Favorite Faith-Based Nonfiction

(“…if she were not possessed of a fury.”)*

Continuing the Best of EatReadSleep Ten Year Celebration series!

I have been, as Dan Koch** would say, on a complicated faith journey, and whenever something significant (or truly miniscule) is happening in my life, I have to read all about it. This list contains titles that have been among the most impactful for me, although there were plenty of them that I read before this blog began, and others that I read when I was in a place of fear and kept to myself (see Pete Enns, below). There are also faith-based titles in the “Anti-Racist Reads” section, already posted. Bear in mind that I read many of these when I was deeply searching, somewhat depressed, or furious.

Click on the title for the full review.

Out of Sorts, by Sarah Bessey. Number one, no doubt about it. I read this and Bessey’s Jesus Feminist around the time of my mother’s passing and other global disasters, and it was exactly the right timing. This is sort of a long and complicated review.
Tell It Slant, by Eugene Peterson. I saw this one in a photo of Jon Foreman’s piano and brought the book with me on a family vacation to Virginia. Since it was a relaxed vacation, it got passed around to rave reviews.
Abba’s Child, by Brennan Manning. A deeply contemplative volume for those of us who need assurance of God’s love.
The New Copernicans, by David Seel, Jr. A different and more positive understanding of the faith of Millennials, those of us who think like Millennials, and why. To use a hackneyed phrase, a true paradigm shift.
Jesus and John Wayne, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. She writes with a flaming sword. Since I reviewed this book, I have heard it mentioned all over the place, and for good reason. Essential.
Thin Places, by Tracey Balzer. A foray into the Celtic understanding of spirituality for this old Celt. I want to go on one of her trips to Iona!
The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard. A classic on discipleship and kingdom living now.
Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright, and also pretty much everything else he wrote. He is my go-to guy for solid teaching.
Running Scared, by Ed Welch. I read it myself one year, and then David and I taught it a few years later. If you are anxious or worried, I hope it helps you as much as it helped me.
Finding God in the Waves, by Mike McHargue. Science Mike threw out everything about faith, and then, spurred on by a divine vision, re-examined each little element and decided what he could truly believe. Tearing it down to bare bones.
What If Jesus Was Serious? By Skye Jethani. A radical little devotional for adults and families with teens. Cuts away religious trappings to get down to what Jesus really said (although I am confident that Jesus understood the subjunctive mood).
The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher. Not that I agreed with him on everything, but we had a little book group on my back porch to discuss this one, and I have such fond memories of that group of ladies that the book warms my heart.
I blogged about Peter Enns’s book The Sin of Certainty, but this Bible professor’s book that really impacted me was How the Bible Actually Works, which I was probably afraid to write about at the time. A definite must-read.

Disclaimer: I own all of these books, which is not typical for this librarian, so you can see where I’m putting my book money. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not express those of my employer or anyone else.

* Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing. Benedict is speaking of Beatrice, whom he despises, and with whom, therefore, he falls madly in love.

**Dan Koch is the host of the You Have Permission podcast and is pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, focusing on spiritual abuse. One of my favorite podcasts.

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American Reboot, by Will Hurd

Who’s ready to rally for a passionately moderate candidate? Will Hurd is a former U.S. congressman and CIA operative. He is razor-sharp and forward-thinking. While he is truly conservative and believes in a strong national defense, a position he can back up from his years of traveling some of the world’s toughest areas on the field with the CIA, he has some scorching criticisms of our current brand of politics on both sides.

Will is the son of a Black father and a White mother, and he hails from the U.S. congressional district with the longest Mexican border: the Texas 23rd district. He is solidly pro-immigration. He is also pro-life, which means that he believes that all Americans deserve health care, but not as issued by the ACA, which gives Americans health insurance that makes it too expensive to actually get the care. He is a feminist and in favor of LGBTQ+ rights. One of his greatest concerns is that our leaders, and Americans in general, are not paying enough attention to the threat of Chinese supremacy, and he has the facts to make his point. He also thinks that climate change is being used as a political football, while it should be on everybody’s front burner.

Hurd plays to the middle. He posits that we all have more in common than we think, and that good laws come from the center 80%, not the ten percenters on either extreme. Thanks to Covid’s effect on transportation, he once had a multi-day, completely unplanned road trip with Beto O’Rourke from Texas to D.C. that was livestreamed on social media to huge audiences. At first, even Beto and Will thought it would be one long, exhausting argument, but then they were able to prove the point that if people would get together and talk seriously about issues, rather than posing for the cameras in photo-op soundbites, real compromise and progress could be made.

The last couple of chapters about our federal government’s complete failure to keep up with technology will scare you so badly that you will be staring at the ceiling at night, sleepless. Will has a computer science degree and ran a technology startup, so he understands tech right down to the bits and bytes. If you have ever watched with dismay and embarrassment as our senators and congressmen interview social media moguls, you will know that we’re in trouble. Our political leaders are incredibly ancient, and even those who are not have “people” who take care of their technology needs and social media accounts (which is not always a bad thing, as we’ve witnessed in the last few years.) Hurd believes that World War I was fought in the trenches, World War II was fought in the air, and World War III will be fought in cyberspace—and we are absolutely not ready. It is a bit of relief that our leaders have finally recognized that we have to start with chip production at home, but that it just a baby step forward. Hurd has plans.

The subtitle of this book is An Idealist’s Guide to Getting Big Things Done. Of course, Hurd will probably throw his hat into the ring for the 2024 presidential contest, and yes, this is his requisite autobiography to launch his campaign. However, this is not at all a bad CV for president, and I, for one, am completely exhausted by the shrieking power mongers at both ends of the spectrum and would be happy to welcome a super-smart, really nice person into the position. We don’t know the slate of candidates yet, but let’s hope that there are some rational, energetic moderates we could all get behind.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book after watching Will Hurd on Book TV and other long-form interviews. Opinions expressed—oh, my goodness—are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Best of EatReadSleep, Part 2

General Adult Nonfiction and Anti-Racist Reads

I love nonfiction so much that I am going to divide it up into categories. I read widely across the Dewey Decimal System (a little library lingo) because I am omnicurious. If you don’t see your interests in general nonfiction, I have a couple of specialized categories coming up in this post and the next.

Click on the title links for the full review.

General Nonfiction and Memoirs

Think Again, by Adam Grant. The review on this title has been very popular, with continuing interest over the past year or so. Grant examines the value of changing our minds in both business and personal decisions.
Deep Work, by Cal Newport. The most creative people guard their uninterrupted time. This book has brought about positive innovation in many lives and organizations.
Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari. A fantastic title that did not get enough love. Listen to the audio. Important and engaging.
Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution, by Dr. Richard Bernstein. This famous doctor is a pioneer in the field of diabetes research. Anyone with diabetes, type 1 or 2, should own this book.
A Craftsman’s Legacy, by Eric Gorges. I have a longer, related post on TheReaderWrites, and both have received tons of hits from mechanics to knitters. I think we humans love to create with our hands.
Salad Love, by David Bez. Of all the many cookbooks I’ve reviewed, this simple, thorough volume with a crystal-clear layout is still a favorite in our house after 7 years.
Educated, by Tara Westover. This harrowing memoir of a woman raised in the fundamentalist Mormon church was on the bestseller list for years. Riveting.
Vincent and Theo, by Deborah Heiligman. A young adult biography of the famous artist and his brother that won all the awards and is perfect for art-loving adults.
The Dark Queens, by Shelley Puhak. Two wild women of the Dark Ages whose stories had been nearly erased. Think Brunhilda and Circe Lannister.
Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. A difficult American story out of Appalachia, honestly revealed by one of its favorite sons. Oh, I had such hopes for Vance before he sold out.

Anti-Racist Reads

A few years ago, David and I looked around at our very white world and realized that we lived in a bubble. We started intentionally reading as many books as we could on race in America. I began with White Fragility, which was a complete mistake, since I found it elitist and ridiculous. It is one of the very few negative reviews I’ve ever written. However, things improved greatly after that, and many of these books have been influential in our lives. Some are aimed at the white evangelical church and its members. These are all adult nonfiction, but many fiction titles in the blog, especially children’s and young adults’ banned book reviews, are also anti-racist.

Click on the title link for full reviews.

Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson. This is the most scholarly and thoroughly researched of all the anti-racist books we own. A must-read for everyone.
Rediscipling the White Church, by David W. Swanson. Written by a pastor for other church leaders, really. Wisdom for those seeking to be part of the solution.
Be the Bridge, by Latasha Morrison. This was the best book we read by a black Christian leader, compassionately targeted to white Christians. She has a network of discussion groups all over the country.
So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. The best-organized anti-racist book we read. It is set up in question-and-answer format to make it easy to navigate and understand.
How the Word Is Passed, by Clint Smith. Learning racial history by geography. Very effective, and filled with surprises.

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EatReadSleep is Ten Years Old!

On July 21, 2012, I posted my first blog post. I wasn’t even sure what a blog was at the time, and one of my first stories was about the death of my dryer. After a while, a friend of mine advised me that most people enjoy blogs with pictures, so I had to figure out how to take and transfer photos, and we were off to the races. Over the course of ten years, EatReadSleep has reached 141 countries, with many tens of thousands of readers, although the lack of enthusiasm in Greenland is tragic.

The country with the greatest number of hits, of course, is the United States, followed by Canada. Rounding out the top ten are, in order, Germany, United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil, France, India, the Philippines, and Spain. As you can see, all of the European countries have logged in at some time, usually often, and in the last couple of months, a reader from Ireland often logs in before I wake up in the morning. I have regular Russian readers, and the People’s Republic of China has found ERS 27 times! Some of the interesting countries that have only found ERS once include St. Kitts & Nevis, Brunei, Yemen, New Caladonia, Curaçao, Zimbabwe, and Guernsey. I have really improved my geography skills!

EatReadSleep started out as an everything blog because I missed writing so much when I went to work fulltime as a librarian. Turns out that working full time and trying to keep up with the latest books made it impossible to write at any decent level, so I created a separate blog in 2016 called TheReaderWrites, but I rarely use it, unfortunately. After that, ERS became all about book reviews, which is a good thing, since I had started writing about politics in 2016 for some reason that we all know, and that’s just not good for my blood pressure. I will retire in a year or so, after which I hope to write more stories and memoirs on TRW.

TheReaderWrites lies fallow at the moment.

Are you dying to know which posts were the most popular? The first answer is disappointing from a data point of view: it’s just the home page and archives, which means people tuning in and just scrolling, which is awesome, actually. I’ve had tens of thousands of people doing just that. I have a confession to make: it was years before I knew to put individual URLs on the Facebook posts for each review. I just put the URL of the blog itself, so many of those Home Page/Archives hits are just from that! Hopefully, readers know how to use the search bar and are finding the posts they want.

As far as the most popular title, it’s surprising: Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan. I have a feeling that a lot of school librarians and teachers give out the web address to their students, not just for this children’s fiction title, but for many of them! Sometimes I seem to have a run on a particular children’s title for days on end. “Hm, thirty people read the review of Wishtree, by Katherine Applegate, today. Oh, and yesterday, too.” Of the top twenty posts, eleven of them are for children or teens. Four are spiritual books, and several are my own stories.

Blackmoor is one of the early Proper Romances by Shadow Mountain.

The third most popular post makes me laugh every time. I have had thousands of hits for the post “What Is a Proper Romance?” It is written about the Shadow Mountain adult series called Proper Romance, and I have searched their website fruitlessly to see if they have a link to EatReadSleep. I have no idea if people are truly looking for those books or if they are trying to inject virtue into their love lives or those of their teenagers, but I get at least a few reads of that 2015 piece every day.

As I noted above, before 2016, I had written posts that were not book reviews, and some of the most popular with readers and most important to me are the series of posts about my neighbors’ struggle to change North Carolina law concerning cannabidiol, the non-hallucinogenic oil from marijuana. Their daughter, Zora, has intractable epilepsy, and this natural drug had been shown to prevent seizures. I am happy to say that Zora is now a teenager and is living a much healthier life. Furthermore, North Carolina laws about medical marijuana continue to evolve.

Other popular non-book posts include my own— let’s say it— fabulous recipe for low-carb chocolate chip cookies and related cookbook and diet posts. The story about “Southern Guys and Knives” also gets regular hits all the time.

The Best of EatReadSleep series!!

While it is as impossible to choose my favorite pieces as it would be to choose your favorite children (I can’t relate; I have an only child), I want to put a few titles in each category, just for your entertainment and enlightenment. Sort of a “Best of EatReadSleep” so far. Today, we’ll start with adult fiction, with more genres in the coming weeks.

Favorite Adult Novels

Many Americans read mostly fiction, from thrillers to romances, but I have to know for sure that I will love a novel before I crack it open. This is not a problem, since I work in the selection department of a large library system, where I am bombarded by publisher marketing all day long. Plus, the adult fiction selector works just a few feet away, and she keeps us up to date.

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell. My favorite novel of Spring, 2021

I can definitely say that in 2021, my two favorite novels were Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, in the spring and Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr, in the fall. They were both phenomenal and entirely different from one another. This year, Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the best novel so far. Both Chambers and O’Farrell have new books coming out in the next couple of months, and I am looking forward to them. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See should be on everyone’s “Books I Need to Read Before I Die” list.

Cloud Cuckoo Land was my favorite novel of Fall, 2021.

Here are some of my other favorite novels over the last few years, in no particular order. Links to the reviews are in the captions.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Absorbing with a twist. I do love a twist.
Lila (and others in the series), by Marilynne Robinson. Deep, deep, deep, and fine writing.
The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett. Listen to the audio read by Tom Hanks and read These Precious Days to find out how that happened.
The Personal Librarian and others by Marie Benedict. I’m a librarian, and I’ve been to this library, so of course, but Marie Benedict is bringing many women’s stories to life.
Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. I can’t speak for the tv series, but this novel made me identify with someone who is nothing like me.
Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. It’s been a bestseller ever since it came out for very good reason. Let’s hope the movie lives up to it. One of my lifetime favorites.
The Almost Sisters, by Joshilyn Jackson. Most people know her for Gods in Alabama, but I like this one so much more.
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. Historical fiction with a soupçon of scifi/fantasy.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, by Grady Hendrix. I usually run away from horror novels, but this one had me laughing through my screams.
The Half-Drowned King and sequels, by Linnea Hartsuyker. This series is so underrated. It’s historical fiction, but if you like Game of Thrones, you will like Linnea Hartsuyker.
Uprooted and Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. Classic fantasy. Grimm’s fairy tales for grownups.


Stay tuned for more from “The Best of EatReadSleep”, including faith-based nonfiction, books for teens and kids, anti-racist reads, and more!


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Haven, by Emma Donoghue

Three monks set sail in a boat. Thus begins Emma Donaghue’s intensely focused novel set in a religious community during the Dark Ages. Artt is a middle-aged giant of a man whose extreme piety and spiritual experiences set him apart as a saint. When he has a vision in the night, he wakes the abbot with a demand that he let him depart from the monastery for an uncharted island with two brother monks. Not just random men, though. He requires Cormac, a battle-scarred older man who is a recent convert, and young Trian, an innocent young monk whose childhood by the sea will prove invaluable.

Unquestioning obedience was assumed for clergy in those days, but eventually Cormac and Trian realize that Artt is not headed for a particular island, but rather he depends on the Lord to lead them to the right bit of land. After passing by every inhabited site they see, he pulls up on a rocky cliff of a place, with less than one inch of soil, covered with birds of every kind screaming and flapping. Cormac tries to grow vegetables, and when Trian is unable to catch many fish, Artt sets him to killing the birds for food. Artt does not want them to trade with other settlements, nor does he want them to build shelters for themselves, but he does want Trian to begin copying manuscripts for hours each day. Cormac and Trian silently repent for their own lack of faith when compared to this incredibly holy man.

Emma Donoghue wrote this quietly disturbing novel during the pandemic, and it is certainly a study of the effects of isolation on individuals and small communities. Although it is a fictional story, it is set on the actual island of Skellig Michael, a rocky island off the coast of Ireland that shows archeological traces of a small monastic settlement. Donoghue pursues a slow pace, with time to drill deeply into the inner world of each of these three very different men and to observe the struggle that Cormac and Trian endure as their lifelong beliefs crash into their dawning fear and horror.

One might think that fourteen hundred years would remove the reader from the emotions of the story, but history is replete with powerful leaders who have manipulated their followers into performing acts they would have abhorred just a few years earlier. Even in our own small lives, there are always authoritarian narcissists scheming to gain control over groups of willing admirers, and often we don’t wake up and break the spell before innocent people suffer.

Donoghue’s bestselling novel Room was about two people locked in a small shed. This novel is similarly claustrophobic and compelling, even though it takes place on an uninhabited island in the middle of the wild, wind-swept sea.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this novel from @LittleBrown, which will be published on August 23, 2022. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Look: I’m an Ecologist

Dorling Kindersley, better known as DK, is a wildly popular publisher with an emphasis on brilliant and colorful images with small bits of text scattered over the pages. Look: I’m an Ecologist is so stuffed full of fun projects that it will get even the most sedentary of little couch potatoes up and out the door.

Each double-page spread features one project, marked with “Adult Alert!” when there are scissors or other hazards required. They range from the familiar collecting leaves and sprouting seeds to making spider webs with sticks and strings. Most of the projects have suggested further steps, such as painting those leaves or decorating containers that the child made to house a collection. There are instructions for two types of bird feeders, one made with a peanut butter-covered pine cone, and then a more complicated feeder made with an empty bottle. Many of the projects will require time outdoors, but there are several rainy-day activities that will draw on past observation in nature, like a tide pool built in a shallow bowl. Perfect for that inevitable stormy day of the beach vacation.

This title is one of the “Look! I’m Learning!” series that offers Look: I’m a Cook and Look: I’m a Scientist, among others. All of the books have an upbeat and positive tone, with a focus on making children better at observing the world away from their screens. They encompass various learning styles, and the more academic child may enjoy keeping a weather journal or carefully painting the life cycle of the frog on a series of flat pebbles. There is something for everyone, all served up with no judgment and lots of fun.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Dex is a tea monk. They travel from village to village, listening to people’s woes and offering them just the right cup of tea. Dex’s heartfelt goal, though, is to hear crickets chirp. Since the Great Agreement, when robots and humans separated after the robots gained consciousness in the Factory Age and perceived that they were being oppressed, humans had not ventured into the wilderness, and crickets are nearly extinct. Dex listens to recordings of crickets’ songs on their pocket computer, but it is not the same. One day, Dex cancels their appointments and turns the tea wagon toward uncharted territory, headed for the Hermitage, the last place crickets had been heard.

Mosscap stepped out of the woods, all seven feet of it, into the little campsite. Dex was taking an outdoor shower at the time, so this first contact between a robot and a human was even more disconcerting than it could have been. Mosscap has been sent to see how the humans are doing after all these years, and it is delighted to accompany Dex to the Hermitage, even though it has absolutely not been invited, especially because it asks endless questions.

This charming little story is unexpectedly deep. While Dex is searching for the meaning of life, the robot is questioning all of their habits and decisions, which forces Dex to think about things they have always taken for granted. The world-building is unique, taking place on an earth-like moon called Panga with a pantheon of gods being worshipped by various harmonious groups. Although it is somewhat post-apocalyptic, it is not bleak. Rather, humans have returned to a simpler life with low-tech, hands-on jobs enhanced with tiny technology, such as solar panels, personal water filtration tanks, and pocket computers that last for years. The culture is an almost utopian idea of what we could be if we abandoned the insane desperation of our consumerist addiction.

The pronoun for nonbinary, restless Dex is “they,” while the pronoun for nonhuman, cheerful Mosscap is “it.” The singular use of a plural pronoun still trips up this former grammar teacher, and I do wish that we could come up with a completely different alternative that won’t send me searching back through the paragraph to find the other people.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is unlike anything you’ve read before. The tone is quietly joyful and sweet, and I knew that I had to read it as soon as I heard about tea monks. At 160 pages, it just begins to whet the appetite, so I am pleased to see that Becky Chambers has a sequel coming out in July called A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. I am already on the holds list.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. @tordotcom

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Tracy Flick Can’t Win, by Tom Perrotta

Principal Jack Weede is finally going to retire from Green Meadow High School, and he assures Tracy, his loyal vice-principal, that she is a shoo-in for the spot. Tracy begins schmoozing all the right people, even though it goes against her introverted nature. She begins with the school board president, who throws out the idea of a GMHS Hall of Fame, to which Tracy, eager to seem positive, says, um, sure. The whole town is eager to fete the former football hero, while Tracy had thought that there were so many more important achievements to celebrate. When she lets out the slightest hint of her thoughts on the award, the whole promotion process begins to unravel.

Nothing comes easily to Tracy Flick. As Perrotta says at one point, everyone respects Tracy, but no one really likes her. In his 1998 novel, Election, she had been raped by a GMHS teacher at the age of fifteen and has been living under a cloud of suspicion ever since. Surely it had to be her fault. Now, decades later, she is a well-educated, middle-aged woman who has been carrying the load for the aging principal while raising her daughter mostly on her own. She is due.

I listened to an audiobook of this title, and the protagonist has a very familiar voice for this Elementary fan: Lucy Liu. Most of the other chapters are read by various male voices, and each of Perrotta’s characters is well-rounded and believable. The author views his people and the world they inhabit with a jaundiced eye, sometimes sympathetic, but often with a bite of sarcasm. Tracy herself is a very flawed character, and yet the reader still roots for her, cheering when she battles forward, then cringing when she trips again. The fact that Tracy still works in the same place where her most traumatic days took place is both troubling and revealing.

The author takes on the patriarchy and the #MeToo Movement so convincingly that I looked him up to make sure that Tom wasn’t short for Thomasina or something. (It’s not.) Beyond the skillfully entwined themes, though, Tracy Flick Can’t Win is a great read, just the kind of engaging novel to pack in your beach bag.

Disclaimer: I listened to an “advance listening copy” audiobook of this novel, provided by @Libro.fm and Simon and Schuster Audio. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Dead Sea Squirrels, by Mike Nawrocki

Michael and Justin didn’t set out to disobey Dr. Gomez. Justin was well aware that he was fortunate when Michael’s archeologist dad had invited him along on this middle-Eastern dig during summer vacation, so he was diligent and punctual at all times. When Michael wandered into a cave beside the Dead Sea, though, didn’t he have to pull him out? Later that night, he slept on while Michael slipped out of their tent.

Merle and Pearl Squirrel were on holiday at the Dead Sea, where Merle was fascinated with his own buoyancy, when the noonday sun became oppressively hot. They slipped into a nearby cave, just to cool off for a bit. Their little respite lasted several thousand years.

I had to laugh when I saw the name of this series, but it all made sense when I saw that the author was the co-creator of Veggie Tales. The first title is Squirreled Away, an early elementary chapter book that delivers a wee bit of education with a dollop of humor in a very boy-centric adventure story. Spoiler alert: Mr. and Mrs. Squirrel make it through customs, and the whole story ends on a creepy cliffhanger.

Christian parents hoping to slip some Bible history in with a spoonful of cinnamon sugar will enjoy this fun series by Tyndale House.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Dark Queens, by Shelley Puhak

Fredegund was born a slave, but her shrewd mind and political ruthlessness made her indispensable to Chilperic, the king of Neustria. Once he had disposed of his first and second wives, he married Fredegund for life. She was extremely capable of producing sons, but not so blessed with keeping them alive.

Brunhild was an educated Visigothic princess from Spain who traveled to Francia to become the wife of King Sigibert of Austrasia. As a royal daughter, she knew how kingdoms were run, and immediately began to make allies among the dukes and bishops. She also provided the son and heir, as well as a couple of daughters. As a matter of fact, life was pretty pleasant until Fredegund had her sister, Galswintha, assassinated so that she could become queen of Neustria in her place.

This was the heyday of the Merovingian Dynasty in what is modern-day France, spilling over into most of western Europe. King Clovis conquered the land from the Romans, and his son Clothar divided the kingdom among his four sons: Charibert, Sigibert, Chilperic, and Guntram. He also had an illegitimate son named Gundovald. The more familiar practice of having the eldest inherit everything may seem unfair, but dividing up property in this way kept royal brothers at one another’s throats their whole lives. Women inherited nothing, and inconvenient females were killed off or packed off to a convent. Queens were no exception.

Author Shelley Puhak delves deeply into original sources to unearth the influence that these two queens had over a large portion of Europe in the latter decades of the sixth century. Both of the women were trusted advisors to their husbands, but when they outlived the kings, they continued as regents for their very young sons for many years. They waged war, forged alliances, and wielded power brilliantly and often ruthlessly. Fredegund rode out with the troops and was feared as an expert assassin. She has been called the inspiration behind the Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister. Brunhild built roads and abbeys, wrote copious letters, and enlarged her kingdom. She was friends with both Bishop Gregory of Tours and Pope Gregory. Both men respected her, although Gregory of Tours, in particular, generally despised women. Brunhild is the inspiration for Brunhilda of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and the Valkyrie of mythology draw from the legends of these two fearless rulers.

Puhak became aware that the record of the women of this era had been deliberately erased, since the men who wrote the history deplored the idea of women having power. Although she had written essays and poetry in the past, she dug into the surviving manuscripts and the scholarly research to assemble this revealing portrait of the Merovingian era. Sprinkled with paintings and artifacts throughout, the narrative is followed by an almost 20-page bibliography, fifty pages of notes, and an index. In the front, Puhak placed a map of the western world in the sixth century, as well as a much-needed Dramatis Personae. I consulted this list frequently, since there was more than one Clothar and two Gregorys, not to mention a Charibert, Chilperic, and a Childebert. This Childebert thought it would be fun to name his children Theudebert, Theuderic, and Theudelia.

This volume of history is eye-opening not only for the lives that are brought to our attention, but also for exposing the systematic cover-up that kept this knowledge from us for centuries. Let us hope that continued scholarship will bring us even more fascinating stories of influential women from our past.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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