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.

 

 

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.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd: A Flavia de Luce Novel by [Bradley, Alan]

Flavia de Luce fans stand to applaud her return from her interminable trials in the tundra of Toronto. Unfortunately, her family barely recognizes her existence. “Like a pair of sick suns rising, (her sister) Daffy’s eyes came slowly up above the binding of her book. I could tell she hadn’t slept. “Well, well,” she said. “Look what the cat dragged in.”

“As if from some molten furnace, a new Flavia de Luce had been poured into (her) old shoes.” Now the chatelaine or mistress of Buckshaw, Flavia seeks her social level among adults, especially Cynthia, the vicar’s wife. Cynthia sends Flavia on a simple errand that quickly plunges the de Luce heiress into the realm of murder, veneered in witchcraft. With an appropriate malapropism, Mrs. Mullet warns, “there’s no good comes of meddlin’ the “Black Carts.”

To set the scene, the author borrowed his title–Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d–from an incantation first published in Macbeth. He lists a cat among his characters and no cats were injured in the telling of this Flavia mystery. The same can’t be said for chickens.

First, on the scene of an apparent homicide, Flavia attempts to unravel the mystery before Inspector Hewitt finds her out. This more independent Flavia tracks her clues to London where she meets her Canadian chemistry teacher and a member of the top secret “NIDE,” Mrs. Bannerman. From now on they are Mildred and Flavia.

Books, publishers, woodcarvers, child-stars, bones on the beach, winter fest, Horn Dance, and off-key singers muck through the trail of the murderer. Flavia courts danger in the graveyard and risks a running through. Flavia fans will always remember this volume for a particularly shocking revelation.

Like one of Flavia’s character who “left the thought hanging like a corpse from the gallows,” I leave the plot to discuss what matters most to me in an Alan Bradley novel. Although the mysteries weave and knot within a most fascinating skein of clues, it’s the polish that he rubs into his phrases that I most love. For example:

The vicar’s wife hears things that would peel the paint off battleships.

How many murderers have been undone by a blurt?

Since the British Lion was a kitten.

Her face glowed like a Sunday school stove.

Her voice hung shrill in the air like a shot partridge.

The kind of person who makes your pores snap shut and your gullet lower the drawbridge.

In the moonlight, even the kitchen garden glowed, the red brick of the old walls illuminating the dead beds with the cold, faded glory of silver.

Plumb wooden cherubs that simpered and leered at one another as they swarmed to their mischievous task.

The vicarage was especially damp and soggy, with an aura of boiled eggs and old books—a perfect setting for our encounter: dark brooding, and simply reeking of secrets and tales told in an earlier time.

Distant electric lights come on in other people’s homes, mere pinpricks in the gloom—mirages of happiness.

We seethed, like a mass of jellyfish, toward the station’s exit.

His office was like a cave carved into a cliff of books.

Stuck his little finger in his ear and wiggled it about a bit, as if fine-tuning it for truth.

A slapdash scrawl, as if the white heat of composition had overcome penmanship.

A kind of happy gloom.

It’s rayon, nitrocellulose by another name. It makes me feel explosive.

Someday, my prints will come.

Blackened bombsites still remained scattered round the church like rotting teeth in the mouth of some ancient duchess.

Finbar’s eyes swept slowly round her, like a lighthouse in the night.

Sad music began to ooze from the horn.

A book best read behind closed—or even locked doors.

One of London’s last remaining gas lamps flickered bravely and forlorn against the growing darkness.

As slick and soft and insincere as black velvet at a funeral.

Old Hanson was livid, but my father was incandescent.

I had a rather crush on Mother Nature. I did a bit of botanizing.

The wind moaned among the tombstones.

Some sleeps are washed with gold, and some with silver. Mine was molten lead.

This sampling should stoke the reader’s appetite for the hundreds of delights hidden throughout Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d. Alan Bradley leaves Flavia hanging precariously as the last page turns. What will become of her? How long must we wait until volume nine and a half?

Battle for His Soul, by Theresa Linden

Theresa Linden completes her West Brothers’ trilogy with a look behind the facade known as Jarret West. He bullied his youngest brother as recounted in Ronald West, Loner and abused his relationship with Zoe and Caitlyn in Life Changing Love. This capstone volume reveals that Jarret’s fate depends on the outcome of a cosmic battle between Angels and Devils.

His victims might say that Jarret deserves whatever punishment befalls him, but they would miss the point that even a narcissistic, amoral manipulator like Jarret is deemed loveable by God.  Throughout Jarret’s life, his guardian angel, Ellechial has stood by him as Jarret’s personal demon Deth-kye, feeds Jarret’s vanity and passions, leading him to a violent showdown on Earth and an express ride to hell.

Jarret does little to avoid his self-inflicted fate. Despite his obnoxious behavior to countless schoolmates and his brothers, they form a prayer group. They pray before the Blessed Sacrament unaware that their prayers arm the Angels. The young prayer partners facilitate the angel’s access to Jarret’s conscience and enable them to warn Jarret of his danger.

The trilogy’s climax unfolds on an archeological expedition to the American West. Although he continues to mistreat his brother Roland, it is this younger brother who has a chance to save Jarret’s life, scare some sense into him, and sharpen his conscience.

Nevertheless, any strength gained by Ellechial is countered by, Deth-kye’s stirring of Jarret’s emotions, vices, and memories. Roland and his friends pray for and attempt to set Jarret straight during the final scene of the battle for Jarret’s soul?

It helps the reader to walk in Jarret’s shoes during his time of trial, especially at the conclusion of this Year of Mercy.

As a member of the Catholic Writers Guild’ Fiction Critique Group, I have worked with Theresa Linden as she brought A Battle for His Soul to press.

The Probability of Miracles, by Wendy Wunder

 

The Probability of Miracles happens, as many YA novels, in that critical summer between high school graduation and leaving the nest for college. Kids cling to the warmth of home and familiar friends, yet they yearn to break free.

Campbell Cooper sees a future for herself. After all, Harvard awaits in the fall.

Life becomes iffy when her oncologist tells Cam that her relentless enemy— neuroblastoma—has advanced to the point that only a miracle can save her life. Unfortunately, Cam Cooper doesn’t believe in miracles.

Despondent and angry, Cam tops off a bucket list of self-abhorrent activities with, “Lose my virginity at a keg party.” It’s not a matter of love, intimacy, or even passion. Cam just feels “lousy with virginity.” Besides, her best friend, a fellow neuroblastoma patient, is doing the same thing for the same reason. No pressure, right? She thinks that her life will be complete if she finds a lover before she dies.

Sometime in the past, Cam’s family was Catholic. What remains is a distorted view of Catholic theology. For instance, on page one, Cam not only denies the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but she thinks that it refers to the conception of Jesus, not Mary, the mother of Jesus. This is a common mistake among the theologically challenged.

By page two, Cam says, “The Virgin Mary probably just got herself knocked up like 20 percent of the teenage girls in Florida.” She seems to like Jesus but doesn’t mind insulting his mother. Later Cam says that Mary blamed her pregnancy on God so she wouldn’t have to admit how it happened. God becomes a convenient scapegoat.

At this point, many Catholics might commit Cam and The Probability of Miracles to the trash or ask for a refund. I kept reading because Cam is the archetype for the postmodern mindset in YA literature and life, and therefore worthy of study as an example of the way many fictional and real kids and adults think, act and develop values. What she treasures as her freedom, objective reality, and absolute truth handicaps her ability to deal with her waning health and spiritual prospects.

Eckhart Tolle, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw and others have said, “Man created God in his own image.” People today often find it easier to believe in ghosts, fairies, and the zombie apocalypse than in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. While sculpting more convenient gods, the idol makers draw a blank when it comes to facing the end of life dilemma. In Cam’s case, the dilemma comes too soon in her life for her to fully consider her options.

Cam’s mother and her boyfriend work at Epcot. After consulting a spiritualist, a medicine woman, and a distance healer, Mom and Cam turn to the “Disney-like magic” contained in a special town—Promise, Maine—where they hope to find a cure.

Promise is different. Locating it requires a special approach, not unlike the invisible Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station needed to catch the Hogwarts Express. It boasts of unique vegetation, and the sun rises and sets outside Cam’s only bedroom window. No, the house does not rotate.

Faced with uncertainty, Cam grasps at straws as her body seems to take its final plunge. The only apparent magic in Cam’s life is an affair with Promise’s hometown hero.

Is this the depth of life’s meaning, or is there so much more than fleeting pleasure?

Is it worth the risk of believing that complete fulfillment exists for those who give faith, hope, and charity a chance?

Sadly, Cam reminds me of a famous tombstone inscription:

“An atheist lies below.

All dressed up,

With nowhere to go.”