Monday, December 13, 2021

Even more Dee Henderson

Regular readers will be be aware I have enjoyed Dee Henderson’s writing this year (here and here). Now, we turn to a few more novels and novellas, and then to her two Evie Blackwell cold case novels - of which I hope there will be more!

In The Witness, Amy is on the run, being chased by a New York crime boss because she has access to his hidden money. Police Chief Luke Granger is slowly getting to know her, but when her sisters (who think she is dead) inherit large amounts of money, it’s clear that trouble will come after them all. This one has a bit more action, and some of the outcomes are a bit sadder.

Kidnapped follows the story of FBI agent Luke Falcon, whose cousin’s wife Sharon and son have been kidnapped. Sharon’s sister Caroline (who has been dating Luke) may also be a target. How will Luke track them down, and why were they targeted? I don’t think this has any character overlap with other novels. There is a bit more action in this one than some of the others.

In Before I Wake, Rae Gabriella has moved to Justice, Illinois, joining old friend Bruce’s Private Investigator business. Country Sheriff Nathan is pleased to have her on board, especially when young women start turning up dead in hotels. It looks like natural causes, but something is not quite right. The three work together to figure out what is happening. At the same time the town’s main job provider, a tile factory, is on strike and tensions are mounting. How will it be resolved when it becomes clear all are related? 

Then there are a few shorter novellas:

In Betrayed, Ann Silver’s random purchase of a box at an auction house leads to the discovery of a murder weapon. As Ann digs into the history, she is convinced that an innocent woman Janelle is in prison for a crime she never committed. I really liked Greg, the trauma psychiatrist, Janelle sees upon her release.

In Missing, police chief John Graham’s mother goes missing and Lieutenant Sharon Noble is on the case. Will they find her in this cold Chicago weather before time runs out?

Evie Blackwell cold cases

Traces of Guilt is chronologically after Taken (and some references to character and storylines overlap as a result). Paul & Ann Falcon are present, but the main action centres around Evie Blackwell, who is about to head up the governor’s new task force on cold-cases. She is spending two weeks in Carin Country, reinvestigating the abduction of a young girl and the disappearance of a family. The Thane family are central in this town, Gabriel is sheriff and is soon working closely with Evie. Joshua Thane’s old childhood friend Grace has returned with a large and painful secret that will soon be exposed. Meanwhile Will Thane is dating Karen who has her own troubled violent past. This is a creative storyline, with some lovely, caring men in the Thane family who long to care for and protect the people who are important to them.

Henderson includes numerous women in her stories who have suffered dreadful abuse and trauma. She doesn’t seem to include men with the same challenges. Rather, her male lead characters tend to be strong, protective types who want to love these women. It’s a lovely story, but at times it feels a little one sided. However, she is writing fiction, and it’s probably what appeals to her (presumably) mostly female readers.

Threads of Suspicion has Evie with the Governor’s new task force taking on a series of Illinois cold cases. Working with Dave, they begin to investigate two separate missing persons cases - a female college student and an older male Private Investigator. The cases begin to intersect as do their own personal lives.

All enjoyable reads.

Monday, December 6, 2021

The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex

The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, Sheila Wray Gregoire (2012)

Warning: includes frank discussion of married sexual experience.

My recent reading of Gregoire et al’s The Great Sex Rescue, led me to explore her blog and then to her older book The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex.

Overall, this is a very helpful book aimed at women about sexual intimacy in marriage, covering early sexual expression and encounters in detail, and then ways to grow sexually in love, service, and pleasure with each other.

She starts with the beauty of sex, and it’s unique place in your marriage:
“You know you’re with this man till death do you part. You have time to learn. You don’t have to know what’s good to you; you get to learn what’s good for us.”
She explores how men tend to desire sex more often that women, yet acknowledges some women have higher libidos than their husbands. She encourages women to prioritise sex in a helpful way for their husbands. Here is where there seemed to be some difference from her current view in The Great Sex Rescue, where she is much more strident about the risks of seeing yourself purely as the outlet of your husband’s physical needs. (I’ll come back to this comparison point later).

She then goes on to explore three areas of discovery:

1. Physical discovery: fireworks. Detailed chapters on the basics and mechanics of sex, including contraception. She covers the wedding night in detail, dealing with expectations, and addresses whether or not they are virgins. It is sensitive, rational, detailed and helpful, encouraging couples to talk with each other and be honest about their own desires and personal choices.

She then discusses the female orgasm in some detail. I was surprised by her decision to make a distinction (as to value) between a vaginal and a clitoral orgasm. She then addresses the issues for a man who has a low libido.

2. Spiritual discovery: bliss. Here she talks about what it means to make love, rather than have sex, and the connection between the couple. This section looks at the realities of pornography use and how to proceed when either struggle with it, and also presents a range of sexual practices and gives her opinion on them.

3. Relationship discovery - laughter. These chapters encourage women to be more willing to initiate and enjoy sex with their husband, and what becoming best friends in marriage looks like:
"Sex isn’t the basis for our relationship; it’s the culmination of everything else, especially the friendship that we share"
Then she draws it to a close, basically encouraging women to enjoy sex and make it a priority.

As I flagged above, it’s interesting reading someone’s current views first, followed by their views 10 years ago. As such, my guess is there is some content in this Guide that Gregoire herself might alter if it was published now. Some things seemed a little different to the The Great Sex Rescue, and I suspect she has slightly altered her opinion over time. I don’t mind that, we all do it. But it makes it harder to read someone in reverse and then interact with what they are saying. They aren’t major things either, just some nuance. The largest difference is that this book encourages women to make good sex a priority as a way to love their husbands well. The Great Sex Rescue was much more honest about the challenges that such a message may send and removes the onus from women to be responsible for a couple’s healthy sex life.

A combination of both books together would be excellent, but as in any case - the reader should sift through and make their own decisions about what they do and do not agree with.

Personally, I didn’t like her designation of ‘good girls’ vs. ‘bad girls’, and it does certainly have a North American feel to it. She does clarify what she means, and for her ‘good girl’ doesn’t mean you are a virgin on your wedding night, or that you aren’t struggling with sexual problems, or your past that you had no control over (in fact she helpfully points out that some are actually ‘sad girls’). It’s not based on what you do, but who you are, and the fact that you are redeemed by Jesus: “if you choose to follow God, and his design for sex, you’re a good girl”. Even so, maybe it’s my age showing through, but being called a ‘good girl’ did feel a little condescending.

So, while there are minor things that I would nuance differently, and I suspect Gregoire would now also, overall, I mostly agree with what she says. Because it’s addressed to women, it is harder to recommend to couples, but men will get a lot out of it if they take the time.

I wish there was one book that covered everything about sex in Christian marriage: a truly godly and wise perspective, allowing for personal expression and experience, and helping couples to rejoice in the gift of intimacy. However, that’s unlikely. Yet this offering from Gregoire goes a long way to adding wisdom to the current collection, and as such, is now high up on my recommended reading list on this topic.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Resilient Grieving

Resilient Grieving, Dr Lucy Hone (Allen & Unwin, 2017)

This is an excellent book about grief, how it impacts and changes us, and how we learn to live with loss.

Dr Lucy Hone works in the field of resilience psychology. Living in Christchurch, she worked with people through major loss and disruption over the time of their earthquakes. Her life was then turned upside down when her daughter Abi (12) was killed in a car accident, along with two dear family friends.

As Lucy, her husband and two sons faced their devastating grief, she began to consider how her her work could interact with her grief experience. In the end, she decided she wanted to be proactive about her grieving, to take control of it.

Her reading, research and experience has produced Resilient Grieving (first published as What Abi Taught Us). She says “this book is less about what you might experience during bereavement and more about what you might do to enable the process of healthy grieving“.

The book is split into two parts.

Part 1: Recovery

This section is intended for the early days, weeks and months after a major bereavement. The first chapter suggests six strategies for coping in the immediate aftermath:
  • There are no rules, do what you need. 
  • Choose where to focus your attention 
  • Take your time 
  • Feel the pain 
  • Beware of the grief ambush 
  • Reestablish routines 
Further chapters consider ideas such as:
  • Accepting the loss 
  • Noting humans are hard wired to cope - death is normal and most people manage tragedy and trauma quite well, with time. 
  • Noting the secondary losses that come with any major loss - perhaps loss of role, income, dreams, etc. 
  • Choosing to find positive emotions 
  • The usefulness of distraction 
  • Habits of resilient thinking: realistic optimism, redefining hope, and mindfulness 
  • Managing exhaustion and depression through rest and exercise 
  • What family and friends can do to help. This chapter is very helpful for support people, and also includes comments about grief in children 
This was all very useful material. My only thought is that whether someone is likely to have this book and be in a state to read it in those very early days of grief, or able to process the content within. As such, this may be more of a tool for a support person, who can also put it in the grieving person’s hands when they are ready.

Part 2: Reappraisal and renewal

This considers the reality of your life after the loss, so chapters address:
  • Reappraising your brave new world 
  • Facing the future 
  • Continuing bonds 
  • Post-traumatic growth 
  • Rituals and mourning the dead 
The main reason I found this book so helpful was not related to a personal grief story. Rather, I have done a Theories of Grief course at uni this semester. And so forgive me, because this next sentence will mean nothing to many - but for those that have spent time in the field it should make sense. What Hone has managed to do is turn numerous grief theories (e.g., Worden’s tasks of mourning, Attig’s relearning the world, Stroebe & Schut’s Dual Process Model, and Neimeyer’s meaning making concepts); and combine them into an easily understandable explanation that grabs the key elements of each and applies them to her own situation. What I appreciate about the various grief theories is how readily they can interact with & build on each other. Hone has developed her own pictoral grief model - a jigsaw puzzle of interlocking pieces, not linear or circular, but something that keeps needing to be fit together in a way that works for her.

So, Hone has managed to tell her own story of loss and grief, and combine it skilfully with research, producing a book that is both deeply personal as well as being a learning and guiding tool for others - readily accessible for anyone in grief. Each chapter finishes with personal questions to consider for your own situation.

This could be a very helpful guide to those charting their own way through major bereavement. In addition, it would be a valuable addition to anyone who cares for or counsels those in grief.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Burnout

Burnout: A Guide to Identifying Burnout and Pathways to Recovery, Gordon Parker, Gabriela Tavella and Kerrie Eyers (2021)

At times, burnout seems to be the buzzword. It’s used often, yet hard to define or quantify. Are you burnt out or burning out? Is it possibly depression? Or exhaustion? Or is there an underlying medical condition? This is a timely book for anyone impacted by burnout, whether personally, or for family and friends, employers or health professionals; with the aim to explain, advance awareness and enable ‘nuanced management recommendations’. It is peppered with personal stories that give meaning and expression to the research and concepts within.

Part 1: What is Burnout? 

They begin by considering the place of burnout in ancient literature (including possibly Moses and Elijah) and its more modern history. They interact with the generally accepted definition of burnout and it’s three factors: energy depletion or exhaustion, negative feeling or cynicism about one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy (this may be the definition you have heard, it’s the one I knew about).

Based on the authors’ research (referred to as the Sydney Studies), they expand the factors at play and propose that the main features include:
  • exhaustion 
  • loss of empathy or perhaps loss of joy 
  • compromised work performance 
  • impaired cognition 
  • that it is different to depression, although there is overlap 
  • that perfectionism heightens the risk (it’s identified as probably the key predisposing risk factor) 
  • that it is a ‘diathesis stress’ condition meaning that some people are predisposed. 
This higher risk due to personality suggests that “escape from work or caregiving pressures may relieve some of the burnout symptoms, but failure to identify and modulate any personality contribution will not allow burnout to be so readily managed, while also increasing the risk of relapse”.

They consider other causes of burnout symptoms (what burnout is not: e.g. chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety) with much time comparing the symptoms of depression. There is an extensive table comparing melancholic depression (that which arises from inside a person with no seeming trigger), non-melancholic (more responsive to a situation) and burnout. This could be very helpful for health professionals, as well as individuals seeking some clarification.

Part 2: Causes of Burnout

It seems universally acknowledged that a clear cause of burnout is work. But what work causes burnout? Certain professions are linked with high rates of burnout including doctors, nurses, police, lawyers, teachers, managers, and clergy. However, the high rate of burnout in caregivers is now also being more widely recognised.

Interestingly, there is a paradox relating burnout with how one views one’s job: “burnout rates appear lowest in those who work in simply a job, higher in those who view their work as a career and highest in those who whose work is at the level of a ‘calling’”. Let ministry workers have ears to hear.

Then attention is given to the predisposing factors that can increase the risk of burnout, the most prevailing being perfectionism. Others include: neuroticism, having an external (rather than internal) locus of control, a Type A personality, a low sense of self-efficacy and low EQ. They conclude that “the sad thing about burnout is that is more likely to afflict good people”.

Part 3: Overcoming Burnout and Rekindling the Flame

To resolve burnout, three approaches are helpful, with most benefit if all three are addressed:
  • resolve work factors 
  • learn and implement de-stressing techniques 
  • identify and address personality contribution 
Following chapters focus on managers and improving workplace conditions and culture, workers and caregivers (e.g. when to speak up at work, and when to choose to leave), de-stressing techniques (e.g. mindfulness, meditation), and managing perfectionism (with a recommendation for the use of CBT).

They draw all the threads together at the end, with numerous suggestions about how to manage burnout, pointing out that “burnout resolves better with a self-management model” and therefore people can take control and manage it themselves perhaps with some assistance along the way.

Appendices

The appendices include:
  • The Sydney Burnout measure - their proposed diagnostic tool to assess burnout which can be self applied. 
  • A checklist of workplace triggers 
  • A perfectionism scale 
  • An extensive list of various resources (mainly apps and websites) 
All in all, this is a very helpful & relevant book, taking a concept that is widely talked about, but less widely comprehended or qualified, and provides a scaffolding for our understanding, assessment, and treatment of burnout.

Friday, November 5, 2021

A Biblical Counseling Process

A Biblical Counseling Process: Guidance for the Beginning, Middle and End, Lauren Whitman (New Growth Press, 2021)

Whitman is a trained biblical counsellor with the CCEF, and has written this very helpful, succinct resource for those seeking to counsel biblically in a professional way, which also has application for those counselling more informally in pastoral care situations. It’s essentially a primer for newer counsellors, guiding them through the beginning, middle and end of a counselling relationship. In each section, Whitman covers both theory and practice in an easily implementable way. First the theory is outlined with the goals of counsel at that stage, a potential session structure, and topics for the counsellor to be considering. Then, through the use of one main case study throughout the book, she illustrates how to do it in sessions with a real counsellee.

Positive aspects include:
  • Her emphasis on getting to know the client, being personal and adaptable, and empathic. 
  • Working hard to confront any assumptions we might be making about the client, and being aware of our tendency to do so. 
  • Being aware of and acknowledging cultural differences we may have with a counsellee, and seeking to understand their experience. 
  • She models a natural and seamless way to integrate scripture and Jesus with someone’s life experience. (If you want another book that also does this well, try Mike Emlet's CrossTalk)
  • The approach seems to be similar to person-centred cognitive behavioural therapy, with the analysis of feelings, thoughts and responses, and encouraging people to do their own homework between sessions. However, it is integrated with a biblical perspective that acknowledges sin, forgiveness, potential for change and growth in Christ, and a desire to love God and others. 
  • A great reference list is at the end, mainly to articles in the Journal of Biblical Counseling & other CCEF faculty books. 
  • It’s well structured, and easy to read. I read the whole text in a few hours, but there is content I will return to again for reference. 
One note: this book should not operate as a stand-alone tool. It does not make the reader a biblical counsellor. Anyone training to be a biblical counsellor would likely be taught much of the content. So, it will likely function as a simplified reminder of what a counsellor in training would be learning or already know.

In saying that, I am in exactly that position (a trainee counsellor) - and I found it very helpful. It reminded me of much that I already know, but collated in a useful way for future reference and use.

So, this book is aimed at a rather specific audience - the new biblical counsellor - but for them, there is much of value within.


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

Monday, October 25, 2021

More by Dee Henderson

I have returned to some of Dee Henderson’s other books, having enjoyed her writing earlier this year. She has quickly become one of my favourite authors.

Full Disclosure introduces FBI team leader Paul Falcon and highly respected Midwest Homicide Investigator, Ann Silver. Ann brings Paul a case providing the first decent lead in a cold-case centred on a female assassin. Paul is also heir apparent to the Falcon dynasty, a large extended family business with ties throughout the country. Ann has her own personal history and secrets which are revealed throughout, but interestingly she also is a fiction writer who writes the love stories of her friends, like Dave and Kate. Here astute Henderson readers will note the suggestion that Ann Silver is actually Dee Henderson (as many of these couples are in the O’Malley series). Perhaps she’s leaving a clue as to how she writes and who she writes about. There is certainly very little biographical information available about her. It’s possible she does her research very well, but her depth of insight reads as if she is in law enforcement of some type herself.

In Undetected, Gina is a genius who has discovered ways to improve sonar in submarines, thus also protecting her brother Jeff, a submariner. However Gina longs to marry and has not found a a man who can cope with her intellect. Mark Bishop, submarine captain, widower and good friend of Jeff’s, becomes a close friend as they work on Gina’s new discovery, which will have startling implications for the US Naval fleet. They both dismiss the idea of romance, with 11 years between them, but just maybe this friendship could turn into something more. 

Unspoken turns to Mark’s brother Bryce and picks up a storyline alluded to in Undetected, and as such should probably be read first. (Paul Falcon and Ann Silver appear here as well). Bryce, a rare coin dealer is approached by Charlotte Graham to sell the inheritance of coins from her grandfather. As he moves into business dealings with her, he begins to grasp the magnitude of what she has inherited. Yet, at the same time, he figures out that she not who she seems. Charlotte has an awful story in her past, she was abducted and held for four long years when she was 16, and never speaks of it. 
 
I really liked this book. While what happened to her is truly horrible and it’s alluded to in her behaviour, but never actually named. So, while as a character she experienced dreadful evil and violence, as a reader you are not given details. Charlotte’s biggest challenge is accepting that a God who loves her would also have offered forgiveness to the men who hurt her, had they asked. As she and Bryce move towards a close friendship, things become more complicated as details of her life and inheritance emerge. I really liked the way Henderson dealt with major trauma, large amounts of wealth, and a complicated relationship. It’s the most mature yet gentle writing I’ve read on such topics: sensitive, realistic, and yet hopeful. Her characters have long term complex trauma and pain, and she doesn’t pretend there are simple solutions to such things, but moves them forward in a positive way. 

Taken begins with Matthew Dane, former cop and now PI, speaking at a law enforcement conference. Waiting to speak to him in the hotel is a young woman, who reveals she is Shannon Bliss, missing since she was 16, some 11 years previously. She has sought him out after some research, his own daughter was abducted at age 8 and released at 16 some five years ago. She slowly reveals a decade of being held by a crime family, involved in their ongoing child abduction and various thefts, crossing the entire US in a complicated network. She has enough evidence to bring them all down, but needs to take her time, both for her own safety but also for others still involved. Matthew becomes her confidante and safe person, who manages her return to her family and her interactions with law enforcement. Paul and Ann Falcon, Charlotte and Bryce Bishop and a few characters from other novels also appear. Yet again, a story with depth and interest, of someone who has survived a horrible ordeal, yet with little description of what it was really like. 

I continue to be impressed with how Henderson can write stories of dramatic and traumatic situations yet not give in to the temptation to glorify them in technicolor detail. There is nothing lost in power of her storytelling, in fact I think it is strengthened because of it. 

That’s enough for now! I’ll tell you about some more another time…

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Great Sex Rescue

The Great Sex Rescue, Sheila Wray Gregoire, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach and Joanna Sawatsky (Baker Books, 2021) 

Warning:

This is going to be a long review, and contains frank language about sexual expression.

For those that want the condensed version:


This is a challenging and insightful book that encourages Christian marriages to great, passionate, other person-centred sex that is enjoyable for both spouses. It includes lots of research about the things that Christian women experience, enjoy and struggle with in the bedroom, as well as tearing apart the teaching in a range of Christian books on sex and marriage.

Now for the much more detailed review:

The time spent reading this book, and many of the resources around it has been an interesting and eye-opening one. I had never heard of Sheila Wray Gregoire or read any of her books, but she is quite prolific and has an extensive blog & website (To love, honour and vacuum) which specifically addresses sex in marriage, amongst other things.

The Great Sex Rescue (2021) is trying to do three things:
  • give sexual and intimacy advice and instruction to married couples who are trying to live in honourable Christian marriages; 
  • explore in detail the results of a large survey on sexual intimacy collected by Gregoire of over 20,000 evangelical women, as well as the results of academic research and focus groups; and 
  • examine the bestselling Christian marriage and sex books to analyse their teaching and the messages given in them (mainly in order to point out the problems within them). 
These all have value, and need to be done. We need excellent books on sex in marriage, we need research to know and understand women’s (and men’s) experience of sexual intimacy to help us understand people’s joys and challenges. And we need to analyse critically what published resources are saying and hold them up to scrutiny. Having said that, it’s hard to do all three well. This one seems to start with the aim of tearing other arguments down, giving it a combative, polemical feel.

I wish they could have found a more balanced way to provide all the same information by focusing more strongly on the positive messages they wanted to explore, providing advice and insight for couples, while still pointing out the clear faults in some Christian teaching in this arena.

They come up with seven principles about what sex should be:
  • personal - so that two truly become one 
  • pleasurable - really good for both people 
  • pure - each person being responsible to keep themselves free from sexual sin 
  • prioritised - even while acknowledging different levels of desire 
  • pressure-free - freely given and never achieved through coercion or threat 
  • put the other first - considering the other’s needs before their own 
  • passionate - to be able to surrender to each other in trust and love 
The remainder of the book explores these principles in detail.

Two chapters explore ‘pleasurable’ in detail - one focussing on orgasm (mainly about enabling more women to experience it) and arousal (noting that sex cannot be pleasurable until you figure out arousal). They posit that:
  • no man should be satisfied unless his wife is regularly satisfied 
  • women’s sexual pleasure matters for her own sake, not just his 
The chapters on purity starkly and repeatedly point out that women are not responsible for their husband’s purity. Men (and women) are responsible for their own self-control, and their decision to view pornography. Wives have had unrealistic burdens placed on them with the assumption that men cannot control themselves and they are required to ‘keep the home fires burning’ so they do not stray. This message is as insulting to men as is it to women, reducing men to brute beasts, and wives to gatekeepers and receptacles for lust control.

Addressing differences in libido, they note that couples who manage them well “are naturally satisfied during sex and treat each other well outside the bedroom too”. Hardly rocket science! Considering further, they note:
"Perhaps frequency has been used as the main measure of satisfaction because it is easier to tell couples to have more sex than it is to help her reach orgasm or solve underlying marital problems or deal with the stresses of life. But what we’ve found is that when you work on marital satisfaction, reducing stress, and making sex feel pleasurable and passionate, libido difference usually take care of themselves."
They then turn to consider the sexless (or very low sex) marriage, and the main scenarios into which these fall:
  • The sexless marriage due to selfishness or brokenness - this is where either laziness or selfishness reigns, or deep seated problems aren’t being addressed 
  • The sexless marriage due to emotional protection. Here where one is refusing sex, it is the other’s ongoing behaviour that has prompted it. 
  • The sexless marriage in disguise (they are actually having regular intercourse, but for one partner it’s completely void of connection or pleasure) 
They propose five strongly contributing factors to a sexless marriage: pornography use, male sexual dysfunction, anorgasmia, vaginismus, and not feeling close during sex.

Some of the issues addressed very well and very openly in this book are the areas where few others dare to tread. These include:
  • the challenges and reality of vaginismus 
  • the reality of sexual pain for many women 
  • the sexless marriage (above) 
  • the concept of duty sex, and the problems it can create 
  • the sinfulness of sexual coercion and marital rape 
The final chapters are the better ones - with the exhortment to all to ‘just be nice’. It sounds simplistic, but they are right - if we longed to love the other as much as we love ourselves in marriage, there is so much that could be better, and so many problems that could be overcome. Jesus’ words may be simple, but we all know that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

They try hard to celebrate that there are wonderful men and husbands out there who long for a close, passionate, mutually enjoyable sexual experience with their wives. But a man reading this book could certainly feel like he is much to blame for intimacy problems. It certainly points the finger hard at the unhelpful and sometimes destructive messaging that the church, and certain books, have given to people. And there are elements where this is needed. Some of the quotes included from certain books made my skin crawl. They come down hardest on Love and Respect and Every Man’s Battle. One I have recently stopped recommending, another I have never read.

There is much more that I could say in more depth. Some things might be:
  • Just because books are Amazon bestsellers does not mean they are the best books on a subject. I would have liked to see analysis of some books written in the last 15 years, most covered are quite old. 
  • However, that’s also a reminder to re-read marriage books. I have certainly changed my views on some over the years (eg Sheet Music, Love and Respect
  • We need to encourage people to read critically. Just because an author writes it doesn’t make it true, biblical or wise. And this applies to Gregoire et al. as much as others. We need to be discerning. 
  • The use of statical data is varied. Sometimes it helps (it is helpful to know how many women are orgasmic, how many experience pain, how much sex people are having). But it also complicated information, and the often the data tables weren’t clear. 
  • As mentioned above it is more combative that it needs to be. If you spend time on Gregoire’s blog, this is also evident. 

Who should read this?
  • Those who want to explore their own perspective on sex and pleasure, and how that may have been impacted by church teaching. 
  • Those facing sexual challenges in their marriage, and have uncertainty about where to turn (you could try her blog too to get an idea of the topics she covers, for while some posts are combative, some are very helpful) 
  • Those in marriage ministries or counselling Christian marriages (or engaged couples) - to consider what messages, even subtly we might be sending without meaning to 
  • Those pastoring marrieds could benefit from understanding more broadly the depth of issues marrieds face, and the challenges some will not openly speak about. 
  • NOT those embarking on marriage. This is not for newlyweds. Sadly, many of the issues she addresses do come up early in marriages, but I don’t think this is the best delivery format for that stage. 

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Unlikely Yarn of the Dragon Lady

The Unlikely Yarn of the Dragon Lady, Sharon J. Mondragón

I was invited to read this book as part of a blog tour, and very much enjoyed it. Sharon Mondrag√≥n has created a likeable tale about four women who meet to knit prayer shawls. 

I’ll be honest, I had no idea knitting prayer shawls was a thing. But I can see how it would naturally develop. Christian women who love to knit, gather together, and create shawls to give to people in situations of need. It seems they pray silently as they knit, and pray at the beginning and end of each shawl project. It seems to be a ministry of creative, thoughtful care.

In this novel, Peter McIlhaney, rector of Hope and Glory community church, has been told that his church is going to be shut down. He devises a last ditch effort to reach out to the community, by sending the Heavenly Hugs Prayer Shawl Ministry off site. To date they have happily met in silent tranquility in the prayer chapel.

Margaret, self appointed head of the group is outraged. How could they possibly go to the busy mall and pray while knitting? The other members of the group are a little more open to the idea. Rose has recently entered aged care, and is struggling to adjust to the changes. Fran’s husband died 18 months earlier, leaving her completely bereft. Jane struggles with a well-kept secret about her son as well as parenting two bickering, teenage daughters.

As they set up in the mall, they slowly become known to the shop staff and regulars who pass by. People start asking for prayer. Some want to learn how to knit. Some end up coming to church on Sundays. As they become more involved in the lives of all these new friends, they each have to face their own hurts of the past.

If I was going to be picky, I would say that the entire model of prayer seems to be supplication; all about things people want God to do for them. No praising God for who he is, what he has done in Christ, or how we receive salvation through him. Yet, it’s not all about passing tests and getting jobs, either. Some relationships are healed and restored, both with people but also with God.

An enjoyable book with a satisfying group of (primarily) mature female characters, who are complex yet long to serve others. I can imagine numerous female readers, especially those who knit or are Christian, enjoying this one.

If you want to enter a competition for a free copy - go here. And if you go to this post, I think you can link to read an excerpt.

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Church as a Culture of Care

The Church as a Culture of Care: Finding Hope in Biblical Community, T. Dale Johnson Jr. (New Growth Press, 2021)

Johnson is an experienced biblical counsellor, and he has written this book for church leaders and elders, seeking to re-establish the church as the central place of soul care. He challenges the perception that secular psychology has outdated the church, but rather proposes than God has equipped people for every function of the care of souls, placing Jesus at the centre of restoration. He states that “this book is intended to be an admission of our failure and an exhortation to arise and reclaim the church as a culture of care” (p. 4).

He starts by expounding that God made the church to care for people, and then outlines a biblical vision for the church to be a culture of care: because God first cared for us, it is for his glory and for our good.
“Every aspect of the work of the such intended to care for souls. Preaching, shepherding, one-anothering, church discipline, missionary proclamation, personal obedience - all are intended to awaken or strengthen the soul to live faithfully and peacefully in a war-torn and sin-cursed world.” (p17)
The third chapter (when the church doesn’t care) was one of the strongest, and one those in church leadership would do well to ponder. Johnson outlines how we have embraced secular psychology, abdicated discipleship, and we hesitate to obey and apply God’s word. He explores the costs that this has had, the one that struck me was our changed view of the church - with an aversion to church discipline, the specialisation of the pastorate, and the lack of discipleship. Another point rang true for me, based on my current study experience - eclecticism is now valued, rather than a over-arching systematic approach:
“What is in vogue at the moment is a smattering of methodologies used at the discretion of the therapist from an ever expanding toolbox” (p. 50).
The following four chapters continue to expand his biblical vision of the church as the centre of soul care:
  • Christ as the head of the church - we must submit to him and glorify him 
  • Christ as our good shepherd - because the rule and authority of Jesus is always “tethered to love and gentleness”. There is a detailed look at what it means for Christ to be our shepherd, and how we are to listen to him and depend on him in response. 
  • The care of under-shepherds - what it means for pastors and elders to minister and care, and to equip the saints for works of ministry. 
  • Equipping the saints - because pastors forget that God has called the whole church to care for each other. 
The final chapter (counselling in the local church) was also very good, with Johnson making the distinction between preventative and intensive soul care. Preventative care should be a normal part of the one-anothering life of the church:
“every believer is to be engaged in the care of souls within the body of Christ, and as such they will provide “counsel” or wisdom for living during the course of their normal conversations. Every member of the body is called to minister the Word to one another” (p. 145).
Intensive care is that which requires immediate attention through formal counselling or intensive discipleship. Formal counselling ministry is not intended to subvert or deter normal care within the body of Christ, rather: 
“it is the overflow of healthy biblical discipling and caring relationships that creates a demand for a more formal counselling ministry” (p. 149).
This is a helpful offering to assist church leaders consider why biblical soul care and counselling is an essential part of the the role of the church. I felt it was more wordy that it needed to be, and yet still didn’t get specifically practical, in terms of how a church or a pastor might go about making change. Some of the discussion questions might help people to get to that place on their own, but I imagine others might be left feeling, “I agree, but what do I actually do now?”

Having said that, he has laid excellent groundwork for churches to think through their own culture of care, what they may be missing, and the reasons for that. Numerous people would benefit if these principles were put in place in more churches.

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

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Windsor Knot

The Windsor Knot, S. J. Bennett 

This lovely fictional book suggests that the Queen solves mysteries. A young Russian musician has been found dead after performing at Windsor Castle. While the head of British Intelligence thinks the Russians are up to something major, and the staff of the royal household are now suspects of a long term plot, the Queen knows it was nothing of the sort. Through her young, new assistant private secretary, Rozie Oshodi, she quietly starts her own investigation. Rozie discovers doors quietly open wherever she goes, as various people long to say what they know and to help Her Majesty. It’s written in a lovely, somewhat whimsical tone, with the Queen’s contemplations often involving “oneself” or “when one has to do something.”
“Of all her residences, if she had to pick a favourite, it would be this one. Not Buckingham Palace, which was like living in a gilded office block on a roundabout. Not Balmoral or Sandringham, though they were in her blood. Windsor was, quite simply, home. It was the seat of her happiest days of childhood… It was where one still came at weekends to recover from the endless formality in town.”
It’s set in April 2016, when the preparations are well under way for her 90th birthday, and the Duke of Edinburgh is still by her side.

I have enjoyed various other fictional books set about the Queen over the years, such as Mrs Queen Takes the Train and The Uncommon Reader (written by another Bennett!)

I’m pleased to see she has more books in the planning, I’ll be looking out for them.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Remember

Remember, Lisa Genova

Lisa Genova, neuroscientist and author of Still Alice has written this excellent little book Remember: on the science of memory and the art of forgetting.

It’s very readable and understandable, combining the science for those who are interested, in an engaging format, with easily comprehensible and relatable examples to explain and expand what she is saying.

She starts by explaining the breadth of what our memory does:
"Of all the complex and wondrous miracles that your brain executes, memory is king. You need memory to learn anything. Without it, information and experiences can’t be retained. New people would remain strangers. You wouldn’t be able to remember the previous sentence by the end of this one.… You use your memory from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep, and even then, your memory processes are busy at work.

The significant facts and moments of your life strung together create your life’s narrative and identity. Memory allows you to have a sense of who you are and who you’ve been." (p2)
Yet as she will go on to expand, it’s also incredibly faulty. 

The first section considers How we remember.

With some explanation about how making a memory works (encoding, consolidation, storage, retrieval), Genova notes that the main reason we forget things is that we just don’t pay enough attention to them. So, if we paid attention to where we parked our car, we would remember where it was. She gives tips throughout for assisting with making memories stick.

Then she explores the three types of memory:
  • muscle memory - how to do things, eg ride a bike 
  • semantic memory - information eg. George Washington was the first US president 
  • episodic memory - the history of you remembered by you. Here emotion and surprise are important, “the more emotional the event, the more vividly and elaborately detailed the memory”. In fact, something highly unexpected and exceptionally emotional creates a flashbulb memory (eg. September 11 for many people). 
The second part details Why we forget. 

Here Genova tips things on their head, pointing out how our memory of things are often wrong (which any conversation with someone else who experienced the same event quickly shows us). Every time we recall a memory, we change it a little, and resave it as Version 2.0 in our mind.

She explores the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, when you know a fact but can’t recall it; and why it is so hard to remember things you are supposed to do the future. Her tip here is the basic thing most people do - don’t expect to remember, rather use your calendar, to do lists, and pill boxes for regular medication.

She notes time in the biggest factor in forgetting, and much of this is good. We have to forget things, we need to leave the emotion or pain of some memories behind, and we need to create space for new information.

Genova compares the normal impact of aging on memory with the devastating impact of Alzheimer’s. In fact much of this book seems to be designed to help people see the difference, and therefore have more confidence in when you need to be concerned and when you don’t. So, for example: if you can’t remember where you put the car keys, that is fine, however if you forget you have a car, or what the keys are used for, that is a problem.

Part 3 considers what to do: whether you improve or impair.

She notes that unrelenting chronic stress is disastrous for memory. However, she emphasises that the two main things that are essential for memory and preventing Alzheimer’ are adequate sleep (7-9 hours per night) and exercise.


This is a very easy to read book, full of interesting facts and reliable examples and anecdotes. In the end, she wants us to know that "your memory is miraculously powerful, highly fallible, and doing its job." Definitely worth reading.

Monday, August 16, 2021

The Whole Life

The Whole Life: 52 Weeks of Biblical Self-Care, Eliza Huie and Esther Smith (New Growth Press, 2021) 

Biblical counsellors Huie and Smith have combined their skills to create this wise and winsome book that considers what biblical self-care looks like, and ways to approach it. As New Growth Press say:  
“They give Christians a framework for biblical self-care that will help them live for Christ by stewarding the spiritual, emotional, relational, and physical aspects of life.”
Huie and Smith start by identifying their audience:
“This book is for Christians who are committed to loving God and loving others; it is for believers who pour their lives out in sacrificial service” (Introduction)
Then they helpfully define what they consider biblical self-care to be:
“the practice of drawing on divinely given resources to steward our whole lives for personal enrichment, the good of others, and the glory of God. We don’t practice self-care because it’s trendy. We practice self-care because it’s a biblical concept. We embrace self-care as a way to steward our souls, minds, bodies, and relationships. This whole-life stewardship is an act of obedience to God’s call to love others as we love ourselves.” (Week 1)
The 52 weeks are divided into 6 sub-sections:
  • Spiritual life 
  • Physical Life 
  • A Purposeful Life 
  • Community Life 
  • Work Life 
  • A Restful Life 
Each week brings focuses on a specific area, allowing the reader to pause, reflect, consider God’s word, and respond in prayer and thoughtfulness. This includes a gospel spotlight, and a chance for application through consideration of questions covering four areas (spiritual, emotional, physical, and relational), and finishes with a a guided journalling suggestion.

As such, taking a week for each topic doesn’t appear to be too slow. I read this book quickly to get the review done, but I plan to return to it and read it much slower at a pace that enables me to dwell in it further. Yet, even a fast read gave me much to consider and be aware of.

Some things I appreciated:
  • Their starting focus on the gospel, our relationship with God, and our spiritual self care 
“The key is that we prioritize time alone with God to spiritually care for ourselves in the midst of caring for others. We cannot properly pour out to others if we are empty.”
  • The encouragement to see the value of counselling in Week 6. They were honest about the fact that there are time where we may need some extra help. 
  • The recognition that not everything can be solved with self-care: 
“Rest and self-care do not always prevent burnout. Sometimes burnout is a form of suffering that comes from the circumstances of living in a broken world. No matter how faithfully we care for ourselves, we may not be able to experience whole-life thriving. It’s difficult to grapple with the reality that some burnout has no earthly solution. If this describes you, I want to encourage you that even this realization has purpose” (Week 51 - Self Care is not a Savior)
I found this to be a wise, balanced, and helpful guide to biblical self-care. It’s quite short, and each week covers only 2-3 pages. However, the real benefit would be taking the time to work through each week in detail and prayerfully. Highly recommended for all Christians who long to serve the Lord sacrificially and faithfully, yet also with wisdom and awareness of our human limitations.


I received an ecopy of this book from New Growth Press in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, August 9, 2021

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

After having read this 30 years ago in high school, I recently returned to it (as my daughter is also reading it at school) and was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed it again.

This is not a detailed review, but an encouragement to go back to the books you read at school that you enjoyed. The ones that were good, challenging, and interesting, and try them again, years later, as an adult.

Told through the eyes of young girl Scout and her older brother Jem, we learn of their town of Mayfield. Early on the children’s focus is on the Radley house where the mysterious Boo Radley lives, never seen by anyone. The second half turns to the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongfully accused of the rape of a poor white woman. Atticus Finch, the children’s father, is Tom’s lawyer and while he is convinced of the need to represent Tom faithfully, he knows the challenges that it presents to their family in this racially charged community. Harper Lee’s assessment of a southern US community in the 1930s rings true, and aspects of her analysis are still very relevant today. One of the most insightful and prescient comments was this:
‘As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it — whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.’

Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement. ‘There's nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who'll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don't fool yourselves—it's all adding up and one of these days we're going to pay the bill for it. I hope it's not in you children's time.’ (Chapter 23)
Other books that I read in high school that I have enjoyed returning to are:
Some I still plan to get back to one day include: 1984, Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm. I’m pretty sure these are on our kids’ reading lists in future years, so I may get to them soon!

Monday, August 2, 2021

Consider Your Counsel

Consider Your Counsel, Bob Kellemen (New Growth Press, 2021)

Kellemen has decades of experience in biblical counselling, and is the founder of the Biblical Counseling Coalition. He brings that knowledge and wisdom to bear in this succinct book which addresses what he considers to be the ten main mistakes in biblical counselling. He investigates the growth areas that are needed in counsellors, and seeks to answer the question:
“What patterns, themes, and threads of blind spots do I detect in rookie and veteran biblical counselors—myself included—from which we could learn and grow?”
It’s worth going through the mistakes he lists, including some comments. For some, this will prompt you to read the book, others might just appreciate the brief summary below.

Mistake #1: we elevate data collection above soul correction. This was all about empathy, and being relationally present with a counsellee.

Mistake #2: we share God’s eternal story before listening to people’s earthly story. Rather, we need to be ‘lingering listeners’, avoiding the ‘shallow concordance approach’:
“With one foot, we enter deeply and personally into our counselee’s story, situation, and soul. With the other foot, we pivot into and journey together to Christ’s story of redemptive hope. Our calling is to step into and move between two worlds, between two stories as we help our counselees see how Christ’s redemptive story intersects and invades our counselee’s troubling story.”
Mistake #3 - we talk at counselees rather than exploring scriptures with counselees. Instead, we want to be collaborative.

Mistake #4 - we target sin but diminish suffering. “Instead, let’s be comprehensive, compassionate biblical counselors who address the gravity of grinding affliction.”

Mistake #5 - we fail to follow the Trinity’s model of comforting care. There were helpful insights here into the care, compassion and comfort of the Father, Son and Spirit.

Mistake #6: we view people one dimensionally instead of comprehensively. We need to consider the whole person - physical, relational, spiritual, etc.

Mistake #7- we devalue emotions instead of seeing emotions as God’s idea. Rather, emotions are of great value:
“In summary, the key to our emotional reaction is our belief or perception about the meaning behind the event. Events impact whether our emotions are pleasant or painful. Our longings, beliefs, and goals impact whether our emotional reaction is holy or sinful.”
Mistake #8 - we minimise the complexity of the body-soul interconnection. We are complex body-souls, yet broken by sin and also redeemed, awaiting glorification.

Mistake #9 - we maximise sin while minimising grace. Rather, we want to be grace maximisers, grace magnifiers and grace dispensers.

Mistake #10 - we confuse the sufficiency of scripture with the competency of the Counselor. I must say, this is not something I feel, but do understand the issue. He says, rather that we need ongoing equipping, we are not self-sufficiently competent to counsel, we are incompetent to counsel in our own strength, and we are not independently competent to counsel without support and community.

He goes on to expand this idea, stating we need to be aware of our competency to counsel, and a way to do this is by asking:
  • What’s my level of overall growth and maturity in character, content, competency, and community (4C)? 
  • What my level of 4C equipping related to the particular issues I’m being asked to address? 
Five guidelines are suggested to ensure competent help is provided: 
  • Consistently involve a comprehensive body of Christ team approach 
  • Prayerfully ponder whether the wider resources of the body of Christ may be needed 
  • Prayerfully ponder whether resources outside he church may be needed 
  • Have a candid conversation to mutually determine your next steps, potentially refer to others in the body of Christ, remain part of a team approach 
  • Potentially decide to be the primary caregiver but become further equipped and be supervised 
I appreciated his conclusion that with counselling, “at the the of the day, it’s all about humility”.

This is a very helpful book for those that seek to pastorally care for or counsel believers. It’s a quick and easy read, yet very insightful. In essence, it is not about the content of counselling, but rather on “the process, the journey, the relationship between the counselor and the counselee, and the mindset embedded behind the art of counseling.” I found much of value within.


(Please forgive the switching between counsellor/counselor - I spell the Australian way, unless I am quoting directly)

An ecopy of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Dee Henderson books

I continue my meandering through various Christian fiction writers, and have quite enjoyed the discovery of Dee Henderson. Henderson combines honourable characters, the crime & mystery genre, romance, and Christian themes together to make an appealing mix.

Her O’Malley series has 8 books: 6 main ones and 2 prequels. The entire series covers only one or two years, and each focuses on a different sibling in the O’Malley family. In an appealing twist, the seven siblings are not related by blood, but decided to form their own family, legally changing their names after their formative adolescent years were spent together at an orphanage. All now in their thirties, they have been a unified team for 20 years.

All have a strong sense of law and order, honour, and service, which is shown in their character and choice of professions. This is a tight knit family of caring men and women who love each other and would do anything to support one another. Obviously, since all ended up in an orphanage, there is a considerable backstory for each.

The two prequels - which are definitely worth reading first are:
  • Danger in the Shadows - tells the story of FBI agent Dave Richman and his sister Sara. Sara is under constant witness protection due to an incident in her past. When she meets famous pro-footballer Adam Black everything is thrown up in the air. 
  • Jennifer - gives some background to Jennifer O’Malley, paediatrician, as she meets Tom. 

The 6 main books cover the remaining siblings:
  • The Negotiator - Kate is a hostage negotiator, who ends up in an incident with Dave Richman. 
  • The Guardian - Marcus, a US Marshall, is on duty when a federal judge is shot. 
  • The Truth Seeker - Lisa, a forensic pathologist, is searching for links among previous cold cases. 
  • The Protector - Jack is a firefighter, in the midst of an outbreak of targeted arson. 
  • The Healer - Rachel, a trauma psychologist, cares for children, and caught up in the midst of a school shooting. 
  • The Rescuer - Stephen, a paramedic, is taking a break from the hard work of being a first responder in a city, but gets caught up in an old stolen jewel investigation in a small town. 
The books all follow on from each other, and all the family members appear in each. In fact, they often work the same cases together and assist each other along the way.

None are believers, but in each book a special someone who is a Christian comes along their path who causes them to reconsider Jesus and what they believe. If I was cynical I would say there is a borderline ‘flirt to convert’ thing going on in every book. But it’s not quite like that. Each love interest of an O’Malley chooses not to get involved with them because they are not (yet) Christians. These are crime fighting romances though, so while the stressful situation is figured out and resolved, each main character is also being challenged to consider their beliefs, in due course comes to faith and then the romantic tension is resolved. Henderson tries to bring out a different aspect of faith, and potential objections to it, in each book. So, for example, one focuses on the truth of the resurrection, another on being in a personal relationship with God.

If I were to nit-pick, I’d suggest that recognising personal sin or a need for God’s grace isn’t a strong aspect of turning to God in any of them. These are all decent, impressive people who are already pretty ‘together’. However, they are pondering to the truths of God, they come to know him by reading his word, and they are willing to talk about their hesitations and concerns as they work through what it means to believe. Like Kingsbury’s romantic Christian fiction, she treads a fine line between the romance (hugging, kissing, expressed desire between people not in a relationship) with the balance of aiming for self-control and purity. However, the Christian message here is more subtle, gentle, and may be more appealing for inquirers.

I’ve enjoyed them and will happily try her other books as well.

***

I have now also read her "Uncommon Heroes" Military Romance series - and enjoyed them. 

True Devotion - about Kelly, SEAL widow and surf lifesaver, and good friend Joe, her past husband's close friend. 

True Valor - Grace is a Navy pilot and Bruce is Air Force Pararescue. This was my favourite, I liked how their relationship developed through letters over several deployments.

True Honor - CIA officer Dacy is chasing a man who profited from 9/11, and SEAL Sam is deployed in areas of strife as their paths keep crossing. 

Henderson writes strong, principled characters. The women are as capable, brave and heroic as the men. They aren't damsels in distress waiting for a man to save them, but true partners in work and life. From recollection, each of the main characters in these is already a Christian, so no 'flirt to convert' happening here! 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Blog subscribers

Dear Musings readers, 

I know some of you subscribe to Musings via Feedburner (delivered by Google). I think if you ever signed up for this blog delivery, it's delivered that way. 

Google/Feedburner are shutting down their mail delivery of new blog posts on July 1. 

After some investigation, I am experimenting with MailChimp as a delivery service instead. 

If you would like to continue to receive email updates when I publish blog posts, please go to Musings, and fill in your details under the 'Subscribe' section on the right.  You should then receive a welcome email, and hopefully an email every time I post. (If there are some early teething problems with this - please forgive me, it's not as easy to set up as I thought it would be)

Long term readers may notice I am not posting as often I have in the past. However, I am still reading and will continue to post (mainly) book reviews, as I read good books that are worth sharing. 

Thanks to those readers out there who have continued to follow me over the years. 

Wendy

Monday, June 28, 2021

Karen Kingsbury - Baxter Family books




Recent Christian fiction reading has led me to discover Karen Kingsbury, a prolific author who has created a large series of books which centre around the extended Baxter family. The first series (coauthored with Gary Smalley) introduce us to John & Elizabeth Baxter, and their five adult children and partners. Over these five books (Redemption, Remember, Return, Rejoice, Reunion) storylines include both great highs and deep lows. High points include character’s strong relationships with the Lord, or returning to the Lord, love stories, pregnancies, children, healing, aging well, and a deep love between family members. Lows include turning from the Lord, betrayal, adultery, death, illness, and addiction. 

While the first series centres around the Baxter family, the second turns its attention to some single characters, and puts the spotlight on the damaging world of Hollywood fame (Fame, Forgiven, Found, Family, Forever). The third series adds another large family into the mix - The Flanigans (Sunrise, Summer, Someday, Sunset).

I have mixed reactions to these books, and admit I am more analytical of Christian fiction - partially because the authors have a greater responsibility as they try to bring truth to light, rather that just tell a good story. 

Positives include:
  • Kingsbury is a gifted storyteller. She draws you in to her characters’ lives and you care about them. Numerous books have moved me to tears at some point, most notably Remember, which wove New York on September 11 into the storyline. 
  • God’s word is clearly present. She uses it most often in almost audible answers to prayer, but also in the mouths of characters. 
  • She clearly explains the gospel at various points and doesn’t shy away from it. 
  • Characters face real sin and suffering, and are changed by God through it. 
  • While some people are miraculously healed, others are not - this adds more depth as the series continue. 

However, some aspects sit a little uneasily, many about the experience of the Christian life (note many of these can be positives, they just raise some issues)
  • The almost audible voice of God in response to many prayers is one. Many people do not have this experience, and could be left longing for it. 
  • There is an over-reliance on Jeremiah 29:11: “I know the plans I have for you ... plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope a a future”. That has to be of the most used verses out of context. 
  • Possibly seconded only by “Remember your first love” which strangely is applied to God, but more immediately to your first love (eg husband) 
  • Sanctification seems almost immediate. Those who are believers are amazingly loving, gentle, kind, well rounded, prayerful people, and fully in touch with themselves and those around them. Those who become believers are changed into this very quickly. There is not a lot of struggle with ongoing sin and temptation, like the everyday anger, impatience, and frustration that plague us in real life. (I note that this becomes a bit more nuanced in later books) 
  • Most Christian marriages & families in these books are perfect, hard to fault anything in them, and therefore not super realistic. Again, she develops more variance with this later. 
  • There is a push that marriage is the right goal and desire for all, and that single people aren’t yet fulfilled. The narrative seems to be ‘waiting for the right Christian man to come along’. 
  • The predominant sin people seem to have to deal with is related to sexual purity, whether for single people staying chaste or for temptations outside of marriage. There isn’t as much focus on the other more ‘mundane’ sins that plague us all. Yet, at the same time, there’s an awful lot of close hugging and even kissing with couples who aren’t dating yet. Herein lies the friction between trying to write both romance and Christian. 
  • There is a strong focus on the power of intercessory prayer. This is not a bad thing at all, but is a limited view of the extensive power & purpose of prayer, especially in glorifying God, confessing sin and praying for issues much more expansive that those within your immediate context. 

Even with my hesitations, the occasional judgey tone, and the schmalzy romance (sometimes between teenagers) in many of them, I’ve kept reading them (yes, there are many more). There are encouragements along the way and God’s word is found within. They are easy reads, with enjoyable characters and engaging storylines. Kingsbury is openly trying to show what it means to love and honour God as you live, and there is much to be thankful for in that.


***
After this post I continued reading her others in the series - The Hollywood series and the Bailey Flanigan series. I'll just make a few extra comments about the Bailey series (Leaving, Learning, Longing, Loving) which I enjoyed a bit less:
  • The application of scripture was quite simplified. There is no sense of a biblical theology, and parts of the Old Testament are used to suggest that if it happened then, it can be applied now.  
  • This particularly series was very soppy and overly romantic, especially as the key characters were about 18-21 years old.  
  • Prayer was used for everything to ask for what they want, and very rarely to praise God or ask for deep character change. 
  • Because it’s clear (and she is open about this) that Kingsbury modelled the Flanigan family on her own, and Bailey on her daughter, it’s like one extended ode to themselves. They are presented as the perfect family. 
  • The extended details of Bailey’s wedding in the final book seem to be her own way of processing her own daughter’s wedding. It's super detailed and over the top.
The final in the chronological series of these families - Coming Home - which returned more to the Baxter side of things - was a good way to end the series. Very serious things happened, it was very emotional and heart-wrenching, yet gospel focussed as well.  

Monday, June 21, 2021

Books by Ariel Lawhon


I have recently discovered Ariel Lawhon, a skilled historical fiction writer who chooses a past mystery or story and weaves in her own interpretation of what might have happened.



Code Name Helene

This is an excellent historical fiction about Nancy Wake, a spy for the UK government in WWII. Wake was an Australian who moved to France as a journalist in the 1930s. She saw firsthand some of the horrors of Hitler’s early years, giving her motivation to fight against the Nazis. It tells the story in two arcs: one starting in the mid-30s, giving background to Wake and telling of her romance with Henry Fiocca, a French industrialist. The second is from February 1944 as she is airdropped into France to assist with the resistance.

It’s an engaging storytelling method, as you learn her history and present at the same time, and try to merge the two together. Obviously as the first storyline draws closer to the second, the clues given throughout become clearer, building the tension for the reader as to how situations will resolve.

It’s also a good mix, as the realities and brutalities of war are combined with the evocative and powerful building romance between Henry and Nancy.

Highly recommended reading, especially, if like me, you had never heard about this countrywoman of ours who gave so much for the war effort. Lawhon details at the end how much was sourced from historical record and what she changed. I also found it an extra encouragement to deduce from the acknowledgements that Lawhon is a Christian.


Flight of Dreams 

Another historical fiction, this is told aboard the Hindenberg airship on its final voyage from Germany to New Jersey. This covers another aspect of history I knew nothing about, beyond the fact the Hindenberg exploded in 1937, essentially ending the era of airships, for not surprisingly the public lost confidence in them. Lawhon has used the names of crew and passengers who were on the actual flight and created stories around them, either with known facts as triggers for ideas, or using her own imagination.

It’s a great read, as we get to know Emilie (the only stewardess ever appointed on an airship), navigator Max who is in love with her, a journalist and author couple on the brink of discovering a story, and an American who is clearly up to something but we don’t know quite what. There are families aboard, a young steward, Nazi commanders and a spinster heiress.

The only thing I found difficult was keeping track of all the characters, for me taking notes was essential.

Obviously you know where it’s all headed, but for this book, it really is the journey that’s important, rather than the destination.


The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress

This centres around the unsolved disappearance of Justice Carter in the 1930s in New York. It was a time when gangsters held power, political ambitions could be made with money in the right pockets, and numerous people were used and abused along the way. This story is told though the eyes of three women around Carter: his wife Stella, their maid Maria Simon, and his mistress Ritzi. The investigating police officer is Jude Simon (Maria’s husband) who is being pushed on by his boss; it seems every man in this town has some secret and some way of pressuring others to keep it.

It’s a clever retelling of a story, again based in a factual event I knew nothing about, but it wasn’t my favourite. It was a nasty time with nasty people and the women were treated pretty badly.

**

Overall though, I am now a fan of Lawhon’s writing and look forward to seeing what historical event she explores in the future.

Monday, June 7, 2021

In The Heights

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This lavish new production by Warner Brothers has transformed the In The Heights stage show into a movie. With music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) and directed by John Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) there is much to enjoy.

It is set mainly over three days building up to a heatwave and blackout in the largely Latino area of Washington Heights, in New York City. First we meet Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) running his small corner store (bodega) with his younger cousin Sonny. He longs to  return to the Dominican Republic, to follow his ‘sueno’ (dreams).

He is keen on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works in Daniela’s local salon, but dreams of becoming a designer. Abuela Claudia is the matriarch of the community and has raised Usnavi.

The local car dispatchers, Rosario’s, is owned by Kevin (Jimmy Smits), whose daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) has made it all the way to Stanford College, to the pride and joy of the local community. On the first day, Nina returns from college, downhearted with the weight of expectations on her shoulders and she reconnects with Benny (Usnavi’s friend and Kevin’s employee, Corey Hawkins) - they both clearly like each other.

It was enjoyable to see Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn 99) as an elaborately made-up hairdresser, and for those who like Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda has a minor role, and Christoper Jackson (George Washington) has a cameo (possibly also a nod to his role as Benny in the stage production). 

I have no knowledge of the stage show, or this part of New York, so I can’t comment on the adaptation, or the accuracy of any portrayals.   

However, I can say that this is a fun, enjoyable movie. The cast are excellent with strong voices and the songs are clever, many complete with extravagant, colourful dance scenes. The big scenes I particularly enjoyed were the opening “In the Heights”, the pool scene “$96,000” where everyone is dreaming what they would do if they won the lottery, the club dancing scene and the Carnaval scene.

Similarly, some of the more emotional, quieter songs were lovely: “Breathe” when Nina returns from college, and again “Everything I know” (I think it was) when she leaves for college. This was a very clever scene where the perspective changed, it looked so real.

It’s a movie that celebrates immigrant communities and notes the challenges they face, but doesn’t dwell on them. It’s people that matter here and the ones who love you, whether they stay near or far. And often your dreams come true in ways you don’t expect.


I was a guest of Universal Pictures.

Please note: to get the song names and some story details, I have used the Musical Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_the_Heights) as a source.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Spirit Untamed

This new offering from DreamWorks Animation is a simple, yet enjoyable and moving story about Lucky and a wild horse she names Spirit. 

In the opening scene we meet Lucky as a baby and her loving parents: Milagro, a famous horse riding stunt performer and Jim Prescott (Jake Gyllenhaal), a train engineer in small town Miradero. Her mother dies in a riding accident (unseen to the viewer), and the story quickly moves forward ten years, to the home where she has been raised by her Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) and grandfather.

Lucky (Isabela Merced) and Aunt Cora travel to Miradero to visit for the summer, and on the train ride out she is enamoured with a herd of wild horses running alongside the train led by a yellow stallion. She reconnects with her father, and meets two girls who quickly become friends - Abigail and Prue, and their horses.

A local hustler has managed to catch the stallion putting him in a corral. Over some days, Lucky befriends him, slowly and carefully with the help of apples, and some hints from her horse-loving friends. Various adventures follow with the horses, culminating in the entire herd being captured by the hustler and loaded onto a train to take out the country. The girls set out on horseback to intercept the train.

The animation of the horses is lovely and very realistic. Anyone who has spent time with horses will recognise numerous elements of their behaviour: skittishness, blowing air through the nose, love of various foods, and their body movements. The only thing that I realised half way through that was missing was the obvious indications of gender which in stallions are clearly present in real life.

It’s not clear which country or timeframe we are in, but to hazard a guess, I’d suggest the turn of the 19th/20th century (for the long skirts and dresses worn by the women, and the ‘old west’ feel of the town). It’s probably meant to be the southern US or Mexico, considering the clothing style and Spanish language elements.

There are some lovely scenes, including a clever Tango style dance between Lucky and Spirit as they get to know each other, and some funny interactions between the girls when they camp out. The music soundtrack was enjoyable throughout, and the animations were mostly excellent - the scenery, people and horses very believable and realistic.

The exception to the great animation however, is the persistence by studios to portray girls and women disproportionately. While Abigail has a realistically proportioned body (and eyes), as did Aunt Cora, they can’t resist making Lucky impossibly thin, with stick legs but a huge head, enormous eyes and a mane of hair - she almost looks lopsided. The father looks like a normally structured man, but some of the other men are impossibly large chested. I wish animation studios would have main characters less stylised and ‘perfect’, embracing realistic body variations, not impossible ones.

It’s suitable for pretty much all ages. The story is simple - no overblown dramatics here, the family has disagreements but sorts them out pretty fast, the friends are kind to each other, the baddies are mean but not too scary, and even the dramatic scenes probably wouldn’t worry many younger children. Our viewing was full of kids aged about 4-10 and they all seemed to enjoy it. Because of the story - young girl meets horse, there are no romantic scenes at all, and I suspect the ending will be satisfying to all.

I don’t think it will become a classic, but it’s a good, solid and enjoyable story for younger kids (and my teenagers quite liked it too!)

I was a guest of Universal Pictures.