On My Bookshelf: Resources for Advent and the New Liturgical Year

What’s your plan for this Advent?

Do you want to make a renewed commitment to a daily spiritual practice during Advent, or perhaps begin paying extra attention to the Sunday Mass readings beginning in Advent with the new liturgical year? If so, there’s an app for that—as well as quite a few daily and weekly devotionals and even a coloring book for seasonally-inspired prayer.


nullThe Magnificat Advent Companion App: This robust app packs everything you need for Advent devotions, all in a single package. Each daily entry contains Prayer for the Morning, Evening, and Night (based on the Liturgy of the Hours), the full text of the Mass including the day’s readings, and an Advent meditation. These meditations are brief and could be used at the close of the evening meal as the Advent candle is lit.

Bonus content includes chants for Advent, blessing for the Advent wreath and Christmas tree, blessing before a Christmas Stable, Advent Stations, Advent Prayers, information and prayers for the O Antiphons, Christmas carols, and more. The Magnificat Advent Companion App is available for iOS and Android devices; it’s a bargain at $2.99.


nullMessages of Patience for Advent and Christmas 2023: 3-Minute Devotions by Michael White and Tom Corcoran is an uncomplicated daily devotional in a conveniently-sized format. Monday through Friday, entries begin with Scripture passages and end with a call to action, and weekend devotions are structured differently. Saturday’s reflections are the Responsorial Psalm from daily Mass, and Sunday offers a devotion and call to action but no Scripture reading.

These reflections are not prayers for patience (those can be dangerous!) but are instead an invitation to pray with patience. Available in paperback or Kindle format. (Ave Maria Press)


nullAlso from Ave Maria Press is a new small-format daily devotional, Draw Near: Daily Prayers for Advent and Christmas 2023This booklet by Josh Noem features a page or two per day, with short  passages from Scripture or the Liturgy of the Hours, a brief meditation based on that reading, prayers for morning and evening, and a “traveling question” you can meditate on throughout the day—these will make great journal prompts.

Weekly themes for the Advent devotions include waking up, preparing for Christ, rejoicing, and receiving God’s light. This book also includes a week of prayers for the Christmas season, celebrating the Incarnation.


nullPray and color your way through the Advent season with a new coloring book from Pauline Books and Media. What Child Is This: A Coloring Book for Prayer and Meditation is a 32-page coloring book based on the familiar Christmas carol. Because the tune, “Greensleeves,” is medieval, the drawings by Sr. Mary Joseph Peterson, FSP, have a medieval feel.

I can’t think of a better time than Advent to slow down with some colored pencils or crayons in hand and some seasonal music playing, taking a moment just to imagine through art the season we are anticipating.


nullIf you’re looking for a journal, Prepare Your Heart by Fr. Agustino Torres, CFS, includes daily meditations on a passage from Scripture, reflection questions, prayer, and space for journaling and notetaking. The back of the book contains a QR code readers can use to access the free weekly videos (which will be shown here on every Sunday). I love that the meditations often reference Franciscan practices and traditions in cultural and historical context, and then invite the reader to consider how those practices can become part of their daily spirituality.

Each daily entry begins with a Scripture passage, which is provided for you so you won’t need to make sure to have a Bible handy. This is followed by a meditation just about a page long: a gentle invitation to ponder our spiritual preparations according to the weekly themes, two reflection questions and a lined page for journaling, and a brief closing prayer. (Ave Maria Press)


nullSundays on the Go: 90 Seconds with the Weekly Gospel by Fr. Albert Haase, OFM, offers a quick meditation evoking the weekly Gospel, plus a prayer and a question to ponder. You’ll find the Gospel citation for each Sunday, but you need to bring your own Bible for this one. One way to use this paperback devotional, if you’re empty nesters or have teenage children, is to have someone read each week’s entry in the car on the way home from Sunday Mass, and then discuss the question on the ride home.

The meditations take only a minute to read, and there are also readings for Solemnities and special feasts, including all the Holy Days of Obligation, the Annunciation, St. Anthony of Padua, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and more. That’s a wonderful encouragement to individuals, couples, and families to mark those days in a special way—including Mass. (Paraclete Press)


nullOne Sunday at a Time: Preparing Your Heart for Weekly Mass by Mark Hart is a companion to the Cycle B readings that begin in Advent, from Ave Maria Press. You’ll want to have the readings available online when you use this book (or a Bible where you can look them up); Scripture references are included but the actual Scripture text is not.

After an opening prayer, you’ll get a look at the message in these readings—and some behind-the-scenes info, always fascinating to me—and then there are some journal questions and a challenge for the week. You can even use the journal questions as conversation starters! This book, available as a lovely hardcover with full-color pages, will help you dig deeper into the meaning of each Sunday’s Mass readings and apply them to your life.





Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Images: Canva
This article contains Amazon affiliate links, which provide a small compensation to the author of this piece when purchases are made through the links, at no cost to you.


On My Bookshelf: Murder at Penwood Manor by Antony Barone Kolenc

Book 5 in Catholic novelist Antony Barone Kolenc’s Harwood Mysteries series, Murder at Penwood Manor, is one of those stories that will keep your teen reading late into the night. Xan, an orphaned teen who was first taken in by monks and then came to live with an uncle in a distant town, seeks to exonerate a crusader who has returned from the Holy Land and is now accused of the murder of a romantic rival. Xan is accompanied in his quest to save Laurence the crusader by two young women, one in formation at a local abbey and another who appears to be his love interest.

As I read this story, I was frequently reminded of this line from the Gospel of John:

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)


Xan, Lucy, and Christina all have a lot to lose by standing up for Laurence in front of the sheriff and the townsfolk, all of whom are ready to see him put to death. Lucy even risks her religious vocation by disobeying her superiors and leaving the monastery to help solve the mystery behind the murder that opens the story. I won’t give spoilers, but I will say there’s a cliffhanger that leaves me extremely eager for the next novel in the series!

Parents and teachers will appreciate the two-page readers guide, “How to read historical fiction,” at the front of the book, and the author has also provided a map of Xan’s world, a glossary of religious and historical terms, and an author’s historical note that explains Church and feudal practices of that time and place. These bonus materials have been included with each book in the series, and are informative and useful without being condescending.

Murder at Penwood Manor is best enjoyed as part of a series, but Kolenc skillfully provides enough background information that a reader new to the series can jump in anywhere.

As with many series that begin with characters who are 10 or 11 years of age, the later books in the Harwood Mysteries seem more geared toward younger teen readers than middle-grade. I’d recommend this book (and book 4) for readers 12 and up; the first three books in the series are fine for middle-grade readers and up.




Want to catch up on the other books in the series?

nullThe virtue of integrity is central to Shadow in the Dark, as Xan and his friends discover which of the people around them are who they say they areand who can be trusted. In this story, Xan is taken in at a monastery after his village is burned down and his parents killed; Xan has little memory of the tragedy and does not know who he is. This mystery story provides a fascinating glimpse inside the feudal world and the monastic life during the Middle Ages.


nullThe Haunted Cathedral, Book 2, contains fictional characters and events set in a historical place and time. Lincoln Castle and Lincoln Cathedral, both of which figure in the story, were constructed about a century before the story takes place—and parts of these buildings still stand today. And you’ll find no spoilers here, but a significant event in the story was actually recorded in history! When Xan is forced to travel to the city of Lincoln with Carlo, who was involved in Xan’s parents’ death, he faces multiple obstacles that challenge him to forgive—and he learns firsthand the consequences for himself and others when he withholds forgiveness.


nullIn The Fire of Eden, an accident causes John, who’s been Xan’s nemesis in the monastery for quite some time, to lose his sight. Angry at his sudden dependence on those around him, John is more cruel than ever, but Xan is forced to cooperate with him as they seek to solve the mystery of a missing precious ruby belonging to a young monk who’s about to be ordained to the priesthood. Along the way, they encounter dishonest monks, traitorous guards, and a frightening magician who lives in the woods.


nullIn The Merchant’s Curse, Xan and his companions progress through their teen years, the challenges they face—both in their faith and in their struggle to protect themselves and those they love from the very real threats they experience—have ever-higher stakes. In this story, Xan’s uncle William, who has provided him with both meaningful work and shelter, comes under threat when his business partner becomes deathly ill. His partner’s nephew, Nigel, blames the illness on a curse from a woman reputed to be a witch, but evil also seems to be lurking around William’s shop in the form of a group of thugs, and Nigel furthers the danger by befriending an enemy of the king.


Ask for Murder at Penwood Manor at your local Catholic bookseller, or order online from or the publisher, Loyola Press.

Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz

This article contains Amazon links; your purchase through these links supports the work of this website at no additional cost to you. Thank you!


On My Bookshelf: Sacred Art Every Catholic Should Know

I know almost nothing about art history, but as a visually-oriented person, I love pondering beautiful images, statues, and stained-glass windows, especially when these works of art are faith-based. Jem Sullivan, PhD’s new book, Sacred Art Every Catholic Should Know, offers 50 masterpieces of sacred art; I recognized many of them at first glance but couldn’t tell you the name of the author, time period in which the art was created, or the place or circumstances surrounding their creation. This book fills in all that background information—and then some!





When I first saw the cover of this book, the image that caught my eye was the one on the bottom left: The Virgin Adoring the Host by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1852). I see that full image frequently; it’s on the ordination card from my pastor’s priestly ordination, and those are on every bulletin board in our church. Since this book doesn’t require a start-to-finish read, but rather invites the reader to flip through and read about whatever painting strikes the eye, I turned to this one first.

As with many of the entries in Sacred Art Every Catholic Should Know, this one began with a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church explaining a theological concept behind the art (in this case, Eucharistic Adoration). You can’t see it from the capsule image shown on the book’s cover, but in the full image, the Blessed Mother is looking at a Host depicted in the lower center of the painting. The description of the image sums up Mary’s Eucharistic faith, then explains the significance of the two saints shown on either side of the Blessed Mother in the full image: Saint Helena, who is believed to have discovered the True Cross, and Saint Louis IX, a king of France and Secular Franciscan. A discussion of the Eucharist as the saving and real presence of Christ concludes the entry for this image.

Some of the other images I recognized and was eager to learn more about (and prayerfully ponder) while reading this book include:

  • Rose Window at Chartres Cathedral
  • Fra Angelico’s Annunciation
  • The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci
  • The Return of the Prodigal Son by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
  • Michelangelo’s Pietà
  • Descent of the Holy Spirit by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
  • Giotto di Bondone’s Saint Francis Preaching to the Birds
  • The Angelus by Jean-François Millet

I appreciated that for many images, the book shows capsule sections of particularly significant parts of the image, so the reader can more fully concentrate on that small piece of the image and ponder how it relates to the larger piece of art as a whole.

You don’t need to be an art scholar or a theologian to enjoy and learn from this beautiful new book.

Ask for Sacred Art Every Catholic Should Know at your local Catholic bookseller, or purchase online from or the publisher, TAN Books.


Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz

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


On MyBookshelf: A Picture Book by Susan Tassone about the Holy Souls

Whether there’s been a death in the family or your children have simply expressed curiosity about what happens to us after we die, Susan Tassone’s picture book New Friends Now and Forever: A Story about the Holy Souls will help families deal with children’s inevitable questions with sensitivity, care, theological accuracy, and an emphasis on prayer. This sweet story demonstrates the importance of praying for our deceased loved ones and souls we’ve never met, as well as prayer for our family, friends, and our own cares and concerns.



Church teaching about Purgatory is presented in a comforting way, emphasizing God’s love and our ability to help souls get to Heaven. The book starts out with a note for grown-ups detailing five important truths about Purgatory:

  • Purgatory exists.
  • Purgatory exists because God loves us.
  • Purgatory isn’t a “punishment.”
  • The souls in Purgatory suffer the loss of the sight of God.
  • Purgatory isn’t a physical fire.

The note to grown-ups also underscores the importance of prayer for the souls in Purgatory and how parents can encourage their children to pray for the Holy Souls.

In New Friends Now and Forever, a family greets Mr. Ray, an elderly man from the parish, after Mass; he tells the children that he has been praying for the soul of his deceased wife. The children decide to be the gentleman’s prayer pal and to pray for his wife’s soul as well. The family prays together at meals, bedtime, at Adoration, and when passing by a cemetery. Over and over through the book, the prayer for the Holy Souls in Purgatory is repeated. As the family continues to pray together, they eventually experience the loss of their friend Mr. Ray, and the power of that prayer is reinforced.

“Did You Know?” and Seek-and-Find pages complete this beautifully illustrated book. Artist Yorris Handoko created colorful, detailed images for this book that include families and friends in church, the Mass, and family activities as well as images that represent what Heaven might look like.




Reading New Friends Now and Forever as a family would be an excellent way to help children learn about All Souls Day, which the Church celebrates on November 2. The prayer for souls in Purgatory is right on the back cover of the book; find a way to incorporate that prayer into your family’s daily prayers during the month of November—and beyond! As you’ll learn by reading this book, there can never be too many prayers for the Holy Souls.

Ask for New Friends Now and Forever at your local Catholic bookseller, or order online from or the EWTN Religious Cataloguewhere you’ll receive a $5 discount off the purchase price.

Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Some links to books in this post are Amazon affiliate links. Your purchases made through these links support Thank you!


New Time, New Prayer Intention

Due to some schedule changes, my Adoration hour was switched beginning this week, and it has already brought me a new reminder of the importance of intercessory prayer.

As I drove toward the church this morning, I recognized the car in front of me. The driver attends the Saturday-evening vigil Mass and always sits near the board indicating the hymnal numbers for that weekend’s music. When I sing on Saturdays and take care of changing the numbers, she always greets me and asks me to pray for her niece, who is suffering terribly with stage IV cancer.

Each week when this woman sees me, she thanks me for praying. One time, she told me that on her way to work in the mornings, she stops by the church to pray in front of the statue of the Blessed Mother that faces the parking lot.




That’s what she did today after turning her car into the church driveway. So I parked my car, gathered my things, and walked toward hers. She saw me and waved. I signaled that I was heading in to Adoration and would pray, then waved and went on my way to the chapel.

When you’re going through difficult times, knowing that you’re part of a praying community is a great comfort. When you don’t have the words to pray, you can be sure that someone else is praying those words for you. When all you can do is hold on to your Rosary, there is someone whispering the Hail Marys.

It’s good—and important—to pray for others in secret. But it’s also good and imporant to let them know that you’ve got their back and are interceding for them, or offering up a day’s work and struggles for their intention. So send a text, make a call, mail a note, or signal with a wave in the church parking lot that you’re helping someone else bear their burdens.


Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Photos copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz, all rights reserved.


An Open Book: Summer 2023 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 this summer:


nullA Cross-Country Wedding (Road Trip Romance Book 2) by Courtney Walsh is a fun follow-up to A Cross-Country Christmas. I couldn’t help but be charmed by these two characters—not the couple actually getting married, but their good friends who go along on a road trip that re-creates special moments for the engaged couple, culminating in their wedding at the end of the story. “Opposites attract” is never more true than for Maddie and Simon, whose longtime deep friendship might actually be getting in the way of their romance. And the clever banter does not disappoint. I definitely recommend reading the first book in the series before you dive into this one!


nullDedicated to the One I Love by Beth Vogt has plenty of funny moments to keep you reading. Romance writer Kylie can’t find a way to keep writing after her husband died, and suspense author Tate has been told he needs to add romance to his books. Forced into accepting help from Kylie, he discovers that she’s the woman he’s connected with in an online dating app. The scene in a bookstore where Tate is reading from his recent release is not to be missed. Enjoy this clean and funny romance.


nullRoots of Wood and Stone (Sedgwick County Chronicles 1) by Amanda Wen is the story of Sloane, a museum curator who’s dedicated to helping families discover and preserve their history. Her own family story is a mystery, as she’d been abandoned at birth. When Garrett shows up at her museum with diaries he found in the family home he needs to sell to get his grandmother the nursing care she needs, Sloane is torn between her attraction to him and her desire to save the historic property from the wrecking ball—and then learns of an unexpected connection to the house. I actually read the second book in the series, The Songs That Could Have Been, before this one, and found that it was so well-done, I didn’t need to have read this one first. I’d definitely recommend both!


nullThe Brick House Cafe and The Broken Hearts Bakery by Carla Laureano are so connected, I decided to review them together. I’m not usually one for magical realism, but this is a really well-done series (with two more books to come, one of which released Monday) easily drew me in—I preordered the September release immediately. The stories take place in the fictional southern Colorado town of Haven Ridge, a community that’s in decline compared to neighboring (real) towns like Salina, now tourist destinations. There’s something about this town, though—as the old-timers are known to say, “the town” knows who it wants to move there and stay there, and will set it up so that it becomes inevitable that those people will, indeed, stay. The Brick House Cafe introduces Haven Ridge and town matriarch Granny Pearl (a terrific character) along with her grandson Thomas and travel writer Mallory, who’s recently homeless after her live-in boyfriend dumped her for another woman. In The Broken Hearts Bakery, California lawyer Gemma returns to Haven Ridge to help a friend and reconnects with her high-school crush.


I received an unexpected review copy of An American Immigrant by Johanna Rojas Vann, and discovered that I couldn’t put this novel down! Melanie is a young journalist and daughter of a woman who emigrated from Colombia in search of a better life and a way to help support the family members who remained there. When Melanie travels to Colombia seeking a splashy headline that would save her career, she discovers the journals that detail her mom’s experiences as an illegal immigrant, experiences her mother had not shared with her or her siblings. Melanie’s dilemma of whether to share her mom’s story instead of the story she’d been assigned is at the center of this beautifully written novel about family loyalty, professional ethics, and the vocation of a writer. (Review copy received from publisher)


I thorougly enjoyed reading an endorsement copy of the upcoming YA time-travel novel, Royal and Ancient by Amanda Lauer, coming October 2 from Chrism Press. This novel is an illuminating peek into an era that’s frequently neglected in world history class. In this time-travel tale, Amanda Lauer deftly drops a 21st-century girl into a 17th-century world. Teen and adult readers alike will appreciate Bronwyn’s pluck and wit as she makes her way in an unfamiliar place and time and learns what it means to be persecuted for the faith. I’d recommend this one for ages 12 and up. At this time, preorders are available only through Chrism Press. (Review copy received from publisher)


nullMaria Riley’s pairing of Saint John Bosco, who looked out for children in crisis in his native Italy, with the story of a child nervous about his upcoming first day in a new school makes Saint John Bosco: The Juggling Saint relatable to any child who fears the unknown of a new experience. Children reading this book will discover a new saintly friend. Appropriate as an independent read for second grade and up, and as a read-aloud for first grade and up. This would be a wonderful book for parents and children to enjoy together and can spark conversation about how to handle new situations. A recommended back-to-school read! This is the third book in the “Adventures with the Saints” series. (Review copy received from the author)



The Life and Lessons of St. Zélie Martin by Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur is a fascinating look at a saint I enjoyed learning more about. 150 years ago sounds like a long time, but as a working woman who owned her own business, Zélie faced many struggles we think are unique to our own era. This brief (52-page) biography, based largely on the letters of this future saint, details Zélie’s life, work, and worries, showing her spiritual struggles and growth. It’s also a compelling picture of life in 19th-century France. (Review copy received from the author)


Elizabeth Tomlin’s Joyful Momentum: Growing and Sustaining Vibrant Women’s Groups was the Catholic Mom Summer Book Club selection this year, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to reread this gem. It came out in early 2020, which was not the best time to introduce a book about how women can minister to each other through church groups. It wasn’t good timing for me, either. I was working two more-than-part-time jobs, had a senior in high school at home, and was dealing with the effects of a couple of medical emergencies members of my family had experienced the previous fall. Now, as parishes and ministries get back on their feet after the setbacks of the pandemic, this book is extremely timely. It’s packed with great advice, stories of Elizabeth’s own experiences with women’s ministries, and encouragement to women thinking of joining or beginning groups at their parish. (Review copy received from publisher)


null8 Steps to Energize Your Faith by Joe Paprocki (Loyola Press) is a simple, accessible book of hands-on advice when you want to give your spiritual life a needed boost. If you’re feeling stuck in a spiritual rut, Joe has plenty of do-able ideas that will help you break out of that frustration and transform your soul. This book is set up in a workbook format, with space at the end of almost every section for you to write a little bit as you work through the various ideas for renewing your spiritual life. Each chapter’s summary also includes several Scripture verses that support the concept discussed in that chapter. This is a good book to savor over time; I read a chapter a week during the summer and am glad I didn’t rush through the book. (Review copy received from publisher)


Links to books in this post are Amazon affiliate links. Your purchases made through these links support 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.

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!

Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz


Meet Sister Mary Margaret

It’s never too early to introduce the idea of a religious vocation to your children. And with the dwindling of religious orders and the diminished number of priests being ordained, there’s no time to lose. Books like Meet Sister Mary Margaret by Rebecca W. Martin, illustrated by Christopher Tupa, help parents who might not have much experience with religious sisters to teach their children about this beautiful way of serving God and the Church.



In this full-color 36-page hardcover picture book, young readers and their parents (or teachers) get to know Sister Mary Margaret, a religious sister who brings them on a tour of a day in her life. The story begins by explaining the three vows religious sisters take—in an age-appropriate way. Readers also learn what a convent is, and how it is both similar to and different from a family home. I loved that in the discussion of the Liturgy of the Hours, Sister Mary Margaret mentions, “You can learn to pray it, too.”

There’s a lovely section about various religious orders and their different apostolates. The book concludes with an invitation to ask God what His plan is for you when you grow up:

What do you think God wants you to be when you grow up? How does he want you to love him and other people? Keep listening to your heart and asking Jesus what great plans he has for you!

This book concludes with two prayers: one for the young reader and an additional pray for parents: “Prayer for My Child’s Vocation.” There’s also an information page for parents that explains some terms used in this book in a little more depth.

This book will be a valuable resource, especially for families who encounter religious sisters only on rare occasions. Snuggle up in your favorite reading chair with your little one and this new book!

Ask for Meet Sister Mary Margaret at your local Catholic bookseller, or order online from or the publisher, OSV Kids.




Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Photos copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz, all rights reserved.

This article contains Amazon affiliate links, which provide a small compensation to when purchases are made through the links, at no cost to you.


Back-to-School Books for the Kids (plus one for Mom and Dad)

Summer vacation may have come to an end, but that doesn’t have to mean the end of reading for pleasure. Encourage your children to keep reading by offering fun and faith-filled books for them to enjoy. Check out these newly-published books; you’re sure to find one geared toward the age of each of your children. And don’t miss the one I’ve recommended for you!

nullPicture Books

The Book That Changed Everything by Allison Regina Gliot, FSP; illustrated by Santiago María López Piuma (Pauline Kids)

This captivating picture book is the sweet story of Sofia, an eager reader who reads and learns about everything and everyone—but who always feels alone. When she discovers a Bible in a “grand old library” she feels like it’s “a friend calling out to her.” The words seem to come alive, and in a dream, she meets Jesus, who tells her that He speaks to her through that book, and that when she reads it, she’s never alone.

This book is perfect for reading aloud to children up to age 8, and young independent readers will enjoy it as well. It would also be an excellent gift for a child preparing for First Reconciliation, due to its emphasis on Jesus’ love for us and our call to follow Him.


nullIndependent Readers

Saint Joseph: The Juggling Saint by Maria Riley (independently published)

Catholic Mom contributor Maria Riley’s pairing of Saint John Bosco, who looked out for children in crisis in his native Italy, with the story of a child nervous about his upcoming first day in a new school makes this book relatable to any child who fears the unknown of a new experience. Children reading this book will discover a new saintly friend.

Appropriate as an independent read for second grade and up, and as a read-aloud for first grade and up. This would be a wonderful book for parents and children to enjoy together and can spark conversation about how to handle new situations. A recommended back-to-school read!


nullMiddle Grade

Detective Thomas and the Biggest Question by Caitlin E. Bootsma, illustrated by Evie Schwartzbauer (OSV Kids)

This chapter book for readers in third grade and up would appeal to kids who enjoy science and who are full of questions (their parents might want to skip straight to the book I’m recommending for parents in this article). Thomas is a middle-school student who likes to solve mysteries, and who is challenged by one of his peers to explain why he believes in God.

A mysterious box appears in his room one morning, and Thomas finds a note encouraging him to ask questions, observe and explore, and try to make sense of the answers he finds. I think of this book as “Encyclopedia Brown with a Catholic twist” and was impressed by the way the author weaves the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas into the story. The illustrations are fun and age-appropriate, as well. A bonus: as Thomas seeks to solve the trail of mysteries the box places in front of him, readers are asked to work through these ideas in features called “Reality Detective Lab” where they’re invited to write about their own observations.

(Releases September 18; preorder this as a fun surprise for your middle-grade reader!)


nullTeen Readers

Charting the Course by Leslea Wahl (Vinspire Publishing)

Catholic Mom contributor Leslea Wahl’s characters are fun-loving and real, and Liz, the main character in this novel, is no exception. She’s missing Christmas week with her friends back home while on a Caribbean cruise with her dad, and she’s not happy about it at all. But the combination of a cute guy her own age, some mysterious notes that appear to be a scavenger hunt, and a karaoke contest make the trip better than she’d planned—and even an opportunity to grow in faith.

Liz is not Catholic, but her friend Josie is, and Liz has attended Mass with Josie and is definitely curious about the faith. This type of character is one we don’t see often in Catholic fiction, and I think we need to see characters like this more: people who haven’t been raised in any faith, but who want to know more. By reading this book, teens can be inspired to be more open about sharing their faith with friends who don’t have Catholic backgrounds.

(This novel is a standalone, but if you haven’t read Into the Spotlight first, I recommend that you do—because you’ll want to get to know Josie and Ryan, who star in that book.)


For Mom and Dad

The Catholic Parents’ Survival Guide: Straight Answers to Your Kids’ Toughest Questions by Julianne Stanz (Loyola Press)

This new book is described by the publisher as “a practical manual for talking with children about the things that really matter.” Our kids have so many questions—it feels like they are asking questions all the time. And we want to satisfy their curiosity in an age-appropriate way, while making sure we give them the right information. This book encourages parents as they strive to meet that challenge. Right off the bat, Julianne (a mom of three) reminds parents that it’s OK if they admit they don’t know an answer, but that they should do their best to get that answer and share it with their child as soon as they can. The introduction and first chapter (“Parents as Arch-Influencers”) discuss how we connect with our children and the ways we witness to our faith by what we teach them and through our example.

The remaining chapters in the book deal with topics such as God, Mary, the saints, going to Mass, prayer, Heaven, morality, sin, and science. Each chapter contains frequently-asked questions from children; these questions are labeled with the age of the child asking, and answers are geared toward that child’s age. You’ll even find some questions asked by parents! And don’t skip the bonus content at the end of the book (this content alone is worth the purchase price of this book): information on celebrating the angels, Mary, and the saints, as well as the major seasons of the liturgical year, with your family.


Ask for these selections at your local Catholic bookseller, or order online from or the publishers (both linked above).





Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Images: Canva

Links to books in this post are Amazon affiliate links. Your purchases made through these links support Thank you!
With the exception of Charting the Course, which I purchased, I received copies of these books for my honest review, with no other compensation.


Adrift: The Molly Chase Series Continues

The Molly Chase series by Rhonda Ortiz, set in post-Revolutionary War Boston (with some side trips to Philadelphia) is a delicious read. Grab a seat in your favorite chair, pour a cup of coffee (Molly’s favorite) or tea (but please, no oolong!) and dive in to this excellent series from Chrism Press. The second book in the series releases tomorrow, August 8.




Picking up right where the first book in the series leaves off, Adrift chronicles Molly and Josiah’s complicated search for a church for their wedding, Josiah’s venture into work on land, and some fascinating surprises in the lives of their friends. Some of the secondary characters in this book deserve their own novels! The espionage that figured into the plot of In Pieces is a major plot point, with two characters traveling to Philadelphia—as the yellow fever pandemic begins. A good deal of the novel’s action takes place in Philadelphia and centers on the lives, work, and social standing of biracial characters.

Rhonda knows how to tell a story, that’s for sure. I didn’t want to put this book down (and it was no different when I read the first book)! In this series, tough topics are discussed, but there’s plenty of friendly banter (so much banter—my favorite part!), nail-biting suspense, and painstakingly-researched historical detail to keep these novels from feeling too weighty. I know I’ll be rereading this book, sooner rather than later. And I’ll probably do so again when it’s time for the third book to come out (I’m trying to be patient and not hassle Rhonda, who has six young children, to hurry up with that—she probably never sleeps as it is).

From my full review of In Pieces, Book 1 of the Molly Chase series: Readers will cheer for the strong female characters and the smitten, determined hero who battle rigid social expectations and a villain you’ll love to hate. An “oh, no, he didn’t!” King David-style conflict, a Custom-House mystery, some PTSD, and even a little espionage make In Pieces a novel you won’t be able to put down. I think I’ve read it four times already.

I’ve linked to the books on Amazon, and using those links helps me, but you should know that if you purchase either or both of these books through the publisher, Chrism Press, you can get a sweet deal! That’s because they’re parternering up with for a book club based on In Pieces, the first book in this series (which you should definitely read before starting Adrift). Click the Catholic Mom link above for the coupon code, and while you’re at it, sign up for the book club emails. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, you won’t want to miss this chance to meet the author!

Chrism Press offers both ebooks and paperback versions of these novels, and it’s super simple to buy ebooks this way, direct from the publisher. As soon as you complete your purchase of any ebook from Chrism Press (or any Whitefire Publishing imprint), you’ll have the opportunity to download it immediately. Pro tip: ebook preorders often are available to purchasers before the release date! Download your ePUB file, and then send it to your e-reader of choice.



Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Photos copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Amazon links included; your purchase through these links support Thank you!
I received a free review copy of Adrift, but I’ve already purchased 3 autographed hard copies (one of those is MINE).


An Open Book: July 2023

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:


nullBeyond Betrayal by Bette Lee Crosby. Widowed suddenly, Susan is devastated to learn that her husband has been unfaithful to her and that his mistress is expecting his child. She copes with her anger by turning to alcohol and makes life-changing decisions on a whim. But as is the case in so many of Bette Lee Crosby’s novel, it’s good friends who are able to help Susan turn things around. It’s easy to relate to the characters in this book—Susan as well as the various friends who help her, from her neighbor Jamie who shows up with casseroles, to Blanche who brings the tough love and convinces Susan to go out of her comfort zone, to Nina, a four-time widow who’s not afraid to risk her heart for husband number five. Despite the difficult situation at the beginning of the novel, it was a joy to read about the different ways these women used their gifts to minister to their friend.


nullI Think He Knows: A Romantic Comedy (Donovan Family Book 2) by Katie Bailey. This author’s books are described as “closed-door romantic comedies,” which I think is accurate. In this story, single mom Lana Mae agrees to a fake social-media engagement with Carter, her BFF who’s also her secret crush—and who just happens to be one of the hottest of the hot Hollywood actors. Her daughter, Allegra, is a scene stealer in all the best ways. There’s great chemistry between the characters, plus plenty of banter and inside jokes, and even a bunch of Gilmore Girls references. A fun, light read, with the expected “happily ever after.”


nullThe Happy Life of Isadora Bentley by Courtney Walsh. A university researcher who makes keeping to herself a way of life (jeopardizing her professional advancement along the way) decides, on her 30th birthday, that she’ll poke holes in the theories she finds in a magazine article that details ways to be happy. Her goal is to prove that doing all the things listed in that article will not make her (or anyone else) any happier.

It’s easy to see that this research project won’t turn out the way Isadora expects it to, but that’s because of the very unexpected people she encounters as a result of her research.  This novel was a great read with characters it’s easy to connect with.


nullWedding at Sea (Muir Harbor book 3) by Melissa Tagg. Wilder has spent the 5 years since his father died trying to solve the mystery of how Lilian, as a toddler, appeared on Maggie’s front porch. Lilian, now an adult, has never gotten along with Wilder, but Maggie asks them to work together to plan her wedding … and in the process, the two have to confront the truth of a secret Lilian has been keeping, as well as the demons Wilder faces. In addition, someone’s been lurking around Lilian’s office and Wilder’s houseboat, and their guess is that not only is he seeking to solve the same mystery, but he’s not above putting them in danger to do so.

I’m a little sad to see this series end, because there were some side characters in this book who would have interesting stories, too. This is the final book in the series, and I definitely recommend reading them in order. (Netgalley)


nullThrough Thorny Ways (Wisteria House book 1)  by Jennifer Q. Hunt. A brother and sister with a challenging past move into the dilapidated family home they’ve inherited, just after World War I ends. Arilee is raising her brother’s children because his wife has been committed to an asylum; their other brother died in the war. An old acquaintance is hired to renovate the home and given a place to live on the property, and his startling discovery threatens to bring (more) scandal to the family. There was an interesting subplot involving a character with juvenile diabetes and the discovery of insulin, without which the disease is a death sentence.

I enjoyed this story of new beginnings and healing of old wounds, and will look for more by this author.


nullAll’s Fair in Love and Christmas by Sarah Monzon. A hilarious story that would easily make a terrific movie (I’d watch!). Mackenzie works in an office where, each year, a promotion is tied to a competition over who has the most Christmas spirit. This year, her boss pits Mackenzie against Jeremy, who’s determined to win because he’s raising his twin niece and nephew, and needs the money for their education. Mackenzie has a secret crush on Jeremy but thinks he doesn’t know she’s alive—and now she’s battling for career advancement by dragging in Christmas trees and one-upping him after disasters involving baked goods. A fun read. (Netgalley; releases September 5, 2023)



Charting the Course by Leslea Wahl. This novel, set during Christmas vacation, makes a fun summer read. Leslea Wahl’s characters are fun-loving and real, and Liz, the main character in this novel, is no exception. She’s missing Christmas week with her friends back home while on a Caribbean cruise with her dad, and she’s not happy about it at all. But the combination of a cute guy her own age, some mysterious notes that appear to be a scavenger hunt, and a karaoke contest make the trip better than she’d planned–and even an opportunity to grow in faith.

(Contains spoilers from Into the Spotlight. This novel is a standalone, but if you haven’t read Into the Spotlight first, I recommend that you do—because you’ll want to get to know Josie and Ryan, who star in that book.)


nullThe Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart. This is a beautiful story I’d recommend to adults and teens alike. It’s listed for ages 9 to 12, and I thought that was a little young given the subject matter: Coyote and her father, Rodeo, live in a school bus that’s converted into an RV of sorts, and criss-cross the nation, with one exception: they never return to the home town (or even the state) they left 5 years ago when Coyote’s mom and two sisters died.

Everything seems fine until Coyote learns that the park where she and her sisters had buried a time capsule is being bulldozed—so she tries to find a way to trick her dad into driving thousands of miles to get to the park in time to retrieve the last memories she has of her family. Along the way, they pick up an interesting band of passengers, including a musician, a mother and son fleeing an abusive relationship, a young girl whose parents kicked her out because she’s gay, and Gladys … a goat. The story was lovely, but very sad, as Coyote has had to grow up way before any kid should, since her dad is emotionally incapable of dealing with his grief. Would I give it to a fourth-grader? No. I’d say middle school and up is a better age range for this story.



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

Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz