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.”

You Were Here, by Cori McCarthy

In an act of celebration, bravado, or maybe alcohol-induced insanity, Jake Strangelove stands on the top pipe of the playground swing set, still wearing his graduation gown. He backflips as he had done so many times before, but this time, he lands on his neck. Five years later, Jake’s life and death still haunt his family, especially his sister Jaycee and dozens of their friends.

Cori McCarthy explores Jaycee’s mangled life and that of her companions as they mark the fifth anniversary of Jakes leap into mortality. Fortunately, Natalie Cheng, daughter of an Ohio University psychologist, provides a running commentary on the mental state of Jake and his mourners.

Jake was left-handed, ADHD, and more than a little dyslectic. “Kids with learning disabilities often act out because of their frustration.” Professor Cheng told Natalie, “The neural insulation of your frontal lobe won’t be finished developing until you’re in your mid-twenties. You’re not fully aware of the consequences of your actions.” No wonder insurance companies want to charge higher rates for drivers under the age of twenty-five. Jake and all sub-mid-twenties humans remain half-baked when it comes to filtering out destructive impulses.

Jaycee Strangelove describes herself as a damaged girl with no hobbies, no passions, and no future. In fact, she shares a hobby with her late brother and Mik, one of their friends: Urbex or urban exploration.  Specifically, they visit the ruins of The Ridges, a shuttered, gothic, perhaps haunted insane asylum, Randall Park Mall a once illustrious but now abandoned shopping center, Geauga Lake, the shambles of what had been a huge amusement park and two other sites regularly explored by Jake. Their goal is to find traces of Jake’s presence—messages he left behind to commemorate his acts of daring.

The adventures begin on the night of Jaycee’s high school graduation. She drags along her classmates, Natalie, Zach, and Bishop. Mik meets them inside The Ridges’ dusty, relic strewn “lobotomy-central”–the first stop in the summer hunt for Jake-signs across the state of Ohio.

Cori McCarthy enlists the graphic artist Sonia Liao to speak for Mik and Bishop. Mik, a selective mute rarely verbalizes, so the chapters he narrates—appearing as portions of a graphic novel—uniquely link the prose chapters and amplify the noir quality of the novel. Bishop, a graffiti aficionado, summarizes moods of the moment throughout the book.

The characters represent tortured souls with no spiritual framework and no help from their families. Bishop grieves his lost lover after her cruel rejection. Natalie calculates how she will dump Zach although she still craves his bed. More and more, Zach takes refuge in alcohol. Jaycee lives to reunite with Jake while Mik, in many ways acts as a superhero but can’t even whisper his feelings for Jaycee. All of them have secrets involving Jake and his death that they may or may not divulge during the critical summer between high school graduation and the college-induced diaspora.

Can Cori McCarthy write her way out of this corner? What could reconcile and normalize the strains and unspoken yearnings before the last sunset of summer?

Fight for Liberty, by Theresa Linden

 

Fight for Liberty, Book Three in the Liberty trilogy, climbs to a dazzling climax, filled with plot shifts that will tantalize adult, juvenile and young adult readers.

In Book One, Chasing Liberty, an inner voice she calls “My Friend” directs nineteen-year-old Liberty 554-062466-84 of Aldonia to the realization that there is more to existence than a life totally dominated by the Regimen Custodia Terra. With the assistance of Dedrick, a member of the Mosheh, the underground insurgent leadership, she escapes to a remote sylvan colony but not to a life of contentment, as she knows her friends remain trapped in Aldonia.

In Book Two, Testing Liberty, the heroine infiltrates back into Aldonia to rescue her friends and imprisoned colony members, including all of their children, and to undermine the Regimen. She is captured and subjected to Reeducation, a form of video-game brainwashing. Like MacGyver, Liberty becomes more dangerous to the Regimen in captivity than on the loose.

In Fight for Liberty, the now tougher, more accomplished heroine comes into her own as a role model, especially for girls and women, following that inner voice calling them to greatness:

My Friend had never spoken to me as directly as he had these past several weeks. Since Reeducation, He led me to believe I would be instrumental in changing Aldonia, gave me hope that freedom would win out against the all-controlling government, the Regimen Custodia Terra. They controlled every facet of life from population numbers and education to ideologies and individual vocations. Considering all life of equal value, regardless of species, but humans akin to parasites, they had corralled people into cities and forbade entry into the Fully Protected Nature Preserves. We needed to bring them down.

The final push against the Regimen Custodia Terra begins, but instead of an orderly, focused attack against Aldonia, within its electrified fence Liberty, the remnant of the colonists from the Nature Preserves, and their superiors in the Mosheh face a tangle of conflicts.

Liberty’s love interest, Dedrick, doesn’t want her to commit to the Mosheh or participate in the upcoming attacks. The Torva, wild men—a cross between an outlaw biker gang and a Viking raiding party—will join the fray, but they won’t take orders from the Mosheh. They are more interested in owning the young women in the Regimen’s “breeding facility” than in freeing the people of Aldonia.

Previously captured colonial children have escaped from Regimen schools, but they have come under the influence of Guy, a one-armed shadow figure who will follow his own, separate agenda during the upcoming conflict.

Mosheh infiltrators of the Unity Troopers, the army of the Regimen, have found Trooper membership attractive. Silver, the mercenary, has tracked Derek into the Mosheh’s tunnel network. The Regimen would reward her for sharing this information. As dangerous as ever, Dr. Supero has become unpredictable after the treatment of his brain tumor. As the Mosheh subterfuge and subversion begins, no one is sure that their alliance will hold or that the good guys have accounted for all of the Regimen’s resources.

In Fight for Liberty, Theresa Linden has penned her most dramatic and suspenseful dystopian novel yet. The ending is anything but predictable. Although she resolves the many story lines at the end, the reader’s attachment to the characters sparks a hope that a sequel waits in the wings.

It is not necessary to read the series in order, but Liberty fans might prefer to watch the action build to a climax through the earlier volumes.