Standing Strong, by Theresa Linden

The tagline for Standing Strong—Theresa Linden’s most daring novel—reads: “Blessed is he who is not scandalized in me.” Most young adult novels ignore the spiritual life, some ridicule it, or replace it with fantasy. Standing Strong embraces spirituality—with a strong Franciscan flavor—as God shapes the lives of Jarret and Keefe West, and brings peace to their family.

Readers of the first three West Brothers novels know Jarret as narcissistic, manipulative, and cruel—a teen just waiting for karma to catch up with him. His favorite targets include his twin, Keefe, an unwilling accomplice, and their younger brother, Roland—Jarret’s frequent victim.

 

Rather than karma or Satan, it is mercy that catches Jarret. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, Jarret resets his priorities, sincerely attempting to amend his life. He admits his mistakes and avoids the people, places, and circumstances associated with his earlier misdeeds. He shows genuine compassion to his family, friends, and even his enemies. Unfortunately, he grows overconfident, and the lure of his deeply ingrained habits and the expectations of his classmates impede his spiritual progress. He finds himself rejected; crying out, “God, why do you make this so hard?”

 

Keefe, Jarret’s perennial foil is so used to deferring to his brother, their father, and anyone who challenges him that he stalls on his journey to the religious life—mired in self-doubt, and his fear of wrath, ridicule, and rejection. Can he make the leap of faith, faith in himself and his calling, despite the apparent obstacles and contradictory signs? Can he embrace the scandal of Jesus?

 

The author devises an elaborate series of subplots that pit Mr. West, Roland, and his friends, Channel—Jarret’s voluptuous girlfriend—, and strangers along the road who deflect the West twins from their holy trek.

 

Standing Strong appeals to a wide audience, especially troubled high school students and those contemplating the religious life. Theresa Linden’s research into adolescent psychology and the life, legends, and spirituality of Saint Francis of Assisi erects a sturdy framework through which she threads her themes.

 

The author shared the pre-publication copy of Standing Strong that enabled this review. I thank her and applaud her creative spirit.

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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.

The King’s Prey, by Susan Peek

 

Terrible but true, Princess Dymphna flees Daemon, her father who, in his madness believes her to be his late wife, Odilla. He demands that Dymphna marries him. With the aid of her confessor and a few companions, Dymphna flees across Ireland and eventually reaches Belgium.

Susan Peek stays true to the Lives of the Saints’ outline for St. Dymphna. She fills in the gaps with a fast moving tale of her companions, especially two brothers, Brioc, her minstrel and Turlough one of her father’s soldiers. Like the fog of war, confusion and misinformation plague Dymphna’s escape. Peek amplifies tensions and leads her characters into conflict, danger, and excruciatingly painful decisions.

Although the words Irish and Catholic seem to be welded together, Dymphna story shows her not only as a Christian but a consecrated virgin living in a pagan household. Her father’s druid companions ignore her religious values and agree to the king’s intended incest.

Dymphna’s plight resonates with many young women in society today. She suffers attempted sexual abuse in her home. She becomes a homeless runaway, a refugee, and a victim of violence and the uncontrolled mental illness of her father. Through all of her flight, she places her hope in God and takes consolation in His protection. She submits to God’s will. In the end, through her intercession, God showers blessings on her friends. She remains a patron of those troubled with mental illness.

Turlough and Brioc dominate the novel. Their entire family dies of disease and famine. The older brother, Turlough makes a desperate choice to save the young Brioc, setting them at odds for many years. Turlough cannot persuade Brioc of his love. In fact, every attempt to help Brioc convinces the younger brother that Turlough plans to kill him. Throughout most of the book, Turlough attempts to reconcile with Brioc. His attempts are thwarted by conditions related to Brioc’s own mental illness. Dymphna brings the brothers closer.

 

Susan Peek writes for the younger readers, a word that will rouse them. She has devised a clever, perhaps labyrinthine tale, a tragedy of errors on the part of Brioc and his wife, Ethlynn. They experience a difficult life, and their role in Dymphna’s escape only deepens their pain. Peek delivers a spellbinding tale of suspense.

 

The King’s Prey should appeal to young, religious Catholics, but would engage people of other faiths and ages. Victims of family sexual abuse, runaways, and refugees can see in Dymphna a courageous companion. Hers is a heroic tale and will grip the reader’s emotions.

 

Since I am a fan of Saint Dymphna, I wanted a greater focus on her life and thoughts. Unfortunately, little information is available. The story of the brothers, although fictional, did have an impact. The most powerful moments came in the last chapters of the book where Dymphna rewards her friends, and the brothers have a chance to untangle their relationship.

 

Of all the characters, I liked Turlough the best. He always loved Brioc, made difficult decisions to save him, and responded to Brioc’s rejection without malice.

 

Susan Peek’s mission is to bring to light some of the forgotten saints such as Saint Magnus, the Last Viking, and Saint Camillus de Lellis. The King’s Prey clearly brought attention to Saint Dymphna. I would like to see more research into her life and her patronage extended in a world that is in woeful need of her strength.

 

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.

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.