In Between – Not Just a Title but Also the Theme

 A Book Review of In Between, by Jenny B. Jones

Katie Moves in with the Scotts

How does it feel to be in between in the small Texas town of In Between? We meet sixteen-year-old Katie in a minivan as her social worker, Mrs. Smartly, is driving her to a foster home. Katie’s mother, Bobbie Ann Parker is in prison for selling drugs. Katie has been in a group home since her mother was arrested six months ago. Until her mother left, Katie was pretty much raising herself.

Like many older children in foster care, Katie fears what she may find in a new home. Katie is really freaked out when she finds her new foster daddy, Jame Scott, is a preacher.  Katie has not spent much time in churches.  As Katie and Mrs. Smartly get closer to the Scotts’ home, Katie discreetly seeks clues on what her “pretend-o-parents” will be like. She says it this way:

It’s like I want to know about these people, but I don’t want Mrs. Smartly to think I’m too interested. Or scared.  The thing with foster care is you have way too much uncertainty. I knew where I stood at the girls’ home. I knew who to be nice to, who to totally avoid, and what the lumps in the dining hall mashed potatoes really consisted of.

As Mrs. Smartly keeps probing to find out what Katie is afraid of, we get a good idea of what life in the Sunny Haven for Girls was really like and what Katie fears about foster care. She is in between one life and another, and although she hated the old, she is afraid of what she might find in the new. She still smarts from the rejection of her mother, who chose drugs over her own child.  I remember one of my very own nephews grieving for the same reason many years ago. He never had to go to a real foster home, since my mother and I were allowed to take him and his brother in to our homes until their home was stable again. Eventually it was.

Foster Care is an Adjustment for Everyone

Jenny B. Jones has written In Between (and the books which follow it in this series) in Katie’s voice.  Though the books are targeted for young adults, I couldn’t put them down.  That may be partly due to my own experience as the foster parent of a troubled girl we later adopted. I only wish our experience could have been a bit more like the Scotts.  Our daughter left us when she was a few days from turning seventeen. As we continued to read In Between, we discovered that the Scotts’ also had an adopted daughter, Amy, who left them for some of the same reasons.  This is one more reason this book spoke to me.

In Between deals seriously with common problems both foster children and their foster parents face, and many of them are similar to what most teens and conscientious parents face.  These problems include self-esteem, acceptance, boundaries, discipline, expectations, drug abuse, and peer pressure.  More complicated issues include the fear of being sent away from a family once you feel at home, or having a child you have grown to love sent back to unsuitable parents.

We watch as Katie adjusts to learning about church and God, as she tries to fit into a new school and has to deal with a school bully who happens to be the daughter of her P.E. teacher, who is also a bully.  She first gets into the wrong crowd at school and gets into trouble. She is sure James and Millie will send her away, but they find a way to keep her from getting a jail record while providing some very appropriate consequences.

 Maxine  Provides Comic Relief

Almost the first thing Millie does after Katie moves in is take her mall shopping for new and fashionable clothes. This is followed with a new hair style. While they enjoy lunch at a restaurant, Millie’s phone rings and we first become aware of Millie’s eccentric mother, Maxine. Here’s how Millie describes her to Katie:

‘my mother is, um, different. I don’t want to scare you, but she’s been compared to Judge Judy….on crack’

We then learn that Maxine can no longer drive because she knocked over a few stop signs. So she bought a tandem bicycle that she named Ginger Rogers and had a little accident

‘wiping out in the street. Luckily though, the chicken truck stopped for her. After it hit a fire hydrant.’ (Millie) shakes her head and laughs. ‘It rained feathers and naked chickens for and hour. But Mother says she is close to perfecting he wheelie.’

As you might guess, Maxine and Rocky provide the comic relief in this book to keep it from getting too heavy.  Maxine reminded me a bit of Electra Lark, Temple Barr’s eccentric landlady in the Midnight Louie Series by Carole Nelson Douglas, but Katie’s foster granny Maxine makes Electra seem conventional.

My Recommendation

By now I’m fully immersed in Katie’s world. I have read all four books in the series, In Between (1), On the Loose (2), The Big Picture (3) and Can’t Let You Go (4).  I’m not a spoiler, so I won’t say much more about the plot. I can’t get enough of the characters. I now really care what happens to James, Millie, Katie, Frances (Katie’s friend), Sam (Maxine’s friend), Amy, and even Maxine, crazy as she seems.  Like most teens, Katie doesn’t learn all she should from her mistakes the first time around. James, Millie, and Maxine do their best to keep her safe from those mistakes and unlikely to repeat them.

Trust is a big issue, as it is in most families.  The books show how it is carefully built, violated,  and rebuilt. We see important changes in all the characters as the plot develops, and we get to know them well.

I recommend this series to all who want to get inside the heads of foster children and foster parents, to those who are foster teens or foster parents, or to anyone who is a friend of any of these.  Even when the plot moves into serious territory such as tornadoes, bullying, vandalism, and cancer, the author allows us to laugh and relieve the tension. She doesn’t put anyone on a pedestal and gives even ministers and their families heavy problems to grapple with.

Although the book is definitely Christian, it’s not goody-goody nor does it raise expectations that Christians will have trouble-free lives. Instead it shows believers trusting God in the midst of their pain and uncertainty.

Get the Series All at Once

I received In Between as a free eBook from Amazon. It may still be free if you hurry. But I give you fair warning. If you read it, you will want to get the other books immediately. I have now purchased and read them all. You can get all of them at once in the Kindle edition.  If you decide to buy the paper rather than the Kindle editions, be sure to buy them all at the same time to avoid being left hanging, waiting for the next book to arrive.

 

Featured photo at the top is one I took edited on PicMonkey.com

The photo below is perfect to share on Pinterest. The girl in the photo is my daughter, who had come to us as a disturbed foster child. The picture  was taken when she was about the same age as Katie was in the book. You can read her story here: Sarah: The Suicide of Our Adult Child

Book Review of In Between by Jenny B. Jones

Review of Come Find Me by Travis Neighbor Ward

Sixteen-year-old Jessica Wilson meets Mark Fripp while they are both living at Fort Benning. They are both Army children. They fall in love as much as teens are able to fall in love, but after only six weeks, Mark has to leave when his father is transferred to Italy. Jessica and Mark email each other for a time, but then the emails from Mark stop coming and Jessica believes he no longer loves her. He actually does try to email her, but she’s not getting them, and can’t answer him. Her heart is broken.

Both their fathers die in the Battle of Kirkuk in 2003 in Iraq while serving in the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, but neither knows the other’s father had died. Both are separately dealing with the grief of missing each other and losing their fathers in the same year. Both had been using military emails to communicate and the accounts were taken away when their fathers died. That is part of what happened to their communication.

We learn this story as Jessica tells it to her troubled sixteen-year-old daughter Chelsea after she has run away from home during a period of depression after a break-up with her boyfriend. She was found and returned, but Jessica was afraid she might leave again. She seemed to have turned into a different girl, one who had dropped out of her extracurricular activities and taken up bad habits. Once Chelsea was back home, Jessica had tried everything she knew to help her, including therapy, church, and horseback riding lessons, but none of it seemed to help. Jessica is afraid of losing Chelsea every time she leaves home alone. It appears Chelsea believes Jessica cannot understand the pain she feels after the break-up.

Jessica decides to force Chelsea to take a three-hour drive back to Fort Benning where she, Jesssica, had fallen in love. It is isolated enough there so that she may get the chance to tell Chelsea her own story of heartbreak without having her jump out of the car and run away.

When the story opens, it is 2013. Jessica is living with her widowed sister Jill whose husband has died in an IED explosion in Afghanistan, leaving her with three children at home. They live a block from Jessica’s mother Clara and her second husband Paul. Jessica helps Jill with the children and their activities and works seasonally at an animal rescue center. Jessica is engaged to a wealthy rancher, Blake McCormick, even though what she feels for him is a much different kind of love than that she had felt for Mark.

Mark had also had a miserable ten years of grief. He was living in Arizona in Navajo Nation after being discharged from the Air Forces’s 55th Rescue Squadron two years earlier. He had been disqualified for further service after an accident in Afghnistan that left him colorblind after his other injuries had healed. He missed the Air Force, and felt like damaged goods because of the discharge. For two years he had been chasing opportunities for new thrills in risky activities.

Now he wanted to go to Capetown, South Africa to to jump from the Blouskrans Bridge, the highest one on earth at 708 feet. But first he had one more thing to do. He had found out where Jessica was living and he wanted to go and see her. He had never gotten over losing her and hoped they could yet pick up the pieces of their relationship. He hopped on his Honda VFR Interceptor with a ticket to Capetown in his pocket, and headed for Atlanta to find Jessica. As Jessica told Chelsea at the beginning of her story, ‘I was engaged…and then my past came walking in the back door.’

To see what happened you need to read Come Find Me. I hope you will.  The characters are memorable and show you who they are. There are very few of them I would not want at my dinner table, and I believe you will enjoy meeting them and watching them work out what they want most in life.


Books for Aspiring Young Ballerinas

Many little girls want to learn to dance. Many start out with ballet when they are very young. As they see others dance in recitals and ballets, some yearn to go on and become professional ballerinas. Very few get that far. Still, though, many remain ballerinas in their hearts.

When I was young , my cousins were taking ballet, and I wanted to join them. The teacher was Russian and the classes were half an hour from my home, since my cousins lived in a different city than we did. Like many young girls, I dreamed of being a ballerina. My mother let me take classes to help me develop graceful movements and good posture, but it began to get hard for Mom to keep taking me for classes. We’d miss a few classes and then I would have to start over again each time. I knew I’d never get good enough to perform, and finally I quit. Mom was tired of taking me.

My college roommate had gotten much farther along than I ever did. When we met at UCLA she was no longer dancing. Right after graduation she had foot surgery to correct damage to her feet caused by her earlier toe dancing. She had talent, but her injuries had forced her to quit. The characters in the books I review below, had other hindrances.

 

In Dancing on the Inside by Glen Strathy, Jenny Spark dreams of being a ballerina. She had never seen a live ballet or met a ballerina in person, but her grandparents had given her a DVD of Swan Lake for Christmas, and she had watched it over and over. She could envision herself as one of the dancers.

Jenny’s parents are concerned because she has no friends. Jenny had been home schooled for the first three grades because the family had lived in an isolated area, and, unlike all the home schoolers I have known, including my own children, she hadn’t had outside activities where she could get to know other children. She gets panic attacks when she is having to relate to people she doesn’t know or do things in front of them. Jenny’s parents want her to make friends by getting into some group with girls who share common interests. Jenny wants to learn ballet, even though her mother is pushing her toward Girl Guides Pathfinders.  Jenny vigorously resists this. It doesn’t interest her at all.

We first meet Jenny and her mother, Marilyn Spark, in the car on the way for Jenny’s first ballet lesson. Jenny’s mother reminds her that if Jenny doesn’t want to continue with ballet, she has to drop out after the first lesson. After the second, her mother’s money would not be refunded. Jenny’s family has to watch their pennies. They have already bought Jenny’s shoes and her white leotard and tights. She already has her shoes on, even though it’s a rainy day. In the office of the Kingston Ballet School, Marilyn fills out papers and Jenny and her Mom meet the teacher, Madame Beaufort. She tells Jenny that her leotard and tights are the wrong color and she needs to wear her hair up off her neck. She also should have waited to be inside before changing into her ballet slippers. This made Jenny feel that she’d gotten off to a bad start.

Jenny immediately felt she didn’t belong there. She was about to leave and tell her mother to get the refund when the other girls started to arrive. In the studio where her class for twelve-year-olds was about to start, she looked for a place to hide and found it under the cloth covering the piano in one corner. She could just peek out to see and hear the other students, most of whom were returning from last year. Then Ara, the most awkward girl, but the one appearing to have the most fun, discovered her hiding, pulled the cloth up from over her hiding place, and asked ‘Who are you?’

About this time Madame Beaufort called the class to order and asked the girls to gather round, but Jenny just couldn’t move. She was getting light-headed and a bit dizzy. Madame Beaufort realized something was wrong and gave her permission to just sit on the piano bench and watch. She pays careful attention to everything the class does planning to practice later at home. After making sure she was the first to leave, Jenny goes to the car and when asked how it went tells her mother the class had been fine. That night Jenny quietly went into her father’s office where she could practice everything she had observed in class. Then she moved to the bathroom because it had a mirror where she could watch herself, and her dad walked in as she was standing on the toilet seat trying to use the towel rack as a barre. Her dad talked with her and told her she should probably leave that sort of practice for class. They talk about the class a bit and Jenny’s dad asks if she would like to be a dancer. She affirms it but expresses her doubts about ever being to dance like the others in her class. He dad says if she really wants to dance, she will find a way. She realizes he has faith in her.

Later she overhears a conversation between her mother and father about her. Marilyn expresses her fears that Jenny might convince herself she wants to be a professional dancer someday and not be good enough to make it and they would have wasted their money. Her father replies that they should just let her have fun for a while and make some friends. Jenny remembers how paralyzed with fear she was at the beginning of the class. She wonders if it will keep happening. She is scared to death to let anyone see her dance, and she cannot participate in the class without other people seeing her. All she really wanted to do was to continue to observe, take notes, and practice on her own at home, away from the others, but she knew her mother would consider that a waste of money. Then she had an idea – an idea that made her feel guilty. She put it into practice, and she did make a friend in the class. By the end of the book she and her teachers discovered she had a special talent.

Dancing on the Inside held my attention, even though it’s aimed at upper elementary and middle school students. Although I found the plot unrealistic, few fiction plots for this age group are realistic. The characters were fairly well-developed. The girls in the dance class act just the way I saw my students and my children and their friends act, but the author doesn’t stoop to using language in narration or dialogue that imitates current teen slang the way some authors for this audience have. I appreciate that. I would recommend this for girls interested in ballet, for there is a lot of dance method and talk in it. It might also be good for children who are shy, since they will discover that self-consciousness can fade away when attention is focused on helping others.

Disclosure: I received Dancing on the Inside free and requested to honesty review it. I have done that here.  It is available in both eBook and paperback format.

 

Ribbons by Laurence Yep

I just reread this book by award-winning author Laurence Yep for purposes of this blog because I remembered its ballet theme. It has been years since the first time I read Ribbons, and I enjoyed he second reading as much as the first. Like Dancing on the Inside, it’s about much more than dancing. Ribbons is just as much about the clash between generations in American Chinese families as it is about ballet.

Robin is a talented dancer whom we first meet during a performance of a shortened version of The Nutcracker, where she stars in a solo Morning Butterfly role. She appears to be recognized by the others in the recital and her teacher as the most gifted student. She was the first in toe shoes. But after the performance, as the group is breaking up and the Christmas break approaches, Robin is surprised to hear her teacher, Madame Oblamov say to her, ‘How I shall miss you.’ Robin couldn’t understand what she meant.

Later she found out from her parents that they could no longer afford to pay for her lessons. Instead, the money is having to go to help bring Robin’s maternal grandmother from Hong Kong to their San Francisco home to live with them. Hong Kong was about to be returned to Communist China, and Robin’s mother wanted to get her out before that happened. It was an expensive process and Robin’s parents did not have much money. Robin’s mother had already brought her two younger brothers to live with her, paid for their college educations, and finally they started their own families, and became successful in their own careers. In fact, they were now wealthier than Robin’s family, and their homes were much bigger.

There was no guest room in Robin’s home, so when her grandmother finally came, she had to give her own room to Grandmother and share a room with her five-year-old brother Ian. That was hard for an eleven-year-old girl to swallow, especially when he started defacing her prized dolls and then said Grandmother had given him permission. It was also obvious that Grandmother favored Ian, giving him special treats, and even telling him he could eat the ice cream bar with her name on it she had been saving and looking forward to all day. When she came home that day, it was gone, and she found the wrapper with her name on it in the trash.

 

She missed her ballet and her ballet friends with whom she practiced. They didn’t understand why Robin couldn’t dance with them, and Robin was not allowed to tell anyone, especially her grandmother, the truth.  She felt as though something inside her was dying when she couldn’t dance. She was determined to keep up with her practicing, even though she had to do it on the concrete floor of the garage. Meanwhile, she could not get her parents to commit to when she might be able to start lessons again.

Up until this time, Robin had lived a normal American life. Her mother was Chinese and had come from Hong Kong. Her father was a Caucasian American. Her friends at ballet were from many races. She had not been exposed much to Chinese culture outside the United States. She gradually learned that culture was responsible for the decisions her mother was making. Men were favored in Chinese culture. That’s why her mother did not ask her brothers to assist with Grandmother’s support  and made excuses for their lack of help, even though they were in a better financial situation to provide it. Robin and Ian were cut to one small Christmas present each that year, but at the family celebration their cousins were announcing all the expensive presents they had gotten. It just didn’t seem fair to Ian and Robin. Robin’s resentment against Grandmother (and her uncles and cousins) just kept building.

Then one day, she accidentally discovers a secret Grandmother never wanted her to know. The discovery changes how she feels and her life begins to change for the better. You will have to read the book to see what happened to get Robin dancing again.

Although both books are written for the same age group and share the ballet theme, they are very different in style and vocabulary. Dancing on the Inside was a well-told story. It had a message, but one had to suspend one’s knowledge of the real world to accept the plot. The Ribbons plot is consistent with reality. I have spent a great deal of time with Chinese Americans from the first, second, and third generations. I have very close Chinese friends who have discussed their family problems with me. I have seen some of these same themes of inter-generational misunderstanding and conflict as we’ve talked. I’ve met both parents and their children.

Probably the first thing I noticed when I opened Ribbons again after just finishing Dancing on the Inside was the difference in style. Dancing on the Inside is a well-written story. Ribbons is literature. Ribbons has a more extensive vocabulary and more complex characters. It also has a more universal theme. Wannabe ballerinas will probably enjoy both books, but teachers will probably find more discussion topics in Ribbons
.

 

Lili at Ballet by Rachel Isadora

Very young children who take ballet or want to know what happens in a beginning ballet class will enjoy Lili at Ballet by Rachel Isadora. It’s picture book story about Lili, who takes ballet lessons four afternoons a week. The story is a loose framework for a visual presentation of ballet positions, steps, and terms. It illustrates everything beginning students do and wear . It’s a great introduction to give a young child who wants to take ballet so she will know what to expect. Both male and female students are shown in the pictures. Note: The cover illustration for this book is more vivid than it looks on the Amazon page, and the tutu shows up much better. 

 

Review of The Silent Reporter (Hyder Ali #1) by Mobashar Qureshi

Don’t start reading The Silent Reporter unless you have time to finish it the same day. I couldn’t put it down. The characters were introduced scene by scene and at first the scenes seemed unrelated. But you saw the relationship by the time you knew who everyone was.  To make it easy, I will introduce them all at once here.

Cast of Main Characters

  • Hyder Ali, American-born Muslim of Pakistani descent, who works as temporary reporter at The Daily Times
  • Lester Glasgow, works at the technology desk at the The Daily Times, Hyder’s friend
  • Caroline Dunny, Hyder’s boss, AKA Dunny the Killer Bunny
  • Amanda Hansborough, an accountant at TriGate Management Group, whom we see die in an auto accident when her brakes fail
  • Peter Hansborough, Amanda’s husband
  • Tom Nolan, a police officer whose wife died in that same accident who had turned into a alcoholic since his wife’s death and been on leave from the police force
  • Police Captain ‘Rudy” Ross, who cares for Tom and wants to see him back on the force
  • Sergeant Doug Halton, Nolan’s supervisor on the Franklin Police Force, who would love to fire him if Ross would let him.
  • Detective Angelo Pascale, who despises Nolan and wants him fired
  • Detective Marina Lopez, who is sympathetic to Nolan, and has his back.
  • Jessica Freeland, daughter of Professor Eric Freeland, who was found hanging in his home, an apparent suicide.
  • Charles Marshall, CEO of TriGate Management, which had just been awarded a 1.2 billion dollar contract to build an extension for the city nuclear reactor plant. Nolan had seen the announcement on television when he was drinking at a bar.
  • Ian Marshall, son of Charles
  • Terry Scott, President of TriGate ManagementGroup
  • “Grant” the “fixer” of problems for the Marshalls and TriGate Management
  • Hyder’s widowed mother, whom he calls Ammi
  • Hyder’s brother Akbar, a doctor
  • John Kroft, Jr., Publisher of the The Daily Times


The author brings the characters together in such a way that they advance the plot bit by bit until you begin see  it  coming together. There are plenty of clues you can grab along the way to the plot’s resolution. Several themes run through the book. As you read, you will probably be rooting for some characters and hoping to see others get their comeuppance.  I was most drawn to Tom Nolan and  Capt. Ross. I wanted to boo or hiss every time Haldon, Grant or Marshall appeared after I had first met them.

Tom Nolan is an alcoholic detective. He had been headed for a very successful police career because before his wife’s death he had been an excellent detective. After her death he had fallen apart and turned to the bottle, hoping to drink himself to death. After almost a year’s absence, Ross had gone to his house to get him when he wouldn’t answer his phone calls. He had to break his window with a rock to make him finally open the door. He told Nolan to come back to work and clean himself up. Ross would not take no for an answer. Ross let Nolan know he considered him valuable enough to save, even when Nolan could see nothing good in himself.

Nolan’s first case back back at work was to investigate the death of Professor Eric Freeman, reported as a suicide. Freeman had been a mentor to Hyder when he was a student, and Hyder just couldn’t believe it was a suicide. Jessica Freeland couldn’t believe it either. Even Nolan saw a couple of signs that weren’t consistent with suicide, but he was still not completely himself, and when asked to make a decision, he called for the coroner, and handled it as a suicide.

Hyder and Jessica try to convince Nolan it was a murder, but he said he had no proof, so the two work together to try to figure it out themselves. Then Jessica notices she is being watched by someone in a black sedan. She tells Hyder.

We then see Ian Marshall in his mansion discussing Freeland’s death with Grant, who was responsible for it. They wonder aloud if anyone else knows too much. Grant says he’s keeping an eye on Jessica.

Most of the book deals with the investigation. When Nolan is pressured by Halton to close the case in three days or prove it wasn’t a suicide, he takes another serious look at the file. He sees the coroner’s report somehow is missing from the file so he talks to the coroner. Nolan is told someone had picked up the report to hand deliver, but the signature of the one who picked it up was undecipherable, and it had never arrived.

A talk with the coroner revealed that the death was not consistent with suicide. Nolan remembered he inconsistencies he had seen and he retrieved he evidence he had removed from the scene he had filed away.  He let Jessica and Hyder know he now agreed with them, and they began to work together to share information. You will have to read the book to see how they finally pieced the solution together.

The second theme is the author’s attempt to portray how an American Muslim family practices its religion in everyday life. This is shown in the scenes that take place in Hyder’s home, which becomes the meeting place for Nolan, Jessica, and Hyder to work on the case. Hyder found it strange that his mother, who wore traditional Muslim dress, prayed five times a day, and regularly read the Quran, could enjoy watching figure skaters in skimpy, tight costumes dance on the ice in front of crowds (on TV.) She had told him “It didn’t matter how someone lived, talked, ate, or even worshiped. What mattered was how they lived their lives.”

Another quote deals with Hyder’s perception of the Muslim view of suicide: “Contrary to what was reported on the news, suicide was also not permitted in Islam. Life was a gift from God and no one had the right to take it away except for God.”

Hyder had talked with Freeland (who was Jewish) “about Islamist suicide bombers and they both had agreed that no God, no matter from what religion, would accept the death of innocent people in his name.” This may be true, but it may also be true that Muslim views on who is innocent may differ both from those of other Muslims and from non-Muslims.

It is clear that the author wants readers to see Islam as a religion not much different than Judaism. “Freeland was Jewish and Hyder was Muslim, but they both shared a common trait: a love for God and an appreciation of his people.”

The third element in this novel is the rehabilitation of Tom Nolan. The beginning of the book  vividly shows us the despair and pain Tom suffers and his degradation as he continues to rely on  alcohol. We see it is only Ross’s belief in him that makes him drag himself back down to the police department.

We see many scenes that portray his grief. His wife, Simone, had been five months pregnant when she was killed. Her accident was caused in the aftermath of the accident that had killed Amanda. In one scene he is in their bedroom and almost kills himself, but couldn’t go through with it. He sees their wedding rings on top of the dresser.

Nolan kissed her ring and held it tight in his hand. The tighter he held it,the more he felt like he was holding her But this was not true. She was gone, leaving behind the object that was once a sign of their love.

He then replays in his head the last day of his wife’s life and his reaction of denial when he got the call that she was dead and he had to identify her. When he saw her body, he stopped wanting to live. Though he couldn’t make himself take his own life, he hoped either the alcohol or another person would kill him.

During the course of the year he was on leave, Tom occasionally drives by the Hansborough house and watches Peter with his children. He wonders how Peter can laugh again and live like a normal person when he can’t. He thinks it’s because Peter has his children. Tom has no one.  He can’t bear to go into the room of his house that was to be the nursery for his unborn child.

Nolan finally collects his “marbles’ as he decides he will give his all to solving the case of Freeland’s death, which he now believes is a murder. By the end of the book you see that Ross’s faith in him was justified. He demonstrates he is still a sharp detective, and a brave one. Of course it helps that he isn’t afraid to die and that he is convinced the same people who killed Freeland also are also responsible for his wife’s death, and he wants them brought to justice.


I thoroughly enjoyed The Silent Reporter (Hyder Ali #1)
 look forward to reading the sequel, The Rogue Reporter (Hyder Ali #2)
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Lei Crime Series by Toby Neal

It seems the protagonist or a main character of almost every noveI I have read recently has either been molested or abused as a child or both.  I almost feel like an anomaly for having had a normal childhood with two parents who stayed married to each other, loved me, and protected me.  As I read these novels, I’m also very grateful I had this kind of childhood. Leilani (Lei) Texeira had been abused as a child. Her mother had preferred drugs  to mothering  after her husband Wayne had gotten her hooked and then been sent to prison for dealing drugs when Lei was five.    Charlie Kwon had moved in with  her mother and molested Lei for six months, often when she was bathing.  As Lei put it, ‘Charlie’d had a way of getting to her, twisting everything he did to her into something she’d wanted.’  When Charlie broke up with Lei’s mom, she overdosed, and Lei was sent to live with her Aunty Rosario in California when she was nine. It was the best thing that ever happened to her. But she continued to have flashbacks to the bathtub scenes throughout Blood Orchids.
When we meet Lei in the first book of the Lei Crime Series, Blood Orchids (Lei Crime Book 1)she is a rookie in the South Hilo Police Department in Hawaii. She is pulling a young woman’s body out of the water as her partner, Pono, is phoning in her grisly discovery.  After Lei pulls a second girl from the water it is evident they have been murdered, and Detective Michael Stevens, from Los Angeles, and his partner Jeremy Ito, are put in charge of the case.

Lei isn’t happy about that. Since she discovered the bodies, she wants to be involved in helping to find the murderer. Finally Stevens allows her to help since the help he has requested from other departments has not been given. Lei and Stevens spend more time together as the case unfolds. As the book (and series) progresses, much of it deals with the growing attraction between Lei and Michael Stevens.

Meanwhile, Lei has discovered she has a stalker who puts threatening notes in her mailbox and on her porch. Even though she has a security system and a pet Rottweiler, Keiki, she is still afraid.  She wonders if her neighbor, Tom Watanabe is her stalker, since she thinks he looks at her in a creepy way. The reader sees several possible suspects besides Tom. I’m not going to spoil the book for you by mentioning them, but I did suspect the right people. I like that the author gave me enough clues to figure out who the killer was.

We see the murder of Mary, another woman police officer and  a friend and classmate of Lei before the killer lets readers know that Lei herself will be his next target. I have trouble with books like this because they use a technique that builds suspense to the point that I can’t handle it. The reader knows from almost the beginning that a serial killer is responsible for the deaths of the two girls Lei and Pono found drowned.

Throughout the book there are passages where the killer speaks (in italics), savoring his mementos from his victims and the photos of them he has so carefully posed. He also lets the reader know ahead of time that there will soon be another killing and in some cases, who it will be. I’m sure this technique appeals to some readers who enjoy the suspense and the anticipation of the next murder. I don’t. I prefer books where the body is found and the detectives go to work methodically to find the killer as we follow in their steps and think with them.  In this book, the reader knows more than the police. I empathize too much and can’t stand knowing a character I’ve gotten to know is going to be grabbed and probably killed and that I will have to watch it happen.

Were it not for that, I would have found the book a fast-moving and  entertaining escape. I just don’t consider being scared over and over entertaining the way some people do. I did enjoy the interaction between Lei and Pono and watching the romance between Lei and Stevens develop. Lei has frequent flashbacks to the abuse she faced as a child, and what happened back then affects her ability to trust Stevens and her ambivalence creates tension. Stevens considers Lei’s willingness to take initiative in her work a strong point. She is also impulsive, though, and takes unnecessary risks. At one point when she thinks her stalker has just put a note on her porch when she’s already dressed for bed, she turns Keiki loose and pursues on foot — a really dumb thing to do. It doesn’t end happily, and it results in her being disciplined by her boss and being forced into counseling. The counseling turns out to be a good thing. It continues into the second book after Lei has begun to see its value

.

I am about halfway through the second book in the series, Torch Ginger (Lei Crime Book 2).  I don’t think I will be able to finish it because the inner stress it produces in me is worse than even that in  Blood Orchids.  That same technique of letting the killer share his thoughts is used there, and Lei continues to take off on risky solo investigations on her own that could get her killed.  I just can’t bear to follow her this time. I’m sorry I’ll have to forego finding out what happens next in Lei’s relationship with Stevens and that I won’t find out if I’m right about the identity of  the mysterious Timekeeper. I would recommend this series to those who relish suspense and thrive on thrillers. The police detective work is thorough and chances are you will predict the killer if you pay attention to the clues the author lets you see.  Toby Neal knows how to create a mood that draws the reader into the book from the first page.

Despite my resistance to the suspense leading to witnessing violence, Blood Orchids (Lei Crime Book 1)
kept me turning the pages, and I couldn’t put it down even when I wanted to.  The author made me care about so much about the characters that I may sneak  to the end of Torch Ginger (Lei Crime Book 2)
just to see what happens. I suspect Lei will find herself in a very dangerous position it will take all her strength and survival instincts to get out of.  I don’t want to watch, which is why I’ll skip the dramatic build-up and climax and just see how it is all resolved. In spite of the past pain in her life, Lei is a very caring detective who wants justice for the victims of the vicious.  I think you will enjoy getting to know her.

Review of Allison (A Kane Novel) by Steve Gannon

Quote by Barb Radisavljevic

Few of the several books I read each week meet my expectations.  Allison (A Kane Novel) by Steve Gannon, exceeded them. I was engaged from the very first page.

We meet Alison (Ali) when she is almost twenty, a UCLA student planning to transfer to SC for her junior year in order to study journalism. We also learn she was raped when she was sixteen during a robbery in her home when her parents and older brothers were out, and she had kept the experience to herself for a year. Then she had finally told her parents and the police.  She had sworn her younger brother, Nate, who was there at home with her when it happened, to secrecy. The fact that she had kept the secret for a year had broken a bond of trust with her parents. She had finally mended that bond with her father, but not her mother. Her relationship with her mother was still edgy and fraught with conflict. That conflict is a constant undertone in the plot.

Allison’s mother, Catheryne (Kate) and older brother, Travis, are both talented musicians. Her father, Daniel Kane, is supervising  homicide detective for the West Los Angeles Division of the LAPD.  Her oldest brother, Tom, had been killed in a rock-climbing accident. Nate, the youngest in the family,  is fourteen, and very likable and expressive.  He is loyal, and though he can get very angry, he also is quick to forgive.

The book opens with Allison’s early morning  jog around the UCLA campus. She lived in a private dorm that had once been a sorority house, and very close to Hershey Hall, the dorm where I had lived for a semester in 1962.  I rather enjoyed following Ali around the campus past the places I had frequented myself.  I could identify with her choosing the botanical gardens as a place to retreat, since I often sought refuge there myself.

When she returned to the dorm,  she wrote a rough draft for a Daily Bruin article with a rapidly approaching deadline, and then she worked on her novel.  She wasn’t quite sure why she was writing the novel, since she never intended to show it to anyone.

About 9:45, as she was changing to rush to her 10:00 literature class,  she got a call from her best friend MacKenzie (Mac), just back from Dartmouth, who pressured her into going to Newport Beach with her for some relaxation.  She tried to say no because she didn’t want to ditch her class, but Mac wouldn’t accept it. In fact, Mac was already parked outside ready to scoop up Ali and take her away. So off they went. Mac made no secret of hoping to see a lifeguard she had a crush on, and she was also hoping to get Ali interested in someone at Newport Beach.  Ali had never told Mac about the rape, so Mac had no idea why Ali wasn’t interested in dating.

The time at the beach turned out much differently than either of the girls expected.  Mike Cortese, a videographer and reporter for Channel 2 TV News, happened to be on the beach. He was filming the gigantic waves, but was hoping to find  someone in the water as a visual reference for their size.  He had noticed Ali and Mac, who were both very attractive, when they arrived at the beach.

He had also seen two girls who had ignored life guard warnings head into the deep water. They were having trouble making it back to the beach. A third girl was also in danger, separated from the other two.  A lifeguard appeared just as Mike was about to jump in, and a second lifeguard was also coming. Mike knew he wasn’t a strong enough swimmer to help much, so he grabbed his camera again and started taping the rescue efforts.

Two of the lifeguards were busy trying to save the two visible girls when Mike spotted the third girl, far from shore, face down in the water. There was no way the lifeguards in the water would reach her in time. Then Mike saw Ali jump in. The author then switches to write in Ali’s voice and follows her thoughts as she almost drowns rescuing that third girl.

When she was just about at the end of her strength, help arrives  in the form of a yellow  lifeguard vessel. Ali and the rescued girl are finally both gotten aboard and taken to shore to the waiting crowd and medical personnel.  Mike had gotten all the action with his video camera, and Ali became the heroine of the day.  She did not want the publicity, and wouldn’t give Mike her name.  Before she could leave, the sheriff wanted to interview her.

By the time she returned, Mac had already told Mike who she was. She had also told Mike that Ali wanted to be a journalist, and Mike said he might be able to help her — maybe get her an intern position with Channel Two. All Ali really wanted right then was to go home and change and get to the BBQ at her parents’ beach home in Malibu.

Meanwhile, a teenage star in a popular TV series, Jordan French, is reported missing and is later found dead. Ali’s father is put on the case.

Mike keeps his promise to talk to people at his station about an internship for Ali, but her appearance in Mike’s televised report on the rescue has already made Ali well-known.   CBS was impressed by her “performance” and hires her as a paid assistant. Her interviewer (later boss) turns out to be a woman with whom Ali’s father had once had an affair. Although the affair is long over, Ali is not thrilled with telling her mother and father about this new position — especially since she dropped out of her classes to take the job so she puts off telling them. This further deteriorates the trust issue with her parents when they do find out, since she made these decisions without talking to them first.

As  the book developed, I couldn’t put it down. There is constant conflict between Ali and her parents over Ali’s becoming what her father considers one of the media “scumbags” who interfere with his work.   Ali  tries to prove to her mother that becoming a journalist is more important to her than her creative writing. Catheryne is convinced Ali’s true talent is in her creative writing, and Ali should put her effort there. Catheryne  doesn’t  think much of journalism, especially TV journalism. Both parents are upset that Ali has quit school.

Although Ali loves her older brother Travis, who is an extremely talented pianist and composer, she is also jealous of his talent and his relationship with their musically talented mother. Ali loves her parents, too, but always seems to be at odds with them.  Everything comes to a head when the family learns that Catheryne has leukemia.

Interwoven in the family drama is the growing relationship between Ali and Mike.  Ali is still afraid to trust men.  Just as it appears she is about to trust Mike, his “friend” Brent Preston, who actually got Ali her job at CBS, , betrays them both and destroys that trust.

The attempt to find Jordan’s murderer strains Ali’s relationship with her father even more. She is under constant pressure from Brent and her boss at CBS to reveal information on the case that she shouldn’t even know.  A couple of leaks in the news threaten Daniel Kane’s job, raising the stress level between father and daughter once more.

I will leave it to you to discover how it all comes together at the end as Catheryn tries hard to cling to her life.  Ali, who had the closest match, had donated her bone marrow to Catheryne  but it appears the transplant may be rejected. As the family gathers to support Catheryne during the transplant and its aftermath, everyone has to deal with powerful emotions as they realize she is very likely to die. Yet even then, Ali can’t avoid conflict with her mother. The reader is as tense as the family members and also wants Ali to make peace with her mother quickly, before it’s too late.

The book’s characters were people I would enjoy meeting, with one exception — Brent.  I have said the least about Brent because it’s really better to form your own conclusions after seeing him in action.  All the characters who play major roles are well-developed and will remind you of people you actually know. I’m sure you know someone like Brent — unfortunately.

The twists  in the plot will keep you turning the pages. The murder mystery is logically solved and I enjoyed knowing I’d identified the killer early on. The point is well made that even if your prime suspect  seems to be guilty, it takes systematic work to prove that guilt and gain a conviction. I appreciate an author who lets me think with the detectives instead of springing a surprise twist on me at the end. I’m looking forward to reading more from Steve Gannon. I hope there is a sequel to Allison (A Kane Novel)

 

Short Reviews of Recent Reading

 bookwormFiction on Today’s Bookworm Menu

Today I will offer my fellow bookworms an assortment of mini-reviews on recently read fiction. First, here are some things you should know about my personal reading tastes so you can determine how similar yours might be

I tend to like mysteries that focus on police detectives or professional PI’s but a couple of my favorite authors feature amateur sleuths and / or cats.  Among these are the  Midnight Louie series and the  Benni Harper series.  Both feature amateurs who seem to always be finding bodies in the course of their everyday lives and feel compelled to find out who killed them with or without police cooperation, and I love both these series.  I think it’s because the characters are intelligent people and don’t take as many stupid risks or engage in the silliness I’ve seen in some cozy mysteries.

I don’t like reading a lot of  profanity, but will  tolerate some  if consistent with the characters’ otherwise likable  personalities.  I don’t want to read page after page of it, though.  Neither do I enjoy a lot of bedroom scenes — especially those that seem to be there for no good reason that contributes to the plot. I would  prefer to follow the process of solving the crime and not have to see violence, blood and gore unless it helps me in trying to figure out who the murderer is.


I read a lot of Christian inspirational fiction, but have discovered it is not all of equal quality.  For example, I did not get much inspiration from Tears Fall at Night even though many people say they did.  On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed Stealing the Preacher by Karen Witemeyer, since it showed how a consistent witness of walking the walk may be the best way to win over someone who is resistant to preaching. I found the characters believable and enjoyed getting to know them.

Now that you know where I’m coming from with regard to fiction, here are some comments on my recent reading.

Mysteries

52 Steps to Murder by Steve Demaree

52 Steps to Murder (Book 1 Dekker Cozy Mystery Series)
by Steve Demaree , was clean, as far as mysteries go, but slow moving, especially at the beginning . The detectives, Cy and Lou, were Christians and prayed each morning before they left their homes. Lou often received a “word from God” each morning that usually turned out to be a clue in solving the case.  I wish, though, that  these men had also paid  attention to the Scriptures that told them how to treat their bodies.

 

I felt that Cy Dekker, lead detective for the Hilldale Police Department, and his partner, Lou Murdock, were not all that concerned about their lack of fitness and  their tendency to overeat. Cy made a big deal out of how difficult it was to climb the 52 stairs to the hilltop homes he often needed to visit during the investigation. This was humorous, but also a bit pathetic.  I understand though, that on the detectives’ schedule, a fitness program and healthy meals weren’t always practical. I suppose the author also thought the humor helped break the tedium of climbing all the stairs each day.

 

 Another source of humor was Cy’s ongoing effort to escape from his unattractive single neighbor who lay in wait for him with her little poodle Twinkle Toes every morning as he left for work.  Although these encounters offered comic relief, it still bothered me that Cy had no problem insulting Heloise Humphert at each encounter. It was also unbelievable that any woman would act the way Heloise did in misinterpreting everything Cy did and said. I have to admit, though, that these encounters did relieve some of  the book’s tension. I’m sure that’s the real reason Demaree included them. I just think it detracts from the image of Cy and Lou as Christians.

 

The mystery itself involved two women who had been poisoned, but the timetable was such that it seemed to eliminate everyone who could have committed the crime. That is it did until the detectives learned of the underground tunnels that were common knowledge among the neighbors. Suspects had many ways to come and go unseen by anyone. I won’t spoil the ending, but I was interested enough to keep reading. I probably will read more in this series.  This isn’t as exciting as the In Death Series by J. D. Robb, but I’ve read far worse detective novels than this. The investigative work was very thorough.

 

My first introduction to the Dekker Cozy Mystery series was

Murder In The Library (Book 3 Dekker Cozy Mystery Series)
I thought it moved faster than 52 Steps to Murder, which shows that authors often write more skillfully as they get to know their characters better and write more about them.
 

‘Doc.’ Gordon by Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman


I downloaded this free from Amazon. It was first published in 1906 and is now in the public domain. If you are only used to reading literature written in the past few decades, you might find the manners and language in this book a bit antiquated.  After a few pages of reading, however, I expect you will be drawn into the book.

We meet young medical school graduate James Elliot on the road walking from his home village of Gresham 25 miles to the village of Alton, where he will begin his practice of small town medicine assisting Doctor Thomas Gordon (‘Doc’).  He will live in the doctor’s home, along with the doctor’s widowed sister and her daughter.

 

James soon discovers that everyone seems to have secrets they are keeping from each other, and  you will become as curious to learn them  as James is. There is the hint of the first one when James meets a lovely young woman on his way to Alton and rescues her from a mysterious man who seems to embody evil.  It turns out that she is Clemency, Doc Gordon’s niece, and they will meet again in the doctor’s house.  James realizes he should act like he is meeting her there for the first time. There are several more encounters with the mystery man to come, and it’s obvious that Clemency must be kept out of his sight, but we don’t learn why until the end of the book.

 

Another theme in this book was the illness of the doctor’s sister, Mrs. Ewing.  James could tell she was ill, but Doc denied it when James asked what was wrong.   I was surprised that near the end of the book, the author dealt with the moral dilemma posed by assisted suicide.

 

James, Doc, Clemency, and Mrs. Ewing are all decent people. The last three suffer because of all the secrets surrounding them and their past pain.  They care about the ethics and morals of their day, though Doc often tries to escape his pain with Apple Jack.

 

This book may not appeal to modern readers, but once I got into it I found it hard to put it down.  It certainly doesn’t cost anything to download the free eBook and decide for yourself if it’s worth reading.  Just click the book image above to get to a  download page.

 

That’s enough books for one post. I’d be interested in your opinions if you have ready any of these. Feel free to comment. My taste may be different from yours, but not necessarily better. Reading is a personal experience.

Please Give Me Characters I Can Believe


I am willing to invite into my Kindle or bookshelf fictional characters I would not invite to dine at my table. I don’t have to like them to read their stories to the end. But I do have to believe they are authentic in order to give them a place in my life and time. I downloaded Tears at Night (Book 1, Praise Him Anyhow) by Vanessa Miller as a free book on my Kindle a few days ago. When I got around to reading it, I simply couldn’t believe the characters.

Carmella Marshall has been married to Nelson, a prominent judge, for over twenty years. After they married, she put him through law school and then he wanted her to be a stay-at-home mom to their two children, Joy and Dontae, after they were born. He also expected her to be the perfect hostess for his fundraising events in their home. She gained a reputation for her cooking and baking. Nothing unbelievable about that so far.

As the book opens, Carmella is taking Nelson’s favorite sweet potato souffle out of the oven when Nelson says, ‘I’m leaving you.’ Carmella had her Christian praise music on so loud she hadn’t heard him. So he repeats his statement. She thinks he’s just leaving on a business trip, but he clears up that misconception by telling her he’s leaving for good, wants a divorce, and will leave papers on the table for her to sign in a couple of days. She says she won’t sign them.

Up until this time Carmella has assumed they were a happy Christian couple. Their son, Dontae, a senior, is away at football camp. He expects to be admitted to Harvard, his father’s alma mater, the next year. Their daughter Joy, who is in law school, works in Nelson’s law office. When Carmella asks what she should tell the children about Nelson’s wanting a divorce, he says the children are old enough to handle it.

It doesn’t work out that way. Joy and Jasmine are roommates and when we meet Joy, she is helping Jasmine move to a new house where she will live with her mystery man whom she has been seeing somewhat secretly for some time. They are relaxing in the large and elegant home waiting for Jasmine’s new boyfriend to arrive so Joy can finally meet him. Joy has long suspected this man was married, since he never picked up Jasmine for dates and the two were sneaking around. Joy couldn’t condone this behavior because she grew up with Christian parents who had gone to church every Sunday. Her father had run for judge on a platform of the family values he had tried to instill in his children. But Joy and Jasmine had been roommates since college, now attended law school, and both worked in Judge Nelson Marshall’s law office. They were planning to open their own law firm when they graduated. For the sake of their friendship, Joy had gone ahead and helped Joy move her things, teasing her that her boyfriend should have helped with the heavy lifting. Joy herself is engaged to Troy, someone honorable — like her father.

The girls have had pizza delivered and are sitting around eating it and recovering from unloading the moving truck. Jasmine went into the kitchen to get some drinks when the doorbell rang again. So Joy answered the door, and I probably don’t need to tell you that she opened it to see her father. Since Joy hasn’t heard about his leaving her mother yet, she assumes he’s heard where she was and was intending to pick her up and take her home. Joy figures things out quickly when Jasmine comes out of the kitchen and gives Nelson a big kiss. Joy prepares to leave as Jasmine gloats. Nelson says to Jasmine, ‘This isn’t how I wanted to tell her….You had no right bringing Joy here without letting me know.’

Joy is confused and no longer trusts men. She breaks her engagement because she thought her father was honorable and he turned out not to be, so she’s now not sure if Troy is as honorable as she always thought. Poor Troy doesn’t understand why Joy suddenly thinks he’s going to cheat on her after he’s always treated her well.

Meanwhile. Carmella is trying to adjust. She really has convinced herself that Nelson is just going through midlife crisis and will be back after a few more months. So she’s back in the kitchen, listening to her praise music when Joy enters and asks why no one told her about her dad leaving? Joy tells her mother about her father and Jasmine living together and her mother won’t believe it at first. When she finally does, she begins laughing hysterically and can’t stop.

Joy calls Rose, her mother’s best friend to come and offer support. They discuss a few emotionally charged options like baking Nelson and Jasmine a cake full of poo, but Carmella doesn’t want to ruin one of her beautiful cakes. When Rose encourages her to fight, Carmella admits she doesn’t know how. She tells Rose, ‘All I’ve ever done is be Nelson’s obedient pup, run his errands, and take care of his house. I haven’t even put the degree I worked so hard to get to use in over twenty years.’ Then she started to cry “like tears were rain and she was doing her part to end an all-consuming drought. ”

Carmella retires to her bedroom and Joy brings her something to eat, even though Carmella has no appetite. Carmella is awakened in the morning by a call from the bank saying the mortgage payment hadn’t been made. Later there was a call that the payment on her car hadn’t been made. She called Nelson at the office and screamed at him about the bills. She expresses anger when Nelson tells her, ‘No one is belittling what you did for our family. But don’t you think it’s time for you to get a job and handle your own bills?’

She replies he’s the one who left after she had put him through law school and then taken care of his house, raised their children and entertained his business associates for over twenty years. It was his idea that she not have a career outside the home. If he wants to “live a double life he’d better find the money to pay for it.” He tells her to sign the divorce papers and he’ll give her a ‘decent settlement.’

She hangs up in fury and is about to throw the phone against the wall when Joy appears with Dontae, whom she just picked up at the airport. He has no idea what is going on. Joy takes him into another room and explains everything. He says he’s going to see their father and takes off in his Mustang. Carmella takes to her bed and Joy begins to question he direction of her own life. She has already broken the relationships with both Jasmine and her father. She also decides to quit law school, and to resign from her job in her father’s office.

About this time Troy calls to find out why he hasn’t heard from her in a couple of days. She projects her anger and disillusionment with her father onto Troy rather unfairly and insinuates he can’t be trusted either. After she hangs up, she’s about to return to her apartment when the phone rings again. Dontae is calling to say he’s in jail for vandalizing his father and Jasmine’s house by throwing rocks through their window. Jasmine had called the police. Nobody in the family has enough money on hand to bail him out except Nelson, and he won’t, since he wants Dontae to learn that actions have consequences. Carmella and Joy find this statement ironic, in light of Nelson’s own actions. Carmella finally gets an advance on her credit card to go bail Dontae out.

Joy finds out about the unpaid mortgage and car payment. Dontae says he no longer wants to go to Harvard, his dad’s alma mater. Carmella goes to the kitchen to fix dinner and discovers the faucet is still leaking after she had asked Nelson several times to fix it. She loses it. She grabs a pair of pliers and her car keys and tells Joy she’s going to get Nelson. Joy isn’t able to stop her and Carmella says,’Girl, get out of my way.’ Carmella’s eyes are wild as she plows her way out the door, ready to go confront Nelson.

It doesn’t go well. She gets to the house, rings the bell, and sees someone peek through the blinds. No one answers the door. She starts screaming that she wants her husband to come out, to no avail. So she starts shouting in the direction of the neighbors’ houses, screaming ‘That’s right everybody. You’ve got an adultery-committing judge and his slimy teen-aged slut living in this house right here.’ She pointed to their house. She airs all their dirty laundry about how Jasmine had stolen her husband and warns the other women to keep an eye on their own husbands.

That brought Nelson out. They had quite a shouting match, much enjoyed by the neighbors. He finally asks what she wants and she hands him the pliers and almost begs him to come home and fix the faucet. Jasmine insults her, and Carmella attacks Jasmine. They get into a physical fight and the neighbors egg them on. Nelson can’t separate them so he finally turns on the sprinkler. Jasmine was then able to escape, but Carmella kept pounding the ground. Finally someone called the police and they restrained her.

By this time is was evident to all that Carmella has had a breakdown. We see her laughing hysterically and the author says…”her mind had taken her to a happy place…a place of peace. A place where she, Nelson and the kids frolicked on the sandy beach and Jasmine was nowhere in sight.’ At this point in the book, I hit the list of other books by the author that normally comes at the end of the book. My first thought was that was a very strange ending. Then I noticed that on the bottom it said I was only 26% through the book, but I couldn’t get any farther in it. I got offers to put other books on my wish list, etc., but no more pages for this story. I finally called Amazon and three tech support calls later I was able to access the rest of the book in a very roundabout way. By the time I got there, I thought I might be reading a different book. 

I would suggest that if you want to read this book, you get it in paper because one other review I read of the Kindle edition indicated the same problem in downloading a complete book. I thought Carmella would wind up in jail, but they had taken her to the hospital and sedated her, instead. Rose and the children sat with her for two days until she woke up.

She decided then to trust God and praise him and see how he would handle her life. She found a good lawyer to help her get a decent divorce settlement. She got the idea of starting a baking business. She rediscovers the man she almost married whose wife has just died and they go out to dinner. She is once again on the road to being able to handle her life. To me the characters weren’t true to life.

I personally have never known people who acted this way in these situations. I had two neighbors whose husbands left them the same week. I had many conversations with both of them. One simply couldn’t handle it and she killed herself a few months later. The other one walked with me almost every day and her teen children had a very tough time adjusting. Her thirteen year old daughter eventually left school, shacked up with someone, and got pregnant. Then she got a job as a manager of a fast food restaurant. The son, who was older, was still very upset with his dad, but showed maturity in finishing school and going into a successful career in real estate. The jilted wife went back to school so she could take up her nursing career again. She eventually found a new boyfriend. All this took years. Neither woman made a public scene anywhere. They played the hand they were dealt, each in her own way. Both were believable.

If the one had suddenly started handling her life like a new person after listening to a few praise songs on the radio following her release from the hospital after her first suicide attempt, it would not have been believable. Neither was Carmello’s transformation when she was released realistic. The kind of healing she experienced just doesn’t happen that fast. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s highly improbable. As a Christian who has seen many Christian women struggle in their marriages and seen their responses when their husbands left them, I have never seen any reaction similar to Carmella’s. I have seen shock or surprise when the men left the women who did not suspect their marriage was in trouble. These women have shared their feelings with me. Their faith did help them through their sadness when their marriages fell apart and their husbands moved in with other women.

It seems to me Carmella was in denial when she put the praise album on after Nelson first left. She believed he would come back. She wasn’t believing God was still there for her even if Nelson was gone for good. When she learned Nelson really was leaving to live with a woman she had always trusted in her home, she suddenly had a complete breakdown. She went from denial to complete breakdown in a short time, with seemingly no in between.

I think it was the extremes that seemed most unrealistic to me and made this book unbelievable. Joy’s sudden projection of her feelings about her father onto Troy was irrational. I can see where she might have had doubts and wanted to explore them, but she went way beyond that. The author has little to write that is good about Nelson, though he states he wants his children to be happy. He has an unrealistic view of what a marriage break-up can do to even adult children, even though he is a judge. Both Carmella and Nelson seem like cardboard characters, not real people. It seems the characters are there to fit the plot rather than the plot evolving from actions consistent with well-developed characters. I suppose that’s why I didn’t see any growth in the characters. I only saw things happen in the plot.

The end of the book seemed quite unrealistic considering what the characters had been through. I didn’t see anyone genuinely walking by faith in what I suppose was intended to be a Christian novel. Faith acts, not just reacts. Faith is not determined by circumstances. It transforms our view of our circumstances, helping us see God in the midst of the bad things that happen.

The theme of this book — handling adversity through God’s strength, had great potential. In my opinion, the author took shortcuts that did not do justice to that theme. In my opinion, we are still left hanging at the end. All the good things fall into place for Carmella unrealistically and far too quickly to be believable. Yes, God answers our prayers, but these answers didn’t seem consistent with God’s usual way of working.

Many who reviewed this book on the Amazon site loved it and found it inspiring.  Maybe I’m the one who just can’t buy into the plot. You may want to read this for yourself to make up your own mind. It’s on a list of best-selling Christian fiction. Maybe I’m just not tuned into the same wavelength as others, but I will not be reading any more in this series, even though I’m a bit curious to see if Carmella will finally marry her rediscovered first love.

Earlene Fowler’s Benni Harper in State Fair

The Benni Harper Mystery Series is Set in San Luis Obispo County

I first became interested in the  Earlene Fowler’s  Benni Harper mysteries when I heard they were set in my county, San Luis Obispo County, in California. The first one I got my hands on was Goose in the Pond (Benni Harper Mystery).  Like most books in this series, it was  set in San Celina. Benni’s official job is director of the Josiah Sinclair Folk Art Museum. The museum ties in with the quilt theme reflected on the covers and in the titles of the Benni Harper books, and quilts and quilters play a significant role in these mysteries.

Earlene Fowler's Benni Harper in State Fair
Laguna Lake, San Luis Obispo

 

Which Places are Fictional and Which are Real in Fowler’s Benni Harper Mystery Books?

Fowler has changed the name of the city of San Luis Obispo to San Celina, but she refers to other cities in the county, such as Paso Robles, by their real names. I gave my brain a workout trying to figure out what library she was talking about that was near a lake in Goose in the Pond. I know where the library in San Luis Obispo is, and there is no lake nearby.

I finally found Fowler’s  Fool’s Puzzle Tour, where she does explain that her library building was based on the Huntington Beach Library where she had worked,  and in The Goose in the Pond she put it near Laguna Lake in San Luis Obispo.  I walked around that lake a couple of months ago and took the photo which appears above.

The people and businesses Earlene Fowler writes about are mostly fictional, but it’s fun trying to see if they are based on actual places. On the website linked to above and on her Irish Chain tour, she tells us which places are real and which buildings and locations inspired her descriptions of them.

Who’s Who in the Benni Harper Series

After reading The Goose in the Pond, I realized the Benni Harper mysteries were best read in order, so I went back to the first one, Fool’s Puzzle (Benni Harper Mystery), and started reading. In this first book Benni is a recent widow making a fresh start in San Celina. She had lived on a ranch with her husband Jack before he died. She had lived on her parent’s ranch since she was a child.

Her Grandma Dove still lived on the ranch owned by Benni’s father. Dove had moved there to help raise Benni after Benni’s mother had died . When we meet Benni, she is working in the city as the director of the Josiah Sinclair Folk Art Museum .  When she discovers a dead body in the course of her work, she plays sleuth, causing a run-in with the San Celina police chief, Gabe Ortiz. Their relationship remains antagonistic through most of the book.


By the time we progress in the series to State Fair , Gabe and Benni are married. They have had their share of problems and worked have them through.  Those who have read all the way through the series have also met the other main characters.

  • Dove, Benni’s grandma who raised her
  • Hud, a deputy sheriff who raises Gabe’s hackles by paying too much attention to Benni
  • Elvia, Benni’s best friend who owns Blind Harry’s bookstore
  • Benni’s cousin Emory, who is married to Elvia
  • Their infant daughter, Sophia
  • Garnet, Dove’s sister, who is visiting from Arkansas

Conflicts in Earlene Fowler’s State Fair

Since Benni has been raised on a ranch and still is active in ranching activities at her father’s ranch, she has been involved in the Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles since childhood.  She is also very busy at this year’s fair judging pig-wrangling, making sure things go right at the folk art museum’s exhibit of African-American folk quilts, and keeping her great aunt Garner, out of Dove’s hair. The two sisters wage constant battle with each other, so Benni agreed (under duress) to take her off Dove’s hands for many of the fair days.

Themes running through this book include racism, the conflict between Dove and Garnet, and local crime. There’s still a hint of conflict between Hud, who is responsible as part of the sheriff’s department for fair security, and Gabe, who attends fair events but has no jurisdiction over criminal events in Paso Robles.  There is also rivalry between the sheriff’s department and the Paso Robles Police.

Racism  Rears Its Head as the Fair Begins

In the book, a new fair director, Levi Clark, an African-American, has been appointed. Not everyone is happy about it, and there are rumors that he was an affirmative action appointee who might not be the best person for the job.  Benni considered him very qualified and had known him since he began at the fair cleaning restrooms years earlier, and she had watched as he had worked his way up to fair manager.

Early in the fair, Benni learned Levi had received some letters insinuating he hadn’t received his job fairly and that he might have bitten off more than he could chew, and that he might be sorry. These had been reported to the Paso Robles Police Department, but not to the sheriff’s department. It’s evident when Hud learns this he is upset he wasn’t notified, since his department has jurisdiction over the fair.

Fair Food and the New Hospitality Center

Benni loves the fair atmosphere and its tempting fair-only deep fried avocados, deep-fried Twinkies, and other fattening treats . For her it’s like an annual reunion of the agriculture people she has interacted with for years. She likes to hang out at the Hospitality Center,  informally known as the Bull Pen, with other fair Booster Buddies.

Earlene Fowler's Benni Harper in State Fair
Scene from Mid State Fair, 2005, CC 2.0

Her cousin Emory had made a big contribution toward remodeling the hospitality suite for this year’s fair to make it more comfortable for Booster Buddies and their friends to gather there for drinks, snacks, and making deals .  Most of the movers and shakers in the county’s  agriculture and business community had paid the $500 annual fee to become members and also worked hard to promote the fair. That’s one reason so many important conversations take place there during the course of the book.

A Stolen Quilt

The Josiah Sinclair Folk Art Museum booth is featuring a collection of African-American quilts made by the Ebony Sisters Quilt Guild.  The focal point of the exhibit was to be a special replica of a historical story quilt made by renowned historic quilter Harriet Powers.

On opening day, the Ebony Sisters report that the quilt has been stolen. They find another quilt to hang in it’s place, hoping the theft is just a prank and that the quilt will be found and rehung. 

The Family Farm Exhibits

One of Benni’s favorite exhibit areas is that where the family farms have their displays. She knows the families. Traditionally each farm family was given an exhibit space to decorate according to the year’s theme.  Usually the children were involved in the decorating.

Benni  is disappointed that this event has become more competitive and that the adults have almost taken over the decorating so as to make their displays more professional looking.  The winning family usually had its display featured on the front page of the Tribune. This year’s theme was “Cow Town Boogie.”

Benni walks around the family farm exhibits taking photos. The Blue Ribbon Grand Prize winner had not exactly followed the theme, but Benni could see why it had won. She was a bit upset that it appeared the booth had been designed and built by professionals, not by Milt Piebald’s family.

Although the Piebald family lived on a large ranch and had some livestock, Milt made his living by selling cars in his five used car dealerships spread throughout the county.  Everyone knew how much he liked to win. Although he was not considered a really reputable dealer, he did give generously to the community.

The Cattle Drive Through Paso Robles

Gabe, Benni, and her dad participated in the annual cattle drive through the streets of Paso Robles. I had fun deciphering the names of the streets the cattle ran through to get to the fairgrounds,  but Fowler’s code was easy to  break for this local. The cattle drive went smoothly almost to the end, when a horse got loose and caused a bit of excitement.  Due to Gabe’s quick action, the situation was soon back under control.

The Dead Body

Back at the fair, Dove corners Benni and says she’s got to help her. Garnet is driving her crazy.  Benni agrees to entertain her aunt for the rest of the day. She first takes Garnet to see the family farm exhibit.

It is Aunt Garnet who comments, upon seeing the Piebald exhibit, ‘Look at that old pickup truck….Daddy used to call them pick-me-up trucks….He had one just like that, only it was dark blue. I remember many times taking cold lemonade out to him when he was working on that truck. Just like that there dummy. Seeing those legs sticking out like that brings Daddy back like it was yesterday.’

Benni turned back to look at the exhibit again to study the truck. She saw the legs Garnet had commented on, and she realized they had not been there earlier. She sat Garnet down and dialed Hud after taking a closer look and confirming that the legs were human and dead. It turns out the body is wrapped in the missing quilt.

Garnet Plays Detective

From then on Garnet is determined to play detective and find out who the killer is — a role Benni herself usually takes.  This obsession gives Garnet an interest other than fighting with Dove, who is sure Garnet wants to find and steal her famous cornbread recipe. Garnet’s efforts to play detective almost get Benni and her family and friends killed, although Benni herself did her part in stirring up the skinheads who threatened them.

A subplot involves the reason for Garnet’s visit  and why she won’t reveal how long she plans to stay. Everyone senses this is no ordinary visit, but the sisters refuse to communicate in a straightforward manner. They just don’t get around to talking about why Garnet is really there.  It finally comes out near the end of the book, after the other mysteries have been solved.

Why I Enjoyed the Book

Fowler handles both plot and characters deftly. I find it hard to put her books down, and I always look forward to the next one.  The subplots are woven artistically into the main plot. I didn’t even mention most of the subplots in State Fair here , nor many of the minor characters who  played important roles in those subplots.

Part of the fun in this series is watching what happens in the lives of the main characters from book to book. You get to know each one very well. They  have their quirks, but are still  lovable. The characters are so well-developed that you would be able to identify them just by what they say to each other.  They grow on you.

I can visualize having a party and inviting all of them for an fascinating evening.  They will not be sneaking into the bedrooms or using foul language. Instead they will be entertaining guests who will interact with each other in a lively manner.

Who Should Read This Book

If you enjoy well-written mysteries with a memorable cast of characters, you will want to read the Benni Harper Series by Earlene Fowler. If you live in San Luis Obispo County, the books will be even more appealing.  They will not only make you laugh, they will make you think. You can find all Earlene Fowler’s books here on Amazon.

 Benni Harper’s Quilt Album: A Scrapbook of Quilt Projects, Photos & Never-Before-Told Stories

 

 

Here’s a sampling of Earlene Fowler’s Benni Harper Books. Benni Harper fans might also be interested in Benni  Harper’s Quilt Album.

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 Fool’s Puzzle (Benni Harper Mystery) Irish Chain (Benni Harper Mystery) Kansas Troubles (Benni Harper Mystery)

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What You Can Expect on the Menu at Bookworm Buffet

Child Reading book in Swing
I have always loved books. This was taken outside sitting in Cousin Edna’s swing when I was about two.

I have loved books for as long as I can remember. I not only had parents who read to me, but there were two single teachers in our extended family who were nearing retirement when I was growing up. Cousin Edna, my first cousin three times removed,  treated me like a grandchild, since she had no children. Her roommate, whom we called Auntie Lucile, taught science, and treated me like a niece. They both liked to read to me on our Sunday visits, and they made sure I was always supplied with books.

They knew me well, and always chose books I enjoyed. I’m glad that there were no media inspired series of books being published when I was a child in the 1940’s. Instead I got imaginative stories that my family read to me — until it appeared I was getting ready to learn to read for myself. The only series I read a lot of when I was approaching school age was the Little Golden Books Series. If I had to choose a favorite from it, it would be The Poky Little Puppy
I think most children can identify with this curious little puppy who is interested in everything he sees and hears, and always stops to investigate, even though it makes him late for dinner.

Some of my favorite books when I was young.
Some of my favorite books when I was young.
Amanda p.18 illustration, @ Wolo
Amanda p.18 illustration, @ Wolo, 1941, William Morrow and Co. Amanda makes a slide of her body to give the winged monkeys such a good time they will tell her how to get to the Blue Lake. Archibald, the monkey hitting the water, is Amanda’s best friend.

The books in this photo came from my Cousin Edna, I absolutely loved Amanda, the story of a kind snake. She had polka dots, wore a ribbon in her hair and a necklace, and on  the tip of her tail was a golden bell.  Amanda was helpful to everyone. I can still visualize the illustrations by Wolo (Wolf Von Trutzschlerafter 67 years. This featured illustration was scanned from my well worn first edition that had been read countless times.

Amanda goes in and out of print. See which Amanda editions are available now at Amazon.  As I searched for them, I discovered Wolo also had a series of animal stories I had never known about before I did my search. I’m sorry I missed them.

For me, Mother Goose will always mean the verses I saw in the the collection pictured above, collected, arranged, and illustrated by William Rose Benét,  whose illustrations now seem overly bright and somewhat gaudy to me. Some used and collectible copies can be found on Amazon, if you like the style or remember it from your own childhood. Children’s book illustrations have some a long way since the 1940’s. Some verses are timeless, though, even though some writers have tried to revise them to be more politically correct or to teach a particular religious view.

The third book, The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad, is one of a set of six I received for Christmas when I was six years old. It was another present from Cousin Edna. It not only taught me that toads have beautiful eyes, but the author, Thornton Burgess, also opened a whole new world of nature and wisdom to me. His animal characters wear human clothes and have human personality traits , but they also have the habits and characteristics of the wild animals that they are.

Burgess weaves these together to draw young readers into the world of the Green Forest and the animals and birds found there. Children can taste the fear of Chatterer the Red Squirrel as he runs from Shadow the Weasel and they will root for him as he devises his escape plan to make Shadow the hunted rather than the hunter. Chatterer was the first Burgess character I met, but I’ve never forgotten him. I devoured that first book and had all six read before New Year’s Day. I eagerly looked forward to each new book in the series. These books helped me learn to love wildlife.

I didn’t mind the morals in the short verses Burgess included. He was trying to help young readers realize there are consequences to teasing, stealing from others, and other undesirable behaviors . Here’s an example of his mild moralizing in prose as part of the story:

If he (Chatterer) hadn’t called Bobby Coon names that morning at the top of his voice, Shadow the Weasel might not have found him. 

My favorite books as they appear in the photo aren’t easy to find today. I have given you links above for my Amanda and Mother Goose books if they interest you. The illustrations, along with which verses have been selected,  probably will determine which edition of Mother Goose your young bookworms will want to devour, and tastes vary. You can choose the Mother Goose edition you like best on Amazon by looking inside the books.

Thornton Burgess books are much easier to find, since there are inexpensive paperback versions still in print, collections of the books in slipcases, and story collections in single volumes. As I write this, Kindle editions of most of the original Burgess stories I mentioned here can be downloaded for free. I just think most young bookworms would prefer the paper editions or hardcover illustrated collections, such as this one: Burgess’ Bedtime Story-Books, Vol. 3: The Adventures of Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Sammy Jay, Buster Bear, and Old Mr. Toad. It contains my four favorites in the series.

I read so many books as a child that I’ve forgotten most of them. A few do stand out and are still much loved by today’s children. I will be introducing more of my favorites, including those still in print, as I have time, and they won’t be limited to children’s books. Soon I truly will have a buffet for bookworms laid out that will please the diverse fiction and nonfiction tastes of all readers, young and old.