On Location: 2 Catholic Novels with Unusual Settings

Location, location, location: the Realtor’s motto might belong to authors as well. Two new novels published this season feature unusual settings. In both books, the main character lives in an out-of-the-ordinary place that figures prominently in the story.

Michael D. O’Brien’s The Lighthouse (Ignatius Press) is a beautifully written literary novel about a man without any family who becomes a lighthouse keeper in a remote area of Nova Scotia: on a tiny island off eastern Cape Breton Island (that’s three layers of islands if you’re keeping track). He can go weeks, or even months in winter, without seeing or speaking to a single soul. It’s mentioned that he suffered a painful childhood and was on his own by his mid-teens, so solitude is not a burden for him. 

But little by little, he opens up to some of the people who find their way to the island and some who live in the nearby town where he purchases groceries and other supplies. And as the years pass, he finds unexpected connections with some of them, and develops unexpected artistic talents that fulfill his unspoken need for the family he lacks.

I was privileged to read The Lighthouse while on vacation at the beach, and the background music of the waves and shore birds made me feel as if I were right there on Ethan McQuarry’s tiny island.

Because it’s always a good time to read a Christmas novel, Paraclete Press is releasing John Gray’s Manchester Christmas on November 10. Chase, a young writer looking for her next big story and a fresh start in New England, winds up in Vermont just after Thanksgiving and moves into a former church that has been converted into a private home. 

The stained-glass windows, all that remain of St. Pius Church’s original furnishings and features (because they could not be safely removed), appear to change every now and again, alerting Chase to dangerous situations to come. Immediately adopted by the community and catching the eye of a local farmer, Chase gets involved in Christmas festivities and hopes to bring an end to a painful chapter in Manchester’s past.

Manchester Christmas is a fun story, perfect for those times when you like a happy ending that brings a tear to your eye and a smile to your face.


Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz.
This article 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: Hope Upon Impact

As a kid, I used to borrow Reader’s Digest Condensed Books from my grandmother. I skipped over the adventure novels and romances in favor of family stories, especially the family memoirs that centered on children battling serious illness or overcoming challenges due to cerebral palsy, paralysis, or other circumstances — and then there was that one particular book about the family who adopted 19 kids, most with physical challenges.

I think such books would be harder for me to read now that I’m a mom. Childish curiosity would be replaced by empathy, because I know what it’s like for moms whose children face serious illness. I am one of those moms.

I eagerly read Julie Overlease’s memoir, Hope Upon Impact, even though I knew it covered that difficult topic: a mom suffering through, praying through, and powering through her sixth-grade daughter’s traumatic brain injury (TBI) after the child was struck by a large falling tree limb.

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Hope Upon Impact, recently published by Paraclete Press, is a combination spiritual memoir and medical miracle story. As I read this book, the community support that the Overlease family received after Evelyn’s accident stood out to me the most. Having endured two lengthy, critical, and overlapping medical crises in my close family this fall, I recognize the little and big ways people reached out to us. The church, school, and sports communities surrounding the Overlease family definitely took care of that family in a big way, and it was uplifting to see.

At the end of the book, the author quotes a homily from a priest at her parish, Fr. Justin Hamilton:

Everything we encounter in life is exactly what God knows is best for us, no matter how disagreeable or hard it is to embrace. That’s not at all to say that some things, like losing a loved one, dealing with a chronic illness, or losing one’s job are objectively good things. Rather, God is able to take painful, challenging events like this and apply them to our lives in such a way that they are transformed into the very best thing for us, the catalyst for the deepest growth, the best way to purify our love and sharpen our faith, if only we would embrace them just like He embraced His cross. The key to this is finding God in these moments, knowing that He is always present in our lives, if only we look for Him and ask Him to reveal Himself. (181)

Hope Upon Impact is an amazing story of God’s providence, community support, and family strength.


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.

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.

Read and Listen: “Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life”

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Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life by guitarist and music critic Henry L. Carrigan Jr. is a book you’ll want to read with music by your side.

Fortunately, publisher Paraclete Press has assembled a playlist on Spotify of multiple versions of the 15 spirituals Carrigan highlights in this book. It’s easy to open up Spotify on your phone or tablet, cue up this playlist, and play different artists’ renditions of the songs as Carrigan details the interpretation and instrumentation of each one.

Read. Pause. Listen. Repeat.

Reading Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life is like taking a very specific, self-paced music appreciation course. You’ll gain a deep knowledge of 15 beloved spirituals and a new appreciation of their history and message.

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In addition to describing the songs’ performances by well-known musicians, Carrigan delves into each song’s history, discussing the time period in which a particular song was written and details of the composer’s life. Readers will learn about the theology behind the songs as well, with an intensive look at the spirituals’ poetic structure, verse by verse. What are we saying when we sing these words?

Carrigan also shares moments from his own life and depictions of well-known performances of some of these spirituals.

Reflections to end each chapter offer questions for discussion, prayer, journaling, or meditation.

As I began reading this book, I was called to sing at a funeral at my parish. One of the requested hymns was “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” which I’d heard before but had never sung. Reading Carrigan’s line-by-line analysis of this spiritual helped reinforce the message of the song: joyous praise amid sorrow. It helped me better prepare to sing a new-to-me song at the funeral of someone I knew.


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.

On Barb’s Bookshelf: I am God’s Storyteller

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Lisa M. Hendey’s new picture book, I am God’s Storyteller, coming February 12 from Paraclete Press, has an important message for its young audience as well as those who read the book aloud to the children in their lives:

God gave me eyes to see, a heart to feel, a mind to ponder, and gifts and talents to share his stories in my own way.

It’s a beautiful message, beautifully presented. The writing is almost lyrical in its cadence and lends itself wonderfully to a read-aloud. And the illustrations by Eric Carlson are fun and inviting, yet not garish.

Readers of this book will be treated to a little bit of Bible history as the people who told God’s story through their lives and witness are chronicled: Moses, Sarah, King David, and Isaiah in the Old Testament; and New Testament figures including Jesus, Mary, and the disciples.

Then the book shifts the focus to us: it’s our mission to be God’s storytellers too. Lisa encourages children to tell God’s story in varied ways.

We don’t have to be grownups to be storytellers. Remember how much Jesus loved sharing his stories with children?

I am God’s Storyteller is a celebration of each child’s — each person’s — God-given creativity and an encouragement to use that creativity to share the Good News with others. It’s also an affirmation that each of us has unique talents, and all of those talents are valuable: writing, creating visual art, singing, dancing, inventing games, acting — all of these ways of using the imagination can help us tell God’s story.

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Copyright 2019 Lisa M. Hendey and Eric Carlson. Used with the kind permission of Paraclete Press. All rights reserved.

An author’s note at the end of the book urges parents, teachers, and caregivers to foster children’s creativity and love of reading in a variety of concrete ways. But the message for parents, grandparents, and other adults goes beyond that one page: we’re never too young — or too old — to share the Good News with the world around us, and God has given each of us a specific ability and mission to do just that.


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.

On Barb’s Bookshelf: Fiction and Fun for Summer

Here are 5 summer reading picks for readers of all ages.

For the Kids: A Staircase for the Sisters by Pamela Love

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Inspired by the true story of an architectural marvel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, A Staircase for the Sisters tells about the miraculous construction of a staircase to the choir loft of a tiny church where there wasn’t room for any stairs. I remember visiting this church during a cross-country trip as a child, and I was struck by the fascinating story of a mysterious carpenter who was an answer to prayer. Insisting upon working alone, the carpenter constructed a spiral staircase without nails or a center support — and then he disappeared. At the end of the book, readers will find information on the Loretto Chapel, St. Joseph, and a novena to St. Joseph. This short book is an excellent read-aloud for children 5 and up, and older independent readers will enjoy it as well.

For the Kids: The Pope’s Cat by Jon M. Sweeney

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Jon M. Sweeney’s chapter book for independent readers, The Pope’s Cat, recounts the story of Margaret, a stray cat who is adopted by the Pope (who likes to take early-morning walks outside the Vatican). Through Margaret, readers will get a peek at the daily life of the Pope, including a meeting with the Queen of England! Will Margaret be able to sneak past the Swiss Guard to join her new friend, the Pope, at dinner with the Queen? Cute illustrations accompany this story — and I hear that a sequel is coming this fall!

For Teens and Adults: Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell

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Can a novel be both chilling and enjoyable at once? Black Bottle Man, the tale of a young boy caught up in a Faustian bargain, manages that feat. Alternating in time from Rembrandt’s younger days through his ninetieth year, the novel slowly fills in the blanks of a deal with the devil that turned a whole family’s life upside-down and left Rembrandt alone in the world and unable to stay in one place longer than 12 days. Imagine being homeless and always on the move for 80 years! YA novel recommended for high-school age and up.

For Teens and Adults: Bound by Vijaya Bodach

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High-school senior Rebecca can’t wait to go away to college — far away, where she can leave behind her father, who’s retreated into his work after her mom’s death last year, and her developmentally-disabled older sister. Rebecca, who was burned over 50% of her body as a preteen, is still dealing with surgeries and treatments for the burn scars and can’t remember the accident that caused the fire. But Rebecca’s dad isn’t dealing with Joy’s needs, leaving Rebecca to make decisions far beyond her years. When Joy becomes pregnant, the family is forced to rework this unhealthy dynamic. This engaging story is a sensitive treatment of prolife themes including abortion, end-of-life issues, and eugenics. Appropriate for teenagers, Bound would make an excellent classroom read.

For Grownups: Unveiling by Suzanne M. Wolfe

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Unveiling, a luxurious read from Paraclete Press, is a story that was easy to dive into — and tough to stop reading. My only complaint? It wasn’t long enough! Assigned to Rome to restore a mysterious medieval painting, Rachel leaves her life in New York behind, along with a bitter divorce and a childhood trauma that’s left a mystery to the reader until she is no longer able to bury the secret she’d rather keep hidden. Meanwhile, Rachel and her team work against the looming threat that the art will be removed from the church after restoration is complete. My favorite part involved the question of the identity of the artist behind the beautiful painting Rachel was restoring, and this book made me want to discover more about religious art.
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Copyright 2018 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I was given a free review copy of these books (except BOUND, which I purchased), but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.