On My Bookshelf: Murder at Penwood Manor by Antony Barone Kolenc

Book 5 in Catholic novelist Antony Barone Kolenc’s Harwood Mysteries series, Murder at Penwood Manor, is one of those stories that will keep your teen reading late into the night. Xan, an orphaned teen who was first taken in by monks and then came to live with an uncle in a distant town, seeks to exonerate a crusader who has returned from the Holy Land and is now accused of the murder of a romantic rival. Xan is accompanied in his quest to save Laurence the crusader by two young women, one in formation at a local abbey and another who appears to be his love interest.

As I read this story, I was frequently reminded of this line from the Gospel of John:

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)


Xan, Lucy, and Christina all have a lot to lose by standing up for Laurence in front of the sheriff and the townsfolk, all of whom are ready to see him put to death. Lucy even risks her religious vocation by disobeying her superiors and leaving the monastery to help solve the mystery behind the murder that opens the story. I won’t give spoilers, but I will say there’s a cliffhanger that leaves me extremely eager for the next novel in the series!

Parents and teachers will appreciate the two-page readers guide, “How to read historical fiction,” at the front of the book, and the author has also provided a map of Xan’s world, a glossary of religious and historical terms, and an author’s historical note that explains Church and feudal practices of that time and place. These bonus materials have been included with each book in the series, and are informative and useful without being condescending.

Murder at Penwood Manor is best enjoyed as part of a series, but Kolenc skillfully provides enough background information that a reader new to the series can jump in anywhere.

As with many series that begin with characters who are 10 or 11 years of age, the later books in the Harwood Mysteries seem more geared toward younger teen readers than middle-grade. I’d recommend this book (and book 4) for readers 12 and up; the first three books in the series are fine for middle-grade readers and up.




Want to catch up on the other books in the series?

nullThe virtue of integrity is central to Shadow in the Dark, as Xan and his friends discover which of the people around them are who they say they areand who can be trusted. In this story, Xan is taken in at a monastery after his village is burned down and his parents killed; Xan has little memory of the tragedy and does not know who he is. This mystery story provides a fascinating glimpse inside the feudal world and the monastic life during the Middle Ages.


nullThe Haunted Cathedral, Book 2, contains fictional characters and events set in a historical place and time. Lincoln Castle and Lincoln Cathedral, both of which figure in the story, were constructed about a century before the story takes place—and parts of these buildings still stand today. And you’ll find no spoilers here, but a significant event in the story was actually recorded in history! When Xan is forced to travel to the city of Lincoln with Carlo, who was involved in Xan’s parents’ death, he faces multiple obstacles that challenge him to forgive—and he learns firsthand the consequences for himself and others when he withholds forgiveness.


nullIn The Fire of Eden, an accident causes John, who’s been Xan’s nemesis in the monastery for quite some time, to lose his sight. Angry at his sudden dependence on those around him, John is more cruel than ever, but Xan is forced to cooperate with him as they seek to solve the mystery of a missing precious ruby belonging to a young monk who’s about to be ordained to the priesthood. Along the way, they encounter dishonest monks, traitorous guards, and a frightening magician who lives in the woods.


nullIn The Merchant’s Curse, Xan and his companions progress through their teen years, the challenges they face—both in their faith and in their struggle to protect themselves and those they love from the very real threats they experience—have ever-higher stakes. In this story, Xan’s uncle William, who has provided him with both meaningful work and shelter, comes under threat when his business partner becomes deathly ill. His partner’s nephew, Nigel, blames the illness on a curse from a woman reputed to be a witch, but evil also seems to be lurking around William’s shop in the form of a group of thugs, and Nigel furthers the danger by befriending an enemy of the king.


Ask for Murder at Penwood Manor at your local Catholic bookseller, or order online from or the publisher, Loyola Press.

Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz

This article contains Amazon links; your purchase through these links supports the work of this website at no additional cost to you. Thank you!


Back-to-School Books for the Kids (plus one for Mom and Dad)

Summer vacation may have come to an end, but that doesn’t have to mean the end of reading for pleasure. Encourage your children to keep reading by offering fun and faith-filled books for them to enjoy. Check out these newly-published books; you’re sure to find one geared toward the age of each of your children. And don’t miss the one I’ve recommended for you!

nullPicture Books

The Book That Changed Everything by Allison Regina Gliot, FSP; illustrated by Santiago María López Piuma (Pauline Kids)

This captivating picture book is the sweet story of Sofia, an eager reader who reads and learns about everything and everyone—but who always feels alone. When she discovers a Bible in a “grand old library” she feels like it’s “a friend calling out to her.” The words seem to come alive, and in a dream, she meets Jesus, who tells her that He speaks to her through that book, and that when she reads it, she’s never alone.

This book is perfect for reading aloud to children up to age 8, and young independent readers will enjoy it as well. It would also be an excellent gift for a child preparing for First Reconciliation, due to its emphasis on Jesus’ love for us and our call to follow Him.


nullIndependent Readers

Saint Joseph: The Juggling Saint by Maria Riley (independently published)

Catholic Mom contributor Maria Riley’s pairing of Saint John Bosco, who looked out for children in crisis in his native Italy, with the story of a child nervous about his upcoming first day in a new school makes this book relatable to any child who fears the unknown of a new experience. Children reading this book will discover a new saintly friend.

Appropriate as an independent read for second grade and up, and as a read-aloud for first grade and up. This would be a wonderful book for parents and children to enjoy together and can spark conversation about how to handle new situations. A recommended back-to-school read!


nullMiddle Grade

Detective Thomas and the Biggest Question by Caitlin E. Bootsma, illustrated by Evie Schwartzbauer (OSV Kids)

This chapter book for readers in third grade and up would appeal to kids who enjoy science and who are full of questions (their parents might want to skip straight to the book I’m recommending for parents in this article). Thomas is a middle-school student who likes to solve mysteries, and who is challenged by one of his peers to explain why he believes in God.

A mysterious box appears in his room one morning, and Thomas finds a note encouraging him to ask questions, observe and explore, and try to make sense of the answers he finds. I think of this book as “Encyclopedia Brown with a Catholic twist” and was impressed by the way the author weaves the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas into the story. The illustrations are fun and age-appropriate, as well. A bonus: as Thomas seeks to solve the trail of mysteries the box places in front of him, readers are asked to work through these ideas in features called “Reality Detective Lab” where they’re invited to write about their own observations.

(Releases September 18; preorder this as a fun surprise for your middle-grade reader!)


nullTeen Readers

Charting the Course by Leslea Wahl (Vinspire Publishing)

Catholic Mom contributor Leslea Wahl’s characters are fun-loving and real, and Liz, the main character in this novel, is no exception. She’s missing Christmas week with her friends back home while on a Caribbean cruise with her dad, and she’s not happy about it at all. But the combination of a cute guy her own age, some mysterious notes that appear to be a scavenger hunt, and a karaoke contest make the trip better than she’d planned—and even an opportunity to grow in faith.

Liz is not Catholic, but her friend Josie is, and Liz has attended Mass with Josie and is definitely curious about the faith. This type of character is one we don’t see often in Catholic fiction, and I think we need to see characters like this more: people who haven’t been raised in any faith, but who want to know more. By reading this book, teens can be inspired to be more open about sharing their faith with friends who don’t have Catholic backgrounds.

(This novel is a standalone, but if you haven’t read Into the Spotlight first, I recommend that you do—because you’ll want to get to know Josie and Ryan, who star in that book.)


For Mom and Dad

The Catholic Parents’ Survival Guide: Straight Answers to Your Kids’ Toughest Questions by Julianne Stanz (Loyola Press)

This new book is described by the publisher as “a practical manual for talking with children about the things that really matter.” Our kids have so many questions—it feels like they are asking questions all the time. And we want to satisfy their curiosity in an age-appropriate way, while making sure we give them the right information. This book encourages parents as they strive to meet that challenge. Right off the bat, Julianne (a mom of three) reminds parents that it’s OK if they admit they don’t know an answer, but that they should do their best to get that answer and share it with their child as soon as they can. The introduction and first chapter (“Parents as Arch-Influencers”) discuss how we connect with our children and the ways we witness to our faith by what we teach them and through our example.

The remaining chapters in the book deal with topics such as God, Mary, the saints, going to Mass, prayer, Heaven, morality, sin, and science. Each chapter contains frequently-asked questions from children; these questions are labeled with the age of the child asking, and answers are geared toward that child’s age. You’ll even find some questions asked by parents! And don’t skip the bonus content at the end of the book (this content alone is worth the purchase price of this book): information on celebrating the angels, Mary, and the saints, as well as the major seasons of the liturgical year, with your family.


Ask for these selections at your local Catholic bookseller, or order online from or the publishers (both linked above).





Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Images: Canva

Links to books in this post are Amazon affiliate links. Your purchases made through these links support Thank you!
With the exception of Charting the Course, which I purchased, I received copies of these books for my honest review, with no other compensation.

On Barb’s Bookshelf: Busy Lives & Restless Souls

Barb's Book shelf blog title

If you think you’re too busy to read a spiritual book, Busy Lives & Restless Souls (Loyola Press, 2017) is the book for you. The title grabbed me immediately. Yes, I’m busy (who isn’t?) — but I’ve learned the hard way that checking off to-do list items at the expense of nurturing my soul leaves things off-kilter.

I picked up this book because I knew nothing about Ignatian spirituality and I welcomed the chance to learn something new. As a pragmatic person, I found comfort in the practical advice that I learned is a hallmark of the Ignatian way of life and which is so clearly explained by author Becky Eldredge.

busy lives and restless souls

Becky Eldredge is in a different season of “busy” than I am (my youngest is 15, while she still has toddlers underfoot) but despite our difference in years and experience, her advice rings true. I’m no longer interrupted in prayer by a toddler who wakes up early, but there are different demands on my time and energy that can tempt me to neglect my soul. And then there’s that tendency toward perfectionism (“if I can’t pray Evening Prayer without listening to that movie someone’s watching at top volume in the next room, well then, I’m just going to wait until later” … and later, of course, never comes). So that good advice in chapter 2 (“Creating Spaces”) had nothing to do with blissful quiet and pretty journals and luxurious fountain pens. Instead, it was simply this: “Stop judging your prayer … stop beating yourself up about how you are not praying and celebrate how you are.” (p. 12)

The end of each chapter is as practical as the material preceding it: it’s entitled “A Look at Your Life Now.” The reflection questions and action items there are concrete and do-able. The chapters present plenty of examples of real people applying Ignatian spiritual principles in ways that make sense with their current state of life. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to prayer. The best prayer is the prayer you can pray, and what you can do today is probably different from what you will be able to do next year. But since it’s not next year, do what you can today. That’s extraordinarily practical, and extraordinarily comforting.

One thing I found distracting in this book is the author’s refusal to use a pronoun for God. Yes, it’s nitpicky of me to notice, but when the word “God” comes up three times in two sentences it starts to get awkward; after all, isn’t that why God invented pronouns in the first place? This is the first time I’ve encountered this practice outside of hymnals and the people who insist on replacing pronouns in Mass responses and proclaiming those loudly, so it didn’t engender (pun completely intended) a positive response from me.

That aside, the book is definitely worth reading–it’s a great encouragement to any parent or other busy soul.

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