Category Archives: Non-fiction

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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Review: Fiercehearted, by Holley Gerth

Fiercehearted, by Holley Gerth

Fiercehearted, by Holley Gerth (Revell, 2017)

I have so many lines in this book highlighted! Some because they’re comforting, encouraging, or challenging, and others because the word pictures are beautiful.

A few favourite lines:

In the introduction, Holley Gerth writes that she wants the book to help women

…feel less alone and more comfortable in our God-sewn skin and a little surer that we are a force to be reckoned with in this world. [Kindle location 189]

It’s in these moments that we carry wonder and fear like twins. [Kindle location 2080]

We’re all just clay on the wheel, which is another way of saying we are dust being sculpted into glory. [Kindle location 2214]

I found author Holley Gerth through Ellen Graf-Martin’s Change Makers Podcast, and have been appreciating her email newsletters and posts ever since. When I saw the digital version of her book, Fiercehearted, discounted recently, I snapped it up.

With short, conversational chapters transparently reflecting the author’s life experiences, Fiercehearted touches on topics common to many women: conflict avoidance, identity, self-worth, insecurity, success, perfectionism, expectations, failure, work, depression, friendship, and more.

Highly recommended for Christian women, and especially for those who appreciate the writing of Emily P. Freeman, Carolyn Watts (Hearing the Heartbeat), and Ann Voskamp.

For more about Holley Gerth and her ministry, visit holleygerth.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Left Turn to the Promised Land, by Rachel Starr Thomson

Left Turn to the Promised Land, by Rachel Starr Thomson (Little Dozen Press, 2018)

“One Author’s Journey of Writing, Business, and Walking by Faith.” Rachel Starr Thomson’s openness in sharing the practical and spiritual development of her writing reads like a novel. It’s present-tense first-person, with some lyrical descriptions.

You might want to read this book if:

  • You’re a Christian writer. Your experiences will be different than the author’s, but there will be overlap. Like the struggle to discern direction, and the danger of allowing sales to become an idol.
  • You’re an indie author, Christian or not. No matter what you think of the spiritual aspect, this book is an interesting case study of someone who’s been an indie author since before it was popular.
  • You’re a Christian creative who’s struggling with the idea of maybe being called to use your creativity for God.
  • You like Rachel Starr Thomson’s books and want to know more about her.

What I loved most about this book was the author’s frankness in sharing her spiritual growth. Her story challenges me to sit more with God and ensure I’m being honest with Him—and with myself. And that I’m aligned with what He wants to do with the gifts He’s given me.

I also appreciated how she clarified the sometimes-mystical idea of “calling,” reminding us that callings aren’t just for us—they’re for others. And that a creative calling is as valuable as any other. Too often, maybe because creativity is fun, writers and other creatives diminish its value. (Not that creating is easy, or always fun, but there’s that certain zing to it at times.)

Rachel Starr Thomson is an author, speaker, and ministry leader. She writes fiction and nonfiction, “always exploring the kingdom of God.” For more about the author and her ministry, visit rachelstarrthomson.com.

[Review copy from the public library.]

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Review: Craft, Cost & Call, by Patricia Paddey and Karen Stiller

Craft, Cost & Call, by Patricia Paddey and Karen Stiller (Friesen Press, 2019)

Craft, Cost & Call: How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer, by Patricia Paddey & Karen Stiller

Two award-winning Canadian Christian freelance writers, Patricia Paddey and Karen Stiller, have teamed up to share what they describe as “our conversation with you about what we have learned through success and failure.” [Kindle location 98]

The book feels very much like a conversation, candidly sharing experience and advice. Beginning and intermediate writers will gain the most, but even seasoned pros will likely pick up a thing or two.

The “craft” section deals mainly with nonfiction, mostly articles, yet I’ve gleaned inspiration and encouragement I can apply to my fiction. The “cost” section includes practical business tips relevant to all, and “call” addresses the spiritual side of writing. What struck me most in that part was this quote:

View your platform as the place from which you live out your calling to be a writer and to serve your readers. [Kindle location 1865]

Reading this book made me want to go write something.

Writers are invited to visit CraftCostCall.com for “more writing exercises, resources, and conversation about building a life as a Christian writer.” [Kindle location 2129] This virtual watercooler could become a very good place to hang out.

Patricia Paddey and Karen Stiller have solid backgrounds in writing and editing, with articles and books and awards to their names. These two authors illustrate the truth that while writing is often a solitary activity, it requires community. Having benefited from other writers along the way, they’ve prepared this book to mentor others. And they’re donating a portion of proceeds from Craft, Cost & Call to The Word Guild, an association of writers and editors who are Christian.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Beholding and Becoming, by Ruth Chou Simons

Book cover: Beholding and Becoming, The Art of Everyday Worship. By Ruth Chou Simons

Beholding and Becoming, by Ruth Chou Simons (Harvest House Publishers, 2019)

“The most ordinary days become extraordinary places of transformation when we hope in Christ instead of our circumstances… No circumstance is too ordinary or too forgotten for God to meet us there in worship. His transforming grace turns our ‘everyday ordinary’ into a holy place of becoming.”

Beholding and Becoming, page 221

This delights me, because I hear an echo of Brother Lawrence’s call to practice the presence of Christ. It makes such good sense: the closer we are to Jesus, the more we abide in Him, the richer life becomes. The more like Him we become.

Subtitled “The Art of Everyday Worship,” Beholding and Becoming is a lovely hardcover gift book. Each of the 16 sections is lavishly illustrated with soul-resting art and gentle text. Sections are divided into “Beholding” a key truth about God and “Becoming,” where readers are invited to apply what they’ve read to daily life.

Stopping to appreciate the artwork helps readers to slow down and absorb the text. The art incorporates symbolism (explained in a glossary—don’t worry if you’re not visually intuitive) to reinforce section themes.

I’ve marked a number of key passages for further thought. The sections that spoke to me most personally looked at smallness (held in God’s greatness) and at redefining failure and success (the author declares, “Faithfulness is success” [page 111].

These, and other themes addressed in the book, are common to many people in these crowded, don’t-slow-down days. Beholding and Becoming is a meditative invitation to dare to slow down and consider who God is—and what difference that can make in our lives.

Ruth Chou Simons is the author of GraceLaced, another beautiful hardcover gift book, and she is the founder of the GraceLaced ministry. For more about the author and her work, visit gracelaced.com.

[A review copy was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I was in no way compensated for this review.]

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Review: Touched by Eternity, by Susan Harris

Touched by Eternity, by Susan Harris (White Lily Press, 2019)

Book cover: Touched by Eternity (A True Story of Heaven, Healing, and Angels) by Susan Harris

I was eager to read this book, since I’ve communicated enough with author Susan Harris to respect her Christian faith and her integrity. Despite the popularity of books recounting near-death experiences (NDEs) I’ve avoided them until now because I had no way to verify the writer’s trustworthiness.

Subtitled “A True Story of Heaven, Healing, and Angels,” Touched by Eternity is a memoir of the author’s three NDEs and related visions and how these events have shaped her life. A nonfiction author with an analytical mind, she relies heavily on details (including her hospital records and notes taken at the time) to anchor her personal experiences in as much fact as possible.

At the same time, the events themselves make the book as easy to read as a novel.

An experienced speaker, leader, and teacher, Susan Harris makes no claims to having touched Eternity by her own merit or strength. Instead, as one would expect with a near-death experience, her moments of greatest physical pain and weakness have been the gateways to the spiritual realm.

She writes with honesty about her personal failings and about her struggle to understand what happened and to accept the disappointment of tasting Heaven and then being returned to earthly life.

Christians can be uncomfortable discussing NDEs out of fear of drifting into heresy or false teachings. The Bible shows people being brought back from the dead, but we don’t get their testimonies of what they saw while they were gone.

I appreciate how Susan Harris finds biblical connections for many of her observations and how she’s careful to present her interpretations as her own and not as doctrine or fact. Her stated purpose in writing this book is to stimulate discussion, encourage the faith of Christians, and inspire non-Christians to seriously consider Jesus’ words about Heaven and Hell.

It’s interesting to read that in her research into other NDE accounts, she found similarities and yet differences, as if individuals were seeing part of a much-greater whole.  

Favourite line:

My whisper was hoarse, the broken kind He hears because He Himself had hung ragged on a rugged cross. [Kindle location 2284]

No matter how much or little pain we’ve endured, Touched by Eternity reminds us that it’s in our brokenness that we’re closest to God. It challenges us to take time alone with Him, to remember what He’s taught us in the past, and to obey anything He’s called us to in the present that we may have been neglecting. Our time on earth is limited, and we need to be about our Father’s business before that time runs out.

Other books by Susan Harris include Little Copper Pennies (a history of the Canadian one-cent piece) and Remarkably Ordinary. She currently hosts a television show called ETERNITY. For more about the author and her work, visit susanharris.ca.

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

Review: Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas | biography

Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson, 2010)

Subtitled “Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,”
Bonhoeffer traces the shaping of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and life from childhood until his execution in 1945 as an enemy of the Third Reich.

This interesting and educational account is scholarly enough for academics yet accessible to the average reader. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was highly intelligent as well as intensely committed to living out his faith. Some of the quotes from his writings, shared to illustrate the progression of his understanding of his calling, are more intellectual than I easily digest, but others are practical enough for all.

Watching Bonhoeffer’s perspective on Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and subsequent destruction of the German nation helps readers understand the times. It reveals how this man, a committed Christian and a conscientious objector to fighting in the German army, could feel compelled to be part of a plot to kill Hitler.

Bonhoeffer’s observations of the German church (and the American church) troubled him. “What is the church?” (as in what is the church supposed to be) was his life-long question. To him, it involved listening to God and obeying Him in full trust and submission. His part in the church came to mean working to end the injustices inflicted on the Jews, the handicapped, and those who opposed Hitler’s evil ways.

The description of the “well-meaning Christians in Germany” raised troubling parallels in the present day:

They were convinced that if they bent their theology a bit, it wouldn’t matter—the results would be all right in the end. Many of them honestly believed that under Hitler the opportunities for evangelism would increase. [p. 155-156]

At times I felt the writing was overly complex:

Public figures eager to curry favor with the increasingly popular dictator would outdo each other in contorted calisthenics of sycophancy. [p. 307]

At other times, I appreciated the chance to laugh:

Indeed, for two days the British engaged in diplomatic back and forth, but at some point someone lent Chamberlain a vertebra, for against Hitler’s calculations, on Sunday, Great Britain declared war. [p. 348]

Perhaps what impacted me most was a quote from Bonhoeffer about grief:

Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words. They should remain open. Our only comfort is the God of the resurrection, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who also was and is his God. [p. 349]

Thought-provoking discussion questions offer readers the chance to process what they’ve read—and to apply it to the times in which they live.

The book was published to honour the 65th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death and went on to become a New York Times bestseller. Eric Metaxas has written biographies of other Christian figures as well as other books, including over 30 books for children. For more about the author, visit ericmetaxas.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]