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.

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Finding Patience, by Virginia Lieto and Carole Hahn Panzner

When the Livingstone family relocates, their daughters miss their old neighborhood and friends. The eldest, Faith can’t wait for school to start so that she can make new friends. Unfortunately, Faith is shy, and the children on the school bus, her classmates, and the lunchtime crowd seem more interested in each other than in Faith.

After a stressful first day, faith runs to her bedroom to hide her disappointment. Her perceptive mother follows her and offers advice, “It takes time to make friends. You just need a little patience.” Together they pray that God will give Faith patience.

Unfortunately, the following days bring neither friends nor patience. Mr. and Mrs. Livingstone decide that a puppy could brighten the spirits of their daughters. No, he isn’t called “Patience.”

Faith suspects that patience, the virtue has arrived when she is able to ignore an obnoxious classmate, but knows God answers her prayers when she makes her first new friend. You’ll never guess her name.

Virginia Lieto crafts a relevant and timely story with universal appeal. Suitable for young readers, for story time in class, and for home reading, it addresses a problem children face in our highly mobile society.

Carole Hahn Panzner’s illustrations capture the emotions of the entire Livingstone family. The poignant drawing of Mrs. Livingstone consoling Faith after her first day in her new school delivers a powerful non-verbal message which not only supports the text, but it touches readers of every age, sharing both Faith’s agony and her mother’s concern.

Consider Finding Patience as a comforting gift for families with young children who have relocated or who will soon do so.

I won my review copy of Finding Patience thanks to the generosity of the author as she supported the launch of Carolyn Astfalk’s latest release, Rightfully Ours.

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

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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