Category Archives: Reviews

My Vertical Neighborhood, by Lynda MacGibbon

My Vertical Neighborhood, by Lynda MacGibbon (InterVarsity Press, 2021)

“When I asked God why I ought to love my neighbors, he sent them, one by one, to answer the question.” [Chapter 17, page 6 in chapter]

Subtitled “How Strangers Became a Community,” My Vertical Neighborhood is a memoir of one Christian’s quest to build friendships and discover practical ways to love the others around her. Instead of diving into activities in her new church, the author wanted to connect with her literal neighbours.

Not surprisingly, the other residents in her Toronto high-rise weren’t overly receptive at first. It took time, prayer, persistence, and God’s provision of a friend to move into the same building and share the efforts. Perhaps also not surprisingly, the relationships began to grow over food.

This isn’t a “neighbourhood evangelism” book. It’s a memoir of intentional relationship-building and developing not just friendship but love among the diverse inhabitants of the building.

Key quote:

“Jesus says loving God, self, and neighbor is foundational to everything else. If we don’t understand and practice these conjoined commandments, it will be harder to obey the rest.” [Chapter 2, page 5 in chapter]

I found the book to be an interesting read. And while I don’t feel any sense of call to push myself as far out of my comfort zone as the author did, I’m pleased that it’s left me more aware of the need to intentionally take the opportunities that come my way. We can all learn to listen more, ask better questions, and take time with the people around us.

I can’t end this review without a shout-out to the cover. Where most encounters revolved around food, aren’t the vertical images of dinner plates and elevator buttons brilliant?

Canadian author Lynda MacGibbon is a former journalist, now working with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. For more about the author and her work, visit lyndamacgibbon.com.

[Digital review copy from the public library. This book is available to borrow through Hoopla Digital.]

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Review: A Siege of Bitterns, by Steve Burrows

A Siege of Bitterns, by Steve Burrows (Dundurn Press, 2014)

It’s always a treat to find a new series I like, and when the books are from a Canadian author it feels like an extra bonus. Enter the Birder Murder Mystery series, recommended to me by a birder friend some time ago.

Inspector Domenic Lejeune is too good at his job. So he sticks with policing when he’d rather be hiking across marsh and cliff in search of rare birds. A Canadian serving in the UK police force, he can at least enjoy the location of his new posting. Norfolk is prime birding country.

He only has to overcome the distrust of his fellow officers while solving a high-profile murder case. On the plus side, the deceased was an avid birder. Minus side: the birding community doesn’t trust him any more than his new co-workers do.

Nicely plotted, with a broad cast of characters and complications, A Siege of Bitterns is a satisfying read. It’s one of those omniscient point of view books that drops into multiple heads in the same scene, which always confuses me a bit. Maybe because of the omniscience, it feels like more of a thinking, or puzzle, sort of story instead of a heart one. My brain appreciated that. I’ll definitely be reading more in the series. 

Favourite line:

It was meant to be a smile, but Maik got some sense of the last sight a swimmer might see when a Great White Shark approached. [page 81]

Book 1 in the Birder Murder Mystery series, A Siege of Bitterns received the 2015 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. You can find Canadian author Steve Burrows here: abirdermurder.com.

[Review copy from the public library. I read the print version, but the digital version is available to libraries through Hoopla Digital.]

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Review: Psalms 365, volume 1, by David Kitz

Psalms 365: Develop a Life of  Worship and Prayer, volume 1, by David Kitz (Elk Lake Publishing, 2020)

With Psalms 365, author and storyteller David Kitz provides short, practical, and personal daily devotions from the beloved Book of Psalms. I’ve found it to be a valuable addition to my day.

Each reading points to a psalm, drawing on a key verse for the day’s focus. There’s a conversational-style reflection on the passage and a prayer of response. Then to encourage readers to deepen a lifestyle of worship and prayer each devotional concludes with a question to think about and to perhaps take into personal conversation with God.

Anyone familiar with the psalms knows that some are songs of worship, some of lament, others of repentance or even anger. Not always easy topics to draw an inspirational message from! David Kitz mines treasure from each one.

Volume 1 of Psalms 365 begins at Psalm 1 and goes to the end of Psalm 51. Volume 2 is also available, covering the next section, and volume 3 is still to come.

Excerpts from the Psalms 365 series can be found on the author’s blog, I Love the Psalms. On the blog he includes photos, which aren’t part of the books. Award-winning author David Kitz is also a Bible dramatist, conference speaker, and ordained minister. For more about him and his books, visit davidkitz.ca.

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

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Review: Crisis Shot, by Janice Cantore

Crisis Shot, by Janice Cantore (Tyndale, 2017)

Tess O’Rourke has a single goal: to rise through the Long Beach police ranks to captain in honour of her father, a cop killed in the line of duty. But when she shoots an unarmed young offender to protect another officer, a police-hating blogger turns public sentiment against her to the point that her presence on the force endangers her fellow officers.

Tess takes the one job she can find, chief of a small station in Oregon. As she struggles to gain the locals’ trust and build connections with her subordinates, she’s faced with the disappearance of one of the few friends she’s made in this new town.

Crisis Shot has satisfying characters and conflicts, a complicated plot, and twists I didn’t see coming. I thought we could have done with less back story (the first eight chapters, “Part 1,” which show what happened in Long Beach and her struggle to stay, could have been referred to off-page as back story and provided separately to fans wanting more).

What I liked most was the spiritual tension between Tess and the local pastor. Oliver and his wife, Anna, have faced personal and congregational pain over the years. He trusts God, even when he doesn’t understand. Tess gave up on God years ago because she can’t understand why He would allow her father to be killed. Yet when Oliver faces heartbreak, Tess has words of hope from her own life. As this series progresses, it’ll be interesting to see how these two grow in friendship.

Favourite line:

“The tension there was thicker than a hard copy of the California penal code.” [Kindle edition, page 40]

In a time when the news is filled with situations where certain police officers have conducted themselves with prejudice, brutality, and corruption, this book is a vital reminder that most law enforcement officers are dedicated men and women of integrity who regularly put their lives in harm’s way to protect the vulnerable.

Crisis Shot is book 1 in The Line of Duty series, followed by book 2, Lethal Target. Author Janice Cantore has a background in law enforcement, giving a depth of authenticity to her fictional officers’ interactions and issues. For more about the author and her work, visit janicecantore.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Under the Cloud, by Violet Nesdoly

Under the Cloud, by Violet Nesdoly (SparrowSong Press, 2020)

What would it be like to be a young girl growing to womanhood in ancient Israel during the wilderness years? With the excitement of the Exodus behind you and the Promised Land not as immediate as everyone had hoped?

Under the Cloud is Zamri’s story. Instead of dreaming of marriage, Zamri longs to become a leader like Moses’ sister, Miriam. She is, however, a daughter in a time when parents are to be obeyed—even when they arrange their daughter’s marriage.

Follow Zamri from girlhood to middle age, and see how she discovers herself able to lead in a very different way than she’d hoped as a child.

I confess when I think of the biblical account Israel’s liberation from Egypt and trek to the Promised Land I don’t have much sympathy—or patience—with their continued doubt. After all, they had the visible Presence of God with them, by day and by night. They saw the Red Sea part, after witnessing all the plagues in Egypt. Yet they grumbled, they disobeyed, and an entire generation ended up dying in the wilderness because of it.

Reading this novel helped me understand some of the fears and influences that make it believable that this rescued people would behave as they did. The faithful knew it wasn’t right, but there would have been many who were still sorting out what it meant to belong exclusively to this One True God.

Under the Cloud is the sequel to Destiny’s Hands, which told the story of Bezalel, a gifted craftsman commissioned by God to craft the holy Tent of Meeting. Zamri is his younger sister. The ending of book two leaves room for a third instalment.

As well as writing biblical fiction, Violet Nesdoly is a poet, artist, and book reviewer. For more about the author and her work, visit violetnesdoly.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Poison Bay, by Belinda Pollard

Poison Bay, by Belinda Pollard (Small Blue Dog Publishing, 2014)

Ten years after their high school graduation—and the public suicide of one of their number—a group of friends reunite for a gruelling hike through the wilds of New Zealand. But at least one of them has an ulterior motive.

It may be that none of them will survive.

Magnificent setting, complex characters, plot twists: this is a book that’s hard to put down. The landscape is fantastic—and deadly.

While Callie and Jack try to figure out what’s really happening and to get their friends to safety, readers also see one of the parents and the local police chief as they try to mount a search and rescue campaign.

Favourite lines:

“Lightning sheeted overhead every few seconds, its flash freeze-framing the water in yet another brutal contortion.” [Kindle edition, page 36]

“The white-capped peak loomed far overhead on the right, a stream of snow flicking off its top like a flyaway fringe.” [Kindle edition, page 252]

This is Christian fiction with a very subtle faith thread. Jack is the only character with a personal faith, and he’s very honest about the struggle he has with wrong attitudes toward some of the others. [I want to leave that vague to avoid spoilers.]

Poison Bay is book 1 in the Wild Crimes series, to be followed by Venom Reef. For more about author-editor-speaker Belinda Pollard, visit belindapollard.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Grace Beneath the Frost, by Christine Dillon

Grace Beneath the Frost, by Christine Dillon (Links in the Chain Press, 2021)

Christine Dillon’s Grace series began with Esther, a young Australian woman who received a cancer diagnosis that devastated her faith, her family, and her future. Through the course of that novel, Grace in Strange Disguise, Esther discovered a deeper faith that sustained her through her cancer journey.

Dr. Paul Webster was her cancer specialist, and despite her repeated challenges to consider faith he kept aloof. I had a secret hope that one day we’d be able to read his story, and now it’s available.

Meet the cancer surgeon who lost his wife and family in the climb to success, who never knew his father, and who allowed a patient named Esther to get under his guard and into his heart despite his strict rules to the contrary.

Watch him start a “sceptics club” to read the Gospel of Luke so he can say he’s honoured Esther’s request. Watch him try to navigate the world of parenting his teens. Enjoy a bit of breathtaking Australian scenery along the way, including the Snowy Mountains and Great Barrier Reef.

Fans of the Grace series know it’s not a spoiler to expect Paul to find his way to faith. That’s what these books are about for the main character. What I appreciated in this one was being able to follow him in his stumbling attempts to learn to pray. They encouraged my own prayers and suggested a few new approaches I may incorporate.

Grace Beneath the Frost is book 5 in the Grace series, but it takes place chronologically between books 2 and 3. From the ending of this book, I take hope that there may be a Grace 6 in the works.

If you’re new to the series you can easily start here with book 5, although it does have spoilers for books 1 and 2. Each novel is available independently, and there is also an ebook box set collection of books 1-3. Discussion guides for each book are available on the author’s website.

To learn about author Christine Dillon and her writing, both fiction and nonfiction, visit storytellerchristine.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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.

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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