Theresa Linden Talks About her New Novel, “Fire Starters”

The teenage characters in Theresa Linden’s West Brothers series grapple with tough issues as they grow in faith. Fire Starters centers on the sacrament of Confirmation, the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, and whether a person must feel ready before they can receive grace. This novel is a great read for teens in youth groups or sacrament prep.

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This is the final book in the series, which includes six books for teens and one spinoff novel for adult readers. I’m such a fan of the characters in this series that I’m really sad to see it go, and I admit to hounding Theresa a bit, trying to convince her to tell more West Brothers stories.

I guess that didn’t make her too mad, because she graciously answered my questions about Fire Starters, the West Brothers, and her other projects (she’s a busy writer!).

What made you choose a Confirmation-themed book as the one to end the series?

Several things … first, I have a special love for the Holy Spirit, and this is His sacrament. Through it, we receive a deepening of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit! But both the Holy Spirit and Confirmation are often misunderstood. Maybe it’s just that we can more easily relate to the other persons of the Blessed Trinity because of family. And the signs of the other sacraments make their grace clear. I love bringing Catholic truth to life through a story, so I hope this story will help readers understand both the Holy Spirit and Confirmation at a deeper level.

Second, since the current tradition in most Catholic rites is to receive Confirmation in the teen years, I thought it would be great to focus on this sacrament in this teen fiction series. I would love for my teen readers to understand the amazing grace we receive—just as the Apostles did on Pentecost, how we become soldiers of Christ in a war between the people of God and the powers of hell, how we receive supernatural help to defend our faith and advance the Kingdom of God.

Third, as I was writing Standing Strong, the fourth book in the series, I realized that the history I’ve created over the years for the West brothers made it likely that they missed this sacrament. The boys lost their mother at a young age and their father fell away from the faith as a result. They continued to attend Mass now and then with the Digbys, their live-in housekeeper and groundskeeper, but they did not continue their faith formation. So they missed Confirmation!

I also think it works well for a final story for this teen fiction series because Confirmation equips a person to live their faith as an adult. It is the foundation for each person’s vocation. So now the West Brothers are prepared for the world and their individual vocations, even if they don’t figure them out right away.

What has surprised you most about the West Brothers series?

While I know the characters inside and out and I enjoy writing the West Brothers stories, I found myself struggling to write this last book, Fire Starters. I guess I had a bad case of writer’s block. I even started to think that I would not complete the story, that I was done with writing.

Then a friend from church had to go out of town and asked me to take over her Adoration hour for two weeks. So I did. And while I was kneeling in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, the story themes began to come to me. I went home and started writing. My writer’s block was gone! I was able to write every single day until the story was completed, and it was completed in record time.

I feel bad for this year’s Confirmation candidates because of how different things are this year. Many won’t be Confirmed by a bishop, and there will likely be a limit to the number of people that can witness their Confirmations. So I’ve dedicated Fire Starters to them, and I’m happy that the book will be released on Pentecost.

Do you have a favorite among the main characters in the series? 

When I’m writing a story, I get so deep into the point-of-view character’s head. I understand why they make their choices, what they struggle with, and what their hopes and dreams are. So they are all my favorites!

Jarret’s perspective has always been fun to write. He starts the series, in Roland West, Loner, so completely selfish and egotistical. In the second book, Life-Changing Love, he’s even worse. His poor choices hurt others, but they also hurt himself. By the end of this book, through his younger brother’s persistence, he begins to think about the consequences of his actions. He takes a big step to change a big mistake, but he’s still not a transformed character.

In the third book, Battle for His Soul, when his twin stops following his lead and his girlfriend breaks up with him, he falls into a pit of despair. This is his guardian angel’s story, and I really enjoyed showing how much his guardian angels loves him and even how his younger brother, Roland, loves him, despite his mistakes. Jarret is a bit more vulnerable in this story, and his conversion at the end is the result of a hard-fought battle that many took part in.

In Standing Strong, he faces something we all do: how do you remain faithful to God when faced with the same temptations? He’s really trying by the final book in the series, Fire Starters, but he’s a bit hard on himself. It’s been fun to show this character’s struggles and growth. Jarret brings out the best and worst in the other characters too.

One of your sons is the inspiration for a character in this book. What’s the story behind his appearance in the novel?

My youngest son, Cisco, is sixteen. He loves reading. He never returns from the library without a massive stack of books. And he’s even written a few stories of his own, Walrus vs. Aliens being his favorite. While I was brainstorming ideas for Fire Starters, he asked if he could be a character in the story. He enjoys reading and writing, why not be a character in a story too? I loved the idea!

I used Cisco’s name, appearance, and skills for this minor character that becomes friends with Roland West. They meet at a shooting range. The West brothers have always enjoyed archery and marksmanship, and my son loves shooting too. He has participated in two different junior shooters programs for years and has always been quite good at it. He’s almost reached the expert level, which is as high as he can go with those programs!

Since Cisco enjoyed being a character, I might even write him into the dystopian I’m working on. Our dog, Rudy, who passed away some months ago, will also be a character in that story.

What other projects are you working on?

While my first love is teen fiction, I also write adult fiction and children’s books. I am currently working on the artwork for the Armor of God children’s chapter book fantasy-adventure series. Book two came out this May, and I hope to release the other four books in the series as soon as possible.

I have also started another book for teens, this one a historical dystopian. I know that sounds like a strange combination, but I’m really excited about this story. It begins in the year 33 AD and jumps forward to a dystopian future.

west brothers series

Synopsis:

The moment Peter Brandt discovers archenemy Jarret West is a Confirmation candidate, the ceiling of St. Michael’s Church caves in. He soon learns none of the West brothers have received the sacrament: Keefe is looking forward to it, Roland hates drawing attention to himself, and Jarret doesn’t think he’s worthy. Before Peter gets over his shock, whispers of bad news surround him. Parishioners suspect that the parish will soon close and be merged with a neighboring, newly remodeled church.

Peter’s friend Caitlyn is anxious to help, but her life comes crashing down when her mother leaves to aid her aged parents. Now Caitlyn is homeschooling with a neighboring family and caring for her younger siblings, and she can’t see her friends at school. Peter and Caitlyn soon suspect that someone might be behind the potential closing of their church. Not one to give up easily, Caitlyn suggests the Fire Starters help with preparing the West brothers and saving the church.

Read Them All!

While you don’t have to read the entire West Brothers series before reading Fire Starters, I definitely recommend that you do! This series includes a terrific cast of characters.

The West Brothers series (in order)

Roland West, Loner
Life-Changing Love
Battle for His Soul
Standing Strong
Roland West, Outcast
Fire Starters

 

Adult Spinoff from the West Brothers Series

Anyone But Him

anyone but hi

Visit TheresaLinden.com to learn more.


Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz

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.

An Open Book: April 2020 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

subway girlsThe Subway Girls by Suzie Orman Schnall. The stories of a modern-day advertising executive and a postwar coed with big dreams intersect in this dual-timeline novel based on a real advertising campaign for New York’s mass-transit system. Seeking a fresh advertising angle, Olivia comes across records of the Subway Girls ad campaign and seeks to reinvent the concept. In the late 1940s, Charlotte chased her dreams of making it big in the advertising world, bypassing the typing pool in favor of an appearance on subway posters in the hopes of helping her family’s business and escaping family obligations. A little predictable, but an enjoyable novel.

victorias warVictoria’s War by Catherine A. Hamilton. A Polish Catholic teenager struggles to survive, keep her faith, and help others during World War II. Captured by Nazis, Victoria was sold as a slave to work in a German bakery, where the deaf daughter of the proprietors has already faced abuse due to the Nazi eugenics policy and regularly finds ways to assist pregnant women in labor camps and women captured as sex slaves. An intense novel filled with strong female characters.(Netgalley review; coming June 2020)

moondrop miracleMoondrop Miracle by Jennifer Lamont Leo. In 1928 a young socialite married an up-and-coming financier who loses his own fortune in the 1929 crash, along with that of many of his friends. Left to fend for herself with a baby on the way, Connie decides to market and manufacture the skin-care tonic her eccentric aunt invented (the recipe was given to Connie as a wedding gift). A cottage industry slowly develops into a skin-care empire in this well-told tale that paints a vivid picture of the mid-twentieth century. (Advance review copy received from author.)

logging offLogging Off by Nick Spalding. Andy Bellows is addicted to his cell phone, and his doctor recommends a total detox. Afraid he won’t be able to stick to the plan on his own, Andy agrees to let his journalist friend chronicle his digital detox journey. The results are hilarious. In the middle of a blind date gone terribly wrong, Andy befriends a barista who also wants to disconnect from her phone. Spalding’s tendency toward hyperbole keeps the story rolling along. Spot-on observations about what too much tech does to people, and a laugh-out-loud skewering of fake Instagram influencers. Very funny British fiction, with a generous sprinkling of f-bombs. (Netgalley review)

sweethaven summerA Sweethaven Summer by Courtney Walsh. Following her mother’s death, Campbell finds pages from an old scrapbook that lead her to reconnect with several of her mom’s childhood friends, hoping to get answers about her father’s identity. Old wounds from everyone’s past are reopened when the friends reunite in the resort community where they’d all spent their summers as teenagers. There’s a hint of a romance to come; I’m wondering if it might be part of the second book in the series — and I do intend to read that second book, because I truly did enjoy these characters and the charming small-town setting of the story. A good girlfriend novel that would make a fun, clean beach read.

barefoot summerBarefoot Summer (A Chapel Springs Romance Book 1) by Denise Hunter. This was an intense story about fear and forgiveness. Madison has dedicated herself to fulfilling her deceased twin brother’s lifelong dream: to win a local regatta before their 27th birthday. But because her brother died by drowning, she’s fearful of water and doesn’t know how to sail. And her swimming and sailing lessons wind up being with Beckett, the very man she blames for her brother’s death. As the regatta approaches, stress takes its toll on Madison and threatens her job. The book definitely had its predictable moments, and Beckett seemed to be too good to be true (even with his wrong-side-of-the-tracks origins) but it’s a good escape read.

loves trialLove’s Trial (First Street Church Romance Book 5) by Melissa Storm. I wasn’t a fan – at all – of Sally, the main character in this novel. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to like her; she’s spent most of her life and all her time in Sweet Grove pushing people away, but wishing she had friends. When the restaurant owner’s grandson, Toby, tries clumsily to flirt with her, she is so rude that I was amazed that he tried again to get to know her. But underneath the prickly character and rough beginning (this was so not a meet-cute) there was a worthwhile story about two wounded people who were both dealing with elders in their life with difficult conditions: one with severe agoraphobia and one with a disease that could be treated but who was too stubborn to take the medicine. It helps to have read other books in the series, but it’s not entirely necessary.

YA/Children’s

brother francisBrother Francis of Assisi by Tomie de Paola. Tomie de Paola was one of my favorite author/illustrators. His books aren’t for the youngest reader, but they’re wonderful read-alouds complemented by beautiful watercolor artwork. Tomie de Paola’s strength was in telling the stories of ordinary days, and in Brother Francis of Assisi, de Paola shines in depicting the everyday holiness of the extraordinary saint of Assisi. The book, newly re-released by Magnificat/Ignatius, offers vignettes about the life of St. Francis and his companions, with text on one page and the story on the other — the full episode on a single two-page spread. The story emphasizes simplicity, devotion, and reverence, and does not portray St. Francis as a political figure or activist. The book concludes with “The Song to the Sun,” which is popularly known as the “Canticle of the Creatures.” (Review copy received from publisher.)

drawing godFor children who enjoy art as much as (or more than) the story, Karen Kiefer’s picture book Drawing God (Paraclete Press) is just right. Kathy De Wit illustrated this book about a child who wants to draw something “beyond spectacular” and decides to draw pictures of God. Break out the art supplies and let your children’s imaginations take over as you encourage them to draw God after reading this story together. At the end of the book, the author offers five ways to bring the lessons in this story to life in your home, classroom, and heart. (Review copy received from publisher.)

Nonfiction

overcommittedOvercommitted: Cut Chaos and Find Balance by Rachel Balducci. This book is perfect for any mom who has too much on her plate, whether or not she works outside the home (maybe in these coronavirus days we need a new phrase for this?). Rachel Balducci candidly shares her own struggles with taking on too much and offers advice for evaluating commitments, making decisions, being willing to serve, and dealing with worry and fear. Each chapter ends with three tips, a personal reflection section that would make great journal prompts, a prayer tip, and a prayer starter. Highly recommended. I want to go through it again with a journal and highlighter close by.


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 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz

#OpenBook: March 2020 Binge Reads

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

Here we are in the first weeks of pandemic social distancing, which means it’s a great time to binge read ALL THE BOOKS. Because distraction is sorely needed. When you can’t leave the house except for groceries, you can still escape into a novel.

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

Fiction

optimists guideThe Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go by Amy E. Reichert. A really enjoyable story about a young widow who’s struggling with her own grief and her middle-school daughter’s, when her very demanding, social-climbing mom suffers a stroke. In caring for her mom, Gina discovers a 40-year-old family secret that explains a lot — and demands even more explanation. Terrific read (and great advice on making terrific grilled cheese!). (Netgalley review)

 

what you wish forWhat You Wish For by Katherine Center. Galveston, TX school librarian Samantha’s new boss is the guy she had a crush on 4 years ago – but now he’s very different. No longer happy-go-lucky, Duncan is only concerned with school safety and seems bent on ridding the school of everything that brought joy to students and staff. A terrific romance and story of the varying effects of trauma on people of all ages. Great read. (Netgalley review; releases July 2020)

finding hopeFinding Hope by Shannon Symonds. When her mother disappears from their trailer, leaving teenager Hope behind with an abusive stepdad, Hope runs away and hides behind a cafe, ultimately making herself indispensable to the inexperienced grandmother who’s working as barista. The barista’s daughter, a social worker, risks her job to help Hope, while other homeless teens in the area get caught up in a sex-trafficking nightmare. Appropriate for older teens and adults.

admissionAdmission by Julie Buxbaum is probably not the book for you if your teenager is in the thick of college application process. Based on the college-admissions scandals of 2019, this novel follows the implosion of one family after a mom who can’t bear to see her daughter attend a non-top-tier school uses an admissions consultant who cheats on the SAT and falsifies an application to get the student into her dream school. There’s a lot of back-and-forth in time, as the author explores who knew what and when. All told from the perspective of the high-school student whose senior year – and family – were wrecked by these actions, this is a well-done take on a real-life news story. (Netgalley review; available May 2020)

BINGE THE SERIES! I read the last three of Amy Matayo’s 4-book Love in Chaos series (I read the first installment back in the summer when it was originally released.) Read them in order for the best experience! These are all disaster suspense, which is kind of a good thing when you need to be reminded that there are people who have it worse than you do.

the waves

aftermath

last shot

reunion

The Waves: Dillon and Liam, both forced to go on a cruise with Dillon’s family, wind up stranded on a tiny deserted island after Dillon tries to escape her family and goes on an impromptu excursion. The two must find ways to survive as they wait and hope for rescue. Good suspense; a clean and sweet romance.

The Aftermath. Riley’s bakery (and some customers) are destroyed in a tornado, and while she tries to hold everything together, a small child wanders in, followed by Chad, who she immediately pushes away while she tries to fix everything on her own. My favorite of the series!

The Last Shot. The intense story of a shooting at a concert and its effects on the country-music star and the security guard who protected him during and after the incident. More than half of the book covers the several hours when singer Teddy and guard Jane hide away from the shooter.

The Reunion. Dillon’s mother is mother-zilla-of-the-bride, but the real wedding disaster happens when a freak snowstorm cripples the area, leaving her possibly without wedding cake and definitely without a venue. Brings together all the principal characters from the previous three books in a fun conclusion to the series.

 

Nonfiction

I was getting started on a very good new book, but I’m having trouble focusing on nonfiction at this point. This isn’t even a review copy — it’s a spiritual read I actually chose for myself, and it was supposed to be my Lenten inspiration. It’s not a long book, so maybe I’ll pick it back up for Holy Week.

let goLet Go: Seven Stumbling Blocks to Christian Discipleship by Casey Cole, OFM. From the blurb: Franciscan Casey Cole challenges us to let go of something more difficult than material wealth: expectations, anxiety, comfort, wounds, enemies, power—and our very selves. Speaking from both personal and pastoral experience, he outlines the stumbling blocks that turn us away from following Jesus as true disciples.

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!

open book logo


Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Hunkering Down in the Domestic Monastery

If ever there was a time when a book like Fr. Ronald Rolheiser’s Domestic Monastery was needed, that time is now. With schools closed and many people telecommuting, our domestic churches have become the centers of our world like never before. Parents like me, long removed from the housebound days with very little children, will re-familiarize themselves with what it’s like to be at home with our families: no school, no sports, no rehearsals, no trips to the movie theater.

I was greeted cheerfully yesterday by my 18-year-old son (my youngest), who’d just learned that he probably won’t be back in school until after Easter: “So who’s ready to spend the next four weeks with ME?”

DomesticMonastery

Domestic Monastery, a mystical yet down-to-earth look at the spirituality of being a parent, will encourage and uplift parents at any stage in their parenting journey. Rolheiser emphasizes that there is nothing “lesser-than” about being a parent, as opposed to being a priest or religious. Instead, he compares the life of a parent to that of a monastic, drawing parallels that focus especially on the self-abandonment necessary in love.

Spiritual writers and mystics such as St. John of the Cross provide wisdom, Rolheiser asserts, that is valuable to parents as well as cloistered religious.

This little book invites parents to contemplate and appreciate their particular vocation in a new and deeper way. It will also whet the reader’s appetite for digging into the works of mystical writers.

Domestic Monastery is only 89 pages long, but it took me longer to read than I’d expected. That’s because I kept stopping to meditate on a phrase or sentence more deeply. This is a book that a reader can keep coming back to: once you’ve read it all the way through, keep it handy so you can revisit the pages with quotes. They are excellent journal prompts or prayer starters.

Br. Mickey McGrath, OSFS, created the painting of the Holy Family that graces the cover of this book. It is striking that there are four figures in this painting: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the Holy Spirit. What a beautiful representation of the Family that is the example for all families!

If you or someone you know are feeling overwhelmed by the demands of your time, energy, and love that being a parent requires, Domestic Monastery will help you put your situation in perspective in a comforting and engaging way.

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Image credit: Pixabay.com (2014), CC0/PD

Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz
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.

An Open Book: Winter 2020 Reads

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

It’s been so long since I’ve done this; I haven’t kept up with my Goodreads account, and a couple of weeks ago I replaced my Kindle, so now I don’t have that handy-dandy record of ebooks I’ve read (I’m sure it’s available somewhere, but not as easy as swiping page by page through my catalog of books).

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

Fiction

The Rum RunnerThe Rum Runner by Christine Marciniak

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Prohibition-era New Jersey, an immigrant with ties to the smuggling industry dies in a dockside turf war. Police officer Alice Grady wants to solve his mysterious death and help his widow and children. Fisherman Hank Chapman, also involved in smuggling, doesn’t want the police to investigate too closely, but he can’t deny his attraction to Alice. A fascinating and well researched tale of suspense.

Come Back to MeCome Back to Me by Carolyn Astfalk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let me introduce you to the latest binge read from author Carolyn Astfalk. It’s easy to get swept up in Carolyn’s stories, because the characters are true and the dialogue will just carry you along. The male characters in Carolyn’s novels aren’t just one-dimensional caricatures — they’re people you could imagine meeting.
Kicked out of a marriage he’d kind of just fallen into, Alan finds himself bunking in with his brother Chris and wife Rebecca, who are expecting their first baby. Alan grapples with his own wish for children, his desire to reconcile with a wife who doesn’t seem to want anything to do with him, and unrelated job struggles. Complicating matters is his wife’s friend Megan, whose dissatisfaction with her own life choices puts her into an awkward situation with Alan.

A Channel of Your PeaceA Channel of Your Peace by Veronica Smallhorn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Warning: keep your box of tissues handy as you read this sweet story! Erin’s engagement is broken off after her live-in fiance confesses infidelity, and then she finds out she’s pregnant with his child. Her suffering leads her back to faith; it’s not an easy road, but she receives help and consolation in her suffering, both from Our Lady of Guadalupe and a martyr priest. Theology of the Body themes are woven throughout.

Welcome to Wishing Bridge (Wishing Bridge, #1)Welcome to Wishing Bridge by Ruth Logan Herne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pregnant and alone, Kelsey has a car accident in blinding snow that lands her in a town she’d hoped to avoid: her mother’s hometown. She’s sure the locals won’t want anything to do with her, considering her mother’s history of crime and substance abuse. But most of the town turns out to welcome her, as well as her two best friends, who’d grown up in foster care with Kelsey. A lovely story about a lovely town where I’d love to live!

At Home in Wishing Bridge (Wishing Bridge #2)At Home in Wishing Bridge by Ruth Logan Herne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thea, a nurse practitioner who’d lost her job just before her friend Kelsey’s accident, has begun working in Wishing Bridge’s understaffed medical practice. Ethan, the doctor temporarily assigned to the practice, has care of his orphaned niece and nephew and only wants to leave for Chicago to do medical research — but he knows that won’t be good move for the kids, and he’s starting to fall for Thea.
I was really hoping there’d be a Book 3 in this series.

The Book of Lost FriendsThe Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This story, told in split time (1875 and 1987), explores the post-Civil-War struggles of former slaves as they attempted to make their way as free people with very limited opportunities in the South and reconnect with family members lost to the slave trade. A teacher in a small Southern town discovers a cache of classic books in an abandoned estate, and this leads her to educate her students about their local history — even when it didn’t make the locals look good. (Netgalley review)

If for Any ReasonIf for Any Reason by Courtney Walsh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable story of transformation and reconciliation. Emily returns to Nantucket, where her family had summered until her mother died when Emily was 12. Her grandfather bequeathed the family’s summer home to Emily, who must restore the place before selling it. But her childhood neighbor is on the island too, right next door, with his own tween daughter and pain of a broken relationship.

Please See UsPlease See Us by Caitlin Mullen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A murder mystery set in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and based on a true story. Across the bay from AC, the bodies of several young women were found in a marsh behind a cheap motel. All had ties to the sex trade. Caitlin Mullen tells the story from the points of view of two of the young women, as well as a man who knows something about what’s happening, but can’t make his voice heard. I chose this book because I remembered the story from the news a few years ago. It’s a harrowing story, well told. Warning: sexual violence, other violence, graphic language. (Netgalley review)

YA/Children’s

Extreme Blindside by Leslea Wahl. Read my full review.

Earthquake WeatherEarthquake Weather by Kevin Rush

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A coming-of-age story about some young Filipino girls in the San Francisco Bay area; Kristine (age 13) knows her super-smart cousin Jamie’s boyfriend is involved in a gang, but Jamie needs Kristine’s help to see Raul secretly and fixes Kristine up with Fabio — which leads them all into a dangerous situation. I picked this book up when it was recommended in the #CatholicFictionChallenge on Instagram.

Nonfiction

I’ve reviewed the following nonfiction books this winter. Click through to my full reviews:

Living Memento Mori by Emily DeArdo

Giving Thanks and Letting Go by Danielle Bean

Sharing Your Catholic Faith Story by Nancy Ward

Pray Fully by Michele Faehnle and Emily Jaminet


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!

open book logo


Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz

On Barb’s Bookshelf: “Come Back to Me”

Let me introduce you to the latest binge read from author Carolyn Astfalk. It’s easy to get swept up in Carolyn’s stories, because the characters are true and the dialogue will just carry you along. Come Back to Me is no exception.

Come Back to Me Front FNL

One of the things Carolyn does particularly well is writing about brothers. (She says this is because she has several older brothers herself.) The male characters in Carolyn’s novels aren’t just one-dimensional caricatures — they’re people you could imagine meeting. I mention brothers because Come Back to Me centers on a pair of brothers we first met in Stay with Me. (This novel is a standalone, but really, why would you want to? Especially since Stay with Me is on sale for 99 cents on Kindle through Friday, 2/28/20.)

Kicked out of a marriage he’d kind of just fallen into, Alan finds himself bunking in with his brother Chris and wife Rebecca, who are expecting their first baby. Alan grapples with his own wish for children, his desire to reconcile with a wife who doesn’t seem to want anything to do with him, and unrelated job struggles. Complicating matters is his wife’s friend Megan, whose dissatisfaction with her own life choices puts her into an awkward situation with Alan.

What you won’t find: billionaires or glamorous people with perfect clothes and surprisingly lucrative careers (in traditionally dicey industries) at ridiculously young ages. I’m tired of what I call aspirational fiction. I’d rather read about people with real, relatable struggles.

Highly recommended. Block off some time to binge-read Come Back to Me. Stat.

Watch the trailer:

About the book:

Alan Reynolds slid into marriage. When his wife kicks him out, it looks as if he may slide out just as easily. Forced to bunk with his newlywed younger brother and his pregnant wife, Alan gets a firsthand look at a blissfully happy marriage while his wife rebuffs his attempts at a reunion.

Caught in the middle, Alan and his wife’s mutual friend Megan grows increasingly unhappy with her own empty relationships. If that weren’t enough, her newly sober brother has found happiness with Jesus, a goody-goody girlfriend, and a cockeyed cat.

When Alan and Megan hit rock bottom, will there be grace enough in their bankrupt lives to right their relationships and find purpose like their siblings have?

About the author:

CAstfalk 2020 profile

Carolyn Astfalk resides with her husband and four children in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where it smells like either chocolate or manure, depending on wind direction. She is the author of the contemporary Catholic romances Stay With MeOrnamental Graces, and All in Good Time, and the coming-of-age story Rightfully Ours. Carolyn is a member of the Catholic Writers Guild, Catholic Teen Books, Pennwriters, and is a CatholicMom.com and Today’s Catholic Teacher contributor. True to her Pittsburgh roots, she still says “pop” instead of “soda,” although her beverage of choice is tea.

CBTM Blog Tour Graphic
Courtesy of Carolyn Astfalk.

Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz
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On Barb’s Bookshelf: “Pray Fully”

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CatholicMom.com contributors Michele Faehnle and Emily Jaminet are known for their encouraging spiritual books for women, Divine Mercy for Moms and The Friendship Project (both from Ave Maria Press) and Our Friend Faustina (from Marian Press). They have teamed up once again to write Pray Fully, a practical guide to deepening your prayer life.

Pray Fully: Simple Steps for Becoming a Woman of Prayer (Ave Maria Press) is written from that friend-to-friend point of view that Michele and Emily do so well. Taking turns chapter by chapter, they share their own stories of struggles and victories in prayer, offering advice based on what they’ve learned the hard way.

pray fully

The authors back up their own advice with saintly examples; each chapter has a section titled “Meet your Heavenly Friend,” in which readers learn about the prayer lives and practices of Sts. Gemma Galgani, Teresa of Kolkata (Mother Teresa), Gianna Beretta Molla, Louis and Zélie Martin, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and Margaret Mery Alacoque. Each chapter also includes a reflection by one of the authors, a “Let’s Pray” section that explains a particular prayer practice, inspiring quotes from the saints, and a prayer prompt.

Because prayer is not a one-size-fits-all experience, and our own prayer needs, opportunities, and preferences change, Michele and Emily outline several different approaches to prayer, along with providing the opportunity to explore each of them. These approaches include resting in Jesus’ presence, lectio divina, making an examen, and creating a legacy of faith. They address the tough questions associated with unanswered prayers, and also discuss personal devotions such as dedication to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The final chapter offers meditations, reflections, and journaling space for readers to explore the various prayer approaches discussed in Pray Fully. You’re not expected to do it all — there’s not enough time in the day to do it all — but encouraged to find a way to add or deepen a prayer practice.

Pray Fully would make an excellent Lenten spiritual read.

CH 2 PF


Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz
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.

On Barb’s Bookshelf: “Living Memento Mori” by Emily DeArdo

 

Emily DeArdo’s Living Memento Mori: My Journey through the Stations of the Cross, is a little book that packs a big spiritual punch.

A couple of years ago when I first started seeing books on the topic of memento mori (several of which were written by Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, fsp, who also wrote the foreword to this book), I wasn’t sure what to make of the whole idea. I’m a head-in-the-sand girl when it comes to thinking about my own mortality, or that of the people I love. I roll my eyes when my mom (yet again) re-plans her funeral and sends me a new list of instructions, right down to the musician she wants to play at the Mass. (A classmate of one of my kids, he lives 150 miles from my parents’ home and has never met them, so I’m not sure how this is going to work out, but Mom’s entitled to her hopes and dreams, I guess.)

I was surprised to find that Sr. Theresa Aletheia’s books were anything but creepy and morbid. But I didn’t let myself get too deep into the whole topic … and then, this fall, I entered into a season of life in which I just can’t avoid the thought anymore. The reality of my loved ones’ mortality was brought to the fore in some very big ways, and it has been a very stressful time. Couple that with the fact that my teenager lives with type 1 diabetes, a disease which he keeps under very good control but which has its scary, sometimes random moments, and I was perfectly positioned for the comforting take on this topic that Emily DeArdo provides in Living Memento Mori.

living memento mori

Yes, I said “comforting.” I’m not the one in my family facing health problems, but I’m supporting several loved ones with theirs, and there have been times when that was very overwhelming. I didn’t think I’d want to touch a book on the topic of death when the idea seemed way too close for comfort as it was, but I truly felt that DeArdo gets it. I needed to read this book.

You get news that shatters your world to its core and smashes your heart into a million pieces. And yet you still have to do laundry and make dinner and put gas in the car. It was the same for Jesus. On that day in Jerusalem, people still had to earn a living, clean their homes for Passover, buy vegetables, and fruits for dinner, get water at the well, tell their kids to stop fighting, and set the table.

But even if the world doesn’t stop, Jesus does. He know what we’re going through when our hearts break. Jesus knows what it’s like to be judged, to lose everything, and to receive a death sentence. … In our heartbreak, we can go to the Lord, and he wants us to come to him. The question isn’t whether Jesus is with us; the question is whether we will turn toward him or away from him in our pain. (5)

What if realizing you can’t do this on your own and surrendering your will to God — giving him the whole messy situation, all the pain, all the emotion — is what God wants you to do? (48)

Each of the 14 chapters corresponds to one of the Stations of the Cross. DeArdo begins each chapter with a short meditation on a particular Station, then discusses her own spiritual journey as well as the particular health challenges she faces as a cystic fibrosis patient and lung transplant recipient. Keep a notebook or journal handy as you read: every chapter concludes with several questions for journaling.

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One of the Stations of the Cross at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston, Massachusetts. Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz. All rights reserved.

I’m not unfamiliar with the Stations of the Cross; my great-aunts and great-uncle, to whom I was very close, had a deep devotion to the Stations and made sure to get to a church daily to pray them. Over the years I’ve prayed various settings of the Stations of the Cross, but Living Memento Mori has brought this devotion home to me in a way that hasn’t happened before. It’s an encouragement and a comfort, even upon contemplating the horrors of Jesus’ Passion, to know that He understands our suffering. DeArdo’s insights into this topic make the burdens we face a little lighter.

I’ve learned that saying yes, even through clenched teeth in a whisper, is better than saying no to God. Why? Because even when you’re saying it amid a torrent of tears as you’re curled up in bed and you have no idea how this yes can lead to anything good, God is there. On the Cross, on Good Friday, Jesus felt abandonment. He felt the loss of God. He is the only one who can really understand the way you feel. (64)

Lent is an excellent time to foster a devotion to the Stations of the Cross, as many parishes offer weekly services on Fridays. But you don’t need to attend a special service to pray the Stations of the Cross. You can bring Living Memento Mori to church with you to walk the Stations as you pray; there’s an Appendix with a specially written meditation for each of the 14 Stations. Or you can pray the Stations at home. You don’t even have to wait until Lent to start. Living Memento Mori is an excellent prayer companion for anyone going through a time of trial and challenge.

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One of the Stations of the Cross at St. Casimir Church/Resurrection Parish, Riverside, New Jersey. Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz.

Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz
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.

“The Saint Monica Club”: Comfort for the Worried and Weary

If you have a loved one who has left the Church, or one who’s just fallen away, you’ve probably already learned what won’t work.

Nagging. Begging. Pleading. Crying. Yelling.

I’m here to tell you that none of that is going to be effective. And it was a great relief to read Maggie Green’s book, The Saint Monica Club, and be affirmed in this.

Yes, I said “relief.”

This is certainly not a club that any of us want to be in. Of course, we all want to be in that other club, the one in which people’s loved ones willingly and happily join them in the pew each Sunday and maybe even more often than that. The club where they can talk about church, and faith, in their homes without being greeted by reactions that range from eye-rolling to open antagonism.

Because I am not in that other club, I need to embrace what I’ve learned in The Saint Monica Club

Saint Monica Club

The hardest part of loving someone estranged from the Faith is the sense of isolation. … there are no support groups for those grieving the loss of a family member from the Faith. This loneliness is no accident. It is the Devil’s design to make not only your child but you, too, feel cut off from God. You will need people with whom you can walk, pray, and weep when it gets hard. (25)

The Saint Monica Club will not tell you how to lure someone back to the Church. It will tell you how to live with your own grief, how to bring your loved one to the Lord in prayer, how to connect with others in the same situation, and how to build up the virtues you will need to be the witness your loved one needs.

You don’t necessarily need to read this book start to finish. Skip around; look at the table of contents and open to the chapter whose descriptive title speaks to you right now. Bring the book to the Adoration chapel or read a chapter as you pray before Mass — the chapters are short and well-designed for this purpose.

My only regret is that I read an electronic version of this book. I was highlighting it all over the place. I’m going to need to get my hands on the print edition, so I can highlight some more, make notes, and easily refer back to it when I need a shot of perseverance and some inspiration in patient endurance.

Make friends with the company of saints, and if you have favorite saints, put them on notice. (26)


Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz

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.

 

A Cozy Catholic Read-Aloud: “The Attic Saint”

New from Emmaus Road Publishing, The Attic Saint by Tim Drake is a wonderfully cozy story, perfect for family read-alouds or for newly independent readers.

Leo and his family have just moved to a big old house in a new city. As the old-fashioned charm of Leo’s new home (a former convent) begins to grow on him, the reflection from a stained-glass window leads him to explore the attic, where he discovers an unusual piece of art: an icon of St. Ambrose.

When the icon seems to speak to Leo, explaining how icons are created and what they mean, the little boy learns about this religious art form and the story of the saint depicted in the icon in his attic. Leo’s insistence on hanging the icon in a special place in his new home begins a transformation for the whole family.

The Attic Saint

Charming illustrations by Theodore Schluenderfritz bring the story to life. The depiction of a small boy in a large, nearly-empty home underscores Leo’s loneliness in his new city. Just as the story is quiet with a touch of suspense, the art is not garish or harsh. The story’s gentle message of openness to God is underscored when Leo’s parents follow his lead in opening the door to faith.

An article in The Central Minnesota Catholic tells how both the story itself and the illustrations were inspired. Schluenderfritz, the creative director at Today’s Catholic Teacher (where I work), told me that Leo’s house in the story was based on an actual home in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I lived in Scranton for four years during college, so that was a fun connection for me.

Don’t miss this cozy Catholic read-aloud: The Attic Saint is a charming picture book featuring a lonely child, an old convent, and a mysterious icon.

"The Attic Saint"
Illustration copyright 2019 Theodore Schluenderfritz. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the publisher.

Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz
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.