On My Bookshelf: March 2021 Reads

The first Wednesday of each month, Carolyn Astfalk hosts #OpenBook, where bloggers link posts about books they’ve read recently. Here’s a taste of what I’ve been reading:

Fiction

Veiled in Smoke (The Windy City Saga Book 1) by Jocelyn Green. I read the series out of order, though book 2 was written well enough that I didn’t even realize it was part of a series until I was well into the story. It takes place in Chicago at the time of the Great Fire, and tells the story of two sisters caring for their widowed father, who suffers PTSD from his time in a Civil War military prison. One thing that seemed odd: the family owns a bookstore with a cafe in it. That’s not something I think of when I think of the late 1800s.

Half a Heart by Karen McQuestion. A heartbreaking story of a 9-year-old boy suffering abuse at the hands of his dad, and who misses his maternal grandmother. Told she has died, Logan seizes an opportunity to escape, and finds a way to survive alone, while Grandma Nan frantically searches for him. Great peripheral characters make this a wonderful story.

Not Until Now (Hope Springs Book 8) by Valerie M. Bodden. Paraplegic Kayla happens upon a car wreck and rescues a child whose mother needs hospitalization. Kayla wants to help the little girl, and must convince the child’s uncle, who had been estranged from his sister due to her struggles with addiction, to commit to caring for her. Part of a linked series but can be read as a standalone.

The Restoration of Celia Fairchild by Marie Bostwick. When an advice columnist loses her job in New York, she returns to Charleston, planning to unload an estate left to her by an aunt. But the house is in far worse shape than she’d realized, and she needs it to pass inspection so she can be approved to adopt a child. Celia and some new friends and neighbors work to clean out the house (Celia’s aunt had been a hoarder) and renovate it. Very enjoyable story.

A whole bunch of shorter Christian romances by Jennifer Rodewald: the entire Murphy Brothers series: Always You, In Spite of Ourselves, Everything Behind Us, and This Life. Good stories, quick reads, about a (mostly) close-knit family. In several of them, the brothers meet and fall for their future wives in strange (and often unrealistic) circumstances. But it’s fun reading.

YA/Children’s

I got on a classic children’s-book kick thanks to a conversation with a friend, so I read Little Plum by Rumer Godden and then followed it up with my all-time favorite of her children’s books, The Diddakoi. Some things never change, I guess: both books deal with the topics of bullying and friendship. Little Plum is the story of an active family living next door to a vacant house, and the difficulties of making friends with the new little girl on the block, whose mother is hospitalized. In The Diddakoi, a gypsy child who is continually bullied by her schoolmates is alone after the death of her grandmother, and the citizens of a town who never welcomed her must arrange for her care.

Bubbles by Abby Cooper has a terrific premise that I’d find a little terrifying: 12-year-old Sophie discovers that sometimes she can see what other people are thinking. Their thoughts appear above their heads in little cartoon bubbles. While she sometimes finds it useful, she discovers that it just adds to the stress she’s already experiencing: her mom’s recent breakup and job loss (both of which she blames herself for), friendship issues, and finding out that her best friend likes the same boy she does.

Tweet Cute by Emma Lord. A fun takeoff on You’ve Got Mail, but with high-school students, Twitter, and the New York City restaurant scene. Pepper’s parents have her running the social media for their fast-food chain. Jack goes to the same school, frequently drives Pepper crazy, and helps out at his family’s deli. It all gets ugly when Pepper’s family is accused of stealing a secret recipe from Jack’s family, and all during a social-media duel, Pepper and Jack make an anonymous connection online through a secret school app. (For older teens and adults.)

The Truth About Romantic Comedies by Sean C. McMurray. A romance written from a teenage boy’s point of view is already different – and this story was excellent. Timothy lives in a trailer park with his mother (a nurse) and grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s and cancer. He meets Rachel when she accompanies her mother to radiation treatments. When they learn that Rachel’s family will be moving soon, the two decide on an experiment to put every rom-com cliche to the test, with unexpected results. (For older teens and adults.)


Links to books in this post are Amazon affiliate links. Your purchases made through these links support Franciscanmom.com. Thank you!

Where noted, books are review copies. If that is not indicated, I either purchased the book myself or borrowed it from the library.

Follow my Goodreads reviews for the full list of what I’ve read recently (even the duds!)

Visit this month’s #OpenBook post to join the linkup or just get some great ideas about what to read! You’ll find it at Carolyn Astfalk’s A Scribbler’s Heart and at CatholicMom.com!

5 New Books About Prayer

Happy Easter! I hope Lent has been a spiritually fruitful time and that you’ve been inspired to continue a spiritual practice you began during that season. Or maybe you want to try something new during the Easter season? Let’s take a look at five newly published books about prayer that will help feed your soul.

Divine Mercy

Fr. Chris Alar, MIC, has written Understanding Divine Mercy, part of the Explaining the Faith series from Marian Press. Whether you are new to praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet or a longtime devotee of this prayer practice, this book will shed new light on Divine Mercy. Chapters are divided into short sections (usually two to four pages in length) so you can easily read a section a day before praying your chaplet. Easy! The book begins with a deeper look at the mercy of God (a perfect Easter Season read), followed by an introduction to the life and spirituality of St. Faustina Kowalska, whose life and writings helped spread devotion to Divine Mercy throughout the world. The next two sections discuss the feast of Divine Mercy (the Sunday after Easter) and the image, novena, chaplet, and hour of Divine Mercy. The book concludes with a beautiful chapter titled “God’s Mercy in the Midst of Suffering and Loss.”

God wants to show us what His mercy can do. He wants to show us that His mercy is greater than anything, even our sin. (141).

If you are going through a difficult time and wondering how you can even find a way to pray, I recommend Understanding Divine Mercy.

Get Close to God

Ten Ways to Pray: A Catholic Guide for Drawing Closer to God by Carolyn Pirtle is part of the new Engaging Catholicism series from Ave Maria Press. This 10-chapter book introduces many different ways to pray: with Scripture, through devotions, with the Church in the liturgy, using the Examen, and more. Each chapter answers these four questions:

  • What is this form of prayer?
  • Why might a person pray this way?
  • When and where can one practice this form of prayer?
  • How does one pray this way in practice?


A free discussion guide is available from the publisher; use this for a formal or informal book study or even for your own prayer journaling.

Real Presence: What Does It Mean and Why Does It Matter? by Timothy P. O’Malley is also part of the new Engaging Catholicism series from Ave Maria Press. University of Notre Dame theologian Timothy P. O’Malley helps unravel the complicated biblical teachings and Church tradition about the Eucharist, and discusses Eucharistic devotion.

I count this as a prayer book because one of my favorite prayer practices is Eucharistic Adoration, and this would be a perfect book to bring along to the Adoration chapel, to ponder the mysteries of the Eucharist. Ave Maria Press offers a free discussion guide to use for book study or prayer journaling.

This new Engaging Catholicism series (more books in the series are coming soon) would make excellent resources for new converts or Catholics returning to the faith.

Pray the Rosary

Word on Fire recently published The Rosary with Bishop Robert Barron, which is bundled with a pretty (and sturdy) wooden rosary in a cloth pouch. This glossy book is packed with sacred art to accompany each Mystery of the Rosary. The book begins with an excerpt from St. John Paul II’s Rosarium Virginis Mariae (2002), then includes step-by-step instructions for praying the Rosary.

For each of the 20 Mysteries of the Rosary, two reflections are offered (one long, one short) along with the art. The accompanying rosary is made in Jerusalem of polished olive wood beads.

Praying a Christ-Centered Rosary: Meditations on the Mysteries by James L. Papandrea is part prayer book, part history book, and all fascinating. You can use this book, new from Ave Maria Press, in a variety of ways. In the introduction, the author encourages readers to explore different ways to approach the Rosary to “enrich your devotional life and enliven your faith with new insights” (6). Don’t skip the introduction to this book!

Each of the four parts of the book is devoted to a set of Mysteries of the Rosary. A short “A Mystery in History” reading begins each section. After that, the chapter for each mystery contains the answer to four questions:

  • What is (this mystery)?
  • Where was Mary?
  • What does it tell us about Jesus?
  • What aspects of this mystery should we imitate?

A brief meditation ends each chapter. At the end of the book, you’ll find a walk-through of the Rosary in one appendix, and a second one with those brief meditations all in one place so you can access them more easily as you pray.


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz

This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I was given free review copies of the featured books, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Image created in Stencil.

What I’ve Learned (so far) This Holy Week

We’re almost at the end of Holy Week. Today is a Friday that feels like a Sunday (because I’ve been to church) and then tomorrow will feel like a weird day all day long, and then I’ll go to Easter Vigil Mass and wind up feeling like I’m supposed to be somewhere on Sunday, even though I have nowhere to go.

But I’ve learned a few things, this Holy Week. The pared-down version of the Holy Week Masses and services has meant that we carry less; we sing less; we pay attention more; we notice more. Most of the time, the pared-down version has been a good thing.

On Palm Sunday the blessed palms were available at the end of Mass as we left the church. There were no palms to hold during the entrance procession, but since we were using the simple entrance without the Gospel reading about the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, we didn’t need palms. This meant that we didn’t have palms to fiddle with, drop, or braid into crosses.

We also didn’t have hymnals (which, in our parish, contain the missal). Those are all locked away in the parish library, except a few in the choir area for the musician and cantor to use. On Palm Sunday when the Passion was read, no one had the readings available to proclaim the crowd parts. The lector read those along with the “any speaker except Jesus” parts. And that turned out to feel really odd. When the Passion is proclaimed at Mass and the assembly participates in a way that’s only done two days per year, saying the words “Crucify Him!” really brings home the message of our own participation in the burden of sin that Jesus died to take away.

It turned out to be a gift that I didn’t sing this year on Holy Thursday. We musicians have to pay attention in a focused sort of way, because we’re listening for cues (and sometimes on the special days the cues are very different from ordinary Sunday cues). But I was sitting with the assembly and I had the chance to just listen and not worry about being ready to start the next acclamation on time, because the musicians would cue me. And in all my years of attending the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, I never noticed this:

On the day before he was to suffer
for our salvation and the salvation of all,
that is today,

(iBreviary; emphasis mine)

That sacrifice was happening right then and right there. Not only in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Right here in New Jersey on Holy Thursday night in 2021. I’m not expressing this well. I don’t know how to express this well. But I think it means that the sacrifice was made once by Jesus but we are reliving it, and now I will need to go read the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1365-1369) and ponder that.

This Holy Thursday, the ritual of the washing of the feet was omitted. Of course, we heard about it in the Gospel, but the actual washing of feet did not happen. For me, that was a good thing because if I’m a musician I’m busy the whole time and if I’m not a musician I’m distracted by either the music (for good or for ill) or by my own thoughts about how I’d never want my feet washed because who would want to look at my awful feet?

In a way, it’s hard to strip much from Good Friday, because it’s already as stripped down as a liturgy can get. By this point in Holy Week I think the simplicity of it all had finally settled in for me. I didn’t spend the silent entrance procession sulking about the missed opportunity for a hymn. I was ready for the silence, and my soul was happy for it.

It seemed like a lot of people thought the same as I did about Palm Sunday, because when the Gospel was proclaimed for Good Friday, out came the smartphones and the missals and Magnificats that people had brought in with them. It wasn’t everybody, but it was enough that when the crowd had something to say, we could hear a good number of voices saying it.

Finally, on Good Friday this year we did not have individual veneration of the cross. Our deacon-in-training carried the cross from the back of church to the altar, proclaiming three times, “Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. Come, let us adore.” Then our pastor asked everyone to stand and silently adore from our places. Again, this is a situation where I’m usually busy providing music while everyone in church stands up, lines up, venerates the cross, and returns to seats. It takes longer than Communion and it’s important to end the music the second the last person has been seated, so it’s a little stressful. And the musicians never get to venerate the cross. This time, we all just stood in our places. You could hear a pin drop in that church. It was powerful.

Holy Week 2021 has turned out to be very different from Holy Week 2019, our last normal Holy Week. It’s also turned out to be a million times better than Holy Week 2020.

Tomorrow night is the Easter Vigil, and we will make a joyful noise, in praise of the Resurrection and our return to Mass and seeing Mass attendance numbers creep up, little by little each week. We won’t have an Easter Fire, and that’s sad. But after Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday, I know that, whatever’s missing, there will be a lesson for me in it.

Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz. All rights reserved.

Books for the Kids’ Easter Baskets

When our kids were younger, we always made sure their Easter baskets contained a new book alongside the peanut-butter eggs and chocolate bunnies (none of them like jelly beans … more for me, I guess!). While I don’t have small children at home anymore, I still love checking out new books for kids of all ages. Take a look at some new children’s books, organized by topic.

Board Book: The Story of Jesus

Jesus Savior of the World by Sr. Marlyn Evangelina Monge, FSP and illustrated by Mary Rojas. Review Jesus’ life, from His birth to the Ascension, with this sweet board book that’s perfect for your toddler. The book places Jesus in the context of the Holy Family, showing the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, and the story of Jesus lost in the Temple, then recounts how Jesus helped others to show how much God loves us, ending with the events of Holy Week, Easter, and the Ascension, all presented in a cute (not scary) way. 14 pages, for toddlers and up; published by Pauline Kids.

Picture Books: The Wonders of God’s Creation

What Did God Make? by Heather Henning and Alison Atkins is a lift-the-flap book that retells the story of Creation. The cartoon-style illustrations are colorful and fun, with plenty of friendly-looking animals to engage your little one. As you read the story, you can help your child find and identify the many animals featured on the sturdy cardboard pages of this book. 24 pages, for toddlers and up; published by Pauline Kids.

Colors of Creation by Paul Thigpen and illustrated by John Folley also retells the biblical Creation story. In this creative spin on a favorite theme, the author uses color to demonstrate how God, the Master Artist, paints the canvas of earth and sky. The book begins with the color black, representing silent, empty space, and one by one the colors are added as light, water, earth, plants, animals, and people are created. Even the illustration style picks up on the artist theme, as the pictures evoke the style of oil paintings. 32 pages, for preschool and up; published by TAN Books.

The same author-illustrator team also created God’s Wildest Wonderment of All. In this sweet picture book, a little boy visits the zoo with his family and wonders about the unusual animals he sees there. In rhyme, the child thinks about the fascinating and puzzling creatures in the zoo, and in the end remembers the most wondrous creature God ever made. This book will enchant young children who love animals. 32 pages, for preschool and up; published by TAN Books.

Picture Books: Prayer and the Church

Listening for God: Silence Practice for Little Ones by Katie Warner and illustrated by Amy Rodriguez is a read-aloud book designed to help children practice being silent so they can listen to God in prayer. Inspired by the story of Elijah, who heard God not in the thunderous sounds of earthquakes, crackling fires, or whistling of a strong wind, but in the quiet, the book leads young children through short practice exercises to help them strengthen their ability to quiet their bodies, minds, and tongues for a few moments at a time. 32 pages; published by TAN Books.

God Gave Us Prayer by Lisa Tawn Bergren and illustrated by David Hohn, a longer picture book, tells the story of a family of dogs; Mama and Papa answer Little Pup’s many questions about prayer. Little Pup and his friends learn about the different ways to pray (adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication).  Sweet illustrations of various animals accompany the story — a favorite of mine is the family of opossum hanging from a tree branch, accompanied by the question, “Can he hear us when we’re upside down?” Many sample prayers with prompts for young children to fill in their own prayers bring the message home. 56 pages; published by WaterBrook.

This is the Church by Katie Warner and illustrated by Meg Whalen, follows the style of the nursery rhyme, “The House that Jack Built,” with each new sentence (on a two-page spread) building on the one before, in a cadence that’s perfect for a quick read-aloud. Illustrations use the colors in stained-glass windows to spotlight significant events in the life of Christ and the Church. Each page brings home that the Catholic Church was founded by Christ to share God’s love with the world, and that’s not a message that can be repeated too often. 24 pages; published by TAN Books.

Books for Independent Readers

Divine Mercy for Children: A Guided Tour of the Museum of Mercy by Vinny Flynn with Brian Kennelly explains the concept of Divine Mercy and the messages received by St. Faustina Kowalska and written in her Diary in an accessible format for upper-elementary and middle-school readers. In this book, the reader goes on an imaginary museum tour room by room, and kid-friendly images like funhouse mirrors and creatively-placed spotlights help bring difficult concepts to life. Written in a conversational, never patronizing tone, the book concludes with practical ways kids can practice devotion to Divine Mercy. Full instructions on praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet are also included, as is a full-color image of the Divine Mercy painting. 128 pages, for readers age 8 to 14; published by TAN Books.

Our Friends in Heaven by the Daughters of St. Paul and illustrated by Tim Foley is a 2-volume saint-a-day devotional book series; each book is sold separately. Volume 1 covers January through June, Volume 2 is for July through December. The back cover copy reads, “If you read one story every day, you will have made many new friends in heaven by the end of the year!”

I love this way of looking at the saints.  Each daily saint’s story is just under two pages long and ends with a prayer. This would be an excellent Confirmation gift. Because of the advanced vocabulary in these books, I’d recommend them for readers 9 and up. Each book is more than 300 pages long and contains an index of saints that references both volumes; published by Pauline Books & Media.


This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I was given free review copies of the books featured here, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

The Words I Sing

I have a song stuck in my head. And it’s glorious.

It’s been quite a while since that’s happened. Actually, I think it’s been a year.

The weekend of March 21/22 last year was the first weekend our parish was closed to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was a solid three months before public Masses resumed. We still can’t sing in groups here or invite the assembly to sing. The hymnals are still stacked on tables in the parish library, which is still closed to the public.

Music at Mass for the past nine months has basically been walking music: hymns for the entrance procession, preparation of the gifts, Communion, and recessional. And we sing the Gospel acclamation. We have a cantor and accompanist, and we’re singing behind plexiglass shields, far away from each other and anyone else.

We haven’t been singing the Responsorial Psalms. The lector simply reads those.

But starting at this year’s Easter Vigil, we’ll be singing the psalms again.

Psalms are a challenge for the cantor, because they’re a whole new song you basically sing as a solo (so you have to get it right, since there’s no one to cover your mistakes), and sometimes you won’t sing that particular one again for another three years. They’re not like a new hymn you’ll sing several times within a liturgical season and get to know quite well.

For some weird reason known only to the music director, whenever I’m one of the singers at the Easter Vigil, I’m assigned the Exodus 15 psalm: “Let us sing to the Lord; He has covered Himself in glory.” A couple of years ago we got the Spirit & Psalm arrangements for the psalms and learned those; they’re more guitar-friendly than Respond & Acclaim. Since we don’t have enough organists or pianists to cover all the Masses at our parish, that option is a welcome one.

Some psalms are more difficult to learn and sing than others. Sometimes there are a lot of syllables stuffed into a short musical space. That’s what happens in verse 4 of that psalm for the Easter Vigil:

You brought in the people you redeemed
and planted them on the mountain of your inheritance
the place where you made your seat, O LORD,
the sanctuary, LORD, which your hands established.
The LORD shall reign forever and ever.

Five lines, but only four musical phrases. That “mountain of your inheritance” seems pretty insurmountable when you’re tripping over the syllables. And the Easter Vigil is less than two weeks away.

On Saturday I had a rare opportunity to be alone in the house, so I grabbed my copy of the psalm and headed for my little keyboard, where I belted out the refrain and stumbled over the verses a few times, worrying because the Easter Vigil is less than two weeks away and I don’t want to mess this up.

I practiced it so much that, while I still don’t have it right, I do have it stuck in my head.

Sunday morning when I prayed Liturgy of the Hours, as soon as one of the psalms contained a word or phrase that’s also in the Exodus 15 responsorial, my brain immediately switched to Easter Vigil mode.

I had to keep dragging myself back to the right words.

As I prepared and ate my breakfast, Exodus 15 was running through my mind.

But I’m not irritated about it. I’m grateful.

My last Easter Vigil was two years ago. We had many musicians and singers, all there to make a joyful noise. We had a Baptism that year, so we did all the readings and all the psalms. We made so much joyful noise that our voices were tired before the Communion hymn. And most of us showed up the next day to do it all again.

It was good.

Last Easter our parish had livestream issues (the technology was still new and frequently hiccupped) so we didn’t even get to see the whole Mass; we finally were able to view the stream from a neighboring parish.

And here we are, a year later, slowly adding back music to Masses where we can’t invite the assembly to sing with us — because they have no hymnals (who knows when the bishop will let us bring those back?).

People wave at us on their way out as we seize the opportunity to sing more than one verse of something, flashing a thumbs-up since we can’t see them smiling behind their masks. Some have stopped us in the parking lot to thank us for providing even the little bit of music we have, because “it makes things feel normal.”

All that to say: it’s been a long time since I’ve had a psalm stuck in my head because I’m learning it for Sunday.

Easter is coming. Easter music is coming. More music is coming.

And there will be great rejoicing.


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Photos copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz, all rights reserved.
Main image created in Stencil Pro.

The Light of Tara: A Novel of Saint Patrick

It’s easy to lose yourself in the story of St. Patrick, as told in The Light of Tara, a historical novel by John Desjarlais. The writing is poetic and you’ll feel as if you’re part of every scene. The author makes masterful use of dialogue and biblical parallels. I’d wholeheartedly recommend The Light of Tara to teen and adult readers. 

About the book:

While the Roman Empire crumbles into chaos, the flickering light of civilization is in the hands of a teenage pig-keeper and shepherd at the edge of the known world. His name is Succat. We know him as Patrick. 

As an indolent teen, Patrick is abducted by pirates from his British villa and sold to a druid chieftain in remote Hibernia.  In misery, he embraces the faith he once loathed. He learns Irish language and lore, befriends the chieftain’s son and falls for the feisty daughter, making a jealous enemy of the druid’s apprentice. Fearing for his life and obeying a strange vision, Patrick escapes, leaving the girl he loves and returning home after a hazardous journey. But he is shaken by an insistent dream: the plea of the Irish to come back.

He resolves to do so. But first he must overcome a suspicious church, a backstabbing mentor, and his old rival who is now the Archdruid of Ireland, sworn to kill him and eager to enslave the beautiful woman Patrick left behind.

Can he save Ireland from darkness — and free the girl he once loved?

Question for the author:

What inspired you to write historical fiction (especially about a time we know little about)?

Writers can be inspired by a time, a setting or a character. For me, it was all three.

I had written The Throne of Tara: A Novel of Saint Columba in 1990, after scripting and producing a documentary about Church history. I became fascinated by Irish monasticism and Celtic spirituality, by the monks’ love of scholarship, prayer, and poetry, and by their ardent evangelization. Soon after that book was published, I wondered if a “prequel” of sorts, a book about Patrick, might be a natural follow-up. After all, I’d already done a lot of research into the general period and the culture. I turned to contemporary mysteries instead. But I saved my notes.

So, nearly 25 years later, I picked it up again. I wanted people to know “St. Patrick’s Day” was more than beer, corned beef, a green river in Chicago, and a parade in New York to celebrate Irish identity. The historical Patrick was a revolutionary figure. Against tremendous odds, he persevered in faith to bring God’s message of forgiveness to his former captors at a time in Church history when such evangelization across cultural lines was not really known. The Church was preoccupied with combating heresies and with managing a chaotic, crumbling Roman Empire, as many bishops became the de facto governors of their districts while “barbarians” ravaged the land. There was little interest in ‘evangelizing’ the so-called barbarians when bishops were more busy ransoming Christian captives from them.

Patrick’s daring and determination were inspiring, and more so, his long obedience to an insistent call — against his better judgment — to return to the people who brutally enslaved him in order to bring them the gospel of true freedom and love. He knew their language and their lore, which he realized pointed to Christ. One of their great heroes, Cuchulainn, was bound to a post with a hawthorn crown and lanced in his side while being mocked by pagan priests. Who does that sound like?

Historical fiction can be escapist by transporting readers to a distant time and place in an entertaining way (and even provide some knowledge). But it can also engage readers to think about the present time, and to see how people in the past met similar challenges. Patrick’s bold willpower — and submission to God’s will — advanced the light of the Faith and preserved the lamp of learning at a time when barbarians burned the libraries of Europe and plunged the Continent into a Dark Age.  

About author John Desjarlais:

John Desjarlais, author

John Desjarlais, a former producer for Wisconsin Public Radio, taught literature and creative writing at Kishwaukee College in Illinois for nearly 25 years. His novels include The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990, a Christianity Today Readers Choice Award nominee), Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993, a Doubleday Book Club Selection), Bleeder, Viper (A Catholic Arts and Letters Award nominee), and Specter (Chesterton Press, 2008, 2011, 2015), and The Light of Tara: A Novel of Saint Patrick. Blood of the Martyrs and other stories, released through Amazon Kindle Select in 2012, contains short fiction that previously appeared in such periodicals as Critic, The Karitos Review, The Rockford Review, Apocalypse, Conclave, Lit Noir, and Dappled Things. He received Honorable Mention in the 1997 Writers Digest Competition and was a fiction finalist in the 2016 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction Contest. A member of Mystery Writers of America and the North Carolina Writers Network, he has been listed in Who’s Who in Entertainment, Contemporary Authors, and Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. Visit his website at JohnDesjarlais.com.


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Cover image: Stencil

This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Book Review: Anything But Groovy

Amanda Lauer’s new novel, Anything But Groovy, took me right back to childhood days of moon boots, bikes with banana seats, and penny candy. For me, it was a fun look back at those trends that marked my growing-up years.

Anything But Groovy is actually a time-travel novel, in which modern-day Morgan suffers a concussion and wakes up in 1974 … in her mother’s body. When no one else notices anything amiss, Morgan figures this will just last a day or so and decides to roll with it. The ’70s fashions, foods, and music might be different, but middle-school problems are always the same: misunderstandings with friends, pushing back against parental restrictions, sibling conflicts, and bullying at school. It was easy to get lost in the story (and amusing to watch Morgan as she plots ways to make sure her mom had cooler clothes – and not mess things up for her mom in other ways – defying that Back to the Future advice of not messing with the past).

Unlike the Freaky Friday book and movie, in which mom and daughter gain greater understanding of each other’s challenges in their stage of life, this novel gives 12-year-old Morgan insight into her mom’s adolescence, family dynamics, and friendships.

Summary

Morgan is looking forward to junior high school and all the adventures it holds in store for her. But after a collision on the volleyball court, she wakes up on the first day of school trapped inside her mom’s teenage body circa 1974. It doesn’t take long for Morgan to discover that living life as a seventh-grader in the ‘70s and dealing with everything going on in her mom’s life back then — from uncool parents, to annoying older brothers, balancing friendships, and to ultimately doing what she can to survive bullying at the hands of the school’s biggest jock — is anything but groovy.

(Courtesy of Full Quiver Publishing)

About the author

An avid reader and history buff since childhood, author, journalist, professional proofreader/copy editor, actress and screenwriter Amanda Lauer fulfilled a lifelong goal with the publication of her debut novel, A World Such as Heaven Intended, in 2014, the first story in her Civil War Heaven Intended series.  Since that time she has had several more books published and has earned several awards for her work as a journalist, author and screenwriter.

Find Amanda at:

Blog
Full Quiver Publishing 
 Amazon Author Page
Facebook
Twitter
Instagram
Goodreads
Pinterest
LinkedIn
Catholic Teen Books


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Header image: Shelby L. Bell (2017), Flickr, CC BY 2.0
This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I purchased the book from Amazon. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Book Review: ‘Treasures’ for St. Patrick’s Day or Any Day

Treasures: Visible & Invisible, a new short story collection from Catholic Teen Books, reads almost like a novel if you let yourself binge on the eight stories, all linked by a mysterious object whose origins can be traced back to none other than St. Patrick himself.

(Pardon the Irish fangirling. It can’t be helped.)

It was easy to get lost in each and every story, some of which come with promises of longer works featuring these characters. And it was fun to note each appearance of the special object that connects each story.

That connection is even more remarkable when you realize that these stories were not written in order, progressive-story-style, with the second author building on what the first author had already contributed. These eight authors composed on their own, with that mysterious object in mind, but with little (if any) idea of what their fellow authors were creating.

But just as we’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, the eight authors of this collection were all on the same page as they put together these linked stories.

What’s Inside:

  • A teen boy sets out to save a friend from pagan druids, but maybe he’s the one who needs saving. (“Treasure in the Bogs” by Theresa Linden)
  • Between a baffling scripture verse and a visit from Heaven, a young monk is in for the surprise of his life. (“A Single Day … or Not” by Susan Peek)
  • A young girl seeks a mysterious treasure that holds the key to granting a nun’s dying wish. (“Lucy and the Hidden Clover” by Antony Barone Kolenc)
  • Honora is desperate — then a peculiar clover and a mysterious young man change everything. (“Lucky and Blessed” by Amanda Lauer)
  • William’s weekend job is a little gift from heaven, but now his family needs a real miracle. (“Danke” by Carolyn Astfalk)
  • When threatened by mobsters, Grace receives help from a surprising source. (“Grace Among Gangsters” by Leslea Wahl)
  • Alone and afraid, a young girl finds friendship in a stranger. But could this boy be trouble? (“In Mouth of Friend or Stranger” by T.M. Gaouette)
  • Kyle was determined to save the precious relic – but now his whole family is in danger. (“The Underappreciated Virtues of Green-Fingered Monsters” by Corinna Turner)

From the early days of the Church, objects touched to holy men and women have been linked to the miraculous, such as described in Acts: “when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” (Acts 19:12)

Check out the book trailer:

Win a copy of Treasures!

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Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Images courtesy of Catholic Teen Books; used with permission, all rights reserved.
An advance copy of this book was provided for the purposes of this review. Opinions are mine alone and are uncompensated.
This article contains Amazon links; your purchases through these links benefit FranciscanMom.com.


An Open Book: February 2021 Reads

The first Wednesday of each month, Carolyn Astfalk hosts #OpenBook, where bloggers link posts about books they’ve read recently. Here’s a taste of what I’ve read last month:

Fiction

When We Were Young and Brave by Hazel Gaynor.

An intense novel set in a boarding school in China during World War II. The students are children of British diplomats and missionaries, for the most part. Mainly focused on one student and one teacher who had met on the boat to the school, the novel follows the entire course of the war and the ways the Chinese nationals and those from other nations who lived in China suffered during the Japanese occupation. It’s a beautiful story of suffering and resilience, and you will need a very light read to follow it up.

Shadows of the White City (The Windy City Saga Book 2) by Jocelyn Green.

Sylvie, a single woman who had dedicated her life to caring for her parents and running the family business, takes in a motherless little girl. All goes well for about 12 years until teenage Rose goes missing during the Chicago World’s Fair. Crime rings, human trafficking, and the hand-to-mouth existence of many late 19th-century immigrants feature prominently in this story of what motherhood really means. Second in a series, but it’s a standalone.

Homestands by Sally Bradley.

I’m not a baseball fan, but I enjoyed this story! Baseball star Mike Connor runs into his ex-wife after he ruins yet another relationship, and discovers that he has a 5-year-old son he never knew about. The story got a little far-fetched as it went along, but it was well-told and an enjoyable read. It’s supposed to be Book 1 of a series, but I can’t find anything else from this author.

Lighter reads (blurbs courtesy of Amazon):

  • The Cupcake Dilemma by Jennifer Rodewald. “It all started with an extra assignment delegated to me at school right before Valentine’s Day… But before we get too far, let me begin by stating this clearly. I was voluntold.” A sweet, funny read.
  • Getting to Yes by Allie Pleiter. “Valentine’s Day is coming. It’s the perfect time for him to pop the question. She’s more than ready, he’s trying to get ready, so why would God throw obstacle after obstacle into the mix?”
  • Change of Heart by Courtney Walsh. “When a public scandal upends Evelyn Brandt’s neatly constructed life, she’s launched on a journey of self-discovery. She finds a new start in the most unlikely place—a picturesque Colorado farm, owned by her estranged friend, Trevor Whitney. Trevor’s unexpected kindness pushes Evelyn to reclaim her dreams, but it also leaves her with many questions, and he’s never been one for sharing.”

YA/Children’s

Middle-grade mystery fans (about age 10 and up) will enjoy The Haunted Cathedral, Book 2 in the Harwood Mysteries series.

Set in 12th-century England, this story can be read as a standalone. Author Antony Barone Kolenc has crafted a compelling mystery featuring Xan, a 12-year-old orphan who has been in the care of a monastery for about a year. When he is forced to travel to the city of Lincoln with Carlo, who was involved in Xan’s parents’ death, Xan faces multiple obstacles that challenge him to forgive — and he learns firsthand the consequences for himself and others when he withholds forgiveness. (Advance review copy received from publisher.)

Catholic Teen Books’ Treasures: Visible and Invisible is the third in a series of short-story collections from a group of 8 authors in various genres.

Unlike the other collections, this one almost feels like a novel because all the stories are linked by a single significant object that passes from the time of St. Patrick into a dystopian future. (Full review coming soon; advance review copy received from the authors.)

Nonfiction

Be Bold in the Broken: How I Found My Courage and Purpose in God’s Unconditional Love by Mary Lenaburg.

I found myself nodding “yes” to so much of what the author says in this book. Mary and I are polar opposites in terms of personality, but I could see myself in quite a few of the personal anecdotes she shared. If you’ve ever felt like you just don’t fit and start questioning what you’re even doing here, this book is for you. (Advance review copy received from publisher; releases March 12)

The Big Hustle: A Boston Street Kid’s Story of Addiction and Redemption by Jim Wahlberg.

This was a gritty, open look at a young man’s path into addiction, crime, and prison, then to faith and a chance at a new life dedicated to helping others in recovery.


Links to books in this post are Amazon affiliate links. Your purchases made through these links support Franciscanmom.com. Thank you!

Where noted, books are review copies. If that is not indicated, I either purchased the book myself or borrowed it from the library.

Follow my Goodreads reviews for the full list of what I’ve read recently (even the duds!)

Visit today’s #OpenBook post to join the linkup or just get some great ideas about what to read! You’ll find it at Carolyn Astfalk’s A Scribbler’s Heart and at CatholicMom.com!


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz

An Open Book: February 2021

The first Wednesday of each month, Carolyn Astfalk hosts #OpenBook, where bloggers link posts about books they’ve read recently. Here’s a taste of what I’ve been reading:

Fiction

The Light of Tara: A Novel of St. Patrick by John Desjarlais. It’s easy to lose yourself in the story of St. Patrick, as told in this historical novel by John Desjarlais. The writing is poetic and you’ll feel as if you’re part of every scene. Desjarlais makes masterful use of dialogue and biblical parallels. Highly recommended. (ARC received from author; longer article coming in March)

The Castleton String Quartet Series by Maddie Evans

This 3-novel series plus a prequel is an excellent sweet romance series suitable for readers high-school age and up. The series tells the story of a string quartet that has grown out of a renowned family-run music school; most main characters in the novels are either children of the school’s founders or star students. Bob Castleton’s rapidly progressing dementia is a family crisis affecting each character deeply as the series goes on. Read in order for best results. A few crossover characters from the author’s Brighthead Running Club series make an appearance, which is a fun touch. (ARCs received from author)

The Rose Keeper by Jennifer Lamont Leo. Clara, a single nurse in midlife, harbors old hurts that prevent her from advancing her career or becoming close with anyone. A young wife of a soldier and her daughter become her neighbors, and slowly she finds a way to open up and let go of those past hurts. A sweet, captivating story of healing wounds and releasing burdens 3 decades old. Great secondary characters too. Highly recommended. (ARC received from author; this book will release mid-March)

Courting Peace by Lisa Lawmaster Hess. This book wraps up a series about strong women (and young women) finding their place in the world. While Marita puzzles over whether she has a future with the youth pastor, Bets finally appears to be settling down and Charli finds herself in the confusing stages of a first teenage love. Meanwhile, Angel wrestles with new parenthood and an absent husband, who’s aggravating even his doting family. I’ll miss the vivid characters from this series; it’s been a fun read.

Ellen Foster and The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons. Read these in order (it matters!). A heartbreaking story of a child living hand-to-mouth in appalling circumstances in the midcentury American South, the series continues with Ellen’s life as a teenager in a foster family, finding her way to fulfilling her dreams of a Harvard education.

YA/Children’s

The Circus of Stolen Dreams by Lorelei Savaryn. Yes, it’s for middle-grade kids, but don’t let that stop you. This book features beautiful prose and a compelling story. Andrea’s life hasn’t been the same since her brother disappeared; when she gets the chance to escape into the world of Reverie from the woods near her home, she jumps at it, only to discover that this dream world is not anything like it was promised to be. But she refuses to leave until she finds her brother.

Nonfiction

A Time to Seek: Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality at Midlife by Susan Pohlman is a combination spiritual/travel memoir of a mom working to come to terms with her emptying nest. With the excuse of accompanying her college-age daughter to Florence to help her get settled for a semester abroad, Pohlman spends a week or so traveling the area alone: contemplating in cathedrals, chapels, and cemeteries; detouring to art museums; pondering her next steps and how her family relationships have changed. There are more questions than answers, but it’s a relatable memoir for moms in midlife. (ARC received from author)


Links to books in this post are Amazon affiliate links. Your purchases made through these links support Franciscanmom.com. Thank you!

Where noted, books are review copies. If that is not indicated, I either purchased the book myself or borrowed it from the library.

Follow my Goodreads reviews for the full list of what I’ve read recently (even the duds!) Although I’ll admit I haven’t really updated this since the fall.

Visit today’s #OpenBook post to join the linkup or just get some great ideas about what to read! You’ll find it at Carolyn Astfalk’s A Scribbler’s Heart and at CatholicMom.com!

Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz