Category Archives: Fiction

Review: The Christmas Angel Project, by Melody Carlson

The Christmas Angel Project, by Melody CarlsonThe Christmas Angel Project, by Melody Carlson (Revell, 2016)

Abby Wentworth is the leader of a local book club, but more than that, she’s a significant influence in each member’s life. When she dies just after Thanksgiving, her four friends are devastated. They meet one last time and discover Abby has left them each a hand-made angel ornament.

What if each of them could follow Abby’s example of helping others? Could they overlook their own grief and make a difference?

The Christmas Angel Project is a feel-good novella that leaves readers thinking about planting hope in those around them. Objectively it’s too good to be true, but something about the season creates an appreciation for stories like this. And the characters are relatable people we can care about.

Because of its brevity, the story is told with more narration than I enjoy. “Showing instead of telling” would have made it a longer read and allowed a better emotional connection. The only disconnect I found is that none of the women make much effort to reach out to Abby’s husband, who has to be feeling her loss even more than they do.

Having said that, this is a pleasant seasonal read that can inspire us to look outward and make a difference in the world around us.

With over 200 books in print, Melody Carlson has a number of these quick Christmas reads, as well as novels for women, teens, tweens and kids. For more about the author and her books, visit melodycarlson.com.

[Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.]

Review: The Shattered Vigil, by Patrick W. Carr

The Shattered Vigil, by Patrick W. CarrThe Shattered Vigil, by Patrick W. Carr (Bethany House, 2016)

Willet Dura is one of the most interesting characters I’ve “met” in a long time. He may be insane, and he definitely has something nasty locked up in his mind that at times takes control of his actions. But as a reader, I’m on his side and I know he’s one of the good guys. Even though the other “good guys” in the Vigil don’t trust him.

He treats even the lowest with dignity and compassion, he fights for justice, and he loves God. In the world of this series, God is called Aer, and is a triune deity Christians will recognize. There are recognizable spiritual parallels between Willet’s world and ours, but readers of any (or no) faith can enjoy this epic fantasy series with its depth of characters, plot, and setting.

The series is dark in places and heartwarming in others. I did not expect the “aww” moment in this book. (It was a side note, really, but I won’t spoil it. Just watch for Willet to yell at Jeb.) On the other hand, I didn’t expect to be concerned about nightmares over something that happened later, even though it was “off-camera.” I trust the author enough to wait for the next book in the series to find out why he allowed it to happen.

Another thing to appreciate in these books is the occasional bits of humour. Bolt, Willet’s protector, has an endless supply of pithy one-liners that often bring a smile. My favourite from this book:

You look like something the cook should have thrown away.” [Kindle location 1428]

Point of view alternates between first person (Willet’s scenes) and third person for everyone else. The storytelling is immersive, the settings and world-building convincing and complex, and the characters compelling.

The Shattered Vigil is book 2 in The Darkwater Saga, and new readers are strongly urged to pick up the novella By Divine Right as a free ebook to introduce themselves to Willet and his world.

Patrick W. Carr has also written The Staff & The Sword series. For more about the author and his work, visit patrickwcarr.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Forest Child, by Heather Day Gilbert

Forest Child, by Heather Day GilbertForest Child, by Heather Day Gilbert (WoodHaven Press, 2016)

As Eirik the Red’s illegitimate daughter, Freydis has always fought for equality with her half-brothers. Her adventurous temperament and her father’s indulgence have shaped her into a fierce hunter and warrior and a skilled sailor.

Desperate to prove her worth and lay claim to the inheritance she believes should be hers, she has led a crew back to the New World to plunder its rich resources. When she meets tragedy and danger, she protects her family the only way she knows how – and carries the decision as an unconfessed burden she can share with no-one.

The story is set around AD 1000 and spans three parts: Vinland (the New World), Greenland, and Iceland. This is book two in the Vikings of the New World Saga, following God’s Daughter, the story of Freydis’ Christian sister-in-law, Gudrid.

You could read book two without having read book one, but not only would you miss a stellar read, you’d have less empathy for Freydis in Forest Child because you wouldn’t have as strong a sense of her past.

Except for the opening prologue, the story is told in the first person, present tense, by Freydis. This evokes a strong sense of place and a connection with Freydis, an impulsive woman whose actions are often misunderstood by those around her.

Readers see her thoughts and can trace her motives even in her most destructive choices. Understanding Freydis’ mindset (as a Viking but also as a strong woman afraid to depend on others or on God) is key to caring for her as the novel’s protagonist.

Freydis, as well as many of the other characters of this series, is based on a real historic figure. Much of the Vikings of the New World Saga draws on The Sagas of the Greenlanders, and so this fictional retelling of history has many predetermined events.

While the content is never gratuitous, the Vikings’ violence and pagan roots make these novels feel darker than what some might expect of Christian historical fiction. Forest Child is darker than God’s Daughter, because of the different natures of the protagonists, but both novels resolve with hope.

Forest Child contains a few violent scenes that timid readers may wish to skim. They’re written with all possible sensitivity, and since the author drew from actual events, they’re not optional to Freydis’ story. What they do is allow characters and readers to consider themes of family, vengeance, murder, faith, and redemption. Oddly, the decision Freydis makes which troubled me most (the one I really wanted to make her reconsider) is not found in these scenes.

These fierce, long-ago Vikings become people we connect with, despite the differences in cultures. Many of us know too well what it’s like to fight for respect or position, to fall outside what’s socially acceptable… and to fear the vulnerability that comes with trusting others. Many also know what Freydis needs to discover: God loves us no matter who or where we are, and His forgiveness changes everything.

Heather Day Gilbert took the building blocks of history and breathed life and relatable motivations into these characters. I wish I had time to read the original sagas to discover where fact and fiction meet.

The book ends with a family tree of the main characters, and a glossary of Viking terms and pronunciations.

Heather Day Gilbert also writes present-day suspense novels set in West Virginia. As well as drawing readers into richly-detailed settings and believable characters, her fiction explores the dynamics of marriage relationships and how faith can affect daily life. For more about the author and her work, visit heatherdaygilbert.com.

[Review copy provided by the author.]

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Review: Traces of Guilt, by Dee Henderson

Traces of Guilt, by Dee HendersonTraces of Guilt, by Dee Henderson (Bethany House, 2016)

Evie Blackwell has a different take on cold cases: the intervening years are a bonus, because they’re full of opportunities for the criminal to have left further clues to this and other crimes. Her approach is methodical and effective, and her time in Illinois’ Carin County is a test-run for a soon-to-be-announced cold case task force.

Her two assignments: an abducted child, and a missing family. The child belonged to a family who were passing through, but the family were local. In both cases, the locals are reluctant to revisit past pain if all it brings is more disappointment.

Long-time fans of Dee Henderson will recognize beloved characters from her previous works: Ann Silver and Paul Falcon. The Thane family sounds like they’ve appeared before, too. Everyone was new to me, and other than being a bit confused by the references to so many key people in the first chapter or two, I was fine.

One challenge about solving cold cases is that in the re-thinking and new investigating, multiple possibilities must be considered before the truth is found – if it can be found. These two cases bring up others, which may or may not be related and which may show up in future books in the series.

Although this is a romantic suspense series, for this first book those relationships are more in the cautiously-developing stages. That’s one benefit of a series: love doesn’t have to be instant.

Relationships are a key part of the novel – friendship and families more so than romance. This adds the heart to balance the mental, puzzle-solving aspects of the police work.

Traces of Guilt provides a twisting plot and deeply-drawn characters to care about, and it kept me turning pages. I did find that one character who appeared near the end seemed too coincidental in terms of age, and the key players have a jarring habit of referring to one another by name far too often, the way people do when they’re trying to sell you something.

This is the Evie Blackwell Cold Case series, but clearly the Carin County sheriff, Gabriel Thane, will be an ongoing connection no matter where Evie’s work takes her. All three Thane brothers make appealing romantic leads, and we may see more of the other two in future books as well.

Dee Henderson is a long-time favourite author in the Christian romantic suspense genre, and Traces of Guilt is sure to be well received. For more about the author and her books, visit www.deehenderson.com.

[Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.]

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Review: The Domino Effect, by Davis Bunn

The Domino Effect, by Davis BunnThe Domino Effect, by Davis Bunn (Bethany House, 2016)

Risk analysis. Esther Larson excels at it in her position with a major US financial institution. But if her personal projections are right, the global economy is teetering on the brink of disaster. There are too many high-level trades that skirt just past the safety restrictions.

The fear of economic disaster is something many North Americans live with, and The Domino Effect catches our imaginations with its horrifying “what if” that could conceivably play out in our  real-life near future.

As the plot builds and Esther risks revealing her fears, she moves from feeling afraid yet helpless and alone to choosing to do even the small amount she can – and finding out she’s not alone. That’s a message many readers will appreciate.

If financial thrillers don’t appeal to you, check this one out anyway. I confess I skimmed the technical details (although Esther does a good job of translating her concerns into everyday language) but this is a novel with heart.

Breaching her isolation brings Esther into contact with single dad Craig Wessex and his struggling daughters, Samantha and Abigail. Esther’s work with the girls helps her process her grief over her brother’s apparently-permanent injury as well as her childhood grief over her parents’ deaths.

This is also a novel with villains playing for high stakes. And it builds to a suitably tense conclusion. Numbers may be dry, but imminent disaster is most definitely not. The final pages of this one sent a chill across my scalp and some mist to my eyes.

Favourite lines:

Beneath his mild-mannered exterior beat the soul of a cautious assassin. [p. 88]

The sight was so jarring, the images did not want to fit together. [p. 196]

Davis Bunn has a reputation for accurate research, and he includes quotes from accredited sources endorsing the novel. A combination of plausible danger and characters worth caring about makes this a compelling read.

Davis Bunn is a multi-published, multi-award-winning author of Christian fiction. He also writes fantasy and science fiction as Thomas Locke. For more about the author and his books, visit sites.kensingtonbooks.com/DAVISBUNNBOOKS.

[Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.]

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Review: Frayed, by Kerry Nietz

Frayed, by Kerry NietzFrayed, by Kerry Nietz (Freeheads, 2016)

Fans of the DarkTrench saga will be pleased to return to that same, dystopian future Earth. New to these books and not sure what to think? The book that started it all, A Star Curiously Singing, is free on most ebook platforms.

Frayed is the start of the DarkTrench Shadow Series, with new characters. Chronologically it overlaps the last part of A Star Curiously Singing. (Now I want to go back and read that one for a refresher to what happened off-screen in this book.)

The protagonist, ThreadBare, is a debugger (human, implanted with a computer chip that lets him wirelessly interact with all the machines so he can fix them). Debuggers are essentially slaves. In this society built on a form of Islamic law, their one bonus is they’re guaranteed entry to paradise because their chips block them from sinning – and from any other behaviour their masters forbid.

Debuggers are gifted at asking questions, solving problems. But the questions ThreadBare starts asking could land him in serious pain.

Frayed is written in the first person, present tense, and that works for these books. It’s like ThreadBare is talking to you, the reader, streaming to you a real-time account of what’s happening. At least once he’ll even speak to you directly, calling you a freehead (because you have no implant).

As well as the DarkTrench books, Kerry Nietz has also written Amish Vampires in Space and Amish Zombies in Space. I haven’t read the zombie one, but the vampire one is a serious novel, not a joke like the titles imply. For more about the author and his books, visit nietz.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Thicker than Blood, by C.J. Darlington

Thicker than Blood, by C.J. DarlingtonThicker than Blood, by C.J. Darlington (Mountainview Books edition, 2015)

Christy’s life is a mess, and she has nowhere to turn. She walked out on her younger sister, May, after their parents died. That was years ago, and she couldn’t bear for May to see her now.

May still carries the grief of abandonment, and wonders what she did wrong. She thinks she’s forgiven Christy – until her wayward sister stumbles back into her life.

The story alternates between the two sisters’ points of view. Christy sees May offering unbelievable love and patience, while May reveals to her friends just how hard it is to give consistent acceptance to someone who seems so ungrateful.

There’s more to the story than that, of course. Christy’s job is on the line and she has an abusive ex. May’s about to lose her beloved farm to foreclosure. But it’s the relationships and the characters that drive the story.

I found this an honest look at the cost – and benefit – of unconditional love.

Thicker than Blood was originally published after winning the 2008 Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild Operation First Novel contest. It’s book 1 in the “Thicker than Blood” series, and it’s free as an ebook on most platforms. For more about author C.J. Darlington and her books, visit cjdarlington.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Out of Circulation, by Heather Day Gilbert

Out of Circulation, by Heather Day GilbertOut of Circulation, by Heather Day Gilbert (WoodHaven Press, 2016)

Katie McClure is the only one in her family who wanted to follow her father’s footsteps into the FBI. Instead, she works in the library in a rural Appalachian town and lives in an apartment that’s only steps away from her mother’s house.

When masked intruders invade the library with guns – and call Katie by name – her mother hires a handsome stranger to protect her. Ace Calhoun claims to be a freelance bodyguard, but he has ulterior motives for getting close to the McClure family.

Katie and Ace are appealing characters, even though Ace is deceptive. This is a novella, not a full-length novel, yet there’s time for character development, a budding relationship, and of course the mystery.

Out of Circulation is book one in Heather Day Gilbert’s new Hemlock Creek Suspense series. The McClure family is Katie, her sister and brother and their mother. Their father is dead. I hope the series will follow Katie, since I found her easiest to relate to. I’m also hoping her brother will move back home and resolve his resentment toward their father.

Heather Day Gilbert is also the author of the Murder in the Mountains contemporary suspense series and a Viking historical novel, God’s Daughter. For more about the author, visit http://heatherdaygilbert.com/.

[Review based on reading this novella in the romantic suspense collection, Smoke and Mirrors, from my personal library. Out of Circulation is now available as a stand-alone book.]

Review: Echoes, by Kristen Heitzmann

Echoes, by Kristen HeitzmannEchoes, by Kristen Heitzmann (Bethany House, 2007)

In this conclusion to the Michelli Family series, we follow Lance and Rese’s story (and their house full of family and friends) but the main plot introduces us to Lance’s sister, Sofie, and child protection worker Matt Hammond.

You could start with this book, but you’d miss the chance to know the characters better. I recommend starting with book 1, Secrets.

Echoes is perhaps the heaviest read in the series, because of the emotional abuse certain characters have suffered. As with the other books, we have flawed, human characters finding their way toward wholeness.

We also have the struggle to see God’s goodness while seeing the pain people cause. And we see an interesting example of intercessory prayer in Lance, who’s still trying not to mess up. Sometimes God burdens him to pray, and sometimes that prayer results in healings. But it’s never something he can initiate on his own, and he doesn’t want anyone saying anything about “his power” – he knows it’s not his, it’s God’s.

This series is the first I’ve read of Kristen Heitzmann’s fiction, but her website assures me there’s more where these stories came from. For more about the author and her work, visit kristenheitzmannbooks.com.

[Review copy from the public library.]

Review: Secrets of Sunbeams, by Valerie Comer

Secrets of Sunbeams, by Valerie Comer
Secrets of Sunbeams, by Valerie Comer (GreenWords Media, 2016)

Chickens… and a goat… in the city? Yup. Eden Andrusek discovered the bylaws in her Spokane neighbourhood allow such things, as long as the goat is a small one.

Pansy, the goat, is like family to Eden, who’s still grieving for her parents and sisters after a car crash five years ago. Pansy also gets her into trouble. Like when the little goat escapes the fence and chows down on the new neighbour’s architectural drawings. Is it any wonder the neighbour, Jacob, doesn’t want the goat around?

Eden and Jacob are drawn to one another, but will the goat drive them apart? If they truly love one another, why does each want the other to change?

Fans of Valerie Comer’s Farm Fresh Romance series will recognize a few characters in this, the first in her new Urban Farm Fresh Romance series. Secrets of Sunbeams has snappy dialogue, and characters trying to apply green lifestyles (and faith) to daily life.

The developing community centre and community garden will no doubt be a feature throughout the series. It’ll be interesting to vicariously participate in the different events, and maybe come away with an idea or two for our own lives.

Farm Fresh and Urban Farm Fresh are about characters who care about sustainable living in a way that is easy to read and doesn’t feel like they’re telling readers what to do. They give readers a chance to understand the creation care and Christian mindsets without expressing judgement on those who hold different views.

Because Secrets of Sunbeams is shorter than the Farm Fresh novels, most of the pages are focused on the romance and the “can Jacob love a goat” question. Still, there were hints of what’s to come with the community centre, a brief mission trip to Mozambique, and even a visit to Farm Fresh’s Green Acres farm.

If you’re looking for a light-hearted, inspiring romance, check out Secrets of Sunbeams. For more about award-winning author Valerie Comer and her books, visit valeriecomer.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]