Unforgettable Fictional Friends

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We read novels because we care about the people who live between their pages.

William Shaw develops fascinating characters. Each person is vulnerable and brilliant in his or her own way, including the cast of The Birdwatcher.

Police Sergeant William South serves as Neighborhood Officer in the coastal patch of Kent in Southeastern England near Dungeness. He’s a first responder and the man who tracks down an elder who has lost his way. He keeps an eye on the local drug scene and chases shoplifters. A solitary man, South spends hours along the beaches and bogs looking for unusual birds.

On page one, when Sergeant South is ordered to assist in a murder investigation, he begs off because it’s October and prime birdwatching season and although no one else knows, William South is a murderer.

Luck abandons the Sergeant. The Dungeness victim happens to be his next-door neighbor and fellow birdwatcher. He’s torn between exposure and helping the Serious Crime Directorate find his friend’s murderer. He could leave the investigation in its early stages or later when told to stay away. Call it fate, but even official duties and ordinary acts like shopping or helping a friend, drag him deeper into the mystery. Each involvement redoubles his risk of exposure and even death.

Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi’s past drives her from the Metropolitan Police and London. She’s desperate to make a strong first impression in Kent. A guilt-ridden single mother, she weighs professional success against her daughter Zoe’s adjustment to Kent.

Cupidi sees Neighborhood Officer South as an asset in her investigation. He knows the victim, the territory, and the shortcuts. Their relationship deepens as South eases tensions between Cupidi and Zoe. He rescues Zoe from bullies at her new school and hides her indiscretions.

Zoe is mature beyond her age—an adult trapped in the life of a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. She loves and understands her mother. At the same time, Zoe compromises Alexandra’s professional and personal life. She can’t talk to her mother or the “cows” at school. Surprisingly, she confides in William South and plays matchmaker between him and her mother. Bored, Zoe gives birdwatching a try. Her drawings of birds in flight capture their jizz, amazing the experienced South.

The murderer lurks in the shadows and hides in plain sight. He or she may be stalking Cupidi, Zoe, or South. Cupidi believes that it must be a man. A woman could never kill with such violence and frequency, “Someone who literally cannot control themselves, or doesn’t want to. Someone so consumed with anger they cannot stop.”

Cupidi is anxious to close the case and secure her place in the Kent Serious Crime Directorate. When someone fits her image of the killer, South challenges her conclusions. His experience as a murderer suggests someone else is guilty.

Birds and birdwatching add color and plot twists. Birdwatching focuses on the extraordinary visitors, not the local gulls and sparrows—migrating species and individuals blown off course by ocean storms. South’s birdwatching parallels his police work. The Sergeant scans for anything unusual—a broken window, an abandoned automobile, or a group of individuals camped on a beach. South applies his birdwatching techniques to the murder investigation—high power binoculars and stakeouts even the birds can’t detect.

The Birdwatcher is two stories in one. Each chapter ends with a snippet set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Parallels between the life of young Billy and adult William include their interest in birdwatching and their fear of murder investigations.

The first page of The Birdwatcher accuses William South. Could he get away with murder, suffer imprisonment, or fall prey to the Kentish murderer? He’s an engaging character with great potential. Does he have a future?

 

 

Playing by Heart, by Carmela Martino

 Emilia Salvini, her mother, and sister Maria speak through a curtain with Zia Delia, the girls’ aunt, and a cloistered nun. Delia’s parents send her to the convent against her will because they lack money for her dowry. Emilia, Maria, and their two younger sisters realize that their family can only afford two dowries. Two daughters would be sent to the convent. The others would marry a man of their father’s choosing—often a widower whose first wife died in childbirth leaving children for his new wife to mother, a man who may be three times her age; he with children as old as his new bride.

 

Nevertheless, Playing by Heart is a young adult romance because Carmela Martino writes with heart, capturing her readers in a web of passion, sorrow, longing, and desperation. She serves a full course cultural experience touching on the plight of women in the eighteenth century, the class system, social climbing, and family structure. She makes the impossible come to be.

 

Before judging Signor Salvini for dispatching his daughters either to the convent or an arranged marriage, remember that he follows the customs of the times. He takes the unusual step of educating Maria (mathematician and linguist) and Emelia (musician and composer). Unfortunately, he uses them as pawns in his quest for elevation to the nobility.

 

Seemingly helpless, Maria—who prefers the convent to an arranged marriage—and Emelia—who wants to marry for love—find unusual allies who could turn the minds of even the most domineering men.

 

Maestro Tomassini criticizes his student Antonio Bellini (Emilia’s love interest and a commoner) because of his musical compositions—although technically adequate—lack passion. He praises Emilia Salvini because her compositions reveal her deepest emotions. Carmela Martino listens to the Maestro and writes with passion. She ensnares the reader with tendrils of concern for the characters. She smoothly guides Emelia and her family into impossible circumstances from which there is seemingly no escape. Her readers faithfully follow although they can see no light at the end of the tunnel.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed Playing by Heart and would rank it among the best novels I’ve read this year. It has a wide appeal to anyone interested in history, music, women’s rights, and fiction. Carmela Martino is meticulous in her attention to details: classical music, color, feelings, interpersonal dynamics and eighteenth-century politics, dress, and customs. The reader will not only enjoy the story but will grow with the experience of Playing by Heart, especially since Carmela Martino bases her characters on actual eighteenth-century Milanese sisters. Playing by Heart will not disappoint even the most discriminating reader.

 

The author provided a pre-publication copy so that I could write this review.

The Perfect Blindside, by Leslea Wahl

At sixteen, Jake Taylor is an Olympic medalist, a snowboarding prodigy, and a big fish transplanted to a small pond. He annoys Sophie Metcalf with his arrogance. She plans to expose him for the thoughtless egotist she thinks he is, but she discovers Jake’s considerate and haunted side. A warm and caring friendship grows between them, until they stumble across a dark secret near an abandoned mine. Threats of violence hinder Sophie and Jake’s investigation, but each tries to protect the other by placing themselves in danger. If they persist in their inquiry, Sophie may write a spectacular exposé on criminal activity in her “boring” little town and Jake may add luster to his celebrity status, or they may both end up buried in an abandoned tunnel.

Several interesting themes run the length of the novel. Jake’s celebrity comes at a price. Former and potential friends awed by Jake’s fame walk by, leaving him hungry for true companionship. In place of normal relationships, Jake is pushed and pulled by parents, coaches, sponsors, and his agent who manage every detail of his life. Then there are the stalkers. They all want something — an autograph, an endorsement, a secret rendezvous. The specter of drug dealing and abuse dances at the edges of Jake’s world. Throughout the book, Jake’s stardom attacks him from within and without.

As this book illustrates, teen romance could be defined as “an out-of-mind-experience.” A perfectly normal, happy, and ambitious teen like Sophie transforms into distracted, mooning creature under the influence of ancient biological impulses programmed into our earliest vertebrate ancestors. She and Jake suffer the agony and ecstasy of falling in and out of love—the thrill of realizing that a special person wants to be a close friend and the rage when one believes that the other may have betrayed their friendship.

Sophie is prayerful and religious, although sometimes judgmental. Jake and his family have dropped out of the church and seldom pray. As career pressures and pursuit by vengeful criminals weigh on Jake, Sophie suggests that he may find an answer in prayer. Will he remember this advice when he hits rock bottom?

Author Leslea Wahl shows both originality and dedication to research. She entertains the reader with a strong plot with side trips into the swirl of world-class snowboarding, a tour of scenic Colorado, and the running of the maze of contemporary teen culture. She builds suspense by alternating the points of view with each chapter. Jake sets up a situation, and Sophie reacts, priming the reader for Jake’s comeback. There is no shortage of tension, conflict, and interest as the reader weighs both sides of the developing story. Jake’s dialogue is a clearly that of a masculine young adult. Sophie comes across as a strong, well organized, intelligent, and honest young woman. Both are pleasant and likable. They could become an ideal couple.

Teens should enjoy The Perfect Blindside because of the celebrity aspects, the snowboarding and skateboarding culture, but most of all because Jake and Sophie are believable and loveable characters. They are romantic, but more importantly, each is willing to make tremendous sacrifices for the other, even if they feel betrayed.

Parents will appreciate the difficulties of raising a celebrity teen. In fact, Jake’s ordeal might discourage those parents intent on channeling their children into a life of fame and fortune. Mothers and fathers might also value the advice given by Jake’s and Sophie’s parents. The fictional characters didn’t always take that advice, but grown-ups can hope that their teens might recognize the value in adult wisdom, given the consequences of ignoring it.

I enjoyed The Perfect Blindside. There were some weak points in the plot, but Jake and Sophie more than made up for them. It was interesting to walk in the shoes of both characters. I would assign The Perfect Blindside 4.8 out of five stars. It did receive the Illumination Book Award, so my enthusiasm is not exaggerated. The Perfect Blindside kept me interested, shared intriguing details about snowboarding and the dark side of the celebrity life. It cautions readers about the destructive outcomes of drug abuse. The book’s most endearing aspects are its main characters. Sophie and Jake are as real as many people I’ve met in my life. I’d like to see them again and am happy that the book ends with the suggestion of future adventures with this teen duo.

Rightfully Ours, by Carolyn Astfalk

 

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When Carolyn Astfalk unearths a newspaper clipping about a treasure hunter who struck gold, she turns it into a young adult romance novel. That took some doing, but as Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” A keen observer, Astfalk soaks her written pages with reality. Rightfully Ours, like her other romance novels appeals to the senses, especially those associated with food. You can smell the baking cookies and feel the bite of a January freeze. Her understanding of human emotions transports her readers into the minds of her characters as they experience blessings in the guise of disasters and conflicts. The reader cannot take for granted that a happy ending awaits in the last paragraph.

Rightfully Ours tells of buried gold, but more importantly, it reveals something far more precious in rural, North Central Pennsylvania.  Ron Mueller guards Rachel, his fourteen-year-old daughter with strict rules about dating. He quickly introduces potential boyfriends to his “three-barrel shotgun” to assure their compliance with his standards. Economic pressures persuade Ron to lease the southern portion of his property to a gas-mining/fracking operation and to rent an in-law cottage located near his house, unwittingly creating conflict, temptation, and a compelling story.

Ron’s tenant, Paul Porter—the brother of one of the fracking roughnecks—is sixteen. He and Rachel live next door to each other, and they ride the same school bus. Thrown together, Rachel’s awkwardness and Paul’s resentment keep them apart. Eventually, Paul’s teasing shows Rachel that he knows she exists. Slowly their relationship warms and endures tragedies, misunderstandings, discoveries, and disappointments. Despite Mr. and Mrs. Mueller’s efforts to discourage teen passions, Paul and Rachel find themselves unsupervised. They struggle to decide what is best for their short term and long term relationship. Readers can identify with Paul and Rachel as their love develops and feel their pain as storms tatter and threaten what they have and may soon lose.

As in the newspaper inspiration for Rightfully Ours Paul and Rachel discover gold. Unfortunately, the treasure lay on state land. They cannot lawfully own it. The man in the newspaper article requests a finder’s fee. That’s when everything becomes complicated, but not as wild as what happens in Rightfully Ours.

Carolyn Astfalk brings life to the pages of her books. She fills her teenage romance novel with tenderness, humor, and irony. As with Romeo and Juliette, parting with Rachel and Paul will be “sweet sorrow.”

I had the privilege to work in the Catholic Writers Guild Fiction Critique Group with Carolyn Astfalk as Rightfully Ours came to be. She shared each new chapter and eventually sent me a review copy of the completed book. I’ve enjoyed all of Carolyn’s published and unpublished novels including Ornamental Graces and Stay with Me. I am grateful for her assistance with my own efforts.

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.

6 Dates to Disaster, by Cynthia T. Toney

 

'Coming December 6th: 6 Dates to Disaster (Bird Face book three) Her goal is to fly to Alaska. Her family is broke. Will an opportunity to make money be the answer to her prayers—or the road to disaster? For her mom’s birthday, Wendy finds an old jewelry box at a flea market—the perfect gift for someone who loves salvaged junk. But inside the box is a cryptic note that appears to have been written recently. Who wrote the note, and did the intended recipient ever see it? Wendy’s curiosity leads her on a search with boyfriend David at her side. But Wendy needs help because her stepfather has lost his job. The family’s plan to visit Alaska on vacation is headed down the sewer like a hard Louisiana rain. How will Wendy ever see Mrs. V or Sam again? When help arrives in the form of tutoring Melissa, one of the Sticks, Wendy’s money problems appear to be solved. Until the arrangement takes a turn that gets Wendy into trouble. And in the final months of ninth grade, she might lose everything she counted on for the future.'

Life can be horribly unfair, especially if you are a teen. Or so you may think. Sometimes parents can be right, but not all adult decisions seem just and reasonable. Unfortunately, adults usually have the last word.

Cynthia Toney weaves new story lines into Wendy Robichaud’s complicated life. Wendy doesn’t always start in a good place. She can be selfish, unforgiving, and greedy.  However, as in the earlier books of the Bird Face Series, deep down inside, Wendy loves widely and deeply.

Her romantic love of David Griffin flourishes into something far beyond physical attraction. Her friendship with her stepsister Alice and her distant cousin Gayle deepen into tender generosity. Her concern for Mrs. Villaturo, who moved from their old neighborhood, drives Wendy to exhaustion as she tries to earn her way to Alaska to visit Mrs. V. and her grandson, Sam. Wendy’s former best friend, Jennifer, returns to her life, and Wendy realizes how much Jennifer still means to her.  Wendy even grows closer, mainly through adversity, to her mother and stepfather as their new family gels together.

Wendy grew up in poverty. “Salvaging and recycling (are) in (her) blood.” Her mother had furnished their tiny house with discards and flea market finds. Penny-pinching comes naturally to mother and daughter. When Cathy Robichaud married Daniel Rend in the previous book, Wendy not only gained Alice, her stepsister, and Adam, her stepbrother, but she moved to a larger house and entered a world of greater affluence.

When Daniel loses his job, Wendy shifts back to frugal mode and prepares to earn her way to Alaska. Although shunned by the “Sticks,” her wealthy and fashionably anorexic classmates, Wendy is good enough to tutor one of them, Melissa, on the sly.  For pay. What would people think if a “Stick” girl was seen with Bird Face? But word spreads among Melissa’s friends of Wendy’s abilities. Wendy exhausts herself taking money in the service of the wealthy illiterate.  What could possibly go wrong?

Everything!

Wendy suffers humiliation and rejection, but she thrives. She learns to trust, forgive, and share in ways that challenge her readers to grow up and step up. By the last page of 6 Dates to Disaster, Wendy stands taller and stronger in spite of the blows life has dealt.

6 Dates to Disaster calls out loudly for a sequel. There’s a continent of material from which to draw and many new adventures to fill the life of Louisiana’s Wendy Robichaud.

As with the previous Bird Face novels, Cynthia Toney personalizes Wendy’s story with discussion questions and resources on relevant topics. Readers will find ways to open discussion about honesty, dating, underage drinking, communication with parents, American Sign Language, and finding a mentor.

The previous volumes in the Bird Face series include 8 Notes to a Nobody and 10 Steps to Girlfriend Status.

Cynthia Toney and I belong to the Catholic Writers Guild Fiction Critique Group. She provided me with a pre-publication copy of 6 Dates to Disaster for use in this review.

 

 

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.