If You Believe (1999)

Film reviews are subjective. I tend to rate films not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

If You Believe (1999) from Hearst Entertainment Productions
Rated TV-PG. Drama, Romance, Family Film, Christmas

Description: Jaded book editor Susan Stone (Ally Walker) has pretty much given up on finding happiness in life. But after receiving a hard bump on the head, Susan gets a strange visit from a cheerful and plucky girl named Suzie (Hayden Panettiere)…who looks an awful lot like Susan’s niece, Alice…and kind of like Susan herself. While she’s determined to be rid of her unwanted little guest, adult Susan may have to take a detour to rediscover her inner child first.

My thoughts: “Once upon a time we believed in love and magic. Then one day you stopped. That’s why you never found it…
“We need to fix that.”

There aren’t many made-for-TV flicks that end up on my all-time favorite films list. But this is one of them. Yes, the critical writing/editing/publishing industry aspect of the story is a huge hook for my literary self. And, yeah, this movie has much that wholesome holiday movies are made of, with the Christmas cheer and warmth and romance of it all.

But this isn’t just another hour and a half of predictable holiday fluff. I mean, yes, you can predict what will ultimately happen in a holiday film about a modern-day Scrooge lady. Still, this story hits some very real points along the way, uncomplicated but wise nuggets. The humor and heart doesn’t resort to outpourings of slapstick silliness or easy schmaltz. And when there are tears (not the comedic ones but the real ones), they’re unforced, unpretentious. You see the tears, and you get it.

Not to mention how the joint heroines leading this story play their acting duet well together, with a big sister/little sister “on the way to being BFFs” kind of chemistry. And as for the romance thread, where Susan and a possible Prince Charming are concerned—yup, there’s some fun, down-to-earth chemistry there, too.

When I first watched this movie years ago, I expected to be pleasantly entertained, and I was. I didn’t expect to find a truly great story, though. But I did. And I’ve been watching it every year since then.

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Confession: I’ve wanted to post this movie on my blog for years, but I couldn’t find a trailer for it. Now, well—this clip is the closest I could get. 😀

 

 

Stratagem by Robin Caroll

Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me. I received a complimentary copy of this book from Barbour Publishing and was under no obligation to write a review.

Stratagem by Robin Caroll

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

Psychologist Grayson Thibodeaux designs complex games for businesses to use as team-building exercises. But when Grayson’s ex-wife dies during a game he created, he becomes a suspect in the case of her murder in Stratagem by author Robin Caroll.

I’ve read and enjoyed this author once before, with a romantic suspense novel, and I looked forward to reading a suspense story that isn’t a romance this time. Overall, I enjoyed this novel as well.

Much of the read reminded me of a whodunit murder mystery but with career detectives involved. The book isn’t fast-paced or action-packed, and as the detectives interrogate different characters about the same events (while Grayson is also trying to figure out the case himself), the story has a tendency to rehash information from one scene to the next.

There’s also the common mystery feature of the murderer giving a long explanation in the end, which isn’t my favorite plot device. It’s like instead of letting the detectives piece more together, the investigation comes to a halt and the villain just wraps up the remaining details with an info-dump. Also, in several places, the style of the narration and dialogue is rather clichéd, a bit simplistic, and lacks subtlety, while one detective (sometimes both of them) comes off as pretty childish through most of the book.

Still, the plot kept me interested in reading to the conclusion.

 

Benjy and the Belsnickel by Bonnie Swinehart

Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me. WhiteFire/WhiteSpark Publishing provided me with a complimentary copy of this book for an honest review.

Benjy and the Belsnickel by Bonnie Swinehart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

Eleven-year-old Benjy knows he should stop pulling pranks and letting people down, but he can’t seem to help himself. His behavior may lead to an unwanted visit from a notorious, scary figure from Pennsylvanian folklore in Benjy and the Belsnickel by author Bonnie Swinehart.

I’ll own that the television character Dwight Schrute gave me my first introduction to Belsnickel, of whom another character, Jim Halpert, said, “So he’s kinda like Santa, except dirty. And worse.”

Ha! Love it.

I must confess, though, that this book turned out to be a younger middle grade than I was expecting, considering Benjy’s age. Middle grade fiction is tricky sometimes, as there’s often a significant difference between a story that may be appropriate for a seven- or eight-year-old child and a story that would be suitable for someone on the cusp of their teenage years.

Though all children are different, of course, I personally would recommend this book for readers a few years younger than Benjy, on account of the storybookish style to the tale and characterizations. Granted, I recognize that Benjy, a boy in the 1930s, comes from a simpler time and place.

I’ll also admit that I’d hoped for the plot to have something a little deeper or more advanced to it, even for young readers. Something that might dig more at Benjy’s treacherous “couldn’t seem to help himself” mentality. Although Benjy prays often, his dread of Belsnickel seems to be a bigger motivator than God. Perhaps the story could have put a greater focus on the message of integrity, of internal growth, more than the fear of external punishment.

Still, it’s an overall pleasant and positive read, one I think would be a good precursor to talking with a child about integrity and character.

 

Jacob’s Bell: A Christmas Story by John Snyder

Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me. I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for an honest review.

Jacob’s Bell: A Christmas Story by John Snyder

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive.”

After getting caught up with shady associates, underhanded business schemes, and far too much alcohol, Jacob lost his career and his beloved family. He’s now in his sixties, collecting holiday donations for the Salvation Army, and his chance meeting with a little girl could lead to more heartache or to a miracle in Jacob’s Bell: A Christmas Story by author John Snyder.

When I skimmed the book blurb, I wasn’t anticipating huge surprises with this story’s outcome. Whenever I read this kind of novel, I don’t mind knowing the outcome beforehand if I still get something a little unexpected or eye-opening along the way.

While this is indeed a heartfelt tale, I found most of it to be too predictable (and sometimes simplistic) to keep me on my toes. The style lacks subtlety, oftentimes feeling clichéd. I would’ve liked for more of the dialogue, including several of Jacob’s confessions and declarations, to sound more natural or a bit more original.

The development and pacing are awkward at times, detailing minor scenes but then rushing over or summarizing some of the most important material. Because the narration jumps between different characters’ points of view in a number of places, I wasn’t always sure which character’s perspective I was viewing a scene from. I also wasn’t sure if I missed a connection or if there really are two characters who are both named Robert.

On a technical note, some of the paragraphs end with closing quotation marks while the same character is still talking at the start of the next paragraph. The preceding closing quotation marks should have been omitted, since the continuing dialogue wasn’t moving to a different speaker.

All that aside, this story’s message of forgiveness and redemption rings clear. I had a tear in my eye as I read the last scene, before the concluding summary. And what fan of hopeful Christmas tales could resist this novel’s charming book cover?