Except for her mother Shannon who is rarely around, Tess Delaney has no family. She makes her living searching the world for stolen treasures. She helps families fill in the blanks of their family histories. So far, though, she hasn’t been able to fill in the blanks in her own family history.
Her exciting but high-pressure job at Sheffield Auction house in San Francisco satisfies her. As the book opens Tess is about to interview for a promotion that would take her to New York. She loves her job, but she has no close friends – just work acquaintances.
As Tess waits for her appointment, she has a visitor, Dominic Rossi. He informs her that she has a grandfather, one Magnus Johansen. He is in a coma because he fell off a ladder. His will leaves her half his estate in Sonoma County – Bella Vista – which contains a villa and working apple orchard. The other half goes to her half sister Isabel — a sister she never knew she had.
The news sends Tess into a full-fledged panic attack and Dominic takes her to the ER. The interview is delayed. Later Dominic takes her to Bella Vista to meet Isabel.
Meeting the Family at Bella Vista
Tess never knew who her father was. Shannon’s mother, her Nana, raised Tess, since Shannon’s job kept her away for weeks at a time. As a child, Tess considered Nana’s antique shop, Things Forgotten, as her home. Now Nana is gone and all Tess has left of her is her huge antique desk.
As her newly-discovered half-sister Isabel helps Tess fill in her family tree, even more questions beg to be answered. How is it she and Isabel were born on the exact same day? Erik Johansen fathered both of them but they have different mothers?
As Magnus Johansen lies in a comma, Isabel and Tess discover he is about to lose Bella Vista because of poor money management. Will the sisters find a way to save it?
What of the handsome Dominic and his two children? Will they become a bigger part of Tess’s life? Should Tess quit the job she loves and find a way to open the antique shop she’s always wanted — at Bella Vista? Will Magnus ever wake up? The first volume of the Bella Vista Chronicles, The Apple Orchard, answers these questions and makes you want to read the sequel.
The Beekeeper’s Ball by Susan Wiggs
I don’t want to tell you too much about this sequel to The Apple Orchard because it might tell you more than you want to know about how that first book ends. Whereas The Apple Orchard focuses mainly on Tess’s story, The Beekeeper’s Ball focuses on Isabel. It also introduces two important new characters, beekeeper Jamie Westfall, and famous journalist Cormac O’Neill. Cormac has come to write a biography of Magnus Johansen, who has come out of his coma.
As The Beekeeper’s Ball ends, the author leaves the door open for another book in the series that focuses on Erik Johansen, father of Tess and Isabel. Cormac has what appears to be a recent photo of Erik on a distant beach. Is it possible he’s still alive? I’d love to read that story
I would also I’d like to what’s next in Jamie’s story. She arrived at Bella Vista young, pregnant, and homeless. Much of her story is told in The Beekeeper’s Ball, but there is much more I’d like to know about Jamie beyond this book. Please Ms. Wiggs, add these stories to the series.
I loved the main characters and the author made me care a lot about what happened to them. The Beekeeper’s Ball tells us much more than The Apple Orchard about Magnus and his relationship with Annalise and Eva. We see details of how the Johansen family and those in the Resistance suffered during Hitler’s occupation of Denmark.
If we only saw this suffering, the book might be too heavy. But Wiggs also gives us a lovely setting in Bella Vista for contrast. At Bella Vista we see beauty, life, kindness, and healing . This helps make up for the depressing examples of death and loss in the chapters set in Denmark. We see both heroism and cruelty in Nazi-occupied Denmark. At Bella Vista we find an abundance of acceptance and love.
One theme that permeates both books is the importance of delicious food served attractively. Each book is divided into parts that consist of several chapters. In The Apple Orchard there is at least one recipe at the beginning of each part. Each part of The Beekeeper’s Ball opens with a quote about beekeeping followed by a recipe that contains honey.
I want to read many more by Susan Wiggs. Her books have heart and well-developed characters I can’t help caring about. Her plots are complex and well-crafted. I suspect whichever of her books I choose to read next, I won’t be disappointed. So far I’ve read those below. Please click on any image for more information on purchasing any of the books.
Books of Special Interest to Families with Adolescent Girls
These Christian books can lead to great discussions between adolescent girls and their mothers. The themes are rarely presented as well in the other books for adolescent girls I’ve read. The heroines develop deeper Christian character as they deal with social issues, peer pressure, faith, obedience, and friends.
A Room of My Own by Ann Tatlock.
A Room of my Own is set during the Depression, and Virginia, the daughter of a prominent physician, does not feel the Depression personally at first. Her family is well-off, and physicians are never laid off. But suddenly, her Uncle Jim loses his job at the grain mill, and Virginia must give up her room and share a bed with her younger sisters so that Uncle Jim, Aunt Sally, and their children can live with them — in HER room.
This makes the Depression more personal, and it becomes even more alarming when Uncle Jim becomes involved in organizing a labor union for the mill workers (which finally results in a violent strike). Virginia’s father begins to take her along on his calls to “Soo City” — a shantytown populated by the newly homeless along with the older hobo residents. The climax occurs when Virginia must choose between saving her father from sure danger and warning the residents of “Soo City” that the sheriff is going to burn their homes.
I suggest this book because it introduces many important themes. One is how blind we can be to the needs of others, blaming them for their needs, when we ourselves are not hurting. This can be especially evident in adolescent lives.
We can also see that personal knowledge can chase away prejudices and generalizations about people. Here are some of the historic/economic themes in this book worth discussing:
how to best help the poor
why labor unions were formed
whether violence is ever justified in trying to correct social ills
the effects of the Great Depression.
Though the central character of this book is a girl, there is much here for boys, as well. There are plenty of male characters for them to identify with, including the good doctor himself.
Because there is violence in the book, parents should only give it to children of at least adolescent age who can handle mature themes. It would make a wonderful read-aloud for families with adolescent girls.
The first is The Tender Years. Strangely enough, the protagonist of this book is also named Virgina. She has a persistent problem with peer pressure. The exciting Jenny, who leads the “in” group at Virginia’s school, has picked Virginia as her special friend. Virginia doesn’t want to lose that favored position even though Jenny’s schemes often get her in trouble with her parents.
Virginia’s supportive but firm Christian family provides appropriate consequences when she breaks the rules, so Virginia tries to obey. She succeeds for a time, but one day the pressure is too great. She lets herself be talked into a very risky situation — a ride in a “borrowed” raft with the gang. Virginia’s father had warned her that the creek was high and very dangerous. Virginia knew if she wanted to stay Jenny’s best friend she’d better show up for the raft ride. So, instead of going directly home from school as she was told, with heavy heart Virginia went to the creek.
As the gang waited for Jenny, their ringleader, to arrive, Virginia became more and more concerned about the time. When Jenny finally arrived, Virginia got into an argument with her, stood her ground, and left. Later, when Virginia hears that the raft overturned in the swift current, she is consumed with guilt — especially when one of her friends dies as a result and Jenny is badly injured.
The rest of the book deals with the healing process — not only for Virginia but for her friend Jenny. Virginia’s parents want her to reach out to Jenny with the love of Christ since Jenny has no home life. She has no mother at home and her father is an alcoholic.
There are many subplots that add interest to this book, and I found it difficult to put it down. The main themes are obedience and peer pressure and the conflicts between the two in the mind of an adolescent. This book would be good to read with preteen girls and up, for there is much to discuss.
The Tender Years is the first of four books in the Prairie Legacy Series. I’ve read all four because I became very interested in Virginia’s life. I think you won’t want to stop after you read the first book either, so you might want to get them all at once. There are links to the individual books if you click the image above.
Return to Harmony by Janette Oke
Return to Harmonyis another of my favorite Janette Oke books (with T. David Bunn). It is the story of the friendship between Bethan and Jodie, two Christian girls, as they grow into young women.
The book begins in Harmony, North Carolina in 1915. Harmony is a very small town. The population was under 350 back then. It was and still is primarily a community of small farms. Bethan was very content to live there. Jodie was hoping to leave someday.
Bethan and Jodie became friends the day Bethan had found a puppy and was sobbing because her mother said she couldn’t keep it. Then the school bully, Kirsten, tried to torment the puppy and Bethan, her favorite victim. Jodie sprang to Bethan’s defense, and from then on the girls were fast friends. Jodie knew just the person who really needed a puppy and led Bethan to Mr. Russel, a Civil War veteran who lived alone. He said the girls could visit the puppy anytime, and they often did.
Jodie was protective of her smaller friend, who was often picked on at school because she had a lazy eye. She knew Bethan hated having to wear her dreaded eye patch — especially at school. On the days she had to wear it, she also had to carry a spare. When Jodie saw how unhappy Bethan was on the day of the school spelling bee, Jodie wore the spare patch during the spelling bee, which she won, to show her solidarity with Bethan.
Jodie and Bethan were very different. Jodie was academically gifted and loved school. Bethan’s eye problem made reading hard for her and she didn’t do well in school at all. Just before the spelling bee Jodie had overheard her teacher and Bethan’s talking in the hallway. Bethan’s teacher was afraid she’d have to hold Bethan back at the end of the year. Jodie interceded for her friend and said she would tutor her, and her teacher agreed to try that.
Tragically, Jodie’s mother Louise catches polio not too long after that. Bethan stayed by her side during the period when Jodie was not allowed in to see her mother. Day after day the two girls sat together in silence at Jodie’s, gazing through her mother’s window in the afternoons, watching her struggle to breathe.
On the ninth day, Louise expresses her love to Jodie and her father and dies. After that, Jodie tells Bethan God let her down when He took her mother and she stops praying and won’t let Bethan talk to her about faith anymore. Her grieving is long and hard, but Bethan is with her through it. Bethan never stops praying for Jodie.
By this time Jodie’s father, who was always quiet except with Louise, has retreated into his own world and hardly ever says a word to Jodie. Were it not for Bethan and her family, Jodie would be completely alone. Neither had any other real friends.
As it became apparent that war would soon break out in Europe, Bethan’s family became concerned that Bethan’s brother Dylan would soon reach the age of conscription. The girls were also growing up. They were now sixteen. Though Bethan loved living in Harmony and desired nothing more than to find a loving husband and spend her life there, Jodie wanted to go to college and become a scientist. She also wanted to be a city girl.
Dylan is finally drafted, but the war is almost over, so he really doesn’t see the fighting. Instead, he repairs engines and decides he wants a career in the new automotive industry. It’s not long before he’s home again. At his welcome home party, he notices that Jodie is now a young lady, no longer just a kid. The two fall in love and get engaged.
It is apparent to Bethan and her mother, though, that Jodie has abandoned her Christian faith. Dylan is still a committed Christian. At the request of her mother, Bethan talks to her brother about their concerns. Dylan, who was trying not to face this issue, finally admits he has also seen this. He breaks the engagement and broken-hearted Jodie won’t forgive Bethan. Instead, she walks out of her life saying she never wants to see Bethan again.
Jodie takes the train to Raleigh to study chemistry at the university on a scholarship. Bethan is devastated by the separation. Jodie also feels completely alone since she is the only girl studying chemistry and she is ostracized by her male classmates. Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there.
This book can be a catalyst for discussion on complicated issues. These include the meaning and responsibilities of Christian friendship, why God lets bad things happen to good people, how to help a grieving person, and the importance of being equally yoked in a marriage. I’d like to see this book in the hands of all Christian adolescent girls.
It Is Well Shows How a Major War Can Tear a Family Apart
We’ve all heard the saying that war is hell. It Is Well, by James D. Shipmantakes us toWake Island when it is attacked by Japan and to Fort Benning, Georgia for a brutal look at basic training. Then we move to Europe for a taste of fighting in Sherman tanks. We also see how widowed father Jonathan Beecher worries about his two sons who are involved overseas and his daughter who seems headed for trouble at home. In the midst of all this he is fighting to save his hardware store. The war makes inventory hard to acquire and more expensive.
I don’t usually read war novels, but this book seemed the best of my six choices to read free on my Kindle before release this month, through my Prime membership, . The book is easy to understand, but I found it emotionally hard to read. The only book that affected me somewhat the same way was Andersonville, by Mac Kinlay Kantor.
The story of the Andersonville Fortress which the Confederates used as a concentration camp for Union prisoners during the Civil War is now available in DVD. My stomach and emotions would not be strong enough to watch it. I didn’t feel like eating for two weeks after I read it. Fortunately, It Is Well is not quite as graphic, but it is still a vivid picture of what those in war zones faced and what their families suffered at home during World War II.
The Beecher Family before Pearl Harbor
Jonathan Beecher lived with his two sons, Matthew and Luke, and his daughter Mary, in Snohomish, a small town near the coast of Washington State, just southeast of Everett. Jonathan’s wife Helen had died of cancer when the book opens and the family is together for the funeral. Helen had made Jonathan promise before she died that he would never remarry.
Although Jonathan urges Matthew to stay home and help him at the store, Matthew opts to return to his job as a civilian construction worker in the Philippines. He tells his father he will probably return home in April of 1942, when his job is done. He is then transferred to Wake Island.
Jonathan had had high hopes for Matthew. He was intelligent and knew how to apply himself, but had no desire to go to college as his father wanted him to. So Jonathan pinned his hopes on Mary, who was also intelligent enough to go to college.
She was very helpful at home and at the store, but she disappointed him by welcoming the attentions of a much older policeman Jonathan knew was up to no good. Mary appeared to be willing to accept the counsel of her father not to date him, but she then later eloped with him. As Jonathan suspected, he turned out to be abusive.
Luke, the younger son was lazy. He tried to get through life with his good looks and smooth talking. He was also a prankster who had little respect for authority and often got into trouble. His father worried he’d never be a productive person. He knew he couldn’t rely on Luke for any help at all.
Pearl Harbor Changes Everything for the Family
The Beecher family attended the Snohomish Free Methodist Church where Jonathan is a pillar. After the service on December 7, 1941, his friend the pastor introduces him to a new church member, Sarah Gilbertson, a widow with a daughter. He explains that Sarah will be helping out at the church, and that Jonathan may be seeing her on the days he mows the lawn.
As they are talking, Jonathan notices a commotion in the church yard with a crowd gathering. He goes to see what’s causing the excitement and learns the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. The young men are already talking about enlisting . Jonathan knows Luke, and tells him not to go, or at least to wait a bit to see if they really will need him. Luke, being Luke, doesn’t listen. He has no idea what the Army is like. He believes it is one more adventure he can get through without much work or effort, so he enlists.
After he is living alone again, Jonathan is lonely. He and Sarah become friends with the understanding that they can never become more than friends. Sarah is not happy with that, and neither is Jonathan, but he feels bound before God by his promise to Helen not to marry again.
All Is Not Well at Home or Overseas or at Fort Benning
The Japanese invade Wake Island and Matthew had to learn to stand alone in the face of circumstances he’d never imagined he’d have to face. Luke discovers his disrespect for authority has severe consequences in the Army. For me, painful as it was to read, the important part of the book was watching these boys grow into what they needed to be.
Mary also learned that her disregard of her father’s guidance has made her life miserable and dangerous. Jonathan, meanwhile, knows he has fallen in love with Sarah and crosses the line by kissing her. Then he is filled with guilt and knows he needs to go back to just being friends. Sarah is not willing and breaks the relationship.
Meanwhile, the hardware store is more in debt every day. Supplies cost more because of the war that makes nails and other tools scarce. His customers have less to spend because of the war. Jonathan is trying to save his business.
The reader watches as the characters fight their own internal and external battles. Most begin to realize that the faith they have is weak or non-existent. They begin to seek God as best they can. They see how poorly equipped they are to survive physically or emotionally with no hope. By the end, all the characters have grown in character through what they have suffered.
This book is very well-written with complex characters whose lives you want to follow. The author shows every bit as much as he tells. Even though I don’t like war stories, especially battle scenes and human misery, this book drew me in and I couldn’t put it down.
I was a war baby sheltered in America. My own dad was rejected by the Army because he had flat feet, so I never heard any first-hand war stories. This book opened my eyes to what our infantry can experience in battle and the enormity of their physical and mental anguish. And I was only reading about it. They live it. No wonder so many come home unable to share their experiences except with their Army buddies!
Although though the plot was engaging, it was merely the vehicle to show us how the characters matured as they faced their inner and external demons. I won’t be a spoiler and tell you how the book ends. I’m hoping you will take this journey of discovery yourself.
The Kindle edition was the first Kindle novel I’ve read in a while that still has the X-Ray feature. I miss it when a book doesn’t have it — especially if it’s a book I want to review. Kindle books aren’t as easy to scan and flip through as paper books, and the X-Ray feature makes it easier to remember all the characters and important parts of the plot.
I would recommend It Is Well to those who enjoy realistic historical fiction, especially that which relates to World War II. There is blood and gore, as you might expect, and cruelty. It was hard for me to read those parts. I am more sensitive to these things than most people I know. Yet each of these episodes contributes to the growth of the characters. They aren’t there just to be sensational.
I would not recommend this to people suffering from depression since there aren’t many happy moments until near the end. These were not happy times. The book is realistic and doesn’t paint a rosy picture of war at home or abroad. It does portray the devastating effect war has on all involved, including civilians. If you’d like to better understand what we now call “the greatest generation,” I urge you to read this book.
In Greening of a Heart, Stepheny Houghtlin shows us not just one heart, but several that need healing. All of them are part of or tied to the restoration of the garden of the vicarage of St. John the Baptist Church in the Catswold Village of Burford. Burford and the church are real. You might want to check out the websites linked to so you can picture the setting before you read this. These sites say nothing about a garden. The church, however is the setting for some important scenes, since Hannah and Martin live in the vicarage.
Tom Bastin took the picture of the church St. John The Baptist Church you see above. You can also see many other scenes from Burford in his Flicker Album Burford.
The Cast of Major Characters
Hannah Winchester, an American: The vicars’ wife and mother of Anne and Christopher
The Reverend Martin Winchester: Vicar of St. John the Baptist Church, father of Anne and Christopher
Malcolm Thomas: Martin’s old college friend, now also his Bishop
Brother Gregory: Monk at St. Edward’s House and spiritual counselor to Martin
Anne: Daughter of Hannah and Martin, wife of Geoffrey Bentley, mother of James and Kate
Geoffrey Charles Bentley IV: Anne’s husband and father of James and Kate
Christopher: Brother of Anne and son of Martin and Hannah, single
Henry Bernard: On a research sabbatical from Kew Gardens in London. Hannah hired him to help with the heavy work in the garden during its restoration. Single
Madeline Thompson, widow: An old college friend of Hannah’s who is Hannah’s sounding board in the book. She is a catalyst in helping many characters find direction
Christine Bennett: Never married, older parishioner, critical of Hannah’s garden restoration. Lives across the road from the vicarage and has her own garden. She is no longer speaking to Hannah since garden work began.
Robert K Myers: Deceased former Vicar of St. John the Baptist Church, who originally designed the garden Hannah is restoring. Close friend of Christine.
Emma Barksdale: Another parishioner, close friend of Christine and Hannah. She doesn’t understand why Christine is so critical of Hannah’s garden restoration project
Samuel White: Senior Warden at St. John the Baptist Church, single, close friend of Martin and Hannah. He appears to be secretly in love with Hannah
Lucy and Randy Talbot: Henry lives with them in Burford while he works for Hannah
Many men who are working to restore the garden and coach house, and their wives and children
Other parishioners, including Lynn Spencer, who likes to make trouble with her gossip, and her husband Mark, who is much kinder
Margaret Clover: New in town, just bought the Bay Tree Inn. She plans to use it to serve healthy meals such as those that helped cure her cancer. Divorced
Caroline Clover: Margaret’s daughter, who will be the chef at the Bay Tree Inn
A Troubled Marriage
As the book opens, we learn that Hannah and Martin Winchester have a troubled marriage. Martin is burned out as a priest and a husband, since he has let his work dominate their lives. Hannah is wondering what happened to the man who courted her and laughed with her when they were first married. Now he rarely laughs at all. They now sleep in separate bedrooms. The author describes it this way:
“The image of one of her garden walls, where stacked stone had shifted and sagged over time, reminded her of their relationship.”
Although they shared a common faith as members of the Church of England, they did not express it the same way. Hannah’s family had been “high church” with services closer to those in the Catholic Church. Martin was “low church” and did not believe in icons and incense, or “smells and bells.” This was occasionally a source of conflict.
Whereas Hannah had been an independent American woman while in college, now, with an empty nest, Martin seems to think she is incapable of managing her life without his input. He has become stern and impatient with her. He is no longer interested in sharing memories of their courting days and other carefree times, as they had in the early years of their marriage. There had been no intimacy for so long that Hannah had begun to think of Martin almost as a guest in her home, more a priest than a husband.
The Role of The Garden In Greening of the Heart
Hannah’s Garden Restoration Project
The book begins in the vicarage garden, with Hannah pulling weeds. She aspires to gain recognition as an authority on plants someday. She has accumulated a library of gardening books and has visited other gardens whenever there was time.
She is in the process of restoring the garden the late previous vicar, Robert Myers, designed and planted. She is hoping that as she works on the garden restoration, it will bring her closer to Martin again. She expected they would make decisions together, but he shows little interest, preferring to let Hannah make the decisions.
Martin’s Dreaded Lunch Date
Martin is about to leave for a lunch date with Malcolm, his friend and bishop. Malcolm had called Hannah earlier with concerns about Martin’s health and state of mind. Hannah knows Malcolm is going to tell Martin to take a leave of absence. She also knows Martin will be disconsolate after the meeting.
Henry Arrives in Burford
Meanwhile, Henry Bernard is on his way to Burford from London to meet Hannah. He hopes she will hire him to help with the garden restoration. He is also looking for information about a photograph he’d found while cleaning up his grandmother’s home after she died. The photo is of a young priest who is his own mirror image. He arrives in time to have a quick look inside the church before meeting Hannah, but Hannah is already there watering the altar flowers and she had seen him come in. She noticed he was touching a remembrance plaque on the wall, which she later discovered was for Robert Myers.
She engages Henry in conversation and he says he’s her 2 pm appointment. Henry tells her he’s taking a sabbatical from his work at Kew Gardens to study the influence of clergy gardeners on the development of English gardens. People believed Robert Myers had integrated spiritual elements into his gardening activities. Henry said many clergymen considered gardening both work and prayer.
Henry impresses Hannah she and hires him after negotiating terms of employment. Hannah tells Henry he’s an answer to her prayers. He silently disagrees, thinking that it wasn’t her prayers, but his own detective work that brought him to her.
Martin Returns Home after Lunch Date
After Henry leaves, Hannah returns home to find Martin is back from his lunch date and he’s devastated, as she expected him to be. Malcolm has sent him to take a course in Jerusalem that will be part of a three-month leave from his ministry. Malcolm hopes this will restore Martin’s health, energy, and heart for preaching again. Hannah hopes it will restore her husband to her.
Who is Henry Really?
Why did he want to come to Burford? More than one character in the book raises this question. Anne seemed not to trust Henry. Lynn Spencer chided Hannah for hiring someone she knew nothing about. Hannah, however, had no reason to be suspicious and she let the criticism roll off her. A savvy reader will have a pretty good idea early in the book who Henry is, but the author does not completely reveal it until much later.
The Garden Party
Will There Be Trouble?
Hannah goes back to preparations for her garden party the next Saturday. She has invited everyone to the Winchesters’ Garden Opening. Hannah is hoping there will not be trouble since she knows some parishioners have been upset with her project. Christine Bennett, usually not a critical person, has been most vocal in her complaints. She had accused Hannah of ruining Robert Myers’ garden, and Hannah had reminded her that it no longer belonged to Robert Myers. Christine had not spoken to her since. Emma Barksdale, a friend of both, had told Christine to behave at the party. Madeline has warned Henry to steer clear of Christine.
For the most part, the party turns out to be a success as, Madeline, Hannah’s oldest friend, had come to help. A few incidents had marred it, however. She and Martin had quarreled just before the party because he thought he needed to tell her how to act with the guests. Henry has impressed Madeline, but Hannah’s daughter Anne wants him fired because she had dated him years ago and he had left her alone at a party he’d invited her to.
Hannah Speaks, Martin Prays, but Not Everyone Is Happy
Hannah welcomes everyone. She explains that she restored the garden to honor the memory of her mother who had died ten years ago and that her inheritance from her mother was helping to pay for the restoration. The guests applaud, but Christine does not join in. Martin prays for everyone involved with the garden restoration and for the future ministry of the church.
Hannah then joins Lynn and Mark Spencer at the punch table and Lynn immediately gets on Hannah’s case about hiring “a complete stranger” to work for her. Mark tries to intervene, but Lynn keeps meddling. Hannah justifies her decision to hire Henry by explaining his qualifications. Lynn still thinks Hannah shouldn’t have hired someone she knows nothing about.
The guests stop to shake Martin’s hand as they are leaving, and Christine isn’t able to hide her negative feelings. The other guests seem pleased.
The day after the party, Henry takes a bouquet of daffodils to Christine’s house to try to get acquainted with her and try to find out why she is so negative. The reader sees a new side of Christine during this visit.
More Than the Garden Grows
Madeline’s words act as catalysts to the ideas and actions of many characters in the book. Madeline was the one who encouraged Hannah to restore the garden. At one point before the garden party, Hannah tells Madeline, “I’ve lost touch with my own dreams and it scares me. Growing old is bad enough, but I wake up and think of wasted days where nothing I’ve done is of any consequence…. I need to reinvent myself.”
Madeline spins a tale about a driver telling a couple of strangers he is lost. One of the men responded, ‘No, you’re not, you’re here.’
Madeline adds, “If we spend our days always thinking of what we’ve missed, what might have been, we miss the now of our lives, too. You aren’t lost, Hannah, you’re here. In this moment, we’re here, looking at this beautiful garden emerging around us. Perhaps …being lost is not a bad thing, but an opportunity to notice new places you have never been, actually looking at the things you pass by. “
Characters Grow as Part of the Community
Greening of the Heart is a story of people interacting and growing through the process. The church community and those in the wider community of the village around it begin to know themselves better. They make decisions, face unacknowledged truths about themselves, and find solutions to their problems through their conversations with others and by observing their behavior.
An example of this is Anne’s marriage to Geoffrey. The reader sees immediately that the marriage has severe problems. It is only as Anne observes the relationship between other couples that she realizes how troubled her marriage is. Geoffrey is a snob who has tried to keep Anne from her family and any friends that won’t enhance his social standing. He also stifles Anne and their children.
Although Anne has observed the growing distance between her parents, she realizes that Geoffrey’s life is all about impressing people he considers important, whereas her father’s life is about serving his congregation to the extent there’s nothing left for his wife. Geoffrey is harsh with her and with the children, who withdraw in his presence. Anne has smiled through Geoffrey’s rants and cried when she was alone. Anne never saw her father even say a harsh word to her mother.
She decides to seek counsel from her mother and she finally reconciles with Henry for the sake of her mother. It is her brother Christopher that motivates her to heed Madeline’s advice to get a job so she can be self-sufficient. She decides to do it.
Anne sees how loving the relationships between the workmen and their wives are. She observes the other young couples expressing affection and treating their spouses with respect. Anne’s observations and conversations with her new friends and her mother help her see that she must change her interactions with Geoffrey. How that relationship will turn out is still up in the air at the end of the book.
We see more examples of growth during interaction throughout the book. The relationship between Henry and Christine leads to the reconciliation between Christine and Hannah. Madeline’s words influence almost all the main characters.
Madeline is good at discerning who can help whom and then doing her best to bring them together and plant scenarios in their minds until they see new possibilities. This results in the idea that the garden might produce the vegetables used by the Clovers in the kitchen at the Bay Tree Inn. Later Hannah comes up with the idea of using that relationship between the inn and the vicarage garden to gain added revenue for both by giving garden tours in cooperation with Margaret Clover, ending with lunch back at the inn.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Martin is interacting with a new community of people. Their influence, and a frank letter from Hannah, are helping him see himself and his marriage in a new light, and he wants to save it.
I got very involved in this book. I began to really care about these new book friends. If you enjoy books that are more character than plot based, if you like watching people examine their lives with a mind to understand themselves and others, you will find this a rewarding read. You will see people falling in love, reconciling their differences, and experiencing spiritual and marital renewal through relationships begun in a garden.
If you thrive on relationships with people and like to observe positive changes in their lives, you will want to read Greening of the Heart. It will make you think about your own life and relationships as you watch the drama unfold. If you are also a gardener, this book will have an added layer of meaning for you. If you enjoyed reading the Mitford Series or Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven by Fanny Flagg, I would also expect you to find Greening of the Heart appealing. If you haven’t read any of these, what are you waiting for? You won’t want to miss any of these books.
I thoroughly enjoyed this romance mystery, Morning Comes Softly –the story of a lonely Louisiana librarian, Mary Warner, who took a risk to find love. While her library pages were putting newspapers away one day, they happened to seea personal ad for a wife placed by a Montana rancher, Travis Thompson, who was caring for his brother’s orphaned children after he and his wife had been killed in a drunk driving accident. The pages encourage Mary to apply, but she rebuffs them. She had given up on the idea of ever finding a husband and at first she rejected the idea. Then she began to realize she did want marriage and children and the thought of the orphaned children of the rancher’s brother and his wife touched her heart.
Travis loves his brother’s three children, but doesn’t know the first thing about parenting and he can’t cook. He realizes he can’t be a real father to the children while running the ranch, and he’s afraid the social workers who check on the children will put them in foster care if he doesn’t satisfy them that someone capable will be looking after them. He has been persuaded by his friends to place the ad, and as a last resort, he does.
Mary takes the risk of answering the ad, and a correspondence develops between Travis and Mary, in which even the children have input. After several letters have gone back and forth, there is finally a phone call, and Mary goes to the ranch to meet them and marry Travis.
The wedding is just the first step to turning five people into a family. I can relate because my husband and I adopted two older children. We also cared for my oldest nephew for the year his parents could not be home with him. It’s never an easy adjustment to build a family from from people who have not all lived with each other before. Love comes softly. Mary learns to love Travis and the children. She is not so sure that all of them love her back. Step-parents have to earn love and trust from their step-children.
Mary’s relationship with Travis is also awkward because neither seems anxious at first to consummate the marriage. Travis really wanted a caretaker for his children more than he wanted a real wife. He is obsessed with finding the drunk driver who is responsible for the death of his brother and sister-in-law, and spends most of his free time doing his own investigation. That is also a major thread in this book. He has promised himself and his brother’s oldest son that he will find and bring that person to justice. Things come to a head when the sheriff closes the investigation.
I had a good idea who the killer was from the time the subplot reached its climax. The author dropped plenty of clues from which the reader can figure it out. The question is whether Travis can forgive. Until he can, it doesn’t appear the marriage will ever become healthy either.
I enjoyed getting to know the characters in this book. I admired Mary’s determination to take a risk and commit herself to making a very unusual marriage work. I genuinely liked her as a person. It was a bit harder to identify with Travis’s hatred for the person responsible for the accident that killed his brother, though I appreciated his willingness to commit himself to taking in his dead brother’s children. It’s hard not to love the children as each responds individually and age-appropriately to the loss of their parents and being thrust into a newly forming family. I even felt a bit sorry for the “villain” and his family, though I won’t spill the beans as to their identities. I don’t want to spoil your own detective work.
If you like romance with a touch of mystery and you enjoy watching families with a rough start overcome their relationship problems, I believe you won’t want to miss Morning Comes Softly by Debbie Macomber.
Does every life matter? Mark Gimenez deals with this question in his legal thrillers. I reviewed the The Color of Law, on Review This recently. I finished The Common Lawyer two days ago.
Each of these books got off to a slow start and then started moving so fast I didn’t want to put it down. In fact, once I reached the point where the action picked up, I couldn’t go to bed until I finished the The Common Lawyer. In each book the lawyer protagonist is faced with a life-changing moral dilemma where he has to weigh conscience against money.
The reason the books get off to a slow start is that Gimenez wants to be sure the reader gets to know the main character very well before he goes into action. So after a short Prologue in which a mother helps her five-year-old daughter escape from a research hospital where she is being used a guinea pig in experiments – we meet Andy Prescott.
Andy is a lawyer who only got admitted to law school because his mother was on the faculty of the University of Texas. He barely made it through law school and only passed the bar on his third attempt. He cannot get a decent job in the legal profession, but stumbles on a way to earn enough to support his biking lifestyle by getting traffic tickets dismissed. He had discovered that if he asked for a jury trial for his clients, the calendar would be backed up so far it might take two years to get to court. By the time of the trial, the officer would not come in to testify and the case would be dismissed. Andy would get tickets dismissed for a $100 fee with a guarantee that if the ticket were not dismissed, he would pay it himself. He had never had to pay a ticket. That’s a good thing, because he never had enough money to pay a ticket.
Andy’s office is in a part of Austin known as SoCo because of its location on South Congress Avenue. It would be helpful to see a map and other information about SoCo as you read this book. A good portion of this book is spent on Andy’s bike rides in the Austin area. You will enjoy the books more if you have a map in front of you, or at least have a map to consult, The web site shows you not only a map, but also a photo of Guero’s Taco Bar, one place Andy was often found. Another place Andy would hang out with his friends was Jo’s Hot Coffee. The Jo’s Hot Coffee Facebook Page will help you visualize that part of Andy’s lifestyle, since it has photos and even a video. It is dog friendly, so Andy often takes his dog Max there at breakfast time and buys muffins for him, too. Geography is more important in this book than in some others because a lot of the action takes place in the restaurants and on bike trails or the streets of SoCo.
Back to Andy’s office. Andy rents a very small office space located above Ramon’s Body Art. Ramon is Andy’s landlord and Andy pays $200 a month for his space and to share Ramon’s computer and restroom. Tattoos are an important part of SoCo culture. Not having a tattoo marks one as an outsider. Andy’s desk is a card table. His advertising is by business card and word of mouth. Many of his friends collect tickets people drop off for him. He appears at Municipal Court to get the tickets dismissed. Andy lives in a one-bedroom apartment in SoCo and can only afford it because it is awaiting renovation, and his landlord was transferred to California and isn’t thinking about it.
Andy lives to ride his mountain bike. He is a daredevil who carries extreme sports to their limits. He has crashed and totaled bikes many times. He runs red lights in the city. Near the beginning of the book he is going full speed with no brakes and has to take his bike over a high ledge on a back trail in the Barton Creek Greenbelt because three elderly lady hikers are looking at a map in the middle of the trail and freeze when they see him coming at them, unable to stop. He either has to hit them or go over the side. He gets pretty beat up, but doesn’t break any bones. He was lucky enough to land in the lake. His bike is history. His wealthy friend Tres was with him and helped him get to a safer place to rest. Andy always rode as fast as possible and took unnecessary risks.
When he wasn’t working or riding his bike, he sat around Guero’s Taco Bar or Jo’s Hot Coffee with his three best friends. Tres had a trust fund and a “hot” girlfriend, the kind Andy would like but only money could attract. Dave and Curtis were friends from Andy’s UT days. Curtis was a math TA at UT, and the friends relied on him for any kind of tech support they needed. While they were consuming food and beverages, all but Tres read the personal ads in the Lover’s Lane section of the online Austin Chronicle, trying to find some girl to go out with. The first chapters of the book focus on watching Andy go about his daily routines, wishing he had more money for a better bike, talking to the judge at court, meeting his buddies, riding his bike, thinking about how to find a “hot” girl, and living a life that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
Then one day a billionaire, Russell Reeves, well-known philanthropist, shows up at his office with his driver, Darrell, and his life changes. Reeves was referred by his secretary whose ticket Andy got dismissed. Reeves wants to renovate some old properties to create a low income housing development, but is afraid if he sends a high-powered corporate lawyer into SoCo, the populace will fight him just because he’s from the wealthy part of town. So he hires Andy, who is already accepted by the community, to convince the people to approve of the renovation. Russell offers Andy $400 a billable hour for this. Andy accepts, does his job, and gets a great new mountain bike and a motorcycle with money enough left over to buy his mother a proper birthday present and move into nicer living quarters. The girls finally know he’s alive.
Then Russell wants him to take on another assignment. According to Reeves, he has 17 ex-girlfriends he did not treat well in his younger days and he wants to make things right with them. He asks Andy to find them, talk to them to see how they are doing, and take their pictures so that he can make sure they are the right women. He will give Andy a trust fund to pay expenses, including hiring a private detective. As Andy goes down the list, he finds the first six women, each of whom happens to have one very sick child with a condition medical science can’t cure. But the seventh woman can’t be located and the detective says it’s because she doesn’t want to be found.
On his mother’s birthday, Andy visits his parents at their more rural home. They inquire about Andy’s new job. They press Andy for details about the new assignment, which seems rather strange to them. Andy thinks it’s all good, but his parents are wary. They are liberals who don’t trust those who got rich in corporate America. Even though Reeves has used a lot of his money for good, Andy’s parents think Andy is being used and is likely to be caught in a trap. His father warns him that ‘when things don’t seem right, they’re usually not.’ Even Andy has to admit that the cover story for his assignment to find the women doesn’t make much sense.
Here’s more you should know about Reeves. His seven-year-old son Zach has a rare incurable form of cancer. The doctors think he won’t last more than a year. Reeves has spent freely of his billions to try to find a cure. He has even opened The Reeves Research Institute on the campus of UT. So far, it hasn’t helped find a cure any faster. He s despairing, afraid he will lose his son. One study has been published by an anonymous doctor that indicates a “Person X” has stem cells that might help Zach.
Andy’s father, Paul, is also dying of cancer. He needs a new liver, but has at least a two-year wait to get one. Andy would like to save his father. Both Andy and Reeves would do anything possible to save their loved ones. Andy has met Zach and played video games with him. He admires Zach’s fighting spirit. Zach asks Andy for a private conversation and wants to talk about death since Zach couldn’t get his father to talk to him about it, so Andy tries to answer his questions. Zach has a genius I.Q. but that doesn’t tell him all he wants to know about what’s ahead for him.
Meanwhile, Andy hires a detective who is willing to stray from approved legal practices, unlike the detective Russell had recommended. He does locate the seventh woman. Andy finds her and talks to her, but her seven-year-old daughter is perfectly healthy. He is surprised by this. The woman, though, says she is fine and needs no help. (Andy had given each of the first six women a million dollars from Russell, and Russell had also used his influence to get the very best medical help for the children who needed to get into special facilities. ) By the time Andy gives Russell the address of the seventh woman, she disappears again.
Andy finally confronts Russell about the parts of his story that don’t make sense and accuses him of deceiving him about the purpose of finding the women. Russell comes clean and admits he is looking for the patient with the perfect immune system – Patient X. He is convinced the seventh woman, or her daughter, is Patient X. Andy keeps looking, but becomes unsure it’s the right thing to do. The list was actually the mothers of the children who were part of the experimental research referred to in the Prologue. Reeves had somehow gotten the list of patient names and their mothers, knowing that Patient X had been one of them.
Meanwhile, two people approach Alvin Adams, a research publication editor, in Queens. Adams had edited the research article about Patient X. The first to approach him is a lawyer, Mr. Smith, who bribes him to reveal the confidential name of Anonymous, who did the research. Adams stuffs the envelope containing the bribe money into his pocket and goes out to try to drink away a headache. As he starts home he is approached by someone in a black sedan who demands to know what Alvin told the lawyer. When he refuses, the man pulls a gun and asks him if the confidentiality is worth dying for. He decides not and reveals Tony Falco’s name. The man kills him anyway. Meanwhile, Tony Falco has moved his research to China where the political environment makes it easier for him to conduct his research.
By the time you get to this part of the book, you realize that two parties are both trying to find Patient X. Russell sees her as the only hope of saving his son. The thugs hired by the pharmaceutical companies want to kill her, but Andy doesn’t know about them yet. Andy is still looking for the woman he now knows is Patient X to help Zach, and maybe his father. But when he locates her again, the plot takes a surprising twist.
Andy has to choose between betraying his client, Reeves, and being disbarred while also losing the money that will make life easier for himself, or risking the life of Patient X by making her visible again. By this time Andy has become close to Zach and may also be falling in love with the mother of Patient X. His creative solution to this dilemma will have you on the edge of your seat until the book is finished.
Alerts: Some readers may be offended by the way some men seemed to consider women mere sexual playthings, and others may be offended by the portrayal of the anything goes dress and mores of some of the people. Parts of the plot are highly unrealistic, but unless extreme biking in large doses and bike chases bore you, you will still enjoy the book.
When I began HOW SWEET THE SOUND I didn’t realize what I was in for. I guess I expected a typical formula-written inspirational Christian novel that would not challenge me much. I got quite a surprise.
This was not a book to let me escape, but a book to make me think about the subjects many people live through and few want to bring into the open and talk about. These subjects include bereavement, grief, rape, incest, suicide, sibling rivalry, and child abuse – most of it in one family. Unfortunately, this book is realistic enough to make it believable, and, therefore, depressing. Most of the book is depressing, but it’s so well-written that you are willing to see it to the finish. Fortunately, by the end things are looking up.
The author really knows how to use the English language. No cliches here. We see the characters through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Anniston, and her aunt, Comfort. Anniston begins the narrative on Thanksgiving Day in southern Alabama shortly after Hurricane Frederic has ravaged the coast and destroyed half the Vaughn family’s pecan orchard. At first she describes what appears to be a typical extended family gathering, but before dinner is over you will see how dysfunctional the Harlan family is. Before the night is over, two brothers, Anniston’s father, Rey, and uncle, Cole, will be dead, and their sister Comfort will be dying inside.
The book is hard to follow in the beginning. The family tree diagram on the first page is a must if you want to keep straight how the characters are related. The first chapters are like beginning to work a jigsaw puzzle. They contain pieces of plot that you will need to place in your mind. It’s better to get the edges (the family tree) in place first, so you can more easily figure out where the other pieces go.
This is not a book one reads to just enjoy and savor. It’s a book that will introduce you to ways of life that may seem foreign if you were raised in a loving and a supportive family. The plot is based on the story of Tamar in the Bible, a daughter of King David, who was raped by her brother Amnon. You can read the story in 2 Samuel 13. Even royal households can be dysfunctional. Sin and lust lurk everywhere. The sins of the fathers often are passed to their sons until the cycle is broken. Yet the book will offer hope to those who have suffered bereavement, grief, rape, and incest. It will also show parents how important it is not to favor one child over the others, and everyone what sharp weapons their tongues can be.
The dead cannot be brought back, but the living can become new. Comfort’s path to healing was not an easy one, as you will see in the short poems she writes. But her Abba does not leave her alone. His voice comes to her during her darkest moments. Her family and Solly, the man she had been planning to marry, continue to reach out to her. It is only when she had lost all hope that she was willing to accept help. Abba (and her family and Solly) pull her from the prison into which she had retreated and healing begins.
Even though this may be a hard read, I recommend it. I almost stopped reading after the first few chapters, but I’m glad I didn’t. The characters reached into my heart and I wanted them to find peace and recognize the love that did surround them. No family or person is without sin. The author reveals the destructive patterns that can lead families and individuals to despair, but also show us the way to Abba’s love and healing. You can purchase How Sweet the Sound Here
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 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 into our homes until their home was stable again. Eventually it was.
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.
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 an hour. But Mother says she is close to perfecting her 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.
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 purchased 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.
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
You may also enjoy reading another story of a foster child whose mother is about to get out of jail. Should she go back to her mother or stay in foster care? See my Book Review: A Mother’s Conviction.
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.