Keeping Up With the Neighbours (review)

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Neighbours 2In Keeping Up with the Neighbours (Neighbours Series 2) author Tracy Krauss treats us to the adventures of colourful Newfoundland siblings who have left the Rock to find their fortunes in Alberta.

The characters (the Malloys—five young men and their sister) are earthy, relatable, often humorous, and interesting. We follow them as they find jobs in construction, the oil patch, the woods, the local bar, and a hair dressing salon, and socialize in the evenings with the locals at a neighbourhood watering hole.

These salty characters are not without their realistic problems and flaws, so be prepared for a little more edginess than you’d find in some Christian fiction. But Krauss incorporates faith as well in plot twists that feel plausible and inevitable.

Keeping up with the Neighbours (Neighbours 2) is a lot of fun as well as thought-provoking, dealing with subjects like loyalty, conflicts between immigrant parents and their adult children, alcoholism, religious faith and more. It’s a bit like reading a Calgary-based season of Cheers.

Road to Nowhere (review)

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Road to NowhereRoad to Nowhere by Paul Robertson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre:
Literary, contemporary murder mystery.

Worldview:
Christian.

Plot in brief:
A proposed highway connecting tony Gold Valley to petrified Wardsville galvanizes Jefferson County residents and has everyone taking sides for and against. Who’s really behind it? How will it impact Wardsville’s quaint image and quainter businesses? Will the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors actually pass it? And who is so determined to have his way, he’s killing people to get it? The board will make their final decision at their December meeting. The telling begins in January.

My favorite thing about the book:
I love the way Robertson tells the story—through the points of view of the six individuals on the Board of Supervisors. I found it a challenging read at first as I jumped from one head to another without even any extra space left in the text to indicate a move. But very quickly I got used to it and really enjoyed the challenge of figuring out through whose eyes I was seeing things moment to moment. The characterization is outstanding.

I also enjoyed the writing, which is funny, observant, clever, and seasoned with generous amounts of homey wisdom. Here’s Wade’s impression of the coffee Rose Esterhouse serves Wade on his visit to the home of board chairman Joe Esterhouse:

“He held the cup up close to his mouth and inhaled enough to get a few drops of the coffee itself.

“He’d had straight-up horseradish that wasn’t this bitter.

“He tried an actual sip. After a cup of this stuff, he’d be out there plowing fields himself, probably with his bare hands. … Taste was not the point—this coffee was kick in the pants to get a person out the door to work” – p. 60 – Kindle Location 407.

Themes:
Evil, truth, community, relationships (we watch some beautiful interactions between hairdresser Louise and her husband Byron, insurance salesman Randy and his wife Sue-Anne, and farmer Joe and his wife Rose).

Who will enjoy this book:
Observers of human nature as well as readers who enjoy a well-constructed murder mystery. The portrayal of characters is as big a part of this story as the mystery plot. Some call it slow-moving. It may be that but it’s wonderfully insightful. I loved it!

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Sidetracked (review)

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SidetrackedSidetracked by Brandilyn Collins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Driving home from Clara’s shower after everyone else has left, 34-year-old Delanie spots a suspicious-looking character in a dark hoodie, and then a body lying on the sidewalk. Right from the first chapter of Brandilyn Collins’ Sidetracked, we’re alerted as to what kind of story this will be:

“The chill inside me crackled to ice. For the longest moment I could only stare at the object. How frighteningly familiar it looked. A silent scream wracked my head. No, no no!

But deep within I knew. Death had followed me.” – Kindle Location 194.

Collins tells the tale of this murder mystery in two ways—Delanie’s 2014 segments are in first person. The 1995 and on flashbacks—Laura Denton’s story—are in third person. The switch between present and past are clearly indicated in the chapter headings. Those headings plus the change in point of view make it easy for us to keep track of where we are. They also add information at just the right time, helping to build suspense. Will history repeat itself?

Collins knows how to push all the right buttons. As I read, I felt outrage over what was happening to Laura and Delanie, frustration with the police investigation, sympathy toward our heroines, and a sense of hopelessness as the injustices pile up. The story certainly delivered on its promise of suspense. I was on tenterhooks through this entire thing.

Faith / lack of faith in God when He doesn’t turn things around in the face of blatant injustice is one of the understandable struggles Delanie works through. Her past has made her super sensitive to anyone being wrongfully accused, and so the search for truth (in this case about who killed Clara) is another theme that runs through the book.

Aside from a couple of crime scenes, the book is safe in the violence and gratuitous sex department (though Delanie’s relationship with Andy together with the way his parents view her make for an interesting subplot).

Great writing and a compelling plot make this a book I’d recommend to all lovers of Christian suspense.

This book is part of my own Kindle collection.

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Miracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe (review)

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Miracle at the Higher Grounds CafeMiracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe by Max Lucado

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After Chelsea Chambers discovers that her NFL husband Sawyer has been cheating on her, inheriting the family café and coffee shop in San Antonia is the perfect out. She, with 12-year-old Hancock and six-year-old Emily move into the upper floor of the Victorian house above the Higher Grounds Café, determined to put new life into the family’s 40+-year-old establishment.

But just after she opens, a letter from the IRS arrives demanding back taxes. When she contacts Sawyer about releasing funds for this, she discovers he has spent all her nest egg on his own money problems. Is her dream of running her own business doomed before it ever gets underway?

Chelsea’s dilemma alerts heaven’s minions and soon Samuel, her clumsy but loveable guardian angel is up to his neck in her daily affairs.

Fantasy intersects reality in Max Lucado’s novel Miracle at the Higher Grounds Café—a book that addresses issues of family, prayer, forgiveness and second chances. It’s an easy read and Lucado’s signature deftness with words makes it a fun read as well:

“ ‘ Who’s that?’ said the young magician who had turned his smartphone into an IMAX screen. The image stretched as far as the east is from the west: Sawyer Chambers in the arms of another woman. A redheaded beauty. A triple threat—younger, thinner, and prettier” – Kindle Location 289.

Discussion questions at the end help us hone in on the timeless truths this story delivers with subtlety and grace. Readers of all ages will enjoy this inspirational, ends-well tale.

I received Miracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Twenty-One Candles (review)

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Twenty-One Candles: Stories for ChristmasTwenty-One Candles: Stories for Christmas by Mike Mason

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mike Mason (Canadian author of The Mystery of Marriage, Champagne for the Soul and the Blue Umbrella fantasy series for kids) has a personal tradition of writing a Christmas story every year. This book is 21 of those stories, collected into a “wonder-full” volume of tales, as different from each other as each Christmas we live is one-of-a-kind. Some stories are short, others long, some playful, others serious, some fairy-tale-like, others as real as photographs. What binds them all together, though is the way each reflects some facet of the deepest meaning of the season.

From the one with the earliest date, 1981’s “Christmas Rocks”—in which the narrator and his friend, weary of the commercialism of a Winnipeg mall, drive to Gimli to choose a unique water-lucent rock for each person on their list—to 2014’s “In the stillness of the Night”—set in Hope BC with a local tourist attraction, the Othello Tunnels, playing a major role—these tales are recognizably Canadian, yet have a universal, parable quality to them that sets them beyond time and place.

The two that touch me most deeply are “Born with Wings”—about a sick baby expected to live just hours, born on Christmas day. Any parent who has lost a baby to miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death will relate to this poignant, tastefully told tale and its Christmas message.

The other favorite is the 1984 tale that closes the collection, “Bound for Glory.” Its tame yet mysterious beginning:

“A light rain was falling as I set off across the platform. … It was Christmas Eve, close to midnight, and the station was unusually busy, though not with the bustle of a daylight rush hour but with the trance-like commotion of darkness…” Kindle Location 2939.

soon reveals a carload of citizens fleeing for the border, among them a couple with a newborn baby. Enter soldiers with guns, making threats and culling group by group from the coach. Of course there is a surprise at the destination.

Stories in this book have been read at the Vancouver Pacific Theatre’s annual Christmas Presence programs. Now that they are available to all, they’re sure to add their special light to the Christmases of many more individuals and groups. I, frankly, love this book. It’s the kind of volume I feel like buying as a gift for friends and family members because I just know they would love one or another story in it.

My one gripe with the Kindle version of the book is that there is no table of contents. Actually there is a Table of Contents, but it’s not listed under the “Go to…” options in my Kindle reader’s “Menu.” I found it when I paged onward from the cover.

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Heaven’s Prey (review)

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Heaven's Prey (Redemption's Edge, #1)Heaven’s Prey by Janet Sketchley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The storm that 46-year-old Ruth Warner braves to attend her weekly prayer meeting is a perfect opening to Heaven’s Prey, a debut novel by Nova Scotia native Janet Sketchley. Ruth’s husband Tony can’t understand why she would go out on such a night to pray for Harry Silver, the serial killer who abducted, then butchered their beautiful niece Susan.

But Ruth’s nightmares of Silver’s destiny without salvation drive her, especially now that he has escaped from prison and other Susans may be in danger. Little does Ruth guess, when she stops at a convenience store on her way home, who will soon be in Silver’s clutches.

Heaven’s Prey is suspense at its most gripping. In it Sketchley makes us face our worst nightmares in the company of a depraved man with no compassion, seemingly no conscience, and a deep-rooted hatred of God and everyone associated with Him. At the same time we delve, through flashbacks, into Silver’s past, following his rise to stardom on the NASCAR circuit even as his addiction to pornography spirals him into a world of obsession and lust.

Sketchley’s vigorous prose places us squarely in each scene, whether it’s tied up in an isolated Nova Scotia cottage or careening around racetrack obstacles: “Danger came from what he couldn’t see. …The tire rubber would delaminate in long strips and flail his chassis to bits” – Kindle Location 1702.

Though the subject matter is edgy, I appreciated Sketchley’s avoidance of gratuitous and disturbing description. What comes through in this bite-your-nails tale is the possibility of redemption. God, the tireless pursuer intent on capturing even the worst of sinners, is the real hero of this story. Discussion questions at the end of the book help readers debrief and make sense of what they’ve just lived through.

Explore Heaven’s Prey in more depth through the book’s page on Janet Sketchley’s blog. There you can also sign up for her newsletter so you’re in the loop for the release of more books in the Redemption’s Edge fiction series.

I received a copy of Heaven’s Prey as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review. This review was first published in Faith Today (January/February ’14).

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Stones for Bread (review)

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Stones for BreadStones for Bread by Christa Parrish

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Running her own bakeshop, the Wild Rise, will finally fill the void in 30-something Liesel McNamara’s life—won’t it? She sure has wagered all her dough on it—and the array of artisan sourdough starters, some as old as her history itself.

An artisan bakery in Billingston, Vermont is the setting for Christa Parrish’s latest novel, Stones for Bread. It is a story of a woman seeking to find herself after an adolescent tragedy. A chance to compete on the Good Food Network for $10,000 (enough for Paris!), the revelation of a life-changing secret, and the possibility of the love of a good man are all plot elements that pulled me through this fabulous book way too fast.

The characters were a highlight for me. Besides Liesel there is single father Seamus and his five-year-old daughter Cecilia, Xavier—Liesel’s 71-year-old head baker, Tee—the Ukrainian cook, and lots of others. All are richly drawn, believable and sympathetic. Parrish’s handling of the tiny-bit-spoiled five-year-old Cecilia was, I felt, especially well done.

Parrish weaves her magic in many ways. The story is told solely through Liesel’s eyes. Each chapter begins with a scene from her history, helping us piece together why she is the way the she is. And how is that? Here she sees herself in contrast to co-worker Gretchen: “Perhaps it’s who she is, relaxed and round and fizzy. I have too many angles to get close” – Kindle Location 230.

Parrish also includes lots of information about bread, its lore, its place in history and religion, and actual recipes from Liesel’s notebook, complete with her own notations of how to make it right (bread geek that she is). I’m tempted to try some of these—only using my bread machine (please don’t tell her though).

A Christian worldview foundations and subtly pervades the book throughout. Many wonderful allusions to the bread imagery in the Bible make it all the richer.

The writing is wonderful too. Here are two bits I highlighted:

“…Oma’s (hair) with streaks of soot gray where her youth has burned away” K.L. 333.

“Seamus looks smaller. His size hasn’t changed, but the layer of pride we all have beneath our skin, the one reminding us how well we care for our own, that has lost some of its girth” K.L. 909.

Stones for Bread is a perfect read for a cold winter night by the fire, or consume it as a side with soup and dark pumpernickel.

I received Stones for Bread as a gift from the publisher, Thomas Nelson, for the purpose of writing a review.

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