Take a hike: Review of A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Years ago, when my husband and I were on our honeymoon, we hiked a mountain and stayed at a lodge in the Smokies. It was close to, or maybe part of, the Appalachian Trail, and it was a beautifully challenging experience to spend most of a day hiking to where you were going to sleep and being without running water for short time. A few years later we discovered a few access points to the Appalachian Trail near where we lived in Pennsylvania, and we did a short day hike.

a walk in the woodsThough I don’t have any plans to ever hike the whole AT, I am impressed with and awed by people who do it. A friend’s son recently got back from hiking half the trail, so his experience was fresh in my mind as I picked up Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my review through the Blogging for Books program.)

I had never read anything by Bryson before, but I learned quickly that he’s funny as well as observant. The book is full of not only thought-provoking musings about nature but hysterical anecdotes about the trouble he and his friend, Stephen, find themselves in as they hike the trail.

Bryson’s book is part memoir, part travelogue, part research paper as he includes historical information about the trail and the things that have happened on the trail along with facts about the park service. I learned a few things, was entertained and inspired. Reading this book made me want to take a hike–literally.

“Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive.” — A Walk in the Woods, p. 44

And although (spoiler alert) Bryson doesn’t hike the entire AT (and now that I think about it, that wasn’t the promise of the book), he does hike significant portions of it and discovers some beautiful areas of the eastern part of the United States. I’ve got a few places added to my must-visit list.

I’ll be adding more of Bryson’s books to my to-read list also.

I’ve heard the movie is not as good as the book (is it ever?) but I’d be interested to see it anyway. If you like the outdoors, even the occasional walk in the woods, check this one out.

Rooted in reality: Review of Promise to Keep by Elizabeth Byler Younts

I’ve made it no secret that I have a like-dislike relationship with Amish fiction. It is not my favorite genre in general, except when I find a series or an author that changes my mind about the genre as a whole.

And the books Elizabeth Byler Younts has written fit that latter description. Her three-book series, The Promise of Sunrise, has a unique slant–it is Amish fiction set during World War 2 and addresses the tension of a country at war and a community committed to peace.

promise to keepThe final book, Promise to Keep, released this week, and its story centers on a young unmarried Amish woman who has been raising the deaf daughter of an active-duty soldier. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my review.) Esther Detweiler has been raising Daisy, the daughter of her shunned cousin, since the girl’s mother died. When Esther’s grandmother dies, she and Daisy are all they have left of family. Until Daisy’s father returns.

Joe Garrison is home from war, but the war haunts him, especially at night. He wants to be a father to his daughter, but she has no initial connection to him. As Joe and Esther work to bring father and daughter back together, their feelings for each other grow beyond the love they both have for Daisy.

Though the story started a little slow for me–which isn’t unusual for Amish fiction; I find the pace is often slower, a reflection, I think, of the lifestyle being portrayed–by the middle I was turning page after page, wondering how this was going to work out for everyone. I so appreciate the perspective of someone like Younts, who does not tell a rosy, all-is-well story without conflict or realism, and who has the family heritage–she was Amish as a child–to lend credibility to the setting and culture. Both of those characteristics are what keep me coming back to her Amish stories. I hope we have more to look forward to.

The other books in the series are Promise  to Return and Promise to Cherish but they do not have to be read in order. (Book #2, Promise to Cherish, was my favorite of the three.)

The book of Acts for today’s Jesus followers: Review of Into the Fray by Matt Mikalatos

Earlier this year, NBC produced a TV show about the book of Acts, called A.D.: The Bible Continues, and it was an eye-opening and enlightening look at what following Jesus looked like in the early days of Christianity.

I thought I would never look at the book of Acts the same way again. And I haven’t. mikalatos_IntoTheFray_wSpine.indd

And with this new book by Matt Mikalatos, Into the Fray, I have another whole new way of looking at. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my review.)

In  Into the Fray, Mikalatos retells some of the stories found in the book of Acts as if they were happening today. Because let’s be honest, how many of us encounter eunuchs today? (This was a particularly enlightening observation for me.) And how easy is it for us to read through these stories set in an ancient culture and walk away unchanged because they don’t seem to apply to us?

Mikalatos is one of the best storytellers around. I’ve recommended his books My Imaginary Jesus and Night of the Living-Dead Christian more times than I can count. He has a way of creatively telling a familiar story in a way that offers fresh challenges.

This book about the book of Acts clears any confusion Jesus followers might have about what the good news actually is and how to tell others about it. But it’s not a book about evangelism or outreach or preaching. It’s a book about transformation and how changed lives can turn the world upside down.

“We never expected our greatest lesson. It was a simple realization: we cannot change the world without being changed ourselves.”

Into the Fray pulls the book of Acts into contemporary culture, and each chapter includes commentary from Mikalatos about context and application of the passage from Acts on which the stories are based.

Fresh insights and relevant stories make this book a valuable study tool and resource for anyone who is engaging with the world around him.

The book of Acts will look new to you like never before.

Love in the Reformation: Review of Luther & Katharina by Jody Hedlund

A former monk and an escaped nun fall in love, marry, have a family, change the world. Truth is stranger than fiction sometimes, and Jody Hedlund’s new book blends both in an impressive historical novel.

Luther and Katharina. The names probably aren’t unfamiliar to you if you have an ounce of church background, or if you saw the movie Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes, that came out 12 (really?!) years ago.

Luther-KatharinaBut the story of their courtship is one I hadn’t read much about. I would want it in no one else’s hands but Hedlund’s. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my review.)

The events surrounding Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora’s relationship are sometimes shocking and unbelievable, but Hedlund assures readers in the end notes that much of what she writes is based on fact. Of course, she takes creative license in arranging scenes for dramatic effect, which is why it’s called a historical novel. In previous books, Hedlund has taken real people and events and changed their names and storylines a bit to tell a romantic tale. (For example, in Rebellious Heart, the characters are based on John and Abigail Adams and their revolutionary relationship but their names are changed.)

I loved the weaving of history, religious reformation and romance throughout the story. The characters were full of life and passion, confronted with danger and forced to make hard choices.

It is a gift, I’m discovering, that someone can take historical events and turn them into stories that are page-turning and applicable to life today. Jody Hedlund has that gift. You don’t even have to be Lutheran to enjoy this story!

I always love a little peek into the author’s world. Here are a few questions and answers about Jody Hedlund and her writing process and life. (And Illinois, friends, I just discovered she has an Illinois connection. Read on to find out what it is!) jody hedlund

You grew up Lutheran. Share with us how your Lutheran background influenced the writing of this book.

Yes, I was born and baptized a Lutheran. In fact my dad was a Lutheran pastor all his life until he passed away. I have an uncle who was a Lutheran pastor until he retired. I went to Lutheran grade school, and my high school alma mater is Lutheran High School in Rockford, IL. I took catechism classes and was confirmed in the Lutheran church. My German and Norwegian grandparents on both sides of my family were strong Lutherans as well. I have a very fond spot in my heart for all things related to Martin Luther since his name and teachings were such an integral part of my upbringing.

It’s obvious that research plays an enormous role in the development of your scenes and the characters that inhabit them. How did you begin the arduous task of researching these two historical figures and the period in which they lived?

One of the first things I do in the early research phase of any of my stories based on real historical figures is I locate as many biographies on the couples and individuals as I can get my hands on. Usually I can get quite a number through my library system. Once I figure out the books that will be the most helpful to me, I usually buy them.

After I have the biographies I spend an enormous amount of time reading through them, taking pages and pages of notes, and trying to gain a realistic grasp of the people and the events that fall within the time frame that I hope to write about (which usually entails the romance relationship–how the couple met, fell in love, and ended up together).

Once I’ve scoured the biographies, I begin the next phase of my research which is to delve into the details regarding the time period and setting. Usually I try to focus on gaining a “feel” for the era. I try to understand the social and political climate. I familiarize myself with wars or other disruptions happening during the time. And then I round out my research by studying clothes, food, homes, life styles, etc.

The process is intense and takes me weeks before I’m finally ready to begin the actual writing process.

Katharina von Bora is a name that most people would never connect with Martin Luther. Why do you think it’s important that we uncover and shine a light on some of the forgotten female figures who helped shape the Church?

My goal is to give a voice to the forgotten women of the past. Since most of history has been written by men, unfortunately all too often the accounts neglect to include or minimizes the many women who played critically important roles in the shaping of history.

As a mother of five children and a wife to a husband in Christian ministry, I’ve had a firsthand learning experience of the incredible work load and responsibility that comes with raising a family, being a wife, managing a home, as well as helping do all of the things necessary to provide emotionally, physically, and financially for our family. As I go about this calling God’s given me at this stage in my life, I have a greater appreciation for the women of the past who also struggled through the same issues (but without all of the modern conveniences that I have!).

I believe modern women will benefit from hearing their stories, will be incredibly encouraged to see these women who persevered through discrimination and found the strength to use their God-given abilities to make a difference. Not only did they make a difference in their era, but today (decades and even centuries later) we can see the fruits of their bravery and strength. These women of the past have encouraged me to persevere and to use my skills and talents to make a difference in my time. No matter how big or small that difference might be, I want to be faithful to leave an impact, just as those women did

As you began to read and learn more about Katharina, what particularly captivated you about her?

I was particularly fascinated by the fact that Katharina had once been a nun. And as we know, nuns take a vow of celibacy.

I was curious to know why she’d become a nun in the first place. What led her to that decision? And then what made her later decide to forsake her vows? What was life like for her after escaping her convent knowing that if she was caught and recaptured, she could face persecution and even death for running away? What were her hopes and dreams for her life after she’d denied herself for so long? What was it like for her to interact with men when she’d never before had the opportunity?

All of those questions and more reverberated through my mind. And what I really wanted to know was how she’d ended up with Martin Luther. What brought this couple together? It was a forbidden love during a time of incredible turmoil. It was a love that was never-meant-to-happen. So how did it come about?

What was the biggest surprise in researching this story?

As I dug into the research, the thing that surprised me most was that Luther and Katharina didn’t experience “love at first sight.” In fact, they had no thought of marrying each other. Katharina was a woman of noble birth and Luther a man of peasant beginnings. They were in two different social classes, which doesn’t sound like a big deal to us today. But at that time, social class was extremely important.

After leaving the convent, Katharina expected to marry a nobleman. And even though Luther preached the goodness of marriage and encouraged other monks and nuns to leave their convents and get married, he had no intention of getting married himself.  So, the question begs answering, how did these two opposite people with opposing personalities and aspirations, end up together? You’ll have to read the book to discover the answer!

A faith-plus-fantasy series for the doubters: review of The Sword and the Song by C.E. Laureano

I used to define my reading habits by what genres I didn’t read, and sci-fi/fantasy was always on the list. But well-written stories of any kind are finding their way to not just my reading pile but my list of favorites. And C.E. Laureano’s three-book series, The Song of Seare, is a prime example.

sword and songI just finished the third book, The Sword and the Song, and I’m stunned. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book through the Tyndale Blog Network.)

Throughout my reading of this series, I’ve written about how surprised I was at how much I liked it. (Read my previous review here.) I didn’t grow up reading the Lord of the Rings series, although I did read The Chronicles of Narnia once upon a time, but I’m rediscovering a love for this kind of faith-based action adventure series set in a world of the author’s imagining.

Laureano’s world is reminiscent of Celtic culture, namely Ireland, and I want to literally applaud her for the names of people and countries that she invented to sound like Irish names but not quite.

But let’s talk about this final book for a moment, and the series as a whole. I did not see the end coming, and it was so surprising that it brought me to tears. You can read a short interview with the author, below, and she talks about some of her decisions in the series. Let me just say this: you will want to throw the book–any of them–across the room because Laureano does not play by the “everyone must be happy all the time” rule. (Is that a rule at all?) Her characters go through realistic drama that tears their worlds apart, but through it all, a thread of hope remains.

I’m sad to see this series end, and if I could ask the author one question myself it would be: Is this really the end?

carla_stairs_full-199x300Here are a few more questions Laureano answered about the series:

Why Celtic fantasy?

I’ve been interested in Ireland for as long as I can remember, maybe because of my distant Irish heritage. I had the opportunity to travel there during college, and I’ve never felt such an instant affinity for a place. While America will likely always be the place I “hang my hat”, I realized that Ireland was my heart’s home. Ever since then, I’ve written Irish characters and settings. But it was only when I started reading books by Juliet Marillier—wonderful historical fantasies that showed the pagan/Christian conflict from the pagan point of view—I knew I wanted to do something similar with a Christian slant.

How much is based on history and how much was made up?

The culture of Seare is very much based on ancient Ireland before the 10th century, but since relatively little is known about that time period, much of it is extrapolated from research done in the 1920’s. (Some of that research, like the idea that the Irish wore kilts, has since been disproven.) But the food, weaponry, law, and social structure of Seare is very similar to how things might have been in ancient Ireland. Of course, the addition of magic changes things, so I got to imagine how the existence of supernatural gifts and blood magic might have affected their culture. I also re-envisioned the faerie mythology from a neutral, mischievous role into something more malevolent.

What do you hope readers will take away from your books?

I didn’t want to write a “safe” story where you know that everything is going to be okay and everyone will come out unharmed—because real life isn’t like that. It can be scary and messy and unpredictable. But through it all, if you look hard enough, is the ever-present thread of God’s grace and provision. My greatest wish is that readers come away with the understanding that they have a purpose, that they matter, that God cares for them as individuals and not just as a face in the crowd. I’ll consider my job done if readers walk away with hope.

Visit Laureano’s website to find out more about her and her writing. Books in this series are: The Oath of the Brotherhood, Beneath the Forsaken City and The Sword and the Song. I hope there is more like this series to come from Laureano!

Isn’t it just another day?: Review of Simply Tuesday by Emily P. Freeman

It doesn’t have the reputation of Monday or the comical-but-sometimes-annoying association with camels of Wednesday. It’s not the weekend (Friday) or almost the weekend (Thursday).

It’s simply Tuesday. So, what’s the big deal?

Simply-Tuesday-3D2Emily Freeman wrote a whole book about it called, wait for it, Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World. And it has redeemed Tuesdays in my mind. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for my review.)

If your life feels like a hamster wheel or a merry-go-round, if pursuing your dreams is leaving you feeling deflated, this book is a refreshing reminder that it’s okay to slow down, live small and relish the life you’re already living.

I’m a little bit torn, though, because I’ve been encouraged recently by books that promote hustle and calling and going after what you were meant to do. Still, I think Freeman’s book is like a checks-and-balances offering in a world that constantly pressures us to do more, be more, and want more. Simply Tuesday presses pause on all of that and says things like this:

Home often comes when we’re waiting for the next big thing and finding home is often different from what we think it will be. We think we’re looking for a gate to something more or something different, but instead we find ourselves in a cul-de-sac. Home often seems to show up on Tuesday mornings rather than on Saturday nights. While we stand on tiptoe looking ahead, home whispers, Come sit for a while and take a breath. Perhaps you’re already here. (p. 59)

Freeman addresses areas of work, home, people, and soul in regards to Tuesday, as well as what lies beyond Tuesday. Her words offer practical, down-to-earth wisdom, and it’s not always easy to bear. She uses a bench metaphor throughout the book, and at times, though my soul felt like I wanted to sit on the bench, I almost felt like I needed to be forced onto the bench.

To sit. And look. And linger.

I suspect that Freeman’s words will sink deeply into my heart and mind with time. What she offers from what she has found is hope even if life doesn’t feel big and important. There’s no pity party here, and this is not like a support group for benchwarmers or those who are always picked last. It is an invitation to embrace the little and let go of the result, without expectation that small will certainly equal big in the end.

She writes:

These days I am careful not to color the word small in negative shades, as if it were something to run from or escape. I want to start small because I’m human and dependent, not in hopes that my small will grow into something bigger. … Small things don’t always turn into big things. But all things begin small, especially in the kingdom of God. (p. 239)

Simply Tuesday was my introduction to Freeman’s writing. To find out more about her and her other writings, visit her website here.

An invitation to be who you are: Review of Brave Enough by Nicole Unice

“Brave” is not a word I use to describe myself. I’m more of the timid and anxious variety. “Brave” makes me think of warriors and pioneers and go-getters who tackle every challenge that comes their way.

brave enoughSo, I was interested in this book by Nicole Unice, Brave Enough, because of the implication that I might have this bravery thing all wrong. I trust Nicole as a writer. She gently guided me through all my issues a few years ago in her first book, She’s Got Issues, and she speaks as someone who knows what she’s talking about because she’s just like the rest of us. No high horse, here. Nicole shares stories of imperfection and weakness, and for this, I am grateful. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for my review.)

Brave Enough calls us to “get over our fears, flaws and failures to live BOLD and FREE.” Who wouldn’t want that? And from page one, she inspires us to imagine what that kind of life would look like.

What if, starting today, starting right now, you weren’t scared anymore? What if that worried energy were gone? …. What would you do? Who would you be? How would you live bigger? (p. xiii)

When I started reading this book, I was in the midst of a situation that had me very worried. And I was weeks away from a 10-day mission trip to Kenya. The words of this book were as applicable on that adventure as I’ve found them in my daily life since then. I need the challenge to live courageously in my day-to-day activities.

Nicole breaks the book down into characteristics or actions of brave-enough women. And each chapter ends with questions for reflection and a prayer related to the chapter’s theme. Most are the kind of questions I need to take more time with. (And definitely grab a notebook before you start this book. Lots of opportunity to journal and reflect.)

There’s also a section at the end for further contemplation about the Scriptures she used throughout the book and a space to think about what section might be the most applicable in this season. (A DVD curriculum is also available if you’re looking for a group study.)

Bottom line: Nicole understands the issues and challenges women face because she faces them too! And her heart for leading women beyond those issues and challenges is evident in her writing. I highly recommend both of her books for spiritual growth.