Category Archives: Fiction

Review: Dear Mr. Knightley, by Katherine Reay

Dear Mr. Knightley, by Katherine ReayDear Mr. Knightley, by Katherine Reay (Thomas Nelson, 2013)

Samantha Moore relates better to the characters in her favourite books than she does to the real people around her. Fired from her job for not “engaging,” she seizes one last chance: a master’s degree in journalism, funded by a mysterious benefactor.

The condition of the funding: she must write to “Mr. George Knightley” and keep him updated about her studies.

So begins a delightful story told through her letters and the occasional reply. It’s the story of Sam learning to let go of the walls she’s put up to protect herself, and discovering who she is.

It’s not as light and fluffy as the cover suggests. Sam’s past is very painful, and her struggle for identity can take hold of readers’ thoughts and not let go. There’s a lot of heart in this book.

It’s also well crafted and funny in places, laced with quotes from Jane Austen and other classics, and Katherine Reay adds plenty of quotable lines, herself, in Sam’s somewhat stream-of-consciousness delivery. Some of my favourites:

(Sam describing her new apartment) And it’s yellow. The way pale yellow should look, like sunshine and butter, mixed with hope and cream. [p. 73]

There are first moments when the eyes tell one’s real emotions, before the brain reminds them to bank and hide. [p. 176]

You can always talk more deeply when running because it feels safe. You can’t directly look at the person next to you. And you can’t hide much in so few clothes and so much sweat. Exhaustion also addles your inhibitions. [p. 232-233]

This is Christian fiction where the faith is subtle. There are Christians around Sam, but she doesn’t notice their gentle attempts to share “crumbs” of faith with her until about half-way through the book. She admires the love she sees in them, but she’s not convinced it would apply to her as well.

Dear Mr. Knightley is a heart-warming first novel from Katherine Reay, and it received multiple awards. For more about this and the author’s other novels, visit katherinereay.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Plummet, by Brandilyn Collins

Plummet, by Brandilyn Collins #Christianfiction #suspensePlummet, by Brandilyn Collins (Challow Press, 2017)

Have you ever done the unthinkable for your child? Have you ever thought how far you’d go to save your son or daughter? [Kindle location 371]

Cara Westling is newly single, thanks to her abusive ex’s abandonment. A new job in a new town should let her and her 13-year-old daughter start a new life – but her boss forces her to help him cover up a death, and then the cover-ups continue.

He’s a man of influence. She knows no-one. If he blames her for the woman’s death, who would believe he’s the one responsible? Worse, who would care for her daughter?

Plummet is the newest Seatbelt Suspense® from Brandilyn Collins, and it’s a fast-paced, intense read.

Cara’s vulnerability, and her daughter Riley’s experiences with cyberbullying, increase the psychological tension, as do Cara’s occasional questions asking what we, the readers, would do in her place. Plummet is a book I didn’t want to read at bedtime or if I was feeling a bit vulnerable, myself. I’m glad I found the courage to finish it, though.

For more about award-winning author Brandilyn Collins and her books, visit brandilyncollins.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Crossover, by John C. Dalglish

Crossover: The Chaser Chronicles book 1, by John C. DalglishCrossover, by John C. Dalglish (2013)

A private investigator discovers that God has bigger – and more dangerous – plans for him. His first clue is a hulking man who attacks him and threatens to kill him if he accepts a coming call to service. Then a second unusual visitor shows up at his office, essentially to tell him a calling is coming.

Crossover is book 1 in the Chaser Chronicles, a Christian-supernatural series which the author says up-front is not meant as a theological interpretation of the moments between life and death.

Although set in present-day Earth, the premise of the story is that some people, in the process of dying, are sufficiently motivated to turn back from the light and do more business among the living. Except the living can’t see them until they’ve lingered long enough to regain corporeal form.

Whether they’re resisting death to warn loved ones that God is real, to pass on another message, or to exact revenge, it’s the role of Chasers to stop them – and to either convince or force them to “cross over.”

The problem is, if one of these “runners” stays in the world too long, he/she becomes strong enough to be dangerous. Like Harbinger, the runner who confronts Jack in the beginning. Harbinger has killed Chasers before, and he wants to do it again.

Crossover is a light-hearted action adventure, and Jack is a wisecracking hero whose heart’s in the right place. There’s not a lot of depth to the characters, but that’s not the point of the story. This one’s for those times when you want something fun, fast, and at least a bit funny.

John C. Dalglish is also the author of the Detective Jason Strong series and the City Murders series. There are six books in The Chaser Chronicles, and I see on his website that they’re available as an ebook bundle. For more about the author and his work, visit jcdalglish.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Death of a Scavenger, by Karin Kaufman

Death of a Scavenger, by Karin KaufmanDeath of a Scavenger, by Karin Kaufman (2017)

Juniper Grove, Colorado, is a small town, but newcomer Rachel Stowe is about to find her second dead body, only a month after the first one turned up in her back yard.

At least this one’s on someone else’s property.

In the middle of the town’s annual Halloween scavenger hunt (complete with fake corpse) a second, real corpse is found – and it’s hard to find anyone other than Rachel who doesn’t have a motive.

Again, Rachel and her friends Julia and Holly team up to solve the mystery. It’s not that Rachel thinks Police Chief Gilroy is incompetent. Far from it. She’s just afraid he’s looking in the wrong places.

Death of a Scavenger is book two in the Juniper Grove mystery series, and it’s good to spend more time with these characters… and to vicariously enjoy the cream puffs from Holly’s bakery.

My favourite addition to the cast of characters is Gina, a grey-dreadlocked lady with mobility issues who lives in a brightly-painted house.

Clues and diversions abound, along with more conflict with the ever-patient Chief Gilroy, and again Rachel plays a key part in solving the mystery.

The Juniper Grove novels are short, quick reads. They’re clean and not too intense – perfect for those times when you don’t want anything too heavy. That said, the characters always leave you with something to think about, even if it’s just the challenge to be kinder to someone who’s marginalized like Gina.

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

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Christmas With Hot Apple Cider

Christmas With Hot Apple Cider: Stories from the season of giving and receivingChristmas With Hot Apple Cider (That’s Life! Communications, 2017)

This anthology of true-life stories, fiction, and poetry from 55 Canadian Christian writers is a strong addition to the Hot Apple Cider series.

Memories from the past include tales of Canadian childhood from those born in Canada and children of immigrants making new homes in sometimes-challenging circumstances. Vignettes from the present include what Christmas might be like for the incarcerated, and Christmas celebrations with grandchildren. Short stories include a man who’s decided to live off the grid and a young woman who befriends an immigrant.

The Hot Apple Cider series are heart-warming collections along the line of the Chicken Soup books, but less sentimental. They’re all from Christian authors, but they’re not sermons. Instead, the writers’ faith is the worldview from which they draw their work.

Christmas With Hot Apple Cider is the fifth and newest book in the series, joining three full-length books and the mini-book, A Taste of Hot Apple Cider. I think it’s a keeper, that readers will turn to year after year as part of settling into the Christmas spirit. For more about the other books in the Hot Apple Cider series, visit thatslifecommunications.com/hot-apple-cider-books. For more about Christmas With Hot Apple Cider, visit njlindquist.com/books/christmas-with-hot-apple-cider.

[Review from my personal library]

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.]