On Barb’s Bookshelf: “Born to Soar,” a spiritual journal

The beautiful monarch butterfly is the source of much fascination, the subject of many grade-school science lessons, and the motif around which Born to Soar, Melissa Overmyer’s new Scripture and prayer journal (Servant Books, 2017), was created.

The image of soaring flight evoked by a brilliant butterfly is a metaphor for the soaring prayer experiences described in the poetry of the mystic St. John of the Cross. The author includes short excerpts of this mystical poetry to remind the reader that, in prayer, our hearts seek to soar toward heaven.

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This journal is designed to be used over the course of six weeks, so it’s a perfect summer spiritual retreat. Each of the six chapters of the book corresponds to one of the stages in the life cycle of the caterpillar who ultimately becomes a beautiful butterfly. That science lesson we remember from grade school becomes a lesson for our souls in Born to Soar.

Don’t let the butterflies and flowers on the cover of the book fool you: this journal is designed to push you out of your spiritual comfort zone and motivate you to explore ways in which you can take the risk of growing closer to God.

Praying through journaling can be a liberating and beautiful means of expression. Your writing can take on the feeling of a love letter or a song and can be accompanied by a heart-wrenching release of emotions. . . . Do not be afraid of writing down how you truly feel — God knows your heart already. Instead, offer yourself — in all your beauty and your brokenness — freely to God and ask him to use your journal to bring you closer to him. Do not be afraid to give it all to God, who can turn our ashes to beauty, heal our deepest wounds, and set us free. (from the Introduction, p. xvii)

Each of the six sessions follows this format:

  • Description of the physical stage of the caterpillar’s life cycle
  • Overmyer’s reflection on how this stage compares to the process of spiritual renewal
  • Thoughts to ponder, with space for journaling
  • A moment with St. John of the Cross, including a quote from the saint’s writings, questions for reflection, and space for journaling
  • Thoughts for discussion (for group discussion or journal prompts)
  • Prayer
  • A “renewing truth” to be revisited on multiple occasions during the course of the week
  • Scripture passages for daily reflection, followed by a journal prompt and space for writing

I’d recommend Born to Soar to any reader who seeks to go deeper in the spiritual life. Overmyer makes the mystical works of St. John of the Cross accessible even to people like me who tend toward the practical. Her inviting approach and simple language engage the reader; I found myself wanting to go beyond each day’s reflections because I was hungry for what would come next.
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This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz

On Barb’s Bookshelf: Turning in Circles

“If only we had known.”

That’s the refrain at the heart of Michelle Buckman‘s latest novel for teens: Turning in Circles, a story of sisters, small-town secrets and teenage rebellion. So close in age that they’re in the same grade at school, Savannah and Charleston have always done everything together. That’s changing now that they’re teenagers. Charleston is younger but more strong-willed and independent than her naive sister Savannah.

turning in circles

The novel is a study in character contrast. Older sister Savannah is deliberate, careful and cautious. Resistant to change, she’s a rule-follower and a worrier. Charleston, on the other hand, lives for the thrill of taking risks: she’s impulsive and rebellious.

Charleston’s first love is the neighborhood “bad boy,” Dillon, who finds trouble to spare–while Ellerbe, the quintessential good guy and boy next door, crushes on clueless Savannah.

Savannah, busy covering for her sister who’s sneaking off to meet Dillon, uncovers way too many long-buried secrets as she seeks a way to protect her sister from her boyfriend. You know this won’t end well, but the ending is not what you expect. At the same time, it’s the only ending possible.

This Southern YA novel is appropriate for high-school students.

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This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz

On Barb’s Bookshelf: McCracken and the Lost Lady

Engineer, solver of mysteries, faithful Catholic and owner of a zeppelin: “Mac” McCracken is an intriguing character even before he ventures into the Russian wilderness in search of a lost icon.

Fifth in Mark Adderley’s adventure series for readers 10 and up, McCracken and the Lost Lady can be read as a standalone story due to the author’s careful inclusion of just enough backstory to inform the reader of what came before–without quenching the reader’s desire to read the rest of the novels.

Lost Lady Front Cover

In the spring of 1917, the world is embroiled in an ugly war and on the brink of change as revolutionaries are poised to take over the government in Russia. McCracken and his team overhear a conversation that leads them straight to Lenin, then receive a surprise commission to seek out the missing icon of the Blessed Mother: the lost Lady of Kazan. Restoration of this icon to its proper place is key to bringing peace to the world.

As we celebrate the centennial of the Fatima apparitions this year, McCracken and the Lost Lady is the perfect historical fiction to accompany a discussion of the historical context of the Blessed Mother’s message at Fatima.

Readers will enjoy the suspense and adventure that follows McCracken as he travels the world with his wife and toddler plus a fascinating crew from all over the world–in a zeppelin complete with its own library, chef’s kitchen, and a wealth of scientific equipment.

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This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

On Barb’s Bookshelf: The Happy Jar

I’m always happy to review children’s books. I may not be reading them along with (or ahead of) my kids anymore, but since I volunteer in the school library, I spend a few hours each week surrounded by children’s books and children asking for book recommendations.

happy jar

Jake Frost’s new picture book, The Happy Jar, is one I’ll definitely recommend to young readers, but I think it’s most effective as a read-aloud.

That’s because The Happy Jar, as the back-cover blurb indicates, is “about life’s little moments and the love that transforms them into memories for a lifetime.” Jake’s inspiration for this book was an idea his oldest child came up with when she was only four years old. In the book, the little girl explains,

“Every night when we say our prayers, we also say something from the day that goes in our Happy Jar, and we thank Jesus for it.”

What a wonderful bedtime-prayer ritual, and what a great story of the daddy-daughter bond. Then again, the bond between father and child is the signature topic for Jake Frost, and one he explores with great humor and tenderness.

The illustrations in this book stand apart from many of the children’s books that are published today. While these illustrations are brightly-colored, they’re not garish or glaring. They’re simple and engaging, just right for a bedtime-story book.

When you read The Happy Jar with your young child, you’ll be reminded that the best memories don’t have to cost a lot of money. Many of the best memories don’t cost any money: they’re just based on time spent together, having fun, letting children use their imaginations and enjoying the world around you.

After you read The Happy Jar with your young child, ask what they would like to add to their “happy jar” that day.

I know it’s early to be thinking about Father’s Day already, but this book is a perfect gift for a small child to give to Daddy on Father’s Day.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

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Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS

On Barb’s Bookshelf: Broken Brain, Fortified Faith

Virginia Pillars’ memoir of a mother navigating the world of parenting a young adult with a brand-new diagnosis schizophrenia is at once heart-wrenching, informative and inspiring. In Broken Brain, Fortified Faith, Pillars honestly describes her day-by-day experience with her daughter’s illness and recovery, with a view toward helping other families whose lives are touched by a frustrating disease.

While this book chronicles several very difficult years for Virginia Pillars’ entire family, the author never loses hope. The book’s subtitle, “Lessons of Hope through a Child’s Mental Illness,” proclaims loud and clear that while this story contains plenty of tears, the trials this family endured did not break them. God did not abandon them. Yes, there were times when the author questioned her ability to trust God, but again and again she was reminded to rely on her faith. Some of my favorite parts of this book were Pillars’ reflections on the devotionals she was reading during the time the events of this book took place.

The author of the day’s devotional . . . reminded me of life’s ups and downs, joys and sorrows. But most importantly, I held on to the idea: God will not abandon me in any circumstance.
The idea brought comfort to me as I thought about how recently it felt like I had trudged through one crisis after another; I felt like the proverbial boat, drifting away from my shore of faith.
I closed my book and pondered what I had just read. Is this what you want me to know, God? Keep my eyes on You? The thought “When things get hard, depend on Me; draw close to Me” remained in my soul as I went about my day. (206-7)

The author’s conversational style make a book with challenging subject matter easy to read. Pillars takes a day-by-day approach through the difficult months of diagnosis and a search for appropriate treatment, bringing the reader along for the ride to hospitals, waiting rooms, and therapists’ offices. Her first impulse, when hearing of any kind of setback, is to place her daughter in God’s hands, asking Him to be with her in that time of crisis.

And yes, setbacks happened. Schizophrenia is not an easy illness to treat, so there were definitely “one step forward, two steps back” moments–and difficult times for other family members as well. Pillars’ other children and grandchildren went through some of their own health crises during this time (I’ll tell you right now, you’re going to want tissues handy once you reach chapter 24).

It’s not a spoiler to mention that Virginia Pillars is very dedicated to mental-health advocacy now. She reaches out to others through her website, support groups, and her book. At the end of the book you’ll find a list of books, websites and other resources to help families affected by mental illness.

broken brain fortified faith

About the author: Virginia Pillars lives on a farm, along with her husband of forty-two years, where she also operates an embroidery business. Virginia is the mother of four, one of whom suffered from a mental illness, and a grandmother of four with a passion for reaching out to families who are also affected. She volunteers both as an educator and support group leader for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and speaks to organizations on the effects of mental illness on families. Virginia became certified in First Aid for Mental Health in 2014. She has also been a frequent speaker on her faith journey to both youth and adults for over twenty-five years. Virginia is a member of the Catholic Writers Guild. She details her journey through mental illness with her child in her memoir, Broken Brain, Fortified Faith: Lessons of Hope Through a Child’s Mental Illness. Published in September, 2016, it is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and all independent book stores. Find Virginia’s blog at VirginiaPillars.com; follower her on Twitter @VirginiaPillars.

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This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.
Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS

On Barb’s Bookshelf: Fatima, the Apparition that Changed the World

As the Church marks the 100th anniversary of the Fatima apparitions, it seems that everyone is reading about Fatima. Jean Heimann, longtime Catholic blogger and author of two books on the saints, offers a historical view of the Blessed Mother’s apparitions to three young children in Portugal in her new book, Fatima: The Apparition that Changed the World, coming May 22 from TAN Books.

Besides a careful chronology of the six apparitions of 1917, this book provides a fascinating chapter titled “The Popes and Fatima.” This chapter explores the significance of the Fatima apparitions in Catholic life and in world history. I was surprised to learn that there were no papal visits to Fatima before 1967, although it is clear from the information in this chapter that the popes before that time all found the apparitions and the Fatima message compelling.

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This book leaves the reader wondering: how will the world continue to change as a result of the Fatima message? Heimann makes it clear what ordinary Catholics can do to effect change in the world, explaining,

Our Lady’s message was not only relevant for the time period during which it occurred. It is a message that remains relevant for us today. In fact, Pope John Paul II has told us that the message of Fatima is even more relevant for us today than it was when it was first given to the visionaries by Our Lady in 1917.

Today, we are facing the greatest spiritual battle of our time. Radical secularism has become the new communism in our Western civilization. . . . Secularism seeks to remove religion from the public square, to steal our religious freedoms, and to weaken the sanctity of human life by promoting abortion and attacking the basic tenets of Christian morality, particularly in regards to marriage and family life. (118-19)

Heimann concludes that we must follow Our Lady’s call to live the message of Fatima in our daily life.

Fatima: The Apparition that Changed the World is available in both hardcover and Kindle formats; because the book is packed with compelling historical photos, I recommend the print edition so you’ll be able to enjoy the full-size pictures.

author Jean HeimannAbout the author: Jean M. Heimann is a Catholic author and a freelance writer with an M.A. in Theology, a parish minister and speaker, a psychologist and educator, and an Oblate with the Community of St. John. She is a member of the Blue Army and founder of Our Lady of Fatima Rosary and Study group. Jean is the author of Seven Saints for Seven Virtues (Servant, 2014) and Learning to Love with the Saints, A Spiritual Memoir (Mercy, 2016). Visit Jean at her website through which you can access her award-wining blog, Catholic Fire.

Visit the other stops on Jean Heimann’s Fatima Blog Tour:

May 1 – Carolyn Astfalk, My Scribbler’s Heart

May 2 – Ellen Gable, Plot, Line, and Sinker

May 3 – Virginia Lieto, VirginiaLieto.com

May 4 – AnneMarie Miller, Sacrifice of Love

May 6 – Steven R. McEvoy, Book Reviews and More

May 7 – Lisa Hendey, CatholicMom.com

May 8 – Jeannie Ewing, Love Alone Creates

May 9 – Lisa Mladinich, Amazing Catechists

May 10 – AnneMarie Miller, Sacrifice of Love

May 11 – Barb Szyszkiewicz, CatholicMom.com

May 12 – Allison Gingas, Reconciled to You

May 12 – Marge Fenelon, MargeFenelon.com

May 13 – Esther Gefroh, A Catholic Mom in Hawaii
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This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

On Barb’s Bookshelf: A Gathering of Larks

A contemporary poet writes to St. Francis of Assisi as she explores his life with a focus on his choices, mistakes and faith. A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a Modern-Day Pilgrim (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2017) isn’t exactly a biography, but author Abigail Carroll covers the important events in St. Francis’ life while she tries to make sense of the inexplicable in current events.

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Abigail Carroll refuses to fall into the trap of stereotyping St. Francis–and that was a great relief, as I relate to this statement:

For most of my life, the St. Francis I have encountered has been as garden statuary, prayer card images, children’s book illustrations, and stained-glass windows. . . . I attempt to bridge the gap between who Francesco Bernardone really was and who we have made him to be. (viii)

The book begins with a short biography of St. Francis that does not gloss over the tough-to-think-about parts or romanticize anything. The poem I enjoyed most is a prose-poem titled “Dear Reluctant Saint” that describes modern-day Assisi, explaining how commercialized it’s become without exactly saying how much he’d hate something like that.

Don’t skip the Conversation with the Author at the end of the book, in which she discusses faith, poetry, and what most intrigues her about St. Francis.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is the various titles Carroll uses to address St. Francis. Reminiscent of the stock epithets in Greek poetry, these titles help to define St. Francis and are thematically related to the issue explored in each particular poem.

This book is highly recommended for anyone with a devotion to St. Francis of Assisi.

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This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS

On Barb’s Bookshelf: God Is Not Fair and Other Reasons for Gratitude

Daniel Horan, OFM’s new book, God Is Not Fair and Other Reasons for Gratitude (Franciscan Media, 2017), is a collection of essays exploring how “the very core of Christianity appears foolish in the world.” (p. 3) This makes it Franciscan to the core: St. Francis of Assisi spent his life as a “fool for Christ” in his quest to fully live the Gospel.

God is not fair

My favorite chapters were the ones that concerned St. Francis and Franciscans. The essay titled “What’s Not-So-Special About Franciscan Spirituality” was a comfort to this Franciscan; I may work with words for my livelihood, but it’s tough to put into words exactly what Franciscan spirituality is about! “The Franciscan tradition advances only the Gospel in a way that is at the same time shockingly simple and incredibly difficult.” (p. 41)

The second section of the book, “Gospel and Culture,” is an exploration of how we can go about living the Gospel. It’s not easy, and it’s going to be different for every person–but it’s a question we all must seek to answer.

I had to read almost half this book before finding the reason for the title, but when I got there, the central premise behind the book became clear after the author considered two of Jesus’ more difficult parables regarding fairness, the story of the Prodigal Son and the one about the vineyard owner who paid all workers the same wage regardless of what time they started.

It is difficult for us to accept the gratuitous love, generosity and mercy of God. We hold one another accountable to rules of fairness, sometimes even baptized in the water of religion, but it is not the radical unfairness of God; it is not the radical justice that is equivalent to God’s infinite mercy. (p. 61)

Father Horan and I do not see eye-to-eye on many matters. I knew that before picking up this book, and I wondered a bit what I could learn from someone with whom I disagree on certain subjects. A few statements made in the book reinforced my disagreement with Father Horan–but those are specifics, and I don’t think they’re deal-breakers. Ultimately, this book is written for people seeking to model their lives more closely to the Gospel standard. While the author and I approach this differently, we still aim for the same target.
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This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book by the publisher, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS

On Barb’s Bookshelf: Rightfully Ours

I’m thrilled to help introduce Carolyn Astfalk’s most-recent novel, Rightfully Ours (Full Quiver Publishing, 2017.) This one is written for the YA audience, but I’ve read it twice already and savored every page, so don’t leave it for just teenagers to enjoy! The book is already available for Kindle and the print edition can be pre-ordered–it will ship the week after Easter.

Rightfully Ours blog book tour/Barb Szyszkiewicz/Franciscanmom.com
Copyright 2017 Carolyn Astfalk. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

In this refreshing YA romance, readers have the chance to get into the head of the romantic hero. Paul lives in the Muellers’ guesthouse during his father’s deployment. He and Rachel, his landlords’ daughter, find their friendship turning into something deeper; while they struggle against temptation and Rachel’s dad’s opposition to their relationship, they discover historic artifacts buried beneath Rachel’s flower garden. I found Paul to be a more likable character than Rachel, perhaps because she is a few years younger than he and a little more immature.

A coming-of-age story of first love, buried treasure, and discovering some things are worth the wait.

 

One of the ways Carolyn helps to make her characters more real to the reader is by offering extras such as recipes, playlists and more. In this novel, music plays a huge role: when Paul inherits his father’s iPod, he listens to it to keep his connection to his dad alive. He puts the songs on shuffle and discovers that very often the song lyrics speak directly to a situation he’s working through. Carolyn has set up a Spotify playlist with the songs referenced in the novel. You can find that playlist, plus two recipes and other bonus content, on the Rightfully Ours Extras page.

Carolyn describes Rightfully Ours as a “Theology of the Body coming-of-age story.” That doesn’t mean it’s full of heavy theological content. It does mean that this book deals with the very real issues of sexual temptation that teens face, and the characters are challenged to reconcile their moral beliefs with their impulses to give in to that temptation. Readers also get a look at what parents of teenagers go through when they see their teens facing these issues.

Rightfully Ours cover

About the author: Carolyn Astfalk is a friend of mine and fellow Catholic Writers Guild member. She resides with her husband and four children in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where it smells like either chocolate or manure, depending on wind direction. Carolyn is the author of the inspirational romances Stay With Me and Ornamental Graces and the coming-of-age story Rightfully Ours. Carolyn is a member of the Catholic Writers Guild and Pennwriters and a CatholicMom.com contributor. Formerly, she served as the communications director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the public affairs agency of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops. True to her Pittsburgh roots, she still says “pop” instead of “soda,” although her beverage of choice is tea.You can find her online here: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and at CarolynAstfalk.com.

 

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Visit the other stops on the Rightfully Ours book launch tour:

Monday, April 3 Virginia Lieto http://virginialieto.com

Tuesday, April 4 Bird Face Wendy https://birdfacewendy.wordpress.com

Wednesday, April 5 Plot Line and Sinker https://ellengable.wordpress.com

Thursday, April 6 Sarah Damm http://sarahdamm.com and Our Hearts are Restless heartsarerestless.blogspot.com

Saturday, April 8 Olivia Folmar Ard http://www.oliviafolmarard.com

Sunday, April 9 Things Visible & Invisible https://catholicbooksblog.wordpress.com/

Monday, April 10 Terry’s Thoughts www.thouchin.com and Erin McCole Cupp http://erinmccolecupp.com

Thursday, April 11 Peace to All Who Enter Here dmulcare.wordpress.com

Wednesday, April 12 Plot Line and Sinker https://ellengable.wordpress.com

 

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This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz

On Barb’s Bookshelf: All In

Pat Gohn is “all in” with her faith, and it shows. She hosts Among Women, a podcast that celebrates faithful women through interviews and stories of saints. She’s the editor of Catechist magazine. And her first book, Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious (Ave Maria Press, 2013), challenged women to be bold about living their faith.

Pat’s second book, All In (Ave Maria Press, 2017), is addressed to an audience that might be dealing with discouragement, uncertainty, and a lack of deep commitment. Subtitled, “Why Belonging to the Catholic Church Matters,” this book encourages readers to begin by making a healthy self-assessment of their faith. In chapter 1, Pat observes,

“Even though I may not always feel like a confident person and I fail and flail on a regular basis, my own frailties do not undermine my confidence in my faith. They provide a catalyst to turn to my faith and to place my trust and hope in the eternal truth and goodness of a God who loves me. God came to save and redeem every frailty, every weakness, every sin, and every broken heart.” (15)

all in

Pat is realistic about facing the obstacles that come with an imperfect Church. Because the “flawed humanity of the institution of the Church” (32) is clearly visible and often well-publicized, it can lead people to question why and whether to stand with the Church. Pat responds to this stumbling block by reminding the reader that the Church is the Bride of Christ, delving deep into marriage imagery and concluding that the Church’s “source of power is the Beloved who came from Heaven in search of her, and who longs for her to make her home with him there.” (42)

Honest discussions of sin, mercy, grace, the Sacraments, and human dignity fill out this book. Each chapter concludes with a 3-part reflection: pray, learn and engage. This last section includes concrete action steps readers can take to heal or deepen their relationship with God and with the Church.

This book is just as much for the struggling and/or “recovering” Catholic as it is for the faithful churchgoer. Readers on any stop along their faith journey can benefit from the wisdom and action steps provided here, on their way to going “all in.”

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This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you!

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS