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.

Down Right Good, by Karen Kelly Boyce

Down right good

This story of social media with training wheels follows ten-year-old Angie’s Saturday deliveries of newspapers and baked goods. Each customer along Angie’s route receives her gifts and shares conversations, usually revealing vexing problems. Angie gathers problems at each stop, not as burdens but with an intention of finding solutions.

Angie’s Down syndrome limits her vocabulary but diminishes neither her insight nor her ability to “tell it like it is.” At least one of her customers regularly shouts at Angie, warning her that she never wants to see her again, but actually would miss Angie if she didn’t return the next week. Each customer owns a puzzle piece. Angie finds ways of bringing them together to form a wondrous mosaic.

Many of the chapters of Down Right Good stand on their own as powerful short stories, but Karen Kelly Boyce cleverly links them into a magnificent whole. Angie’s childlike ministrations heal her community so that strangers, tepid neighbors and alienated family members come to live as a caring community, willing to accept and forgive even the worst offenders among them.

If Angie is the “angel” of the story, there must be a villain. As in her novel In the Midst of Wolves, Boyce describes the far reaching effects of child abuse that plague Angie on her errands of mercy. The author not only decries the evil, but she provides an example of a solution to this pervasive problem.

Pope Francis has called for a Year of Mercy, beginning on 8 December 2015. Down Right Good exemplifies the spirit of “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Angie acts as a “missionary of mercy.” Her impact brings her community a sense of acceptance and forgiveness for transgressions past and present.

The Sisters of the Last Straw: The Case of the Haunted Chapel, by Karen Kelly Boyce

 

Sisters of the Last Straw: The Case of the Haunted Chapel

 

Rejection, unrealistic expectations and behavioral issues often brought frowns to the faces of children. The Sisters of the Last Straw addressed these issues, firmly and lovingly; inspiring and consoling their young readers with their examples. The Case of the Haunted Chapel, in stories and drawings assured that there was a place for everyone in God’s plan. If unconventional behavior prompted the denial of admission to traditional religious orders, the Sisters reminded us of Saint Rita of Cascia, who needed a miracle to enter the cloister. If at times the Sisters seemed less than tidy, they resembled none other than Saint Teresa of Avila who fell off a donkey into a mud puddle. If the Sisters experienced difficulty controlling bad behavior, their struggles to overcome their failures gave a far better example than Saint Augustine before his conversion. Sister Lacey served as a wonderful model as she creatively controlled her inclination toward “salty language” with a variety of “G-Rated” exclamations.

The Case of the Haunted Chapel intended primarily for readers between the ages of 6-12 years delighted readers and listeners well beyond these temporal bounds. Each episode served as a parable, actually very similar at times to the Gospel parables and narratives, revealing compassion and humility. Instead lost sheep, the Sisters rounded up the goats. Instead of Lazarus rising from the tomb, the title suggested other supernatural happenings. These stories came complete with a villain, the sour-pus Mr. Lemon. The Sisters have sweetened their neighborhood, not only with their jams and jellies, but they have drawn their fans to read again their antics on their way to spiritual growth.

The Case of the Haunted Chapel was the first of the series, with book number four in the works. Congratulations to Karen Kelly Boyce, who with the aid of illustrator Sue Anderson and book designer Andrew Gioulis have brought us The Sisters of the Last Straw, now available through Chesterton Press.

Sisters of the Last Straw: The Case of the Missing Novice, by Karen Kelly Boyce

Buy from Amazon.com

 

A caricature can reveal more truth than a photograph. The Sisters of the Last Straw, reminiscent of the antics of Don Camillo in the stories by Giovannino Guareschi (1908-68), were in fact human. Thank God. Each had her own “fault,” be it a temper, an obsession or an addiction. Each nun had received her walking papers from at least one other congregation. Once they banded together, they formed an abrasive but loving community, a spiritual sandpaper rubbing their souls smooth and perfect.

The fragile tranquility of the community shattered over the presence of a dog, its puddles and plies, and its need for a home, anyplace but in the convent. The difficulties expand beyond the sacred enclosure to the neighborhood and the downtown area leading to the subsequent loss of Novice Kathy. The bumbling sorority’s attempts at untying the knots in the story-line, only tangled them further as the dog-sitting sisters prayed for the safety of their youngest member.

Although Sisters of the Last Straw fits into the category of juvenile fiction, for 6-12 year old readers, the chapters could serve as case histories used in community development workshops and retreats for religious congregations. Spiritual growth often depends on the establishment and growth of a peaceful living environment. Even saints sometimes wanted to brain a confrere. These good sisters, with all their faults were easy to love. They served as examples of humility. One of their greatest virtues was their ability to laugh at themselves, forgive and move on to the next disaster.

I treasure this gift to all of us from Karen Kelly Boyce and look forward to the next misadventure of the Sisters of the Last Straw.

Boyce, Karen Kelly. Sisters of the Last Straw: The Case of the Missing Novice. New Egypt, NJ: KFR Communications, LLC. 2013. www.chestertonpress.com

Flavia 006: The Dead in their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley

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Trains, planes and automobiles, along with Winston Churchill and a military escort greeted Hillary de Luce upon her return to her husband, her daughters and her ancestral estate: Buckshaw. Thus began episode 006 of the Flavia de Luce Mystery Series. Alan Bradley had left Flavia, his protagonist, the youngest of those de Luce daughters, dangling at the conclusion of volume 005, only to have her land in volume 006 with one foot in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and the other in Kim’s Game as described by Rudyard Kipling.

The Dead in their Vaulted Arches introduced major plot shifts, revelations, reconciliations and retributions. Relics of the past flickered and flew into view, unveiling secrets that stretched back through three hundred years of de Luce history and service to king and country.  Flavia’s new and more durable personal nemesis emerged, Undine: younger, equal and opposite, perhaps brighter and potentially more dangerous than Flavia. Was she a usurper, a snoop or just a lonely child looking for a friend?

Flavia passed through a substantial stage of metamorphosis to an elevated sense of power and confidence and yet at times she was more flustered than she had ever been. Most importantly, she did emerge as a far more formidable Flavia as she began her trek toward volume 007.

Reviews of mysteries, especially a series in which the initiated would have shunned spoilers other than those offered by the publisher, must focus on style rather than substance. Alan Bradley often invited the reader to tea, a break in the action, an apparent distraction, where the author installed words in place as would a jeweler carefully set a variety of brilliant stones within the gold of a magnificent brooch. There was no better way to review Bradley’s skill than to quote the author on various aspects of volume 006, or as he would have had Flavia say, “Let’s take another squint…”

At their current situation:

We were told the when, the where, and the how of everything, but never the why.

Churchill…still had certain secrets which he kept even from God.

Logical beyond question but at the same time mad as a March hare

At her father:

Windows were as essential to my father’s talking as his tongue.

He stood frozen in his own private glacier.

Father, the checkmated king, gracious, but fatally wounded in defeat

(With Churchill) These two seemingly defeated men, brothers in something I could not even begin to imagine.

At her sister Ophelia:

The image of bereaved beauty, she simply glowed with grief.

Feely had the knack of being able to screw one side of her face into a witchlike horror while keeping the other as sweet and demure as a maiden from Tennyson.

She knew me as well as the magic mirror knew the wicked queen.

Her complexion—at least since its volcanic activity settled down

Her voice suddenly as cold and stiff as whipped egg whites

At Flavia on Flavia:

I wanted to curl up like a salted slug and die.

I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand in case of overlooked jam or drool.

One of the marks of a truly great mind…is to be able to feign stupidity on demand.

The comforting reek of nitrocellulose lacquer

It smelled as if a coffee house in the slums of Hell had been hit by lightning.

That bump in her bloomers was me! (A comment on a photo of her pregnant mother)

My emotions were writhing inside me like snakes in a pit.

There is a strange strength in secrets which can never be achieved by spilling one’s guts.

I slept the sleep of the damned, tossing and turning as if I were lying in a bed of smoldering coals.

My mouth tasted as if a farmer had stored turnips in it while I slept.

My brain came instantly up to full throttle.

There are few instances in life where, in spite of everything, one had to swallow one’s heart and go it alone, and this was one of them.

Giving praise at every silent step for the invention of carpets

My knees gave off an alarming crack.

At flying:

And with a roar the propeller disappeared in a blur.

The roar became a tornado and we began to move.

And then a sudden smoothness…we were flying!

Beneath our wings the marvelous toy world slid slowly by…miniature sheep grazed in handkerchief pastures.

At trains:

The gleaming engine panted into the station and squealed to a stop at the edge of the platform.

(The train) sat resting for a few moments in the importance of its own swirling steam.

At music:

Each note hung for an instant like a cold, crystalline drop of water melting from the end of an icicle.

Humming mindlessly to herself like a hive of distant bees

The music faded and died among the beams and king posts of the ancient roof.

The organ fell silent as if suddenly embarrassed at what it had done.

At children:

They had lost more than one baby in the making and I could only pray that the next one would be a howling success.

“You’re a child.” “Of course I am, but that’s hardly a reason to treat me like one.”

As we await volume 007, we might expect a twelve-year-old Flavia who would have behaved not so much as her teen-aged sisters but as her mother Harriet. The relevance of the photo of Churchill’s statue in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada will become apparent to the readers of volume 006.

Bradley, Alan. The Dead in their Vaulted Arches. New York: Delacorte Press, 2014.

(© 2014 Donald J. Mulcare)

The Flavor of Flavia

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Why read a Flavia de Luce mystery? Besides the “who done it”- brain jogging action of a tightly crafted plot, when the eleven-year old sleuth isn’t creeping through the grave yard on a foggy night in search of clues, author Alan Bradley entertains with humor, family interactions, village idiocy and diverting prose, especially his delicately crafted figures of speech. The samples cited below originated in the first five Flavia de Luce mysteries. The sixth member of the series—The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches—was published in January of 2014. Perhaps these quotes will encourage you to sample a Flavia mystery and encourage you in your own writing?

 

Malapropisms (These originate with Mrs. Mullet, the cook. Look for the several allusions to her burnt offerings.)

Ink quest and poets’ mortem

It gives me dire-rear.

The four horsemen of the pocket lips

Colder sock

The train makes your stomach go all skew-gee.

Retorts

Do that again and I’ll scream your name and your brassiere size.

No need to get owly!

I was not going to be circumlocuted.

Alliteration

Suffering cyanide!

Time hung heavily on our behinds.

That smarmy, sanctimonious look in humbug humility

Like a corpulent cockroach, she waddled toward the windows.

Shreds of nibbled newsprint

To talk of guts, gore and Tetley’s tea

The seed of a smile

Heathered Highlands

A flurry of freezing flakes

Scrapping clouds scudded across the moon swept along on a river of wind.

Allusion

 

A gander at Mother Goose

I was the eighth dwarf. Sneaky.

The urge to rip into the gift like a lion into a Christian

Feely had more swains than Ulysses’ wife Penelope.

Brought to an abrupt end by tragedy and a woman scorned

She pointed like the third ghost in Scrooge and disappeared.

Instantly recognizable from Greenland to New Guinea

A great actress can never be greater than when she’s staring in her own life.

Its lamps making cornucopias of foggy yellow light in the falling snow

She tempted fate to hand her another cadaver.

I hated her seed biscuits the way Saint Paul hated sin.

Personification

Our furnace has been bearing its fangs

Ragged children of ammonia

The scent of things best not thought about

To a professional soldier death was life.

A hidden part of me was coming back to life.

Grind with whatever grist you are given.

Fingers of friendship

Clearing the paternal throat

Simile

Her eyes, like two mad raisins in her wrinkled face, never left mine.

A lie wrapped in detail like a horse pill in an apple

The conversation stopped abruptly as if it had been cut off with a scissors.

Tombstones leaned like jagged brown teeth.

Looked like a vulture sucked up by a tornado and spit back out

Curled up in the library like a prawn

We shall eat like Corsican bandits and sleep like the dead.

Saint Tancred’s went through organists like a python goes through white mice.

He followed her about like a bad smell.

The Choir: Shoulder to shoulder like singing sardines.

He looked like a cherub brought to life. And he knew it.

She hangs around in silence like a clogged drain.

His face turned slowly, like a sunflower, toward the sound of my voice.

Her mouth so tightly pursed as if pulled by draw strings

Like shaking hands with a pineapple

Had us twitching like crickets

My nose running like a trout stream

Her face drained slowly like a wash basin.

Metaphor

The soup of bones below: the soup of which I was about to become just another ingredient.

“Good sport” was not among the phrases that described her, “ogress” however was.

Who’s Who, a catalog of the same old dry sticks harrumphing their way toward the grave

If poisons were ponies, I’d put my money on cyanide.

That was the way with ghosts, though they appeared at the strangest times and in the most peculiar places.

If cooking were a game of darts, most of Mrs. Mullet’s concoctions would be barely on the board.

I tend to make a swine of myself when there’s cake to be had.

She never missed an opportunity to dig in a critical oar.

Grumblers are deaf to any voices but their own.

The forest of gravestones

Lifting a dramatic forefinger

These two creaking relics had walked through deep drifts of snow.

 

Oxymoron

My sister was a pious fraud

Climbed into my refrigerated clothing

Inky scribblers

A pack of convalescent vampires

Hyperbole

Compared with my life Cinderella was a spoiled brat.

Life had become a long corridor of locked doors.

Bishop’s Lacey, a notable hotbed of crime

Spider webs clanging like horseshoes against the wall

Hug him to jelly

I let her silence linger until it was hanging by a thread.

I thought about these things until my brains were turning blue.

A voice that originated somewhere down among her kidneys

She was the local equivalent of small pox.

Once Max got started (talking) you might as well put down roots

The rest of the afternoon was pretty much a thud.

Would go on talking of these events until they were toothless

It smelled as if a sick brontosaurus had broken wind

An eye like a bloodshot harvest moon

His rat faced and rat hearted wife slinking home alone through the graveyard

Photographed almost to distraction

She was short and gray and round as a mill stone

Unbearably stiff upper lipped

Have my guts for garters

So tired I feel asleep with my eyes open

Irony

I never cared for flippant remarks, especially when others make them.

This was a lie, but a first-rate one.

Divorce him with a dose of strychnine.

She said something that had it lived might have become a chuckle.

A perfect rainbow of ruin

Gout: a painful disease of those who love their wine more than their livers.

Mediocrity was the greatest camouflage.

Pension: a small sum to tide him over to the church yard.

Stones worn down by 200 years of privileged feet

The corners of her mouth turned up about the thickness of a page.

Whenever I’m a little blue I think about cyanide.

Sometimes I hated myself but not for long.

She stood waiting for the vicar to come scurrying to her.

Dealt out poisons with a happy hand

Inflict her hand picked gifts upon us

She looked as if she had been up to no good, and knew perfectly well what I knew.

Pus-like custard pie

Laughed toothily

Hammered together by well meaning but inept carpenters