Review of “The Mysterious Benedict Society”

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart looked like a fairly simple book. I had recently finished reading Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton, which in typical Chestertonian fashion is absolutely amazing but also leaves you feeling like your head may explode from his awe-inspiring insights. Anyway, I wanted a simple book to review and ended up choosing The Mysterious Benedict Society at the library. I soon realized this book was a poor choice if I wanted a straightforward subject. In no time, I found myself dusting off my Theology major cap and delving into the Catechism, Aquinas, and Augustine trying to ascertain the exact position the Catholic Church holds on spying and lying while spying.

A STRAIGHTFORWARD PREMISE

The plot of The Mysterious Benedict Society is fairly simple. Four lonely but gifted children (Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance) are recruited by a benevolent genius (Mr. Benedict) to assist in foiling a plot by an evil genius. The evil genius aspires to control the minds of all humankind via his hi-tech invention, “The Whisperer.” The children are chosen because they have a particularly strong love for the truth and therefore a certain immunity to The Whisperer. Reynie and his friends have to go incognito into the evil genius’ organization to uncover his plans and foil them. On the surface, it’s a classic conflict of good versus evil with the reader rooting for the good guys.

LYING AND SPYING

The potentially troublesome scenario which this book creates is placing the four children undercover, in situations where they may have to lie, cheat, and otherwise practice deception. The children are repeatedly described as special because they have a strong love for the truth. This doesn’t jibe well with portraying them as lying, cheating, and so on.

The first question I had when analyzing the morality of the children’s actions was: are all the scenarios where the children tell lies under coercion or in order to preserve their secret identities? Mostly yes. Mostly. There are one or two occasions where Sticky tells a completely unnecessary lie, such as when he lies about his parents in the beginning of the book. These occasions are quite indefensible. It is up to you as a parent to decide if your child has the maturity to recognize these lies as deplorable and know not to imitate.

The rest of the lying and cheating is in the context of the children preserving their secret identities. What does the Church have to say on the morality of deception in this context? Not much, actually. There isn’t an infallible teaching about the morality of spying. In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas’ argument would preclude lying when spying. But Aquinas isn’t always right.

In a fascinating article in First ThingsEthics professor Janet Smith provides a round-up of various Catholic positions on the lying and spying question. She notes that the lack of an official Church teaching on this subject points to it being a moral gray area, rather situation dependent. She draws an analogy to taking human life. Killing is wrong, but in order to defend oneself or another innocent, one can kill. Similarly, she says, lying is wrong, but in particular situations such as to save human life, one can lie. I recommend reading her article for a more thorough understanding of her argument.

Whatever your position on the question of lying and spying, the inclusion of such a tricky subject definitely makes this children’s book more complicated than your average adventure story. I would highly recommend discussing the morality of the children’s lying in the story. In fact, this makes for a great book report topic or family discussion!

UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIPS

To counterbalance the lying question, I found a plethora of redeeming themes in The Mysterious Benedict Society. Watching four children with diverse personalities coalesce into a team is a great lesson for the reader. Sticky is shy, Reynie is a natural leader, Kate is independent, and Constance is contrary. Their only similarity is a shared love of truth and common mission. Which is plenty to form a team and eventually friendships!

OVERCOMING FEARS

Another great theme throughout the book is overcoming fear. Sticky particularly struggles with overcoming his fears to do the right thing. The Whisperer soothes his fears and makes him feel happy: a seductive evil to resist. Reynie and Sticky both find themselves tempted to succumb to The Whisperer. Reynie thinks:

“The Whisperer’s version of happiness is an illusion – it doesn’t take away your fears, it only lies to you about them, makes you temporarily believe you don’t have them. And I know it’s a lie, but what a powerful one!”

Reynie and Sticky overcome The Whisperer’s seductive pull by relying on their friendships with each other and Kate and Constance. Reynie also turns to an adult, Mr. Benedict, for his wisdom. Through the help of other people rather than a machine’s lies, Sticky and Reynie learn to push past fear to complete their mission.

TV AND TRUTH

A third theme that will make most parents smile is the juxtaposition of TV and truth. The four children are chosen because they love the truth. What is one of the primary signs of their attachment to truth? They dislike TV and its messages. Now of course, in the story the evil villain is piggybacking poisoned messages on TV waves. We don’t have that in our world… or do we? Are the messages our children ingest from the media a positive or negative in forming their moral imaginations?

RECOMMENDATIONS

Weighing the pros and cons, I found The Mysterious Benedict Society to be an enjoyable adventure story with overall wholesome themes. After a discussion of the morality of lying and spying, this book is quite appropriate for children ten and older. Younger children could also enjoy it if they are mature enough to grasp the concepts of spying, mind control, and temptation.

Review of “The Drover’s Road Collection”


The Drovers Road Collection by Joyce West could be described as a New Zealand Little House on the Prairie. I cannot say enough good things about this trilogy, yet sadly it is little known in the United States. Tweens and Teens who love adventures, a story with a strong female protagonist, and a generous dose of humor, will enjoy Drover’s Road.

These adventures are narrated by Gay Allan, a lively and adventurous girl growing up on a New Zealand sheep station. The trilogy begins with Gay and her three cousins’ humorous escapades as they “help” their Uncle Dunsany on his ranch, deep in the Maori country. The cousins may be far from civilization, but life is never quiet at Drover’s Road with its colorful cast of characters both human and animal. In Cape Lost, Gay describes growing into a young woman, experiencing first loves and heartbreaks. But don’t worry; Gay, true to her name, is always resilient and able to see the humorous side of her adventures as she comes of age. The final book, The Golden Country, is Gay’s story of taking over a sheep station of her own as a young adult.

What makes these stories so worthwhile and memorable is Gay’s worldview, wise beyond her years yet still joyful. Growing up on a sheep station, she is used to hard work and responsibility. Yet she is also gentle-hearted and merry by nature. In each chapter, whether funny or poignant, a disaster or celebration, she provides a lesson for the reader without moralizing.

Drover’s Road is a story of a different era a century ago, when cell phones and the internet were not even imagined. Gay and her cousins fill their days taming wild horses, building a hideaway under a waterfall, hunting treasure, and playing matchmaker to their various relations. I think reading about their adventure-filled, joyful lives is a great inspiration to today’s teens and tweens to turn away from their screens and consider what real adventure might look like.

Despite being an old story when it comes to technology, Gay’s atypical family situation may strike a chord in today’s kids. Gay and her three cousins are all being raised by their young uncle and a distant cousin, “Aunt” Belle. Their parents all either died or abandoned them. Though they have an idyllic life on the cattle station, the cousins still experience a sense of missing and emptiness over their lost parents. Later in the books, Gay delves into her difficult relationship with her father, whom she struggles to forgive.

The romance is light and clean, and there is no language or violence. This wonderful book is perfect for twelve and older. The only sad part is that it is out of print so you have to buy it used here, or you can buy it as an e-book from publisher Bethlehem Books or on Amazon.

Review of “Outlander”

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon was written back in 1991, but like several other books I’ve reviewed, it enjoys new popularity due to the successful TV series of the same title. Outlander is the first of a series of lengthy novels by Gabaldon which combine historical fiction, romance, and time travel. I truly enjoyed large sections of this novel. Claire, the narrator and protagonist, is a memorable character: a woman who possesses both a nurse’s healing instincts and a warrior’s strength and courage. Her account of time travel to 18th century Scotland and subsequent fast-paced adventures in that picturesque setting are entertaining, even fascinating, reading. Authoress Diana Gabaldon is actually a Roman Catholic, and I loved her overall positive portrayal of Catholicism. However, as much as I found to appreciate in Outlander, I also found several troubling themes and much distasteful content.

A VERY BRIEF SUMMARY

To sum up a novel over 600 pages in a few sentences: Outlander is the story of Claire (Beauchamp) Randall, a World War II nurse, who accidentally travels back in time to 18th century Scotland. To escape imprisonment by her husband’s ancestor Captain Randall, she ends up forced into marriage with a charming young Scot named Jamie Fraser. They spend the remainder of the novel alternating between violent quarrels and steamy reconciliation scenes, all while trying to avoid capture by the sadistic villain Jack Randall.

POSITIVE PORTRAYAL OF CATHOLICISM

The best part of Outlander for a Catholic reader is the wonderful, positive portrayal of Catholicism and monastic life in the last few chapters. Earlier in the book, a parish priest is portrayed as uneducated, superstitious, and vindictive, but the later chapters dealing with many holy monks and priests  more than counterbalance the one caricature of a peasant priest. Towards the end of the book, a wounded Jamie and Claire seek refuge in this French monastery. Though a lifelong agnostic, Claire is impressed by the devout monks and befriends one priest, Fr. Anselm, who offers her some beautiful explanations of various Catholic practices such as perpetual adoration and Extreme Unction.

“The purpose of the sacrament is twofold,” Anselm went on, murmuring in my ear as the preparations went on. “First, it is intended as a sacrament of healing; we pray that the sufferer may be restored to health, if that be God’s will for him. The chrism, the consecrated oil, is used as a symbol of life and healing.” “And the second purpose?” I asked, already knowing. Anselm nodded. “If it is not God’s will that he should recover, then he is given absolution of sins, and we commend him to God, that his soul may depart in peace.”

On Anselm’s advice, Claire begins to attend perpetual adoration, eventually admitting that she is not alone and recognizing God’s presence. I began to be excited that Gabaldon was leading up to a conversion or miracle, but then was utterly baffled as a few pages later Claire turns to witchcraft to help heal Jamie.

WITCHES AND WITCHCRAFT

The witchcraft motif begins in the first few chapters of the book with a casual interlude of palm reading with the vicar’s cook. From there the observant reader finds an ongoing insinuation of two contradictory themes about witchcraft. A first theme is an attempt to normalize witchcraft as not particularly different than herb lore, divorce it from Satanism, and paint those who fear witchcraft as superstitious and uneducated. Claire notices the witches she meets are wise, reasonable women who by extension take a reasonable attitude towards the occult.

“Perhaps it was an attitude they shared, a pragmatism that regarded the occult as merely a collection of phenomena like the weather. Something to be approached with cautious respect, of course—much as one would take care in using a sharp kitchen knife—but certainly nothing to avoid or fear.”

Claire undergoes a witch trial when she is arrested along with a friend and accused of dabbling in the occult. Her friend, who is a self-proclaimed witch, ends up sacrificing herself so Claire can escape, emphasizing the motif that witches are basically good people. Up to that point, Claire has regarded witchcraft with leeriness, but eventually she turns to witchcraft herself, as mentioned above, to save Jamie in the last extremity. She decides to “summon a ghost” by using a reflection pool as her witch friend had taught her to assist in exorcising Jamie’s nightmares. Afterwards, she leaves her room “with a prayer for the soul of the witch Geillis Duncan.” This whole interlude of Claire using the occult is particularly troubling because of its placement in the plot. Jamie has been given Extreme Unction, the monks have commended him to God’s providence … and then Claire turns to witchcraft to save him. The second theme about the occult seems to be: God is a comforting idea, but witchcraft works better.

DOMESTIC ABUSE

Another aspect of Outlander that I found very troubling was that the great romantic relationship in the story between Jamie and Claire skirted dangerously close to a domestic abuse situation. Both hot tempered, they frequently engaged in shouting matches, hurling verbal abuse at each other. Jamie threatened Claire with physical abuse on several occasions. For example: “Try that again and I’ll slap you ’til your ears ring.” And on one occasion, he does follow through with a threat and beat her with his sword belt. Worse, he confesses to enjoying it:

“Enjoyed it! Sassenach,” he said, gasping, “you don’t know just how much I enjoyed it. You were so … God, you looked lovely. I was so angry, and you fought me so fierce. I hated to hurt you, but I wanted to do it at the same time … Jesus,” he said, breaking off and wiping his nose, “yes. Yes, I did enjoy it.

LANGUAGE & LYING

Taking the Lord’s name in vain is frequent throughout Outlander. Claire is the worst in this regards, blaming her foul mouth on having served in field hospital. Jamie is at first held up as a fundamentally good, moral character; it is disappointing as the book progresses and he curses regularly too. Lying is also commonplace. Jamie and Claire make a pact not to lie to each other, but otherwise Claire sees no problem with lying.  In fact, the book opens with her flippantly lying to her landlady.

PEDOPHILIA A LAUGHING MATTER?

There are at least two homosexual characters. One is the Duke of Sandringham, who has a reputation for preying on teenage boys. Now this is not represented as a positive, but it is presented as fairly amusing. The Duke is a jolly, intelligent man whom Claire says she rather likes. An interesting way to draw a sexual predator, isn’t it? Jamie tells humorous anecdotes about the Duke’s attempts to assault him as a teenager. I find making a joke out of pedophilia at best offensive and at worst an effort at normalization. I do not know the author’s intentions of course, but humor is a great way to normalize deviant behavior.

THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS

The final and insurmountable difficulty with Outlander for a Catholic reader is that it is, simply put, too explicit. Unless you are willing to skip large sections of the text, you find yourself reading intimate details about Claire’s lovemaking with Frank and Jamie that no one needs or should want to know. Even worse, Gabaldon spends page after page describing Jack Randall’s sadistic homosexual tendencies in great detail. This was completely unnecessary to the plot and simply revolting to read. Skimming over a few paragraphs of such unnecessary explicit details about lovemaking and sadism is one thing, but the novel is simply rife with such passages.

CHANNELING AUSTEN

The curious combination of accurate Catholic knowledge mixed with witchcraft, domestic abuse, and explicit sex scenes is honestly more disturbing than a run of the mill romance novel.  Gabaldon has clearly been catechized, and yet writes a book that seems set on muddying the waters about witchcraft, romanticizing domestic abuse, and swimming with sex scenes. To quote some Jane Austen, “Better be without sense than misapply it as you do.” Outlander could have been a great book without the smut and witchery. But as it is in actuality, my advice is: this book is certainly not appropriate for teenagers, and adults should be forewarned that this is not a clean novel.

Review of “The Princess Bride”


Growing up, I watched The Princess Bride at least a dozen times and knew half the lines by heart. It really is a hilarious movie, so I was excited all these years later to read the book that inspired it: The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman. Because the book is always better than the movie, right?

If you haven’t seen the movie, it is in essence a spoof on fairy tale adventures. Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world, is being forced to marry a wicked prince. But she is rescued by her her lover Wesley, a Sicilian bent on revenge, and a giant. There are swashbuckling sword fights, miraculous rescues, wicked villains who are satisfactorily punished, and a hilarious commentary from the narrator. The book also has these elements. In fact, the movie contains all the best parts of the book and leaves out the muck.

And there is so much muck in this book. Before you get to the adventure proper, you must wade through 32 pages of Goldman describing, first, making a pass at a bikini-clad Hollywood starlet (note that Goldman is married). Second, lying repeatedly to his wife. Third, complaining about how his wife doesn’t understand him. Fourth, describing how he knows all the above is wrong, but doing it anyway.

By the end of these 32 pages I was so angry I almost destroyed the library book. After cooling down, I continued to the story proper. The book version of The Princess Bride opens with an account of the most beautiful woman in the world, a maid who is having an adulterous affair with a duke. The duke’s shrewish wife ruins the maid’s beauty by plying her with chocolates. I’m not a psychologist, but by this point I was convinced that Goldman had a very dysfunctional marriage. I later found out that he and his wife, who was actually a psychologist, divorced after the book was published.

It’s rather sad, really, to realize how Goldman views marriage. There isn’t a happy relationship in the book. Buttercup’s parents are described as having an unhappy marriage: “All they ever dreamed of was leaving each other.” Buttercup and Wesley do not even have a particularly inspiring relationship. Buttercup is rude, slovenly, and quite dull-witted when Wesley falls in love with her. Basically, he loves her because she’s beautiful. And once he rescues her, they soon fall to bickering and belittling one another.

Now there is still some decent comedy in the story. As I said, the movie combines all the best parts of the book with a wise cutting out of the love-doesn’t-exist theme. But a little comedy does not make this book worthwhile reading, so do not waste your time or give it to your teenagers. While disappointing, I will give The Princess Bride credit for being life changing for me in one way. I am never again going to be able to say “the book is always better than the movie.”

Good Books about Princesses for Catholic Girls of All Ages

Did you know many Catholic saints were princesses? Sadly, in recent years, the word “princess” has become synonymous with a spoiled or arrogant girl. But for centuries, the word “princess” connoted a young lady who exhibits beauty both interior and exterior, grace, kindness, wisdom, and self-control. I am a proponent of resurrecting the image of the virtuous princess as a positive role model for our daughters. Because what little girl doesn’t instinctively admire a princess? So let’s read them stories about the type of princess we want them to emulate. Here are some great stories about real princesses for girls of all ages.

PICTURE BOOKS


St. Elizabeth of Hungary is a Catholic saint and queen who truly exhibited charity through her great love of the poor. Roses in the Snow is a beautiful picture book about this beautiful soul.

 

 

 

 


Little Gold Star: A Spanish American Cinderella Tale is a creative Spanish American version of Cinderella which features Mary as the “godmother” who helps the young girl.

 

 

 

 


The Princess and the Kiss is a wonderful story about cherishing the gift of purity. I love how the king and queen in the story guide their princess to develop virtues! Also check out the sequel, The Three Gifts of Christmas, which describes how the princess is cured of her selfishness.

 

 

FOR ELEMENTARY SCHOOLERS


I was thrilled to discover the Twin Princess series at our local library recently. These sweet little easy readers offer great lessons for little girls. In The Princess Twins and the Tea Party, Princess Abby learns a lesson in humility as her sister Princess Emma reminds her: “Only God is perfect!” And in The Princess Twins and the Puppy, Abby learns a lesson in trusting God.

 

 


The Queen and the Cats is a retelling of little known legend about St. Helena, Queen mother of Constantine and finder of the true Cross. After finding the Cross, legend has it that Helena visited Cypress and helped save their churches from the rats.

 

 

 

 


Once upon a Time Saints offers the stories of some lesser known saints who also happened to be princesses such as Alice, who trusted God and married two different kings. And Elizabeth of Portugal who was a great peacemaker and patron of the poor.

 

 

 


M. M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess was a favorite princess story of mine as a girl. Princess Amy’s godmother bestows on her the gift of being ordinary. At first this seems like an impossible gift to burden a princess with, but eventually Amy finds a prince who likes her exactly as she is- especially her ordinariness.

 

 

 

FOR TWEENS TO TEENS


The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel The Princess and Curdie are two classics from master storyteller George MacDonald. Princess Irene explores labyrinths with a magic ring, avoiding malicious Goblins with the help of Curdie, a simple miner boy.

 

 

 


The Light Princess is another George MacDonald story. A princess loses her gravity: both her ability to stay on the ground and her ability to be serious. She is insipid and carefree, and utterly selfish. Will even the prospect of her suitor dying rouse any compassion?

 

 

 


The Princess Guide: Faith Lessons from Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty brings together princess tales, scripture, and the Catechism of the Catholic church into simple lessons for teenage girls about the virtues and Catholic womanhood.

 

 

 

 


Catholic author Regina Doman’s series of fairy tale princess retellings are fun books with good themes for Catholic girls, if not necessarily memorable for their great prose. The Shadow of the Bear, the first book, is a retelling of Snow White and Rose Red. (Parental Warning: mention of date rape) Black as Night is a creative take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs featuring friars as the dwarfs. Waking Rose is Sleeping Beauty retold, and the final book in Doman’s initial trilogy, which I would consider appropriate for about 14 and up. The Midnight Dancers is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses with a timeless theme about teenage rebellion, modesty, and obedience. (Parental Warning: mention of unwanted sexual advances, a torture scene, drug and alcohol use) Alex O’Donnell and the 40 Cyberthieves is Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, of course. Note that Doman’s latest book, Rapunzel Let Down, is meant for a much older audience.

FOR OLDER TEENS (18+)


Helena is Catholic author Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Saint Helena. This is a story of Helena’s quest for meaning, for love, for eternity. Also it an inspiring story of a woman who suffered many humiliations with great graciousness and channeled her sufferings into a search for eternal love.

 

 

 


Life of St. Margaret Queen of Scotland is a short, fascinating contemporaneous description of Saint Margaret by a bishop who knew her.

 

 

 

 


Rapunzel Let Down is Regina Doman’s latest book, intended for a much older audience than her previous novels aimed at high schoolers. This is a very dark story of temptation, sin, and selfish love, juxtaposed to forgiveness, true love, and second chances. Only for readers over 18.

Review of “A School for Unusual Girls”


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.

THE GOOD

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 BAD

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.