Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Puzzle House, by Lillian Duncan

Puzzle House, A Novel of Healing and Hope, by Lillian Duncan

Puzzle House, by Lillian Duncan (Harbourlight Books, 2017)

Nia is a 15-year-old cancer patient whose doctors say there’s nothing more they can do. When her aunt drops her off at the Puzzle House, she’s angry and sick—and full of skepticism at the notion of God wanting to do anything good for her.

Over the course of a week’s stay, visitors are to complete a jigsaw puzzle boxed without a photo of the finished image. As Nia works on her puzzle and slowly warms to the other occupants of the house, her hostess, Rachel, shares her own story of the healing gift she received years earlier.

Puzzle House is a heart-warming novel about brokenness and healing—and how the healing doesn’t always look like we want it to. In places the dialogue feels a little stiff (never with Nia in the scene!) but it’s a feel-good read and it touches on some common themes.

I found this particularly relatable:

Guilt pressed on her. It wasn’t about her. It was about God. But it was so easy to forget that. Especially since she’d done such a spectacular job of humiliating herself. [chapter 8]

Lillian Duncan is better known for her suspense novels, but Puzzle House is a book from her heart. She has personal experience with the rare brain tumours Rachel lives with. For more about the author and her books, visit her Goodreads page.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Outbreak, by Davis Bunn

Outbreak, a novel by Davis Bunn

Outbreak, by Davis Bunn (Bethany House Publishers, 2019)

Epidemic? Plague? Whatever’s killing whole villages on Africa’s western coast seems connected to the changing sea currents and prevailing winds. Winds which, come hurricane season, will blow toward North America.

It’s not just certain African governments who want to keep this a secret at all costs. Someone in the US has enough power to bring the courts and the FBI—and a high-priced assassin—against the small team of Americans racing to develop a cure.

From the African continent to North America, Outbreak moves at Davis Bunn’s breakneck pace, immersing readers in danger and suspense while investing us in the lives of the main characters. The unlikely heroes are Theo Bishop, an economics professor and business-owner, Della Haverty, a journalist who’s infiltrated Bishop’s brother’s company with ulterior motives, and Avery Madison, a brilliant biologist catapulted out of his lab and into a danger zone.

A clean international thriller with threads of romance and faith, Outbreak is plausible enough to be frightening. In that sense, it reminds me of The Domino Effect, also by Davis Bunn (except where Outbreak deals with an environmental/medical risk, The Domino Effect is economic).

Davis Bunn is an incredibly prolific writer whose fiction spans multiple genres. He also writes as Thomas Locke. For more about the author and his work, visit DAVISBUNNBOOKS or see his page on Goodreads.

[Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.]

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Review: The Baggage Handler, by David Rawlings

The Baggage Handler, a novel, by David Rawlings

The Baggage Handler, by David Rawlings (Thomas Nelson, 2019)

Three people under pressure. Three identical black-with-red-tags suitcases. One airport baggage carousel.

Here’s the official description:

When three people take the wrong suitcase from baggage claim, their lives change forever. 

A hothead businessman coming to the city for a showdown meeting to save his job.

A mother of three hoping to survive the days at her sister’s house before her niece’s wedding.

And a young artist pursuing his father’s dream so he can keep his own alive.

When David, Gillian, and Michael each take the wrong suitcase from baggage claim, the airline directs them to retrieve their bags at a mysterious facility in a deserted part of the city. There they meet the enigmatic Baggage Handler, who shows them there is more in their baggage than what they have packed, and carrying it with them is slowing them down in ways they can’t imagine. And they must deal with it before they can leave.

In this modern-day parable about the burdens that weigh us down, David Rawlings issues an inspiring invitation to lighten the load.


[via the Thomas Nelson website]

My thoughts:

This gift-book-sized hardcover novel is an engaging read that’s sure to keep readers thinking long after they’ve reached the end. Most of us will relate to one of the three situations, and likely we’ll recognize a few people other than ourselves. If we can come away from the story inspired to “hand over” some of our personal baggage, we’ve gained more than the pleasure of a good tale.

Chapters alternate between David, Gillian, and Michael as they follow the same path of attempting to retrieve their baggage and discovering what’s weighing them down. Because of the parable-like nature of the story, the ending can’t be as happy as I’d like, but it’s a satisfying ending.

The book is published by Thomas Nelson, a Christian publisher, and written by a Christian author, but the message and worldview is subtle. Who exactly is The Baggage Handler? An angel? Jesus? Because it’s not stated, this is a book that can also cross into the hands of non-faith readers who also have baggage to unload.

The Baggage Handler is an excellent debut novel from Australian author David Rawlings. Look for his next release, The Camera Never Lies, in December 2019. For more about the author and his work, visit davidrawlings.com.au.

[Review copy from the public library.]

Review: The Enoch Effect, by Rick Acker

The Enoch Effect, by Rick Acker

The Enoch Effect, by Rick Acker (Waterfall Press, 2017)

A research scientist is dead, his lab destroyed by fire. Two lawyers on opposing sides of a multi-million-dollar insurance claim must work together to find the truth of what really happened—with the help of a computer genius hacker and a private detective.

Because of the nature of Dr. Rhodes’ research, what starts as a legal thriller quickly moves into biomedical or science fiction territory, with a side-dish of action-adventure and a splash of romance.

The Enoch Effect is fast-paced, clean, and thought-provoking as the characters begin to wrestle with the ethics of what they discover about the scientist’s work. (I can’t elaborate without spoilers.) In the wrestling we see they’re realistic people no more likely to have easy answers than we readers do.

I’ve read a few of Rick Acker’s novels now and have another one in my to-read stash. As well as enjoying the stories, I appreciate his notes at the end separating the fiction from the facts and offering more information for the curious.

For more about the author and his work, visit rickacker.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Romeo’s Rules, by James Scott Bell

Romeo's Rules, A Mike Romeo Thriller by James Scott Bell

Romeo’s Rules, by James Scott Bell (Compendium Press, 2015)

Mike Romeo is an former cage fighter trying to stay off the radar in Los Angeles—until he comes to the rescue of an attractive woman whose children are missing after a church bombing. Helping Natalia gains him some powerful—and violent—enemies, but Mike is not one to back down.

This is a noir-feel thriller, fairly clean but so violent in a couple of places that I skipped some pages. That said, it’s written with a pleasing dry humour. And Mike and his wheelchair-bound Rabbi friend Ira (a former Mossad agent) are seriously impressive in their skill sets.

Although this is a mainstream novel, the author’s Christian worldview comes through in a few places, never in a preachy way. The hero, Mike, is prone to highly intellectual philosophizing—often right before he has to lay somebody out. And violent as he can be toward criminals, he’s outspoken against domestic abuse.

Romeo’s Rules is the first in the Mike Romeo Thriller series. At the half-way mark (the bit I skipped) I thought it’d be the only one I could read, but after that scene it was manageable and I hope to read book 2, Romeo’s Way.

James Scott Bell also writes legal thrillers (including a few with zombie lawyers) and he’s a respected author of books on the craft of fiction writing. For more about the author and his work, visit jamesscottbell.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Exile, by Rachel Starr Thomson

Exile: The Oneness Cycle, by Rachel Starr Thomson

Exile, by Rachel Starr Thomson (Little Dozen Press, 2013)

On a stormy sea, fishing buddies Tyler and Chris discover a young woman in their net. As if that’s not startling enough, once she’s dry and recovering in their cottage, they hear a window break and rush to find her holding a sword and claiming to have killed a demon. On the floor lies a dead bat, but Chris is sure he saw something larger before it shrank.

So opens Exile, book 1 in The Oneness Cycle. The young woman, Reese, has been exiled from her group of believers. That shouldn’t be possible, but it happened and the grief is almost more than she can handle. The sword shouldn’t be possible for an exile, but it appeared in her hand when needed.

The Oneness is “one of three spiritual forces” (Kindle location 167) in the world, with the other two being angels and demons. Members of the Oneness look like ordinary people, but they are variously-gifted spiritual warriors holding the world together.

Exile is a gripping urban fantasy novel of spiritual warfare suitable for adults and young adults. As well as enjoying the read, I was encouraged by Reese’s and April’s challenge to persevere in the darkness instead of giving in to despair. That’s an example I can bring into real-life situations.

Favourite line:

“I don’t pray to get around the plan; I pray to be part of it.” ~Richard, a prayer warrior. [Kindle location 1175]

Exile is free in ebook format from major retailers. Rachel Starr Thomson writes Christian fantasy novels and has also recently released the writing memoir, Left Turn to the Promised Land. For more about the author and her (many) books, visit rachelstarrthomson.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas | biography

Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson, 2010)

Subtitled “Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,”
Bonhoeffer traces the shaping of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and life from childhood until his execution in 1945 as an enemy of the Third Reich.

This interesting and educational account is scholarly enough for academics yet accessible to the average reader. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was highly intelligent as well as intensely committed to living out his faith. Some of the quotes from his writings, shared to illustrate the progression of his understanding of his calling, are more intellectual than I easily digest, but others are practical enough for all.

Watching Bonhoeffer’s perspective on Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and subsequent destruction of the German nation helps readers understand the times. It reveals how this man, a committed Christian and a conscientious objector to fighting in the German army, could feel compelled to be part of a plot to kill Hitler.

Bonhoeffer’s observations of the German church (and the American church) troubled him. “What is the church?” (as in what is the church supposed to be) was his life-long question. To him, it involved listening to God and obeying Him in full trust and submission. His part in the church came to mean working to end the injustices inflicted on the Jews, the handicapped, and those who opposed Hitler’s evil ways.

The description of the “well-meaning Christians in Germany” raised troubling parallels in the present day:

They were convinced that if they bent their theology a bit, it wouldn’t matter—the results would be all right in the end. Many of them honestly believed that under Hitler the opportunities for evangelism would increase. [p. 155-156]

At times I felt the writing was overly complex:

Public figures eager to curry favor with the increasingly popular dictator would outdo each other in contorted calisthenics of sycophancy. [p. 307]

At other times, I appreciated the chance to laugh:

Indeed, for two days the British engaged in diplomatic back and forth, but at some point someone lent Chamberlain a vertebra, for against Hitler’s calculations, on Sunday, Great Britain declared war. [p. 348]

Perhaps what impacted me most was a quote from Bonhoeffer about grief:

Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words. They should remain open. Our only comfort is the God of the resurrection, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who also was and is his God. [p. 349]

Thought-provoking discussion questions offer readers the chance to process what they’ve read—and to apply it to the times in which they live.

The book was published to honour the 65th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death and went on to become a New York Times bestseller. Eric Metaxas has written biographies of other Christian figures as well as other books, including over 30 books for children. For more about the author, visit ericmetaxas.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: The Mystery of Three Quarters, by Sophie Hannah

The Mystery of Three Quarters, by Sophie Hannah | Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot

The Mystery of Three Quarters, by Sophie Hannah (HarperCollins, 2018)

Sophie Hannah does a fantastic job writing further adventures for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. The Mystery of Three Quarters is her third, and I think it’s the best yet.

Poirot feels true to life (true to fictional life?). In these novels his Scotland Yard contact is Edward Catchpole, and neither Inspector Japp nor Hastings appear. Nor Miss Lemon. I don’t recall where the stories fall in the overall Poirot timeline.

The Mystery of Three Quarters is a satisfying mystery with sprinkles of humour, and I enjoyed watching Poirot untangle the mystery which began with four letters accusing the recipients of murder—and falsely signed “Hercule Poirot”.

Sophie Hannah is an internationally-bestselling author of crime fiction including three Poirot novels. For more about the author and her work, visit sophiehannah.com. For all things Agatha Christie, including games, visit agathachristie.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Wayfarer, by K.M. Weiland

Wayfarer, by K.M. Weiland

Wayfarer, by K.M. Weiland (PenForASword Publishing, 2018)

Wayfarer is a satisfyingly long and richly-crafted novel that takes readers from the open country to the dark heart of a London slum, from ornate mansions to Marshalsea Prison. Danger abounds, the stakes are overwhelming, yet there are glimpses of loyalty, love, and even a bit of humour.

Favourite line (as Will is about to jump into the midst of a crowd he needs to impress):

Falling just now, screaming in pain, would probably fail to inspire these good people.

This is a clean read, if grim in places. I’m pleased to see the ending leave room for a sequel.

For more about K.M. Weiland and her novels, visit kmweiland.com. Writers are encouraged to visit her teaching site, Helping Writers Become Authors.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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.