Tag Archives: book review

Review: Once Upon a Dickens Christmas, by Michelle Griep

Once Upon a Dickens Christmas, by Michelle Griep | Christmas fiction, Christian fiction, novellas, historical fiction

Once Upon a Dickens Christmas, by Michelle Griep (Shiloh Run Press, 2019)

Three Christmas novellas set in 1850’s England, each with a cameo appearance from Charles Dickens, and each featuring a “second chance” coin—and a second chance at love.

The titles are nods to Mr. Dickens as well: 12 Days at Bleakly Manor, A Tale of Two Hearts, and The Old Lace Shop.

Once Upon a Dickens Christmas will charm readers who enjoy period historicals with quiet faith and feel-good endings. Each novella has a degree of suspense, but these aren’t stories that will keep readers up worrying what will happen next. They’re gentle, relaxing reads with winsome characters and some delightful turns of phrase.

Some of my favourites:

It was the kind of late January day that crawled under the best of woollen capes and took up residence in the bones. [Kindle location 1797]

He wore his wrinkles like a garment, the deep creases on his face in sore need of a good ironing. [Kindle location 2338]

Either your faith will move mountains, or your doubt will create them. [Kindle location 4901]

The three novellas are available individually as well as in this collection. For more about Christy award-winning author Michelle Griep and her other books, visit michellegriep.com.

[Review copy provided by the publisher through #NetGalley.]

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Review: Beholding and Becoming, by Ruth Chou Simons

Book cover: Beholding and Becoming, The Art of Everyday Worship. By Ruth Chou Simons

Beholding and Becoming, by Ruth Chou Simons (Harvest House Publishers, 2019)

“The most ordinary days become extraordinary places of transformation when we hope in Christ instead of our circumstances… No circumstance is too ordinary or too forgotten for God to meet us there in worship. His transforming grace turns our ‘everyday ordinary’ into a holy place of becoming.”

Beholding and Becoming, page 221

This delights me, because I hear an echo of Brother Lawrence’s call to practice the presence of Christ. It makes such good sense: the closer we are to Jesus, the more we abide in Him, the richer life becomes. The more like Him we become.

Subtitled “The Art of Everyday Worship,” Beholding and Becoming is a lovely hardcover gift book. Each of the 16 sections is lavishly illustrated with soul-resting art and gentle text. Sections are divided into “Beholding” a key truth about God and “Becoming,” where readers are invited to apply what they’ve read to daily life.

Stopping to appreciate the artwork helps readers to slow down and absorb the text. The art incorporates symbolism (explained in a glossary—don’t worry if you’re not visually intuitive) to reinforce section themes.

I’ve marked a number of key passages for further thought. The sections that spoke to me most personally looked at smallness (held in God’s greatness) and at redefining failure and success (the author declares, “Faithfulness is success” [page 111].

These, and other themes addressed in the book, are common to many people in these crowded, don’t-slow-down days. Beholding and Becoming is a meditative invitation to dare to slow down and consider who God is—and what difference that can make in our lives.

Ruth Chou Simons is the author of GraceLaced, another beautiful hardcover gift book, and she is the founder of the GraceLaced ministry. For more about the author and her work, visit gracelaced.com.

[A review copy was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I was in no way compensated for this review.]

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Review: Love and Other Mistakes, by Jessica Kate

Book cover: Love and Other Mistakes, by Jessica Kate

Love and Other Mistakes, by Jessica Kate (Thomas Nelson, 2109)

I wanted to read this book because of the snappy quotes I’d seen on social media. I thought it was a romantic comedy. Instead of a fun-but-shallow read, I was delighted to discover characters I could care about, depth of plot, and spiritual insights.

Yes, the basic setup looks like it’ll be simple romantic comedy: Natalie ends up working as a nanny for her single-dad ex-fiancé who’s suddenly back in town, and the way they reconnect is definitely comedic. But then there are layers of family and relationship turmoil, both current and long-standing. There are health concerns. And forgiveness issues.

Australian author Jessica Kate’s debut novel delivers realistic, imperfect characters and situations, some fun cultural references, and some thoughts for readers to chew on after they’ve finished. The ending is satisfying without tying up all the messy threads into a pretty-but-fake bow.

For more about the author and her work, visit jessicakatewriting.com. Or check out her StoryNerds podcast with Hannah Davis storynerds.podbean.com.

[Review copy from the public library.]

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Review: Unwrapping Hope, by Sandra Ardoin

Book cover: Unwrapping Hope, A  Widow's Might Novella, by Sandra Ardoin

Unwrapping Hope, by Sandra Ardoin (Corner Room Books, 2019)

In the fall of 1986, Phoebe Crain supports her mother and her 5-year-old daughter on her scant earnings as a small-town piano tutor. It’s a long way from the concert stage, but it lets her hide from a past that’s left her bitter.

Spence Newland the Third, owner of the local department store, represents everything she’s come to despise and distrust—or does he? Her daughter, Maura, discovers his kindness.

In this historical romance, Phoebe and Spence each have past hurts that threaten to keep them from discovering a future that would bring young Maura the father she’s been wishing for.

Unwrapping Hope is a prequel novella that leads into Sandra Ardoin’s Widow’s Might series. The Widow’s Might circle is a group of widows in the town who, whether rich or poor, meet for support and to knit scarves etc for the nearby orphanage.

The author does an excellent job of setting the scene and the atmosphere, and I found the historical details interesting. I don’t think of this specifically as a Christmas story, but it does run through fall and finish on Christmas Eve. So while it can be enjoyed any time of year there might be an extra resonance in the season leading up to Christmas.

Favourite lines:

At the same time, she would eat the crow she already smelled cooking. [Kindle location 257]

Years ago Phoebe had seen a similar look in the mirror. If she could go back in time, she would shatter the glass. [Kindle location 378]

Verbenia was the durable thread that kept the emotions of each member of the [Widow’s Might] circle from unraveling. [Kindle location 412] 

Enduring Dreams, the next book in the Widow’s Might series, releases in 2020. For more about historical romance author Sandra Ardoin and her books, visit sandraardoin.com.

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

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Review: The Red Journal, by Deb Elkink

Book cover: The Red Journal, by Deb Elkink

The Red Journal, by Deb Elkink (The Mosaic Collective, 2019)

At 50, Libby has lived with her grandmother since childhood and is mourning Gram’s recent death. Her lifelong dream is to own her own home, away from the tenement where she’s been raised. She also longs to recreate Gram’s signature soup recipe—perhaps in hopes of restoring the sense of home Gram provided.

Her friend, Sibyl, is about 10 years younger and likes to think she’s found her security in spirituality and sensuality. Sibyl is convinced she knows what Libby needs while having no understanding of her friend’s grief.

Paige is a young woman working at the Laird Mansion Museum in the next state, pushing to finish her research paper before her baby arrives. She’s obsessed with finding a more personal side to the now-deceased MDM Laird and with clearing his name of hints of scandal.

The Red Journal is a carefully-imagined novel for the literary, even scholarly, reader who likes to chew over a novel and tease out its depths. Libby and Sibyl are each searching for sacred spaces in their own ways, and the heart of MDM Laird’s manor is another sacred space.

The story begins with Libby and Sibyl en route to visit the Laird Museum, and alternates this present with the recent past leading up to the journey. I would have found it an easier read in a linear timeline. Movement between multiple timelines is often done, and I’m not sure why it didn’t work for me here. It might be the short distance back in time, or the short duration of the “present” museum tour itself. Breaking the tour into sections may highlight the journey to the heart of the manor, and I’ve seen other readers commenting on enjoying the “dance” between timelines.

As well-written as each scene is, the novel felt long to me. I don’t think we needed as much of Libby’s soup-making and apartment-packing, Sibyl’s travels, or even as much depth in Paige’s research. I wonder, in fact, if the story needed Sibyl’s point of view at all. Possibly any key information in her scenes could have been introduced through Libby’s observations. As with a good soup, condensing could have strengthened the flavour, and readers would have still been able to observe two women’s very different searches for sacred space.

The novel also includes journal excerpts, perhaps to give readers extra clues to tease out the full story before Libby discovers it herself.

Sibyl’s point of view scenes often share rich memories of exotic travels, which will appeal to readers who love to travel (and armchair travellers). Her mashup of various spiritual beliefs shows its hollowness but might still sound appealing enough to lead seekers astray.

On the other side of belief, MDM Laird’s Bible-based faith has a few mentions and there’s some reference to God as “Father” near the end. The faith thread has enough hints for people who know their Bibles—even MDM’s name, Moses David Melchizidek—but biblical literacy is not a given for most mainstream readers.

I appreciated the chance to read about 40- and 50-year-old protagonists, as well as the (fictional) historical character MDM Laird’s exemplary relationships with the Native Americans he invited to dwell on his estate. His focus on keeping their families together was a refreshing counterpart to the true-life travesties imposed by both American and Canadian governments.

Deb Elkink is a skilled, award-winning author who writes at a deeper level than I can easily plumb. I’ve had to work harder than I like to figure this one out, and I’m not sure I have it yet. I think the concentric layout of the Laird Mansion Museum estate somehow connects with the choice of narrative structure, circling back upon itself.

The Red Journal has a strong sense of place, in the unfolding history of the land around the manor and in Sibyl’s vividly-rendered exotic travelogues, which feel like the author has visited in person. Although the characters sometimes frustrated me, I appreciated the ending.

Deb Elkink has also written The Third Grace (a novel) and Roots and Branches: The Symbolism of the Tree in the Imagination of G.K. Chesterton (nonfiction). For more about the author and her work, visit debelkink.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Going Back Cold, by Kelley Rose Waller

Book cover: Going Back Cold, by Kelley Rose Waller

Going Back Cold, by Kelley Rose Waller (Versive Press, 2019)

On the one hand, Going Back Cold is a science fiction novel about a small group of scientists based in Antarctica experimenting with faster-than-light technology. But it’s also an exploration of the different ways people grieve.

In year one of the four-year research and development project, Dr. Jane Whyse discovers she’s pregnant with her second child. After the baby girl is stillborn, Jane, her husband Dr. Lucas Whyse, and their young son Sebastian continue work on the project. Both committed Christians, Jane and Lucas find their faith shaken. Lucas is working through his grief, but Jane appears trapped in her anger. Her research soon becomes her obsession.

The science is intriguing (I can’t say I understood it, but I expect that in science fiction). The observation of a small group of people interacting in a closed environment is interesting, too. The Whyses’ grief is instructive for those who haven’t experienced a significant loss—and I expect it’s affirming for those who have. And the ethical dilemma Jane’s obsession unleashes could come from near-future headlines.

Negatives: This is Christian fiction, and I was surprised to find the occasional mild profanity, as well as some crude comments. (Yes, I know some Christians swear, but it always catches me off-guard in real life and in books.)  

Positives: There are some delightfully geeky references, and Jane and Lucas are transparently honest with God about their grief.

Favourite lines:

Jane was determined to have her family cake and eat the career, too. [On bringing their young son with them to the research base. Kindle location 268]

Good luck seeing God in me. I’m broken and failing when I try to rebuild. There aren’t words for where I am, none that make sense anyway. But I believe it. I will believe it. And I trust You. God, it hurts, but I trust. I will believe. [Lucas’s personal log. Kindle location 1941]

Kelley Rose Waller has also written The Senator’s Youngest Daughter. For more about the author and her work, visit kelleyrosewaller.com.

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

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Review: Belinda Blake and the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, by Heather Day Gilbert

Belinda Blake and the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, by Heather Day Gilbert (Lyrical Press, 2019)

You might think that after pet-sitting a ball python, Belinda Blake can handle anything, but she’s not too sure about wolves. Yes, it’s a rehabilitation sanctuary, and yes, they seem friendly, but they’re still wild animals. With sharp teeth.

When someone is found dead and bloody in one of the wolf pens, common sense tells her to bail on her contract and take the consequences. But the wolf preserve is short-staffed and she doesn’t want to let the owner down.

Once she begins to suspect someone staged the “wolf attack” to shut down the preserve, she’s determined to stay.

I’m enjoying this series for the mysteries, but also for the characters. Belinda is a computer gamer and book-lover, transplanted from a rural environment into a wealthy neighbourhood. Jonas, one of her friends from home, looks promising as a love interest, although her landlord’s absent son caught her attention in book one. And Red, the chauffeur/bodyguard on the estate where she rents a carriage house, is an interesting background character.

For the literary and theme-inclined, there are some interesting correlations between Belinda’s story and the novel her long-distance book club is discussing. The Great Gatsby is not a book I know well, so I missed some of the effect.

Favourite lines:

“…it was beyond me how I would feed raw eat to wolves without looking like an oversized, tasty morsel myself.” [Kindle location 260]

And when one of the other characters laments the need to lean so much on others, Belinda observes:

“Sometimes leaning is the only way to stay upright.” [Kindle location 1566]

Definitely recommended for cozy mystery fans!

Heather Day Gilbert is an award-winning author of Viking historical fiction and contemporary suspense as well as the Belinda Blake, Exotic Pet Sitter cozy mystery series. Belinda Blake and the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing is book 2 in the series. For more about the author, visit heatherdaygilbert.com.

[Review copy provided by NetGalley and Kensington Books. Opinions are my own.]

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Review: Up From the Sea, by Amanda Dykes

Book cover: Up From the Sea, by Amanda Dykes

Up From the Sea, by Amanda Dykes (Bethany House, 2019)

After I read Whose Waves These Are, I went looking for more fiction from Amanda Dykes and was excited to find two free ebook novellas.

One of those is Up From the Sea, a prequel novella for Whose Waves These Are. Reading it later let me enjoy recognizing details significant to the novel, which features the next generation. It also made me want to go back and read the novel again with this deeper understanding of the past.

Savannah Mae Thorpe was born and raised in Georgia, but after her parents’ deaths in 1925 the young woman returns to her mother’s family in coastal Maine. She doesn’t fit in with her aunt and uncle’s ways, nor with her cousins, although Cousin Mary used to be a good friend.

A local legend from the 1700s captures her imagination with a wild hope to save her inheritance. Local lumberjack Alastair Bliss agrees to help, but Savannah’s quest sounds more like a fairy tale than reality.

Favourite lines:

Lord, you created the dark just as you created the light. Help me find life there, and not fear. [Chapter 3]

“She was imagination itself.” It felt good to speak of her [Savannah’s mother] with laughter, to feel the jagged edges of grief gentled with fond memory. [Chapter 7]

Vague light seeped in through a window whose wavy glass dripped with time. [Chapter 7]

Amanda Dykes’ tag line is “spinning stories, gathering grace.” As well as the historical fiction Up From the Sea and Whose Waves These Are, she’s written the novella, Bespoke: A Tiny Christmas Tale, and one of the stories in The Message in a Bottle Romance Collection. For more about the author and her work, visit amandadykes.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: True Confections, by Ruth Hartzler

Book cover: True Confections, An Amish Cupcake Cozy Mystery, by Ruth Hartzler

True Confections, by Ruth Hartzler (Clean Wholesome Books, 2019)

Unexpectedly divorced, 50-year-old Jane Delight moves into the apartment above her twin sister Rebecca’s cupcake store near Pennsylvania Amish territory. Rebecca commutes daily by horse and buggy, but Jane has long since left their Amish ways behind (she does, however, still have a personal faith).

When an unpleasant customer collapses in Rebecca’s store and dies, Jane decides to divert suspicion from herself and her sister by finding the murderer. Some of the comedy that ensues is a bit over-the-top, like when Jane literally falls into the handsome detective’s arms, but it’s a light-hearted mystery after all.

Jane’s quirky roommates are part of what makes this book fun: 80-somethings Matilda and Eleanor Birtwistle and their mischievous cat.

The narrative has a distant feel and I did find it a slow start, especially since Jane’s ex-husband’s dialogue doesn’t match his role as a successful lawyer. Once he was out of the picture, the story started to work for me.

Another aspect of the story I enjoyed was the Amish/non-Amish (English) dynamic, with the perceptions of outsiders and their awkwardness of knowing quite how to treat Rebecca as an Amish woman.

True Confections is the first novel in the Amish Cupcake Cozy Mystery series. Ruth Hartzler writes cozy mysteries, Christian romantic suspense, and Amish romance. For more about the author and her work, visit ruthhartzler.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Whose Waves These Are, by Amanda Dykes

Book cover: Whose Waves These Are, by Amanda Dykes

Whose Waves These Are, by Amanda Dykes (Bethany House, 2019)

This is the most beautiful and heartwarming novel I’ve read in a long time. Satisfying. Peace-inducing and hope-whispering. Amanda Dykes writes with a gentle, lyrical quality that invites readers to linger in this tale and savour every page.

Annie Bliss and her great-uncle Bob (“GrandBob”) have shared a special bond since the summer she spent with him in coastal Maine as a child. Now his need calls her back to the struggling town of Ansel-by-the-Sea, away from the soul-drying big-city job where she’s been hiding.

The novel follows two timelines: Annie’s in the present and Bob’s in the past, weaving together to tell a story of great loss and greater hope. Of light in the darkness and faith in despair. Of breaking and mending.

The town and its inhabitants add a richness, evoking the best attributes of small fishing communities where the locals stand together, no matter what. 

See some of the evocative description:

There’s a strength in his stance, as if his feet are putting roots down into the very granite. [page 25]

The past uncoils like a fiddlehead fern, a tender ache with it. [page 81]

This part of Maine was a place like no other spot in the universe, and being back was like finding an old patch of sunlight in a long-lost home, and settling in. [page 86]

I won’t share my favourite line, because it’s too near the end. You’ll need to find it yourself. It’ll mean more to you that way.

I admit the present-tense narrative jarred me at times, but even with that, Whose Waves These Are has claimed a special place in my heart. I’m grateful for the experience.

Amanda Dykes’ tag line is “spinning stories, gathering grace.” Whose Waves These Are is her first novel, but readers may know her from her novella, Bespoke: A Tiny Christmas Tale, or from The Message in a Bottle Romance Collection. For more about the author and her work, visit amandadykes.com.

[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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