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. 


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

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.