The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch, by T.M. Gaouette

 

 The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch by [Gaouette, T. M.]

At age ten, Benedict carries massive chips on both shoulders. Having passed from bad foster homes to worse, he dreads the uncertainty of new surroundings and new rules. When he arrives at The Sunshine Ranch, he doubts the sincerity of his new foster parents, David and Martha Credence and withholds his affections lest he is ripped again from friends and security. Benedict sees the other foster children as rivals and doubts that his good fortune will last. Over the next four years, he remains aloof, not daring to trust that he has found a home and family.

When foreclosure threatens The Sunshine Ranch, Benedict’s doubts seem to be confirmed. Although David and Martha ask Benedict and their other foster kids to have faith that God will provide, Benedict refuses to believe. But Micah, Benedict’s roommate, and chief rival keeps the faith. Eventually, Benedict realizes that The Sunshine Ranch gives him the only happiness that he has ever known, and that his constant worry and fear prevent him from enjoying it.

David and Martha Credence and their many foster children embody generosity and unquestioning faith. Theirs is an impossible task — they welcome hard-case kids like Benedict and scrape together the resources to meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Benedict, on the other hand, provides a counterpoint to everything the Credence family attempts to share. Too wounded by his early life experiences to accept the healing they offer, he’s likely to reject them and run away into the night. Micah, the optimist, has suffered as much as Benedict, but he always sees the bright side and attempts to wear down Benedict’s rough edges.

The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch appealed to every emotion: there are joy and sadness, richness and loss. T.M. Gaouette delivers a powerful story with an emotional wallop, filling her pages with surprises and suspense, mystery and romance, pain and growth. Unquestionably, this novel is a page turner.

I would recommend this book for family reading. Biological progeny and foster children, biological and foster parents can see themselves somewhere in the pages of this book. It will especially benefit students preparing for careers in social services. I enjoyed reading this story because its characters deeply touched me. I pray that many couples will follow the example of David and Martha Credence and provide a loving home for foster children.

Turning in Circles, by Michelle Buckman

Turning in Circles cover, MIchelle BuckmanWithin a sleepy farm community along the South Carolina coast, two families coexist. The Thaines and their neighbors enjoy hard work, hospitality, horseback riding, pie, ice tea, kittens, and each other. The Darlingtons favor extortion, white privilege, domination, abuse, dog fights, and freedom from the consequences of their nefarious activities.

Turning in Circles brings the Thaines and Darlingtons into conflict. A love story but not a romance, it describes how the sins of the parents—adultery and neglect—reemerge in the tragic delinquency of their children—youthful indiscretions that expose the Thaines to the dark desires of the Darlingtons.

The Thaine matriarch locks herself in her studio to focus on her artistic labors, while Daddy Thaine works the fields and pastures from sunup to sundown. He charges his daughters, Savannah and Charlie, with the responsibility of feeding and cleaning up after the horses and chickens. Savannah dutifully obeys, but Charlie evades dirty work, ignores her mother, and fears that her father has rejected her.

More than anyone else, Savannah Thaine loves her sister, Charlie. “Vannah” plans an idyllic life for the two of them, never leaving their rustic microcosm, much like the relationship between their mother and her sister, Myrtle. Charlie has a different idea, though. She craves love and validation from bad boy Dillon Smith—dark-eyed and “trouble on two feet from the day his mama left.” Dillon dominates and controls Charlie, as he drags her into his sinister world. Despite Savannah’s pleadings and warnings, Charlie drifts ever closer to disaster, compromising her family and dashing Savannah’s dreams.

Savannah realizes that Charlie is on a dangerous path, but cannot sway her from it. She is unwilling to expose her sister to parental censure, fearing she would lose Charlie’s love. Savannah views Charlie as a second self, spoiling her and shielding her from parental wrath. When Dillon captures Charlie’s affections, Savannah slips into codependency, enabling Charlie’s secret life. Throughout the narration, Savannah laments her cowardice. If only she had acted.

Sheriff Darlington ensures that his relatives, including Dillon Smith, escape the consequences of their frequent felonies and misdemeanors. Those outside the Sheriff’s clan, such as the Thaines, not only feel the full weight of the law but suffer blackmail and intimidation. Charlie’s delinquency provides the leverage the sheriff needs to destroy the tranquility in the Thaine family. Darlington demands that Daddy Thaine sell him Boudicca, a barely tame mare of spectacular beauty, if he doesn’t want Charlie to go to jail. Charlie senses her father’s resentment, which drives her deeper under Dillon’s control.

Savannah, the narrator, dominates the novel. She is aloof, inflexible, and naïve. She fails to reach most of her goals. The warnings she directs at her sister miss their mark, but change the lives of bystanders. Her dream to live like her mother and aunt is shattered, but she finds that after a horrible gloom there is a new dawn, as she grows into adulthood.

Analytical and inflexible to a fault, Savannah frequently dissects words and gestures, inferring deeper meanings and sinister plots. Despite her cerebral inclinations, her family and classmates describe her as naïve. In her search for deeper meanings, she often ignores the obvious. For instance, although she spends almost every free moment with Ellerbe, the boy next door, she dismisses him because he doesn’t fit into her plans for the future, and she thinks he’s incapable of understanding the implications of recent events. Ellerbe, less given to introspection, believes that a horseback ride is the solution to every problem in the world. Horses feature prominently in the story: Ellerbe loves his mare, Snow, as Daddy Thaine dotes on Boudicca. Woe to the Darlington who threatens the love between a man and his horse.

Although this is a young adult novel, its realism should alert parents to the possibility that their behavior could cost them their children’s loyalty. Parental examples, their obsession with their own concerns, their betrayals-especially adultery-can deeply scar their children, distorting their values and behavior.

Michelle Buckman’s tale opens during August’s heat and humidity—slow and sleepy—but climaxes with the impact of a diesel locomotive hitting an eighteen wheeler packed with dynamite. She bolsters her prose with sensory tones and often drifts into a poetic imagery that may lull her readers into complacency before the shocking climax.

Buckman succeeds in creating a gripping novel that burns its way into the reader’s memory. Turning in Circles begins on a tranquil beach, but ends on the shore of a different emotional galaxy.

Names on Walls

Memorial Day reminds us of those who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. Do we take it personally or is it just a holiday that gives us a long weekend?

On a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, I noticed the monument to those who died on the Battleship Maine. Do you “Remember the Maine” that battle cry that rallied us into the Spanish-American War? No visitor stopped to touch the wall, make rubbings, or even read the names. Will the same come true for the Vietnam Memorial?

I made my first contact with war when I was about three and a half. The family gathered around the most magical piece of furniture in the house, the Philco radio. President Roosevelt announced that we were at war. As I grew, the war became part of the family’s life with Ration Books and War Bonds, the collection of tinfoil, scrap metal, newspapers, and bacon fat. Four uncles and many family friends entered military service. One never came back.

Uncle Eddie had arrived in England only eighteen days earlier. On a training mission, he and his crew flew their B-24 Liberator bomber over the Irish Sea. Upon their return to base, the plane exploded. The grateful citizens of Birkenhead, England—south of Liverpool—carved Eddie’s name and the names of his companions on a memorial. My Aunt wrote that flowers decorate that monument all these years later.

In 1944, The Selective Service System drafted my thirty-four-year-old father into the Navy. We walked him to the Green Line Bus and waved goodbye. He called that night to say that he had been assigned to the USMC Reserves. Eventually, he participated in the invasion and occupation of Okinawa.

I vividly remember a day in September of 1945, when Dad, Mom, and my younger brother met me outside Our Lady of Perpetual Help School. When we had walked home, Dad opened his duffle bag and handed my brother and me Marine fatigue hats and knapsacks. We wore them beyond the point of utility. These battle mementos and endless viewings of John Wayne movies convinced us that we, like Dad would join the Marines.

Growing up, we dressed in parts of our father’s uniforms and joined the neighborhood boys in war games. The only kids excluded from our melees were the young baby boomers and girls.

As the years passed, my younger and youngest brothers joined the Marines. Although my youngest brother and a girl who lived down the block never played our war games, they both saw action in Vietnam. As part of a recon unit, my brother dropped out of helicopters with a massive radio on his back. He has the scars to prove it. The girl joined the Army. Captain Eleanor G. Alexander R. N. died in a plane crash with other nurses and a group of Vietnamese children. You can find her name on The Vietnam Memorial.

I met Rich Roughgarden at Notre Dame. He illuminated his architectural drawings much like an ancient monastic scribe. They were works of art, science, and social commentary. Shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Rich took me along on a road trip east. I visited friends in Brooklyn and attended the Notre Dame-Syracuse game in the old Yankee Stadium. Rich and I lost track of each other, but years later, I noticed his obituary in the Notre Dame Magazine. He served in an engineering unit and died in an accident. His name is on the Wall.

Many served and continued to serve. I know three who died in accidents. Like many, they never fired a shot in anger, but they stood between us and the shooters. They and those who fell in the service of their country remain forever young. Take a moment to remember what they did for us. They deserve our thanks and prayers.

Rejoice! Gospel Meditations, by Louis Evely

Lent invites us to refresh our souls, to refocus our lives, to set things right. Rejoice! by Louis Evely, has a way of growing us out of our comfort zones into the light. It challenges us to lift our crosses and follow Jesus. Evely writes: “There were times when Jesus was frightening in his logic, frightening in his relentlessness. He went beyond what was said of him; beyond the half-measures at which the Law had reasonably stopped. Jesus allowed nothing to stop him. He knows only one law: love. And from that law, he draws consequences with logic, which must either electrify or repel his followers.”

Consider the tax collectors and harlots who flocked to the desert to see St. John the Baptist. They asked John, “What must we do?” To their surprise, John told them, “If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same.” Luke 3:11.  To approach God who we cannot see; we must first approach our neighbors, especially those in need. The message of John and later Jesus electrified their followers. Imagine the joy among the penitents at finding the path to forgiveness and love. Imagine the community that benefits from their joyful giving.

Consider the Pharisees. Why instead of the Pharisees, did the likes of Matthew, Zacchaeus, other tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes flock to Jesus? Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection and angels. They maintained their zeal for the Law and awaited the Messiah. “They should have been Jesus’ staunchest supporters.” On the contrary, many of them joined in the call for Jesus’ death. Evely explains that “The Pharisees were proud of their faith, their knowledge, their good works, and their religious observances. Therefore they were closed to God’s gifts and God’s forgiveness, for they did not believe that they were in need of either.” They believed that they had saved themselves through their rigorous observance of the Law. In their assumption of righteousness, they not only rejected God’s mercy, but they refused to extend mercy toward the unrighteous. Imagine their frustration when Jesus said that they had to change their whole approach to God and that their earlier efforts may have placed them behind the hated tax-collectors on the path to God. The message of Jesus repelled them.

Evely used the Parable of The Prodigal Son to compare the Pharisees to the tax collectors and sinners. The older son keeps the Law, but he does so, resentfully. The prodigal, like the tax collectors, rejects the discipline of the Law, but at least he realizes his sinfulness. He is willing to confess to his father and beg a place among his servants. The father, like God the Father is something of a prodigal in his mercy toward the younger son. God squanders love on sinners and reproves the cold-hearted legalists. God’s ways are not our ways.

Evely observes, “It is one of the paradoxes of human nature that we often find more generosity, compassion, and willingness to serve among libertines and loose women than among our moral rigorists.” To underscore his claim, he cites the Parable of the Vineyard Workers. Those who endured the heat of the day received the same pay as those who worked only one hour. Evely writes that those who worked longer should have rejoiced at the good fortune of the last to arrive. The day-long workers grumbled at their fair wage, but Jesus made the point that the vineyard owner was free to do with his money as he wished, despite how it appeared to the workers. God’s ways are not our ways.

If we proclaim Jesus in our liturgy, we must live according to His teachings by radiating God’s love. “God is no more and no less visible than love itself,” Evely writes. “Other men see it and know that the Spirit of God is present. In the early church, only men ‘filled with the spirit’ were chosen for important missions. And the pagans said of the first Christians, ‘See how they love one another!’ The love of these Christians was such that, through it God Himself was made visible.” The lives of the early Christians proclaimed the Law of Love. In loving, they won the culture war against their pagan environment. Why today, have so many churches closed or serve only the elderly? Why today, do some Catholics fear the lure of the secular culture? Shouldn’t they be more concerned about cold-hearted Church members who lack the compelling love that denoted the early Christians and attracted new Christians?

Wishing you an invigorating Lent, one that brings rejoicing.

Louis Evely also wrote a collection of meditations focused on the Easter-Pentecost season: Joy: Meditations on the Joyful Heritage of Christianity.

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.

Feast of Pontius Pilate, by E. Ann McIntyre

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Who would have thought that any of the Gospel villains would merit a feast on the liturgical calendar or have churches erected in their memory? Believe it or not, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church considers Pontius Pilate and his wife, Claudia to be saints. A clear case for Claudia begins in the scriptures where she urges Pontius to have nothing to do with the trial of Jesus, but where does the road begin for Pilate’s conversion?

 

The canonical and apocryphal gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the writings of Flavius Josephus, the letters of Pontius Pilate, the Report of Pilate to Emperor Tiberius, concerning Jesus Christ, and other documents provide the substance from which the fertile imagination of Ann McIntyre traces Pilate’s spiritual journey.

 

As in her previous novel Lazarus of Bethany, the author inserts backstory—logical links that fill gaps in the scriptural accounts. The upper room used during the Last Supper becomes the Jerusalem home of Zebedee and his sons. McIntyre more completely develops scriptural characters including Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. The Centurion seeking a cure for his servant as Jesus enters Capernaum becomes the same Centurion at the execution and resurrection of Jesus. She expands the role of Cornelius, visited by Peter in the Acts of the Apostles.

 

Emperor Tiberius reluctantly posts Pilate as Prefect of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, placing him on notice that any failure in his management could result in his execution. The enmity of Tiberius comes despite his family connection to Claudia. Pressure on Pilate increases with the constant complaints to Rome by Chief Priest Caiaphas. The condemnation and execution of Jesus place Pilate in a no-win situation. Leniency would allow Caiaphas to say that Pilate “is no friend to Caesar,” but the crucifixion of Jesus also blackens Pilate’s record with Tiberius. As Pilate dispatches a report of the execution, a letter from Tiberius arrives, asking for Jesus to become his personal healer.

 

McIntyre adds a spiritual dimension to her description of the treatment of Jesus before and during his execution—details that enrich meditation, especially during Holy Week.  She nicely exposes Caiaphas’ bribes to cover-up Jesus’ resurrection and seamlessly links the several appearances of Jesus after his resurrection, inserting visits with Claudia and Pilate. Pilate waffles in his belief until disaster strikes.

 

Pilate’s slaughter of Samaritan’s insurgents gives the Governor of Syria the opportunity to replace him with his own man from North Africa. According to the Acts of Pilate, the Emperor orders Pilate to kill himself. Some accounts say that Christ appears to Pilate saving his life and confirming his conversion.

 

Although historical fiction, at times The Feast of Pontius Pilate reads like an action-adventure thriller. The story flows logically as narrations switch between Pilate and Jesus. Pilate’s conversion certainly fits within the Year of Mercy theme. If Pontius Pilate could receive forgiveness and mercy, we can hope for the same.