Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan

Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan (David C Cook, 2018)

I’ve read some impactful Christian nonfiction this year, but this book may be the most crucial.

Francis Chan writes here with a gentle, prayer-steeped tone, knowing some of what he has to say can sound hard and may be misused.

He actually pleads with readers not to use his words to berate leaders who may not be doing the best they could. And he confesses those times he’s been where some of those leaders may be. (He does warn readers who discover they’re in a church with false teaching to find a Bible-based church right away!)

So now you’re wondering what kind of book this is. It’s the result of the author’s study of what church looked like in the Book of Acts and what it looks like in other parts of the world today.

He challenges readers to “slow down long enough to marvel” [page 5] about Who God is and who we are in Him, advising, “don’t try to solve the mystery; just stare at it.” [page 7]

Chapters address wonder, pleasing God first, prayer, leadership, suffering, attitudes, and more. The focus is on simplifying, going back to the Gospel basics, and developing into an intimate capital-C Church family. The model is house churches, but it has plenty of insights and challenges that readers can apply in established building-based churches as well.

Favourite lines:

Remember it’s not about what I would like, what others would like, or what “works.” Church is for Him. [page 150]

My hope is that you will refuse to take the easy route. You need to care about His Church enough to fast and pray. You must believe you play a necessary role in the Church. [page 151]

One of the key takeaways is that each member of the church has a role to fulfill and that everyone working together is the church. The shepherds are to be training up other shepherds, not raising complacent sheep.

Francis Chan built and shepherded a megachurch in California before God called him and his family to missions in various parts of Asia. At the time of this book’s publication they were back in the United States, planting and growing house churches as part of wearechurch.com.

[Review copy from the public library.]

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Review: Fair Trade, by Heather Day Gilbert

Fair Trade, by Heather Day Gilbert (WoodHaven Press, 2020)

This third instalment in The Barks & Beans Café Mystery Series sees brother and sister co-owners Bo and Macy Hatfield on location at the West Virginia state fair with a booth for iced coffee, snacks, and a few of the shelter dogs who make up the “barks” side of the name.

This time, Macy reconnects with an old school friend, now a country music star, who’s in town for a couple of concerts at the fair. Macy enjoys the chance to see behind the scenes in the band, but when there’s an attempt on her friend’s life the rest of the band suddenly look like suspects.

The fairground atmosphere took me back to fun childhood memories of rides, food, and exhibits. Favourite line:

It was a curious concoction of popcorn, hot dogs, and caramel, mingled with the very human scent of something I could only describe as undiluted excitement.

[Kindle location 719, Macy describing the scent of the fair]

I found the psychology especially interesting in this story, and of course Coal the Great Dane is a treat. I like how he’s always featured on the covers. Waffles the clueless shelter dog is back, as well of course as the likeable siblings and their staff and friends. And there’s a surprise cameo appearance by someone fans will recognize from another Heather Day Gilbert series.

Another thing I appreciate about this series is the overarching plot threads that link the books. Not that a reader couldn’t start here and be happy, but continuity-wise it’s better to start at the beginning and watch it all unfold. Each story is complete on its own, but as well as developing relationships there’s the shadowy background villain who keeps inserting himself into Macy’s life.

Fair Trade is a quick, clean cozy mystery that may have you wishing for a chance to take in your own local fair.

Award-winning author Heather Day Gilbert writes cozy mysteries, suspense and romantic suspense, and Viking historicals. For more about the author and her books, visit heatherdaygilbert.com.

[Advance review copy provided by the author. My opinions are my own.]

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Review: Never Let Go, by Elizabeth Goddard

Never Let Go, by Elizabeth Goddard (Revell, 2019)

What a treat to find a new-to-me, established author with a book that could keep me reading past my bedtime.

This one engaged me to the point of trying to figure out the mystery myself when usually I just follow the characters along for the ride. Did I solve it? No, but I did guess the main villain before it was obvious to the characters!

Willow Anderson is a forensic genealogist who wants to honour her grandfather by taking the one last case he’d been investigating at his death. Even if that means working with her ex-boyfriend, Austin McKade.

The objective: solve an FBI cold case, a baby abducted from a hospital 20 years ago. Attempts on Willow’s life quickly make it clear that someone wants the case to stay unsolved.

The search takes them back to Austin’s hometown, unlocking the family secrets that had kept him from committing to Willow in the past.

I liked the writing, the characters, the faith elements, and the beautiful Wyoming scenery.

Favourite lines:

While death was no stranger to her, a courteous knock on the door to give warning this time would have been appreciated. [Kindle location 192]

Seeing her like this felt like a dull-bladed knife was cutting open his insides. [Kindle location 540]

Never Let Go is book 1 in the Uncommon Justice series, and I’ll definitely be reading the rest. Book 2, Always Look Twice, is Heath’s story (the second of the three McKade brothers). For more about Elizabeth Goddard and her work, visit elizabethgoddard.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: One Night in Tehran, by Luana Ehrlich

One Night in Tehran, by Luana Ehrlich (Luana Ehrlich, 2014)

When CIA covert operative Titus Ray is smuggled out of Iran after a failed mission, he’s placed on medical leave in an Oklahoma university town. Titus is confident and adept in the field, but civilian life leaves him twitchy and looking over his shoulder. Especially when he’s told there’s a skilled assassin on his trail.

What he doesn’t expect is to become involved in a local murder investigation that may be linked to the assassin—or to find himself romantically interested with the detective in charge.

Titus is a new convert to Christianity, thanks to his time in hiding in the home of some Iranian Christians. He’s still trying to figure out what his faith means in an occupation where lying and deceit are necessary tools of the trade.

Readers who want to begin the Titus Ray Thrillers series at the very beginning can start with the prequel, One Step Back.

One Night in Tehran is a clean thriller with minimal gore, told in a taut first-person narrative.

In addition to the Titus Ray Thrillers series, Luana Ehrlich has also started the Mylas Grey Mystery series.

For more about the author and her books, visit luanaehrlich.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Get Out of Your Head, by Jennie Allen

Get out of Your Head: Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts, by Jennie Allen

Get Out of Your Head, by Jennie Allen (Waterbrook, 2020)

Subtitle: “Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts”

In Get Out of Your Head, Jennie Allen declares that “The greatest spiritual battle of our generation is being fought between our ears.” [Chapter 1] The thrust of this book is that we have a choice to control out thoughts—even when it’s hard, repetitive work.

She’s quick to warn that we can’t “think our way out of mental illness.” But even there, learning to redirect our thoughts can work with the medication.

The principle of this book is that toxic thought spirals can be interrupted and redirected, and that they begin with wrong beliefs about God or with not internalizing what we know to be true about God. In offering strategies, she lays out some common lies, their opposing truth, a Scripture to hold onto, and a stated choice we can make. These choices make up a number of chapters.

The writing style is candid, informal, and personal, as if the author were speaking to an intimate group of listeners. She uses her own experience as the main source of examples, so readers know she’s lived what she’s teaching.

I came to the book after the Get Out of Your Head teaching series through Right Now Media, which I almost didn’t listen to. The opening anecdotes and peppy delivery were not what I relate to. I’m of a different generation, temperament, and have different interests. However, it didn’t take long to recognize helpful teaching. After listening to the full series, I found the book through my local library’s Hoopla app.

If negative emotions and toxic thoughts are familiar battlegrounds for you, or even if you feel like you’ve lost that fight a long time ago, Get Out of Your Head may be just the resource you need to regain mental ground.

I love how it focuses on truth about who God is and how it equips us to recognize the lie at the root of our feelings and then to choose to focus on the truth instead.

Jennie Allen’s website says she’s a “Bible teacher, author, and the founder and visionary of IF:gathering.” For more about the author and her ministry, and for a free “Get Out of Your Head Toolkit,” visit jennieallen.com.

[Review copy from the public library.]

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Review: Acceptable Risk, by Lynette Eason

Acceptable Risk, by Lynette Eason

Acceptable Risk, by Lynette Eason (Revell, 2020)

Captured in a Taliban raid on a girls’ school, American military journalist Sarah Denning is injured in a nick-of-time rescue mission. Not until she’s flown home to the US against her will does she learn that her high-ranking father has arranged to have her discharged as a suicide risk.

Sarah’s been fighting her father since her mother died, and she’s not about to give up now. But before she can prove herself fit for duty, she must heal from her wounds—and from the devastating loss of her brother.

Former Army Ranger Gavin Black, who led the rescue mission in Afghanistan, runs a security organization based in the US. Now Sarah’s father hires him to guard her—but if she finds out, she’ll refuse the protection out of spite.

And she needs the protection. Threats on her father’s life could extend to his family. Plus, Sarah is pushing for answers about a missing patient she encountered in the hospital—who staff deny was ever there.

Like book 1 in the series, Collateral Damage, this is romantic suspense where the violence and trauma of serving in Afghanistan follows the hero and heroine home to civilian life. Sarah and Gavin are strong people carrying PTSD and other wounds, needing time to heal but finding they’re still in danger in a conflict where they don’t know how to identify the enemy.

I like Sarah and Gavin, and the solid friendships they’ve developed with a small core of people they’ve served with in the past. And I like how Sarah, even when injured or overpowered, keeps her head and plays an active part in her own rescue. Gavin may be there to defend her, but there are times she defends him.

Acceptable Risk is Book 2 in the Danger Never Sleeps series. Book 3, Active Defense, releases in early 2021. For more about award-winning author Lynette Eason, visit lynetteeason.com.

[Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley. Opinions are my own.]

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Review: Calm Before the Storm, by Janice L. Dick

Calm Before the Storm, by Janice L. Dick (Tansy & Thistle Press, 2020)

Family dynamics, faith, coming-of-age, and gentle romance, all set in the turbulent days leading up to the Russian Revolution.

From a haven-like estate in Crimea to impoverished rooms on the wrong side of town in St. Petersburg, from starving soldiers near the front lines of World War 1 to a private hospital for the mentally ill, and with other settings along the way, Calm Before the Storm evokes 1914-1916 Russia as experienced by the Hildebrandt family and their friends.

The Hildebrandts are Russian Mennonites, people of German heritage whose ties to this land only go back a hundred or so years. As the poorer classes grow more desperate for political reform, hostility also brews toward these “German” Russians.

Katarina Hidebrandt is a young woman who sees the best in everyone, yet she must acknowledge the growing tension and the sense that life is about to change. As her family separates and the young teacher she loves is sent to serve in the hopeless war effort, she learns to rely on her faith and to make what difference she can in her world.

What could be a depressingly heavy tale is instead told with a careful touch, beautiful descriptions, and traces of humour. The characters are honest in their questions and their choices, and somehow despite the pain they find hope (most of them).

As well as providing a fascinating glimpse into this period of history, the novel resonates particularly well with the brooding uncertainty of 2020. Katarina’s struggles in the face of unwanted change and trouble can help readers who are feeling the same concerns even if our situations are different.

It’s not a preachy story, but Katarina’s and others’ examples of living out their faith give us clues we may take to heart. I feel a bit better-equipped to face my own doubts when they sneak up on me again.

Some favourite lines:

The Juschanlee River wandered westward over the Russian steppes, collecting little villages on its meandering way… (Chapter 1)

“The air is so clean and clear, like it’s been washed and left to dry in the sun.” (Johann, in Chapter 5)

“In political crises people cease to view others as people, and instead consider them merely a means toward an end or, in this case, an obstacle to a desired end.” (Heinrich, Chapter 6… timely, no?)

“Yesterday is gone, and tomorrow is in God’s hands. No regrets, no worries. I can put all my energies into this day.” (Katarina, Chapter 8, but this peace was not easily won)

Calm Before the Storm is book 1 in Janice L. Dick’s Storm series. Book 2, Eye of the Storm, is expected to release in December 2020. The series was originally published by Herald Press and is now out of print. I’m glad to see new editions being released in print and ebooks as part of The Mosaic Collection. For more about the author and her work, visit her website.

[Advance review copy provided by the author. My opinions are my own.]

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Review: Iced Over, by Heather Day Gilbert

Iced Over, Barks & Beans Cafe Mystery Series book 2, by Heather Day Gilbert

Iced Over, by Heather Day Gilbert (WoodHaven Press, 2020)

An accident on an icy road leaves one armoured car driver dead and the other in a coma—and a surprising amount of people looking for money stolen from the scene.

Macy Hatfield, co-owner of Barks & Beans with her brother Bo, discovers the injured man is uncle to one of their employees at the café and brother to one of her friends from church. Macy’s protective streak kicks in, and her curiosity isn’t far behind.

This is a light-hearted series, with no graphic scenes or profanity. The characters attend church, but that’s the only overt faith content you’ll see.

Being light doesn’t mean fluffy, though. While on the one hand we have Waffles, the adorable-but-clueless shelter dog who can’t behave, on the other we have teenaged Ethan (the injured man’s nephew) on regular dialysis and needing a kidney transplant. And we have stolen cash in West Virginia, but also international criminals with a wider agenda.

I enjoy being able to read mystery and suspense without getting tense or worried. The Barks & Beans series fits that bill nicely, and I like the characters—both human and animal. For the cat-lovers among us, Bo has a delightful kitten named Stormy.

Dog-wise, we have Coal, Macy’s Great Dane, and the various shelter dogs delivered to the café each day in hopes of finding a café patron who’ll adopt them. The food and drinks that come out of this café make it a place I’d definitely like to visit, and I’d like to visit with the dogs too.

Favourite lines:

Sometimes, in the empty spaces, it was almost like my heart was beating too loudly, shouting for someone else to hear it. [Macy thinking about living alone in a large house, Kindle location353]

I was about to raise his interest in buzzing off from Barks & Beans for good. “I understand,” I said, offering that honeyed smile of the South that meant you had another thing coming. [Macy again (the whole book is in her point of view), Kindle location 779]

Heather Day Gilbert writes cozy mysteries, romantic suspense, and Viking historical fiction, both clean mainstream and Christian. Iced Over is book 2 in The Barks and Beans Café Mystery Series. Book 3, Fair Trade, releases fall 2020. For more about the author and her work, visit heatherdaygilbert.com.

[Review copy provided by the author. My opinions are my own.]

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Review: Relative Silence, by Carrie Stuart Parks

Relative Silence, by Carrie Stuart Parks

Relative Silence, by Carrie Stuart Parks (Thomas Nelson, 2020)

When Piper Boone survives a shooting, the press label it the latest incident in her family’s curse. It’s true the Boones have seen more than their share of death, but all accidental.

To keep reporters away from the stranger who saved her life, Piper invites him to join her family on their private island. Tucker comes with secrets of his own, a tragic past that has led him to faith.

Piper’s life and losses have crippled her faith and left her broken. But as she begins to look at her family with fresh eyes and to suspect what’s unspoken, her strength surprises them all.

Favourite lines:

Does the presence of death etch into the face? A tightness around the mouth? Eyes narrowed, or worse, turning cold? [Kindle location 263]

I felt like someone had just dumped a second box of puzzle pieces into my partially finished jigsaw. [Kindle location 2205]

Set in an opulent South Carolina island getaway against the backdrop of an approaching hurricane, Relative Silence is a complexly-plotted novel of romantic suspense, family treachery, and second chances.

Visit carriestuartparks.com to learn about the author and her books.

[I received a complimentary copy of this book. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.]

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Review: Set the Stars Alight, by Amanda Dykes

Set the Stars Alight, by Amanda Dykes

Set the Stars Alight, by Amanda Dykes (Bethany House, 2020)

Lyrical, beautiful, heart-warming and satisfying, Set the Stars Alight is a must-read.

Page one welcomed me in like I was coming home.

Before I even reached that page, the dedication spoke to me—the part about wonder:

Hang on to it, brave ones.
And more—hang on to the Giver of it.
Though darkness may fall and times grow hard,
hold fast to this given light. [Kindle location 45]

Timely words for a hard year like 2020.

The novel follows two timelines: 1987 – 2020 and the 1800s during the Napoleonic wars, each revealing what’s needed to understand the other. It’s not choppy, switching timelines each chapter; instead, the story flows in segments with time enough to settle in place and care about the people involved.

In the contemporary thread, childhood friends Lucy and Dashel reunite as adults in a quest to locate a legendary shipwreck in the English Channel. The historical thread follows Frederick, a landowner’s son, and the young lovers Juliette and Elias.

Some of the many lines I highlighted in the book are sparks of light to hold close:

Taking note of the good, the true, the just, the miracles hidden at every turn is like…a deliberate act of defiance against the darkness. [Lucy’s father, Kindle location 431]

Such freedom, to know our limits. And to know the God who has none. [Clara, Kindle location 3347]

Others are just beautiful:

The woman had a way of almost gliding—not in the graceful, practiced way of the ladies of gothic novels, but rather more like an apparition gliding over ice. [Kindle location 1625]

Set the Stars Alight is a novel of love and loyalty, friendship and faith, that encourages wonder and affirms the value of everyday actions and individual lives. As an added bonus, readers who loved Amanda Dykes’ debut novel, Whose Waves These Are, will welcome the quiet nod to that book in chapter 25.

For more about author Amanda Dykes, visit amandadykes.com.

[Review copy provided by the publisher via #NetGalley.]

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