Racing the Devil, by Charles Todd

Racing the Devil is the nineteenth book in the Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery Series and a tantalizing read. Like many previous Rutledge Mysteries, in Race with the Devil, the Inspector chases after a mass murderer who attacks anyone who obstructs his or her dark ambitions. Targets include Rutledge.

THE PLOT

Seven British Army officers pledge to meet in Paris, a year after the eventual conclusion of the Great War. The five who survive the trenches find that their battles continue after the Armistice. Someone, perhaps one of the five, tries to kill the others.

A year after the Paris reunion, a motorcar belonging to one of the five crashes in a Sussex village near the lime cliffs known as the Seven Sisters, killing the driver. The local constable calls “The Yard” for assistance. Enter, Inspector Rutledge.

The novel’s subtext speaks of the wreckage left in the wake of war—depopulation, especially among the best and brightest of the young men; grotesque physical and emotional wounds among the survivors, and the remains of their families; and the rusting remnant of the nation’s infrastructure. So many horses die in the war that unemployed blacksmiths turn their smithies into automobile repair shops—a salient detail in a story focused on cars and “accidents.”

Rutledge fans will notice a diminished role for Hamish Macleod. Hamish stars in his own, recent short story: The Piper, but his scarcity may say more about Rutledge’s long-term health than anything else.

THE SERIES

Charles Todd offers his readers, in addition to a tense, absorbing mystery, a travelogue of Southeast England, circa 1920, a prose rich in imagery, and period references. The reader would be wise to consult a detailed roadmap of the United Kingdom to follow the action. Online searches for images of the local landscape and geological features can add perspective.

Todd’s time machine douses readers with frequent rain, guides them through the tents and booths of market days, feeds them sandwiches, cakes, and pub fare, and nearly drowns them in tea, whiskey, port, and the ever-looming pint. Todd reanimates regional traditions and institutions such as the town constable. Rutledge encounters an assortment of local policemen and learns the value of those who have served long and well. They know everyone in and everything that happens on their patch. Then, there are the others who guard their turf and milk it for any benefit it may bring to themselves.

A master craftsman, Charles Todd can be counted on to ratchet up the level of suspense and conflict. He leads his readers on a merry chase by introducing squads of characters with means, motive, and opportunity. Just when the guilty individual seems to have been arrested, Todd saves another major wrinkle to unfold.

Race with the Devil is never boring. It’s the type of story where the readers may glance at the clock to realize that Todd has kept him or her up beyond the normal bedtime hour. The only regret is that fans must wait another year for volume twenty.

The Long Cosmos, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

He may have died in 2015, but Terry Pratchett’s spirit lives on in more than seventy of his books. His feel-good novels consistently advocate not only for the underdog, but the under-troll, the under-gremlin, the poor, the powerless, and the downtrodden. His stories and novel-series create new worlds and even new universes. His stories cross genre boundaries of fantasy, sci-fi, romance, adventure, and eccentric history.

Pratchett’s stories customarily weave multiple storylines with only the faint wisp of kinship. He offers images that require his readers to pause, savor, and reflect until the story emerges from the seemingly unrelated details. Readers float in a sea of seemingly unconnected details from each subplot, yet the enchanting prose and literary gems darned into almost every paragraph capture his readers’ loyalty and reward their patience. Eventually, as if viewing a fragment of a magnificent tapestry—a piece the size of a page in a book—the subplot fibers, like rootlets, knit together, allowing the reader to view the novel’s grand design.

Unfortunately, The Long Cosmos, the fifth book in the Long Earth series (published posthumously, thanks to co-author Stephen Baxter), fails to sustain the Pratchett tradition. The outline came from the minds of both Pratchett and Baxter, but the reader must credit (or blame) Baxter for writing the final product.

The “long cosmos” alluded to in the book’s title includes millions of Earth-like planets that stretch across space in a long pearl-like necklace. Gifted interplanetary travelers “step” or walk from one version of Earth to the next. They need only imagine themselves on the next planet, and their bodies follow  their imaginations through space. The less imaginative may fly to distant “Earths” in a vessel called a “twain,” presumably named after Mark Twain, since one of the largest twains is called the “Samuel Clemens.”

Each variation of Earth displays a unique geological and biological evolution. Predatory reptiles like Pterosaurs may glide above, while scaly swamp creatures strike from below. Trees miles in height look down through the clouds at the mountain tops. Their wood is so light and durable that it is used in the hulls of twains.

The story takes place in a time following the 2040 eruption of the Yellowstone volcano and the years of volcanic winter that left Earth, and particularly North America in ruins. Joshua Valiente, 67, against his family’s objections, decides to go camping on a distant Earth. After he suffers a serious accident, he is nursed back to health by a collective of trolls. Sancho, a silverback troll librarian, like Don Quixote’s sidekick, nurses Joshua and educates him in the complexities of troll communication and travel throughout the necklace of Earths. These trolls look more like orangutans than they do Shrek or the Tolkienesque variety, or even the massive trolls that populate other Pratchett novels.

In another subplot, an Extraterrestrial Intelligence calls all sapient beings including beagles, humans, trolls, and the Next—a vastly more intelligent human subspecies—to “Join Us.” Although all are called to “join,” each species harbors doubts about the fitness and worthiness of the other groups. Several minor plots explore the building of a vast communications beacon and travel pods, the human interactions with other sapient groups, and Joshua’s family dynamics.

Eventually, all of the threads weave into something of a New Age coming together of the minds within the universe. The depiction of the collective intelligence of the trolls, their facility in “stepping” from one Earth to the next, and their recording of Earth and troll history in their ballad-like “long calls” proved to be the most interesting memory that I’ll take from this book.

Moriarty Meets His Match: A Professor and Mrs. Moriarty Mystery (Book 1), by Anna Castle

When writers strain their brains for new ideas, they might consider revisiting an old idea. For instance, Gregory Maguire applied the rules of “alternative fiction,” in his retelling Frank Baum’s classic 1900 story the Wizard of Oz.  Forget Dorothy, Maguire wrote from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West. The result: the novel Wicked, which later appears on stage as a musical thanks to Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman, and still later as a movie of the same name.

Why not revisit Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature masterpiece and reveal Sherlock Holmes for the cad he is.

And who better than Anna Castle—with a keen eye for historical context and detail, and famous for her Francis Bacon Mystery series—to expose Holmes and rehabilitate the reputation of Professor James Moriarty.

In book one of her latest series, Moriarty Meets His Match; Castle tells a tale of fleecing wolves, not lambs.  It begins at the London International Exhibition of 1862. The plot then spins a web of lupine greed and arrogance.

“Society nobs (who) had plenty of twinkle with their unsalable family jewels, but very little crinkle—cash money—in their pocketbooks,” ensnare unwary investors in schemes that are designed to enrich the nobs and soak their stockholders.

To the rescue of the lambs, rides the “not entirely respectable,” Mrs. Angelina Gould, a member of a notorious family of confidence swindlers and actors. Call it love at first sight or her setting up a mark, Mrs. Gould crosses paths with and latches onto Professor James Moriarty, mustached, preacher’s son, mathematician, athletic, unassuming and vulnerable. He “radiate(s) integrity like a warm stove.”

With an axe of a nose, Holmes, consulting detective to Scotland Yard speaks in supercilious tones, ignores facts, and seems driven by his own prejudices “He longed for an opponent who could challenge him intellectually. Moriarty fit that bill. Therefore, Moriarty must be a suspect.” Holmes generates theories that fit the facts, although they lead to erroneous conclusions, placing Moriarty in jeopardy of swinging on the gallows for his enemy’s crime.

Anna Castle will please romance fans, those who love Victorian London, and most readers in search of an exciting mystery. She repeatedly places Moriarty and Mrs. Gould in horrible jeopardy from which few authors could extract them.

Anna Castle has recently launched the second book in the Professor and Mrs. Moriarty Mystery Series: Moriarty Takes His Medicine.

The Piper: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Story, by Charles Todd

The Piper: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Story by [Todd, Charles]

Charles Todd’s Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery Series guides readers across early twentieth-century London, the English countryside, and occasionally on trips to the continent.  Readers observe as Scotland Yard’s ace investigator solves the cases everyone else finds impossible. Wherever Rutledge goes, Hamish MacLeod is sure to follow. Normally, Todd offers Rutledge mystery as novels. However, The Piper presents as a short story, and Rutledge is totally missing. In The Piper, Hamish MacLeod becomes a sleuth long before he meets the Scotland Yard Inspector. After Hamish rescues an injured bagpiper, the same lad is found murdered near the MacLeod croft. Hamish uses guile to trap the killer but exposes himself to considerable danger.

Weaving short stories into the fabric of a novel-based series conveniently fills in backstory and deepens character-development. Short stories may link to earlier and future works in serial novels, cement over gaps between existing novels, or offer a second viewpoint on the events.

Some of Charles Todd’s more recent Ian Rutledge novels serve as prequels to the post-World War I series. Although the author adds a new book each year, his pre-war short story—The Piper—both satisfies and intensifies the impatient fans’ hunger for a morsel of vicarious adventure.

The Piper elaborates on Hamish’s personal life and character. It illuminates the forces that shape the rugged individualism and moral strength he exhibits throughout the Rutledge series—the same courage that brings him into conflict with Rutledge.

Although remarkably beautiful, the Highlands of Scotland can challenge both beast and man. The MacLeod sheep survive outdoors on sparse vegetation, despite cold, soaking rain and raging wind. The canny highland sheep know how to hunker down behind any structure that blocks the wind. They provide Hamish’s family with the finest wool, the foundation of their subsistence. As The Piper begins, the reader observes Hamish struggling against the wind and drenching rain to open the door of his stone cottage. Without any luxuries, he roots about in the dark to stoke his fire and brighten his shelter. When he manages to find dry clothing, he hears a call for help. He returns to the storm to find a badly injured lad who he carries back to his home. These behaviors play out again in the later books of the series when Corporal Hamish MacLeod serves under the command of Ian Rutledge in the trenches of the Somme.

Ann McIntyre, a member of the Catholic Writers Guild, also uses a short story (Yes) as a link between her published novels set in the past (Lazarus of Bethany and The Feast of Pontius Pilate) to a novel in progress, set in the present. Other Guild members may find that short stories aid in rounding out their novels.

 

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley

This #1 National Bestselling novel begins as Flight 613 lifts off the tarmac. Serious concerns plague more than half the travelers—concerns they set aside until after the hop from Martha’s Vineyard to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

Sixteen minutes later the plane crashes, leaving only two passengers alive: JJ, the four-year-old son of a multi-millionaire, and Scott Burroughs, an artist in his forties.

In Before the Fall, Emmy, Golden Globe, PEN, Critic’s Choice, and Peabody Award winning Noah Hawley, writer, and producer of the hit TV series Bones, applies his stagecraft and cinematographic skills to the verbal autopsy of each occupant of the doomed jet.

Like pieces of wreckage fished from the sea, he cleverly introduces fragments of backstory amplifying the scream of conflict and the bellowing suspicion as to who benefits from the disaster. A team of federal investigators from the NTSB, the FAA, the FBI, and other agencies attempts to determine the cause of the crash and assign blame. Since JJ is too young, and the other travelers aboard Flight 613 are dead, only Scott Burroughs remains to soak up censure, deserved or not.

The death of JJ’s father, David Bateman, director of the ALC news-as-entertainment-network, launches ALC-anchorman Bill Cunningham on a mission of retribution, delving into Scott’s disaster-ridden past. Cunningham spends weeks delightedly defacing Scott Burroughs’ heroic image, but Cunningham has secrets of his own.

The primary protagonist, Scott Burroughs, tries to understand how, after pulling together the rubble of his own life and finally standing on the brink of success, he stumbles into his current quandary.  More importantly, how should he deal with his damaged reputation and threats from law enforcement? The reader rides the rapids of Scott’s stream of consciousness to a dramatic climax. Have his past tragedies prepared Scott to cope with his present dilemma or will he return to his alcohol addiction and lose everything?

Written by a multitalented author, Before the Fall offers a survivor’s view of an air disaster with all of the public, legal, and psychological fallout. It generates excitement, outrage, and incredulity as conflicting agendas gather like vultures over the wreckage. It fully deserves the NY Times rating as one of the year’s best suspense novels.

Hawley’s narration often imitates a camera zooming in on an object, but when the narration zooms out, the object rests in a totally different place, time, and context. The unexpected scene change advances the story while raising suspense about the broken storyline.

Hawley weaves his characters in and out of his narrative by suddenly switching viewpoints. He carefully develops each character so thoroughly and sympathetically that every plane crash death renews the reader’s pain of loss.

 

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert

 

Image of the book jacket coverElizabeth Kolbert’s journalistic style offers an exciting and thorough case study of humanity’s impact on life, and the likelihood that human behavior may extinguish all earthly life, including human life.

Not one to research in dusty museums, Kolbert meets the current extinction experts in the ecological hotspots that serve as their laboratories. She climbs the Andes, goes spelunking in the bat caves of New York and Vermont, snorkels off the Great Barrier Reef, trudges through the South American rain forests, and visits Gubbio, Italy where she explores the clay left by a dinosaurs-killing asteroid collision.

She speaks with the experts in each aspect of Earth’s changing ecology and examines the evidence left behind by Lyell, Darwin, Lamarck, and Cuvier.  She introduces the reader to a galaxy of fascinating critters, among the living and the extinct. In the process, she outlines the apparently irreconcilable theories of evolution and how with time they evolved into one substantial explanation of the origins and extinctions of the species.

When Kolbert assembles this myriad of puzzle pieces, they point to the term, Anthropocene. That is the name given to the geological epoch dominated by humans. People have secured this dubious honor because they have diverted the course of natural history toward an unnatural and moribund path.

Throughout human existence, our species has intentionally and accidentally annihilated countless species. Once abundant and successful, every Wooly Mammoth, Great Auk, and Passenger Pigeons, thanks to humanity’s relentless hunting are now extinct. Our unwitting transport of disease organisms and invasive species have eradicated vulnerable life forms distorting their native biological communities.

The ecological impact of humans will soon rival that of Earth’s collision with a six-mile wide asteroid that closed the Cretaceous period, sixty-six million years ago. That “nuclear-winter-like” event exterminates seventy-five percent of all life forms, including every land organism larger than a cat.

The multipronged human attack on creation includes climate change, ocean acidification, and habitat destruction.

For those uncertain about climate change, the author offers solid evidence to support the notion that human activity accelerates natural cycles and in this current situation has endangered life itself on this planet. She introduces climate change’s evil twin, ocean acidification. The latter is easily measured and is found consistently in the waters of the world. Carbon dioxide’s role in the greenhouse effect and global warming is significant, but CO2 finds its way into the oceans—now thirty percent more acidic than in 1800—where it joins with water to form the carbonic acid that erodes coral reefs, drives out dissolved oxygen and otherwise alters living conditions for marine organisms.

Humans have replaced or fragmented the natural land communities of the world. Deforestation, agriculture, development have destroyed habitats and ruptured the communities that sustain life as we know it. When species disappear, it is like an ingredient goes missing. The resulting dynamic spins askew, affecting every other living thing, including present and most certainly future humans.

Those who hold life dear must realize that unless they respect and preserve all life forms, humans will lose the ultimate battle. They needn’t fear the Zombie Apocalypse or the Planet of the Apes. More likely, Earth’s next dominant species will be the rats.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert offers affirmers and deniers of climate change, an approachable, but a substantial body of evidence to support the case for climate change. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is not an opinion piece. It outlines the evidence affirming that the current rate of global warming is ten times faster than at the end of the last glaciation and all glaciations before it. The end-notes occupying the last quarter of the book offer a guide to the available data for all to examine.

Climate change deniers often cite that some scientists are not on board with the dangers of climate change and therefore we should ignore those who predict dire consequences. Kolbert clearly shows that scientists rarely agree on anything. Scientists are rivals who push their own explanations of natural phenomena. When so many scientists from every field from astronomy to zoology agree that climate change and the human role in it is the equivalent of an asteroid striking Earth, it is time to sit up, notice, and act. Humans may be helpless the next time a monster rock targets Earth, but humans can curb their own activities. It is time to raise voices to ensure that the Environmental Protection Agency continues to protect the environment. The EPA can do more to keep today’s and tomorrow’s Americans safe from earthly threats as can the Defense Department. The future is in your hands.

10 steps to Girlfriend Status, by Cynthia T. Toney

Adolescence is the most difficult time of life. How do we survive it? What with all the physical, emotional, external, and self-inflicted challenges, it is no wonder that many teens lose their way on the path to maturity.

In 8 Notes to a Nobody, Cynthia Toney’s first volume in the Bird Face series, Wendy Robichaud, with help from her friends learns to smile. As 10 Steps to Girlfriend Status follows 8 Notes to a Nobody, Wendy seems more confident. In fact, we see a daring and assertive Wendy. She grows close to her first boyfriends. She encounters the unstoppable forces that will separate her from Mrs. Villaturo, the only “grandmother” that Wendy knows. Wendy weathers the on-again-off-again friendship with her new step-sister Alice Rend. That’s enough stress for anyone.

As the title suggests, Wendy checks off each leap forward in her relationship with her boyfriend, David Griffin. Of course, for every step forward, there may be a step or two in reverse.

In addition to the “David loves Wendy” story, 10 Steps cleverly explores the emotional permutations of Wendy’s first year in high school. She moves in with a blended or step-family. She struggles to balance her parents’ rules while still enjoying dates with David. She suffers the slings and arrows of rivalries— Wendy vs. Alice, the David-Wendy-Sam love-triangle. She mourns as the erosive effects of Alzheimer’s Disease dim her relationship with Mrs. Villaturo.

Wendy resents parental and step-parental advice, even though her mom and “Papa D” share the scars of their own teen ventures into dating. Everything seems to fly out of control with no solution in sight until Wendy hears about the family secret.

Mrs. Villaturo rouses Wendy’s curiosity when she mentions a scandal involving Wendy’s great-uncle Andre. Detective/diplomat Wendy sets out to uncover and solve this mystery. “Inquiring minds want to know.” She deliberately invites Alice to a road trip to bayou-country where answers may dangle amid the Spanish moss. Besides, Alice has her own not-so-mysterious reasons to visit great-uncle Andre’s relatives and their neighborhood crawling with alligators and snakes.

Excitement, conflict, mystery, and infatuation march through the pages of 10 Steps to Girlfriend Status. The reader learns that Wendy’s heart is big enough to love selflessly and tender enough to ache and break as tragedies past and present unfold. The reward for her love-quest comes in the form of a closer and deeper relationship with every other character in the book.

Cynthia Toney caps off her engaging story with discussion questions and resources on the topics of teen dating, teens and Alzheimer’s disease, blended families, and stepfamilies.

She and I belong to the Catholic Writers Guild Fiction Critique Group. She provided me a review copy of 10 Steps to Girlfriend Status, which proved to be a joy to read.

 

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd: A Flavia de Luce Novel by [Bradley, Alan]

Flavia de Luce fans stand to applaud her return from her interminable trials in the tundra of Toronto. Unfortunately, her family barely recognizes her existence. “Like a pair of sick suns rising, (her sister) Daffy’s eyes came slowly up above the binding of her book. I could tell she hadn’t slept. “Well, well,” she said. “Look what the cat dragged in.”

“As if from some molten furnace, a new Flavia de Luce had been poured into (her) old shoes.” Now the chatelaine or mistress of Buckshaw, Flavia seeks her social level among adults, especially Cynthia, the vicar’s wife. Cynthia sends Flavia on a simple errand that quickly plunges the de Luce heiress into the realm of murder, veneered in witchcraft. With an appropriate malapropism, Mrs. Mullet warns, “there’s no good comes of meddlin’ the “Black Carts.”

To set the scene, the author borrowed his title–Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d–from an incantation first published in Macbeth. He lists a cat among his characters and no cats were injured in the telling of this Flavia mystery. The same can’t be said for chickens.

First, on the scene of an apparent homicide, Flavia attempts to unravel the mystery before Inspector Hewitt finds her out. This more independent Flavia tracks her clues to London where she meets her Canadian chemistry teacher and a member of the top secret “NIDE,” Mrs. Bannerman. From now on they are Mildred and Flavia.

Books, publishers, woodcarvers, child-stars, bones on the beach, winter fest, Horn Dance, and off-key singers muck through the trail of the murderer. Flavia courts danger in the graveyard and risks a running through. Flavia fans will always remember this volume for a particularly shocking revelation.

Like one of Flavia’s character who “left the thought hanging like a corpse from the gallows,” I leave the plot to discuss what matters most to me in an Alan Bradley novel. Although the mysteries weave and knot within a most fascinating skein of clues, it’s the polish that he rubs into his phrases that I most love. For example:

The vicar’s wife hears things that would peel the paint off battleships.

How many murderers have been undone by a blurt?

Since the British Lion was a kitten.

Her face glowed like a Sunday school stove.

Her voice hung shrill in the air like a shot partridge.

The kind of person who makes your pores snap shut and your gullet lower the drawbridge.

In the moonlight, even the kitchen garden glowed, the red brick of the old walls illuminating the dead beds with the cold, faded glory of silver.

Plumb wooden cherubs that simpered and leered at one another as they swarmed to their mischievous task.

The vicarage was especially damp and soggy, with an aura of boiled eggs and old books—a perfect setting for our encounter: dark brooding, and simply reeking of secrets and tales told in an earlier time.

Distant electric lights come on in other people’s homes, mere pinpricks in the gloom—mirages of happiness.

We seethed, like a mass of jellyfish, toward the station’s exit.

His office was like a cave carved into a cliff of books.

Stuck his little finger in his ear and wiggled it about a bit, as if fine-tuning it for truth.

A slapdash scrawl, as if the white heat of composition had overcome penmanship.

A kind of happy gloom.

It’s rayon, nitrocellulose by another name. It makes me feel explosive.

Someday, my prints will come.

Blackened bombsites still remained scattered round the church like rotting teeth in the mouth of some ancient duchess.

Finbar’s eyes swept slowly round her, like a lighthouse in the night.

Sad music began to ooze from the horn.

A book best read behind closed—or even locked doors.

One of London’s last remaining gas lamps flickered bravely and forlorn against the growing darkness.

As slick and soft and insincere as black velvet at a funeral.

Old Hanson was livid, but my father was incandescent.

I had a rather crush on Mother Nature. I did a bit of botanizing.

The wind moaned among the tombstones.

Some sleeps are washed with gold, and some with silver. Mine was molten lead.

This sampling should stoke the reader’s appetite for the hundreds of delights hidden throughout Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d. Alan Bradley leaves Flavia hanging precariously as the last page turns. What will become of her? How long must we wait until volume nine and a half?

Ornamental Graces, by Carolyn Astfalk

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 If you enjoy emotional rollercoasters,Ornamental Graces by Carolyn Astfalk is your book.

Among the author’s many gifts is her ability to conjure up fictional characters in many shades of human decency. Imagine, if you will, Dan Malone. He has let himself go; his business teeters on the brink of failure, and he has lost Kristen, his girlfriend. He struggles to prop up his sinking prospects but hasn’t exactly gotten his act together.

The voluptuous Kristen is a masterwork: pampered, pouty, petulant, a manipulative genius–one of Astfalk’s most impressive creations. Although Kristen and Dan have broken up, she still haunts his existence.

The novel opens with Dan sitting in a freezing shack surrounded by Christmas trees. While his landscaping business hibernates, Dan is selling the trees to make ends meet. Enter the pretty, perky, and pure Emily Kowalski—the polar opposite of Kristen. Dan is attracted but feels that he’d never be good enough for her. Nevertheless, Emily gives him a chance.

Dan’s incredible blunders push their relationship to the breaking point and beyond.  Although his clumsiness damages his chance with Emily, Kristen deliberately interferes, so she embarrasses Dan and demeans Emily. There’s also a stalker—not merely a nuisance, but an actual threat to Emily, Dan and any chance they may have as a couple.

On the positive side, Dan’s grandmother and her cooking comfort him, especially whenever he blows another chance with Emily. Grandma is a cross between a matchmaker and Dan’s guardian angel.  Emily’s brother, sister-in-law, and their kids also raise the general level of stability and hopefulness. Beneath the surface of each example of human solace is the fact that Dan, Emily, and their families connect through the power of their shared religious faith. They have to believe in miracles because there’s no way they would make it without God’s blessings and guidance.

Ornamental Graces is a wonderful Christmas and year-round romance that keeps the reader engaged from beginning to end.

Other romances by Carolyn Astfalk—again with fascinating characters and engaging plots—include Stay With Me (2015) and Rightfully Ours, scheduled for publication in April of 2017.

Carolyn Astfalk and I belong to the Catholic Writers Guild Fiction Critique Group. As one of her critique partners, I received a copy of each chapter as she wrote Ornamental Graces, Stay With Me and Rightfully Ours.

Battle for His Soul, by Theresa Linden

Theresa Linden completes her West Brothers’ trilogy with a look behind the facade known as Jarret West. He bullied his youngest brother as recounted in Ronald West, Loner and abused his relationship with Zoe and Caitlyn in Life Changing Love. This capstone volume reveals that Jarret’s fate depends on the outcome of a cosmic battle between Angels and Devils.

His victims might say that Jarret deserves whatever punishment befalls him, but they would miss the point that even a narcissistic, amoral manipulator like Jarret is deemed loveable by God.  Throughout Jarret’s life, his guardian angel, Ellechial has stood by him as Jarret’s personal demon Deth-kye, feeds Jarret’s vanity and passions, leading him to a violent showdown on Earth and an express ride to hell.

Jarret does little to avoid his self-inflicted fate. Despite his obnoxious behavior to countless schoolmates and his brothers, they form a prayer group. They pray before the Blessed Sacrament unaware that their prayers arm the Angels. The young prayer partners facilitate the angel’s access to Jarret’s conscience and enable them to warn Jarret of his danger.

The trilogy’s climax unfolds on an archeological expedition to the American West. Although he continues to mistreat his brother Roland, it is this younger brother who has a chance to save Jarret’s life, scare some sense into him, and sharpen his conscience.

Nevertheless, any strength gained by Ellechial is countered by, Deth-kye’s stirring of Jarret’s emotions, vices, and memories. Roland and his friends pray for and attempt to set Jarret straight during the final scene of the battle for Jarret’s soul?

It helps the reader to walk in Jarret’s shoes during his time of trial, especially at the conclusion of this Year of Mercy.

As a member of the Catholic Writers Guild’ Fiction Critique Group, I have worked with Theresa Linden as she brought A Battle for His Soul to press.