On my bookshelf: April 2021 Reads

The first Wednesday of each month, Carolyn Astfalk hosts #OpenBook, where bloggers link posts about books they’ve read recently.

I am about ready to declare Goodreads bankruptcy over here. I’m just not keeping up.

Here’s a taste of what I’ve been reading (which includes a ridiculous number of books about people grieving the loss of a parent or grandparent):

Fiction

The Traveling Prayer Shawl by Jennifer Lynn Cary. 4 stars. Cami’s beloved grandmother (who raised her after her parents’ death) dies and leaves instructions that Cami must complete a project in order for the will to be read. She and her cousin, a longtime rival who is the only other living family member, have no idea what the will contains – and Cami’s project timetable mirrors one for an ad campaign at work that turns out to be inextricably connected with the project her grandmother left for her. A great read about priorities and the meaning of family. I’ll look for more by this author.

The Letters of Magdalen Montague by Eleanor Bourg NIcholson. 4 stars. An epistolary novel that opens shortly after the turn of the 20th century and features the delightfully cynical voice of “J,” who pens occasional letters to the anti-religious “R” about his growing obsession with the equally mysterious Magdalen Montague. This obsession leads him to rethink his Church-of-England views on Catholicism and change the course of his life. The perks of preordering this ebook directly from the publisher, Chrism Books (a new Catholic imprint of WhiteFire Publishing), meant that I didn’t want to wait until the June 1 publication date to read the book!

Close to the Soul by Mary Jo Thayer. 4 stars. This novel provides a close look at the impact of out-of-wedlock pregnancy on a devout Catholic family in the late 1950s. Carolyn’s mom and her great-aunt were terrific supporting characters. It’s a fascinating story with an uplifting (and surprising) end. (Advance reader copy provided by publisher; available now)

An Observant Wife by Naomi Ragen. 4 stars. Leah, a convert to orthodox Judaism, begins her married life in an insular Brooklyn neighborhood, and learns that it’s not that easy to live that kind of life. She takes a big risk (and pulls in the rest of the family with her) when her teen stepdaughter briefly rebels, then suffers trauma after a forbidden relationship. Turns out this book is a sequel to An Unorthodox Match, which I had not read – but the story is well told enough that I didn’t need to. (Netgalley review; book releases in September)

All That Really Matters by Nicole Deese. 5 stars. I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed this novel about a social-media beauty and fashion influencer, because I am not talented at either of these! The main character, Molly, turns out to be delightfully not shallow as she embarks on an adventure in volunteering at a transitional program for teens aging out of the foster care system. She makes errors in judgment along the way, grows from her mistakes, and becomes an influencer in the best sense of the term.

Is It Any Wonder by Courtney Walsh. 4 stars. Louisa’s event-planning company is hired to plan a fundraiser for the local Coast Guard station, which needs to build its reputation among the community. That’s when she discovers that her former boyfriend, whom she has not seen in more than a decade, has recently been stationed there and he’s assigned to the committee for the event. As the two of them approach their shared 30th birthday, which had been the subject of a teenage pact between them, they work through their common survivor’s guilt over the death of Cody’s father, which had broken up the two and driven a wedge between their families.

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl. 5 stars. Fans of Reichl’s memoirs will love her fiction debut, the story of a young magazine employee in her first grownup job in New York City. From her very first day, when Billie undergoes an unusual test of her fitness for the job, to the close of the magazine and Billie’s moonlighting at a local cheese shop while she remains the sole on-site employee, fulfilling a long-standing guarantee and (unbeknownst to her employer) solving a mystery that involves a secret room filled with correspondence, there’s a wonderfully eccentric cast of characters moving the story along. If you’re interested in food, you’ll love this novel.

YA/Children’s

You’ve Reached Sam by Dustin Thao. 5 stars, but you’ll have to wait until the book releases in November. One of the best YA books I’ve read in a long time. Julie blames herself for her boyfriend’s accidental death and tries to cope by getting rid of everything that reminds her of him. Her grief is pretty raw, and she puts herself into some pretty risky situations. Then she discovers that she can call his cell phone – and he answers. Sam helps her (and some other friends) work through their grief and survivor’s guilt. The book is labeled for ages 12-18 but I think 12 is a little young for this. (Netgalley review)

Everywhere, Always by Jennifer Ann Shore. 4 stars. After Avery and her single mom are involved in a car accident, Avery realizes her mom is dead before she loses consciousness and wakes up in an out-of-state hospital, only to learn that her father, whom she never knew, owns the hospital – and she has a half-brother the same age. As she recovers, she begins to bond with the family she never knew and take steps toward her dreams of working in the medical field even as she tries to deal with her own grief and her romantic interest in one of her brother’s best friends.

Nonfiction

The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets by Sarah Miller. 4 stars. I’ve been captivated by the story of the first set of quintuplets to survive infanty since I was a kid. This book provided a lot more information than the autobiography We Were Five, which I read years ago. It’s an in-depth look at the quintuplets’ early lives through their teens, and then a more cursory biography of their adulthood. There’s a lot of focus on financial matters and the quints’ growing awareness of their own celebrity.

A Catholic Guide to Spending Less and Living More: Advice from a Debt-Free Family of 16 by Sam and Rob Fatzinger. 4 stars. This book took me back to the early days of my marriage, when we lived on one income and I scoured The Tightwad Gazette (borrowed from the library, of course!) for money-saving tips as my financial contribution to the family. Not only does this book contain plenty of tips that families (or singles) can use regardless of their family situation, it also simplifies some basic financial concepts and offers spiritual insight about how we use our money. Sam and Rob Fatzinger share their own stories of figuring out the best ways to save money and stay out of debt while living on one income. Recommended especially for newly married couples and singles starting out on their own. (Advance review copy received from the publisher, Ave Maria Press; available now)


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

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

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

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

Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Travels in Search of the Saints

Traveling around the world seems like only a pipe dream as we slog through a second year of pandemic restrictions and lockdowns. Although we can’t travel wherever we’d like right now, there’s nothing to stop us from reading about it. Readers who misses traveling will thoroughly enjoy Mary Lea Carroll’s two saintly travelogues, Saint Everywhere and Somehow Saints.

Saint Everywhere: Travels in Search of the Lady Saints begins with the story of a trip to Italy in the year 2000. After spending several days touring battlefields, Carroll convinced her husband and daughter to take a side trip to Siena to view the relics of St. Catherine — and she was hooked. Carroll enthusiastically summarized St. Catherine of Siena’s life and accomplishments.

I pondered in the dark this whole implausible tale of St. Catherine. Do I believe it? It’s hard to say yes. But I want to believe. Life seems bigger, grander, more fun if you believe that a person can have mystical powers. That one woman can quell a war. (29)

Subsequent travels took Carroll to places as diverse as Prague, New York City (more than once), Colorado, Bosnia, Mexico City, and Spain. She pondered St. Elizabeth Seton’s influence on Catholic education and her challenging life of suffering, recounted her pilgrimage to see the tilma with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and discovered that a quote from St. Teresa of Ávila would be an apt reminder as she waited in line at the DMV. And she considered her own motherhood in the light of the Blessed Mother’s visit to Guadalupe.

Thinking about Guadalupe, who appeared as the mother of us all, the one we can turn to when we’re afraid or when things turn awful, makes me realize how few women can actually be that type of mother. I never confided in my mother because she’d just judge and correct me. My grandmother, who lived with us, was so vain that she wouldn’t lift a finger around the house, driving my mother nuts. Me, of course, I’m perfect. Well, maybe I care a little too much about some things and get a little uptight sometimes. My girls call it “going crazy on them.” But I’ve tried to do my best, just as my mother did her best. We all continually try. Falling short and feeling bad is part of our lot. But humanity’s been given a gift in the idea of Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, who infinitely does not judge, who infinitely says just keep trying, who infinitely advises us to turn to her Son. (125)

Somehow Saints; More Travels in Search of the Saintly finds Carroll sharing more stories and insights from her travels. She begins the book with her trip to Philadelphia to visit the tomb of St. Katharine Drexel in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. St. Katharine’s extraordinary life and work inspired Carroll to consider the frustrations we experience as mothers, the saint’s contribution to the Church’s work against racism and other injustices, and St. Katharine’s emphasis on Eucharistic Adoration.

Further travels took Carroll on visits to upstate New York to the shrine of St. Kateri Tekakwitha; to St. Marie of the Incarnation’s shrine and the Shrine of St. Anne de Beaupré at Quebec, Canada; Emmitsburg, Maryland to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s shrine; to New York City to see the resting place of Bl. Pierre Touissant; to St. Brigid’s shrine in Kildare, Ireland; and finally to Venice, Italy, to the tomb of St. Josephine Bakhita.

In each place, she considered how she should pray for saintly intercession.

What would I want to pray to St. Anne for? I knelt down. How about ever more strength and the desire to do and be more? And for my own motherhood, even though my daughters are grown up. Help me be what’s needed now; help me to offer good advice and to keep my mouth shut. Help me to both be there and not be in their way. I prayed for possibly being a grandmother—to be a magical, fun, fairy grandmother. A grandmother who’ll bring out a box of treasures, who’ll take them on trains, who’ll have the patience for loud noise, who won’t be too tired. (81)

This book also contains shorter selections that focus on the heroic efforts of people Carroll knows in person: living women, saints in the making.

Mary Lea Carroll’s books are not fancy travel guides. They’re memoirs of journeys of the soul and reminders how the lives of the saints can inspire us in little ways. They’re stories of memories (good and bad) told with relatable honesty and humor. Maybe, when we can freely travel again, we’ll take inspiration from Mary Lea Carroll and begin our own journeys to visit shrines of the saints along the way.


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz; photo copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz, all rights reserved.

This article contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchases through these links benefit the author. 

On My Bookshelf: March 2021 Reads

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

Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

YA/Children’s

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

5 New Books About Prayer

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

Divine Mercy

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

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

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

Get Close to God

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

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


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

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

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

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

Pray the Rosary

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz

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

Image created in Stencil.

Books for the Kids’ Easter Baskets

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

Board Book: The Story of Jesus

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

Picture Books: The Wonders of God’s Creation

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

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

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

Picture Books: Prayer and the Church

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

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

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

Books for Independent Readers

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

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

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


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

The Light of Tara: A Novel of Saint Patrick

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

About the book:

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

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

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

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

Question for the author:

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

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

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

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

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

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

About author John Desjarlais:

John Desjarlais, author

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


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Cover image: Stencil

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

Book Review: Anything But Groovy

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

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

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

Summary

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

(Courtesy of Full Quiver Publishing)

About the author

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

Find Amanda at:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Inside:

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

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

Check out the book trailer:

Win a copy of Treasures!

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


An Open Book: February 2021 Reads

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

Fiction

When We Were Young and Brave by Hazel Gaynor.

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

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

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

Homestands by Sally Bradley.

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

Lighter reads (blurbs courtesy of Amazon):

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

YA/Children’s

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

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

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

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

Nonfiction

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz

An Open Book: February 2021

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

Fiction

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

The Castleton String Quartet Series by Maddie Evans

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

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

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

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

YA/Children’s

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

Nonfiction

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


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

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

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

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

Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz