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?

 

Noteworthy Reads 2018

I received complimentary copies of some of these books for honest reviews, which you’ll find in the posts I’ve linked to.

In addition to my Favorite Reads this year, I felt compelled to recognize and recommend a few more noteworthy books that I’ve encountered over the past couple of years. I don’t know yet if this bonus list will become a recurring part of my Annual Book Awards season, but we’ll see what happens! You’ll find the books listed in an eclectic order.
*And to the authors of these books, if you’d like a medal for making the list, see the bottom of this post.*

Delilah’s Daughters by Angela Benson

Christian Fiction/Women’s Fiction

★★★★★ from me

A three-sister singing group and their mother, Delilah Monroe, have some tough decisions to make and lessons to learn about the cost of fame, the power of purpose, and the value of family. This novel kept me thoroughly engaged without any lag time in the middle, and Benson has a clear understanding of human nature. There are valid right and wrong points on all sides of this family’s dilemma—a dilemma that isn’t neatly packaged for an easy, cheesy fix. While the story addresses unsavory sides to the music business and relationships going amiss, the story doesn’t sink down to become an unsavory mess itself. You don’t find that balance everywhere!

The Samurai’s Heart by Walt Mussell

Christian Fiction/Historical Fiction

★★★★ from me

Sen is a Christian, seeking a Christian husband, but her faith has been banned in 1587 Japan. Nobuhiro, the son of a respected samurai, may be a good choice for marriage, but he doesn’t understand the hold Sen’s foreign—and now dangerous—religion has on her. As soon as I learned of this ChristFic novel’s existence, it went straight to my TBR list. While the two leading characters have a retiring quality for some time, they get their moments to stand up and show some fire, and they both grew on me. The story maintains a keen sense of its historical setting throughout the read, and the intrigue eventually took me from being interested to being enthralled. I’m keeping my eyes peeled for the next book in this series.

The Art Contest by Perry Elisabeth Kirkpatrick

Middle Grade Historical Fiction/Short Story

★★★★★ from me

The Nazi army has swarmed into France, and twelve-year-old Marie must now assist her father in sneaking intelligence past their country’s invaders. I appreciate stories that illustrate how sharp-witted and courageous humanity can be in dangerous times. This is a quick (but not rushed) read that conveys the gravity of a wartime situation without getting super dark, and children and adults alike can be inspired by it. I know people sometimes think of short reads as “too little,” but this is a great example of how I think of well-written short stories: just enough.

The Stronghold by Lisa Carter

Christian Fiction/Romantic Suspense

★★★★★ from me

Girls disappearing from Apache reservations: this case hits too close to home for tribal cop Pilar To-Clanny, and she’ll have to go after a ruthless killer with the help of Special Agent Alex Torres. This is a heavy read that braves rough and dark terrain. Poverty. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Self-harm. Manipulation. Racism. Rape, and a culture of sexual violence. Serial murder. FEAR. It’s not a story to be read for thrills but for its illustration of dynamic light cutting through grave darkness. Carter writes with depth, realism, and flashes of pithy lyricism, weaving an intricate plot that pierces so that it can heal. ChristFic fans who appreciate gritty and relevant stories of faith would do well to check this one out.

Racing Manhattan by Terence Blacker

Young Adult Fiction

★★★★★ from me

A misfit teenaged girl and an equally misfit Thoroughbred are joined in a fight involving more than a racetrack. This story isn’t the stuff that light and delightfully corny family horse flicks are made of. It’s a rather gritty novel, displaying family tragedy and dysfunction; sexism, bullying, and blackmail; and the seedy side of horse racing. Jay, the heroine, is full of rage and determination, and yet, she isn’t a snarky jerk, and she doesn’t forget how to smile. Blacker writes with a moving and brilliant style, and even if you’re past your young adult years, you could very well find this story to be relatable and inspiring, as I have.

Grenade by Alan Gratz

Middle Grade Historical Fiction

★★★★★ from me

An Okinawan boy. A young American Marine. And a moment in battle that changes everything. This World War II novel isn’t a nostalgic, romantic, or watered-down tale, to make war look like a grand and glorious adventure, merely a mechanism for building heroes. It’s a gut-wrenching, violent, tragic story of the impossible costs of deadly conflict. And yet, it isn’t dark for the sake of darkness. It’s a human story. A nuanced story. A story that might make your soul cry. The ending of Part One is painfully brilliant, and, man, how the sober, overall ending manages to be triumphant is incredible. Read it. If your soul cries, let it. Oh—and after the last scene, do not skip the Author’s Note.

Wings of the Morning by Lori Wick

Christian Fiction/Historical Romance

★★★★ from me

Captaining her own ship suits Victoria “Smokey” Simmons well, but she dreams of pursuing a future on land one day… And, yeah—I went for the original, oldie-but-goodie edition from the ’90s when I picked this novel up. I was intrigued by the thought of a lady skipper in the nineteenth century, and this skipper’s story of adventure and adversity didn’t disappoint me. I liked the mixture of confidence and vulnerability, awkwardness and sharp skill in the heroine, as well as the novel’s measure of grit and wit. Although it’s Book Two in the Kensington Chronicles, it can be read as a standalone, and I consider it to be the standout novel of the series, written by one of my personally most-read authors.

Love at First Bark by Dana Mentink

Christian Fiction/Contemporary Romance

★★★★★ from me

A pesky dog. A bashful cowboy. And an author under pressure who gets just the inspiration she needs. Admission Number One: I was looking for something quick and easy to perk me up when I started this novella, and I wasn’t expecting any surprises. So I was surprised when the story, well, pleasantly surprised me. The tale is sweet, light, and humorous, to be sure, but the crux of the hero and heroine’s conversation enters meaningful territory that isn’t the most predictable. Admission Number Two: I’m not the easiest reader to sell on contemporary romance these days, but I pretty much fell in love with this book as I went along.

Heartfelt Cases One, Two, Three, and the Prequel by Julie C. Gilbert

   

Christian Fiction/Suspense

★★★★ overall from me

It all starts with a cold case, a kidnapped child, and FBI agent Ann Davidson, who’s got no time for doubt. This prequel novelette and three following novellas each give a satisfying serving of suspense, like watching episodes of a prime-time crime drama. They aren’t sappy heart tales but rather heart-and-mind battles where life and death are the stakes. The series makes a place for faith without trying to wrap the stories up with neat and tidy bows. The fifth Heartfelt Case, which I haven’t yet read, is a full-length novel and will therefore be more of a movie than a television episode. Bring it.

The First Love Novels by Beverly Cleary

   

Young Adult Romance

★★★★ overall from me

Gee, how swell! Gotta love YA Lit from the ’50s and ’60s. I consider these YA novels by my favorite childhood author to be classics, and I had a marvelous time taking a second spin with them last year. (Well, it was only my first time reading Sister of the Bride.) I didn’t discern in my adolescence how wise and poignant a story The Luckiest Girl is. Jean’s gradual maturation in Jean and Johnny is so satisfying. And Fifteen is a charming tale that gets better as Jane begins to “learn her lesson.” Sister of the Bride isn’t really a romance but includes Barbara’s little pre-adventures with love and what she learns about herself while she helps prepare for her sister’s wedding. All in all, this is a fun and wholesome batch of old-fashioned but relevant tales.

An FBI Duo by DiAnn Mills

 

Christian Fiction/Romantic Suspense

★★★★★ each from me

In Trial By Fire, Special Agents Savannah Barrett and Paul Winston must hunt down an arsonist, while Savannah is also tasked with raising her suddenly orphaned grandchildren. A murdered oil and gas magnate happens to be the husband of Special Agent Tori Templeton’s best friend in Deep Extraction. Not all authors are equally skilled at writing both novellas and novels, but I found these two books to be equally well-written, substantive, and satisfying. Savannah and Paul aren’t a pair of twenty- or thirty-somethings, which adds a different flavor than you’ll find in a lot of romantic suspense. And the action in Tori’s story is unpretentious in the way it breaks out, set within an intricate plot that held my attention from cover to cover.

The Roaring Twenties Novels by Jennifer Lamont Leo

 

Christian Fiction/Historical Romance

★★★★ each from me

Small-town girl Marjorie Corrigan is visiting 1928 Chicago when she runs into the love of her life from ten years ago: a man presumed dead since he fought in the First World War. And Dot Rodgers, who’s trying to get her singing career up and humming, is right in the thick of the big city and the sparkling Jazz Age—but is she in too thick? There was never a dull moment for me as I read You’re the Cream in My Coffee, as all the various moving parts to Marjorie’s journey kept me engrossed. And as I read Ain’t Misbehavin’, I really came to like Dot, a woman who makes mistakes and doubts herself, but she’s also competent and capable when she puts her mind to something. These two novels are an enjoyable trip through the “roar” and glamour of the Twenties mixed with significant matters of the heart.

So. Does this list of books look good? Yes, it does! I may have to make another list like it sometime. 😀

You can get your reading started with a free Kindle copy of Love at First Bark, part of the Love Unleashed series, as well as a free Kindle copy of The Quinn Case.

 

And a bit of noteworthy news. 🙂 I first introduced a place called the Eubeltic Realm in the Movement of Crowns trilogy, and my latest novel, Eubeltic Descent, is a spin-off from that series. Now there’s more I’m planning to write about the original characters from the Realm in an additional spin-off! If you’ve not read the Movement of Crowns series yet, you can get it on sale now, and the first book is free. Check out the books at Amazon, or visit this page for links to more stores.

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Congratulations, authors, and thank you for writing your books! If one of these noteworthy reads is yours, you’re welcome to a complimentary medal to display on your website, blog, social media—wherever you wish. Click the image below and contact me to receive a full size PNG medal. (The lined watermark will be removed, of course.) Thanks again!