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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Secrets and Lies (review)

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Secrets and Lies - Janet SketchleySecrets and Lies: A Redemption’s Edge Novel by Janet Sketchley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Carol Daniels has moved with her 16-year-old son Paul from Calgary to Toronto at the beginning of Secrets and Lies, Janet Sketchley’s second book in the Redemption Edge Series. It wasn’t a move of choice but of necessity, to get away from the terrifying lowlife associates that had begun threatening her in her western home—characters that were seemingly connected to her brother (the convicted killer Harry Silver from Heaven’s Prey – Redemption’s Edge 1).

Her hopes of hiding from the thugs are dashed when disturbing anonymous phone calls start again. Not only is the voice in the calls creepy but the threats are terrifying and the character behind them far too aware of her whereabouts and movements for comfort. His demand is for money that her brother has apparently salted away. The detective on the case suggests Carol will eventually have to get in touch with the brother she despises and has disowned.

Those calls aren’t her only worry. There’s Paul too—a good kid but too much like Skip, his egotistical musician father. At least Paul’s not into drugs—the most loathsome of substances that killed her other son, Keith. And she’s determined to keep him safe from the present danger and from following in the footsteps of his musical father.

When nightmares awaken her or worries about her son or the spooky calls keep her from sleep, she makes mint tea and phones the oldies station to talk to the DJ, Joey. He always has a sympathetic ear and a repertoire of Billy Joel tunes to serenade her out of any mood. It turns out that Joey, in person, is just as nice as on-air—and then she discovers he too is hiding secrets.

Sketchley’s skill at merging the believeable and homey details of a modern single mom’s life with criminal threats and shadowy danger makes her main character relatable and in a situation that seems real and plausible. More than once I found myself gripping my e-reader muttering: Don’t answer the stupid phone … don’t trust him … don’t go with him!

But the story is more than a well-plotted tale of romantic suspense. For in it Sketchley wades through all kinds of waters: a mother’s attempts to control her son, a son’s attempts to find his own way while not hurting his mom, trust: how we earn it and find courage to place it, forgiveness: God’s for us and ours for each other, and more.

In the faith department I appreciated the way Sketchley’s Christian characters don’t have all the answers but wrestle with their beliefs like we all do. Several characters have a strong faith and through them we hear good reasons why God is worth putting our faith in even if it seems He’s let us down in the past.

This second book in the Redemption ‘s Edge series is gentler than Heaven’s Prey but with moments just as nailbitingly tense. Sketchley’s sense of timing and ability to lull us with sweet ordinariness, only to fling us in the next page into the arms of cold, unscrupulous evil, makes this a must-read for lovers of Christian suspense. Believable, complex characters and a keen eye for telling details make Sketchley’s writing a pleasure to read for anyone. And there are bonus treats. For the music savvy, this book is a sentimental stroll down memory lane. For the reader with the munchies, all those good smells coming from the Sticky Fingers café and Carol’s own kitchen are enough to drive a person to brownies—with mint tea, of course.

A set of discussion questions at the end of the book makes this a perfect choice for book clubs.

Readers who can’t get enough fiction delivered with doses of tension and danger will want to keep an eye on Sketchley’s lengthening list of books. No Safe Place, Redemption’s Edge 3 is due out in 2015.

This excellent read launches TODAY, November 5th, 2014. Check it out.

Spend a sentimental afternoon with this Secrets and Lies oldies playlist.

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Strange Faces (review)

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Strange FacesStrange Faces by Linda Hall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The last time I enjoyed a book of short stores as much as I did Strange Faces by Linda Hall, it was authored by Alice Munro.

Strange Faces has some similarities. Like the characters in Munro’s books, Hall’s are all ordinary people—housewives, mechanics, teachers. And like Munro’s tantalizing first lines, the beginnings of each story in Hall’s seven-story collection pulled me in so I wanted to read more.

“I’ve suspected for some time that I should go to the authorities about Lewis. Why haven’t I? Fear, I suppose. Even anonymous calls aren’t anonymous” – first lines of “Mad Scientist.”

“I’ve always been very protective of my sister. Even when she started killing people at her work” – first lines of “Weather Ladies.”

Such beginnings give us a taste of Hall’s cat-and-mouse game with the reader as we try to figure out: is this person reliable, wearing a white or black hat, is he/she even sane?

Most of these tales are dark. Through her characters Hall plumbs the depths of the human heart’s capacity for jealousy, fear, desire for revenge, rage at being deserted. Several stories speak about bullying. She asks ‘What if…?’ and then sees the matter through to its deadly conclusion. And so there’s murder and mayhem, but ever so genteelly disclosed.

Hall’s stories are full of homey but significant details and whiplash surprises—a very entertaining combination.

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Persecuted (review)

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Persecuted: I Will Not Be SilentPersecuted: I Will Not Be Silent by Robin Parrish

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Freedom is fragile and costly. It must be constantly protected and defended by work and by faith … and by blood” (Kindle Location 103).

Rev. John Luther knows these words, uttered during a TV interview, could get him into trouble—especially given the pressure being put on him and Truth Ministries by his old friend Senator Donald Harrison.

Harrison’s baby is the Faith and Fairness Act—a piece of legislation he is determined to get passed whatever it takes. But so far, Luther has resisted bringing his popular and influential ministry on board. After all, it is an act that would bind Luther and his TV show “… to publicly declare your religious beliefs in a way that permits equal time and respect to other faiths.”

Big mistake. At last that’s what some consider it. Luther’s steadfast refusal to buckle to the forces of compromise, even after a personal visit from Harrison, puts in motion a chain of events that is the gripping political suspense tale Persecuted by Robin Parrish.

An ominous man in a gray suit, a distraught wife and innocent child, an intuitive and loyal father (also a man of the cloth), and two gutsy investigators make up the cast of characters.

It’s a David and Goliath fight all the way as John soon finds himself pitted against ruthless, shadowy figures who will stop at seemingly nothing. And they are getting their orders from whom? Could it be the highest power in the land?

The themes of freedom of religion and conscience, the relationship of fathers and sons, and the importance of family play out before us in scenes that go from palm-sweatingly tense to tender. John Luther’s checkered past plays a large part in convincing the public and even those close to him that he might be capable of the acts pinned on him. His backstory, told as flashback scenes between current incidents, helps us understand the gravity of his situation even as these episodes provide a break from suspenseful action of the here-and-now.

A set of nine “Questions for Conversation” completes the book’s offering.

The writing is strong with nothing to distract from the story’s spell and I found the book hard to put down (though John’s success at avoiding his pursuers did stretch my credulity from time to time). The book’s message of warning is timely as we see the political climate of western countries warm towards tolerance as the highest value, no matter what the cost to personal conscience and freedom. I also loved the portrayal of Charles Luther, John’s father—a rock John could always depend on no matter what. The way Charles fathered John reminds me of how God fathers us. The questions at the book’s end make this a good choice for book clubs to read and discuss.

I received Persecuted as a gift from publisher Bethany House for the purpose of writing a review. The quality of the NetGalley Kindle download was, as usual, abysmal with inconsistent formatting and letters missing within words. I only hope the ebook offered for sale is better quality!

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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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Riptide (review)

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Riptide - by Eric E. WrightAshlyn Forsyth joins her husband Craig on St. Simons Island (Georgia) so they can work on their relationship. But when, after only three days, he hands her an envelope and then drives off with a female colleague from work, Ashlyn fears she’s been had.

Craig’s letter requesting a divorce and stating that he is dropping out of sight blindside this middle-aged marriage counselor/deacon’s wife. Surely, with her relationship experience, she should have seen it coming!

But Craig’s actions are only the beginning. The cancellation of all her credit cards, the seizure of their house in New York, and the visit of two FBI agents prove how serious is the trouble Craig and his investment agency are in. Soon Ashlyn is herself in a cat-and-mouse chase with the Russian mafia in Riptide by Eric E. Wright, a tale that kept me on the edge of my seat for most of its 328 pages.

Main character Ashlyn, struggles inwardly with why God is allowing these bad things to happen to her, will her young-adult children be safe, and who is she now that her marriage is falling apart and she no longer has the credibility to run her counseling business. Remy Jeandeau, a rough-around-the-edges but gentle shrimp fisherman keeps popping up whenever Ashlyn is in the thickest trouble. Soon she’s also fighting feelings about him that she knows a married woman shouldn’t be having.

The St. Simons Island setting, with its laid-back lifestyle and beautiful scenery is a contrast to the story’s dark elements. Wright’s descriptive yet efficient writing style is a good vehicle for this tale with scenes that range from lyrical to danger-filled. The hunt and chase segments are masterfully rendered; I felt like I was watching them on a big screen.

Readers who enjoy complex characters thrust into a world of danger and intrigue, where characters are driven to the edge and forced to dig deep to survive will enjoy Riptide. Watch for this Harbourlight book from Pelican Ventures, due to release in March of 2014.

I received a digital copy of Riptide from the author for the purpose of writing a review.

Vampire Defense by James D. Bell (review)

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VampireDefenseWhen John Brooks is assigned  to defend Hal Boyd on arson and four murder charges it looks like his reputation as a brilliant lawyer is finally destined to hit the big time. That is, until he announces the vampire defense, a plea that his client was insane because he was convinced the man he killed was a vampire.

A band of black-garbed stalkers, together with a kidnapping of one of Brooks’ own team alert us  to the fact that John and his crew have taken on a lot more than the defense of Boyd. Unlikely twists and turns of plot lead us, in the second half of the story, to several courtroom segments and the trial’s surprising aftermath in Vampire Defense, a first novel by James D. Bell that promises to deliver drama and suspense, punctuated by comic relief.

Frankly, I found the first half of the book a slog. The plot—so key in a book of this type—seemed contrived, as if the author was pushing the characters around to have them end up where he wanted them. The characters felt like stereotyped cardboard figures, many of them buffoons, that we hardly get to know at all. Combine that with technical missteps like undisciplined point of view (in most scenes we find ourselves in the heads of numerous characters) and author intrusion (a narrator voice keeps cutting in to explain points of law or describe the setting), and I found I couldn’t give myself over to the story until the courtroom scenes.

The Christian aspect of the tale (character Books is known as a committed praying Christian whose faith is not shared by most of his colleagues) though a good explanation of John’s integrity and niceness, is never explored in any depth either. In fact, when his to-this-point principled relationship with women is tested by the irresistible Sandy Storms, it’s not his standards that come to the rescue, but someone walking in on the clinch, making me wonder how he would have stood up under different circumstances.

Author Bell does know the judicial system, however. A former judge, he may even have written himself into the tale (there is a minor character by the name of Bell, a judge, and the promotional material says that the story was inspired by a true life incident in which Bell was involved). He seems very familiar with the courtroom and its routines, and his depiction comes across as authentic and believable. When I came to that part of the book I finally settled in and got caught up in the story.

I received Vampire Defense as a gift from a publicist for the purpose of writing a review.

Read a sample chapter

Title: Vampire Defense

Author: James D. Bell

Publisher: Sartoris Literary Group,   November 2012, available in paperback and Kindle editions

  • ISBN-10: 0985885211
  • ISBN-13: 978-0985885212