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.

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.

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.

 

8 Notes to a Nobody, by Cynthia T. Toney

Ten years in the writing, 8 Notes to a Nobody is required reading for any family with adolescents. Cynthia T. Toney packs her pages with humor, realism, and insight. She also deserves an MS degree as a Master of the Simile for this stylistic labor of love.

Wendy Robichaud is enjoying eighth grade until a classmate, “John-Monster,” starts calling her “Bird Face”– his inspiration, no doubt, Wendy’s Gallic nose and diminutive chin. His verbal pecks draw virtual blood in the figurative barnyard of Bellingrath Junior High.

Wendy furtively flees, steering clear of the marauding cliques: the Suaves (the designer-clad guys), the Sticks (the anorexic fashionista  girls), the Jocks, and others who swagger atop the pecking order. An unseen witness passes encouraging sticky notes whenever Wendy is attacked. Hoping that a guy is writing to her, Wendy sighs: “Why couldn’t I be the one who was lucky enough to be born so pretty that everybody liked me?”

Her mother, absorbed with “adult problems,” advises, “Try not to let this upset you too much.” Not much help there, so Wendy mounts her bike, her “[s]crawny leg muscles work[ing] to put as much distance between [her] and [her] life as possible.”

The advice she gets from Jennifer, her friend almost from birth (wise beyond her years) not only sets Wendy on a path out of life dominated by bullies, but can guide anyone suffering from verbal and physical abuse in all its forms. Wendy learns that her most understanding allies are fellow sufferers.

Considering the treatment she receives at school and home, Wendy asks, “Why should I be the one to change?” Struggling to cope with the bullies, she reminds herself that eagles, too, have a “bird face” and spreads her wings to fly into a new, but not necessarily trouble-free, life.

8 Notes to a Nobody explores forms of adolescent abuse and their consequences, including suicide. Even the kids on the top of the pecking order may be the victims of unhealthy expectations to which they can never measure up.

Cynthia Toney supplies an extensive list  of resources and a set of discussion questions, making 8 Notes to a Nobody not only a lively read, but a powerful friend that should be welcomed in every home, junior high school, and middle school.

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.