Category Archives: Reviews

Review: All That it Takes, by K.L. Ditmars

All That it Takes, by K.L. Ditmars (Shoaling Waters Press, 2021)

High tension from page one until the end. Even when Julia slows down to breathe and recover, author K.L. Ditmars has created frightening enough enemies that you feel them looming just off the page ready to overpower her.

When Julia’s husband is murdered in front of her, she only knows one safe place to run—to a homeless man living in the forest behind their home. The man, Charlie, is ex-military, carrying his own trauma from serving during the Rwandan genocide. And he’s not exactly homeless, or resourceless.

The human trafficking ring responsible for Julia’s husband’s death considers her a loose end—to be eliminated. She doesn’t dare approach the police, because the killers framed her for the murder. Threaded among Julia’s defensive plans and strategic actions and eventual investigation, we see glimpses of her enemies’ ruthlessness.

There’s a lot to like about this book: vibrant settings, courage, human kindness. And an Irish Wolfhound named Aengus. There’s also truth: about the ongoing scourge of human trafficking in Canada and the United States.

There’s also a strong thread of faith. Charlie combats his residual PTSD through prayer, finding comfort that God is with him in the darkness. His words point Julia toward trusting God and finding the help and strength she needs. Nothing is preachy, just a natural outflow of their time together.

Best thing I’m taking from this novel: “All is in Your hands.” This is Charlie’s prayer, which Julia takes for her own. It’s a simple enough prayer that any of us can add it into our lives.

This is the second Christian suspense novel I’ve read this year that includes profanity, and it’s a trend I don’t like to see. As with the faith talk, it seems to fit naturally in the dialogue, but I wouldn’t miss it if it weren’t there. If that’s a deal-breaker for you, be warned. If not, All That it Takes is a gripping read.

It’s one of those novels where the characters and their struggle stayed with me when I wasn’t reading. Favourite line:

Charlie… let the silence after her revelation sit between them like a cup of coffee needing to cool. [Chapter 10, ebook page 88]

All That it Takes is book 1 in the Where Can I Go? series. The sequel, coming later in 2021, will carry on Julia’s quest for justice. For more about Canadian author K.L. Ditmars, visit klditmarswriter.com. You can also read an interview she did with me here: interview-k-l-ditmars-canadian-author.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Tranquility Falls, by Davis Bunn

Tranquility Falls, by Davis Bunn (Kensington Books, 2020)

Daniel Riffkin has been sober for four years, carefully managing his life and limiting contact to his dog, a few close friends, and his AA meetings.

Now he finds himself sharing his home in Miramar Bay, California, with his teenage niece. And developing concern for Stella, a single mother who’s afraid she’s being framed for missing funds at her work. And hosting his best friends’ teen daughter to give them some breathing space.

Before he became a successful newscaster, Daniel trained in forensic accounting. He has the skills to help Stella. But as they begin to care for one another, can he risk failing her?

This is a feel-good, life-affirming, second-chance novel that speaks hope. As a Christian reader, I’d have loved to see it written to trace Daniel’s faith journey and how that impacts his changes and growth. However, the book is written for a general-market audience. Likely more readers will find it this way, and I hope it’s widely-read.

If you have an addict in your life (even yourself) or someone carrying deep regrets, Tranquility Falls offers a glimpse of hope that recovery and healing are possible. The author interviewed many people so he could portray Daniel’s struggles in a real and relatable way. In his closing acknowledgements, he writes, “This story is dedicated to everyone who taught me so much and granted me new reasons to hope.”

Addiction is only part of the story. There’s also identity, betrayal, grief, crime, Hollywood, legal drama, and beautiful scenery. And romance.

I really like Daniel. He’s honest in his struggles and he’s present in his conversations. Instead of serving easy answers, he knows he doesn’t have any. So he listens. Asks open-ended questions like he’s encountered in his years of counselling and recovery. Supports his friends with total attention.

Favourite lines:

Mornings like this, it was hard to believe the summer heat would ever arrive, as if the world told fables no one believed anymore… A San Francisco-style light drifted in gentle waves with the mist, a feather-like whisper of a world that remained just out of reach. [Chapter 10, page 2]

Readers familiar with the Miramar Bay series will recognize some characters from previous books, always a pleasant treat.

As well as crafting sweet, Hallmark-movie-like stories like these, internationally-bestselling author Davis Bunn also writes thrillers. And as Thomas Locke he writes science fiction and fantasy. For more about the author and his work, visit kensingtonbooks.com/pages/davis-bunn-books and tlocke.com.

[Review copy from the public library.]

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Review: Spilled Milk, by Heather Day Gilbert (Barks & Beans 4)

Spilled Milk, by Heather Day Gilbert (WoodHaven Press, 2021)

A feel-good cozy mystery!

The Barks & Beans Café—small-town Lewisville’s place to gather for fantastic coffee and the chance to mingle with (and perhaps adopt) lovable dogs from the nearby animal shelter.

In the middle of plans for the café’s one-year anniversary, Macy Hatfield’s brother and business partner, Bo, is called away for “one last duty” for his former drug enforcement boss.

Macy can handle this on her own, right? Her loyal staff members, and her friend Summer from the animal shelter, are on board to help.

Except her best barista is suddenly a murder suspect. And her ex-husband slithers into town. And Bo’s cat is a nightmare houseguest.

Readers familiar with the series know Macy has a helping heart. She has to support Kylie and clear her name despite the girl’s distant attitude. And despite the rebellious younger sister Kylie is supporting.

If you’re new to the series you can start here, but it’d be more fun to start at the beginning with No Filter. Each story is self-contained, although there’s a long-term plot thread as well as developing relationships.

I like the characters—human and animal—and the light-hearted vibe even though the body count is rising. This is a mystery I could read at bedtime, be fully engaged in the story, and not risk bad dreams. I don’t know if “feel-good mystery” is a genre, but the label fits for this one. I was smiling when I finished.  

The Barks & Beans novels are clean, mainstream cozy mysteries set in small-town West Virginia. Spilled Milk is book four. Up next will be Trouble Brewing.

Author Heather Day Gilbert writes cozy mysteries, romantic suspense, and Viking historicals. Check out her website for more information: heatherdaygilbert.com.

[Review copy provided by the publisher. I was not required to write a review, and my opinions are my own.]

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Review: Chasing Angels, by Karin Kaufman

Chasing Angels, by Karin Kaufman (2020)

Layered characters, vivid descriptions, twists and surprises, and solid Biblical truth in a spiritual warfare novel with some fully criminal humans as well. This book satisfied me as a reader and as a writer. Karin Kaufman started this new series off with a winner.

Teagan Doyle is chasing angels, desperate to find hope. Instead, she and her boss/mentor John Bergland (Berg) find demons. Sometimes. Often their paranormal investigations turn up wobbly pipes and other natural explanations for the things that freak out their clients.

But not this time. Their current case involves a former church whose new owners want to renovate into a bed and breakfast. Renovations have turned up a body walled up in the basement. The owners report flickering electricity, cold drafts, moving objects… and not one natural cause in sight.

Teagan and Berg don’t believe in ghosts and refuse to work with mediums or spiritists. They believe the God of the Bible. And in angels, both holy and fallen.

Part of what makes this book shine is their unlikely but perfect pairing. Teagan’s past is a string of unhappy endings, including washing out of police academy, infertility, and a cheating ex-husband. Berg is in his seventies, a retired minister, his movement restricted by severe arthritis.

The way Teagan describes Berg is how I feel about them both:

“I caught his past and his personality in snippets, quilting them together over time to form my idea of who he was.” [Kindle location 465]

Other favourite lines:

“If you cash in your chips because you think God can’t use a sinner, you don’t know your Bible.” [Kindle location 2870]

“You get to ask forgiveness for your serious lapse in judgement, believe God when he says he forgives, and then move on and do your job.” [Kindle location 2876]

Told from Teagan’s point of view, the writing is taut with a bit of a noir feel. I like the mix of human and supernatural villains, and I didn’t find it too scary (I did stick to reading during daylight!).

Despite being Christian fiction, the book has some minor profanity. If that’s an issue for you, be warned going in. I found it jarring but not enough to put me off the story. This is one series I hope to follow to the end.

Chasing Angels is book 1 in the Teagan Doyle Mystery Series. Book 2, Call of Chaos, will pick up right on its heels.

Karin Kaufman writes in a wide spectrum of fiction, from intense novels like this and the Anna Denning series to lighter-hearted cozy mysteries like the Juniper Grove series and Smithwell Fairies series to the Geraldine Woolkins children’s books. For more about the author and her work, visit karinkaufman.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Crazy About Maisie, by Janice L. Dick

Crazy About Maisie, by Janice L. Dick (Tansy & Thistle Press, 2021)

Happenstance… a small town off the beaten path, where second chances are free for all. Many who find their way through the covered bridge from the highway surprise themselves by deciding to stay.

In Maisie McDonald’s case, twelve years after she found a haven in Happenstance her past is trying to catch up with her. Not one but two suspicious strangers seem to be trying to link her to her former life in Seattle. And just when she needs him most, her husband is away for work.

Crazy About Maisie is book 2 in the Happenstance Chronicles series, gentle cozy mysteries without dead bodies. Readers familiar with book 1, The Road to Happenstance, will be happy to see the main cast again: the Misses Emmaline and Grayce at the Happenstance Hotel, Matt Sadler (who rode into town in book 1), Bear the mechanic, and more.

Cranky Morris Craddock is back, too, and it’s a treat to see his interactions with Matt and with newcomer Julia Freemont—ostensibly in town to renovate a disused shop into a new bistro. 

Happenstance is a town I’d love to visit, especially once the bistro’s up and running. The tea and baked goods sound amazing.

These are contemporary novels set in a small town that feels a bit out of step with our time… gentler, somehow, and a bit slower paced. There’s a touch of whimsy in the effect it has on visitors, and in the uncanny awareness the hotel’s cook, Johanna, has concerning when different people need a certain type of comfort food.

There’s a delightful hand-drawn map of town in the beginning of the book, and interspersed with the story are brief snippets from various longer-term residents telling how they arrived to stay.

Author Janice L. Dick also writes Russian Mennonite historical fiction. Historical or contemporary, her work includes a thread of faith that gives her characters hope. For more about the author, visit janicedick.com.

[I received a complimentary advance reader copy from the author with no obligation to review, and have also bought an official copy for my personal library.]

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Review: Dangerous Deceptions: A Christian Romantic Suspense Boxed Set Collection

Dangerous Deceptions: A Christian Romantic Suspense Boxed Set Collection (Various Authors)

This box set was a limited-time opportunity, but I believe the authors have now individually released their books. I’ll give you a list of all the titles and authors, and then share about my top picks.

The eight novels in this collection are:

  • Lethal Outbreak: Lisa Harris & Lynne Gentry
  • Collision Course: Elizabeth Goddard
  • Glimmer in the Darkness: Robin Patchen
  • Expired Plot: Lisa Phillips
  • Ice: Lynnette Bonner
  • Never A Traitor: Jan Thompson
  • Ben in Love: Luana Ehrlich
  • Liar Like Her: D.L. Wood

My top picks, in order of appearance:

Lethal Outbreak, by Lisa Harris & Lynne Gentry. I’d like to read the rest of this series, and Ghost Heart is already on my tablet. Interesting timing, reading about a potential global pandemic during COVID-19. I enjoyed the fast-paced international action.

Collision Course: Elizabeth Goddard. Art thefts, organized crime, and family secrets. It was interesting to read a main character with a traumatic brain injury and I enjoyed the teamwork between strong protagonists who needed to work together.

Ice: Lynnette Bonner. Beautiful setting. I read more for the suspense than the romance, but this hero gets bonus points for cooking a cheeseburger and fries as comfort food for the heroine. Some elements of this story had me nervous that it would get too intense, but it didn’t. Glad I kept reading.

Liar Like Her: D.L. Wood. A new-to-me author, and I really liked her voice. Favourite line: “What’s true about your past doesn’t have to be the truth of your future.”

I appreciated how each story’s “note from the author” at the end includes a teaser for the next story.

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Review: All the Devils are Here, by Louise Penny

All the Devils are Here, by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books / St. Martin’s Press, 2020)

Armand Gamache is one of my fictional heroes. As a homicide investigator he has seen more darkness than most, but he also believes that, to quote the author, “goodness exists.” Perhaps that’s why I’m so fond of him and comforted by his presence on the page. I’ve grown fond of the other recurring characters too.

This is the one series I’ve persisted in reading despite the profanity and the times when the darkness gets a little too grim for me. In their own ways they’re stories of hope. Of second chances, restored relationships. Light in the darkness.

The context of the title is the Shakespearean quote, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”

The Gamache novels are mysteries with a strong focus on the characters. This time, instead of the serene and peaceful Quebec village of Three Pines, All the Devils are Here is set in Paris. A reader who knows the city will find an extra bonus, as the author has gone to great lengths to familiarize herself with the subtle nuances that bring it to life on the page.

Another thing I appreciate about this book is the evocative language. Some of my favourite lines:

Where else would you find darkness but right up against the light? What greater triumph for evil than to ruin a garden? It wouldn’t be the first time. [Chapter 1, 1%]

What’re you going to focus on? What’s unfair, or all the wonderful things that happen? Both are true, both are real. Both need to be accepted. But which carries more weight with you? [Chapter 1, 2%]

Séverine Arbour stood at the door, her face set in a pleasant smile with a base note of smoky resentment and a hint of smug. [Chapter 2, 4%]

Until he saw the stain on the floor. And the outline of the body. Like skin around a hollow man. [Chapter 31, 63%]

All the Devils are Here is the 16th Gamache novel. This is a series you could start here, but it’s well worth beginning at the beginning. That way you’ll understand the character relationship nuances. For more about bestselling author Louise Penny, visit louisepenny.com.

[Electronic review copy from the public library.]

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Review: Murder on Birchardville Hill, by Ruth Buchanan

Murder on Birchardville Hill, by Ruth Buchanan (Harbourlight Books, 2017)

Crime podcaster Morgan Scott has a successful online career (complete with crazy stalker and an incarcerated murderer who has vowed revenge) but she doesn’t have many in-person friends.

Sitting home alone over the Christmas holidays would just give her time to brood about her enemies, so she decides to follow up on an old murder in a town so remote that it’s barely marked on the map: Birchardville, Pennsylvania.

Her life in Florida has not prepared her for winter with actual snow. And while Birchardville may be remote, danger still finds her there.

I liked the fact that Morgan is Asian-American (her birth name is Chen Meifeng). This doesn’t factor much into the story, but it’s nice to see a protagonist who’s not your standard Caucasian.

What does factor in is her independent, self-reliant, sometimes-funny personality. And as one Birchardville resident says, she’s “theologically sound.”

I enjoyed the author’s voice in this story, and will be looking for more of her books.

For more about Ruth Buchanan and her books, visit ruthbuchananauthor.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Eye of the Storm, by Janice L. Dick

Eye of the Storm, by Janice L. Dick (Tansy & Thistle Press, 2020)

During the turbulence of the Great War and the Russian Revolution, Eye of the Storm continues to follow the lives of the Hildebrandt family, Russian Mennonite landowners in an era of upheaval, and of Paul Gregorovich Tekanin, revolutionary and journalist.

Setting and circumstances unfold in sweeping historical saga style, giving readers a glimpse into the turmoil of Russia in 1917-1919. We see urban and pastoral, slum and estate, tragedy and hope… and the occasional flash of humour to keep the story from becoming too heavy.

Like the Amish in North America, the Mennonites’ faith teaches pacifism—a choice for which many have been persecuted or killed over the years. Here in this part of Russia where they’d been promised peaceful haven, some are now considering the desperate step of taking up arms to protect their families. Others press into the way of peace with the knowledge that it may cost their lives.

Favourite lines:

“Life is demanding. I believe when once one accepts the fact that it is so, one becomes much freer to make the best of it.” [Maria Hildebrandt’s grandmother, Chapter 2]

“No matter how insignificant or overwhelming our contributions may be, if we act in obedience to God and our conscience, we can make a difference.” [Johann Sudermann, Chapter 3]

The ideas were raw and unchewed, but Paul swallowed them whole, starved as he was for something to fill the enormous void in his life. [Chapter 14]

Reading this novel in the middle of the uncertainty of a global pandemic helped me draw courage from the Hildebrandts’ example. As they struggled to make sense in the darkness and to see their way forward, relying on their faith, I was reminded that for all that changes, much remains the same. Every generation faces difficulties, and somehow that perspective can give us hope.

Eye of the Storm is book 2 in Janice L. Dick’s Storm series, originally published by Herald Press and now re-releasing as part of The Mosaic Collection’s historical line. For more about the author, visit janicedick.com. For more about The Mosaic Collection, visit mosaiccollectionbooks.com.

[Advance review copy provided by the author.]

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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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