Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

I had high hopes for this book, maybe too high. When I read the description for The Trail by Ed Underwood, I thought it sounded a bit like The Shack. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Tyndale House in exchange for my review.) Unfortunately, it doesn’t measure up to the quality of storytelling found in The Shack, and I found it overall not as interesting as I’d hoped.

the trailThe Trail is a parable about discovering God’s will and it centers on a couple, Matt and Brenda, who are trying to make a decision about Matt’s job prospects. Their friends send them in to the woods to meet an old mountain man/preacher, Sam, who is supposed to take them on a weekend journey in the mountains and teach them principles about discovering God’s will.

I liked the principles and thought they were useful statements in the life of a Christian. And I appreciate the idea of the book because we, as Christians, often make the concept of finding God’s will too difficult.

However, I really couldn’t identify with any of the characters. Matt seemed like a selfish jerk. Brenda was a little bit flighty and weak. And Sam was sometimes just hard to believe as a person. He preached a lot and the conversations between the characters were not realistic. I also wasn’t sure whose point of view we were supposed to be reading most of the time. There were clues, but it was awkward.

I almost couldn’t finish the book and ended up skimming the last couple of chapters just to be done with it.

I did take away a few good principles, but the effort to find them just wasn’t worth it for me.

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For those who doubt their life or story matters, this is a collection of stories to convince you otherwise.

speakSpeak: How Your Story Can Change the World is a sometimes-gentle, sometimes not, kick in the pants for everyone, not just writers or storytellers or speakers, to tell our stories. And it is equal parts inspiring and convicting. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Zondervan through the Booklook Bloggers program.)

The author, Nish Weiseth, is the founder of one of my favorite blog spaces, A Deeper Story, and though I haven’t read a lot of her work, in particular, I love the mission of the site and the stories shared there. So, I’m pleased to discover I love Weiseth’s writing as well.

And her message–that stories are more powerful than all the labeling and stereotyping and arguing policy that goes on–is timely. Over the two days that I read the book, I watched online arguments erupt and devolve into hatred among strangers over stories about a group of Muslims using a community room at a local rec center for a religious observation and about whether a 37-weeks-gestation body found in a garbage can should be called a “fetus” or a “baby.” (I digress a little but only to show the relevance of Weiseth’s work.) It is situations like those–and so many more–that call for stories. That urge us to know people for who they are not what we think they are or should be. Weiseth calls us to ask questions, to listen, and to tell our stories in an exchange of humanity. She writes,

This book is a call to do just that– to change the game by telling the stories of our lives with courage, honesty, and integrity. It’s a call to acknowledge that each of our stories is a small piece of the greatest story–God’s continual work and transforming power in our lives.  (24)

One of my favorite features of the book is the reprinted blog posts at the end of each chapter illustrating how a specific story changes the way we see a particular issue or stereotype. I love that Weiseth shared her book space with other writers to add another layer to the work. And though she has written a book and lives in Salt Lake City as part of a church plant, Weiseth is also a mother to two young children and immersed in the daily routines of life and family. She insists that our lives don’t have to look like a Hollywood movie to matter.

Most people are living life by daily fulfilling the obligations set before them. … And though you  may be living what seems like an ordinary life, faithfully doing what God has placed in front of you to do means you are actually living an extraordinary story. (183)

Not a book just for those who communicate for a living but one for anyone striving to live a life that brings more of the Kingdom of God to earth. Our stories, our journeys, our trials and triumphs, matter. And, as Weiseth says, they can be the catalyst for change in someone else’s life.

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When my husband and I first started cooking together, I was amazed at his ability to take common, seemingly unrelated pantry ingredients and turn them into a meal. It’s a method he learned growing up in a house where he cooked a few dinners a week. Food Network’s spin on that method is the show Chopped, where contestants open a basket of mystery ingredients and are tasked with making an edible appetizer, main dish or dessert out of them. It’s addicting.

choppedWhich is why when I found out Food Network was offering a Chopped cookbook, I pretty much freaked out. Because there are nights when I look in the pantry and I’m sure I don’t have enough stuff to make something tasty. Now, I have no excuse.

(And even though I received a free copy of the book in exchange for my review, I believe this cookbook is worth every penny you might pay for it. But keep reading because I have a surprise for you!)

The Chopped Cookbook is everything I’ve ever wanted in a cookbook: Tantalizing pictures, creative ideas and doable recipes. And did I mention flexibility? Most cookbooks want you to follow their instructions to a T. This cookbook emphasizes flexibility based on a basic knowledge of how foods work together. It gives you the building blocks and says, “Go, create.”

As of writing this post, I’ve paged through the entire book and tried two recipes from it. The first was Marinated Tilapia Tacos. I lacked some of the ingredients but improvised a bit and still turned out a tasty meal. Even the kids ate it! The second was Quick Skillet Kielbasa Pork and Beans, which again, I lacked some of the ingredients but was able to improvise. And it was good! (Seriously, my husband rarely raves when I experiment and both of these dishes gained his approval.)

The instructions are easy to follow and some recipes look more complicated than others, but there are 188 recipes in this book and I want to try them all.

A few of my favorite features:

  • The pantry list at the beginning. It gives you a foundation on which to build. Many of the recipes assume that you have some basics on hand. But again, the emphasis is on flexibility. No points lost if you don’t buy everything on the list.
  • The theme. “Use what you’ve got to cook something great.” It’s a confidence builder and ought to be a theme for life in general.
  • The variety. Scattered throughout the book are “go-to guides” for pan sauces, salad dressings and grains. This is where the creativity and versatility come in.

It’s been a long time since I was this excited about cooking.

And I’m even more excited because due to a processing error, I received an extra copy of this cookbook and I want to share it with you!

To enter to win, leave a comment answering ONE of these questions (and leave your e-mail address, if you don’t mind so I know how to notify you if you win):

What’s your one must-have in-stock pantry item?

What one ingredient would you hate to see in your Chopped basket?

What one ingredient would you love to see in your Chopped basket?

I’m going to leave the contest open till Sunday, July 27, when I’ll pick a winner. (Because of shipping costs, I have to limit winners to continental U.S. only.)

Happy cooking!.

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Last week I wrote about my experience reading the book Restless by Jennie Allen. In the same amount of time it took me to read it, the DVD study kit has been sitting on my desk (or has been passing back and forth between me and a friend, who is leading our book club discussion). Finally, I had a chance to sit down and watch a few sessions and look over the material. (Disclaimer: I received a free DVD kit from the publisher through Shelton Interactive in exchange for my review.)

Since it’s designed for group use, it’s hard for me to give a fully accurate review, but I have some overall impressions, the first of which is: Uh-mazing.

If I thought Jennie’s passion transferred from the page to the reader, then I hadn’t seen the half of it. In front of a group of women, Jennie comes alive and, girlfriends, she can preach. She nearly had me in tears just by hearing her talk.

The kit includes an 8-session DVD, a leader guide, an individual study guide and a box of question cards (which I personally found to be an intriguing aspect of the kit).

restless DVD

The study is similar in structure to Beth Moore’s DVD studies, if you’re familiar with those. The workbook is designed for personal use throughout the week and the DVD sessions and question cards are meant to be used in a group setting.

And can I just say that this whole journey of discovery found in Restless–whether the book or the video teaching–is ridiculously scary because it’s so personal and important. And I believe that Jennie Allen believes what she’s teaching–that we’re all meant for more in this life, that God will use our experiences (even the hard ones) for His greater purposes and that we just might find ourselves in the middle of a big adventure if we allow God to show us what He’s up to. It’s one of those times that I’m almost afraid to go too deep because I might drown in the importance of it all.

I want to soak in this teaching, dig into my own experiences and uncover the connection between who God made me and what I can do in this world for Him.

If you’re looking for a group study for your church, I’d give this one an enthusiastic recommendation. And if you’ve been through it with a group or decide to do it, I’d love to hear what you think! Just be warned: there’s no skimming the surface here, unless that’s all you want to get out of it. Be prepared to do some honest digging into your life. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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restlessIt’s the rare book that takes me two months to read, especially if I like it, but such was the case with Restless by Jennie Allen. Honestly, I’d gladly take six months or a year to read this book, so full is it of reflective questions and topics for deep thinking. Two months has felt like too fast for this book. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book through the BookLook Bloggers program.)

And because it’s been hanging around for a while, and because summer is coming and we all want good books to read, and because it’s hitting me right where I live, I’m calling it a bonus book review on the blog this week. It won’t be light summer reading, but it might be life-changing summer reading.

Recently, I’ve told you about my restless feelings and about my journey as a writer. Both of those reflections were informed by reading Restless.

So, what is Restless? In short, it’s permission to dream. Whatever stage of life we find ourselves in, Jennie Allen encourages us to consider what we were made for. She takes readers through her own journey of discovering and rediscovering her calling in the midst of motherhood and gives us the opportunity to identify painful and meaningful experiences from our past. It was on those pages that I personally realized I’d always been a writer and that writing will be a constant in my life, no matter the other passions and pursuits I find myself exploring.

Restless is a uniquely personal journey for every reader. Our church’s book club has been reading through it, and the few times I’ve been part of those discussions, I can see that it has different meaning for everyone. (And not just for women in their 20s and 30s. Women of ALL ages can benefit from finding their purpose and passion.)

I love the way the author writes. It’s like chatting with a friend across a cafe table with coffee mugs in hand. I half expected her to reach through the pages and offer a hug like she said she wanted to do. Her words are authentic, real and challenging.

Toward the end of the book, she offers a letter from her husband to husbands about helping the women in their lives find their purpose and follow it. It was touching, and while I might hand it over to my husband to have him read it, I’m grateful that he is already on board with my passions.

So, if you pick this one up, don’t rush through it. Get a notebook and fill it with words and scribbles. Grab a friend and read it together and look over your threads, as Allen calls them, and dream together.

I think that’s what I love best about the book: its emphatic message that it’s okay to dream. Too often I think we, women, give up our dreams for our families or our families become our dreams. Sometimes that’s okay or it’s okay for a season, but for me, I know that discovering my passions and following them is a source of great fulfillment that carries over into my family. When I am doing what God made me to do, I’m a better wife and mom.

Restless confirms and encourages that, for any stage, any calling. It doesn’t discount the call to motherhood or serving families. It releases us to be whatever God made us to be.

And that, friends, is freeing.

Note: There’s also a video series available for Restless, and I have a copy to review that I haven’t had a chance to watch yet. Stay tuned for a separate review of that!

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modern pioneeringModern Pioneering by Georgia Pellegrini promises recipes, survival skills and gardening tips, and it delivers on those promises. However, I had certain expectations for this book and I’m not sure they were met. This collection of recipes, projects and tips is like holding Pinterest in your hands, which is not a bad thing but can be a bit overwhelming. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher through the  Blogging for Books program.)

The book is full of beautiful pictures and scrumptious-sounding recipes. But I felt like the author has an advantage over most of us in that she was raised to think this way so eating edible flowers or cooking with dandelion greens is nothing to her. For me, it would take some getting used to. Also, while learning how to eat from your backyard sounds frugal, some of the recipes include ingredients that are anything but frugal. Somewhat mixed messages.

However, I found a lot of useful tips for container gardening and what to grow for different spaces and ease of growing. For a beginner, which I totally am,  it’s a good resource, especially for gardening. Some of the other projects, however, sound fun and interesting but would require time and energy that some of us don’t have. (Make your own paper, anyone? It’ll only take days and require the use of a blender and your bathtub and dedicated space in your house.)

Overall, I’m glad for this book as a guide, and I will refer to it as I develop my homesteading skills, but I wouldn’t consider it a necessity for everyone at every stage of life.

For more about the book, click here.

To learn about the author, click here.

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In 1928, a 16-year-old girl was assaulted in the woods by a stranger while attending a picnic. Months later she learned she was pregnant. Sent away to live, first, with relatives and then at a Lutheran home for unwed mothers, the girl became a mother faced with a choice: give her daughter up for adoption to a family or keep her and live with the stigma of being a single mother.

She’d carry the decision to give up her daughter, whom she named Betty Jane, mostly in secret for almost 80 years. And then a miracle answer to prayer: a phone call would reunite the two women and renew a relationship that even eight decades couldn’t destroy.

the waitingThis is the story of The Waiting, a debut book by Cathy LaGrow, whose grandmother is the woman, Minka, who gave up the child and on her daughter’s 77th birthday prayed for a chance to see her baby girl one more time. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Tyndale House Publishers through the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my review.)

So much more than a family history, The Waiting is a stunning narrative that reads like a novel. (It could be a movie and we’d all be ugly crying. It’s that good.) LaGrow, and contributor Cindy Coloma, have pieced together a story that spans almost a century, thousands of miles and two families connected by blood but with no idea either existed.

I was impressed with the details and meticulous research, the emotions that practically jumped off the page. I could see the story unfold, and I’m so grateful for this family sharing their lives and the incredible way God brought together all things for good.

I was moved to tears and had to set the book down a few times for fear that if I engaged fully, I’d be unable to go on with my day. Steadfast love, forgiveness, sacrifice and so.much.joy make up the overall themes of this story.

By the end, I wanted to meet Minka, a remarkable woman of 100 years whose vigor, patience and dedication are inspiring. A story like hers could have easily died with her and reminded me of the importance of sharing stories across generations.

You can read the first chapter here. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. You’ll want to keep reading.

It’s hard to imagine a woman living such a full life in spite of the crushing loss. And it’s harder to imagine that God could bring such beauty out of the brokenness. But she did and He did and The Waiting tells it beautifully.


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I was raised in a homegrown, fundamentalist Christian group–which is just a shorthand way of saying I’m classically trained in apocalypse stockpiling, street preaching, and the King James Version of the Bible. I know hundreds of obscure nineteenth-century hymns by heart and have such razor-sharp ‘modesty vision’ that I can spot a miniskirt a mile away.

Verily, verily I say unto the, none of these highly specialized skills ever got me a job, but at least I’m all set for the End of the World. Selah.

girl at end of worldThis is how Elizabeth Esther describes her upbringing in her memoir Girl at the End of the World. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book through Waterbrook Multnomah’s Blogging for Books program in exchange for my review.) It’s a sardonic summary of her early life, and the truth is: it was much worse than that.

Girl at the End of the World is a raw and gritty account of the cult known as The Assembly that Elizabeth was raised in, and the painful path she took to freedom from a strict fundamentalist upbringing, which included daily spankings and confession of sins real and imagined. She asked Jesus into her heart thousands of times and lived in fear of being “left behind” when the Rapture occurred.

I have never been in a cult nor experienced the level of brainwashing and strict morality the author describes, but it wasn’t hard to identify with aspects of the book. To me, it was a warning against an atmosphere of control and conformity under the pretense of unity. And it’s an honest picture of brokenness, healing, forgiveness and grace. Elizabeth’s pain is real, and I found myself aching with her losses and cheering for her freedom.

I appreciate, too, that this is not an all’s-well-that-ends-well kind of story. She is honest about her recovery and the struggles she still has with the thoughts and experiences that shaped her upbringing. Still, there is hope. Girl at the End of the World might not make you feel good but it will remind you that God’s grace is extravagant and His love is big and some people misuse His name and the Bible but God is still leading people to walk in freedom with Him.

If you’re unsure about the book, you can read Chapter One here. There is mild use of language that some might find offensive, and I only tell you that so you aren’t surprised if you do read it. It does not take away from the overall value of the story.

To learn more about the author, you can visit her website, find her on Facebook or connect with her on Twitter.

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Brenda Spahn was so eager to share hope with women inmates she once broke into a prison.

Sound crazy?

It was. But it’s not even half the story of how a successful businesswoman in Alabama redirected her passion for making money to rehabilitating broken lives.

miss brendaMiss Brenda and the Loveladies is the story of how it all started. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers through the Blogging for Books program  in exchange for my review.)

Brenda Spahn has spunk, and she won’t take no for an answer, even when she has no idea what she’s getting herself into. When her tax preparation business came under scrutiny for some alleged improper practices, Brenda and her daughter, an employee of the company, faced possible jail time if found guilty. When they were spared serving even a brief sentence, Brenda realized she wanted to minister to women in prison because she could have been one.

The road was rocky at first, and she admits she was in over her head. She wanted to share a message of hope and thought she could just walk into a prison and do that. Eventually, seeing the need for a place for recently released women to turn their lives around, Brenda opened her lavish home to seven female ex-cons from the roughest women’s prison in the country.

Everyone expected her to fail: the state, her family, the women themselves. But Brenda didn’t give up, even at personal cost to herself and her family. She now runs the largest transitional center for women in the country.

Her story is eye-opening and sad. I cried reading about how prisoners are treated in the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. Their humanity and dignity are stripped from them, and they are often given no hope to ever change. Brenda challenged that idea and opened what she called a “whole-way” house, as opposed to a halfway house, to aid their restoration.

It’s also funny and inspiring. I laughed picturing some of the ridiculous situations Brenda and the women often found themselves in, and I cheered for victory over each obstacle Brenda faced.

This is a book that will challenge readers to reform their own way of thinking, especially when it comes to the idea of God changing hearts. The work Brenda is doing is proof that He can restore and redeem even the worst of life’s trials. It was a reminder to me of the very real horrors people face and that even those who have committed crimes are people with hurts and hopes.

Brenda describes her own change of attitude this way:

Hearing their stories changed me. Yes, most of them had done bad things. But, oh my, most of them never had a fighting chance. … Truth was, I believed that these women had deserved what they were getting. Now I knew their stories. What so many of them “got” was not anything anyone should ever get … They were survivors, and many were trying to live on, even though they barely had a chance. (32)

The stories told are gritty and raw at times, including “colorful” language. I appreciated that it was left in for the tone and topic of this book. Though that may bother some people, I think it’s appropriate for accuracy and reality.

I’m not sure I could do what Miss Brenda did, but man, am I challenged to live the Gospel in a radical way. Almost no one thought her idea was any good, and now the good she has done is immeasurable.

Click here to find out more about The Lovelady Center and the work they do. And you can read the authors’ bios here.

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After reading a book about simple living, my thoughts are anything but simple.

notes blue bikeIn her memoirish book Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally in a Chaotic World, Tsh Oxenreider lays out a blueprint for living a life with purpose. Because, honestly, aren’t most of us just drifting wherever the current takes us? (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Thomas Nelson through the BookLook Blogger Program in exchange for my review.)

Oxenreider and her family have lived overseas and in the States. They’ve homeschooled and public schooled. They’ve worked “regular” jobs and started their own business. They’ve traveled extensively. They’ve paid off debt. And though all of that is part of their journey to live a more simple and more intentional life, none of it was, or is, easy.

And that’s a major plus to this book. I’ve read other books on simple living that are more legalistic manifesto than guided invitation. Notes from a Blue Bike is the latter. Oxenreider doesn’t pretend that what has worked for their family will work for every family, but she encourages families to make a plan for intentional living. Because being intentional won’t just happen.

The book is divided into sections–food, work, education, travel, and entertainment–and in each one, the author draws from her family’s experiences and how they arrived at the current stage of their journey. After the food section, I was so inspired that I was ready to make sweeping changes to our family’s eating habits and food purchases. Now that I’m finished with the book, I’m taking seriously her encouragement to identify our family’s core values so we can make decisions based on those values.

I’ve dog-eared as many pages as not during my reading, and I’d encourage any who has dreamed of living a more intentional life but can’t figure out how to do it, to get a copy of this book. But be warned: it won’t be easy. Oxenreider confesses that living more slowly, more simply and more intentionally was easier when they lived overseas. American culture is not always conducive to this type of life and making changes will seem like swimming upstream at times.

That doesn’t scare me. It excites me.

Notes from a Blue Bike is in the top tier of the best nonfiction books I’ve read this year and would make my list for most influential books I’ve ever read.

You can read more about the author at her Website here or at The Art of Simple, a blog she directs on this topic.

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