Category Archives: Reviews

Review: A Halifax Christmas Carol, by Steven Laffoley

A Halifax Christmas Carol, by Steven LaffoleyA Halifax Christmas Carol, by Steven Laffoley (Pottersfield Press, 2017)

December, 1918. Halifax, Nova Scotia, is a grim place, still shattered by the massive explosion that caused so much death and destruction one year previously.

The Great War is over, and the surviving troops are coming home, those not wounded in body, wounded in mind. News headlines cry worldwide unrest, and fear of the so-called “Spanish Flu” is so high that citizens avoid public trams and walk to their destinations.

To newspaper reporter Michael Bell, hope is dead. He survived a gas attack in the war and came home to lose his family in the explosion. Bitter pursuit of the facts of the world’s dark spiral has become his sole purpose in life.

When assigned a story of goodwill just before Christmas, about a mysterious lad with a missing leg and a generous heart, Michael insists he’ll only report the facts. And if the facts don’t produce the upbeat story his editor wants, so be it.

He’s paired with a female reporter who rejects his “wisdom of the head” for “wisdom of the heart.” As well as following their search, readers trace the days of a nameless beggar with the soul of a poet.

The narration itself has a poetic feel at times, with both poetry and prose philosophy quoted. Michael and the beggar are both well-read. Not surprisingly, given the title, Dickens is referenced, usually through Michael’s denial of his continuing influence in this darkened world.

This isn’t a retelling of A Christmas Carol, but those who know that story will find many nods to it. For example, Michael goes home to his dark, lonely, and cold lodgings where he broods by the fire, and he’s disturbed by significant dreams. And the ending, in A Christmas Carol fashion, gives a narrative summary of how certain things turn out happily ever after. While that’s ordinarily annoying, it works here as a final Dickensian touch.

For all the grim setting, and the stories of loss and trauma that Michael uncovers in his search for the boy, this isn’t a hard book to read. The omniscient narrative is well-handled to keep us at enough of a distance that we can observe and learn without being overwhelmed. The author reveals insights, details, and even smells that could only come from extensive research, yet it all flows as part of the story.

Because I usually review clean or Christian fiction, I’ll include a language warning with this one. There’s frequent minor profanity and one misuse of the name of Jesus.

Inspired by a true story, A Halifax Christmas Carol offers a look into a dark time in history, and yet may leave you with a warm hope reminiscent of Dickens’ tale.

For more about award-winning Canadian author Steven Laffoley and his books, visit stevenlaffoley.wordpress.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Guilt by Association, by Heather Day Gilbert

Guilt by Association, by Heather Day Gilbert. Murder in the Mountains book 3Guilt by Association, by Heather Day Gilbert (WoodHaven Press, 2017)

When Tess Spencer reluctantly goes to help her ex-con mother hunt for a new home and a dead body turns up behind her mother’s trailer, she has no choice but to stay and clear her mother’s name – even though she’s afraid her mom might be involved.

Along with the mystery, this is a novel with layers of heart. It exposes the tragedy of the drugs that really do run rampant in the areas where the novel is set – and in so many other parts of North America and the world. It touches briefly on child abuse and foster care.

And it shows Tess, away from home and missing her husband and young daughter, comparing the mother-in-law who mothers her with her biological mother who’s let her down more times than she can count.

Lest that sound like a depressing read, it’s anything but. The mystery is engaging and fast-paced, there are delightfully quirky characters, there are heart-warming moments and hope.

Fans of the series will be pleased and/or intrigued to see Axel again, albeit briefly. We need another Axel story, I think, and more resolution with Tess and her parents.

Heather Day Gilbert is a Grace Award winner and bests-selling author of contemporary mysteries and Viking historicals. Guilt by Association is book 3 in her A Murder in the Mountains series, set in the mountains of West Virginia. For more about the author and her books, visit heatherdaygilbert.com.

[Advance review copy provided by the author.]

Review: 12 Days at Bleakly Manor, by Michelle Griep

12 Days at Bleakly Manor, by Michelle Griep12 Days at Bleakly Manor, by Michelle Griep (Shiloh Run Press, 2017)

England. 1850. On December 24, Clara Chapman receives a mysterious offer: if she spends the next 12 days at a place called Bleakly Manor, she’ll receive enough money to rescue her from the poverty she’s experienced from the loss of her family fortune.

If they’d told her that another of the guests would be the man who stood her up at the altar, she’d have stayed away.

Except her former fiancé, Benjamin Lane, missed the wedding because he’d been thrown in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He thinks Clara has refused to visit him because she believes he’s a thief. Can he somehow clear his name? Can the two lovers trust one another again?

The other guests are unusual, bordering caricatures: Miss Scurry, who keeps her box of pet mice with her at all times (and who can tell them apart by name!); Mr. Minnow, an eel-like fellow; Mr. Pocket, a police inspector; Mademoiselle Pretents, quite pretentious (and very rude); Mr. Tallgrass, a vulgar fellow in a wheelchair.

It’s a light-hearted mystery: who (and where) is their mysterious host? And who’s behind the incidents that seem calculated to eliminate the guests?

Michelle Griep draws readers in with choice turns of phrase. My favourites:

Ancient buildings with rheumy windows leaned toward one another for support, blocking a good portion of the sky… Clara rapped on the very next door, then fought the urge to wipe her glove. The filthy boards, hung together more by memory than nails, rattled like bones. [page 9]

A cold mist settled over London, dampening everyone’s clothing to the same shade of dreary. It was the kind of late January day that crawled under the best of woolen capes and took up residence in the bones. [page 181]

The novella is book one in the Once Upon a Dickens Christmas series, and while Charles Dickens himself doesn’t appear on the pages, readers will find the connection before the story ends.

Michelle Griep’s website describes her as “an author, blogger, and occasional superhero when her cape is clean.” For more about the author and her books, visit michellegriep.com. Also, you can read my interview with her here.

[Review copy from the public library.]

Review: The Other Child, by Pirkko Rytkonen

The Other Child, by Pirkko RytkonenThe Other Child, by Pirkko Rytkonen (2017)

Emma Jorgens’ outwardly stable life sits on a shaky foundation. She and her husband, Kent, are each wrapped up in their own lives and drifting apart. She has overindulged their fourteen-year-old daughter, Becky, whose entitled attitude is growing stronger by the day.

And Emma has a secret that could destroy everything she’s gained.

As a teenager, newly-arrived from Sweden, wide-eyed and impressionable, she fell for her employers’ son and had a baby. She was tricked into a closed adoption, so the records are sealed, but she’s never stopped wondering about her infant son.

Emma and Kent have created a basement apartment for some extra income. Their first tenant is a university student recommended by a friend – a young man named Mathias Smith.

It doesn’t take Emma long to realize Mathias is her son, and they begin a complicated attempt at a relationship. Mathias is frustrated because he wants to meet his birth father, who doesn’t know he exists.

Emma’s afraid to tell her husband the truth, but she’s out of time because the birth father is running for office and the tabloids are digging up whatever they can throw at him.

Emma and Mathias are each struggling, mentally spiralling into dark places because of their stress. Mathias’ health is deteriorating, too, and Emma’s so wrapped up in him that her husband and daughter feel abandoned.

The Other Child is an account of a secret finally exposed, and the emotional fallout that must come before any chance of a happy ending.

The author clearly knows her main characters well, but at times I was confused about what was happening because I needed more of a lead-in to orient me in the scene or I needed another clue to help me understand a character’s behaviour.

Pirkko Rytkonen has written an emotionally-complex novel that dares to address hard issues about relationships, secrets, and drug addiction. The Other Child is her first novel. Her writing theme is “Grace Through the Journey.” For more about the author and her work, and to read her blog entries, visit pirkkorytkonen.com.

[Advance review copy provided by the author.]

Review: Blind Justice, by James Scott Bell

Blind Justice, by James Scott BellBlind Justice, by James Scott Bell (Compendium Press, 2013. Originally published in 2000.)

While Howie Patino was confronting horror he could scarcely have imagined, I was trying hard to come up with one good reason why I should continue to breathe. [Page 7]

That’s how chapter two begins. Chapter one shows the murder Howie’s about to be charged with, and chapter two introduces Jake Denney, a disgraced, alcoholic lawyer who’s sitting in the corner of a tavern using a pen and yellow legal pad to list the pros and cons of ending his life.

Told in a snappy, noir-like first person with brilliant descriptions that show as much about Jake as they do about what or who he sees, this is a page-turning clean read with a background thread of faith.

Howie is a childlike man who’s helpless in the criminal system. Jake drinks his way through the book, sabotaging himself at every turn but unwilling to give in to the overly-strong pressure from the prosecutor.

Christian readers will pick up a sense of spiritual warfare, although Jake himself doesn’t believe. Howie’s sister, Lindsay, tries to convince Jake to clean up his act and consider the possibility that there’s more to life than what he sees.

Readers who like to see the character begin to change for the better by the midpoint will find their patience stretched, and I felt that much of the forward progress of the plot, including the dramatic resolution, depended on people around Jake rather than Jake himself. That seems to work with the spiritual warfare sense, that God is moving for Howie’s sake and for justice’s sake despite Jake’s stubbornness.

So, plot-wise, this shows as one of James Scott Bell’s earlier works. Voice-wise, it’s delightfully refreshing and it offers a great example to writers wanting to enhance their descriptive skills.

This was my first James Scott Bell novel, because I’m not a fan of courtroom drama. I’ve discovered that I am a fan of his writing style, and will be looking for more of his fiction. I’m already benefiting from his books on the craft of writing. For more about the author and his books, visit jamesscottbell.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Death of a Dead Man, by Karin Kaufman

Death of a Dead Man, Juniper Grove Mysteries book 1, by Karin KaufmanDeath of a Dead Man, by Karin Kaufman (2017)

Colorado native Rachel Stowe has fled a stressful job in Boston to return to her home state, specifically to the endearing small town of Juniper Grove, where the few square blocks that make up downtown are a four-minute drive from her home. She can live simply and write more mystery novels.

Rachel is single, in her forties, and has a fondness for casual attire and cream puffs. I like her a lot.

She doesn’t have it all together, but she’s made some good friends here and she’s not one to back down from a challenge. Like helping clear her neighbour Julia’s name from the local paper’s mud-slinging.

Julia’s husband has finally been declared legally dead after he robbed a bank and went missing seven years ago. Most people think he drowned with his partner. But some, like the paper’s editor, suggest Julia knows something about the missing money.

When the dead man turns up freshly-dead in Rachel’s back yard, she’s more motivated than ever to find the truth.

This is the start of a fun series. The books are short, the delivery is snappy, and there’s even an attractive police chief that Rachel butts heads with so regularly that you just know there’s a relationship coming here eventually.

An abundance of clues and details kept me guessing until the end. I’ll definitely be reading more of this series.

My favourite line, which both describes Julia and says something about Rachel herself:

Most of the time Julia had a grandmotherly air about her, and I liked that, but every now and then she transformed into someone you did not want to mess with. I liked that too. [Page 27]

Karin Kaufman is also the author of the Anna Denning mystery series. Death of a Dead Man is the first in the Juniper Grove mystery series. For more about the author and her books, visit karinkaufman.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Grace in Strange Disguise, by Christine Dillon

Grace in Strange Disguise, by Christine DillonGrace in Strange Disguise, by Christine Dillon (2017)

Esther Macdonald is diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer at age 28 – shortly before her wedding. Her fiancé doesn’t know how to handle it, and he’s too busy with his own reactions to take an interest in supporting her.

Her father’s even worse. He’s the polished pastor of the second-largest church in Sydney, Australia, and this is not in his script. When prayer doesn’t heal Esther, he blames her for harbouring sin or doubt.

Her mother is a more supportive, but having lived in the shadow of Esther’s father for so long, she doesn’t dare offer much in the way of original thought.

Help comes from an outspoken cleaning lady at the hospital, who overhears Esther’s frustration with God for not healing her. This lady, Joy, dares to suggest that asking in faith isn’t the only ingredient in a miracle.

Determined to prove her wrong, Esther searches in her Bible for the examples Joy gave. Reading more than her father’s sound-bites of Scripture opens her eyes to the context of his “victory” verses.

Joy becomes Esther’s mentor and friend, and shares Bible events with her through storytelling and simple, thought-provoking questions.

At this point you may be thinking “too preachy for me” and that the novel would read like a sermon. Not so – yes, faith and Scriptural themes are part of the plot, but it’s all driven by Esther’s situation and her need for answers.

Nothing is forced or dry. Instead, it’s one of those stories that kept me thinking about the characters when I wasn’t reading.

Esther is easy to care about, even in the beginning when she’s not operating from a place of truth. Readers see for themselves the flaws and blind spots in the characters and in the excuses Esther habitually makes for them until she begins to change.

Esther’s health crisis and the resulting fallout in her family make her a character we can care about, and seeing her learn to stand up for herself and apply truth to her life is encouraging. What’s heart-warming is to see her begin to share what she’s found with others. Non-Christians won’t get that part, but Christians will be inspired to look for more opportunities to share with the people around them.

The medical details have been carefully researched, and they’re sparingly revealed as Esther needs to know them. No information dumps here. The story is set in 1995, so some things will have changed in the real world. The only thing I was surprised not to see included was discussion of a prosthesis or reconstructive surgery after Esther’s mastectomy. Even if that’s not something that her body would have yet been ready for, she’d likely have asked. Side note: in Australia, radiation treatment is called radiotherapy. I like that much better – sounds less frightening.

Although the novel’s focus is relationships, another bonus is its setting. While most scenes take place inside, there are a few ventures into Australia’s gorgeous outdoors. I don’t expect to ever get there, so the virtual visit was a treat.

Favourite lines:

She might feel full of cracks but somehow her learned patters of behaviour were holding her together. Like a broken egg bound with string. [Kindle location 705]

The habit would have to be fought. It wouldn’t just roll over and die. [Kindle location 2187]

Christine Dillon has previously published the non-fiction books 1-2-1 Discipleship and Telling the Gospel Through Story, but Grace in Strange Disguise is her first novel. It doesn’t read like a first novel, and I hope we won’t have too long a wait for the next book in the series, Grace in the Shadows.

For more about the author, her books, and her Bible storytelling ministry, visit storytellerchristine.com. You’ll also find discussion questions for her novel.

[Review copy provided by the author.]

Review: Kill Zone: 10 Deadly Thrillers

Kill Zone: 10 Deadly Thrillers | Christian fiction, thrillers, romantic suspense, novellas, box setKill Zone: Ten Deadly Thrillers, by Rick Acker, Christy Barritt, Patricia Bradley, Braxton DeGarmo, Luana Ehrlich, Heather Day Gilbert, Heather I. James, Robert Liparulo, Jordyn Redwood, and Jan Thompson (Georgia Press, 2017)

This is a powerhouse anthology with some seriously-acclaimed contributors, both traditionally- and indie-published. Of the 10 authors, I had previously read novels by Christy Barritt, Braxton DeGarmo, Patricia Bradley, and Heather Day Gilbert. And most of the rest were on my “to read” list. So I knew the collection was a safe bet.

Story by story, my thoughts:

Secrets, by Rick Acker: This a new-to-me author, and I’m glad to see he has a number of other books out. Very much a positive find, for me. Secrets is a high-stakes, high-tech international thriller that raises some disturbing possibilities. I enjoyed the voice, pacing, details… and the fact that it could be tense without scaring me. Special mention goes to Kevin, the autistic computer whiz. I love seeing characters who aren’t “ordinary” portrayed strongly in fiction. First on my Rick Acker to-read list will be another Kevin story.

The Wrecking, by Christy Barritt: When a serial killer returns to terrorize a small town, he pleads for help from the one woman he released. Personal and fast-paced romantic suspense, and what I liked best was the heroine’s determination not to let her past destroy her, and the story’s focus on sensory details.

Revenge, by Patricia Bradley: Romantic suspense that’s a sequel to Justice Delayed. It doesn’t give away the suspense plot for the novel, but you’ll know how the romance worked out. The heroine has a prescription drug addiction, and I don’t often see that kind of struggle in a protagonist. It was interesting to see how that played out in this story.

Ten Seconds Til… by Braxton DeGarmo: A vigilante serial killer with a talent for using explosives… it might be tempting for the police to let this one keep going, but they can’t. And investigating makes them targets as well. I enjoyed the tone of this one, as well as trying to figure out the puzzle.

One Step Back, by Luana Ehrlich: Titus Ray is a US agent under cover in Iran, recruiting sources of information. Most thrillers like this are too intense for me, and I enjoyed being able to read this one. Titus is an interesting character, and I enjoyed watching him carry out his covert operation in such a different setting.

Undercut, by Heather Day Gilbert: Romantic suspense, where the heroine, Molly, reconnects with former crush Zane Boone, a PTSD-scarred ex-military sniper turned lumberjack. Zane is convinced someone’s stalking him. He’s very much in alert mode, and it shows in his reactions. It didn’t take long for Molly to impress me, and she certainly carries the heroine role with courage.

Burn Time, by Heather I. James: After serving time for an act of revenge she insists her former boss deserved, Charlie discovers she’s a target: the man thinks she stole something she doesn’t have. Strong narrative voice for the heroine, although this one was a bit too dark for me. I also found the FBI agent kind of goofy, and was surprised to find some minor bad language. Still, a good read.

Full Draw, by Robert Liparulo: Fantastic descriptions, sometimes with a nice dash of humour. Fast-paced, high action, international contemporary thriller blending human and immortal characters. This story lets the characters Hutch and Jagger, from two different Robert Liparulo series, meet, which I found fun.

Malicious Intent, by Jordyn Redwood: When people around mystery author Lexie Sloan start dying in methods straight out of her novels, she becomes the prime suspect. This story lets us meet detectives Brett Sawyer and Nathan Long in their first case together, before the start of Jordyn Redwood’s Bloodline Trilogy. They look like they could be an interesting team.

Zero Sum, by Jan Thompson: A high-tech cyber thriller, where a team of hackers have been involuntarily implanted with devices that can kill them – can Cayson Yang stay alive long enough to find someone to get the technology out of his head? I had trouble figuring out what was going on in this story, in part because I haven’t read the author’s other books to know who the people and organizations were. At the end I’m still not sure who did this to Cayson and his team, or how. Or who some of the players were.

This collection was definitely worth buying. I did find some stories had typos, but most didn’t. I’ve found some new-to-me authors to follow, and read new stories from authors I already enjoy. It’s a mix of straight-up thrillers and romantic suspense, and the variety is a good thing in a collection this long.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: You Are What You Love, by James K. A. Smith

You Are What You Love, by James K A SmithYou Are What You Love, by James K. A. Smith (Brazos Press, 2016)

This book is a call to “worship well. Because you are what you love. And you worship what you love. And you might not love what you think. Which raises an important question. Let’s dare to ask it.” [page xii]

With fresh, engaging language, the author explores the habits in our culture, in our lives, in our churches – especially churches which practice some form of liturgy. He points to the dichotomy between the way we intend to live, honouring to God and growing nearer to Him, and the way we often live instead, with habits and attitudes we don’t even know we’re carrying.

He asserts that we’re not just “thinking things” – we’re influenced by our desires and our loves. From that perspective, it’s vital that Christians identify what we most deeply value so that we can set our hearts on God. Calibrating our hearts to focus on God, James Smith says, takes practice. Habit is part of this practice.

For those in liturgical churches, a significant part of that practice is found in the creeds and prayers that have been unconsciously absorbed and now shape the believers’ worldviews. No matter what a believer’s background, the book encourages us to identify and evaluate the rituals in our lives and in our households, with a view to eliminating some and creating others that will lead to healthier and more worshipful spiritual lives.

I don’t come from a liturgical background, and I know that formality can often become rote and ignored, but this book helped me see more of the value of internalizing the tenets of Christianity through the creeds and prayers – and of course through Scripture memorization, which we can all work at on our own.

At a first read, I was disappointed, because the book called to a felt need in my life, to worship deeper and more truly, and I felt it raised the issue but didn’t give a solution. Discussion with friends helped me see that the solution is present all the way through the book instead of in a concluding summary like I had expected. Thus, it takes more work to find and apply, but that’s life. An author handing out a pat and easy, formulaic take-away would not be truly helping readers.

The take-away is this: a challenge to become aware of the influences on our hearts, and to take corrective action as necessary to develop new habits of the heart and spirit. In beginning to do this, I’m seeing small but healthy changes in my life, and I believe that new habits are forming.

If you’ve read You Are What You Love, take a look at the discussion questions, which include brief videos from the author as well as printed questions. I had already marked this as a book to re-read and allow to steep in my understanding, and this will definitely be an asset.

Award-winning author James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, Michigan. For more about the author and his work, visit jameskasmith.com. You Are What You Love received the 2017 Grace Irwin Award, Canada’s largest literary prize for a book written by a Christian author.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Undercut, by Heather Day Gilbert

Undercut, by Heather Day Gilbert | Hemlock Creek Suspense book 2Undercut, by Heather Day Gilbert (WoodHaven Press, 2017)

Her sister and brother used to follow their FBI father to the shooting range, but Molly McClure has always been different. She’d rather dress in pretty clothes and arrange her hair.

Truth told, she didn’t sound like my kind of character. But it didn’t take long for Molly to impress me, and she certainly carries the heroine role with courage. What I admire about Molly is that she knows what she wants, and instead of going to the extreme of either passive hinting or aggressive pressure, she takes an honest, direct approach.

This is a romantic suspense story, where Molly and PTSD-scarred ex-military sniper Zane Boone, now turned lumberjack, each carry a previous attraction to the other. When they meet again, she’s not pushy, but she’s sure not sitting back pining. She meets him as a confident equal, and while there are doubts, there’s not the angst we too often see.

The suspense comes because Zane is convinced someone’s stalking him. He’s very much in alert mode, and it shows in his reactions.

For a novella-length story (132 pages), Undercut packs a lot of action and emotional content. It’s book 2 in the Hemlock Creek Suspense series. Book 1 was Molly’s sister Katie’s story, so I assume book 3 will feature their brother, Brandon.

Undercut first released in the ebook box set, Kill Zone, and is now available on its own in print and digital formats.

Heather Day Gilbert always delivers a good read with strong characters, whether she’s writing about Vikings (God’s Daughter and Forest Child) or contemporary suspense (the Murder in the Mountains series and the Hemlock Creek Suspense series). For more about the author and her books, visit heatherdaygilbert.com.

[Review copy provided by the author.]