Category Archives: Reviews

Picks from 2018

Goodreads tells me I’ve read 99 books in 2018. And that’s not counting Bible reading. Here are the books (and new-to-me music) that I’ve most enjoyed this year. Some were produced in 2018, some previously. Pop a note into the comments with your own favourites?

My top picks from 2018:

Book of the year: Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson (epic fantasy)

Christian living: The Dream of You, by Jo Saxton

Contemporary novel: Dear Mr. Knightley, by Katherine Reay

Fantasy novel: The Wounded Shadow, by Patrick W. Carr

Favourites revisited: The full “Cobra” series, all 9 books, by Timothy Zahn

Mystery/suspense novel: Guilty Blood, by Rick Acker

Science Fiction novel: Skyward, by Brandon Sanderson. Also notable: For Us Humans, by Steve Rzasa, Cold Welcome, by Elizabeth Moon, and Thrawn: Alliances, by Timothy Zahn

Series of the year: I’m liking the new Smithwell Fairies cozy mystery series from Karin Kaufman

Surprisingly fun: The Adventurer’s Guide to Successful Escapes, by Wade Albert White

Thriller:  Stealthy Steps, by Vikki Kestell (techno-thriller)

New-to-me songs that blessed me most: “Living Hope,” by Phil Wickham, “Who You Say I Am” by Hillsong Worship, and “You Say” by Lauren Daigle… And “Even If,” by Mercy Me. Wow.

Review: The Advent of Christmas, CD by Matt Maher

The Advent of Christmas, by Matt Maher

The Advent of Christmas, by Matt Maher (Essence Records, 2018)

This new Christmas album from Matt Maher mixes songs of worship with others that are just plain fun. Christmas, after all, is a time for both.

I love this album and would put it in my top three for Christmas. The musical styles are diverse, so don’t sample one or two tracks and think you have a feel for it all.

A bit about the songs:

  • “Gabriel’s Message” leads off, slow and haunting.
  • “He Shall Reign Forevermore” melds the traditional hymn “In the Bleak Midwinter” with a new chorus and tune. It’s beautiful, and you may be singing it in your church this season. One of my three favourites on this album.
  • “Born on that Day” is a new one, with a soft rock feel. It’s my new favourite Christmas song.
  • “Jingle Bells” has a jazz/swing feel in a Michael Bublé style. This is a song I usually ignore, but not this time!
  • “The First Noel” is another song I wouldn’t ordinarily pick, because usually it feels like it drags on and on… Not this time. A new chorus replaces the endless “Noel, Noel” and I like it. It’s slow, gentle, reflective.
  • “Hope for Everyone” has a simple rhythm and repetition that makes me think of a campfire song.
  • “Glory (Let there be Peace)” is the first to encourage us “do not be afraid”.
  • “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a song I always like, despite its minor key. This version includes a new chorus of hope and encouragement.
  • “Always Carry You” (featuring Amy Grant). Okay, this one’s going on my playlist year-round, and has become very special to me. It’s another “do not be afraid” song, reflective in nature, and although it comes from the perspective of Mary later in life looking back at Jesus’ birth, it’s a song worshippers can make our own.
  • “Love Came Down to Bethlehem” is meditative and reflective.
  • “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” has a new chorus and a driving beat. You may hear it on Christian radio.
  • “Little Merry Christmas” is straight-out kitchen party, complete with some clever lyrics. This one might get you dancing.
  • “When I Think of Christmas” ends the album on a softer, nostalgic note.

The Advent of Christmas is available for download through the usual stores, and as a physical cd as well. Every track carries its weight well and contributes to the whole, so don’t short-change yourself by only buying a few pieces.

Award-winning singer/songwriter Matt Maher has also released a children’s book with the same title. You can see more about the book here: goodreads.com/book/show/41785402-the-advent-of-christmas. For more about Matt Maher, visit mattmahermusic.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Deadly Noel, by Margaret Daley

Deadly Noel, by Margaret Daley | Christmas fiction, romantic suspenseDeadly Noel, by Margaret Daley (2015)

Assistant D.A. Kira Davis blames herself for the wrongful conviction of Gabriel Michaels in his wife’s murder. She was sure he was guilty, as were most members of the local law enforcement, but hindsight says she was wrong. Not that the police chief is willing to admit Gabriel is innocent.

Gabriel’s been released because the killing didn’t stop when he went to prison. Now he’s trying to rebuild life with his daughter and keep her out of his controlling mother-in-law’s clutches. He wants nothing to do with Kira, but when someone shoots at her on his property, his protective nature kicks in.

Kira and Gabriel team up to catch the killer before anyone else dies.

Deadly Noel is part of Margaret Daley’s Strong Women, Extraordinary Situations series, and it’s a tightly-woven romantic suspense set in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays.

Margaret Daley is a multi-published romantic suspense author. For more about her and her books, visit margaretdaley.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: The Incense Road, by Tracy Higley

The Incense Road by Tracy Higley | Christmas fiction, historical fiction, Christian fictionThe Incense Road, by Tracy Higley (StoneWater Press, 2015)

This ebook bundles Star of Wonder, Star of Night, and Royal Beauty into one, and it’s the best way to read the three novellas because they don’t stand alone well. Together, they form a sweeping and engaging historical tale of intrigue, romance, and spiritual warfare as a caravan of mages set out on a quest for a rumoured object of power, their way lit by a mysterious star.

The three central characters are Misha (a mage who rejects his Jewish heritage), Reza (a general who’d rather be a scholar), and Kamillah (an Egyptian princess sent to learn from the mages).

Their adventures drive them to trust one another and to discover truths about themselves – and about the true source of power.

I enjoyed the voice, the characters, and the pacing of the story, as well as the exotic setting.

The Incense Road collection takes place after the novel The Queen’s Handmaid, and some characters reappear. I hadn’t read the first novel and had no trouble following the plot.

Tracy Higley writes fiction set in the ancient past and has travelled extensively in her research. For more about the author and her books, or to check out her travel blog, visit tracyhigley.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: The Dream of You, by Jo Saxton

The Dream of You, by Jo SaxtonThe Dream of You, by Jo Saxton (WaterBrook, 2018)

This book’s subtitle invites women to “let go of broken identities and live the life you were made for” – and if that calls to something inside you, you’ll find practical insights that make it worth the time to read and reflect.

The Dream of You is more than a collection of verses telling women how God sees us, although it does include Scripture. It’s more than a list of self-help steps to empower us. Part memoir, plus examples from present-day and Bible times, it’s an honest, sometimes unsettling, look at the damage done by circumstances and people – and it tracks author Jo Saxton’s personal fight to reclaim her identity as the woman God made her to be, for the purpose He intended.

A Nigerian raised in England and now living in the United States, Jo Saxton has something to say to all of us about the need – and the possibility – of rediscovering our true identities in a world that wants to define and limit us. Reading her story and those of others in the book showed me how sheltered I’ve been. Still, I found key points to sit with and apply.

The title could imply a self-indulgent book, warm and fuzzy. Don’t expect that. Instead, this is a valuable tool that can make a significant difference. It presents truth and hope, and each chapter has simple questions to ponder and act on. If you skim them on a first read, go back and dig into them on a second read. Don’t miss what God wants to say to you.

The book begins with a look at God. Knowing who He is – and thus whose we are – is foundational. In turning from what life has made us believe, we need to know the truth to turn to.

Then it addresses some of the things we may need to turn from. More than other books I’ve seen, it’s very direct about this being a process. A sometimes difficult process, with wilderness times when we expect an easy victory. Because the wilderness times are teaching times that God will use for our ultimate growth.

I love how it illustrates the ongoing battle to wield the truth of God’s Word against the lies we’ve internalized. Again, we look for a one-swing cut, but if the chains are solid-forged and wrapped in layers, it will take time to make them fall. Jo Saxton shows us how to do that.

Another strength of the book is that it doesn’t end with free, happy women basking in fulfilling lives like Disney princesses. It ends with the call to take the stories we’ve lived – and the Good News about Jesus giving us our true identity –to share with the people around us. Like the original disciples, we’re on mission for the rest of our lives.

For more about speaker and author Jo Saxton and her ministry, visit josaxton.com. For more about The Dream of You, including the book trailer and sample first chapter, visit josaxton.com/the-dream-of-you.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: For Us Humans, by Steve Rzasa

For Us Humans, by Steve RzasaFor Us Humans, by Steve Rzasa (Enclave Publishing, 2018)

Fun and fast-paced, with snappy commentary from point-of-view character Caz Fortel, For Us Humans puts a science fiction spin on the classic mismatched detectives story, rife with nods to iconic science fiction shows.

Caz poses as an unprincipled art buyer to help the authorities catch art thieves and reclaim stolen art. Now he’s tapped to find a missing piece of alien art—and failure will not bode well for Earth.

He’s cocky enough to think he can do it on his own, but the powers-that-be pair him with a four-armed alien named Nil.

Fifteen years earlier, the aliens arrived. In Caz’s words, it wasn’t so much an invasion as a corporate takeover. The governments love having access to new technology, but the population resents the alien presence. Caz is no exception.

As well as the action plot of Caz and Nil chasing the missing sculpture and the subplot of their slowly-changing attitudes toward one another, the novel has a faith subplot I don’t remember seeing before.

Proof of alien existence triggered a worldwide crisis of faith. A minority of Christians still worship together, but most—including Caz—can’t reconcile aliens with their beliefs. Ironically, Nil claims his own culture has hints pointing to something special about Earth and God. That’s why he’s here.

Meanwhile, their assignment is about to get a whole lot more complicated.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. We need more science fiction like this. And the cover’s great.

Steve Rzasa writes both science fiction and fantasy. For more about the author and his books, visit steverzasa.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Stealthy Steps, by Vikki Kestell

Stealthy Steps, by Vikki Kestell Nanostealth Book 1Stealthy Steps, by Vikki Kestell (Faith-Filled Fiction, 2015)

Gemma Keyes tells readers her story in first person, as she writes an account of what happened one fateful day in her physicist friend’s secret lab. She’s funny, direct, and sometimes speaks directly to the reader.

She’ll tell you why she’s in hiding and who’s chasing her. She’ll explain enough of the nanotechnology (microscopic bits like computer chips, if I understand) but she’ll reassure you it’s okay if you don’t get it. She doesn’t get it, herself. She was simply the scientist’s assistant in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or in the right place at the right time, to keep his creation from being stolen by a corrupt general.

As well as being a fast-paced techno-thriller, delivered with strong, fresh description and the aforementioned humour, this is a story with heart and with a thread of faith. There’s more going on with the 10-year-old neighbour boy than Gemma wants to see and there’s a friendly pastor with a criminal past who could be more than a friend… if he wasn’t a Christian, and if Gemma’s life wasn’t in danger.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the rest of the series. The mix of heart, faith, and action made the characters real to me. And since the story’s set in present-day Albuquerque, it’s only the science that’s a stretch from the real world. Otherwise, it’s just a corrupt-military-official-out-to-destroy-innocent-civilian-with-a-secret story.

Vikki Kestell writes faith-filled fiction—the 4-book Nanostealth series and a number of historical novels. Stealthy Steps is free in ebook format from most online stores, and if this is your type of story, I heartily recommend it. For more about the author and her work, visit vikkikestell.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: When a Secret Kills, by Lynette Eason

When A Secret Kills, by Lynette EasonWhen a Secret Kills, by Lynette Eason (Revell, 2013)

Three friends, separated the night of their high school graduation. Alexia left town as planned, to escape her troubled home life. Serena went on to university. Jillian fled, terrified by something she’d witnessed—a secret that could still kill her ten years later.

In fact, the danger’s mounting. Her enemies have discovered her new identity. She can’t let them find out about her daughter.

Jillian returns to her hometown to find the evidence needed to convict a prominent citizen of murder. Finding that evidence will mean working with Colton Brady, nephew of the murderer. Colton is also her former boyfriend, hurt that she didn’t say goodbye, and unaware that he has a daughter.

This is another fast-paced read to complete the series, and it delivers some satisfying twists.

When a Secret Kills is book 3 in the Deadly Reunions series, and while each one can be read as a stand-alone, there are spoilers for the previous books so they’re best read in order.

Lynette Eason is a multi-published author and a trusted name in Christian suspense. For more about the author and her books, visit lynetteeason.com.

[Review copy from the public library.]

Review: Keeping Love Alive as Memories Fade, by Deborah Barr, Edward G. Shaw, and Gary Chapman

Keeping Love Alive as Memories Fade, by Deborah Barr, Edward G. Shaw, and Gary Chapman
Keeping Love Alive as Memories Fade, by Deborah Barr, Edward G. Shaw, and Gary Chapman (Northfield Publishing, 2016)

This book includes personal stories, practical information, and candid responses from people walking this “unchosen journey” with loved ones. It relies on input from studies and other key books on the subject of dementia and caregiving.

Don’t stop half-way through, daunted by the prospect of what Alzheimer’s can bring. Once the authors have given that grounding, they move on to share strategies, stories, and hope.

And don’t say we could never do what these care partners have chosen to do. Maybe we couldn’t, but we never truly know what we can do until we’re in a situation and we rely on God.

The authors contend that, like coma patients, persons with dementia hear more than they can respond to. Also, studies show their emotional reaction to a stimulus lasts after they’ve forgotten the cause. So do visit, do show love in ways they can receive.

In the call to choose to love unconditionally, I heard the same thing I hear from parents of handicapped children, about the role of loving becoming a gift.

Among the many books on the topic of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, this one focuses on applying the 5 Love Languages® for both the patient and the care partner. It includes a simple self-assessment of the reader’s own love languages, plus suggestions on how to assess the person with dementia if they’ve progressed to the point of being unable to comprehend it themselves.

The authors say, “We believe that the love languages are tools for gently lifting a corner of the dark curtain of dementia, making it possible to sustain an emotional connection with a memory-impaired person.” [p. 41]

Then they provide practical tips and examples of how to show love as cognitive ability fades, including ways to help the person with dementia feel useful. The authors also advise that in the mid- to advanced stages of the disease, care partners should use all five love languages because the person’s languages will change.

This is not a book advocating keeping Alzheimer’s sufferers home in the later stages, nor does it push putting them into care facilities. It’s an honest look at different case studies that recognize the uniqueness of each situation and the people in it.

The authors warn care partners not to do this alone, due to the health risks. It’s important to form a team—and the members who’ll choose to step up to help may not be those you’d expect.

They suggest early testing for dementia because some forms are treatable (eg. depression, brain tumours) and also because the testing can take time to reach a true diagnosis. This is especially true if more than one type of dementia is involved or if it’s one of the less common varieties. They note that personality change can be an early sign.

Keeping Love Alive as Memories Fade is an excellent resource equipping care partners to not only demonstrate love to persons with dementia but to also identify how to keep their own “love tank” filled. In that sense, I think it would be helpful for all types of caregivers as well.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: When a Heart Stops, by Lynette Eason

When a Heart Stops, by Lynette Eason. Deadly Reunions book 2. #Christianfiction #romanticsuspenseWhen a Heart Stops, by Lynette Eason (Revell, 2012)

Work becomes personal for Medical Examiner Serena Hopkins when she realizes the victims of a copycat serial killer are all members of her high school graduating class. Tension grows as the killer (or killers) seem to be stalking Serena herself.

Meanwhile, she’s also being targeted by someone who wants documents she’s been entrusted with by her friend Jillian, who vanished at graduation after witnessing something too terrifying to share with her friends.

Serena must work with the local police—and with high school crush, FBI agent Dominic Allen—to find clues to end this new string of deaths.

When a Heart Stops is book 2 in the Deadly Reunions series, and it’s another strong read. Because the crimes in this book are more disturbing (although not graphic), I found parts of it harder to read. As in book 1, When the Smoke Clears, this is a stand-alone novel that also points toward the mystery of why Jillian disappeared.

Lynette Eason is a multi-published author and a trusted name in Christian suspense. For more about the author and her books, visit lynetteeason.com.

[Review copy from the public library.]