Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Dwelling Places: Words to Live in Every Season

Dwelling Places: Words to Live in Every Season by Lucinda Secrest McDowell

Dwelling Places: Words to Live in Every Season by Lucinda Secrest McDowell

I was excited to be invited to review this book by Lucinda Secrest McDowell. I usually like her writing and I was ready for a new devotional. This book takes an interesting approach. First, it is organized by season, with a theme for each – dwell for fall, shine for advent, renew for Lent, and grow for summer. Then within each section, each day focuses on one word, finding the word in a Scripture verse. Interesting approach. Good potential. The layout is typical devotional: bible verse, narrative, prayer. The narrative usually offers a brief story or anecdote,  followed by some discussion of that theme.

Sadly, the book disappointed at every level. First, it’s unreadable and looks self-published even though it’s published by Abingdon. I know their goal – small format with each devotional contained on two facing pages. So the book measures 5” x 7” – a nice, portable size. But to accomplish the goal, they used what looks like about an 8-point font with 3/8 inch margins. Definitely not a book for anyone over 40! The paper is common newsprint.

Reviewers were asked to select a season to review. I chose Summer (grow). I love summer – gardens, vacations, family, leisure… Some of the words chosen fit the summer theme, but several were a reach. With few exceptions, I also found the narratives to be ho-humm. Not bad, but not underlinable.

All in all, this book was a disappointment. Look elsewhere for your new devotional.

Lucinda is sponsoring a drawing for some really fine prizes. Enter at https://promosimple.com/ps/9d4a by July 5. Winners drawn July 6.

Hidden Agenda: Dropping the Masks That Keep Us Apart

Hidden Agenda: Dropping the Masks That Keep Us Apart by Steve Brown

Hidden Agenda: Dropping the Masks That Keep Us Apart by Steve Brown

You wear a mask. I wear a mask. We all wear masks. But it should not be so. And Steve Brown is determined that we know every possible way we adopt hidden agendas.

No one can argue with his premise. It’s human nature to hide our true selves. We fear authenticity. We may abhor phonies, but when it comes right down to it, we’re all about as phony as they come. And then we pretend no one notices.

Brown’s style pulls no punches. He’s clear, concise, and in your face. He writes with the humor of an excellent speaker, punctuating truth with a dash of absurdity. The book reads like a spoken sermon, laced with phrases cleverly turned and fingers pointed.

As well written as the book is, I found it rather tedious. It seemed that he made his point well in the first couple of chapters. Then he made it again and again and again. It reminded me of the speakers’ mantra: “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.” Except that he put several more “tell them’s” in the middle.  And yet, perhaps this is a new concept to some readers. Perhaps some are blinded to their hidden agendas and need them pointed out in several different ways before they get it.

Brown redeemed himself in the last couple of chapters when brought it home and applied the concepts to the church where he advocates “a new kind of family.” The book includes discussion questions at the end of each chapter, making the book useful for small groups or personal journaling.

So Says Sassy

So Says Sassy by Ann Marie Shields

So Says Sassy by Ann Marie Shields

Ann Marie Shields is sassy. Or so she says. And she says it in her delightful book, So Says Sassy.

So Says Sassy is not the typical book I review. But I agreed to read it as a favor to her daughter, who has been a friend for almost 30 years. We used to be neighbors; our kids played together until Judith and her family moved away. We’ve stayed in touch through Christmas letters and Facebook posts. When Ann Marie passed away last year, Judith decided to compile her blog into a book. And what a book it is! I’m so glad I agreed to read it.

I fell in love with Ann Marie. What a sassy, bold, engaged, and authentic woman. We’re familiar with all the mommy blogs out there, but hers was a senior blog—a slice of the life of a woman in her last years. I haven’t seen another like it. Ann Marie began blogging at the spry age of 75. That alone gives me great admiration for her. I started blogging in my late 50s, and let me tell you, every step was a steep learning curve. I was grateful for the constant tech support of my son, and Ann Marie was grateful for the tech support of her family. She was a hip, techie grandma, often blogging about her new digital camera, new phone, new computer. Like me, she tried very hard to keep up with this technological new world, even though it was hard and often confusing.

But hers wasn’t a technology blog. That was just one little aspect of it. Rather, it was the very well written life and thoughts of an aging woman. A woman who wanted to be a writer, but never seemed to gain the traction she wanted. So she found her outlet in her blog. She writes about her Irish “second and last husband, Des” with all his delights, idiosyncrasies, and maladies. She writes about her family—her kids, grandkids and great grandkids and the family events that added sparkle and delight to her life. She writes about her precious and imperfect parents, about being an only child, and about growing up in the close-knit Italian neighborhood in Chicago. And as she aged, she wrote about the increasing impact of her illnesses and health challenges, and about the last days of her precious Des.

As an aging woman, I appreciated this sneak peek into the life of one who was about 15 years ahead of me. I wondered what I would write if this were a slice of life blog rather than a motivational blog. I gained new insights into the struggles of my mother, now 95 and in the midst of all that Sassy wrote about. If you are aging or know someone who is, this book is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I’m missing her sassy attitude now that I’ve finished the book.

Hunting Hope

When I receive a book for review, I can usually tell within a few pages if it’s one I want to keep or pass on. If it’s one I’ll tell clients about or one I’ll shelve and forget. Hunting Hope: Dig Through the Darkness to Find the Light by Nika Maples is not only a book I’ll keep and recommend, but also one I’m ordering for my ministry’s bookstore. I began underlining on page 2 (page one was very short) and I have tabs throughout. My indication of a good book.

So what’s so great about this book? Other than everything?

Authentic Voice:

First, Maples speaks with an authentic voice. She is a survivor of systemic lupus and a massive brainstem stroke that left her a quadriplegic at age 20. She fought her way back and became a public school teacher in her native Texas. She still struggles with the lupus and with falls. But she has learned how to mine God’s character and conform hers. She doesn’t sugarcoat her points, but rather shares from the depths of her discipleship.

Excellent Writing:

Not only does Maples make good points. She makes them well. She has the ability to turn a phrase, and then illustrates her points with great stories—most of them aimed at herself. Hunting Hope is a good read, a compelling read.

Transformational Points:

Maples has been tested in the fire. She had to learn to trust God or die. Her writing isn’t theoretical. It’s real. And transformational. If readers will pay attention, she offers hope for those trapped in situations that don’t seem fair. She shows God to be faithful. She says, “when we have nothing left to lean on, we learn to lean on God.”

It seems that most writers are either all miracle—believe God will heal everything all the time. Or no miracle—just thank God in the suffering. Maples says, “We should always ask for a miracle, but while we wait, God’s calming presence in our lives is a miracle in itself.” She focuses on obedience: “God unfolds His plan after the person takes a step of obedience, not before.” She affirms that wounded warriors have a vital place in the church: “Our worst life experiences may be exactly what qualify us to lead with authority…. The darkest moments of our lives might be the beginning of our divine mission on earth. So many times, the battlefield is a training ground.” And she recognizes that trials are just an exercise. An opportunity to grow in godliness.

My Only Complaint:

I’m usually not a fan of discussion questions in books. They are usually trite. But this is one book I wished Maples had added discussion questions. Now I’m going to have to write them myself. I’m pretty sure I’ll be teaching this book.

So please, I don’t say this often, but BUY THIS BOOK.

Hunting Hope Nika Maples

Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain

Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain by Matt Bays

Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain by Matt Bays

Is your life perfect in every way? Then you probably won’t like Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain.

Do you have absolute, unwavering, all-the-time, no matter what faith and confidence in the perfect plan of God? Then you probably won’t like Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain.

Do you prefer a perfectly linear book that moves systematically from start to destination, you definitely won’t like Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain.

But if you’ve ever wondered, “Where are you, God?”  or “Where were you, God?” you’ll appreciate Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain.

If you’ve ever wanted to shout, “God, you’re doing it all wrong!” you’ll love Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain.

Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain by Matt Bays is a raw, gritty, irreverent, meandering look the experience of one man – and all of us – as we question God and his ways in the face of pain and doubt. Bays’ story is one of childhood emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, but he weaves into his story those of suicide, cancer, disability, and unanswered prayer. The story he shares with us is a long journey of authentic questioning. In fact, he took a hiatus from God, inviting him to prove himself. Or not. Bays says, “Unexpressed doubt can be toxic.” And so, he went on a quest to express, explore, and challenge his doubts, inviting God to show himself. Or not.

In the process of this meandering journey, Bays’ subplot is that of his journey toward healing. Again, he is in no hurry, exploring his memories, his feelings, and truth. One critical concept that is so often underestimated is that whatever happened to us can’t be undone. Only healed. Yet we all too often blame what happened and who did it to us, as if we could rewind our life and make it better. And since we can’t rewind, we decide we can never be healed. Bays says that while the offense can’t be undone, it can be rewritten from this point forward. That is the best we can expect, and it can be enough.

This is an uncomfortable book. It doesn’t tie up our faith into a neat bow. In fact, it doesn’t tie up much of anything. But it’s well worth the read and will become required reading for many of the women I mentor. Especially those who believe that they are forever beyond healing because of their past. And those who believe God doesn’t play fair.

 

 

 

I Want it All!

I Want It All! Exchanging Your average Life for Deeper Faith, Greater Power, and More Impact by Gwen Smith

I Want It All! Exchanging Your Average Life for Deeper Faith, Greater Power, and More Impact by Gwen Smith

Do you want ALL God has for you? Would you like to exchange your average life for deeper faith, greater power, and more impact? Then you’ll love I Want It All: Exchanging Your Average Life for Deeper Faith, Greater Power, and More Impact.

Did you know that there are certain kinds of greed that God applauds? I believe that he jumps for joy when we refuse to settle for less than ALL he has for us. When we pursue him with such fervor that we are willing to leave it all on the field, as they say in sports.

If you’re tired of ho-hum, mediocre Christianity, you’ll enjoy Gwen Smith’s spunky, conversational style as she challenges us to increase our faith, exercise our power, and increase our impact. Her girlfriend approach gets real and doesn’t hide behind perfection. Rather, she shares her story, warts and all, and engages us at all levels.

Smith’s writing voice is clear and fresh. She uses alliteration and poetic language skillfully. Her appeal will be primarily to the 30-40-year-old female audience. As an older woman, I didn’t find much new. But that is not to diminish the value for the Gen X and Millennial generations. The content is good and valuable. Would that we would all take it to heart. Would that each of us would cry out, “I Want It All!”

Synced: Living Connected to the Heart of Jesus

Synced: Living Connected to the Heart of Jesus by Jennifer Kennedy Dean

Synced: Living Connected to the Heart of Jesus by Jennifer Kennedy Dean

Author Jennifer Kennedy Dean believes that the way to live synced to the heart of Jesus is to understand and base our lives on the model prayer Jesus gave us—the Lord’s Prayer. As a nationally respected writer, speaker, and executive on prayer and spiritual formation, she should know. And Synced: Living Connected to the Heart of Jesus is indeed a well-researched, easy-to-read book on this popular topic. Using the model prayer as an outline, she ventures far and wide with a combination of some good scholarship and some interesting stories.

And yet, as I read this book, I continued to feel uneasy. I couldn’t put my finger on the problem, and wondered if I’ve just read too many books on the Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps. I have read many. Unfortunately, this book didn’t rise to any level of significance. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the book; it’s just tired. I didn’t see much that was new, much that rose to a level that made me want to share the book. To quote the book. To teach the book. And most of the book focused on “what” rather than “how.” I didn’t come away with an increased ability to sync to Jesus.

In fairness, if the promotion on the book had indicated it was focused on the Lord’s Prayer, I probably would have passed on the blog tour because I recognize that the topic is so overdone that such books need to rise to a high level of excellence to stand out. So if you haven’t read a lot on the Lord’s Prayer, this book is well written. But if this is a topic you’re familiar with, you won’t learn much new in this book.

 

 

Come Empty: Pour Out Life’s Hurts and Receive God’s Healing Love

Come Empty: Pour Out Life’s Hurts and Receive God’s Healing Love by Saundra Dalton-Smith

Come Empty: Pour Out Life’s Hurts and Receive God’s Healing Love by Saundra Dalton-Smith

Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith is a physician who has seen the impact of emotions on physical health. As a speaker, she teaches women how to eliminate negative emotions, find grace in difficult places, and experience personal renewal by drawing near to God. In Come Empty: Pour Out Life’s Hurts and Receive God’s Healing Love, she puts all this together in 80 devotionals, divided into seven categories. Each devotional includes ‘Your Heart’s Cry,” “His Reply,” a scripture reading, and two questions for “Growing Deeper” in two pages.

Her topics are generally right on, and her understanding of the issues is generally excellent. She addresses single and married women in all stages of life, so her audience is pretty generalized. Her approach is to allow the reader to vent through the first section, and then to hear God through the second section. I generally like such a format.

However, I had mixed feelings about this book. While the content is excellent and useful for many of the women I minister to, the writing is flat. It was hard to pinpoint the weaknesses; it just lacked pizazz. I’m sure it will be useful for many women, especially those still struggling with the issues Dalton-Smith addresses.

Thanks to Litfuse for this review copy.

Christmas Time: It’s All About Jesus

Christmas Time: It's All About Jesus

Christmas Time: It’s All About Jesus

If you’re looking for a delightful Christmas book for preschoolers, take a look at Christmas Time: It’s All About Jesus! by Sue M. Barksdale. Written in whimsical rhyme, the story begins with a nod to secular images of Christmas, followed immediately by the angel’s announcement to Mary, her visit to Elizabeth, and all the rest of the details. It’s quite thorough for a small book.

Even better than the poetry are the enchanting illustrations by Alicia T. Young. They are sure to thrill the hearts of young listeners. Although the pages are a bit cluttered, I expect my granddaughters to find something new each time we read it.

The book includes several pages of devotionals at the end. I think they are a little old for the book’s target age, but I expect a clever adult can adapt them.

I can’t wait to share this book with my granddaughters this Christmas. And if you’d like to share a copy with a preschooler you love, leave a comment below and tell me who that is. Aneko Press has graciously offered a copy for me to give away. I’ll draw from among commenters on Friday.

 

 

 

The Christmas Story in 40 Days

The Christmas Story in 40 Days

The Christmas Story in 40 Days

Although I’m a little late for this year, if you’re looking for a Christmas devotional, this might be the one. The Christmas Story in 40 Days is a simple little book that slows down the familiar story and bridges the gap between the past and the present.

Each day begins with four to five verses, followed by a text box with a comment or a historical note. On the facing page is a devotional thought and often a couple of interpretive questions, and then space for your personal thoughts.

I especially like the historical notes. The story is so familiar, but the notes sometimes added a new dimension for me. On the other hand, I found the book quite simplistic. It seems to be written at about a sixth grade reading level, and there are few deep concepts. However, that would make it a good book for a high school group or perhaps new Christians.

Aneko Press has provided a copy of The Christmas Story in 40 Days for me to give away. If you would like to win a free copy, leave a comment below. I’ll select a winner on Wednesday and ship it out to you right away.