistically with some tough issues that kids can face.

Jazmine is 13 and likes to remain hidden. It’s easy when you try hard enough, avoiding contact with people and never allowing yourself to feel. She can remove her hearing aid and just switch off. She’s moved house with her mum numerous times over the four years since her father’s death. She doesn’t have any real friends at school, so has drifted into the attention of bully Shalini and her friends, who she tries to appease.

Everything comes to a head when Shalini convinces them all to wreck the drama classroom and Jazmine is on the brink of suspension. However, drama teacher Miss Fraser intervenes and convinces Jazmine to be her helper for the upcoming drama production. One proviso is that she has to write down her feelings in a private journal. For the first time in years, Jazmine starts to analyse what she is thinking and how she feels and acts.

As the weeks unfold, Jazmine discovers she loves being involved in the play, she experiments with some gardening at home, and starts to ask questions about what happened to her father. However, she continues to think she is worthless and has nothing to offer and is stunned when some nicer students including Gabby and Liam, extend overtures of friendship towards her.

It is really a story of a girl learning to find her own voice and be OK with who she is. The themes are quite developed, with the bullying being quite intense at points, as well as the desire she feels for one boy. She also has to face what happened to her father.

The sequel Invincible returns us to Jazmine’s Year 8 world. I probably liked this one even more. Jazmine is balancing friends and their eccentricities, a boyfriend who is making her feel uncomfortable, and lots of nightmares when she tries to sleep. She escapes in the school holidays to her grandmother’s house, and finds it a place of solace with a woman she loves, respects and listens to. But family is never simple and an accident means Jazmine has to step up and care for others.

I finished both thinking Paterson has done an excellent job of portraying the variety of feelings and emotions of young women, and the challenges of friendships, boyfriends and complex family relationships. For that reason, I was a little surprised Jazmine was only 13. I felt the story would still have worked for a girl up to 15 or 16. As such, it’s good solid reading for girls aged about 11-14, though younger more na├»ve ones might want to wait a little longer to read it. Miss 12/13 really enjoyed them when she read them. Miss (almost) 12 also liked them, but wasn't as keen on the boyfriend parts. I enjoyed them myself, and there were sections that brought a tear to my eye. Paterson is Australian and so it reads very naturally for our context. The places referred to all smaller towns and regions on the east coast, and the books reflect people, life-styles and a school system many of us are familiar with. Recommended.

(I see too there is now a third in this series – Being Jazmine)

Friday, August 2, 2019

Instant Family

All five of us enjoyed and were challenged by this movie about fostering. Ellie (Rose Byrne) and Pete (Mark Wahlberg) are very happily married in their forties, and have a business flipping houses. When they show a house with five bedrooms to their family to look at, a random comment that they would never need such a large house because they are never going to have kids gets them thinking. Why don’t they have kids? Seems the years have gone by, it was never the right time and then after a while they stopped talking about it.

Pete makes a joking comment that perhaps they should just adopt a five-year-old so it would seem like they started having kids earlier than they did. This prompts Ellie to do an online search and she ends up on a fostering website, struck by the number of children needing homes. Pete is drawn in as well, and they end up in foster care classes.

So, the movie ends up with two main groups of people – the first being the adults in the foster care class and their instructors. These are a diverse group of people, from all walks and stages of life, wanting to care for foster kids for various reasons. The two instructors, Karen and Sharon, are great. They are honest, wise and willing to laugh. They walk beside these families through all their ups and downs, and support and encourage them along the way.

Then we are introduced to the kids. There is a fostering fair, where prospective parents and kids needing families can meet each other. Pete can’t stand seeing all the teenagers being ignored, though Ellie is very hesitant to talk to them because in her mind teenagers are trouble. They are rebuked by Lizzy, a fifteen-year-old, who tells them not to worry, but go and look at the little kids and forget about them.

They are intrigued and on inquiring discover than Lizzy has two younger siblings Juan and Lita, whom she has raised since their mother went to jail for drug use. They decide to proceed and bring all three children into their home.

Not surprisingly, it is hard, awkward and emotional. Ellie and Pete can’t quite believe the chaos that has hit them. There are temper tantrums for Lita, Juan is terrified of ever getting in trouble, and Lizzy is distant and reticent. When it gets really hard, they have an honest conversation about whether they can back out. Yet there are also moments of real joy. Connections are forged, trust is earnt and love is growing.

It seemed to touch on many of the big issues of fostering. This includes raising kids who are a different ethnicity to yourself. Pete wonders if there is a problem with a white couple taking on three Latino kids. As Karen says to him: “We have every colour of kid in the system, and every colour of parent”. Their extended families raise major concerns, wondering if they are “rolling the dice with the offspring of criminals or drug addicts”. There is the perception about foster parents: “everyone thinks we’re saints”. There are the emotional challenges of being in a system where family reunification is the priority. This is set in the US, where they have a more ‘fostering to adoption’ process, which is the not the case as much here in Australia.

As for content? There is a fair amount of swearing, which I still don’t like hearing with my kids, but each assures me nothing we are willing to watch at home will beat what they hear at school. There are references to ‘dick pics’ and naked selfies, and there is a particular unpleasant predatory janitor in a very minor role (who is beaten up by Pete and Ellie).

It’s a lovely story. It’s honest about the challenges, and excited about the potential of fostering. We have numerous friends who foster and our kids are becoming more aware of it. While no two-hour movie can do justice to the complexities of the real thing, it’s still a good thing for us all to have a little bit more insight into some of the challenges and joys.