Category Archives: Fiction

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.]

Review: Death of a Dead Man, by Karin Kaufman

Death of a Dead Man, Juniper Grove Mysteries book 1, by Karin KaufmanDeath of a Dead Man, by Karin Kaufman (2017)

Colorado native Rachel Stowe has fled a stressful job in Boston to return to her home state, specifically to the endearing small town of Juniper Grove, where the few square blocks that make up downtown are a four-minute drive from her home. She can live simply and write more mystery novels.

Rachel is single, in her forties, and has a fondness for casual attire and cream puffs. I like her a lot.

She doesn’t have it all together, but she’s made some good friends here and she’s not one to back down from a challenge. Like helping clear her neighbour Julia’s name from the local paper’s mud-slinging.

Julia’s husband has finally been declared legally dead after he robbed a bank and went missing seven years ago. Most people think he drowned with his partner. But some, like the paper’s editor, suggest Julia knows something about the missing money.

When the dead man turns up freshly-dead in Rachel’s back yard, she’s more motivated than ever to find the truth.

This is the start of a fun series. The books are short, the delivery is snappy, and there’s even an attractive police chief that Rachel butts heads with so regularly that you just know there’s a relationship coming here eventually.

An abundance of clues and details kept me guessing until the end. I’ll definitely be reading more of this series.

My favourite line, which both describes Julia and says something about Rachel herself:

Most of the time Julia had a grandmotherly air about her, and I liked that, but every now and then she transformed into someone you did not want to mess with. I liked that too. [Page 27]

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

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Grace in Strange Disguise, by Christine Dillon

Grace in Strange Disguise, by Christine DillonGrace in Strange Disguise, by Christine Dillon (2017)

Esther Macdonald is diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer at age 28 – shortly before her wedding. Her fiancé doesn’t know how to handle it, and he’s too busy with his own reactions to take an interest in supporting her.

Her father’s even worse. He’s the polished pastor of the second-largest church in Sydney, Australia, and this is not in his script. When prayer doesn’t heal Esther, he blames her for harbouring sin or doubt.

Her mother is a more supportive, but having lived in the shadow of Esther’s father for so long, she doesn’t dare offer much in the way of original thought.

Help comes from an outspoken cleaning lady at the hospital, who overhears Esther’s frustration with God for not healing her. This lady, Joy, dares to suggest that asking in faith isn’t the only ingredient in a miracle.

Determined to prove her wrong, Esther searches in her Bible for the examples Joy gave. Reading more than her father’s sound-bites of Scripture opens her eyes to the context of his “victory” verses.

Joy becomes Esther’s mentor and friend, and shares Bible events with her through storytelling and simple, thought-provoking questions.

At this point you may be thinking “too preachy for me” and that the novel would read like a sermon. Not so – yes, faith and Scriptural themes are part of the plot, but it’s all driven by Esther’s situation and her need for answers.

Nothing is forced or dry. Instead, it’s one of those stories that kept me thinking about the characters when I wasn’t reading.

Esther is easy to care about, even in the beginning when she’s not operating from a place of truth. Readers see for themselves the flaws and blind spots in the characters and in the excuses Esther habitually makes for them until she begins to change.

Esther’s health crisis and the resulting fallout in her family make her a character we can care about, and seeing her learn to stand up for herself and apply truth to her life is encouraging. What’s heart-warming is to see her begin to share what she’s found with others. Non-Christians won’t get that part, but Christians will be inspired to look for more opportunities to share with the people around them.

The medical details have been carefully researched, and they’re sparingly revealed as Esther needs to know them. No information dumps here. The story is set in 1995, so some things will have changed in the real world. The only thing I was surprised not to see included was discussion of a prosthesis or reconstructive surgery after Esther’s mastectomy. Even if that’s not something that her body would have yet been ready for, she’d likely have asked. Side note: in Australia, radiation treatment is called radiotherapy. I like that much better – sounds less frightening.

Although the novel’s focus is relationships, another bonus is its setting. While most scenes take place inside, there are a few ventures into Australia’s gorgeous outdoors. I don’t expect to ever get there, so the virtual visit was a treat.

Favourite lines:

She might feel full of cracks but somehow her learned patters of behaviour were holding her together. Like a broken egg bound with string. [Kindle location 705]

The habit would have to be fought. It wouldn’t just roll over and die. [Kindle location 2187]

Christine Dillon has previously published the non-fiction books 1-2-1 Discipleship and Telling the Gospel Through Story, but Grace in Strange Disguise is her first novel. It doesn’t read like a first novel, and I hope we won’t have too long a wait for the next book in the series, Grace in the Shadows.

For more about the author, her books, and her Bible storytelling ministry, visit storytellerchristine.com. You’ll also find discussion questions for her novel.

[Review copy provided by the author.]

Review: Kill Zone: 10 Deadly Thrillers

Kill Zone: 10 Deadly Thrillers | Christian fiction, thrillers, romantic suspense, novellas, box setKill Zone: Ten Deadly Thrillers, by Rick Acker, Christy Barritt, Patricia Bradley, Braxton DeGarmo, Luana Ehrlich, Heather Day Gilbert, Heather I. James, Robert Liparulo, Jordyn Redwood, and Jan Thompson (Georgia Press, 2017)

This is a powerhouse anthology with some seriously-acclaimed contributors, both traditionally- and indie-published. Of the 10 authors, I had previously read novels by Christy Barritt, Braxton DeGarmo, Patricia Bradley, and Heather Day Gilbert. And most of the rest were on my “to read” list. So I knew the collection was a safe bet.

Story by story, my thoughts:

Secrets, by Rick Acker: This a new-to-me author, and I’m glad to see he has a number of other books out. Very much a positive find, for me. Secrets is a high-stakes, high-tech international thriller that raises some disturbing possibilities. I enjoyed the voice, pacing, details… and the fact that it could be tense without scaring me. Special mention goes to Kevin, the autistic computer whiz. I love seeing characters who aren’t “ordinary” portrayed strongly in fiction. First on my Rick Acker to-read list will be another Kevin story.

The Wrecking, by Christy Barritt: When a serial killer returns to terrorize a small town, he pleads for help from the one woman he released. Personal and fast-paced romantic suspense, and what I liked best was the heroine’s determination not to let her past destroy her, and the story’s focus on sensory details.

Revenge, by Patricia Bradley: Romantic suspense that’s a sequel to Justice Delayed. It doesn’t give away the suspense plot for the novel, but you’ll know how the romance worked out. The heroine has a prescription drug addiction, and I don’t often see that kind of struggle in a protagonist. It was interesting to see how that played out in this story.

Ten Seconds Til… by Braxton DeGarmo: A vigilante serial killer with a talent for using explosives… it might be tempting for the police to let this one keep going, but they can’t. And investigating makes them targets as well. I enjoyed the tone of this one, as well as trying to figure out the puzzle.

One Step Back, by Luana Ehrlich: Titus Ray is a US agent under cover in Iran, recruiting sources of information. Most thrillers like this are too intense for me, and I enjoyed being able to read this one. Titus is an interesting character, and I enjoyed watching him carry out his covert operation in such a different setting.

Undercut, by Heather Day Gilbert: Romantic suspense, where the heroine, Molly, reconnects with former crush Zane Boone, a PTSD-scarred ex-military sniper turned lumberjack. Zane is convinced someone’s stalking him. He’s very much in alert mode, and it shows in his reactions. It didn’t take long for Molly to impress me, and she certainly carries the heroine role with courage.

Burn Time, by Heather I. James: After serving time for an act of revenge she insists her former boss deserved, Charlie discovers she’s a target: the man thinks she stole something she doesn’t have. Strong narrative voice for the heroine, although this one was a bit too dark for me. I also found the FBI agent kind of goofy, and was surprised to find some minor bad language. Still, a good read.

Full Draw, by Robert Liparulo: Fantastic descriptions, sometimes with a nice dash of humour. Fast-paced, high action, international contemporary thriller blending human and immortal characters. This story lets the characters Hutch and Jagger, from two different Robert Liparulo series, meet, which I found fun.

Malicious Intent, by Jordyn Redwood: When people around mystery author Lexie Sloan start dying in methods straight out of her novels, she becomes the prime suspect. This story lets us meet detectives Brett Sawyer and Nathan Long in their first case together, before the start of Jordyn Redwood’s Bloodline Trilogy. They look like they could be an interesting team.

Zero Sum, by Jan Thompson: A high-tech cyber thriller, where a team of hackers have been involuntarily implanted with devices that can kill them – can Cayson Yang stay alive long enough to find someone to get the technology out of his head? I had trouble figuring out what was going on in this story, in part because I haven’t read the author’s other books to know who the people and organizations were. At the end I’m still not sure who did this to Cayson and his team, or how. Or who some of the players were.

This collection was definitely worth buying. I did find some stories had typos, but most didn’t. I’ve found some new-to-me authors to follow, and read new stories from authors I already enjoy. It’s a mix of straight-up thrillers and romantic suspense, and the variety is a good thing in a collection this long.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Undercut, by Heather Day Gilbert

Undercut, by Heather Day Gilbert | Hemlock Creek Suspense book 2Undercut, by Heather Day Gilbert (WoodHaven Press, 2017)

Her sister and brother used to follow their FBI father to the shooting range, but Molly McClure has always been different. She’d rather dress in pretty clothes and arrange her hair.

Truth told, she didn’t sound like my kind of character. But it didn’t take long for Molly to impress me, and she certainly carries the heroine role with courage. What I admire about Molly is that she knows what she wants, and instead of going to the extreme of either passive hinting or aggressive pressure, she takes an honest, direct approach.

This is a romantic suspense story, where Molly and PTSD-scarred ex-military sniper Zane Boone, now turned lumberjack, each carry a previous attraction to the other. When they meet again, she’s not pushy, but she’s sure not sitting back pining. She meets him as a confident equal, and while there are doubts, there’s not the angst we too often see.

The suspense comes because Zane is convinced someone’s stalking him. He’s very much in alert mode, and it shows in his reactions.

For a novella-length story (132 pages), Undercut packs a lot of action and emotional content. It’s book 2 in the Hemlock Creek Suspense series. Book 1 was Molly’s sister Katie’s story, so I assume book 3 will feature their brother, Brandon.

Undercut first released in the ebook box set, Kill Zone, and is now available on its own in print and digital formats.

Heather Day Gilbert always delivers a good read with strong characters, whether she’s writing about Vikings (God’s Daughter and Forest Child) or contemporary suspense (the Murder in the Mountains series and the Hemlock Creek Suspense series). For more about the author and her books, visit heatherdaygilbert.com.

[Review copy provided by the author.]

Review: Almost Sleighed, by Emily James

Almost Sleighed, by Emily James

Almost Sleighed, by Emily James (Stronghold Books, 2017)

Nicole Fitzhenry-Dawes is beginning to learn the intricacies of running the maple syrup business she inherited from her Uncle Stan. When one of her employees is attacked and the police won’t investigate, Nicole decides it’s her responsibility to find the truth.

She’s still avoiding her favourite co-sleuth, Mark, and changes at the police station mean she needs to avoid her friend there, Eric. Help comes from an unlikely source, and it’s good to see Nicole find another friend in town.

It’s also good to see the misunderstanding between Nicole and Mark finally resolved. Then the question becomes, will they survive long enough to begin a relationship?

Almost Sleighed is book 3 in the Maple Syrup Mysteries (not counting the prequel Sapped), and it’s my favourite so far. It’s complex, with some funny lines and plenty of well-turned phrases.

I’m definitely enjoying this series from Emily James. At the moment there are seven books plus the prequel (free for signing up for the author’s newsletter). For more about the author and her books, visit authoremilyjames.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Another Stab at Life, by Anita Higman

Another Stab at Life, by Anita HigmanAnother Stab at Life, by Anita Higman (Forget Me Not Romances, 2011)

Bailey Walker is in desperate need of a fresh start, but the decaying old mansion left to her by her beloved grandmother is not what she had in mind. Still, she’s plucky and determined, with a sense of humour and nowhere else to go.

Along with the house, she’s challenged by neighbours who want to be her friends. Bailey’s rules for life tell her to be independent and not rely on anyone, but when it seems like someone’s trying to scare her out of her inheritance, she starts rethinking the value of isolation.

I liked the humour in the book, and the way it didn’t take itself too seriously. There are questions about the house that aren’t answered, but peeking at the summaries of the next two books suggests that everything will be wrapped up by the end.

Writing-wise, there is an issue with past/present tense. The story’s told in the past tense, but every so often there’s a slip.

Favourite lines (the first one shows the tone, but also the past/present issue, and the second made me chortle out loud):

This is a really old building but I can make it a home. Somehow. Eventually. But why was there always a prologue to every story in my life? [Kindle location 61]

The tellers at the bank had to call the head honchos down from upstairs so they could burble and stare like marmosets. [Kindle location 606]

Another Stab at Life is book 1 in the Volstead Manor series of cozy mysteries. It’s a light read (with a few tense moments). This isn’t the strongest book I’ve read this year, but it’s good fun and I look forward to finishing the rest of the series. I like Bailey and her mysterious house.

Anita Higman is the author or co-author of over 40 novels, present and historical, romantic and mystery, and even some young adult fiction. Another Stab at Life also comes in the ebook bundle, The Volstead Manor Series. For more about the author and her work, visit anitahigman.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Bushwhacked, by Emily James

Bushwhacked, by Emily JamesBushwhacked, by Emily James (Stronghold Books, 2016)

It’s official. Nicole Fitzhenry-Dawes is moving to Sugarwood and learning the ropes of maple syrup making. Except before she even arrives, she’s pulled into another murder investigation. At least this time the police agree it’s foul play.

With the dubious blessing of interim Police Chief Erik Higgins, Nicole goes undercover at the local animal shelter to look for clues.

Erik, who she dated briefly last time she was in town, starts acting distant, and Mark, the county medical examiner, is friendlier toward her than a married man should be.

The mystery is cleverly plotted and executed, with some delightful imagery, and the characters are fun to read. I found this one slower to get into than the previous books, until the action sped up part-way through. Nicole missed a couple of key things that were obvious to me, and I’m not a reader who likes to feel smarter than the characters.

My biggest issue with her, though, is Mark. He’s too nice a guy to be two-timing on his perpetually-absent wife, and as a reader, I don’t have the patience to watch a character angst for a whole book over something so easily solved with a single conversation. Especially when it started in the previous book and was already wearing thin because the answer seems obvious to me (maybe I’m wrong… I’ll find out in the next book).

Despite that, Nicole is funny and quirky. As well as figuring out the human relationships in her life, she needs to decide what she thinks about her uncle’s faith. For now, in crisis, she talks to “Uncle Stan’s God.”

Favourite lines:

My mind felt a bit like a chalkboard wiped clean with a dirty brush. I couldn’t quite make the words that should be there come into focus. [Kindle location 1649]

She chuckled, but it sounded like a cardboard cutout of what laughter should be. [Kindle location 1724]

So far, each book comes with a recipe, and this time it’s maple cookies. I tried it, and they’re very tasty. I look forward to the next book, Almost Sleighed.

To find out more about author Emily James and the Maple Syrup Mysteries, or to sign up for your free ebook copy of the prequel, Sapped, visit authoremilyjames.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Shadow of Tunguska, by H.C. Beckerr

Shadow of Tunguska, by H.C. Beckerr #bookreview Hill of Great Darkness seriesShadow of Tunguska, by H.C. Beckerr (Archway Publishing, 2017)

Shadow of Tunguska is book 2, “The Final Chapters,” of the Hill of Great Darkness series, and because it’s closely linked to the events of book 1, Hill of Great Darkness, I believe they’re best read in order.

The series is set on Earth, the moon, and in space, in the not-so-distant future. Ugandan scientist Simone Sytte finds herself in the middle of a highly secret military operation on the moon, one that conflicts sharply with her Christian faith.

At the same time, in Russia, a covert team of Americans explores macabre findings at the Tunguska event site—findings that link it with an archaeological site in the US. While I’m not conversant with the theories around the Tunguska event, I suspect this one’s a new twist on it.

This is a book for people who enjoy high-stakes science fiction adventure with high-tech equipment. It’s told in an omniscient style that explains multiple characters’ motivations and reactions in a given scene, which won’t work for all readers.

Although primarily an adventure story, the novel looks at what it’s like for a Christian caught in circumstances she wants no part of, learning “to be light in the darkness around her.” [page 79]

Favourite line:

At that instant, the forest became as silent as deep space, and three men leaned toward an old man, like children who were examining their first firefly.” [page 78]

H.C. Beckerr writes Christian science fiction, or “Chri-fi,” as he calls it. For more about his novels, or to check out his blog, visit shadowoftunguska.com. You can read my interview with H.C. Beckerr here.

[Review copy provided by the author.]

Review: Fault Lines, by Thomas Locke

Fault Lines, by Thomas Locke. Prequel novel to the Fault Lines series. #technothriller #cleanreadsFault Lines, by Thomas Locke (Revell, 2017)

In which book 3 is book 1… Fault Lines, the newest release in the techno-thriller series of the same name, fits first in the series chronology. If you’ve read Double Edge, the free ebook prequel, you’ll recognize the first four chapters of Fault Lines, but the rest is all new, expanding on what the prequel set in place, and a highly recommended read.

If you’ve read the previous books, grab this one. If you’re new to the series, dive in here. It’s fast-paced, a great read, and it’s clean. Although Revell is a publisher of Christian fiction, this book has only faint references to faith and would suit readers of all backgrounds.

This is the story of Charlie Hazard, a “risk containment specialist” whose life is upended when a strange and beautiful woman implores him to help her with a mysterious – and dangerous – mission.

Charlie is my favourite type of hero: a strong, competent character who’s over his head but readers know that somehow he’ll find a way to beat the odds. He draws together a team who will need to do the impossible.

The technology at the core of the series doesn’t exist yet, but with the events rooted in the present (or very near future) I hesitate to call it science fiction.

As always, the author’s choice of words and phrases adds an extra layer of enjoyment to the story. Here’s an example:

Every now and then she would stop talking and touch her tongue to her lips, as though she wanted to taste a certain word, as though another thought was crowding into her mouth. [Reese, page 58]

And my favourite line, because of the nod to the film, Casablanca:

“You think I would drive to Como for the waters, perhaps? For my health?” [Edoardo, page 244]

Fault Lines is a great read, and now I want to re-read the next book in the series, Trial Run.

Thomas Locke is the pen name of the prolific and award-winning Davis Bunn, who incorporates a stronger faith thread in the books under his own name. For more about the author and his books, visit tlocke.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.]