The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch, by T.M. Gaouette

 

 The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch by [Gaouette, T. M.]

At age ten, Benedict carries massive chips on both shoulders. Having passed from bad foster homes to worse, he dreads the uncertainty of new surroundings and new rules. When he arrives at The Sunshine Ranch, he doubts the sincerity of his new foster parents, David and Martha Credence and withholds his affections lest he is ripped again from friends and security. Benedict sees the other foster children as rivals and doubts that his good fortune will last. Over the next four years, he remains aloof, not daring to trust that he has found a home and family.

When foreclosure threatens The Sunshine Ranch, Benedict’s doubts seem to be confirmed. Although David and Martha ask Benedict and their other foster kids to have faith that God will provide, Benedict refuses to believe. But Micah, Benedict’s roommate, and chief rival keeps the faith. Eventually, Benedict realizes that The Sunshine Ranch gives him the only happiness that he has ever known, and that his constant worry and fear prevent him from enjoying it.

David and Martha Credence and their many foster children embody generosity and unquestioning faith. Theirs is an impossible task — they welcome hard-case kids like Benedict and scrape together the resources to meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Benedict, on the other hand, provides a counterpoint to everything the Credence family attempts to share. Too wounded by his early life experiences to accept the healing they offer, he’s likely to reject them and run away into the night. Micah, the optimist, has suffered as much as Benedict, but he always sees the bright side and attempts to wear down Benedict’s rough edges.

The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch appealed to every emotion: there are joy and sadness, richness and loss. T.M. Gaouette delivers a powerful story with an emotional wallop, filling her pages with surprises and suspense, mystery and romance, pain and growth. Unquestionably, this novel is a page turner.

I would recommend this book for family reading. Biological progeny and foster children, biological and foster parents can see themselves somewhere in the pages of this book. It will especially benefit students preparing for careers in social services. I enjoyed reading this story because its characters deeply touched me. I pray that many couples will follow the example of David and Martha Credence and provide a loving home for foster children.

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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 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.

Finding Patience, by Virginia Lieto and Carole Hahn Panzner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Rejoice! Gospel Meditations, by Louis Evely

Lent invites us to refresh our souls, to refocus our lives, to set things right. Rejoice! by Louis Evely, has a way of growing us out of our comfort zones into the light. It challenges us to lift our crosses and follow Jesus. Evely writes: “There were times when Jesus was frightening in his logic, frightening in his relentlessness. He went beyond what was said of him; beyond the half-measures at which the Law had reasonably stopped. Jesus allowed nothing to stop him. He knows only one law: love. And from that law, he draws consequences with logic, which must either electrify or repel his followers.”

Consider the tax collectors and harlots who flocked to the desert to see St. John the Baptist. They asked John, “What must we do?” To their surprise, John told them, “If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same.” Luke 3:11.  To approach God who we cannot see; we must first approach our neighbors, especially those in need. The message of John and later Jesus electrified their followers. Imagine the joy among the penitents at finding the path to forgiveness and love. Imagine the community that benefits from their joyful giving.

Consider the Pharisees. Why instead of the Pharisees, did the likes of Matthew, Zacchaeus, other tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes flock to Jesus? Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection and angels. They maintained their zeal for the Law and awaited the Messiah. “They should have been Jesus’ staunchest supporters.” On the contrary, many of them joined in the call for Jesus’ death. Evely explains that “The Pharisees were proud of their faith, their knowledge, their good works, and their religious observances. Therefore they were closed to God’s gifts and God’s forgiveness, for they did not believe that they were in need of either.” They believed that they had saved themselves through their rigorous observance of the Law. In their assumption of righteousness, they not only rejected God’s mercy, but they refused to extend mercy toward the unrighteous. Imagine their frustration when Jesus said that they had to change their whole approach to God and that their earlier efforts may have placed them behind the hated tax-collectors on the path to God. The message of Jesus repelled them.

Evely used the Parable of The Prodigal Son to compare the Pharisees to the tax collectors and sinners. The older son keeps the Law, but he does so, resentfully. The prodigal, like the tax collectors, rejects the discipline of the Law, but at least he realizes his sinfulness. He is willing to confess to his father and beg a place among his servants. The father, like God the Father is something of a prodigal in his mercy toward the younger son. God squanders love on sinners and reproves the cold-hearted legalists. God’s ways are not our ways.

Evely observes, “It is one of the paradoxes of human nature that we often find more generosity, compassion, and willingness to serve among libertines and loose women than among our moral rigorists.” To underscore his claim, he cites the Parable of the Vineyard Workers. Those who endured the heat of the day received the same pay as those who worked only one hour. Evely writes that those who worked longer should have rejoiced at the good fortune of the last to arrive. The day-long workers grumbled at their fair wage, but Jesus made the point that the vineyard owner was free to do with his money as he wished, despite how it appeared to the workers. God’s ways are not our ways.

If we proclaim Jesus in our liturgy, we must live according to His teachings by radiating God’s love. “God is no more and no less visible than love itself,” Evely writes. “Other men see it and know that the Spirit of God is present. In the early church, only men ‘filled with the spirit’ were chosen for important missions. And the pagans said of the first Christians, ‘See how they love one another!’ The love of these Christians was such that, through it God Himself was made visible.” The lives of the early Christians proclaimed the Law of Love. In loving, they won the culture war against their pagan environment. Why today, have so many churches closed or serve only the elderly? Why today, do some Catholics fear the lure of the secular culture? Shouldn’t they be more concerned about cold-hearted Church members who lack the compelling love that denoted the early Christians and attracted new Christians?

Wishing you an invigorating Lent, one that brings rejoicing.

Louis Evely also wrote a collection of meditations focused on the Easter-Pentecost season: Joy: Meditations on the Joyful Heritage of Christianity.

The Long Cosmos, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

He may have died in 2015, but Terry Pratchett’s spirit lives on in more than seventy of his books. His feel-good novels consistently advocate not only for the underdog, but the under-troll, the under-gremlin, the poor, the powerless, and the downtrodden. His stories and novel-series create new worlds and even new universes. His stories cross genre boundaries of fantasy, sci-fi, romance, adventure, and eccentric history.

Pratchett’s stories customarily weave multiple storylines with only the faint wisp of kinship. He offers images that require his readers to pause, savor, and reflect until the story emerges from the seemingly unrelated details. Readers float in a sea of seemingly unconnected details from each subplot, yet the enchanting prose and literary gems darned into almost every paragraph capture his readers’ loyalty and reward their patience. Eventually, as if viewing a fragment of a magnificent tapestry—a piece the size of a page in a book—the subplot fibers, like rootlets, knit together, allowing the reader to view the novel’s grand design.

Unfortunately, The Long Cosmos, the fifth book in the Long Earth series (published posthumously, thanks to co-author Stephen Baxter), fails to sustain the Pratchett tradition. The outline came from the minds of both Pratchett and Baxter, but the reader must credit (or blame) Baxter for writing the final product.

The “long cosmos” alluded to in the book’s title includes millions of Earth-like planets that stretch across space in a long pearl-like necklace. Gifted interplanetary travelers “step” or walk from one version of Earth to the next. They need only imagine themselves on the next planet, and their bodies follow  their imaginations through space. The less imaginative may fly to distant “Earths” in a vessel called a “twain,” presumably named after Mark Twain, since one of the largest twains is called the “Samuel Clemens.”

Each variation of Earth displays a unique geological and biological evolution. Predatory reptiles like Pterosaurs may glide above, while scaly swamp creatures strike from below. Trees miles in height look down through the clouds at the mountain tops. Their wood is so light and durable that it is used in the hulls of twains.

The story takes place in a time following the 2040 eruption of the Yellowstone volcano and the years of volcanic winter that left Earth, and particularly North America in ruins. Joshua Valiente, 67, against his family’s objections, decides to go camping on a distant Earth. After he suffers a serious accident, he is nursed back to health by a collective of trolls. Sancho, a silverback troll librarian, like Don Quixote’s sidekick, nurses Joshua and educates him in the complexities of troll communication and travel throughout the necklace of Earths. These trolls look more like orangutans than they do Shrek or the Tolkienesque variety, or even the massive trolls that populate other Pratchett novels.

In another subplot, an Extraterrestrial Intelligence calls all sapient beings including beagles, humans, trolls, and the Next—a vastly more intelligent human subspecies—to “Join Us.” Although all are called to “join,” each species harbors doubts about the fitness and worthiness of the other groups. Several minor plots explore the building of a vast communications beacon and travel pods, the human interactions with other sapient groups, and Joshua’s family dynamics.

Eventually, all of the threads weave into something of a New Age coming together of the minds within the universe. The depiction of the collective intelligence of the trolls, their facility in “stepping” from one Earth to the next, and their recording of Earth and troll history in their ballad-like “long calls” proved to be the most interesting memory that I’ll take from this book.