Category Archives: Non-fiction

Review: Joy that Renews, by Steve Akerson

Cover of Joy that Renews: A devotional from Psalms to refresh your life every day, by Steve Akerson.

Joy that Renews, by Steve Akerson (River Birch Press, 2021)

These devotions brim with infectious joy and confident trust in our Lord.

Taking one verse from each of the Bible’s 150 psalms, Joy that Renews invites readers to grow deeper in their relationship with God. The daily devotionals focus on God’s goodness and love and on themes like living in freedom, thankfulness, and listening to God. Although the Psalms were written many years before Christ, they contain much that points to Jesus.

Each day’s reading begins with a title, a one-line summary, and then the Scripture, a brief application, and a heartfelt response. The conversational, transparent style makes for easy reading and relatability. The author uses The Passion Translation, which puts oft-familiar verses in a fresh light.

Anyone familiar with the psalms as a whole is aware that they’re not all light and jubilant. Some are laments, and some groan with deep pain and affliction. One of the points Steve Akerson draws from these heavier psalms is that “You will always have a big choice in your life—either to focus on your problems or on God’s goodness. That choice will make a tremendous difference in the quality of your life and on those around you.” [Day 22, “Chased by Goodness,” Hoopla edition page 61]

And “It is good for you to praise Him, even if your praise is accompanied by tears and sorrows.” [Day 31, “Turn Distress Upside Down,” Hoopla edition page 77]

I appreciate how, whatever the circumstances, this book turns the focus back to God and His goodness. This helps strengthen our faith and leads us into worship. I also appreciate the encouragement to listen to God with expectancy—the more we train our spiritual ears to recognize His voice, the closer we’ll walk with Him. Or, as Day 110, “Listen—God is Talking,” says, “His words will bring richness to your soul.” [Hoopla edition page 253]

These daily readings blessed me, and I’ll be marking Joy that Renews as a book to read again. The book is also available in print and digital format from many online venues.

Author Steve Akerson is one of the Prayer Team leaders at Hosanna Church in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. For more about the author and his book, and to request the free study guide that accompanies it, visit joythatrenews.com.

[Review copy from Hoopla.]

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Review: Once We Were Strangers, by Shawn Smucker

Once We Were Strangers: What Friendship with a Syrian Refugee Taught Me about Loving My Neighbor, by Shawn Smucker (Revell, 2018)

Do I have it in me? Not only to be a good friend, but to allow Mohammed to be a friend to me? What would my life look like if I made friendship a priority? [page 54]

This is a daunting question for a man with a wife and six kids, a writer who also drives long hours for a couple of rideshare companies.

When American writer Shawn Smucker decides to interview a Syrian refugee for a book, he doesn’t expect to make a friend—or to challenge the way he looks at life. What emerges, instead of an account of Mohammed’s family’s harrowing journey to the US, is the story of two different men and their families—and the similarities they discover between them.

We do learn the basics of the escape from Syria and the difficult years in Jordan. The story’s focus, though, is on their experiences as newcomers trying to build a life in a new culture with minimal resources—as relayed through Shawn’s reactions. As he learns, we can learn too: maybe North American independence and self-reliance have robbed us of the benefits of interdependence and interconnectedness.

Mohammed’s backstory is told in past tense, while Shawn’s is present-tense. I’m not sure why, unless it’s to give a sense of immediacy so we readers will share his reactions. There are some very pleasing word choices.

Favourite line:

They are small offices, like closets that somehow managed to swallow a desk and a filing cabinet and maybe a folding chair or two. [page 32]

I would have appreciated a bit more orientation early-on in the book. I think the idea to write about a Syrian Muslim’s immigration experience came to Shawn, an American Christian, as a way to help raise awareness. That wasn’t clear to me in the beginning, and I spent time wondering if it was an assignment from the organization that connected him with Mohammed. That group is Church World Service, which I spent part of the book trying to figure out when I should have just looked it up online. They’re a faith-based as the name suggests, not simply named after someone called Church.

Even with being a little confused in the beginning, I found this heartwarming and thought provoking book an easy and engaging read. Highly recommended in these times when fear and hostility are raising barriers.

As the author concludes,

Not long ago, Mohammed and I were strangers. Now we are friends. This, it seems to me, is no small deal in a world and a system that would prefer we fear one another. This, it seems to me, is the first step in bringing a lasting peace. [page 187]

Shawn Smucker is an author, co-writer, and award-winning novelist based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Once We Were Strangers is nonfiction. For more about the author and his work, visit shawnsmucker.com.

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Review: Holding On When You Want to Let Go, by Sheila Walsh

Cover art: Holding On When You WAnt to Let Go, by Sheila Walsh

Holding On When You Want to Let Go, by Sheila Walsh (Baker Books, 2021)

Subtitled “Clinging to Hope When Life is Falling Apart,” this book takes a candid and compassionate look at the struggles that can make us want to let go and give up. And it takes a clear-eyed look at the God who holds us in His care even when life really does seem to be falling apart.

Each chapter opens with a verse of Scripture and a relevant quote. The first five address the main things that threaten to overwhelm us: feeling like life’s out of control, feeling alone, when God is silent, when we’re afraid, and when we’ve messed up.

This is an easy to read, conversational-style book that feels a little bit like we’re sitting with the author over coffee. Sheila Walsh doesn’t write “down” to us in an instructorly way. Instead, her personal stories and those she shares from others prove she has the credibility to write about this. She’s been there, and is still there, just as we are. But she’s learned some solid strategies to keep holding on.

Those strategies are the focus of the second half of the book: learning to focus on the God who is holding us. We read about His promises, His character, and he amazing things He has done for us. The invitation is to actually let go… and to be held by the One who won’t let go.

Favourite lines:

I still felt like that five-year-old girl who was afraid of being known. What if someone saw the crack in my soul. [page 78]

The simple act of thanksgiving reminds us that God is with us and that He is in control. [page 103]

If life is making you feel like letting go or if you just want a little reassurance, this book can be a helpful resource. I love how it keeps pointing back to God and to His Word.

Sheila Walsh is an author, speaker, and teacher who I first discovered in my younger years through her music. Scottish-born, she makes her home in the US. For more about the author and her ministry, visit sheilawalsh.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Picks from 2021

My year in books in 2021 from Goodreads: 56 books, 14, 165 pages read.
Graphic credit: Goodreads


Here are the books I’ve most enjoyed last year. Some were produced in 2021, some previously. Pop a note into the comments with your own favourites?

My top picks from 2021:

Book of the year: Yours is the Night, by Amanda Dykes (historical fiction)

Fantasy: Rhythm of War, by Brandon Sanderson

Favourite re-read: Star Wars: Scoundrels (Star Wars Legends), by Timothy Zahn [I’d forgotten I didn’t like the ending, but it’s a fun read]

Feel-good read: Tranquility Falls, by Davis Bunn

Mystery/suspense novel: Chasing Angels, by Karin Kaufman, and All the Devils are Here, by Louise Penny. In that order, based on how I felt as a reader.

Poetry: Wing Over Wing, by Julie Cadwallader Staub

Science fiction novel: Lesser Evil (Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy, #3), by Timothy Zahn

Writing how-to: Writing Your Story’s Theme: The Writer’s Guide to Plotting Stories That Matter, by K.M. Weiland, with an honourable mention to How to Market a Book: Overperform in a Crowded Market, by Ricardo Fayet

This was a difficult year for me and my family. Hence the reduced reading count!
Here are five things that refreshed me this year:

  • Prayer: Not a new practice for me; a major source of comfort and hope.
  • Praise: Also not new; praise music helps me keep grounded. Funny how often the right song would come on the radio just when I needed it.
  • Poetry: Nova Scotian writer Laura Aliese showed me I can enjoy poetry. This year I’ve dipped into a few books from other poets. The strong word choices have been inspiring.
  • Pilates: Toward the end of 2020, I discovered a wealth of free YouTube videos from Rachel Lawrence Pilates. Her friendly and accessible instruction has helped tame the body aches that crept in during the first lockdown.
  • Photos: For all the negativity on social media, Instagram became my online happy place in 2021. I don’t post (that might feel like work) and I only follow nature photographers, tourism shots, and Bible/inspirational quotes (well, and David Crowder because he makes me laugh). It’s been a lovely mini refuge when I needed it most.
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Review: Prepare Him Room, by Susie Larson

Prepare Him Room, by Susie Larson (Bethany House, 2021)

Did you know there are 24 chapters in the Gospel of Luke? That’s one for each day of December until Christmas Eve.

Prepare Him Room is a gentle invitation to make space in our lives this Christmas season, to take time to refocus our spirits on Jesus and not miss the “sacredness of the season”. As the introduction says,

…it’s precisely this season when Christians most often lose sight of what’s available to them in Christ Jesus. [page 11]

In Prepare Him Room: A Daily Advent Devotional, each reading opens with related Scripture verses and quotes from other authors. In a friendly, conversational style, author Susie Larson shares anecdotes and applications that reorient us to Jesus, His presence, and His power.

Each day concludes with a prayer and a suggested “fast” from a thought pattern, attitude, etc. I’m sure we’re not expected to magically erase each one from our lives in one day, but in training us to notice these things in our lives, the author gives us a tool for ongoing, prayerful growth in the days ahead.

Favourite line:

Even though God delays, He delivers. [page 17]

My review copy is a delightful hardcover gift book complete with ribbon marker. The simplicity of the cover is like a deep breath, slowing me down to rest as I open to the day’s reading. I look forward to going back through the pages when December comes. [An ebook version is also available.]

For more about author and speaker Susie Larson, and for her online devotional encouragement, visit susielarson.com.

[Review copy provided by Baker Publishing Group via Graf-Martin Communications. My review is voluntary and is my own uninfluenced opinion.]

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Review: How to Market a Book: Overperform in a Crowded Market, by Ricardo Fayet

How to Market a Book: Overperform in a Crowded Market, by Ricardo Fayet (Reedsy, 2021)

Highly recommended for indie authors from beginners to veterans.

I’d heard positive things about this book, and I confess the opening chapters left me wondering what the fuss was about. As I kept reading, I found a wealth of helpful information.

Reedsy co-founder Ricardo Fayet has built on many of the site’s blog posts to assemble a comprehensive overview of what indie authors need to know to market their books. I appreciate his balanced approach and his advice to pick one thing to implement at a time instead of blindly striking out in all directions. He also stresses that marketing is not a one-size-fits-all activity.

This isn’t a smarmy, trickster type of marketing book, but one that emphasizes marketing as a way to help the readers who’ll want your book to find it. That’s helpful, not pushy.

Because many of the topics covered in this book can be books (and courses) in their own right, chapters include referrals to more in-depth material from experts in the field. If you’ve been around indie publishing awhile, you’ll recognize most of the names.

Although it’s packed with information, the book’s friendly, encouraging tone makes it an easy read. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I felt equipped to choose among my possible next steps.

Bonus about this book? The digital version is free (on all platforms) and I believe it’s intended to remain that way. Here’s the link at the Reedsy site, or you can find it on your favourite ebook store site. Warning: you may find you’ve highlighted the digital version enough that you’ll want to buy a print copy for easier reference.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Wing Over Wing, by Julie Cadwallader Staub

Wing Over Wing, by Julie Cadwallader Staub (Paraclete Press, 2019)

This beautifully written collection of poems is arranged by seasons: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer. You can easily read through them in one sitting, but you may find yourself going back to sit with them again.

With strong, evocative word choices, the poems touch subjects that range from the trivial to the tragic but mostly fall into that in-between area that makes up most of life. There are only a few truly heavy poems: powerful laments that honour the pain of racism and of innocence taken. These are part of the Winter section and I think are one reason the book starts with Fall and ends with Summer.

I’m grateful a poet friend recommended this book!

To sample poet Julie Cadwallader Staub’s work (in print and audio) and for more about her, visit juliecspoetry.com.

[Review copy from the public library. Available with the Hoopla app at this link.]

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My Vertical Neighborhood, by Lynda MacGibbon

My Vertical Neighborhood, by Lynda MacGibbon (InterVarsity Press, 2021)

“When I asked God why I ought to love my neighbors, he sent them, one by one, to answer the question.” [Chapter 17, page 6 in chapter]

Subtitled “How Strangers Became a Community,” My Vertical Neighborhood is a memoir of one Christian’s quest to build friendships and discover practical ways to love the others around her. Instead of diving into activities in her new church, the author wanted to connect with her literal neighbours.

Not surprisingly, the other residents in her Toronto high-rise weren’t overly receptive at first. It took time, prayer, persistence, and God’s provision of a friend to move into the same building and share the efforts. Perhaps also not surprisingly, the relationships began to grow over food.

This isn’t a “neighbourhood evangelism” book. It’s a memoir of intentional relationship-building and developing not just friendship but love among the diverse inhabitants of the building.

Key quote:

“Jesus says loving God, self, and neighbor is foundational to everything else. If we don’t understand and practice these conjoined commandments, it will be harder to obey the rest.” [Chapter 2, page 5 in chapter]

I found the book to be an interesting read. And while I don’t feel any sense of call to push myself as far out of my comfort zone as the author did, I’m pleased that it’s left me more aware of the need to intentionally take the opportunities that come my way. We can all learn to listen more, ask better questions, and take time with the people around us.

I can’t end this review without a shout-out to the cover. Where most encounters revolved around food, aren’t the vertical images of dinner plates and elevator buttons brilliant?

Canadian author Lynda MacGibbon is a former journalist, now working with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. For more about the author and her work, visit lyndamacgibbon.com.

[Digital review copy from the public library. This book is available to borrow through Hoopla Digital.]

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Review: Psalms 365, volume 1, by David Kitz

Psalms 365: Develop a Life of  Worship and Prayer, volume 1, by David Kitz (Elk Lake Publishing, 2020)

With Psalms 365, author and storyteller David Kitz provides short, practical, and personal daily devotions from the beloved Book of Psalms. I’ve found it to be a valuable addition to my day.

Each reading points to a psalm, drawing on a key verse for the day’s focus. There’s a conversational-style reflection on the passage and a prayer of response. Then to encourage readers to deepen a lifestyle of worship and prayer each devotional concludes with a question to think about and to perhaps take into personal conversation with God.

Anyone familiar with the psalms knows that some are songs of worship, some of lament, others of repentance or even anger. Not always easy topics to draw an inspirational message from! David Kitz mines treasure from each one.

Volume 1 of Psalms 365 begins at Psalm 1 and goes to the end of Psalm 51. Volume 2 is also available, covering the next section, and volume 3 is still to come.

Excerpts from the Psalms 365 series can be found on the author’s blog, I Love the Psalms. On the blog he includes photos, which aren’t part of the books. Award-winning author David Kitz is also a Bible dramatist, conference speaker, and ordained minister. For more about him and his books, visit davidkitz.ca.

[Review copy provided by the author. My opinions are my own.]

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Review: Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan

Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan (David C Cook, 2018)

I’ve read some impactful Christian nonfiction this year, but this book may be the most crucial.

Francis Chan writes here with a gentle, prayer-steeped tone, knowing some of what he has to say can sound hard and may be misused.

He actually pleads with readers not to use his words to berate leaders who may not be doing the best they could. And he confesses those times he’s been where some of those leaders may be. (He does warn readers who discover they’re in a church with false teaching to find a Bible-based church right away!)

So now you’re wondering what kind of book this is. It’s the result of the author’s study of what church looked like in the Book of Acts and what it looks like in other parts of the world today.

He challenges readers to “slow down long enough to marvel” [page 5] about Who God is and who we are in Him, advising, “don’t try to solve the mystery; just stare at it.” [page 7]

Chapters address wonder, pleasing God first, prayer, leadership, suffering, attitudes, and more. The focus is on simplifying, going back to the Gospel basics, and developing into an intimate capital-C Church family. The model is house churches, but it has plenty of insights and challenges that readers can apply in established building-based churches as well.

Favourite lines:

Remember it’s not about what I would like, what others would like, or what “works.” Church is for Him. [page 150]

My hope is that you will refuse to take the easy route. You need to care about His Church enough to fast and pray. You must believe you play a necessary role in the Church. [page 151]

One of the key takeaways is that each member of the church has a role to fulfill and that everyone working together is the church. The shepherds are to be training up other shepherds, not raising complacent sheep.

Francis Chan built and shepherded a megachurch in California before God called him and his family to missions in various parts of Asia. At the time of this book’s publication they were back in the United States, planting and growing house churches as part of wearechurch.com.

[Review copy from the public library.]

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