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)

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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

On Barb’s Bookshelf: 3 Lenten Reads

It’s not yet Lent, but I’ve had the chance to peek into a Lenten book from Ave Maria Press as well as two new daily devotionals from Franciscan Media, each offering a spiritual companion for your Lenten journey. All three books are sure to help readers have a spiritually fruitful Lenten season.

A book doesn’t have to be brand-new this year to benefit its readers. Paula Huston’s Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit (Ave Maria Press, 2011) is packed with timeless wisdom. The cover blurb touts it as a “practical book,” which means it’s right up my alley. I am, at heart, a practical person, and I can get bogged down and discouraged by books that don’t address my pragmatic side.

In the Introduction, Huston notes,

The beauty of the Lenten season is that it encouragees the development of a humble heart. (xiii)

The beauty of this book, for me, is its learn-by-doing approach. Each day begins with a meditation (usually a vignette from the author’s own experience) and ends with a task. The concreteness of this appeals to me. The author explains that this is not a “handbook for self-improvement” but instead “an invitation to self-knowledge and . . . a small step in liberation from destructive complicatedness–that is, from sin.” (xv, xvi)

My challenge, with this book, will be slowing it down. It’s seriously motivational, and I found myself wanting to do All The Things right now. Slowing down, for me, can be almost penitential in itself, and I need to remember to focus on one day’s task and not try to jump ahead. Lent is 40 days long for a reason. But anything that has me ready to scrub gunk out of hidden corners with an old toothbrush gets motivation points! It reminds me of St. Teresa of Avila’s observation that God is with us every moment, “even amidst the pots and pans.”

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Take your Lenten inspiration from Pope Francis with Diane M. Houdek’s The Hope of Lent: Daily Reflections from Pope Francis (Servant, 2016.) Each daily entry is divided into 5 compact parts:

  • Bible readings (find those on your own or at USCCB.org)
  • A Word from Pope Francis
  • Taking the Word to Heart
  • Bringing the Word to Life
  • Pope Francis Prays

I was charmed by the “Word from Pope Francis” sections: each one an anecdote or homily excerpt that showcases both Pope Francis’ down-to-earth style and his desire that the faithful deepen and radically live their faith. You’ll want to keep a journal handy for your own reflections, inspired by “Bringing the World to Life.”

From the Introduction:

The greatest hope of Lent is the discovery that it’s not only about penance deprivation, spiritual struggles, and rooting out sin in our lives. Those are often the things we do during Lent. But the hope of Lent lies in what God does. From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has made mercy his hallmark. It’s no surprise that he declared a special year dedicated to the contemplation of mercy. Pope Francis wants us to realize that God’s mercy and grace surround us not just in special times and places but always and everywhere. Lent is a time to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary, to be surprised by God’s mercy when we least expect it. (vii-viii)

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Heidi Hess Saxton shares the wisdom of a beloved modern-day saint in Lent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta (Servant, 2016.) Begin your daily prayer with a short scripture passage, followed by a meditation with a story or quote from St. Teresa, reflection/application questions, and a brief closing prayer. The book is described by the publisher as a “helpful resource for reflecting upon the mercy of God—and modeling the generous heart of this saint from Calcutta in our own lives.”

Saxton takes an unusual path in the Introduction to the book, dedicating most of it to the story of four Missionaries of Charity who were martyred by ISIS in Yemen in March 2016, while the local priest, Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil, was captured (his fate is still unknown). The author notes that this story “calls us to consider just how far we are willing to go when the Lord asks us to take up our cross and follow him.” (ix, x) She continues,

As we contemplate Scripture and the life and teachings of St. Teresa of Calcutta during this Lent, we have a daily inspiration and opportunity to follow her example and that of her community in spreading Christ’s fragrance to others. And whatever the fuure holds–pain or healing, uncertainty or assurance, dismay or delight–we can anticipate with great joy the glory of the Risen Christ at our journey’s end. (xiv)

Lent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta offers daily reflections in a slightly longer format than Houdek’s book, and the subject matter is a bit more challenging. There are two reflection questions per day, which make excellent journal prompts.

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

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz

On Barb’s Bookshelf: This Dread Road

An intriguing tale of two young women, a generation apart, who must learn to live with the consequences of romantic choices they make–and one man who figures prominently in both their lives. This Dread Road, Olivia Folmar Ard’s latest novel, is the third in the Bennett Series, but it works as a standalone novel (that said, I highly encourage you to read the other books in the series as well! You can get the whole Bennett Series for less than $7 on Kindle.)

Annemarie, a college freshman far from home and the reach of her overbearing mother’s attempts to set her up with every eligible bachelor in the region, falls hard for a man her parents certainly wouldn’t approve of. Her immaturity leads her to handle all of this the wrong way, with results that prove disastrous for her family relationship, her mental health and her love life.

50 years later, that same man mentors Claire, an heiress trying to escape her own mother and her own past.

In this parallel tale, you see young people making bad decisions–often due to immaturity and a lack of communication. Ard’s focus on the two young women, years apart, proves the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Release Date: February 14, 2017
Published by: Three Amigas Press
Genre: Historical Romance, Women’s Fiction

Available from: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Createspace

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– Summary –

It’s September 1968, and Howard Knox freshman Annemarie Vanderhorst is happy to be free of her controlling mother’s societal expectations. She vows to spend her time at college wisely in pursuit of her own dreams. But before she can figure out what she wants from life, Henry Eden, the dark and handsome stranger in her philosophy class, takes over every waking thought.

Nearly half a century later, Claire James returns to Bennett after leaving her fiancé, determined to be independent for once in her life. After convincing her father to let her work for the family business, she soon realizes being a responsible adult isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Loathed by her coworkers, neglected by her best friend, and held captive by a terrifying secret, she doesn’t know how much more she can take.

The lives of these two women, decades apart but uncannily similar, finally intersect one fateful night. With broken hearts and hope for the future, will they find the answers they’re looking for?

This Dread Road (The Bennett Series #3)

– About the Author –

Olivia started writing creatively at eight years old. During middle and high school, she attended several writing conferences. Her short story “By Its Cover” placed first in its divisi15800522_10209756472760857_6955444529121609696_oon in the 2008 District III Alabama Penman Creative Writing Contest. She earned her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Montevallo in 2012, married in 2013, and published her first novel in 2014. She received a Readers Favorite five-star review for her holiday novella, ‘Tis the Season, in 2016.

Olivia lives in central Alabama with her husband JD and their cats, Buddy and Lafayette. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys watching quality television, teaching herself how to cook, and playing Pokémon GO.

– Connect with the Author –

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads | Pinterest

– Advance Praise for This Dread Road

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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: Papal Encyclicals Plus, from Ave Maria Press

Who’s supposed to read what the Pope writes? Priests and bishops? Catholic journalists? Secular journalists? Historians?

Yes, but that’s not all. The Pope’s encyclicals and other writings are meant for all the faithful. They are addressed to all of us–and if we really want to understand the Pope’s message, there’s nothing like going straight to the primary source. (That’s true of any message. Here’s the English major in me talking: the more intermediaries you have, the better the chance of misinterpretation.)

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I read a lot of things online (on websites or on my Kindle) but for me, nonfiction demands a hard copy I can mark up, underline, highlight, and hang Post-it tabs all over. I’m all about the idea of a “collected writings” of the Pope–and Ave Maria has put that together with a new book covering the first 3 years of Pope Francis’ papacy (the papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia was published just after the third anniversary of the Pope’s election.) The title tells it all: The Complete Encyclicals, Bulls and Apostolic Exhortations of Pope Francis.

According to Ave Maria Press, the publisher of Volume 1, the book includes:

  • Lumen Fidei, June 29, 2013: The Light of Faith is an encyclical on the centrality of faith, the relationship between reason and faith, the Church’s role in the transmission of faith, and how faith results in redeeming the world.
  • Evangelii Gaudium, Nov. 24, 2013: The apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel has been called Pope Francis’s manifesto. It challenges all Christians to approach evangelization anew and overcome complacency in order to fulfill Christ’s great mission.
  • Misericordiae Vultus, April 11, 2015: In The Face of Mercy, the papal bull for the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in 2015, the pope urges Catholics, “We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy.”
  • Laudato Si’, May 24, 2015: Praise Be to You: On Care for Our Common Home is the landmark encyclical in which Pope Francis issued a call to the entire Church—and the world—on climate change, human responsibility, the role of faith in how we live among God’s entire creation, and the future of the planet.
  • Amoris Laetitia, March 19, 2016: Love in the Family is an exhortation published after the Synods on the Family. In it, Pope Francis ranges in his quotations and examples from St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther King Jr. to the film Babette’s Feast.

I admit to having skimmed Laudato Si’ and Amoris Laetitia online when they came out, but I haven’t really put in the time to really read and learn from Pope Francis’ writings. My plan is to dive into Evangelii Gaudium, because I work in the field of Catholic media and evangelization. But you don’t need a job in such a field to read that apostolic exhortation: Pope Francis makes it clear right up front that he is inviting “all Christians, everywhere . . . to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ” (p. 57) which is “the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization” (p. 60). Yes, there are specific sections if that exhortation that are directed toward priests, rather than the lay faithful, but there is much to be learned.

If you’re taking part in the 2017 Catholic Reading Challenge, this book provides all of Pope Francis’ major writings in one place and will help you check off that “papal encyclical” box. (Yes, I’m stretching it a bit by reading an exhortation instead of an encyclical, but to be fair, it’s 3 times the length.)

So who should read the Pope’s encyclicals and other writings? If you’re Catholic, YOU should!

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

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On Barb’s Bookshelf: Meeting God in the Upper Room

Monsignor Peter J. Vaghi describes the Upper Room as “the most important room in Christendom” in his new book, Meeting God in the Upper Room (Servant, 2017). In one whirlwind 8-week period, the Upper Room was the location for three significant events in the birth of the Church:

  • the Last Supper
  • Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances to his disciples
  • Pentecost

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By Assaf Yekuel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Msgr. Vaghi notes in the Prologue that the Upper Room, or Cenacle, was renovated in the 14th century, which explains the architectural style of the room as seen above.

What must the disciples have felt during their time in that room? Did they celebrate the Passover with trepidation, having heard Jesus tell them again and again that this trip to Jerusalem would end in his death? Were they astounded and elated when the risen Christ appeared to them in that room, continuing to teach them to take on the work of building the Church? Were they simultaneously energized and terrified at the descent of the Holy Spirit and their commissioning to make disciples of all nations?

“Once we catch a glimpse of the events that transpired in this room, we will be forever captivated by the mystery of the God who loves us so much that, even as he prepared to return to the Father, promised that ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.’ (John 14:18, NRSV)” (1)

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Msgr. Varghi’s discussion of the history of the Upper Room based on Gospel accounts complements the meditations that are the meat of this book. I found the history fascinating; in various chapters, you’ll read about personalities, prophecy, sacraments, and Catholic social teaching. Each chapter ends with a section titled “Preparing Your Upper Room” in which the reader is invited to consider the personal implications of Jesus’ message.

I recommend Meeting God in the Upper Room for spiritual reading during Lent or, even more appropriately, beginning in Holy Week and continuing through the Easter season, when you can read the book as you liturgically relive the events depicted in it.

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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 Sea Without a Shore

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The weary, lonely and brokenhearted are the audience for Jeannie Ewing’s new devotional, A Sea without a Shore.
Jeannie Ewing often writes on the meaning of suffering. Her words will resonate with readers who feel alone in their pain. While this book is centered on suffering, it is infused with hope. The meditations in chapter 8 (“Faith, Hope and Charity”) are some of the most powerful ones in the book. This, I’m sure, is no accident: these are powerful virtues, as they must be to conquer the despair that can so easily come to those beaten down by life’s difficulties.
These meditations are not casual or flip: they are heartfelt, reverent outpourings of the soul. The language is formal, even poetic, with a unique cadence. Written in the first person, each meditation invites the soul to cling to God in prayer.

This devotional is the kind of book you can flip through, scanning the headings to find just the meditation you need for that day.

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 About the Book

Everyone experiences suffering and trials throughout life, whether in the form of death or significant loss of a relationship, finances, a home or job, and even a pet. Loss affects us all, and we are often left feeling empty, lonely, and lost in the midst of such excruciating darkness. Others may attempt to ameliorate our fears, concerns, and struggle, but to no avail. Even our faith may seem to fail us. Jeannie Ewing understands that holy darkness may veil us in a cloud of unknowing for a time, but we don’t have to capitulate to despair. Instead, we can journey through the mysteries and misunderstandings through the eyes of faith. In A Sea Without A Shore: Spiritual Reflections for the Brokenhearted, Weary, and Lonely, you will find a familiar friend journeying with you throughout the often murky and tumultuous waters of grief. No matter the cause of your pain and strife, this devotional will offer short but poignant insights that open your heart to God’s love and mercy.
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 About the Author

Jeannie Ewing believes the world focuses too much on superficial happiness and then crumbles when sorrow strikes. Because life is about more than what makes us feel fuzzy inside, she writes about the hidden value of suffering and even discovering joy in the midst of grief. Jeannie shares her heart as a mom of two girls with special needs in Navigating Deep Waters: Meditations for Caregivers and is the author of From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph. Jeannie was featured on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition and dozens of other radio shows and podcasts.

Facebook – Love Alone Creates: https://www.facebook.com/lovealonecreates
Click to enter for a chance to win one of two paperback copies of Navigating Deep Waters: Meditations for Caregivers or one of two paperback copies of A Sea Without A Shore!
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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.

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#OpenBook: December 2016 Reads

"An Open Book" linkup hosted at CarolynAstfalk.com and CatholicMom.com

The first Wednesday of each month, Carolyn Astfalk hosts #OpenBook, where bloggers link posts about books they’ve read recently. In December, predictably, my reading list was heavy on the Christmas novella. There are so many to choose from, they’re quick reads, and they’re just fun: the literary equivalent of a Hallmark-channel Christmas movie. But there’s plenty of other stuff too.

Fiction

T36847-cvrThe Strangers at the Manger (Chime Travelers #5) by Lisa M. Hendey (children’s). Number 5 in the “Chime Traveler” series of chapter books for kids in grades 2 and up (younger as a read-aloud), this novel finds twins Patrick and Katie traveling through time to Bethlehem, where they accompany Mary and Joseph through their attempts to find lodging and stay with them until the Holy Family flees to Egypt to escape Herod’s attempts on Jesus’ life. Read my full review.

6-dates-to-disaster-fc-large6 Dates to Disaster (Bird Face #3) by Cynthia T. Toney (YA) The recently-released third book in the Bird Face series, 6 Dates to Disaster, finds Wendy looking for ways to fund her summer plan of visiting Mrs. V and her grandson in Alaska after her stepdad loses his job. An excellent writer, Wendy agrees to secretly tutor one of the girls in the “cool” clique, with more clients to follow, but Wendy finds herself doing more rewriting than proofreading–and is soon accused of cheating. She’s also distracted by her budding romance with David and by a mysterious note she found in an antique jewelry box. ARC provided by author.

happiness-in-betweenThe Happiness in Between by Grace Greene. Sandra’s parents think she’s a ne’er-do-well, not realizing that her ex (whom she’s married twice) is emotionally abusive. They finally agree to let her hide out in the family homestead, where she’s supposed to care for her aunt’s dog and keep an eye on the home. But her ex is on her trail and Sandra can’t tell the nice guy next door that she’s still married; she also can’t tell her aunt that the dog is missing. Good suspense! Netgalley review.

sandys-seashell-shop-christmasA Sandy’s Seashell Shop Christmas by Lisa Wingate. A young military widow tries to escape Christmas by holing up in a resort town with her 3-year-old, fortifying herself against holiday memories. The town conspires against her, though, working to catch her up in the holiday spirit and even providing a love interest.  This was a sweet Christmas novella; I’ve enjoyed other books in this series.

 

endless-christmas-ruchtiAn Endless Christmas by Cynthia Ruchti. A very public proposal right after the prospective bride meets the whole extended family turns into an awkward few days when everyone is snowed in. The only one really feeling the awkwardness is Katie, who’s convinced that it’s not a good idea for her to marry anyone. I loved the family in this novella–such great characters! Highly recommended.

 

connect-the-starsConnect the Stars by Marisa de los Santos & David Teague (YA). A bunch of troubled middle-schoolers and a drill-sergeant wannabe at a 6-week wilderness camp in the desert: what could possibly go wrong? Turns out, quite a bit. Audrey, who’s hypersensitive to people who aren’t telling the truth, and Aaron the walking encyclopedia are challenged to team up with people they thought were their enemies–just so everyone can survive the experience. Great story.

miss-kanes-christmasMiss Kane’s Christmas by Carolline Mikkelson. What happens when Santa Claus’ daughter is assigned to go undercover as a nanny for a Scrooge-like single dad who’s written a book about why it’s a bad idea to let your kids believe in Santa. Yes, it’s predictable. It’s also funny, and the elves were fabulous. As of this writing this novella is still free on Kindle–so go ahead and enjoy.

 

one-enchanted-christmasOne Enchanted Christmas by Melissa Tagg. Sometimes the fact that a story’s premise is far-fetched gets in the way of my enjoyment of a story. That’s what happened with this novella. I focused a little too hard on “that could never happen” with this one. Novelist Maren falls hard for the guy who’s featured in the cover art of her first book. He leads her on and tells her she can come stay at his farmhouse anytime. Suffering from writer’s block, she takes him up on the invitation a year later–and runs into his brother, who’s reluctantly running the place.

dakota-bluesDakota Blues by Lynne M. Spreen. If you liked “Steel Magnolias” and “Thelma and Louise” you’ll enjoy this novel. Fired by her super-demanding boss after taking time off to attend her mother’s funeral, Karen is still trying to regroup after her husband abandoned her for his pregnant girlfriend. She gets roped into driving an elderly neighbor on a last road trip to Vegas in an RV. This is a debut novel, and I hope the author publishes more–and soon!

its-destinyIt’s Destiny: Three Women’s Fiction Love Stories by Bette Lee Crosby, Tanya Anne Crosby and Julianne Maclean. I’m a huge fan of “Memory House.” Fans of Bette Lee Crosby’s work will love how this novel ties in elements from most of her others. But you don’t need to have read Crosby’s other novel to enjoy this story of a vulnerable young woman finding her way in the world, aided by the kindness of an older woman who has a unique gift. It’s easy to love these two characters.
“Lady’s Man” seemed more far-fetched (even though it lacked the magical element of “Memory House.”) This short piece seemed to be leading in a different direction at the beginning and almost lost me in the first chapter.
I liked the story behind “The Color of Destiny” but the story was not as well-told as the other two; there was a lot of repetition and needless foreshadowing.
Review based on ARC provided by the authors.

Nonfiction

PrintWhat Pope Francis Really Said by Tom Hoopes unpacks the truth behind the media’s rush to judgment. I recommend the book to all Catholics committed to defending and living out their faith. 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!

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!

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On Barb’s Bookshelf: The Strangers at the Manger

Here’s a book the whole family can enjoy together as the Christmas season winds down: The Strangers at the Manger by Lisa M. Hendey.

Number 5 in the “Chime Traveler” series of chapter books for kids in grades 2 and up (younger as a read-aloud), this novel finds twins Patrick and Katie traveling through time to Bethlehem, where they accompany Mary and Joseph through their attempts to find lodging and stay with them until the Holy Family flees to Egypt to escape Herod’s attempts on Jesus’ life.

Readers will feel as if they’re really there, encountering shepherds, Magi and even Anna and Simeon in the Temple. Hendey’s account of the Incarnation weaves Gospel stories seamlessly with the fictional addition of modern-day visitors who find ways to help Mary and Joseph take care of their newborn son. The stories incorporate a level of detail that will fascinate children who want to know what life was like during Jesus’ time.

Lisa Hendey’s devotion to the Blessed Mother is particularly evident in the way Mary is portrayed in the story.

Books in the “Chime Traveler” series always focus on a lesson the children must learn before they can return to their own families; this book centers on a refugee family seeking shelter in the twins’ parish church.

This series is published by Franciscan Media.

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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.

#OpenBook: November 2016 Reads

"An Open Book" linkup hosted at CarolynAstfalk.com and CatholicMom.com

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

different-heroismA Different Heroism (Father Jay book 3) by Jane Lebak. Third in a series, this novel covers further ground in Father Jay and his brother Kevin’s contentious relationship, Jay’s impromptu shelter for homeless/neglected boys, and Jay’s ongoing health issues. A shaky truce with his brother and an order from his bishop force Jay into a week’s vacation–and everything starts to fall apart with the gang of “Archangels” he shelters. A fast-paced and enjoyable read. I’m a fan of these characters and eagerly await more Father Jay stories.
tis-the-season‘Tis the Season by Olivia Folmar Ard. In an age of oversharing, a young couple trying to conceive and battling Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) struggles to keep their health issues private. Ironic much? Even more so, considering Lauren spends a lot of time creating and maintaining the perfect social-media persona. And there’s nothing like a holiday trip to see her in-laws to threaten to dismantle all that online perfection. Despite my distaste for “rushing the season” in so many other ways, I’m always up to read a good Christmas story, and this novella did not disappoint.
most-highly-favored-daughterMost Highly Favored Daughter: A Sanctified Suspense by Janice Lane Palko. Set in Pittsburgh against the backdrop of the Super Bowl, this novel tells a harrowing story of human trafficking with an unexpected twist. Heiress Cara Wells is framed with the horrible crime of abusing a young child–but she remembers nothing of what happened that night after falling violently ill. Resolved to untangle the mystery and rescue the young victim of the crime, Cara puts even her marriage and her life on the line. Great local color. (Review copy received from author)
what-lightWhat Light by Jay Asher. Sierra spends 11 months of the year on a Christmas tree farm. The rest of the year she lives in a trailer at a tree lot, hours away from home. This might be her family’s last year at the tree lot, and she’s determined to make the most of it. She’s also determined to give the cute guy who buys trees for poor families a change, even though plenty of locals warn her that he’s trouble. Great premise, well-told story. Appropriate for high-school students (and it’s not even R-rated!) Reads like a Hallmark Christmas movie, which is not at all a bad thing.
christmas-clubThe Christmas Club by Barbara Hinske. Cute Christmas romance novella; a woman loses an envelope of money–all she has for Christmas gifts. Two kindhearted people replace the money, then separately learn how the people who found the lost cash were impacted by the windfall. A series of near misses for the two who replaced the money keeps the story going. This is a sweet, feel-good Christmas story and a quick read.
grace-crasherThe Grace Crasher by Mara Faro. In love with being in love, Julia obsesses over finding an affordable apartment right near her latest crush, a musician who makes her feel like the only person in his audience. Problem is, the only place her budget can handle comes with strings attached: she has to pretend she’s a born-again Christian. What’s an erstwhile Catholic girl to do? And how will she handle it when her landlady’s son discovers that she’s not the person she pretends to be? I enjoyed the local setting of this novel, and I think I’ve been to the Christian bookstore that figures so prominently in the plot (or one suspiciously like it). A great take on infatuation vs. love, speaking the truth in love, and being true to yourself.
someday-someday-maybeSomeday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham. Cute story of a struggling aspiring actress in NYC whose self-sabotaging behavior makes for a fun read, with a little bit of audience frustration thrown in for good measure. WHY does she have to go for the wrong guy? WHY does she go with THAT agent? My favorite part: the pages ripped straight from Franny’s Filofax, between each chapter. Franny’s roommates are terrific characters and merit stories of their own!
destiny-of-sunshine-ranchThe Destiny of Sunshine Ranch by T.M. Gaouette. This novel peeks into the world of children in foster care, kids who have experienced things no child ever should. Sunshine Ranch is the home of a vulnerable child’s dreams, with loving, faithful couple Martha and David caring for and educating 10 children who are in the foster-care system. Life at the ranch is not without its challenges, especially for 10-year-old Benedict who has had things particularly rough. This heartwarming tale has an unexpected ending.
more-than-a-promiseMore than a Promise by Ruth Logan Herne. Grieving the very public breakup of her marriage, artist Elle returns to her hometown to set up her studio and start over. She’s equally captivated and irritated by the 3 young motherless boys next door, left to run wild while their father runs the family business. When the boys’ grandmother threatens the only home they’d ever known, Elle comes up with a crazy scheme to keep the family together and announces her engagement to their dad. The premise is pretty far-fetched, but this novel is worth reading just for the great portrayals of the children.
when-you-reach-meWhen You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. This novel for middle-school students follows a city kid who’s on her own after school and must navigate a world that includes the usual middle-school friendship dramas, plus gang violence, homelessness and a series of mysterious notes. There’s a time-travel element as well. Great suspense!
beyond-carouselBeyond the Carousel. Bette Lee Crosby continues her Wyattsville saga with yet another story that reinforces my wish to live in a town just like it. This novel spans three generations of a family whose happy life is shattered by a senseless, unsolved murder. Detective Jack Mahoney, out of love for the granddaughter of the murder victim, stakes his career on solving the crime. Don’t think this is just a mystery, though–it’s a three-generation love story.
(Review based on advance reader copy via Socialbook.) This novel will be released in January 2017.

Nonfiction

fearless-lg-coverFearless by Sonja Corbitt puts fear and anxiety into a different perspective, framing them as spiritual attacks and providing tools with which to vanquish them. In short, Fearless is all about spiritual warfare. A mix of personal testimony, quotes from Scripture and the saints and plenty of wise counsel round out this book, which begs to be read (and reread) slowly and with pen and journal close by. Read my full review. (Review copy received from publisher)

Teresa-21Advent with St. Teresa of Calcutta by Heidi Hess Saxton. Heidi Hess Saxton has collected some of Saint Teresa of Calcutta’s most inspiring words and paired them with prayers, daily Mass readings and calls to action in a newly-published seasonal daily devotional. Advent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta: Daily Meditations offers food for thought and prayer for any reader who is devoted to this fascinating saint. Read my full review. (Review copy received from publisher)

who-does-he-say-you-areWho Does He Say You Are? by Colleen C. Mitchell. Expect to be surprised, challenged and changed. Colleen brings out the qualities in several Gospel women that are in every woman, and directs our spiritual journey as we discover how we can be healed as they were. Throughout the book, she shares her own journey of brokenness, faith, healing and trust. The Questions for Reflection at the end of each chapter aren’t merely journal prompts: they are calls to action. (Review copy received from publisher)

missing-kennedyThe Missing Kennedy by Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff. Examining the lives of Rosemary Kennedy and the Franciscan nun who cared for her during most of her adult life, Pentacoff’s book connects a privileged handicapped woman who lived a sequestered life with the very ordinary women who ministered to and visited her. The author grew up around Rosemary Kennedy, who was cared for by Sister Paulus, the author’s aunt. Koehler-Pentacoff, along with her parents, was present for holidays, birthdays and ordinary days with Rosemary Kennedy. This is a chronicle of an era when mental illness was misunderstood, and treatments for mental illness were dramatically different than the treatment available today. The book is not a comprehensive biography of Rosemary Kennedy, but the story of how Ms. Kennedy’s life intersected with that of the author. (I received an advance copy from the publisher for the purposes of this review.)

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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!

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Ornamental Graces: Book Tour and Character Interview

Carolyn Astfalk’s newest novel, Ornamental Graces, is a Catholic romance with Theology of the Body underpinning the story.

This novel chronicles the on-again, off-again romance between Emily, a young teacher obsessed with all things French, and Dan, whose wounds from a past relationship make him wary of starting over. There are some terrific peripheral characters as well; you’ll want to adopt Grandma. Will Dan be able to finally put his past behind him and open up to new love?

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As part of her blog book tour, Carolyn generously agreed to allow me to interview the supporting characters in the novel.

GRANDMA

What was it about Emily that made you encourage Dan to pursue a relationship with her? 

Oh, I’d like to think after all these years I’m a pretty good judge of character. But I’ll tell you what tipped me off. When we were at the grocery store, there was a young woman with two little ones. While the mother was tending to the toddler having a tantrum in the cart, the older child had helped by getting the eggs – and dropping them on the floor. Emily alerted someone from the store and tried to soothe the mother, who was at the brink of tears. Emily was kind, considerate and helpful. Told me a lot about the kind of young lady she is. I knew that kind of woman would love my Daniel the way he deserved to be loved. And Daniel needed to see what a blessing Emily would be in his life. That she would bring all his better instincts to the surface and help him be the kind of man anyone would be proud to call a friend, a grandson, or a husband.

Tell us about how the power of a grandmother’s prayer was at work in changing Dan’s life.

I pray for each of my grandchildren by name every day, but it’s no secret that Daniel has been special to me. As he grew older, he took care of me more than I took care of him. If I told you all the ways, the list would be long and boring. When he broke up with what’s-her-name, I know he was broken-hearted. I thought given a little time, he’d perk up, but instead he seemed to drift further and further from, well, just about everything good in his life. That’s when I started saying novenas for him, having Masses said, and I particularly called on the Blessed Mother, because she knows what it’s like to watch a son – and that’s what Daniel was to me in many ways – suffer. I know God hears all our prayers, but he doesn’t always answer how and when we’d like. But in this case, he gave me my heart’s desire. I’ve never been prouder of anyone than I was of Daniel when he turned back to God and turned his life around. I’d been praying for the right woman to come along too, and I believe Emily is the answer to that prayer.

ROBERT 

You’re the one who really set up Emily and Dan (or was it Elizabeth?) What was it about the two of them that led you to want them to get together?

He’s a man, she’s a woman, and, frankly, with soon-to-be eight people in this little house, we can’t spare a square foot for Emily. But, seriously, the possibility of getting them together came up while Emily was in her own place anyway. Elizabeth’s been telling me for years I’ve been too overprotective of my sister, so, I’d been making a conscious effort to treat her like a grown-up. Most of the time. And when I looked at her that way, I realized that she’s really something special. You should see her with my kids. I’ve always known she’d make someone a great wife and be a great mom too. But I didn’t want her to settle for just any guy. When I met Dan, I could see them together. They’re both pretty easy-going but hard-working. They take their faith seriously and they like kids. Seemed like a good fit to me.

How did you handle the issue of your good friend dating your little sister?

If I had realized how complicated those two would make it, I might’ve thought twice about the whole thing. On again, off again, on again, off again. I couldn’t keep up. And Dan certainly put me in an awkward position a time or two. I just tried to be straight with both of them and honor whatever they asked of me. Y’know, just be the brother she needed and the friend he needed.

ELIZABETH 

Did you think it was a good idea for Robert to set Dan up with Emily? 

Gosh, yes. Robert was just going to offer to introduce them when he got around to it. Who knows when that would’ve been! So, I took things into my own hands and made plans to get them both around our table at the same time. Listen, we’ve been married awhile, but I know how hard it is to meet people, and Emily – not that she was super picky or anything – but she was looking for a guy with certain values. And, she’s not the most outgoing girl around. After I met Dan and had a pretty good sense of what kind of man he was, I couldn’t wait to give them a chance to get to know one another.

How did the dynamics of their relationship affect your relationship with your sister-in-law?

Well, like Robert said, the whole on again, off again thing was tough to navigate. Maybe it’s because the biggest drama around here is created by people who can’t even use the potty consistently, but I’ll admit to a few eye rolls behind her back. [laughs] But Emily is so dear to me. I’ve watched her grow up. And to watch her fall in love . . . [sigh]. Their whole relationship, with all the starts and stops, meant she needed a friend, and at the same time, so did I. It was the first time we related solely woman to woman. I don’t think of her so much as Robert’s little sister anymore as I do my friend.

KRISTEN

If you’d had the chance to speak with Emily about Dan before they met each other, what would you tell her?

If you’d have asked me a year ago, my answer would be pretty different. But today, uh, I’d tell her to treat him right. That’s he’s a good guy at heart. Maybe I should’ve been a bit more careful with that heart. I don’t know. It’s kind of a time I’d really like to put behind me. We both made mistakes. Mostly me, maybe. I’d tell her to just let him love her.

Visit the other stops on Carolyn’s book tour, and sign up for her author newsletter for news of her next projects, recipes, playlists and more!

About the author: Carolyn Astfalk lives with her husband and four children in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where the wind carries either the scent of chocolate or cow manure. She is a CatholicMom.com contributor and author of the contemporary inspirational romances Stay With Me (Full Quiver Publishing) and Ornamental Graces. (Barb’s note: this bio was provided by Carolyn. I’d like to add that she’s funny, creative, and a really good sport. Follow her on Twitter @CMAstfalk.)

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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.