Monday, January 19, 2015

Beyond the Scars: Daring to Live Forward by F. Elaine Olsen

Beyond the Scars: Daring to Live Forward by F. Elaine Olsen

Elaine's journey through cancer is a journey toward a greater faith that chronicles hope in the midst of despair; peace in the face of uncertainty. It's not a journey she would have chosen but this book is proof that if we can just trust God along the way, we can come through any challenge victorious even if battle-weary and scarred (literally and figuratively) by the process.

What captured my heart most in reading portions of this book is how honest Elaine is as she shares the emotional as well as physical side of a devastating circumstance, how it impacted her family, how she sees the future. She doesn't pretend that her faith was unwavering every minute or that she didn't have times of discouragement and doubt, but instead of yielding to those things she instead turned to what she knew was true of God's faithfulness over the years - "faith deposits" as she calls them, "years and years worth of intentional investments into my spiritual bank account. That's the single reason behind my being able to handle my cancer season."

But don't let the title of this book or the source of it's inspiration lead you to believe it is only for cancer survivors. Yes, it is a wonderful source of encouragement for anyone going through that particularly devastating battle, but what holds true for them also holds true for any struggle a believer finds himself or herself dealing with. In every chapter I found Elaine's words and the truth of God's word applicable to my own areas of struggle that have nothing to do with cancer.

The 40 chapters in this book include a narrative from Elaine's heart followed by a prayer, devotional questions for contemplation, and scripture at the end of each, making this a great resource for personal or group Bible study. Chapter topics include Living Up to Your Learning, God Keeps Pace with Your Pain, Living Up to Your Convictions, Just Breathe, Hope Grows, Clutching Truth, and Live On, to name just a few.

This is a book I want to put into the hands of every person I know who is dealing with any struggle because I know that Elaine's words are aligned with God's truth and His desire to carry us through any circumstance.

Available at (Formerly titled Beyond Cancer's Scars)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Little Chick's Bible by P.J. Lyons and Melanie Mitchell

Little Chick's Bible by P.J. Lyons and Melanie Mitchell, Zondervan Publishers, $15.99 list price, hardcover.

Little Chick’s Bible is a delightful Bible story board book for children ages 2-5. It is soft and cuddly with a plush cover featuring a chick that preschoolers will enjoy touching. There are seven stories on the thick cardboard pages that will stand up to wear and tear. The stories are written in rhyme and include Noah and the ark, David and Goliath, the Good Samaritan, and others.

I think this is a great book for introducing Bible stories to very young children; nothing deep theologically speaking (it's for toddlers and preschoolers, after all) but it starts the dialogue about God and what He did in scripture and is appealing to that age group with colorful illustrations, rhyming text, and the soft textured chick on the cover. It also comes in a sturdy plastic case with a snap closure to keep the cover clean.

I have a little granddaughter whom I'm sure will enjoy this book and it is one I would happily give to any child as a gift. The publisher indicates that it is for ages 2-5 but I think a one-year-old would enjoy it as well.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Compassion Without Compromise: How the Gospel Frees Us to Love Our Gay Friends Without Losing the Truth by Adam T. Barr and Ron Citlau

Compassion Without Compromise: How the Gospel Frees Us to Love Our Gay Friends Without Losing the Truth by Adam T. Barr and Ron Citlau, Bethany House (a Division of Baker Publishing Group), $12.99 list price, paperback.

This is a much-needed book for Christians who wrestle with drawing the balance between not compromising Biblical truth concerning homosexuality while remaining compassionate to their gay friends, family members, co-workers, and others. The issue of homosexuality has become one of the most divisive issues within families and the church as the authors acknowledge, and is why they wrote this book. Drawing upon their experience as pastors and from one of them (Citlau) having come from a past of same-sex attraction, they unapologetically point the reader to what the Bible really says about sexual sin in general and homosexuality specifically while also offering insight on how to reach out in love to share this truth with those in the gay lifestyle.

They write, "This book needed to be written because the church needs help with how it addresses homosexuality. For the last three decades, evangelicals have tried to stand against the tide. We have tried to turn it back and "take back" our country. It is time to realize something: The ship has sailed. The question is no longer Can we win the culture wars? Rather, it is How can we be a compassionate, uncompromising witness in a culture that celebrates what the Bible censors?"

Most of us in the next year will be faced with the following:

• A family member will come out of the closet and expect you to be okay with it.
• Your elementary-age child's curriculum will discuss LGBT families.
• Your company will talk about building a tolerant workplace for LGBT co-workers.
• Your college-age child will tell you your view on homosexuality is bigoted

I've encountered some of these issues and found this book to be helpful in working on a more loving attitude toward those in the gay lifestyle whom I may disagree with while also standing firm on my convictions as a Christian and what scripture says. I appreciate that the authors realistically warn that anything less than complete acceptance of the gay lifestyle as ok may still get us labled as bigots and haters no matter how loving our approach, but they also encourage the reader to stand firm and give many helpful suggestions on how to handle the conversations and situations when they arise. They also address the arguments Christians encounter such as those who claim the scriptures about homosexuality were for a specific historical time and situation and don't apply to us today, that Jesus didn't specifically talk about it, and that it isn't sin as long as same sex partners are in a committed relationship.

This is a book specifically written as an overview for Christians who believe that the Bible calls homosexuality sin but want to respond to those in the lifestyle in a way that accurately shows the same compassion and love that Jesus showed. One chapter is written in a question-answer format to address specific issues that tend to arise in the church, such as whether to perform wedding ceremonies for gay couples, issues of leadership, etc.

Those who do not believe homosexuality is a sin or that the Bible says it is, whether Christian or not, will likely disagree with the authors on many points. But the book isn't intended to win the debate on whether it is right or wrong but rather is a tool for Christians to use in drawing that balance between standing by their conviction while remaining humble and compassionate toward those they may disagree with. It also is a valuable resource for helping Christians formulate why they believe what they do and how to best communicate that.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

(Reposted to support the movie coming out later this month. Excellent, inspiring true story.)

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, Random House Publishers, $27.00 list price, hardcover

Laura Hillenbrand, the bestselling author of Seabiscuit, tells the true story of Louie Zamperini, a one time Olympic runner who joined the Army in World War II.  During a routine search mission over the Pacific, Louie’s plane crashed into the ocean and his story became one of survival at sea which would have been an amazing account of the will to live had it ended there. But, that ordeal was followed by an unfortunate rescue by the Japanese that resulted in years at horrific POW camps, enduring the unthinkable.

I don't want to give away too much but suffice it to say that the title pretty much says it all. Zamperini's story is one of survival, resilience and redemption, and I would also add, one of forgiveness which was the most powerful of all for me considering what he endured in the prison camps. 

I didn't know anything about Zamperini and the men who survived with him before reading Unbroken.  I know it sounds cliche to say their story is inspiring, but for lack of a better word, it really is and was one of those books that I couldn't put down. This will be one of the most memorable biographies you will read.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mediterranean Paleo Cooking by Caitlin Weeks and Nabil Boumrar

Mediterranean Paleo Cooking: Over 125 Fresh Coastal Recipes for a Relaxed, Gluten-Free Lifestyle by Caitlin Weeks, Nabil Boumrar, and Diane Sanfilippo, Victory Belt Publishing

I'm a fan of both the Mediterranean and the Paleo diets so I was happy to see this cookbook that combines both. The authors draw on their own experiences as a chef (Boumrar) and nutritionist (Weeks), and both having personally lost weight and overcome health issues after embracing the Paleo lifestyle.

The book addresses some of the challenges of going Paleo when giving up certain foods, but the authors don't ask readers to sacrifice taste when replacing those foods with healthier versions. Their recipes include plenty of fresh ingredients, savory seasonings, and everything one would want in comfort food. I was happy to discover I didn't even have to give up pizza with several non-gluten crust recipes and topping choices. This was a real plus for me since pizza is my favorite food and potentially the one thing that could keep me from going completely Paleo.

While I haven't tried the pizza crust recipes yet (I'll be sure to update my review when I do), I did make two other recipes that turned out great - the Basil Minestrone Soup and Crispy Fried Chicken Tenders (using almond flour instead of wheat flour). I want to try the sweet potato salad recipe - a different take on traditional potato salad.

The recipes are clear and easy to follow, with beautiful color photographs for most of them. I also found that the majority used ingredients that I could find easily at a larger grocery store or health food store. There are over 150 recipes for appetizers, soups, main dishes, desserts, side dishes, and more, that include traditional food from southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Also included are two 30-day meal plans and menus for specific occasions.

For those with food allergies or autoimmune concerns, each recipe designates whether it includes potentially problematic ingredients and if so, gives suggestions for substitues or ommissions.

I'm looking forward to trying more recipes from this book. It's one I can recommend to anyone desiring to transition to a Paleo lifestyle with recipes that are tasty and easy to prepare.

Real Life Paleo by Stacy Toth and Matt McCarry

Real Life Paleo: 175 Gluten-Free Recipes, Meal Ideas, and an Easy 3-Phased Approach to Lose Weight and Gain Health by Stacy Toth and Matt McCarry, Victory Belt Publishing

Transitioning to the Paleo way of eating can be intimidating but in Real Life Paleo, the authors make it easier with a three-phase plan and lots of family-friendly recipes. They know what they are talking about as they lost a combined 200 pounds and improved their health by following the Paleo lifestyle, and draw on their success to help others do the same.

The first phase they suggest is "swap" which simply means to get rid of processed foods and replace them with healthier choices. The second phase, "remove", is to get rid of other non-paleo foods such as legumes, grains, dairy, and "bad" fats. The third phase is "heal" and focuses on foods and physical activity that will bring wellness.

The first section of the book is the authors’ story, followed by an explanation of the Paleo diet and the three-phase plan, including a menu plan for each phase. The recipe chapters include everything one would expect from a cookbook: condiments, breakfast, snacks, appetizers, side dishes, main dishes, drinks, and desserts. I really like that the table of contents has thumbnail photos of all the recipes for each chapter, making it easy to find something appealing to try without needing to go through each chapter. There are also color photos throughout the book which always makes a cookbook better.

The recipes themselves are well-written and easy to follow with ingredients that are readily available at larger grocery stores or specialty stores like Trader Joe’s. The two recipes I tried – Sage and Citrus Roast Chicken and Baked Potato Soup – turned out well and I look forward to trying several more. I did appreciate that the recipes were family-friendly Paleo versions of dishes most of us are used to.

For me, the book lives up to its name, offering a real life plan to transition to Paleo foods and lifestyle that anyone can follow.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, Ten Speed Press, $16.99 list price, hardcover.

This is one of the best books on simplifying and decluttering that I've read in a while as it goes beyond the obvious purging of old, broken, no longer used things to the rest of what we hang on to for whatever reason. Kondo gets right to heart of why following the conventional advice for decluttering doesn't work. Advice such as taking it one drawer at a time, throw away one thing every day, buy clear plastic boxes to organize things in. But the fact is, it doesn't matter how organized we are, how many cool organizational systems we use, or how many times we go through the same drawer or closet, we still end up with too much stuff that we don't use or love and clutter is still clutter no matter how neatly arranged.

This book gives practical steps for tackling clutter but does so while also addressing the psychological and emotional sides of why we hang on to things in the first place. This helps readers see possessions with a new perspective as they focus on what they really love instead of zoning in on what to discard. The question becomes "do I love this?" instead of "should I get rid of this?" If you love it, keep it. If you don't, get rid of it. It seems oversimplified but it works as I've discovered. I've spent the past few years doing various decluttering projects around the house but it all still felt cluttered despite many boxes and bags of things thrown out or donated. I've begun putting this process to work and am pleased with the unstressful results.

But tidying itself is a tool, not the end result. The end goal is to live the lifestyle you desire once your house is in order, free from clutter. As Kondo writes, "The whole point in both discarding and keeping things is to be happy. It may seem obvious, but it is important to experience this realization for yourself and let it sink into your heart. Before you start tidying, look at the lifestyle you aspire to and ask yourself, "Why do I want to tidy?" When you find the answer, you are ready to move on to the next step: examining what you own."

I highly recommend this book as a place to start for anyone thinking about decluttering and simplifying their home (and life). But I also recommend it to others like me who have embarked on many seasons of decluttering without lasting results.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Complete Low-Carb Cookbook by George Stella

The Complete Low-Carb Cookbook by George Stella, Quail Ridge Press, $24.95 list price, paperback.

I recently began following a low-carb diet in earnest and needed a collection of family-friendly, easy to prepare recipes that use regular ingredients I can find at my local grocery store. The Complete Low-Carb Cookbook by George Stella is just what I was looking for.

The book begins with George's story of how he and his family lost over 550 pounds collectively by adopting a low-carb lifestyle that focused on good fats, proteins, and vegetables. Their's is a truly inspiring story with before and after photos. His family's story, their ability to maintain their weight loss, and his profession as a chef lends credibility to the recipes and the success of eating a low-carb diet.

I have tried a couple of the recipes, 5 Spice Chicken Salad and Broccoli and Cheddar Soup, and was happy with the results, both in taste and ease of preparation. There really isn't any recipe in the entire cookbook that I wouldn't try so I have several more tagged for future menu planning. I like that these are dishes that my family will also enjoy and use healthy ingredients that I recognize and can find easily. The recipes are wheat-free so those wishing to avoid gluten will find some options. They are also sugar-free, but do include desserts that use artificial sweeteners like Splenda which may be an issue for some but going sugar-free and low-carb doesn't leave many options for sweets without it.

The cookbook includes full-color photos of many of the dishes (always a plus) and nutritional information is included for each recipe (calories, fat, protein, fiber, and net carbs) for those who need to track their carb intake.

This is a collection of recipes that will actually get used in my kitchen and is one I would recommend to anyone needing meal ideas for a low-carb or gluten-free diet.


From the publisher:
George Stella’s Food Network TV show and five bestselling cookbooks have established him as the leading authority on low-carb cooking. Utilizing fresh ingredients that anyone can find in their local supermarket, George Stella’s recipes are simple to make, but truly satisfying. George’s amazing weight loss success, down to earth voice, and pension for comfort foods have put his books at the very top of every health-conscious person’s cookbook collection.

In The Complete Low-Carb Cookbook, George has compiled a lifetime of expertise into one, easy-to-follow book. Whether you have been living a low-carb lifestyle for years, or are simply looking to eat less processed foods, this cookbook is for you! Over 60 full-color photos will help you present dishes that look as good as they taste. All 130 recipes are made without any wheat or added sugar, making them gluten-free, and great for diabetics as well. Deliciously better!

George Stella’s approach to cooking without processed foods makes The Complete Low-Carb Cookbook a perfect companion to nearly any healthy lifestyle. Whether you eat low-carb all of the time, or are simply looking to cut down on refined flour and sugar, these recipes are full of flavor with a heaping helping of George’s trademark ingenuity.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

At Home with Madame Chic: Becoming a Connoisseur of Daily Life by Jennifer L. Scott

At Home with Madame Chic: Becoming a Connoisseur of Daily Life by Jennifer L. Scott, Simon & Schuster publishing, $23.00 list price, hardcover.

From the publisher:
Approach life at home the Madame Chic way: a beautiful, illustrated toolbox of tips and ideas for organizing, entertaining, and savoring a stylish life.

When she arrived at Madame Chic’s Parisian apartment as a foreign exchange student, Jennifer Scott was a casual California girl who thought sweatpants were appropriate street attire. Madame Chic took Jennifer under her wing and tutored her in the secrets of how the French elevate the little things in life to the art of living.

Years later, Jennifer was back in California with a husband, two young daughters, a dog, and her first home. Every day she confronted mundane duties like folding laundry and unloading the dishwasher, and she began to think about Madame Chic’s home—how the breakfast table was set beautifully the night before, the music that always played in the background, the calm of Madame and Monsieur Chic’s ritual cocktail hour together. Jennifer wanted that life. She decided to see what would happen if she didn’t perform her chores impatiently or mindlessly, if, instead, she could live like Madame Chic.

At Home with Madame Chic reveals the secrets to having a happy, fulfilling, and passionate life at home. Jennifer explains the morning send-off need not be chaotic, it’s possible to look stylish with minimal time and effort, a little forethought makes it possible to serve a home-cooked dinner every night, and details like music and scented candles can set the tone for the whole family’s evening. Organized by the pleasures that can be found throughout the day, this charming, helpful book is full of ideas, playlists, recipes, beauty routines, and advice that can turn an irritating day into an enjoyable experience.


This was an enjoyable book to read with postive suggestions for improving one's daily life by improving one's attitude. As the author points out, many times the discontent we feel with our lives, our possessions, and our appearance comes down to a negative attitude. Change the attitude and the rest doesn't look so bad. That said, she also gives practical advice for action we can take to make our living space and daily routines more in line with what we really want. Things such as taking time to simplify and declutter by getting rid of what isn't useful or desireable, taking time for simple personal grooming and wardrobe choices that make us feel better about our appearance (such as not living in sweatpants), and enjoying things such as music, candles, pretty dishes, etc., even if we are home alone.

One segment that especially motivated me was to focus on what I like about my house and decor and have the courage to change or get rid of what I don't. The chapter on learning what one's personal style is as it relates to wardrobe was also helpful. Doing that can save time and money in the long run as I won't spend either on things that are not "me".

I have to confess at times the French references seem a bit pretentious but in all fairness, they come from the author's experiences with the family she spent time with while an exchange student in France and the lessons she learned about living beautifully each day from them. The book is a pleasant one to read and has lots of practical suggestions that readers can benefit from.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Gospel in Bonds: A True Story by Georgi Vins

The Gospel in Bonds: 8 Years in the Sovie Gulags - Imprisoned For His Faith by Georgi Vins, Lighthouse Trails Publishing, $13.99 list price, paperback

From the publisher:
A Soviet government tried to extinguish God's Truth by placing its messengers in bonds. But the light of God's Word and its hope of salvation could not be destroyed even in the darkest prison camp.

Georgi Vins, a Baptist pastor living in the U.S.S.R., was 37-years-old the first time he was imprisoned for his faith in a Soviet prison camp. He left behind his wife, his children, and his church. Over the course of thirteen years, Pastor Vins spent a total of eight years in the gulags.

But in the pages of this book, you won't read about a man who felt sorry for himself or who wallowed in the misery of his sufferings. Rather, you will hear the true stories of believers whose faith in Jesus Christ took preeminence in their lives and who allowed nothing, not even a Communist government, to take away their faith and their hope.

Threaded through The Gospel in Bonds is an intricately woven theme of love for God's Word and faith in the Gospel, even in the midst of severe punishment and deprivation.

I was so humbled after reading Georgi Vins' account of his imprisonment for his faith as a pastor in the Soviet Union several decades ago. Living in the U.S., I can't imagine a world in which my life would be threatened and I could face prison for my faith. Perhaps that day is yet to come and I can only hope I will have the strength to endure it as Georgi did. This book is a truly inspiring testimony of the power of God's grace, provision, and protection in the midst of persecution, and Georgi's deliverance from prison to exile in the U.S. where he and his family began a ministry to return to help the church they left behind.

One thing that really broke my heart was how precious the Bible was to Georgi and other prisoners, something most of us take for granted as many of us likely have several copies gathering dust. Vins and others were so hungry for God's word that they were willing to risk anything - even torture and extended prison sentences - to get even a few scriptures to read. At one point, Georgi's most treasured possession was a tiny copy of the gospel of Mark that he kept hidden in the heel of his shoe when he wasn't sharing it with his fellow inmates. Holding my Bible in my hands each day has taken on a new sense of gratitude and reverence for it since reading The Gospel in Bonds.

I was moved by not only Vins' experience but also that of his wife and children. When we hear of someone imprisoned for his or her faith, we forget that their families also suffer a great deal due to the stigma of their association with the person and living with the absence of a father or mother; daughter or son. Both Vins and his family had every reason to feel sorry for themselves under the weight of such injustice but instead they used it as an opportunity to strengthen their faith and share the gospel.

Included in the book are several photos and poems written by the author before, during, and after his imprisonment.

This is a book all believers in the "free world" need to read. Persecution may not affect all of us now, but as social and political forces continue their attack on Christianity and biblical values, such things may not be that far away. Georgi Vins' story makes the persecuted church personal and points the reader to the sovereignty of God and how He is at work in the most difficult circumstances.