On my bookshelf with shelf of Catholic fiction

#OpenBook: May 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:

nullDusk Shall Weep by Kelsey Gietl (Larksong Legacy, book 2). This novel centers on Coraline Shea, a recent widow who faces an even more difficult life than she already has, due to the degenerative eye disease that’s robbing her of her vision. Coraline hatches a plan to trap Jamison Lark into marriage, but doesn’t count on the discovery of a special ability she seems to possess: one that could put the entire settlement of Larksong in danger. You definitely should read the first in the series before this one. It’s not a standalone (which is not a slam on the novel in any way, more of a PSA for readers).


In Pieces by Rhonda OrtizIn Pieces by Rhonda Ortiz (reread). Read my full review of this novel, and then go get yourself a copy—Rhonda has a sequel coming out in mid-August, and you need to read this novel before you read the next book. 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.


Adrift by Rhonda Ortiz (cover coming soon!). Picking up right where In Pieces 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. (Advance review copy provided by the publisher; book releases August 15. But I will definitely order a copy for myself.)


nullThe Best Summer of Our Lives by Rachel Hauck is an enjoyable clean romance centering on four friends, all strong personalities, and the summer after they graduated from high school in 1977. There’s a split-time component that looks at their lives 20 years later, and how the events of that fateful summer shaped the women they became. As the summer progresses, secrets are revealed that change the relationship between these lifelong best friends, and readers get a good sense of the emotions each young woman experiences as she keeps and then reveals her own secrets while dealing with the revelations of the secrets her friends have kept. Terrific friendship story! A fun touch: each chapter title is the title or central lyric of a song from the era, which made for a great playlist. (Advance review copy provided by the publisher. This book releases June 27 and is available for preorder.)


nullNow That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins. Nora’s boyfriend, an ER doctor, seems to only be interested in her when she’s in need of help. But she discovers he’s been cheating right after she was hit by a delivery truck … so she returns to recuperate at her childhood home on a remote Maine island, a place she left right after high school without looking back. Going home is complicated, and so is facing the small-town drama she ran away from years ago. I couldn’t put this book down—the characters were fascinating.


nullThe Banned Bookshop of Maggie Banks by Shauna Robinson. Maggie arrives in a town that’s built on the reputation of its most famous former resident, ready to fill in at the bookstore for her friend during a maternity leave. But she discovers that the restrictions on what the store can sell are endangering its future, so she finds a creative way to stock books the local readers want—and to host events that bring customers into the store. Her eventual success leads to the possible closure of many businesses in town and the loss of her friend’s livelihood. Maggie is a wonderful character, and this was a charming read.


nullThe Sweet Life by Suzanne Woods Fisher (Cape Cod Creamery Book 1). Dawn’s fiancé dumps her shortly before the wedding but insists she go to Cape Cod with a friend for the (nonrefundable) honeymoon trip. She brings along her recently widowed mom, who’s creative but flighty, and who buys a fire-damaged ice-cream shop in the historical district on a whim, then depends on Dawn to handle all the logistics. There’s a romance for one character—one I didn’t see coming—and a hint at something for another character in the next book. I enjoyed the small-town setting and the interesting side characters.


nullMercy’s Power: Inspiration to Serve the Gospel of Life by Maria V. Gallagher. Discover your path to living the Gospel of Life. In Mercy’s Power, Maria Gallagher offers a prayer-fueled new perspective on advocacy for life from conception until natural death. A must-read for pro-life advocates, from the mother sharing ultrasound pictures with her older children to the Rosary-praying witness outside abortion clinics and the neighbor who runs errands and shares tea with the senior citizen down the block. Learn how everyone’s advocacy is essential to the culture of life. I had the honor of being asked to endorse this book, and I plan to recommend it widely.


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 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz

On my bookshelf with shelf of Catholic fiction

An Open Book: May 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:


Windswept Way by Irene Hannon (Hope Harbor #9). Ashley decides to start over by purchasing a possibly haunted house with the intent of opening a special-event venue. The mysterious former owner, who lives on the property, and the equally mysterious and battle-scarred neighbor and landscape designer bring unexpected friendship and possible romance into her life. Eventually Irene Hannon will get tired of writing the Hope Harbor stories, and when that happens, I will miss them. I enjoy the recurring characters, which include main characters from previous novels in the series, the minister and priest who enjoy a friendly rivalry involving Bibles and donuts, Charley the artist/taco truck driver with more than his share of insight, and the seagulls Floyd and Gladys. (And it’s fun to speculate about who will figure in the next book, since there’s usually a hint or two.) One thing that has disappointed me, and maybe it’s a requirement of her publisher or something, but there are never any Catholic characters in the series except the priest. Jonathan, in this book, is estranged from religion until he has an eye-opening conversation with the Catholic priest—yet when he returns to church, it’s at the Christian church, not the Catholic one.


Save What’s Left by Elizabeth Castellano. A funny novel about a midlife divorcée who buys a beach house—which is being overshadowed by over-the-top new construction next door. Part of the story is told in emails to community leaders. It’s over-the-top and overly long; it felt like it was much longer than 304 pages and could have done with a good edit. But it would make a great beach read for the summer, especially if your beach umbrella is in the shadow of an enormous, ugly new AirBnB that ruins everyone’s view. This was a “Kindle First Reads” that I got for free as an Amazon Prime member. (Available June 27.)


Love Songs Suck by Becky Monson. I loved that each chapter of this book had a song title—I knew almost every song, and they all went well with the action of that chapter. Louella met Finn, a boy-band singer at a Nashville concert and felt an immediate connection, but she had a boyfriend. The singer recorded a hit single based on their meeting, and when it accidentally came out that she was the inspiration of the song, she’s swarmed by papparazzi, to the dismay of her extremely secretive now-fiancé. Kurt does not support her as she deals with instant seclusion, but instead she’s rescued by Finn. You can probably tell where this is going, but despite that predictable plot, this clean romance is an excellent, fun read.


Who Am I to Judge? by Emily Hanlon. This new cozy mystery from Chrism Press features a couple of Church Ladies in a hilarious personality clash, trying to clear the names of two of their favorite parish priests in the murder of a fellow parishioner. This story is populated by a cast of very quirky characters, almost over the top, and that’s all part of the fun. The mystery kept me guessing, and the characters’ foibles and fumbles kept me reading. And let me give you a little hint about Chrism Press: when you preorder the ebook directly from the publisher, you get it earlier than you would if you buy it on Amazon, but the price is the same! I love supporting a small publisher in this way.


A Girl Called Samson by Amy Harmon. Deborah, who had been bound out as an indentured servant since the age of 10, comes of age during the American Revolution and decides to pursue her dream of serving her country as a soldier. The only way to do this is to disguise herself as a man. I almost didn’t read this because I was afraid it would be an agenda-driven gender-bending kind of novel and I don’t have time for that, but I’m glad I put those preconceived notions aside: the book was not at all what I expected. Deborah was clearly playing a role, putting on a costume so she could do something that society wouldn’t permit otherwise. More than anything, I was impressed by her character’s emotional journey throughout the course of the story.


Cara by Maddie Evans (Always a Bridesmaid, book 4). Maddie Evans is particularly talented at writing dialogue that feels real, reveals the characters, and explores what makes a healthy relationship. In Cara, you’ll find a young woman relishing her hard-won independence, the man who tried to mold her in his image, a few side characters who deserve stories of their own, and a villain—a type of character who doesn’t always get as much space on the page in Evans’ stories, but who provides plenty of entertainment in this one.


The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery by Amanda Cox. A split-time story centered on a tiny local grocery store that’s been in a family for generations. 60 years ago, pregnant and unmarried Glory Ann was forced into a marriage of convenience with the store owner (not the baby’s father). In the present day, her newly widowed granddaughter Sarah decides to rebuild her life by returning to her hometown and joining the family business, only to find that her mother was in the process of closing and selling the store. All three generations of women in the family have kept secrets, and all three have wounds that only the truth can heal.


A Novel Proposal by Denise Hunter. Writer Sadie leaves New York for the summer, headed for the Carolina coast where she’s tasked with writing a book in a new-to-her genre to cover an advance on a previous book contract that didn’t sell. But she has no inspiration to write romance, so she decides to feature her handsome neighbor in the novel’s plot, as the two of them seek to find the rightful owner of a beautiful engagement ring Sadie found inside a book. Yes, this clean romance is packed with so many clichés, but it’s definitely a fun summer read.


Give Me a Sign by Anna Sortino. Terrific story, well told. I didn’t want to stop reading! I appreciate that it was a clean romance (kissing only) and that there was minimal swearing. The author did a good job showing where dialogue was signed rather than spoken—this is a challenging thing to do in written work and I thought her solution was clever. The story was a good exploration of both the challenges that people who are Deaf or have hearing loss face in the world in general and with each other, and the various ways they can choose to communicate, without being heavy-handed. I was inspired to think more about how I respond to people with hearing loss, and how I can do better. I’ll look for more by this author. (Netgalley review; book will be available in July 2023)


nullJersey Girls Don’t Rule by Lisa Hess. I’m a big fan of Lisa’s fiction for adults, and I was sure she’d do just as well with a middle-grade/YA story. This one, featuring a 12-year-old main character, didn’t disappoint. Keesha’s dad is remarrying a woman with two younger daughters, and Keesha feels caught in the middle: she’s living with her dad and resents that his new wife and children are getting what she and her mother never did. Lisa excels at portraying characters with big feelings as they learn to express them. What I’m not a fan of is the Kindle Vello platform, where this story is available. It’s designed so you’ll read on your phone (which I don’t prefer) and you buy the story chapter by chapter.


Tilly in Technicolor by Mazey Eddings. A young adult with ADHD embarrasses herself in front of a cute guy on a transatlantic flight, only to learn she’ll be working closely with him all summer long and that he’s autistic. I’ve seen books with one neurodiverse main character before, but this is the first one I’ve come across with two, who fall in love with each other. Bundled beautifully into the story line is good advice about being aware of others’ needs and open to discussing your own. Heads up: also features homosexual relationships, premarital sexual relationships, and some crude language.(Coming in August 2023; Netgalley review.)


Caring for a Loved One with Mary: A Seven Sorrows Prayer Companion by Theresa Kiser. A beautiful book that I’m still praying my way through (it’s meant to be savored slowly). It’s rare that I’ll recommend a book I haven’t yet finished yet, never mind purchase a copy to give to someone else, but that’s exactly what I did with this prayer book by Theresa Kiser (new from Our Sunday Visitor). Read my full review. 


Holy Habits from the Sacred Heart: Ten Ways to Build Stronger, More Loving Relationships by Emily Jaminet. This is a down-to-earth, concrete book that shows you 10 habits you can develop that will bring you closer to Jesus. Emily Jaminet once again has found a way to share her love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with today’s reader. This book from Ave Maria Press is packed with do-able advice for building spiritual muscle while you build up your relationships. I like the reflection questions at the end of each chapter, which you can use for journaling or for group discussion. (Netgalley review)


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 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz


The Seven Sorrows: A Rosary for Caregivers

Theresa Kiser’s new book, Caring for a Loved One with Mary: A Seven Sorrows Prayer Companion, was written by a mother whose child faced a complex medical diagnosis. But we all face times when we’re cast into the role of caregiver, and who better than Mary to run to with our concerns?

More than a decade ago, I first ran to the Rosary when someone in my immediate family faced a health crisis. At that time, I didn’t know all the Mysteries, but keeping that knotted-twine rosary in my pocket was a comfort, a reminder that Mary is a mother to us all, a caring mother who understands what it’s like when our loved ones suffer.

In the fall, when we once again faced news of a difficult diagnosis, I decided I wanted to specifically pray the Seven Sorrows devotion. I ordered a Seven Sorrows chaplet from the Mary Devotions shop on Etsy; Barbara made one specifically for me. It’s a little too large to keep in my pocket, but when I hold these beads, they’re solid in my hands, and have a lot of facets for my fiddling, anxious fingers.

I found that this book, Caring for a Loved One with Mary, has helped me to go deeper with the Seven Sorrows devotion. I’ve been going through it slowly, a chapter at a time, really concentrating on each particular Sorrow. The meditations on the Sorrows, and each prayer, are truly written for the caregiver:

Her sorrows remind me that my own sufferings are part of God’s loving plan. When I try (unsuccessfully, I might add) to avoid the difficulties of my circumstances, I may be closing myself off to the grace he generously offers within them. When I struggle to find the strength, I am comforted to know—at the very least—that Mary walked this road before me. There is no reason why she would abandon me when she knows so deeply how my heart aches. (32)


So many prayer books about suffering focus on the person who is enduring a particular trial. This book is for the ones who love them; they are suffering too, in their own way, just as Mary suffered along with her Son. It is a comfort to read and pray along with Caring for a Loved One with MaryI’ve already purchased an extra copy to give to a friend who is in the thick of an intensive caregiving season.

At the end of this book, you will find tips for starting a support group; questions for reflection, discussion, or journaling; and a way to quickly pray the Seven Sorrows Devotion, as well as St. Alphonsus Liguori’s “Little Rosary of the Seven Sorrows of Mary.”

Ask for Caring for a Loved One with Mary at your local Catholic bookseller, or order online from Amazon.com or the publisher, Our Sunday Visitor.




Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Photos copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz

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


An Open Book: April 2023

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


nullYesterday’s Tides by Roseanna M. White. A World War II novel set in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, with a little touch of espionage—plus a split-time plot that takes place in England during the Great War. There’s an offshore U-boat, a mysterious intruder, an injured English guest at a family inn who’s supposed to be tracking a German spy, and a beautiful young innkeeper who clearly has secrets of her own to hide. So good! I loved that characters from some of White’s other novels make brief appearances here; that was a fun little touch.


nullThe Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz. I think I saw this reviewed in a newspaper; it’s definitely not my usual genre, but the premise grabbed me: a writing professor learns that a promising but annoying student has died, and after no posthumous publications are made, uses a writing sample from that student’s college days as the basis for his own bestselling novel. Then he begins receiving anonymous messages: “You are a thief.” The suspense was incredible, and I kept changing my mind about who the mysterious note-sender could be. Warning: language, and some rather nasty (unnecessary) digs at Christianity, the pro-life movement, and crisis pregnancy centers.


Code Name Edelweiss by Stephanie Landsem. In this suspense-packed novel based on a true story, a group of amateur spies works to take down the Nazis who are infiltrating Hollywood during the 1930s. Leisl Weiss, a single mother supporting two children, her ne’er-do-well brother and stubborn mother, was fired without cause by the Jewish studio owners. She is recruited to work as a spy to help undermine the Nazis by infiltrating one of their organizations, at the cost of her longtime friendship with a Jewish neighbor. Interestingly, some of the spies who worked together were unknown even to each other. Highly recommended!


nullFinding Home by Irene Hannon. A sweet story of a romance between a construction supervisor and a single mom whose middle-school son has ventured onto the construction site too often for the supervisor’s liking. Both Scott and Cindy face professional challenges, and Scott has an elderly, ailing grandmother on his mind as well. Lovely setting and interesting characters. This book is the second in a series, but I haven’t yet read the first one (I will, though) and there was no problem jumping right in.


nullMemory Lane by Becky Wade. One trauma survivor helps another when reclusive artist Remy spots an apparent shipwreck victim in the sea outside her home on a remote Maine island. After she rescues him, she discovers that her mysterious guest (who acts like an aristocrat) can’t remember anything, including his name. Finding out his true identity, and how he came to be on a life raft in the Atlantic, puts the two on a dangerous path.


nullMy Phony Valentine by Courtney Walsh. This book was worth it just for the opening scene, in which Poppy sees an old nemesis in a coffee shop and pretends to be in a romantic relationship with the handsome, athletic man behind her in line—and he goes along with it. Poppy is trying to save her ego and her failing restaurant, and Dallas is a hockey pro whose public reputation does not at all reflect the real man. The banter between these two characters was terrific.


(From the “judging a book by its cover” department: what do you think of these illustrated covers on sweet romances? Normally I read them on Kindle anyway, so I don’t really see them as I go, but I’m not sure I like the whole faceless-character vibe that seems to be in cover-art fashion right now. The comments are open, so go ahead and weigh in!)



nullThe Mitchells: Five for Victory by Hilda van Stockum. After The Plot, I needed a literary palate cleanser, and Catholic Mom writer Katie Fitzgerald recommended this one in an article I was editing. I’m not above picking up a children’s book when I need a reading break after something very intense. This is a really sweet story—just right for independent readers who are on the younger side of middle grade, or perfect for a family or classroom read-aloud. Like Katie, I loved that the mom in the story isn’t shown as the perfect stay-at-home wartime mom with dresses and pearls and everything going right without a hitch; she’s overwhelmed by her circumstances but digs deep to be resilient and resourceful. And Joan, the older daughter, is both responsible and vulnerable—very much like her mother.



nullFrom Prodigal to Priest: A Journey Home to Family, Faith, and the Father’s Embrace by Fr. Goyo Hidalgo (Ave Maria Press). A touching story of a man’s path away from the Church, and then back into it after a moment of awakening while watching the funeral of Pope John Paul II on TV. Throughout the book, you’ll see how Fr. Goyo’s mother’s love and prayers were the key to his journey. This memoir is both a quick read and a book I wanted to linger over. I read the whole thing on a cross-country flight, but have found myself going back to it, mostly to savor the “Prayers of a Prodigal” that end each chapter. Many of those would make beautiful songs, which makes sense, since Fr. Goyo is a singer-songwriter in addition to serving as a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and a social media evangelist (follow @frgoyo). Review copy received from publisher.


nullGlorifying Christ: The Life of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I. by Michael Heinlein (OSV). I’m not done reading this biography yet, but it’s a fascinating story of a cardinal who lived and served during my lifetime (Cardinal George passed away in 2015). Stricken with polio during eighth grade, Francis George almost saw his dream of becoming a priest melt away when the Archdiocese of Chicago rejected his application to the seminary because of his physical disabilities. Yet George’s resilience and his academic abilities helped him to successfully pursue ordination with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate just as Vatican II began. This biography recounts the challenges George faced as a cleric in the post-Vatican II era and his eventual return to Chicago as its archbishop. This book is both a biography of an interesting priest of our era and a portrait of the Church during this time. Review copy received from publisher.



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.

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 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Image copyright Barb Szyszkiewicz, all rights reserved.


Catholic Picture Books for the Easter Basket

Chocolate bunnies, marshmallow Peeps, and jelly beans are all great things to put into your child’s Easter basket. But you can fit a new picture book or two behind the candy—and it’s a treat your child will enjoy long after the sweets are gone.

We’ll look at them alphabetically by title, just to keep things fair and square. I certainly can’t choose a favorite!

nullArthur the Clumsy Altar Server

Theresa Kiser’s storybook about an aspiring altar server who’s eager—but quite the klutz—is a sweet tale of perseverance and a little boy’s desire to do something for God. Mike Schwalm nailed it with the illustrations: my favorite one depicts Arthur sneezing incense into the face of another server.  Arthur’s hard work and enthusiastic spirit are noticed by a kind priest who emphasizes what’s most important about being an altar server.

Bonus content at the end of the book shows the vestments worn by priests and altar servers. Available from Amazon or OSV Kids.


nullFaustina: A Saint’s Story for Children

There’s no better season than the Easter season to introduce children to the saint who brought the Divine Mercy devotion to the world. Kaitlyn C. Mason’s rhyming book about St. Faustina Kowalska tells the story of the little girl who grew up to be a saint. Braelyn Snow’s detailed illustrations complement every page.

After the story, you’ll find instructions on praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet as well as family discussion questions and a pledge to trust in God. This book is designed as a read-aloud for children in primary school; it’s probably too complex for preschoolers. Available from Amazon or TAN Books.


nullI Am Earth’s Keeper

Lisa Hendey’s first rhyming book opens with a small child’s early-morning kayak ride that leads him to marvel at the natural world around him and want to protect it. It’s inspired by St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures, and the cadence of the story will draw readers (and listeners) young and old into the beautiful natural world where it takes place.

The tones and vibe of the illustrations by Guiliano Ferri remind me very much of a favorite picture book from my own childhood. Get a copy to enjoy with your favorite young readers, and teach them that we care for Creation because it was created by God! This book is appropriate for toddlers on up. Available from Amazon or Paraclete Press.



nullIn This Catholic Church

This book by Maura Roan McKeegan reminded me of one of my favorite nursery rhymes, “This Is the House that Jack Built.” Each page builds upon the one before, as the reader is invited into the church and looks around at the people and objects inside. The story culminates as the congregation gathers and the priest offers Mass.

The simple, engaging illustrations by Ted Schluenderfritz shine light on each element in turn, until we see the whole church focused on the Mass being offered beneath the crucifix that hangs above the altar. Toddlers and preschoolers will love this picture book. Available from Amazon or OSV Kids.


nullJesus and the Miracle of the Mass

Gracie Jagla’s rhyming book about the Mass emphasizes the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The story is narrated by Jesus, who wants the children at Mass to know that in the Eucharist, He truly comes to us, and invites the children to pray to Him just as they would talk with their best friend.

The story follows along through the different parts of Mass and reminds children that the whole Communion of Saints prays along with them at every Mass. The illustrations (paintings, really!) by Randy Friemel add to the story, with a modern style that’s energetic but not off-putting. An excellent book for children making their First Communion this spring. Available from Amazon or OSV Kids.


Jesus in Space: A True Story That’s Out of This World

Cecilia Cicone’s new picture book tells a story I never knew: some faith-filled astronauts carried the Eucharist along on a space-shuttle mission in 1994. The story centers on Dr. Tom Jones and all the preparation he went through in order to be ready to go into space. He spent two years getting ready for this mission, but always made sure to attend Mass with his family and to find time for Eucharistic Adoration.

The Endeavor crew carried a pyx containing the Eucharist into space with them, and spent time in prayer, thanking God for making the mission possible before receiving the Eucharist. The end of the book includes a note from astronaut Tom Jones, encouraging readers to keep Jesus with them wherever they go. In addition to Gabhor Utomo’s colorful illustrations, the book includes three full pages of photos of the astronauts and their mission. This book would be a perfect gift for a First Communicant. Available from Amazon or Pauline Books & Media.


women doctors of the churchThe Women Doctors of the Church

More than a children’s biography of four fascinating women of the Church, this picture book by Colleen Pressprich is an encouragement. “God is not looking for saints who are exactly alike. He doesn’t need another Hildegarde, Catherine, Teresa, or Thérèse. He needs you.” Readers will learn what it means to be a Doctor of the Church, and how these four holy women each served God in her own special way.

The illustrations by Adalee Hude are beautiful and not childish; they are lavish in color and eye-catching. This book is for independent readers and makes a great read-aloud. Available from Amazon or OSV Kids.


Ask for these books at your local Catholic bookseller, or order online from Amazon.com or the publishers.



Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Images: Stencil
This article contains Amazon affiliate links, which provide a small compensation to the website owner when purchases are made through the links, at no cost to you.

On my bookshelf with shelf of Catholic fiction

Three Faith-filled Reads from Ave Maria Press

Feed your soul with these new books from Ave Maria PressOnly one of them is specifically designed for use during Lent, but if you’re looking for a spiritual book or journal to use throughout the season of Lent, you can’t miss with any of these options.

Return: A Guided Lent Journal for Prayer and Meditation by Fr. John Burns, illustrated by Josiah Henley

Return is a Lenten journal that offers daily reflections and journaling space, along with beautiful art that’s a meditation in itself. This book offers a lovely way to commit to a daily prayer practice during the Lenten season.

Return covers a lot of spiritual ground during the six weeks of Lent: the first two weeks focus on reflecting on the past year and refocusing on God. The next two weeks feature meditations on fasting and lamentation and holding nothing back from God. The fifth week is a challenge to explore spiritual wounds that separate us from Christ, and the sixth week (Holy Week) focuses on the healing power of the Eucharist.

Each day’s entry begins with an excerpt from the Collect (the opening prayer from Mass) for the day. Citations for the daily readings follow; you can view these online at Bible.USCCB.org or look them up in your own Bible. Next is a meditation (about one page in length), a few reflection questions with journal space, and a brief closing prayer.

Free weekly videos will be shared each Sunday at AveMariaPress.com; here on CatholicMom.com, the videos will be shared at 10 AM Eastern on Sundays. In each video, author Fr. John Burns offers a reflection on the weekly theme.


Arise to Blessedness: A Journal Retreat with Eight Modern Saints Who Lived the Beatitudes by Jen Norton

Jen Norton’s art is always inspiring, and I was happy to see that her newest journal retreat book features saints. And not just any saints: the saints in this book lived during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jen Norton has chosen the saints in Arise to Blessedness by the particular ways they lived out the Beatitudes.

Jen Norton chose as our inspiration Saints André Bessette, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Maximilian Kolbe, Mark Ji Tianxiang, Maria Goretti, Charbel Makhlouf, Oscar Romero, and José Luís Sánchez del Río. Each chapter includes a full-page lettered illustration of one Beatitude; a brief Scripture reading; an image of the saint and brief introduction; a guided prayer moment using sacred art; a journal challenge, small step (action item), and plenty of blank space at the end of the chapter to write or even draw.

Arise to Blessedness contains eight chapters; you can work through the book at your own pace (daily, weekly, or at whatever intervals you choose). You can even stretch out the chapters and work through one small section of them each day. The beautiful cover art will invite you to pick this book up, and once you open it, you won’t want to put it back down!

When the Beatitudes were read at Sunday Mass at the end of January, our priest observed that it is not at all easy to live these teachings. Even the dedication of Arise to Blessedness underscores that point:

This book is dedicated to all the brave souls who serve their neighbor without regard for honor and who love the unlovable because they see Christ in everyone.


The Seeker’s Catechism by Michael Pennock

Of these three books, I’m probably most excited about this book about the Catechism. When I received The Seeker’s Catechism, I thought the author’s name looked familiar, so I immediately flipped to the author bio in the back (normally this is not the first part of a book I view). Sure enough: Michael Pennock wrote several of the religion textbooks all three of my children used in the Catholic high school they attended.

A good teacher has a particular gift of explaining difficult concepts in simple ways without diluting the truth behind the lesson. The Seeker’s Catechism is an updated edition of a book that lays out the basics of Catholicism without overcomplication—and without insulting the intelligence of the reader.

If you would like to learn more about what the Catholic Church believes and teaches, but tackling the full Catechism of the Catholic Church isn’t do-able for you in this season of life, The Seeker’s Catechism introduces the truths of the faith in bite-sized, approachable sections. This is also an excellent reference for parents whose children have questions about what we believe, and can be read by students in middle school and up.


Ask for these books at your local Catholic bookseller, or order online from Amazon.com or the publisher, AveMariaPress.com.


Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This article contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase supports my work at no additional cost to you.

On my bookshelf with shelf of Catholic fiction

On My Bookshelf: Ashes, Visible and Invisible

The Catholic Teen Books authors, many of whom I have the pleasure to call my friends, have put together their fourth short-story collection. Ashes: Visible and Invisible releases January 31, 2023 on the feast of St. John Bosco, the patron saint of teenagers.




Ashes contains ten short stories by Theresa Linden, Marie Keiser, Cynthia Toney, Ellen Gable, Antony Kolenc, Amanda Lauer, Carolyn Astfalk, Leslea Wahl, T.M. Gaouette, and Corinna Turner. All of them have some connection to Lent, and each story stands on its own. You can enjoy these stories in any order.

Ashes, like all the CTB story collections, is packed with well-written stories that are faithfully Catholic. The stories feature teenagers growing in faith and virtue—teenagers facing true-to-life situations, teenagers dealing with moral dilemmas, teenagers seeking to know the right thing to do. Settings for the stories vary from the time of Jesus to the Middle Ages to modern times and a dystopian future. There’s something for every reader, and you might even enjoy exploring a new-to-you genre.

One of my favorite things about the CTB story collections is that many of the stories are connected to these authors’ larger-format work. The characters you meet in these collections might be minor characters from a novel, or a story might include a bonus scene that picks up where a novel leaves off. These stories are a great way to get to know a particular author’s work, and after each story you’ll find a note from the author explaining where you can read more about that character.




Take a peek into the stories you’ll read in Ashes:

  • When Liz’s faith journey hits a roadblock, will an unexpected detour and chance encounter set her back on track?
  • A teen’s future was all set—before his tragic loss. But his friend’s secret past just might save it.
  • Justin’s religion is outlawed. When an unbeliever asks him about the meaning of life, what can he say?
  • Could God be asking Paul to sacrifice a piece of himself for Lent—literally?
  • A modern American teen discovers what faith, life and love are like in seventeenth-century Scotland.
  • Teenager Lexie Dugan struggles to understand the sacrifice of Lent when she’s asked to help take care of her siblings while her pregnant mother is on bed rest.
  • Asher’s desire to prepare for the Messiah intensifies after he’s robbed by bandits but would fighting alongside the Zealots be the best way?
  • When a risky Ash Wednesday mission to sterilize T. rex eggs goes wrong, fasting is the least of Joshua, Darryl, and Harry’s worries.
  • A medieval girl stranded on a forsaken path confronts threats from without and turmoil from within.
  • Struggling with loss, hunger, and temptation, Ethan finds himself walking in the steps of Jesus.

Visit CatholicTeenBooks.com to learn more about the authors behind this story collection and the mission of Catholic Teen Books.



Catholic Teen Books is offering a fun prize pack in conjunction with this giveaway! Enter today to win a copy of Ashes, Lenten socks, a handmade rosary, devotional for teens, and more! This giveaway ends on release day, January 31.




Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Images: courtesy of CatholicTeenBooks.com

A copy of this book was provided to me for the purposes of this article.

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. Thank you for your support. 

On my bookshelf with shelf of Catholic fiction

On My Bookshelf: Summer at West Castle

Theresa Linden deftly bridges the gap between her West Brothers series for young adults and the new-adult Anyone But Him with this novel that details the summer Caitlyn spends working in the Wests’ castle, while Jarrett, her friend Roland’s older brother who had yet to redeem his reputation as a ladies’ man, ponders God’s plan for his life. Caitlyn had looked forward to spending the summer as a kind of working retreat, but Jarrett’s presence challenges and upsets her.

Summer at West Castle is a fascinating story of two young people seeking to figure out God’s will in their lives.




College student Caitlyn Summer arrives at the Wests’ castle-like house to fill in for their live-in maid. After a recent decision blows her vision of the future, this ideal job and the peaceful surroundings are just what she needs to seek God’s will for her life. That is, until Jarret West, not wanting a repeat of past mistakes, backs out of a summer-long field study overseas and returns home. The two have never gotten along, and unforgettable baggage from the past makes it hard even to be cordial. While Jarret’s faults convince Caitlyn he hasn’t changed, she forces herself to offer kindness. Her act of mercy puts them on an unexpected path where Caitlyn is challenged to look beneath the surface and Jarret struggles to trust that God wills good for him. (Note: to avoid spoilers, read this story only after reading Anyone but Him.)


Looking back on the West Brothers series as a whole, seeking and following God’s will is the overarching theme of all the books. There are definitely moments where Theology of the Body takes center stage, particularly in Book 2: Life-Changing Love, but discernment is top of mind for the teens in these stories, as it is for every teen: What will I do with my life? Where will I go to college—or will I? Am I in love, and is this person the one I will spend my life with?

I’ve enjoyed watching Caitlyn, Roland, Jarrett, Peter, Keefe, and the other characters in the West Brothers series grow as the stories progress, and I’ll admit I’ll be sad when Theresa announces that the series is complete.



Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Amazon affiliate links are included; your purchase through these links supports the author.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the author for the purposes of this review. The opinions expressed here are mine alone.

On my bookshelf with shelf of Catholic fiction

An Open Book: Self-Improvement Edition

#OpenBook: (Month, Year) Reads

The first Wednesday of each month, Carolyn Astfalk hosts #OpenBook, where bloggers link posts about books they’ve read recently. Since it’s January, “new year new you” and all of that, I thought I’d focus on some self-improvement books that have come my way recently.

I read these differently than I read fiction, dipping into and out of them and flipping around, rather than diving in (as I do with a novel) and not coming up for air until I’ve finished.

A different kind of planner

nullI was offered a review copy of The Saintmaker Catholic Life Planner, and I’m always willing to try out a new planner. This is different from any planner I’ve used before. First of all, it’s a quarterly book (and it’s as big as a full-year week-at-a-time planner already). It has daily, weekly, and monthly planning sections as well as goal-setting sections, a generous notebook section (that’s my “bullet journal” for various lists, monthly meal planning, things like that. There are three ribbons to help save my place in the different sections of the planner as well as three virtue tracker bookmarks, one for each month the planner covers.

There’s a lot in here, as you can see from this photo of the 2-page daily spread. I have not used all of this in the course of a day, but as the week has gone on, I’ve tried these various sections—appointments, to-do list, notes are my big three, and there are also gratitudes, daily cross, devotions, meditation journal, and examination of conscience. Slowly I’m figuring out what works for me. Even with all the structure this planner has, there’s room for flexibility and customization, which I appreciate!

Bonus features include weekly examination of conscience worksheets, discernment journal, prayer intention list, Catholic themes for day, week, and month, and novena starter guide. I’ll be sharing more about The Saintmaker planner on my social media as the quarter goes on.

You can save 10% on The Saintmaker planner with affiliate code FRANCISCANMOM.


Habits of Freedom

nullI am not very familiar with Ignatian spirituality, but I have heard it said (more than once) that the saint was very practical-minded, and I am all about that! Habits of Freedom: 5 Ignatian Tools for Clearing Your Mind and Resting Daily with the Lord by Christopher S. Collins, SJ (Ave Maria Press) is an excellent book for a new beginning.

Discerning how to proceed with life—not just with big decisions, but with more immediate habits of daily living—is crucial if we want to stay on track. To be happy. To be free. To be free enough to love and to live fully. (ix)

Each chapter ends with Exercises to Cultivate Habits of Freedom. These are great journal prompts. And at the back of the book, there’s a small-group discussion guide that makes me wish I were part of a small group reading this book.

My friend Deanna Bartalini has been dedicating episodes of her Not Lukewarm Podcast to a chapter-by-chapter discussion of this book, and I’ve enjoyed hearing a second perspective on what I’d already read on my own. I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.


Ignatius on Forgiveness

nullIt’s pretty curious that two Ignatian books have landed in front of me at the same time, but sometimes that’s how things happen, and that often means God’s trying to tell me something. The Ignatian Guide to Forgiveness: 10 Steps to Healing by Marina Berzins McCoy (Loyola Press) is an excellent guide to letting go of the paint that keeps us from moving forward with forgiveness, and with our lives.

The author walks you through stories from Scripture, Ignatian teaching, and real-life stories in each chapter, concluding the chapters with prayers and (often) practical ways to apply the principles described in each chapter.

I’m still reading this one, bit by bit in the Adoration chapel. This is definitely a book that lends itself to this approach.


Too Busy? Read this one!

nullI moved The Busy Person’s Guide to an Extraordinary Life by Deacon Greg Kandra (The Word Among Us Press) to the top of my “to be read” pile when I realized I’d purchased it more than a year ago and never gotten around to reading it. There’s no excuse! I’ve been a longtime fan of Deacon Greg’s work because his writing is clear, precise, simple, and accessible. There’s nothing complicated here; Deacon Greg is a terrific writer and inspiring storyteller.

Chapters are brief and can be read in any order. They include a meditation, which sometimes comes with an anecdote or three; “Consider This” with long quotes to ponder; “Try This” with a challenge; and “Pray This.”


This Bible Is Much More than a Pretty Face

nullThe brand-new Living the Word Catholic Women’s Bible from Ave Maria Press is undoubtedly beautiful, inside and out. I don’t know who did the book design for this, but the design team outdid themselves on this one.

I think it’s good to have a beautiful Bible. First of all, beauty invites you to look inside, and the first step to reading the Bible is opening the Bible. There are lovely touches throughout, from colorful headings to invitations to further reflection to the “Women of the Word” and “Living in the Light of Faith” and several other series of reflective essays sprinkled throughout the book. These essays, along with the boxes labeled “Take It to Heart” and the ruled journaling space on nearly ever page, offer opportunities to personalize this Bible by frequent reading, reflection, prayer, and writing. If you want to read the Bible more this year, this is the Bible for you. (Review copy received from publisher)


Visit the January #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 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz

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.


New Season, New Devotionals

‘Tis the season to think about a new devotional. Whether you prefer a daily or weekly format, you’ll find something to love about these five new prayer resources. The first three are weekly devotionals; the final pair offer daily reflections.

One Sunday at a Time by Mark Hart

I’ve had this book for weeks and have been impatiently waiting to really begin reading it—because it’s designed to help prepare for Sunday Mass! One Sunday at a Time: Preparing Your Heart for Weekly Mass by Mark Hart is a companion to the Cycle A readings that begin in Advent (November 27 this year), from Ave Maria Press. This is a companion to Cycle A (2023, 2026) so I’m hoping we can expect similar volumes for Cycles B and C.

You’ll want to have the readings available when you use this book (or a Bible where you can look them up). 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 will help you dig deeper into the meaning of each Sunday’s Mass readings and apply them to your life.

As a musician in my parish, I admit that I need to be focused on the next cue, to be ready to start hymns and acclamations at just the right moment. This means I’m not paying attention to what I’d really like to pay attention to. I look forward to using this book this year, outside of Mass, to help fill in what I’ve missed.



Loving God, Loving Others from Blessed Is She

Of the five devotionals listed here, this one wins the prize for Most Likely To Be Given as a Gift. Loving God, Loving Others: 52 Devotions to Create Connections That Last is a beautiful book that would make a lovely gift for a friend, mother, or sister. This multi-author volume is set up in a fascinating way: each of the six authors has written a particular section of the book, each exploring the different types of relationships we experience throughout our lives and sharing from her heart about her own path of growth within that particular type of relationship.

Authors Beth Davis, Megan Hjelmstad, Nell O’Leary, Bonnie Engstrom, Sarah Erickson, and Emily Stimpson Chapman offer three-page-per-week meditations, followed by a brief recommended Gospel reading and two questions for prayer and journaling. A brief discussion opens each section, and reflections are interspersed with simply illustrated pull quotes. The book is printed on lush, thick paper and includes illustrated end papers, a white ribbon bookmark, and a dedication page.

Loving God, Loving Others is not tied to the liturgical or calendar year, so you (or your friend) can begin praying with this book at any time.


Reflections on the Sunday Gospel by Pope Francis

Reflections on the Sunday Gospel: How to More Fully Live Out Your Relationship with God by Pope Francis (Image Books) is a compilation of homilies or talks given by the Pope at the Angelus prayers over the years and readings from the Church Fathers. Each weekly entry begins with an excerpt from that Sunday’s Gospel, but not the full Gospel, so you’ll want to have a Bible or missal nearby.

The homilies are brief, running about 3 pages each, with an additional page or so for the reading from the Church Fathers. The Introduction by Pope Francis is excellent, accessible catechesis about paying attention at Mass, teaching our children, and “encountering the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord”—and what the homily is there for in the first place.

Reflections on the Sunday Gospel is for the Cycle A readings only, though I had to go hunting to verify that information. The back of the book provides dates for each Sunday in the next 3 incidences of Cycle A (2023, 2026, 2029) and a table of sources for both the Pope’s and the Church Fathers’ selections.


What Matters Most and Why by Jim Manney

For anyone interested in Ignatian spirituality, Jim Manney’s What Matters Most and Why: Living the Spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola offers 365 daily reflections inspired by Ignatian wisdom. Each daily entry begins with a quote, mostly from Jesuits throughout history but from other sources as well, including Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, the wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous, and occasionally Scripture. Following that is a brief two-paragraph reflection on this quote.

Jesuit spirituality ultimately invites us to a way of living and leading characterized by heroism, self-awareness, love, and ingenuity. (Chris Lowrey in the Foreword)

The entries in What Matters Most and Why follow monthly themes, including Awareness, God, Love, Freedom, Work, Desire, Humility, Compassion and Trust, Choosing Well, Relationships, Practical Truths, and Becoming the Person You Are Meant to Be. This daily devotional is a good way to dip your toe into this powerful spiritual way of life.



A Year in the Word by Meg Hunter-Kilmer

If your goal is to read the Bible in a year but podcasts aren’t your thing, Meg Hunter-Kilmer has your answer with A Year in the Word Catholic Bible Journal from Our Sunday Visitor. You’ll need your Bible handy as you use this journal. A one-year reading plan is the first thing you’ll find as you open this book, with a checkbox next to each day’s reading, so if you miss a day (or more than a day) it’s easy to pick right up where you left off.

You can start using A Year in the Word whenever you want, as the reading plan is not tied to the liturgical or calendar year. In the Introduction, the author explains that her reading plan (which includes a psalm or part of one, a section from the Gospels, and chapters from either the Old or New Testament each day) is not a chronological approach but one that mixes the “harder books” with easier ones (her words) to keep you moving along and motivated to do so. By using this reading plan, you’ll actually work through each of the four Gospels twice.

This hardbound journal, with its sage-green cover, thick cream-colored pages, and simple design, will appeal to men and women alike. Wide lined spaces at the bottom of each brief daily reflection invite you to record your thoughts, and a timeline at the end traces the writing of the books of the Bible and the major events in salvation history.






Copyright 2022 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Images: Canva