A School for Unusual Girls: A Stranje House Novel by Kathleen Baldwin is a fast-paced alternative historical fiction novel that offers the reader a captivating blend of adventure, romance, and mystery. This first installment in the Stranje House novels is told by Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam, a young lady of noble birth and many talents. Unfortunately for her, being a brilliant mathematician with a scientist’s curiosity is not an asset to a young lady in 1814. Exiled to Stranje House by her exasperated parents, Georgiana finds herself swept up in a world rife with mystery, romance, and most importantly opportunities for a girl with unusual abilities.
In contrast to many teen novels I read (like my recent experience with “The Selection”), I actually enjoyed Kathleen Baldwin’s writing style and plot. She writes a swift moving story without sacrificing descriptive language and character development. One of the parts I most appreciated was that while Georgiana was clearly the heroine of this book, the other girls at the school also receive character development and seem to be fascinating people too. This harmonizes with one of the major themes in A School for Unusual Girls: acceptance, both of your own gifts and those of others. Each of the girls at the school is highly gifted in their own unique way, but has been rejected by society for not fitting the accepted mold for young ladies. At first Georgiana envies her schoolmates their beauty or talent in other areas, but in the end comes to peace with accepting the gifts she has been given and appreciating what her friends have without jealousy.
The main problem in A School for Unusual Girls is a typical one in secular teen novels: God and religion are left completely out of the world of Stranje House. Personally, I do not see this as a reason to utterly discount a well-written book, as long as your teenagers are noticing the void. In the area of sex, parents need to know that the “romance” in this novel borders on sensual at times, with some passionate kisses. There is also a point in the plot where one of the girls dresses seductively to distract some soldiers. For these latter reasons, I would suggest parents use their judgment in determining the appropriate age for their teens to read this. I would not this book recommend for a girl younger than fourteen.
THE BOTTOM LINE A School for Unusual Girls may not be great literature on par with Leave It to Psmith, but it a thoroughly enjoyable novel with some encouraging themes for teenage girls. I do not see boys enjoying this book at all, but it will resonate with teenage girls who may not quite fit in easily for some reason, whether that be introversion, unusual interests, high intelligence, or something else entirely. I hope this book will encourage girls to explore and develop their individual, God-given gifts.
Here is the second part of my list of worthwhile fiction for Catholic High Schoolers. (Check out Part 1 here). I recommend these books for young adults sixteen and older either because of a more challenging theme or more mature content such as graphic violence, situations involving fornication or adultery, or language. I will specify why each book requires a more mature reader to better assist you as the parent in determining what is appropriate for your teenager.
The three Bronte sisters each wrote a classic. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is the fascinating story of a young woman’s moral and spiritual growth to adulthood through the tumultuous love affair she engages in with her pupil’s guardian. Mature content includes an adulterous affair, sensuality, and mature themes.
Emily Bronte’s single published book is Wuthering Heights, a book showing both a deep moral sensibility in its author and a shocking immorality in its characters. Themes about the havoc sin wreaks on the perpetrators and even an entire community are twined with a story about forbidden love and vengeance.
Ann Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is yet another book that is attempting to uphold morality by showing the consequences of sin in sharp, ugly detail. Alcohol use, illicit affairs, and adultery make this appropriate for a more mature reader.
I recommend most of G. K. Chesterton’s fiction for an older reader simply because his soaring imaginative genius can be better grasped and appreciated the older one gets. Manalive , was my favorite Chesterton book as a teenager, inspiring me to live each day with passion and purpose, rejoicing in being alive. On a more basic level, this is also one of Chesterton’s funniest works. The Flying Inn: A Novel is another simply hilarious work about a band of madcap rebels resisting prohibition and arrest in a merry journey across England.
Chesterton takes on atheism in The Ball and the Cross. A passionate Christian and equally passionate atheist desire to duel over their differences, but find themselves unlikely allies when the government refuses to allow them to fight over their difference in belief. The Paradoxes Of Mr Pond is a series of loosely connected mystery stories, thought-provoking and entertainingly recounted. The Poet and the Lunatics: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale is another collection of mystery stories, this time exploring the idea that a half mad poet may be the person best suited to understand and solve crimes committed by lunatics. The Man Who Was Thursday is the book subtitled “A Nightmare” by Chesterton, and it is indeed a topsy-turvy, mind-bending adventure-mystery novel. Somehow Chesterton manages to combine allegorical and philosophical with fast-paced and exciting.
Wilkie Collins wrote two fascinating mystery stories, particularly notable for their use of first person narratives from a variety of characters to tell the story. The Woman in White is a romance, a mystery, and an examination of the vulnerability of English women in the nineteenth century. Mature content includes an abusive forced marriage.
Collins’ most famous book, The Moonstone, is both a captivating mystery and important from a literary perspective as one of the first modern crime novels.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is a very lengthy, but worthwhile, novel treating an important theme about whether revenge brings real happiness or healing. Mature but not explicit content about an out of wedlock relationship resulting in a child, murders, and the main character having a mistress.
George Eliot’s most famous work is probably Middlemarch, but I personally enjoyed Daniel Deronda very much. Although long, this book explores many worthy themes about the importance of family, the Jewish people’s place in history, friendship, and true love being willing the best for the other person. Mature content includes illegitimate children, adultery, and domestic abuse.
C. S. Forester’s Hornblower Saga is a long series of books chronicling the adventures of a British naval officer beginning with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, set in 1793 during the Napoleonic wars, and following him to promotions, wars, and self-growth.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and North and South are two enjoyable and thought-provoking books, each in their own way. Wives and Daughters centers around the family, exploring personal relationships and human nature through a comedic lens. North and South, though also revolving around a romantic plot, takes on larger themes about capitalism and humanism.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic work The Scarlet Letter is a compelling study of sin and its consequences. For a mature reader due to a plot revolving around adultery and an illegitimate child.
A familiarity with Homer is necessary in a well-read individual, so certainly have your teenager read The Iliad and The Odyssey.
I have two more C. S. Lewis titles to add to my recommended list. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is the story of Cupid and Psyche retold by Psyche’s plain sister. This is a masterful explanation of human emotions and motivations, and Lewis called it his best book. The Great Divorce is an amazing allegory about heaven and hell, perfect scope for Lewis’ trademark clear distinctions and concise philosophical explanations. He raises questions such as are the gates of hell locked from the outside or inside?
The Betrothed: I Promessi Sposi , by Allesandro Manzoni, is a powerful story about the power of love and loyalty, as shown by a young couple who though separated for much of the lengthy book never swerve from their devotion to one another. A mature reader due to length.
Taylor Marshall has created a unique book that combines ancient legends about early saints with history and fantasy in Sword and Serpent. I found this book a very enjoyable look at the early church and how famous legends about Saints Blaise, Christopher, Nicholas, and George may have begun. A mature reader due to some sexual references and a truly disturbing look at evil.
Margaret O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka series is one of those books far too often considered a children’s book, when in fact it is more appropriate for older teenagers or adults. The classic story of daydreamer Ken’s coming of age through his love of a horse is beautifully written and utterly memorable. The sequel, Thunderhead, is also excellent. I recommend these books for an older reader due to the sexual content between the parents.
George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the most famous books of the modern age, a real modern classic. This dystopian novel is both prophetic and disturbing in its vision of an increasingly totalitarian government which attempts to control every facet of life and brooks no individuality. 1984 is a powerful message not to hand all authority over to and place all trust in a centralized government. Sexual content and violence make me recommend for older readers.
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton is a look at life for the natives of South Africa under white rule. Beautiful prose, almost poetic in nature, combines with an ugly story of desperation and desolation in an unlikely harmony of that makes this book a classic. Older readers due to violence and despair.
Quo Vadis by H. Sienkiewicz is an enduringly timely story set against the backdrop of Nero’s persecution of the early Church. A young patrician, Marcus, follows a circuitous path to converting to Christianity. Sienkiewicz provides not only a moving portrayal of early Christianity, but also an enlightening look at Nero’s court and ancient Rome. More appropriate for older readers due to sensuality and violence.
Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels leaves the reader familiar with the main characters and action of the Battle of Gettysburg. An entire novel set during the four days of the battle, this book delves deeply into the thoughts, emotions, and motivations of the players in this decisive battle. For more mature readers due to violence.