On my bookshelf with shelf of Catholic fiction

An Open Book: April 2022

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 Roommate Situation (Only in Atlanta, Book 1) by Katie Bailey. An enjoyable clean romance, but I liked the second in the series more. This one featured a young woman who just broke up with her cheating boyfriend, showed up unannounced at her older brother’s house, and found that only his roommate would be there for a few weeks. They try to hide their developing relationship from everyone, to no avail and to hilarious effect. (4 stars)

 

Neighbor WarThe Neighbor War: A Romantic Comedy (Only in Atlanta Book 2) by Katie Bailey. A fun, light read about neighbors who have longtime crushes on each other but don’t know the other one likes them—and one of them thinks she hates the other, based on an erroneous first impression. Witty banter (so much witty banter!), fun characters. (5 stars)

 

Bluebird by Genevieve Graham. Historical fiction set in Canada during/just after World War I. In this second-chance love story, a military nurse falls for a patient who, along with his brother, had been seriously injured doing dangerous work. After the war, the former soldier and his family make their living as bootleggers and smugglers across the Canada-US border, and the nurse unwittingly begins dating the brothers’ biggest competition, a gangster who is out to ruin his enemies. I’ll definitely look for more by this author. (5 stars; Netgalley review.)

 

YA/Children’s

Finding Junie KimFinding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh. Dual timeline fiction, set during Korean War and present-day, with both story lines from the view of adolescents. The story itself is a lovely family saga, even as it recounts the brutalities of war. The book takes on racism and bigotry but openly supports the BLM movement, and there was definitely an undercurrent of anti-white-privilege going on, which is its own form of racism. Because of this and because of some disturbing content (war violence), I would recommend a critical read before giving it to a child because the book definitely does endorse a party line. (4 stars)

Nonfiction

No Such Thing as OrdinaryNo Such Thing as Ordinary by Rachel Balducci. Rachel’s upbringing in the faith is different from most, because she was raised in an intentional Christian community, where she still lives. Don’t let her unique experience stop you from reading this encouraging look at being your best for God, structured around the story of the woman at the well. (4 stars; Netgalley review. Releases May 6.)
Synopsis: Are you looking for freedom and fulfillment in the life you are already living, or do you feel trapped because your everyday reality doesn’t match your dreams? No Such Thing as Ordinary will help you discover the passion and adventure in your life while empowering you to see how God uses daily, here-and-now moments to draw you to him in an extraordinary way. Drawing from Jesus’s conversation with the woman at the well in the Gospel of John, Rachel Balducci—Catholic writer and cohost of CatholicTV’s The Gist—shares how a deep unrest in her life launched her on a journey to discover the secret that true joy is found in a deeper relationship with Jesus.

Dust Bowl Girls coverThe Dust Bowl Girls: The Inspiring Story of the Team that Barnstormed Its Way to Basketball Glory by Lydia Reeder. The true story of a Depression-era women’s basketball team in Oklahoma. A fascinating premise: women recuited to attend a junior college in Oklahoma face challenges ranging from poverty to sexism as they work to qualify for a championship tournament against some of the region’s best female basketball players. The book got bogged down in some unnecessary detail that didn’t keep the story moving and maybe could have been included as a supplement rather than incorporated into the story line. (4 stars.)

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 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!

Stations of the Cross - HC Cathedral Boston 2019

OSV Kids Stations of the Cross: Devotions Just Right for Children

In her new booklet, OSV Kids Stations of the Cross, Colleen Pressprich proves that the Stations of the Cross can be made accessible to kids without watering down the impact of the devotion.

One of the things I look forward to each Lent is the parish celebration of the Stations of the Cross each Friday. When my children were in grade school, they would go to the church on Friday afternoons to pray the Stations. Parents were invited to attend, and I often did when my schedule allowed, but the resource the school was using for the Stations was complicated, with flowery language.

That’s not a problem with this new resource from OSV Kids. Colleen Pressprich and illustrator Adalee Hude have created a prayer resource that’s long on reverence and simplicity and short on complicated vocabulary and graphic detail.

Each Station begins with the traditional call-and-response used at the Stations of the Cross. A brief meditation follows, accompanied by a few questions to help the children relate the challenges and suffering Jesus faced to experiences in their own lives. In the prayer for each Station, the children ask for Jesus’ help in meeting challenges such as loneliness, tiredness, frustration, discouragement, and forgiveness.

The meditation and prayer from the Second Station are good examples of how the suffering Jesus experienced is depicted in a child-appropriate way:

The soldiers make Jesus carry his own cross to the hill where he will die. The cross is very heavy. Jesus was in prison all night, and he hasn’t eaten any food since the Last Supper the night before. He also has been beaten. He is tired and weak, yet he still chooses to take up his own cross and walk toward his death because he loves us.

Have you ever had to do something very hard even though you were tired? How did it feel? What helped you keep going? What do you think Jesus was thinking when he lifted the heavy cross onto his back?

Dear Jesus, please remind us that you are with us when we are tired and don’t want to do what is asked of us. Please help us to remember that we can offer up what we don’t like as a prayer. Amen.

 

I would recommend OSV Kids Stations of the Cross for use with children in elementary school. It’s an excellent resource for families to use to pray the Stations together, and would also be great for use in Catholic schools or religious education programs.

Don’t skip the author’s note at the beginning of the book. Pressprich addresses this to parents, teachers, and priests; in it, she explains how adults can model faith-sharing by using some of the questions in the meditation for each Station.

OSV Kids Stations of the Cross has received an Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat, which indicate that the book is free from doctrinal or moral error.

It’s important to note that while the Stations of the Cross is a popular devotion during Lent, the Stations can be prayed all year ’round. I remember that when I was a child, my great-aunts and great-uncle used to visit a church every single day to pray the Stations—even while on vacation! If you find that the Stations of the Cross becomes a special devotion for your family, think about ways you could pray it as a family once a month, perhaps on the First Friday.


Copyright 2022 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Photo copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz, all rights reserved.

This article contains Amazon affiliate links. Your purchase using these links supports my writing ministry at no additional cost to you.

Our Lady of Lourdes

The Miracle You Want vs. the Miracle You Need

Christy and Todd WIlkens took their son Oscar to Lourdes with the Order of Malta on a pilgrimage, hoping for healing.

The couple was desperate for a miracle. Their little boy was suffering from a seizure disorder that had begun during his infancy. After a year of chasing treatment after treatment, Christy could see that nothing was helping Oscar—at least, nothing that doctors or hospitals could offer him.

In Awakening at Lourdes: How an Unanswered Prayer Healed Our Family and Restored Our Faith, Christy Wilkens describes the details of her last-ditch spiritual effort to heal what modern medicine could not. She and her husband were exhausted, and the constant caregiving, monitoring, and medical visits for Oscar did not leave much left over for their five older children—or their marriage.

As they began their journey at the airport, Christy and Todd learned immediately about the loving care Oscar—and she and her husband—would receive from the team of Order of Malta volunteers, known as a “pod,” who were assigned to her family, and only to her family. Even as they learned what Oscar needed, these volunteers provided what Christy and Todd needed as well, including time to process the 24/7 caregiving their little boy had required for the past year.

A pilgrimage to Lourdes is much, much more than simply a trip to a shrine that boasts a spring of healing water, as the Wilkens family learned. It is a spiritual experience, bringing healing and wholeness in unexpected ways.

Awakening at Lourdes is a timely read during National Marriage Week, and as we prepare to celebrate the February 11 feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.


Copyright 2022 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Image: Stencil

This article contains Amazon affiliate links. Your purchase through these links supports FranciscanMom.com at no cost to you.

On my bookshelf with shelf of Catholic fiction

An Open Book: February 2022

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

I think I’ve finally flunked out of Goodreads, but I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet of books I’ve read in 2022 in hopes that I won’t have to scroll through my Kindle at the end of every month to compile this list. In January I read 13 books. I’m only going to be sharing the ones that merit 4 or 5 stars (it’s a shame that only 6 of the 13 I read this month will make it onto this list). And you might get the Amazon synopsis, not mine.

Here’s a taste of what I’ve been reading in January:

Fiction

If I Were You by Lynn Austin. 4 stars. A stolen-identity story beginning in World War II-era England during the Blitz. There’s a sequel, but it wasn’t as good. Synopsis: 1950. In the wake of the war, Audrey Clarkson leaves her manor house in England for a fresh start in America with her young son. As a widowed war bride, Audrey needs the support of her American in-laws, whom she has never met. But she arrives to find that her longtime friend Eve Dawson has been impersonating her for the past four years. Unraveling this deception will force Audrey and Eve’s secrets—and the complicated history of their friendship—to the surface.
1940. Eve and Audrey have been as different as two friends can be since the day they met at Wellingford Hall, where Eve’s mother served as a lady’s maid for Audrey’s mother. As young women, those differences become a polarizing force . . . until a greater threat—Nazi invasion—reunites them. With London facing relentless bombardment, Audrey and Eve join the fight as ambulance drivers, battling constant danger together. An American stationed in England brings dreams of a brighter future for Audrey, and the collapse of the class system gives Eve hope for a future with Audrey’s brother. But in the wake of devastating loss, both women must make life-altering decisions that will set in motion a web of lies and push them both to the breaking point long after the last bomb has fallen.

Neruda on the Park by Cleyvis Natera. 5 stars. I felt like I was right there watching this story happen. What a powerful debut novel! Synopsis: The Guerreros have lived in Nothar Park, a predominantly Dominican part of New York City, for twenty years. When demolition begins on a neighboring tenement, Eusebia, an elder of the community, takes matters into her own hands by devising an increasingly dangerous series of schemes to stop construction of the luxury condos. Meanwhile, Eusebia’s daughter, Luz, a rising associate at a top Manhattan law firm who strives to live the bougie lifestyle her parents worked hard to give her, becomes distracted by a sweltering romance with the handsome white developer at the company her mother so vehemently opposes. As Luz’s father, Vladimir, secretly designs their retirement home in the Dominican Republic, mother and daughter collide, ramping up tensions in Nothar Park, racing toward a near-fatal climax. (Netgalley)

The City Mother by Maya Sinha. 5 stars. Talk about a book hangover … this story, new from Chrism Press, stuck with me for a long time. This book takes on the idea of a city as a place to which young people gravitate because of its activity and opportunities, but which reveals its evil to a young mother seeking her own identity as she nurtures her little children. The lack of connection and community leaves Cara vulnerable to fall into postpartum depression and psychosis—but she doesn’t miss the reality right in front of her, a reality that no one else sees. Synopsis: Fresh out of college, small-town crime reporter Cara Nielsen sees disturbing things that suggest, for the first time in her life, that evil is real. But as the daughter of two secular academics, she pushes that notion aside. When her smart, ambitious boyfriend asks her to marry him and move to a faraway city, it’s a dream come true.
Four years later, confined to a city apartment with a toddler, Cara fears she is losing her mind. Sleeplessness, isolation, and postpartum hormones have altered her view of reality. Something is wrong in the lost, lonely world into which she’s brought a child. Visions hint at mysteries she can’t explain, and evil seems not only real—it’s creeping ever closer.
As her marriage falters and friends disappear, Cara seeks guidance from books, films, therapy, even the saints, when she’s not scrubbing the diaper pail. Meanwhile, someone is crying out for help that only she can give. Cara must confront big questions about reality and illusion, health and illness, good and evil—and just how far she is willing to go to protect those she loves.

 

YA/Children’s

A Kind of Paradise by Amy Rebecca Tan. 5 stars. First of all, it’s set in a library so it’s already off to a good start in my opinion! It hits some hot-button topics like bullying and PTSD, and is an excellent friendship story. I’d give this to readers 12 and up, in a heartbeat. Synopsis: Thirteen-year-old Jamie Bunn made a mistake at the end of the school year. A big one. And every kid in her middle school knows all about it. Now she has to spend her summer vacation volunteering at the local library—as punishment. What a waste of a summer!
Or so she thinks.
An unforgettable story about the power of community, the power of the library, and the power of forgiveness.

The Edge of In Between by Lorelei Savaryn. 5 stars. A beautifully told allegory on grief and the afterlife for middle-grade readers. Young readers need tools for processing difficult realities, and story can help provide them. Lorelei Savaryn’s tale explores the impact of grief on a preteen who feels helpless to do anything but follow the lead of the only adults around to care for her after the sudden death of her parents. The deeply intuitive Lottie recognizes that something is wrong when she’s asked to accept a life in In Between, the stage of the afterlife that precedes Ever After (heaven)—because as a living being, she does not belong there. But all she wants is to be reunited with her deceased parents. She discovers others in the same position, and ultimately is called upon to stand against what she knows is wrong and make a life-giving choice, even when that means she will have to defer her own desires.
While the author notes that the book is a nod to The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, I also saw some elements that reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant.” Coming April 19. (Netgalley)

Nonfiction

The Lazy Genius Kitchen: Have What You Need, Use What You Have, and Enjoy It Like Never Before by Kendra Adachi. 5 stars. This book will be particularly useful to novice cooks or newly independent young adults, but anyone can benefit from the common-sense information in this book. The tone is casual and friendly, never condescending. And readers can take as deep a dive as they like into meal planning, setting up cooking and food storage zones, and the other topics covered in this book. The book’s design complements the information well, with colorful touches throughout, places to take notes as you go, cute graphics, and plenty of useful cross-referencing. It’s a home cook’s guide to working smarter, not harder. Highly recommended! Coming March 22. (Advance copy received from publisher)

On the TBR Pile

I’m either in the middle of these books or looking to get started on them ASAP.

Reclaiming Vatican II: What it (really) said, what it means, and how it calls us to renew the Church by Fr. Blake Britton. There’s so much online debate about the Council, and I want to know what it really is there to teach me. (Advance copy received from publisher)

Beginning Well: 7 Spiritual Practices for the First Year of Almost Anything by Joel Stepanek. I love any book that talks about doing a thing for a year, but this one is a new twist on it: this is the book that helps you navigate the transition to doing a new thing, getting through that first year. (Advance copy received from publisher)

Ex Libris: From the Writings of Edith Stein, compiled by Dianne M. Traflet. I haven’t read anything by St. Edith Stein, and this little book contains 29 brief readings to introduce this writer and philosopher to people like me! If I start this today and read one selection each day, I’ll finish it by Lent. (Advance copy received from publisher)

The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander. Another classic spiritual writer whose work I haven’t read. This book contains meditations on the humanity of Mary, Mother of God. I think it will be a good Lenten read for me. (Advance copy received from publisher, and I bought it for Kindle as well, for a spiritual read on the go!)


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 2022 Barb Szyszkiewicz

The Word on Fire Bible: Acts, Letters, and Revelation

Word on Fire Ministries has completed the New Testament of The Word on Fire Bible with the publication of Acts, Letters, and RevelationLike the first volume, The Word on Fire Bible: The Gospels, this is a richly detailed Bible that contains much more than the portion of the Bible its title indicates. How much more? The book, at 841 pages, is measurably thicker than the first volume, with twice as much commentary to accompany the Scripture it includes.

 

Word on Fire Bible

 

You can use The Word on Fire Bible for reading, study, and prayer. It’s packed with commentary by saints and scholars; for example, 1 Corinthians features commentary from St. John Henry Newman, St. John Chrysostom, René Girard, Origen, Thomas Merton, G.K. Chesterton, St. Maximus the Confessor, Tertullian, St. Augustine, St. Irenaeus, St. Ambrose, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Flannery O’Connor, Wilfred Rowland Childe, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Fulton Sheen, Dante, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Plus, essays by Bishop Robert Barron appear throughout that epistle. All of that, in addition to the sacred art and lettered embellishments that appear throughout, contribute to the book’s large size but make it an extremely useful edition of these New Testament books.

In an introductory essay, Bishop Robert Barron notes:

The Church has realized from the beginning that we need assistance if we are to read the Scriptures with profit. We require precisely the interpretive lens provided by the great scholars, saints, mystics, popes, and prophets who have gone before us—those who have, in the course of time, been recognized as masters of the sacred writings. (17)

 

 

At the beginning of this volume, icons depicting each of the books included are introduced. These icons relate to the content of the books, and are another example of the attention to every single detail in the publication of this Bible: details that make this a Bible that will appeal to readers who are new to the faith, questioning the faith, or longtime faithful.

Unlike many other Bibles available today, the Word of God is presented in single-column format. The font is large and easy to read. A different font is used for the commentaries and essays, which are also presented on light-colored backgrounds to set them apart from Scripture. Essays and commentaries take the place of the footnotes you often find in other Bibles. The Word on Fire Bible uses the New Revised Standard Version–Catholic Edition (NRSV-CE).

 

 

 

This Bible is available in three formats: leatherbound, hardcover, and paperback. The leatherbound version which I received feels sturdy but not stiff, immediately comfortable in my hands. It’s heavy, but I expect that from a Bible anyway, and has a very inviting feel—I just wanted to keep on reading it. That’s probably the best endorsement an edition of the Bible can get. For anyone interested in exploring the Bible, this is a beautiful, gift-quality edition.

The Word on Fire Bible: Acts, Letters, and Revelation is available beginning January 17, 2022. Visit WordOnFire.org/Bible2 and sign up to be notified when ordering opens.

Take a tour of this new Bible:

 

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Copyright 2022 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Photos copyright 2022 Barb Szyszkiewicz, all rights reserved.

An Open Book: Best Reads of 2021

It’s time to wrap up the 2021 reads with a “Best Of” roundup. I haven’t been great at keeping up with Goodreads this year, or keeping any kind of records of what I read last year. If it weren’t for my Kindle (which lets me see what’s been completed) and the pile of nonfiction books in my office, I’d be even harder pressed to come up with a list.

In no particular order, here are the most memorable books of 2021.

Best Saint Book

Saintly Moms: 25 Stories of Holiness by Kelly Ann Guest

Moms need friends to inspire us in our vocation, no matter what our stage of motherhood. Kelly Guest’s book introduces you to 25 saintly friends to encourage you in the challenges of parenting. Meet a new holy BFF, and gain a fresh perspective on familiar motherly saints. Saints highlighted in this book include the Blessed Mother, St. Monica, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Rita of Cascia, Venerable Margaret Bosco, St. Gianna Molla, and more, and for the most part are arranged in chronological order. (Advance copy received from publisher; full review coming soon. Really. I promise.)

 

Best Spiritual Self-Help

All Things New: Breaking the Cycle and Raising a Joyful Family by Erin McCole Cupp

Erin McCole Cupp reaches out to parents who don’t feel equipped for the task because they didn’t have good parenting models as they grew up. If your childhood was marked by dysfunction, difficulty, and a lack of nurturing, you’re not doomed to repeat that scenario with your own family—you need a new parenting toolkit than the one you were provided. This book is not designed only for parents just starting out. Of course, parents of newborns or expectant parents will benefit from the information and encouragement in All Things New, but parents of children of any age (even young adults) can learn strategies for forgiving, trusting (where appropriate), making emotional connections, practicing gratitude, and more parenting skills of the kind those regular parenting books don’t teach you—because they assume you learned them during your formative years. (Read my full review. Advance copy received from publisher.)

 

So Good I’m Reading It Again

Grace in TensionGrace in Tension: Discover Peace with Martha and Mary by Claire McGarry

For Catholic women who, like me, deeply identify with Martha in her worry and distraction, Claire’s balanced discussion of how busy women can learn to sit at the feet of Jesus is both a challenge and a gift. Learn to find the grace amid your daily cares and burdens. When we think about the story of Mary and Martha, it’s very easy to fall into the “Martha bad, Mary good” trap. Claire does not do that in Grace in Tension (and that’s why I’m reading the book for a second time). I probably can’t change my tendencies, but as Claire encourages readers, I can — and should — derail the anxiety and worry that I often allow to carry me away from the joy of the moment. By taking steps like choosing a new response, drawing healthy boundaries, asking for help (and accepting it without judging), and adjusting expectations, in addition to the 10 other steps Claire outlines in this book, I can find the gifts God has for me in the moments where He has placed me. (Read my full review. Advance copy received from publisher.)

The Daily Devotional I Actually Read Daily

In Caelo et in Terra by the Daughters of St. Paul, illustrations by Sr. Danielle Victoria, FSP

This big, beautiful book of the saints is a collaborative effort of the Daughters of St. Paul, often nicknamed the “media nuns.” Their mission is to spread God’s word and make disciples through a variety of media, including writing and publishing. In Caelo et in Terra features a saint for each day (and contrary to the subtitle, they’ve covered February 29 as well). As the book is larger than an average hardcover (about 7X10 inches), there’s plenty of space to include two substantial paragraphs about the life of each day’s saint on the page, along with a short reflection (with a great journaling prompt) and a prayer. Information on the saint’s patronage and feast day are included. You’ll also find a robust index, which lists the saints by name, liturgical feast day, and patronage – so this is a reference book as well as a devotional. Each page is beautifully embellished not only with designs of leaves and clouds, which symbolize earth and heaven, but also with drawings of the saint of the day or sacred symbols related to that saint. The interior art, by Sr. Danielle VIctoria Lussier, FSP (who also designed the cover), is done in a consistent style that is simple and beautiful without being distracting.

 

Best Series for Teens

Friends in High Places series by Corinna Turner

The Boy Who Knew: Friends in High Places #1

Old Men Don’t Walk to Egypt: Friends in High Places #2

Child, Unwanted; Friends in High Places #3

This novella series features relatable stories with memorable characters in real-life situations. This series combines compelling fiction with facts about saints whose lives and actions can inspire teens today: Blessed Carlo Acutis, St. Joseph, and St. Margaret of Castello. These novellas are appropriate for readers 12 and up.

Most Relatable Character

A Song for the Road by Kathleen M. Basi

I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel where I’ve identified so deeply with a character as I did with Miriam Tedesco, who undertook a cross-country road trip a year after the death of her husband and their twin teenagers in order to handle some unfinished business that was deepening her grief. It wasn’t so much Miriam’s circumstances as it was her personality that I related to: she reacted to things in much the same way I do. Along the way, Miriam encountered a young pregnant woman traveling alone and clearly hiding a medical secret. Outside of a few misses in the Catholic details (Miriam was the music director at a Catholic church) this was a flawless read.

Based on a True Story

Where Angels Pass coverWhere Angels Pass by Ellen Gable

Ellen Gable’s newest novel, based on her own father’s experience of sexual abuse at the hands of a predator priest and her own experience of the consequences in his life, is difficult to witness. But we owe it to victims of clergy sexual abuse to listen to their stories. Listening, understanding, and awareness of warning signs are steps toward preventing such occurrences in the future. Ellen is to be commended for her courage and honesty in bringing this story to light. Where Angels Pass is not an easy read – but it’s an important one. (Read my full review.)

Catholic Fiction

In Pieces by Rhonda OrtizIn Pieces by Rhonda Ortiz

In this richly detailed post-Revolutionary War love story, Rhonda Ortiz transports the reader to 18th-century Boston. Molly Chase, the beautiful and talented only child of a prominent Boston fabric merchant, suffers nightmares and other mental-health challenges after discovering her father’s body following his suicide. 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. A 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. At one point when I was reading this book, I emailed the author and said, “Did so-and-so seriously just …” (I can’t tell you more, because I don’t want to spoil the fun!). This novel is even better the second time around! (Read my full review.)

Horror

Jennifer the Damned by Karen Ullo

This is not at all the kind of book I usually read. I don’t touch horror or vampire fiction at all. It is a testament to Karen Ullo’s skill as a writer that I stuck with this book beyond the first 2 chapters – and more than that, couldn’t wait to keep reading. Normally I think of horror books as about as anti-Catholic as they can be, with religion either anathema or afterthought or, at best, superstition. But this is a very, very Catholic book, dealing with themes of conscience, our immortal souls, and the overarching power of the sacraments. The many sides of the title character are well explored: Jennifer as vampire, Jennifer as teenager trying to fit into that world, Jennifer as a child abandoned by her mother (and clearly traumatized by the facts of her own situation and what her mother has taught her), Jennifer as a young woman raised in a convent by religious sisters who don’t know the whole story.

 

Strongest Book Hangover

Spirit of the Violinists by Maddie Evans (Castleton String Quartet, #3)

Maddie Evans saved the best for last in this final novel of the Castleton String Quartet series. Longtime musical rivals Lindsey and Jason vie for the leadership position in the quartet, even as Lindsey dreads her father’s final days and the two violinists discover a bond they didn’t know they had. A peek at the vulnerability Jason never shows sheds new light on his character, both for Lindsey and the reader. Keep tissues handy for the most beautiful funeral I’ve ever seen in a book. (That’s not a spoiler, BTW, if you look at the blurb offered by the author.) ARC provided by author.

I highly recommend you read the full series, in order. Some fun elements: there are characters from the author’s Brighthead Running Club Romances who make appearances in these books, Maddie Evans is unparalleled in writing clever banter, and the musician in me enjoyed a series featuring musicians and a music school.

 

Best Christmas Road-Trip Read

A Cross-Country Christmas by Courtney Walsh

If this book doesn’t make you want to take a road trip, nothing will. Courtney Walsh’s Christmas romance brings together a Hollywood set decorator who tries her hardest to avoid all things Christmas and her childhood crush. The two embark on a road trip from California to Illinois, and despite Lauren’s bad attitude and rude demeanor right from the first mile, you’ll find yourself rooting them on. She’s no fan of Christmas. He is. Find out why in this fun, sweet read. And how cute is this cover?

 

Most Likely to Make a Great Movie

In a Far-Off Land by Stephanie Landsem

Such an excellent novel! Stephanie Landsem places themes from the Parable of the Prodigal Son in 1930s-era Hollywood in this compelling tale of ambition, glamor that’s all on the surface, family loyalty, and forgiveness. While aspiring starlet Minerva Sinclaire is meant to be the star of the show, I was much more fascinated by the two young men, Oscar and Max, who opened themselves to considerable risk in order to protect and help her. Yes, this is kind of a meta choice for this category, since the book is about life in Hollywood in the heyday of the movie era, but I’d watch it just for the costumes, architecture, and cars! I’m hoping there will be another novel about some of these characters.

 

Best Title

Sweet Jesus, Is It June Yet? 10 Ways the Gospels Can Help You Combat Teacher Burnout and Rediscover Your Passion for Teaching by Amy J. Cattapan

Written for new and veteran teachers alike, this book is the perfect read for anytime in the school year, offering Bible-based strategies teachers can use to battle discouragement, stress, and burnout. In August, I interviewed the author about this book; I asked whether feelings of burnout make you a bad teacher, what you can do to combat faculty-room cynicism, and which chapters are most beneficial to teachers feeling extra stress due to the pandemic. Traditional publishers don’t usually allow authors to title their own books, and this book’s title is the exception to that rule. I recommend it for anyone involved in education.

At the Top of the TBR

Mysterion: The Revelatory Power of the Sacramental Worldview by Fr. Harrison Ayre

The Catholic Wedding Planner, coming soon from Our Sunday Visitor. You’ll get my Mother-of-the-Bride perspective on this one!

If I Were You by Lynn Austin


Copyright 2022 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Image: Stencil

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 more of what I’ve read recently (even the duds!)

The first Wednesday of each month, Carolyn Astfalk hosts #OpenBook, where bloggers link posts about books they’ve read recently. On January 5, you can 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!

 

On my bookshelf with shelf of Catholic fiction

Where Angels Pass: A Hard, but Worthwhile, Read

Ellen Gable’s newest novel, based on her own father’s experience of sexual abuse at the hands of a predator priest and her own experience of the consequences in his life, is difficult to witness. But we owe it to victims of clergy sexual abuse to listen to their stories. Listening, understanding, and awareness of warning signs are steps toward preventing such occurrences in the future.

Ellen is to be commended for her courage and honesty in bringing this story to light. Where Angels Pass is not an easy read – but it’s an important one.

 

Where Angels Pass cover

 

In all the years I’ve been invited by authors to read their books, I don’t think I’ve ever had an offer come with a disclaimer: “maybe you won’t want to read this.” Due to the sensitive nature of this book, I understand why such a disclaimer is necessary, however. Ellen didn’t gloss over the details of the predator priest’s grooming of his young victims, nor the acts of abuse, nor the emotional fallout afterward that drove her father into mental illness, addiction, and dangerous behaviors. That disclaimer was more of a trigger warning, really.

Where Angels Pass shows another side of the clergy sexual abuse scandal that has come to light in the past two decades: the effect of abuse as felt by the families of the victims, extending into the next generation. What happened to Hank in high school affected his marriage, friendships, work … and his children, in tragic ways.

This story is clearly told not from a place of anger or revenge-seeking, but out of the author’s love for her father and for the Church. By sharing her family’s story, Ellen has taken steps not only toward her own healing from the trauma she faced, but toward helping others understand what life was like for one victim – before, during, and after the abuse.

Ellen explains why she wrote this book:

It’s my hope that the reader will be able to learn that just because a person has suffered clerical abuse (in this case, my father) does not mean his life had any less value than any other person.  Did he make mistakes because of his woundedness? Of course, he did, because we’re all born with original sin and with free will.

And despite all these things that happened to him, he was really an incredible father and, I believe, made the world a better place (again, despite his nervous breakdown and alcoholism).

Most importantly, I hope the reader can understand that the Catholic Church is not an evil institution, and we should not leave the Church because of the sins of some of her members. One thing I didn’t realize until recently was how widespread the clerical abuse problem has been for many years. And while it saddened me that my father was abused, it breaks my heart that so many others suffered like my father.

Summary:

Teenager Evie Gallagher is stunned when her 45-year-old father dies tragically and suddenly. Too many unanswered questions accompany Evie’s challenging journey to adulthood. When she finally discovers the reason her father led such a troubled life, shock turns to anger. She is determined to find justice for her father.

Nervous about the first day of his freshman year, 14-year-old Hank Gallagher steps inside Holy Archangels High School for the first time in September of 1954. Although the majestic Holy Archangels statues inside the school’s grand lobby present an air of protection, it is not long before Hank passes right under them and into the hands of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Confused and cornered by threats, Hank attempts to abandon his secret to the past, but a horrible wound on his heart eventually leads to a catastrophic breakdown.

Based loosely on actual events, chapters alternate between Evie and Hank to reveal a life haunted by betrayal and a revelation of true justice and hope.

 

More Stops on the Virtual Book Tour for Where Angels Pass:

December 3  Plot Line and Sinker

December 4  Jim Sano

December 6 Mary Jo Thayer

December 7 Carolyn Astfalk My Scribbler’s Heart Blog

December 8 Elena Maria Vidal

December 9 Victoria Ryan

December 10 Michael Seagriff

December  11 Patrice MacArthur

December 12  Amanda Lauer

December 13 Theresa Linden

December 14 Jeanie Egolf

 

Special release sale!

Only 2.99 USD on Kindle until Christmas! ($4.99 USD regular price)

Only 12.99 USD Print book until Christmas! (15.99 (USD regular price)


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This article contains Amazon affiliate links. Your purchases using these links support my work at no additional cost to you.

On my bookshelf with shelf of Catholic fiction

For Your Advent Reading Pleasure: Grace in Tension

Advent is a busy time for moms. Advent is a time when we can definitely give in to that temptation to be “anxious and worried about many things” — after all, we’re usually the ones who take care of all those details that make our family’s Advent and Christmas celebrations meaningful and special. That means we’re often taking on too much, and midway through Advent finding ourselves nowhere near that ideal of peaceful, intentional preparation.
It’s good, during Advent, to take a little time for ourselves and use the techniques Claire McGarry shares in Grace in Tension to acknowledge our feelings, make an effort to view the situation through God’s eyes, and take action to scale back, even in small ways, so this holy season doesn’t become an unholy frenzy.
Grace in Tension

Why I love this book:

For Catholic women who, like me, deeply identify with Martha in her worry and distraction, Claire’s balanced discussion of how busy women can learn to sit at the feet of Jesus is both a challenge and a gift. Learn to find the grace amid your daily cares and burdens.

When we think about the story of Mary and Martha, it’s very easy to fall into the “Martha bad, Mary good” trap. Claire does not do that in Grace in Tension (and that’s why I’m reading the book for a second time).

When Mary chooses to sit at Jesus’ feet while Martha chooses to serve, I think initially Jesus approves. He knows both decisions are made with the sisters’ hearts. Each sister is living out her “better part” by drawing closer to God with her choice. It’s clear that sitting and listening to all that Jesus has to say definitely brings Mary closer to God. After all, Jesus affirms her choice by calling it “the better part.” Yet choosing to serve Jesus as Martha does can bring her closer to God too. There’s a sacrifice that comes from serving and a beauty in putting others’ needs before our own. Both paths lead straight to God. Martha’s problem isn’t that she chooses to serve. It’s that she eventually compares her choice with her sister’s. (67)

 

It’s not highly likely that I’ll be able to change my natural Martha tendencies. Cooking for my family and our guests is a big part of how I show my love. And over the years, I am happy to report that I have mellowed, so my family doesn’t have to live with Screaming Meemie Party Mom (yes, I’ve been called that and yes, I’m 100% guilty) every time company is expected.

I probably can’t change my tendencies, but as Claire encourages readers of Grace in Tension, I can — and should — derail the anxiety and worry that I often allow to carry me away from the joy of the moment. By taking steps like choosing a new response, drawing healthy boundaries, asking for help (and accepting it without judging), and adjusting expectations, in addition to the 10 other steps Claire outlines in this book, I can find the gifts God has for me in the moments where He has placed me.

Advent is a time to sit at God’s feet. And it’s usually a time when we wrap gifts. This Advent, unwrap God’s gift to you: the grace within your tension and the transformation of your heart and mind.


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz

This article contains Amazon links. Your purchase using these links provides a small bonus to me at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support.

Open book autumn

An Open Book: October 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

Jennifer the Damned by Karen Ullo. This is not at all the kind of book I usually read. I don’t touch horror or vampire fiction at all. It is a testament to Karen Ullo’s skill as a writer that I stuck with this book beyond the first 2 chapters – and more than that, couldn’t wait to keep reading. Normally I think of horror books as about as anti-Catholic as they can be, with religion either anathema or afterthought or, at best, superstition. But this is a very, very Catholic book, dealing with themes of conscience, our immortal souls, and the overarching power of the sacraments. The many sides of the title character are well explored: Jennifer as vampire, Jennifer as teenager trying to fit into that world, Jennifer as a child abandoned by her mother (and clearly traumatized by the facts of her own situation and what her mother has taught her), Jennifer as a young woman raised in a convent by religious sisters who don’t know the whole story.

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan. A World War II novel of the British home front. This book really brought home the kinds of deprivations citizens of the UK suffered during the war. Two sisters, a servant, and a professional chef compete for the opportunity to host a radio show helping homemakers work around food shortages and serve nutritious and good-tasting food to their family. All of them face threats to their way of life, and their stories intertwine in interesting and surprising ways. The book includes recipes, but except for the scones, I’ll pass (sheep’s head roll? no way). This was an enjoyable story, with an ending you won’t see coming.

A Freedom Such as Heaven Intended by Amanda Lauer. The latest “Heaven Intended” book, set in the same timeline as A Life Such as Heaven Intended, follows a group of runaway slaves as they begin a perilous and uncertain journey to freedom. Plenty of historical detail leaves the reader immersed in the world of Civil War-era Georgia, as characters struggle to discern whether to risk their lives in the service of others. Faith plays a role, in often surprising ways, in the twists and turns of the plot of this compelling novel. (Advance copy provided by the author.)

A Song for the Road by Kathleen M. Basi. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel where I’ve identified so deeply with a character as I did with Miriam Tedesco, who undertook a cross-country road trip a year after the death of her husband and their twin teenagers in order to handle some unfinished business that was deepening her grief. It wasn’t so much Miriam’s circumstances as it was her personality that I related to: she reacted to things in much the same way I do. Along the way, Miriam encountered a young pregnant woman traveling alone and clearly hiding a medical secret. Outside of a few misses in the Catholic details (Miriam was the music director at a Catholic church) this was a flawless read.

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline. A young woman, physically handicapped due to a mysterious childhood illness (rheumatic fever or polio?), lives in an isolated area of coastal Maine. Artist Andrew Wyeth used her as the inspiration for a famous painting, as she hosted him in the summer for two entire decades, even as her own isolation and physical limitations made the scope of her world no larger than her own living room. This is the kind of book you wish would go on forever – and at 352 pages, it’s good and long already – perfect for a long winter’s read!

The Fault Between Us by Bette Lee Crosby. Historical fiction about the San Francisco Earthquake. Templeton, a driven young woman from Philadelphia who wants nothing more than to create her own fashion line, has a whirlwind romance with a man from California, who marries her and brings her to his grand home in San Francisco. Templeton throws herself into fulfilling her professional ambitions, leaving ideas about family life to the side until tragedy strikes: while she is back in Philadelphia visiting family and experiencing a complicated pregnancy, the earthquake devastates her neighborhood, and her father makes a perilous journey to California to try to find Templeton’s husband. I couldn’t put this one down.

 

YA/Children’s

Dare to be MoreDare to be More: The Witness of Blessed Carlo Acutis by Colleen and Matt Swaim. The 48-page book contains photos of Carlo Acutis throughout his life: as a young child, in kindergarten, building a snowman, praying in an Adoration chapel, and even with his puppy and his soccer team. The book, appropriate for readers 10 and up, discusses the many ways this teenager changed others’ lives for the better. The Swaims explain the Church’s process of declaring someone a saint and describe the miraculous healing of a child in Brazil, healing that has been attributed to the intercession of Carlo Acutis. This led to Acutis’ beatification in October 2020. (Advance copy received from publisher. Read my full review.)

 

Nonfiction

Saintly Moms: 25 Stories of Holiness by Kelly Ann Guest. Moms need friends to inspire us in our vocation, no matter what our stage of motherhood. Kelly Guest’s book introduces you to 25 saintly friends to encourage you in the challenges of parenting. Meet a new holy BFF, and gain a fresh perspective on familiar motherly saints. Saints highlighted in this book include the Blessed Mother, St. Monica, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Rita of Cascia, Venerable Margaret Bosco, St. Gianna Molla, and more, and for the most part are arranged in chronological order. (Advance copy received from publisher; full review coming soon.)

 

Behold the Handmaid of the Lord: A 10-Day Personal Retreat with St. Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary simplifies de Montfort’s approach without watering down its wisdom. The book, new from Ave Maria Press, is a do-it-yourself retreat that helps readers learn more about Marian consecration. Fr. Edward Looney dedicates each of the ten days of the retreat to a different title of Mary, consolidating teachings from True Devotion to Mary to clarify the rich writings and deepen devotion to the Blessed Mother. His writing style is clear and approachable, and both his scholarship and dedication to Mary are evident throughout the book. Each day’s chapter is 10 pages or less (in a small-format book; it measures just under 5×7 inches) and begins with a teaching on that day’s title of Mary, a prayer for the day, and a traditional Marian prayer or hymn. (Advance copy received from publisher. Read my full 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 2021 Barb Szyszkiewcz

Image: Stencil Pro

statue of Blessed Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus

A Simpler Approach to Marian Consecration

Do you want to grow closer to the Blessed Mother, but find yourself intimidated by the lengthy devotions and lofty language of St. Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary?  Fr. Edward Looney, a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay and vice president of the Mariological Society of America, has put together a new book to help you prepare for a 33-day consecration to Jesus through Mary.

 

Behold the Handmaid of the Lord

 

Behold the Handmaid of the Lord: A 10-Day Personal Retreat with St. Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary simplifies de Montfort’s approach without watering down its wisdom. The book, new from Ave Maria Press, is a do-it-yourself retreat that helps readers learn more about Marian consecration.

God is at work through Marian consecration; it is powerful, and it changes lives. (xv)

Fr. Edward dedicates each of the ten days of the retreat to a different title of Mary, consolidating teachings from True Devotion to Mary to clarify the rich writings and deepen devotion to the Blessed Mother. His writing style is clear and approachable, and both his scholarship and dedication to Mary are evident throughout the book.

Each day’s chapter is 10 pages or less (in a small-format book; it measures just under 5×7 inches) and begins with a teaching on that day’s title of Mary, a prayer for the day, and a traditional Marian prayer or hymn. I was surprised to find that Serdeczna Matko (“Stainless the Maiden”), a traditional Polish Marian hymn I recently sang at a funeral at my parish, was one of the hymns included in the book. Its English translation, which I had never read, is beautiful. Other prayers and hymns include the Memorare, Regina Caeli, and “Ave Maris Stella.”

During this retreat, readers will learn about these Marian titles and devotions:

  • Queen of All Saints
  • Our Lady of the Holy Trinity
  • The New Eve
  • Mother of the Interior Life
  • Mother of Disciples
  • Star of the Sea
  • Queen of All Hearts
  • Mediatrix of Grace
  • The Mold of God
  • My Mother and My Queen

I recommend that you keep a pen and journal close at hand as you read Behold the Handmaid of the Lord. I was highlighting this book all over the place as I read!

Bonus material in this book includes a chart of dates to begin Marian consecrations to end on feasts of Mary. The next three start dates are November 5, November 9, and November 29. Another very useful section is a list of 17 devotional practices found in the writings of St. Louis de Montfort. Many of these are practices you can begin with your family, such as praying the Rosary, carrying a Rosary in your pocket, praying or singing prayers and hymns in Mary’s honor, and placing an image of Mary in a place of honor in your home.

Fr. Edward Looney has written several books about Mary and frequently posts on social media about his visits to Marian shrines throughout the United States. Listen to his How They Love Mary podcast on Spotify or your favorite podcast app.


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Image: Stencil
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.
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.