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?”

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Courtesy of Carolyn Astfalk.

Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This post contains Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase books through any of the affiliate links in this post, you support Franciscanmom.com at no extra cost to you!

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.

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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: Extreme Blindside

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New this winter from Pauline Books & Media: Extreme Blindside, Leslea Wahl’s second book in the Blindside series.

The series begins with The Perfect Blindside, which follows Jake, a self-described “snowboarding phenom” and teenage Olympian with a chip on his shoulder and his classmate Sophie, a small-town girl who’s proud of it–and who tends to geek out over local history. Jake and Sophie become an unlikely pair as they puzzle over suspicious occurrences in the town of Silver Springs, Colorado.

In Extreme Blindside, Wahl revisits the world of extreme winter sports. Jake and Sophie seek to protect other athletes from dangerous competitive sabotage even as the world-class athlete and aspiring reporter face threats to their relationship.

Wahl shines in creating true-to-life characters with real flaws, yet who have faith and strong family example to guide them along the way. Both books in the series are told from dual points of view, allowing readers to relate to each of the main characters.

extreme blindside cover

The author graciously agreed to answer my questions about Extreme Blindside (and her other fiction for teens, much of which is interconnected).

Is it tough to write a “sequel” when you’ve done several other novels in between? Or do you view this more as an installment in a series?

I’m hoping to write at least one more book in the Blindside series. But yes, it was a little difficult to get back into the characters. I had written two other YA books, An Unexpected Role and Where You Lead, since I had written The Perfect Blindside. When I finally decided to focus on the next installment of their story, it took a little while to get back into their voices. I struggled a bit until I finally decided to write a few short stories with Jake and Sophie as well as two characters from An Unexpected Role. For some reason, this helped.

What’s your favorite thing about each of the main characters?

I love Sophie’s curious nature. She wants to be a journalist and that questioning aspect of her personality helps when they become involved in these mysteries. I really enjoyed researching topics for Sophie’s nervous ramblings about Colorado facts. It was so fun discovering interesting tidbits that I didn’t know about my native state.

Jake is probably the most difficult character for me to relate to of all the characters I’ve created. But this guy really has a great heart and is trying to do the right thing. Writing the snowboarding scenes take a lot of research and imagination. But honestly, watching videos of amazing athletes hardly seems like work.

Do your kids ever worry that something they do or say will wind up in your books? I know you had a character with that worry in another novel.

That was the premise of An Unexpected Role, an author causing trouble by including too much about her children in a book. While I usually include some little incidents that have happened to our family, the characters are nothing like my children and I stay away from anything personal. However, I did ask their permission regarding the book I’m working on now, a sibling adventure, because from the outside the family does seem to be a bit like ours. My children are all young adults now and are very encouraging of my work. They all actually help me out in various ways through marketing, editing, offering feedback, and inspiration.

Do you or your family members do extreme sports?

No. The kids have tried snowboarding a few times but really, we are a family of skiers. I have always loved watching the winter Olympics and especially the snowboarding events. I’ve also been fascinated with the dedication and sacrifice it takes to become a top athlete.

What’s next for these characters? Can you give us a sneak peek into your future book plans?

I have two projects that I am currently working on. One is the family mystery/adventure I mentioned before, tentatively titles A Summer to Treasure. This one is a little different than my other books. Since it’s about siblings, it doesn’t contain as much romance, but it is a project I’ve been excited about for a few years. The other is the third adventure for Jake and Sophie. eXtreme Blindside ends with a bit of unfinished business that I will explore in the third book.

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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.

 

Christmas Reads for the Whole Family

I read Christmas books like some people watch Hallmark movies — and my friends know it. Christmas reads are the most common recommendations I receive from fellow readers. I’m good with that.

When my children were little, I used to keep the Christmas storybooks separate from the other picture books we had for them. At the beginning of Advent, I’d bring out the Christmas book basket so they could enjoy those old favorites.

Consider this my virtual book basket — filled with Catholic Christmas reads for readers (and pre-readers) of all ages.

Board Book

joseph guardian of the holy family

Joseph, Guardian of the Holy Family by Marlyn Evangelina Monge, fsp; illustrated by Mary Rojas (Pauline Kids). Nearly all of this board book is focused on the nativity story, so I’m calling it a Christmas book. The illustrations are adorable, and the story emphasizes Joseph’s love for God, Mary, and Jesus, and his desire to know and follow God’s will. (Review copy received from publisher.)

Picture Books

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Molly McBride and the Christmas Pageant by Jean Schoonover-Egolf. Who can’t relate to spunky Molly’s Christmas-play dilemma: She was so sure she’d get to play Mary in the pageant! But when she doesn’t get the role she wants, she doesn’t want to be in the show at all. A gentle teacher reminds Molly that Mary followed God’s plan, even when it wasn’t her plan. This story about obedience is effective without being didactic or heavy-handed, and the illustrations definitely evoke the mood of the story.

Guess Who's in the Manger

Guess Who’s in the Manger? A Christmas Story by Vicki Howie; illustrated by Julia Seal (Pauline Kids). The Christmas story told (in rhyme) from the perspective of a barn owl, high in the rafters of the stable? What’s not to love? Little ones who love to show off their skills at imitating animal noises will be fans of this book, which calls for this very ability. I wish this were a board book, because it really does appeal to the very young. (Review copy received from publisher.)

santas priority

Santa’s Priority by Tom Peterson (TAN Books). Don’t let the word “Santa” in the title throw you off. This is definitely a Catholic Christmas book, not a secular holiday story. Santa is shown stopping along his way, because the first thing we should do on Christmas is “come home to Mass and celebrate the holy Christian season.” A short rhyming read that would be a good book to enjoy together before Christmas Mass. (Review copy received from publisher.)

Bible Storybooks

While not technically “Christmas books,” both of these include the Christmas story. Bibles and Bible storybooks are wonderful gifts any time of year.

my bible gods word for me

My Bible: God’s Word for Me by Mary Martha Moss, fsp; illustrated by Augusta Currelli (Pauline Kids). Catholic Bible storybooks aren’t very easy to find. I was thrilled to see this one published this year! This gift-quality book includes a presentation page, a prayer section at the end with familiar Catholic prayers and instructions on how to pray the Rosary, and four pages of colorful maps of the Holy Land. In the introduction, the author notes that this book “will show you God’s amazing plan for the world — and for you!” Each story ends with a one-line prayer, and the stories are perfect bedtime-story length. (Review copy received from publisher.)

god gave us the bible

God Gave Us the Bible: 45 Favorite Stories for Little Ones by Lisa Tawn Bergren; art by David Hohn (WaterBrook). This book intersperses Bible stories with commentary by a family of bears and their animal friends. The Bible stories and commentary are set apart by different styles of art and varying typefaces. (Review copy received from publisher.)

Chapter Book

sisters of the last straw 5

The Case of the Christmas Tree Capers (Sisters of the Last Straw #5) by Karen Kelly Boyce (TAN Books). I’m a longtime fan of the Sisters of the Last Straw and this latest book in the series does not disappoint. It features all those favorite characters, the Sisters who each have a very human flaw and who are working — together and separately — to overcome their failings, plus the sour Mr. Lemon and the helpful farmer down the road. In this story, the Sisters open a Christmas tree lot to raise money to buy gifts for poor children in the parish. When the trees start disappearing, a few at a time each night, the Sisters set off on a mission to catch the thief, with sweet (and hilarious) results. For readers 7 and up, but would make a great read-aloud with younger children. (Review copy received from publisher.)

Story Collections

christmas around the fire

Christmas Around the Fire: Stories, Essays, & Poems for the Season of Christ’s Birth edited by Ryan N.S. Topping (TAN Books). This keepsake book is designed to be read aloud (as the title indicates, by the fire — or maybe, as we liked to do when our children were little, by the light of the Christmas tree). I remember some of the stories in this book from my own childhood (“The Selfish Giant,” “The Other Wise Man,” and the excerpt from “A Christmas Carol”) and was pleased to see them included with a medieval mystery play on the Annunciation, an essay from Pope Benedict XVI (“Advent Calls Us to Silence” — read this one first!), and poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christina Rosetti. The hardcover volume is cloth-bound with gold printing on the cover and a gold ribbon bookmark, and will be a lovely treasure for your family library. (It’s available as an ebook as well, but you’d definitely miss out on the heirloom-quality presentation if you go that route.) (Review copy received from publisher.)

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Gifts: Visible & Invisible by Susan Peek, Katy Huth Jones, Carolyn Astfalk, Theresa Linden, Leslea Wahl, Cynthia T. Toney, T.M. Gaouette, Corinna Turner, Cathy Gilmore. No cartoon characters “saving Christmas” by making sure presents happen, or mistletoe moments with less substance than a snowflake here. These eight stories entertain and edify the young-adult reader and satisfy that Christmas craving for something more, which can only be fulfilled by Jesus. Each story stands alone, but many are connected to other work by the authors from Catholic Teen Books. (Review copy received from publisher.)

For You or a Friend

Christmas List book cover

The Christmas List by Hillary Ibarra. Nothing lifts the spirits like a Christmas novella, and this one by Hillary Ibarra is one of the best I’ve read. It’s the beautifully told tale, inspired by true events in the author’s life, of a hardworking couple who cannot afford groceries for their family, let alone a festive Christmas meal or gifts for the children. A badly-timed job loss has left the parents stressed, but they make every effort to make Christmas special for their family — and they learn that God does, indeed, care about them. Appropriate for teens and adults.

Christmas Reads


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

Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz

#OpenBook: Fall 2019 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 in September and October:

Fiction

All in Good TimeAll in Good Time by Carolyn Astfalk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Carolyn Astfalk’s novel is packed with relatable characters who aren’t too good to be true, and that’s refreshing in the world of romance novels, where everyone’s young, successful, and great-looking. These characters struggle, and their kids make messes, so it all feels true to life. Melanie, a widow with 3 little kids, meets Brian at her son’s baseball game. Brian has sworn off dating, but he changes his mind after spending some time with Melanie. But his long-kept secret threatens their relationship, and another threat brings danger to the couple as well as Melanie’s kids. A well-told clean romance with just the right amount of suspense — and a twist I didn’t see coming.

Big Lies in a Small TownBig Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Told in split time, this is the story of two artists, both of whom were helped in some way by a recently deceased famous artist. Morgan gets out of jail on parole on the condition that she restore a badly damaged mural in time for a gallery opening. She has a lot to do to put her life back together, but can’t help becoming intrigued by what she can find out about Anna, the mural’s original artist who added disturbing elements to the mural at the last minute. The author intertwines the stories beautifully, with just the right amount of plot twists and suspense. (Netgalley review)

SourdoughSourdough by Robin Sloan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’ve ever baked with sourdough, this book will make sense. Lois, a Silicon Valley robot programmer in a soulless job, is given a sourdough starter when the immigrants who run a takeout business she patronizes return to Europe. As she learns how to bake with it, she discovers that this starter is alive in ways others are not — and this discovery turns her career on its head. Beautifully written.

The Overdue Life of Amy BylerThe Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An engaging cast of characters populates this novel about a school librarian whose almost-ex reappears after 3 years and wants back into her life. Given the opportunity to visit NY for a professional conference, she heads to the city on a journey of rediscovery.

Appalachian Serenade (Appalachian Blessings, #0.5)Appalachian Serenade by Sarah Loudin Thomas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Delilah’s return to her hometown as a widow means the end of all her dreams to be a mother. As World War II comes to an end, she settles in the small West Virginia Town and finds a job at the local store, then discovers herself in an unexpected competition for the affections of the storekeeper. A sweet novella about two people suffering different kinds of grief.

The Union Street Bakery (Union Street Bakery #1)The Union Street Bakery by Mary Ellen Taylor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Daisy McCrae, newly unemployed, returns home to rescue her family’s bakery before the business fails, she discovers a few surprises: the ghosts in the attic, the ghost of an old relationship, and the journal she inherits from a former customer who holds the key to the truth about Daisy’s past. A good story, but wrapped up just a little too neatly.

The Schoolhouse: A Hickory Grove NovelThe Schoolhouse: A Hickory Grove Novel by Elizabeth Bromke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An enjoyable, if totally farfetched, story of second chances. Becky returns to her hometown after nearly 20 years with no idea how she’ll support herself and send money to her son who, improbably, is a student at Notre Dame. Becky wants to purchase a tumbledown schoolhouse on her grandparents’ property and turn it into a bookstore — but has no capital for the project. Enter her high-school sweetheart, who works for the school district and is tasked with arranging for the demolition of that schoolhouse.

My Stubborn HeartMy Stubborn Heart by Becky Wade

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kate takes a sabbatical from her job, where she’s burnt out working in social services for at-risk kids, to help her grandmother restore an old family home and inventory its collection of antiques. Their contractor, a former hockey pro grieving the loss of his wife, seems attracted to her, but is always holding back. Grandma and her friends lend comic relief to the story with their matchmaking attempts. It’s a good read, if a shallow one (everyone’s gorgeous, the contractor is super rich, the old home is filled with ridiculously valuable antiques – none of it’s junk). Definitely falls into the “escape read” category.

Someplace Familiar (Laurel Cove Romance #1)Someplace Familiar by >Teresa Tysinger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Livy returns to her hometown to refurbish a family home and sell an impressive collection of antique furniture, she finds that her grandmother’s friends are busy trying to set her up with the contractor who’s restoring the house. She’s not looking for a relationship, and he’s a former hockey star grieving the loss of his wife. One of those romances where everyone’s successful, wealthy, thin, and gorgeous, but an enjoyable read.

Christmas (It’s never too early!)

The Christmas List (A Girl Called Hoodoo Book 1)The Christmas List by Hillary Ibarra

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nothing lifts the spirits like a Christmas novella, and this one by Hillary Ibarra is one of the best I’ve read. It’s the beautifully told tale, inspired by true events in the author’s life, of a hardworking couple who cannot afford groceries for their family, let alone a festive Christmas meal or gifts for the children. A badly-timed job loss has left the parents stressed, but they make every effort to make Christmas special for their family — and they learn that God does, indeed, care about them.

YA/Children’s

Ella's Promise (Great War Great Love #3)Ella’s Promise by Ellen Gable

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This standalone novel concludes the “Great War Great Love” series, and I’m sorry to see it end. As a whole, the series has been a fascinating look at a time period we don’t read about much. Ella Neumann, the daughter of Germans who emigrated to the USA long before the war, is a volunteer nurse in France. Having been a medical student at home before the war, she hopes her experience will land her a coveted place as a surgical nurse, but her supervisor doesn’t trust her because of her ethnic background, and gives her the least-desired jobs. Ella’s encounter with a prisoner of war and an enemy officer, coupled with her ability to speak German, put her in danger as well as allowing her to help others in unexpected ways. With edge-of-the-seat suspense, the story will captivate teen and adult readers alike. (Advance review copy received from author.)

Gifts: Visible & InvisibleGifts: Visible & Invisible by Susan Peek, Katy Huth Jones, Carolyn Astfalk, Theresa Linden, Leslea Wahl, Cynthia T. Toney, T.M. Gaouette, Corinna Turner, Cathy Gilmore

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No cartoon characters “saving Christmas” by making sure presents happen, or mistletoe moments with less substance than a snowflake here. These 8 stories entertain and edify the young-adult reader and satisfy that Christmas craving for something more, which can only be fulfilled by Jesus. Each story stands alone, but many are connected to other work by the authors from Catholic Teen Books. (Advance Reader Copy provided by Catholic Teen Books)

Nonfiction

9781627853385

Woman of Worth: Prayers and Reflections for Women Inspired by the Book of Proverbs by Melanie Rigney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An encouraging book for women that underscores their value, no matter what their vocation, age, or state in life. Melanie discusses the virtues behind the ideal woman presented in Proverbs 31. In the Introduction, the author notes, “maybe it was progress that I thought my relationship with Jesus did make me a woman of worth.” In each of these 20 chapters, the author examines a verse or two from Proverbs 31, offering a personal reflection and meditation on the virtue, a brief profile of a saint who is a model of that virtue, three questions for discussion or personal journaling, and a prayer. (Advance review copy provided by author)

When Life Gives You Pears: The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny PeopleWhen Life Gives You Pears: The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny People by Jeannie Gaffigan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When you read When Life Gives You Pears, you can expect the medical details, the celebrity bio, and the funny. And you can also expect a powerful testimony of the role faith played in Jeannie Gaffigan’s life and in her recovery. In this book, she candidly shares it all: her fears; the details of her surgery, treatment, and recovery; how the whole experience impacted her outlook on the world; the role faith played in her life before, during, and after her illness.
(Review copy received from publisher)

61 Minutes to a Miracle: The True Story of a Family's Devotion61 Minutes to a Miracle: The True Story of a Family’s Devotion by Bonnie L. Engstrom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most people who pick up 61 Minutes to a Miracle already know how the story turns out. But the spoiler in the book’s title won’t ruin the experience of reading Bonnie Engstrom’s riveting story of the miracle that opened the door not only to life for her child but also to the beatification of Fulton J. Sheen.
Read my full review.


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

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

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

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

Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz

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On Barb’s Bookshelf: Theology of Home

Theology of Home review
Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz. All rights reserved.

I wanted this to be a lifestyle book.

We’re in the planning stages right now of updating our home’s interior. Over the summer we replaced every door in the house. Now we’re choosing flooring and paint covers and preparing for the removal of the 1970s paneling that covers nearly every interior wall.

We’ve lived here for 21 years. After the first year, my husband primed and painted all that paneling, turning the house from a dark dungeon into a warmer, brighter space. But baby gates have come and gone, and the paint bears the battle scars of vacuum cleaners pushed by hands that were hurried or unskilled (or both), not to mention countless games of Nerf basketball.

It’s time.

Only one of our kids still lives here, and he’s 17. We’re past the point of baby gates, outlet covers, and plastic light sabers. The last Nerf basketball hoop went when we replaced the closet door where it hung.

20 years ago, we made our decisions about wall color and floor covering in an entirely utilitarian fashion. We were in a hurry. We had two young children. But now, we have time. We’d love to get this done now, but it’s going to be several weeks before the work begins, and the only thing we’ve chosen so far is the hard flooring that will replace most of the ancient wall-to-wall carpet in here.

And that’s OK, because now I have time to read Theology of Home: Finding the Eternal in the Everyday.

theology_of_home_cover

As I said right up front, this new book from TAN Books is not a lifestyle book. If you only look at the pictures (and Kim Baile’s photography is beautiful), you might get that impression, and it’s certainly fun to page through the book and enjoy the pictures.

But this book is not going to help me choose the paint color that best complements my San Damiano cross.

This book will help me daydream about what I want my home to be, what I want it to represent, what I want it to say to my family as well as to the friends and acquaintances who visit.

My house is never going to look like something they’d feature in a lifestyle book. The coffee table in my living room is strewn with (unread) newspapers and a permanent collection of church hymnals and the portable music stand we use when our parish folk group rehearses there. The family room is littered with video-game controllers, and mismatched afghans spill out of the toy box I had as a child, which now holds blankets for visiting teenagers to use when they sleep over. And we certainly don’t have the budget for high-end accessories.

That’s our lifestyle. We’re good with that.

Theology of Home invites us to celebrate what we love about our homes — not the paint color, or the comfy couch, or the carefully curated light-switch plates. Instead, authors Carrie Gress, Noelle Mering, and Megan Schrieber muse on the meanings behind the spaces in our homes as they invite us into their own stories of home and share episodes from the lives of the saints in which home figures prominently.

Theology of Home review
Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz. All rights reserved.

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.