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Review of “The Haunted Cathedral

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The Haunted Cathedral

The second installment in Antony Barone Kolenc’s The Hardwood Mysteries, The Haunted Cathedral picks up right where we left Xan at the end of The Shadow in the Dark. This fast-paced historical fiction trilogy set in Middle Age England follows the adventures and misadventures of young Xan, an orphaned boy trying to find his family- and God’s will. In Shadows in the Dark, Xan tries to recover his memory after a group of bandits leaves him wounded and burns his home. In this second book, The Haunted Cathedral, Xan struggles to learn how to forgive and move on. A little mystery might be just what he needs to help distract him from his hatred.

Meticulous Historical Fiction

I really appreciate the care Kolenc takes to accurately represent Middle Age England. From monasteries to towns to castles to cathedrals, Kolenc takes the reader on a tour of what life was like for an orphaned serf boy in the Middle Ages. Speaking of serfs, these books subtly explore the relationships between serfs and lords, monasteries and patrons, merchants and monks. The intricate castes of the Middle Ages get attention in this book as Xan realizes that as a serf he doesn’t have the freedom to choose a vocation or even where to live.

In keeping with the setting, there are some fundamental lifestyle differences. For example, 12 and 14 year old children are already considering courtship, which is of course strange to our modern sensibilities. Xan’s interest in the girls is handled very gently and discreetly though. Kolenc includes a section at the back of the book which outlines many of the unique traditions of the Middle Ages for readers.

An Intriguing Mystery

What are ghosts? Xan and his friends Lucy, Simon, and Christina are fascinated by tales of a ghost in the Cathedral. A wise monk and priest give the different Catholic perspectives on ghosts. In the end, Xan realizes that trying to reconnect with his parents through a ghost isn’t the wisest idea. Instead, he and his friends help solve the Cathedral mystery and restore another orphan to his parents.

A Fresh Catholic Series

It’s fun to see new Catholic historical fiction getting published. Parents will appreciate the discussion questions in the beginning and historical enrichment at the end. Best of all, this series takes on a slippery topic- the Church in the Middle Ages- with an honest and unapologetic tone. There are very good monks, and troubled monks. There are pros and cons to the power the Church and its ministers held in that time period. These are good reflections for the intended tween and teen audience to begin to consider.

You can buy The Hardwood Mysteries: The Haunted Cathedral through my Amazon affiliate link: The Haunted Cathedral

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I received a copy of The Haunted Cathedral from Loyola Press in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

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Review of “Black Bottle Man”

A Deal with the Devil

In this sweeping journey story that spans nearly a century, Craig Russell writes an intriguing new riff on the classic cautionary tales about making a deal with the devil.

Rembrandt was only a kid in 1927 when his two aunts made a deal with the devil. In order to redeem their souls, Rembrandt and his father set out on a quest to find a champion. The catch: they can’t stay in any one place for more than 12 days.

Black Bottle Man spans three quarters of a century. Rembrandt journeys across much of America searching for redemption for his family- and himself.

What’s to like in Black Bottle Man

Russell’s style is very readable and flows well. I liked his choice to focus on the consequences of curses and devil-dealing across generations. Fundamentally, what he’s saying about deals with the devil applies to all sin. Our sins impact others outside ourselves, far more than we can imagine. Only after death will we know how our sins affected our children, relatives, even grandchildren and beyond.

Black Bottle Man also explores self-sacrifice and what true freedom and happiness looks like. Rembrandt and his father choose to seek redemption for their family. They live in a certain peace and interior freedom, knowing they are trying to seek heaven even if the journey seems long and even hopeless. In contrast, Rembrandt’s aunts are tortured by their sin: unhappy even though they got the children they desperately wanted.

C. S. Lewis tells us in The Screwtape Letters that one of the devils’ tricks is to make us believe they don’t actually exist or take an active part in earthly drama. I like that Black Bottle Man portrays the devil as a real being you can fight. The message that demons are real and bent on dragging us to Hell is really brought home in this book.

Cautions

Here’s the picky mom in me’s thoughts on why I wouldn’t hand my younger teen this book. The plot includes a situation where Rembrandt’s two married aunts both sleep with one of the aunt’s intoxicated husband to get pregnant. There is not a graphic description, but Rembrandt remembers seeing them from a distance.

Second, parts of the book are a coming of age story as Rembrandt remembers being a drifting teenager. His recalling of his first crush is too overtly focused on physical desire in my opinion. Lots of descriptions of him obsessing over trying not to stare at a girl’s breasts, which is nice on the one hand, but on the other did we really need that detail repeatedly?

Any other content? No language and no drug or alcohol glorification. There’s a decent amount of offscreen violence, but nothing too graphically described and no glorification of violence.

Conclusions

Black Bottle Man is filled with solid themes about self-sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness, and what love really looks like. But there’s also a bit of sexual content that might make you want to think twice before offering it to your younger teens. This is one of those case by case judgment calls depending on you and your child’s sensitivity levels.

Looking for other ideas for your teens? Check out My Book Lists for lots of ideas!

Buy it through my Amazon affiliate link: Black Bottle Man

Disclaimer: I received a copy of “Black Bottle Man” in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

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Review of “Atlas Shrugged

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Atlas Shrugged: Catholic Parent Review

The last couple weeks I’ve been deep in the philosophy of Ayn Rand as I submerged myself in Atlas Shrugged until late in the night. And I can’t deny I enjoyed this iconic novel. Despite totaling over 1000 pages, Atlas Shrugged is surprisingly readable, especially when you consider that is fundamentally an apologia for Rand’s philosophy: objectivism. I found that I agreed with more of Rand’s ideas than I expected, but her philosophy as a whole is fundamentally incompatible with Catholicism. That means you as the parent have some critical thinking to do about whether this book is appropriate for your teens.

A Myth Retold

The title Atlas Shrugged points the reader to the Greek myth of Atlas, the titan who was sentenced to forever hold the world up on his shoulders. Rand equates the brilliant businessmen who produce the ideas and money that keeps the economy growing with Atlas: the few carrying the weight of a whole world on their shoulders. In Atlas Shrugged, one genius named John Galt decides to teach the ungrateful parasites of the world a lesson by convincing all the brilliant businessman and capable workers to go on strike. The world collapses without them. They come back and remake the world according to Rand’s Objectivism.

Objectivism and “objectivism”

So what is Objectivism? Well, traditionally the term “objectivism” was used as the opposite of “subjectivism” in philosophy. Aristotelian metaphysics states that an individual possesses life independent of his or her mind whereas Hume’s school of thought is that a being is only real as the mental presence which acquires our representation of it. Rand, and Catholicism, follow Aristotle’s metaphysics and affirm that a being has existence independent of its mind.

Put more simply, Aristotelian metaphysics argues for an objective reality that exists outside the mind and that the mind can understand.

So far we agree.

But Rand took the term Objectivism and used it in a more all-encompassing sense to describe her philosophy, which applies to both the political and economic realm and the moral realm.

Atlas Shrugged and Politics Today

What I really appreciate about Atlas Shrugged is the prescience Rand shows about Communism and its pitfalls. If Rand’s philosophy strays too far towards egoism, Communism goes to the other extreme.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand traces the inevitable path of a world where private property is abolished, merit unvalued, and excellence frowned upon. In one chilling section, she describes a factory of several thousand workers who decide to abolish salaries and instead vote to distribute the money based on “needs.” Of course, the result is that no one has motivation to work hard, and everyone has motivation to try to be the neediest and most pitiful. The factory soon stops making a profit, the workers hate each other, and the town faces starvation.

In the setting of Atlas Shrugged, America is the last capitalist society; the rest of the countries are communist in government. The American government demands that the businessman surrender their profits to send huge sums of money to the starving Communist countries. Higher and higher taxes are placed on Americans to feed the rest of the world. Even within America, increasing tax burdens are placed on the producers- the workers- in order to support an ever growing welfare state. In response, the American workers begin to stop trying to earn more than the basis for survival since the rest of their money will be taken anyway. When the big businessmen follow suit and stop producing, the economy collapses and the entire world is plunged into a primeval darkness both literally and figuratively.

Atlas Shrugged was written in 1957.

When it comes to politics and economics, Atlas Shrugged has a message America might need to hear today. But when it comes to Rand’s applications of her economic philosophy to morality, there are some parts of Rand’s Objectivism we just can’t accept as Catholics.

Rand’s Objectivism and Morality

As Catholics, we believe in the sanctity of human life. In Objectivism, Rand argues that there is no intrinsic value in human life. What determines and bestows value to a life is the free choice to think and choose values. For Rand, survival is achieved by choosing to pursue one’s own self-interests exclusively. Selfishness is her ultimate virtue, and altruism her ultimate vice.

Sacrifice is the ultimate altruism, so of course Rand detests it with a passion.

Rand and Religion

Now, as I read Atlas Shrugged, I realized that Rand valued many traditional virtues greatly: justice, temperance, honesty, prudence, and even humility in its true sense of knowing one’s own worth. But she insists that all of these virtues are simply part of man’s battle for survival: his struggle to fulfill his own natural purpose, independent of anyone else.

I think she misunderstood religion, and especially Catholicism. There’s a great Fulton Sheen Quote: “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” Rand must have been one of those who misunderstood Religion.

Some of what she hates is a straw man. She claims that religion tells us to love our neighbor more than ourselves, whereas Catholic commentary on Mark 12:31 always emphasizes that in order to love your neighbor as yourself, you must first love and care for yourself.

She also equates religion with an excuse for people to demand what they haven’t earned in the name of charity. Of course, in its true sense, charity has to be a gift freely given: not something ever demanded as a right. (Note that here as in many places, I noticed parallels with the current state of our country where the government demands taxpayer dollars be given to “development” in other countries without our volition.)

For Rand, one of the greatest sins is a man using someone else’s pity as a weapon to manipulate them. Interestingly, in The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis comes down on this particular sin with a vengeance also. Now, a discussion between Rand and Lewis: that would have been worth hearing!

Original Sin is another huge stumbling block for Rand. She sees it as a cop out: a free pass on which to blame all our imperfections. In her view, man is born able to think clearly but begins to doubt his own mind and judgment as he submits his mind to others’ rules. This may be Rand’s view of the ultimate sin: to be untrue to our own idea of what is right.

Sound a little bit like the Catholic idea of never going against your conscience? It does to me. Of course in the Catholic view of conscience, a conscience must be formed correctly in order to be trustworthy.

There may be more common ground than Rand realized in her fundamental ideas and Catholic social teaching and beliefs. But unfortunately, in Atlas Shrugged, her conclusions are vehemently anti-religion, anti-God, and anti-charity.

Rand and Death

In Atlas Shrugged, the term “death” refers to a failure to live. Living, of course, refers to exercising one’s capacity to think and reason for Rand. So “death” in Atlas Shrugged refers to men who refuse to use their capacity to think. She describes such men as “no longer living.”

What exactly Rand thought about death in the sense of the separation of mind and body I wasn’t able to figure out from Atlas Shrugged. I don’t see how her philosophy encompasses this inevitable eventuality, unless perhaps she believed that there was nothing after death. This latter surmise is a probability given her hostility to Christian religion with its emphasis on a heavenly reward.

But Blaise Pascal’s classic wager comes to mind as I consider Rand’s philosophy: is the wager that there is nothing after death worth whatever pleasure we can wring from this world? Or is sticking with religion worth it given the unnerving possibility that it might be true?

Atlas Shrugged and Teens

Should teens read Atlas Shrugged? Philosophy aside, what else would parents want to consider about this book? The language is clean, and there is no graphic violence. However, there’s quite a lot of sexual content. One of the protagonists, Dagny, punctuates the book with her sexual relationships with 3 different men. Promiscuity is completely acceptable in Rand’s philosophy. (I actually found this surprising given the easily observable benefits of stable families to the individuals of the family.) Dagny’s sexual encounters are described quite sensually and take up a lot of pages. There’s also a lot of rhetoric about sex with multiple people not being a betrayal or immoral.

As far as the philosophical aspects of Rand’s Objectivism, I think that it’s too dense for most teens to sift through without guidance. As often happens, there’s enough true premises included that it’s quite difficult to determine where exactly the logical flaws are in Rand’s arguments. To really understand and refute the philosophy, a teen would need a solid grounding in metaphysics, ethics, and more.

Given the overt sexual content and hefty dose of flawed philosophy, I don’t recommend this even for older teens unless the parent is involved and helping unpack this dense and thought-provoking story.

For great books for Catholic kids, check out My Book Lists!

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Review of “Mistborn” Series

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The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn: a person born with the ability to burn metals in their stomach to feed super powers. Flying over cities, ripping walls apart, controlling others’ emotions, and turning any metal object into a projectile are all possibilities in Brandon Sanderson’s iconic Mistborn Series. This high-adrenaline series is high on the list of fantasy I often hear recommended to Catholic teens so I’m chiming in with my review this week.

A Very Brief Series Synopsis

In Book 1, Mistborn, you’ll meet Vin, a teenage street Skaa (peasant) with a surprisingly talent: she’s Mistborn. A daring band of rebels led by Kelsier recruit Vin as part of their plan to overthrow the tyrannical Lord Ruler (who has seeming omniscience and omnipotence) and free the Skaa. During the course of the plotting, Vin falls for Elend Venture, a rich noble, who ends up assisting Kelsier’s crew to kill the Lord Ruler. To kill the Lord Ruler, Kelsier voluntarily sacrifices his life to become a hero to inspire the Skaa revolution.

Then in Book 2, The Well of Ascension, Vin, Elend, and the surviving crew struggle to set up a fair government, fight antagonistic nobles, and figure out why the environment is spiraling into chaos around them. Vin eventually releases a great power from the Well of Ascension, thinking she is releasing a power which will save the world. Unfortunately, turns out she unleashed the power of Ruin: one of the two forces on this Dualistic planet.

Finally, in Book 3, The Hero of the Ages, Vin and Elend rush around trying to find a way to defeat Ruin before it destroys the world with earthquakes and volcanic ash. Eventually, they find a way past seemingly insurmountable obstacles to destroy Ruin’s body and mind, allowing Sazed, one of the crew, to balance the power of Ruin with the power of Preservation and remake the world.

A Thrilling Journey

Mistborn is an addictive roller coaster ride of a series. You see plenty of epic battles, duals between powerful Mistborns, truly disturbing villainous monsters, and inspiring heroes. What really makes you like Mistborn is the solid cast of characters who believe in trying to save their world from Ruin no matter what, superhero style. The main characters, Vin and Elend, are actually a likeable, sweet couple who are surprisingly chaste. They even have a subplot of learning to love in a very unselfish and self-giving way. The minor characters are well-developed and memorable also.

Positive Themes

Plenty of good themes to point to in this series. One repeated thread is that fighting a losing battle is preferable to sitting by and letting evil conquer. The protagonists in Mistborn understand that dying is not the worst thing; dying is preferable to disloyalty, cowardice, or shirking responsibility. Others includes that self-sacrifice for a greater good is a noble choice, and trusting your friends and being hurt is preferable to never trusting at all.

Grappling with Tough Topics

Book 2, The Well of Ascension tackles some tough topics. Many fantasy novels center around a plot to topple a corrupt government. In The Well of Ascension, Brandon Sanderson takes this one step further to the aftermath. You’re a group of reckless rebels who vanquished an oppressive ruler against impossible odds: but what now? What kind of government do you form? How do you bring democracy to people who have lived under a tyrant for a millennia?

This book was the most interesting to me because it actually forces the reader to think critically about different forms of government. Elend, always the white knight (or now, king) is a well-educated idealist who thinks he has the theory for an ideal government structure. But how does his ideal government hold up to the reality of a war-torn country? Is it better to back down or seize the power by force? There are no easy answers to these and other political questions in The Well of Ascension.

Content?

There’s almost no language in Mistborn. Alcohol use is common, but not glorified. Sexual content is fairly low, but there are several mentions in Mistborn about nobles taking Skaa women as their mistresses then killing them to avoid diluting the noble bloodlines. Elend admits to being forced by his father to bed a Skaa woman at the age of 13, but is very guilty about this part of his past. In The Well of Acsension, there is mention that some people assume Vin is Elend’s mistress since they are dating, but that she is actually not.

However, the violence score for this series would very high. Vin, Kelsier, and others engage in frequent and bloody hand to hand combat involving details such as heads being ripped off. There’s also a cast of truly disturbing enemies including Inquisitors with bloody spokes for eyes and Kollosses, which are mutated humans with bloody ripping skin. These villains go around violently slaughtering entire villages of Skaa peasants. They also engage in a really unsettling method of stealing power from Mistborn by pounding spikes through their living bodies.

Negatives

One downside of Mistborn is the confusing spirituality and theology of Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere.

First, you have what I consider a somewhat anti-religious agenda. In Book 1, Mistborn, you have a paralleling of a Redeemer figure dying for his people, and appearing subsequently to inspire his followers. But (Spoiler), the appearances are a hoax. Kelsier studies other religions and decides he must die heroically to start a revolution. Before dying, he hires a Kandra, a shape changing being who eats someone then mimics their mannerisms. After Kelesier’s heroic death, this Kandra will eat him and appear to his followers for maximum psychological impact in starting the revolution.

EDITED TO ADD: A “Mistborn” fan has informed me that Kelsier’s character arc continues in other Sanderson books in a way that shows Kelsier is an anti-Christ figure of sorts, so that context makes me less concerned about this agenda in “Mistborn.” I plan to read more of the series to verify this.

Dualism?

Dualism is the belief that the world is the result of two opposing forces such as dark and light, good and evil, or some other pair of conflicting powers. This belief is primarily seen in Eastern religions, though has also appeared as the basis for early Christian heresies such as Manichaeism. Dualism is utterly incompatible with the Christian monotheistic worldview, which labels evil as an absence or privation of goodness (God).

Taken by itself, the Mistborn Trilogy seems to be pushing a dualistic worldview. The plots in the second and third books are primarily focused around the conflict between the two opposing forces of Ruin and Preservation. One of the protagonists, Sazed, spends most of The Hero of the Ages going through a crisis of faith rejecting all religions that have ever existed as illogical and false. He eventually finds peace by deciding the true “religion” is a balancing of the two forces. In fact, (SPOILER) the series concludes with Vin sacrificing her life to destroy the mind of Ruin, then Sazed taking over the task of balancing the forces of Ruin and Preservation to shape a better world.

However, further research into other Sanderson books and his fantasy world, the Cosmere, reveals that the seemingly dualistic theology of the planet in Mistborn is misleading. Sanderson’s Cosmere is not actually dualistic, but neither is it Christian in its theological premises. The powers, or gods, in the Cosmere are 16 “shards” of a single destroyed Creator god.

In the end, there is no God in the Christian sense in Mistborn. Sanderson’s Creator has been shattered into 16 forces, which men have assumed, making them demigods of sorts. Sanderson is still working on the series, so only time will tell how he concludes the theological side of his Cosmere.

Conclusions with a little help from C. S. Lewis

Master fantasy writers George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis believed that the purpose of fantasy was to enter another world, learn truths in that world, then bring them back to your own world to help live a good life. Applying this to Mistborn, what truths might your children bring back through the wardrobe, or perhaps in this case through the mists? Well, all the postives I mentioned above: self sacrifice, loyalty, choosing the good even against seemingly insurmountable odds. But on the other hand, they will also have spent quite a lot of time in a rather confusing theological headspace. It’s definitely a tradeoff, and not one I’d recommend except for older, mature teens.

So if you have older, mature teens who really love fantasy and want to read Mistborn, here’s what I’d recommend doing first: make sure your teens are solidly grounded in Catholic theology. Be sure they have the maturity to not be seduced by the mists into applying any of the false theology of the Sanderson universe to our world.

For other great books for Catholic teens, check out my Book Lists!

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Review of “An Angel’s Noel”

An Angel’s Noel

Looking for a light-hearted Christmas story to curl up with over the Christmas season? Kenneth Zemsky’s An Angel’s Noel is a charming Christmas story in the spirit of It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife. In An Angel’s Noel though, the angel who comes to earth is a sweet 6 and 3/4 year old boy named Tommy. Tommy is on a special mission from St. Michael to find 5 people who are willing to do a good deed before Christmas day.

Remember the True Meaning of Christmas

In our culture of commercialized Christmas craziness, little Tommy’s eyes are the perfect mirror to see just how far we’ve come from remembering the true meaning of Christmas. Tommy, touchingly, wants to go to earth to find 5 people who are willing to do good to “cheer up” God, who is so saddened by people’s forgetfulness and bad actions. At first Tommy has little success, but as he himself tries to help each lost soul he encounters, he starts a chain reaction of goodness that far exceeds his goal. Tommy reminds us all that Christmas is about the Savior’s birth, and what better way to show our love for the newborn king then to honor him by helping others?

A Christmas Story for Adults

Although the main character in An Angels’ Noel is only 6 and 3/4 years old, this story is intended for adults, not children. There’s several references to the clergy abuse scandals which particularly rocked New York, where the story is set. Also, at one point in the story Tommy encounters a prostitute, who propositions him with some rather graphic terms which go over his head. Otherwise, this story is clean and enjoyable Christian fiction.

Christmas Joy for All

In the spirit of the best classic Christmas movies, An Angel’s Noel concludes happily with a little theological twist I for one didn’t see coming! Although this book isn’t strictly academic or theologically rigorous in its approach to angels, heaven, and the immutability of God, I appreciated that the author did sneak in some things to think about when it comes to the happiness of heaven. My favorite idea was the concept that we will be able to hear first hand the adventures and thoughts of our favorite historical figures and saints. How neat is that? I, for one, am looking forward to talking to G. K. Chesterton.

You can purchase An Angel’s Noel through my affiliate link here: An Angel’s Noel

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Review of “Warriors: Into the Wild”

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Warriors: Into the Wild and its many sequels and spin off series are popular middle grade books. The middle grades are where parents often stop pre-reading their children’s books, so I try to do as many reviews of middle grade and teen books as I can. When a blog reader asked for my take on these, I was happy to oblige and write a review.

What’s it all about?

Warriors are a series of books about feral cat tribes: their wars, friendships, wars, alliances, loves, and mostly wars. In the anamorphic world of Warrior, cats talk, hate, love, and form friendships. But otherwise they act like feral cats.

In the first book, a pampered house cat, Rusty, runs away from his Twoleg (human) family and joins one of the four major cat tribes in the area. He is quickly swept up into an atmosphere of secrets, intrigues, and frequent battles.

Life is a Battleground for Survival

That about sums up the Warriors worldview. These books are often recommended for 8-10 year olds, but they were upsettingly violent in my adult opinion. Cats give and receive bloody wounds, kill each other, get run over by vehicles, smashed by bulldozers, and otherwise maimed or killed. Much of the book is taken up with lengthy descriptions of cat fights. A lot of these are quite graphic descriptions which many sensitive children might find upsetting. More problematic, for kids who are prone to be fascinated with violence, these books will definitely feed that taste for violence.

Interesting thing to consider: the human parallel of the feral cat world is probably gang warfare. The parallels are significant, particularly the obsession with territories, procreation, revenge, and rank. I’m not sure if this was intentional, but it is a striking point to consider.

“The Cutter”

The cats are violently opposed to the idea of neutering and spaying animals. They speaking disparagingly of cats who have been to “The Cutter” (the vet) to be neutered, calling them fat and lazy. A major factor in Rusty’s decision to leave his human family is his desire to escape being neutered.

There’s a big focus in the cat tribes with having more kits in order to keep their tribes strong. I actually thought it kind of amusing that the series’ authors were so vehemently pro animal reproduction. It makes you wonder if they are equally pro human reproduction.

Anyway, as a kids’ book, I saw potential for kids to be very upset about their own pets being neutered or spayed after reading this book.

Astrology

A little research brings you the fact that this series was begun by two authors (now written by at least six authors) who were inspired by astrology. This inspiration leads to a cat world where the “religion” involves some astrological aspects such as dead cats becoming stars in the “Silverpelt,” a thick band of stars. There is some instances of praying to and seeking advice from the ancestors/stars.

Multiple Authors = Low Literary Quality

Generalizing is dangerous, but at least in my reading, I’ve found that books like this with multiple authors tend to be low quality. The multiple authors technique seem to correlate with poor plots and even worse writing. Warriors confirms that feeling for me. Truly, the writing is quite atrocious. There’s stilted language and lack of a unified style. Or any style.

Takeaway

Warriors misses the mark on appropriateness for its intended young audience due to pervasive violence. It’s not simply that there’s violence; it’s that these books primarily run on battle fumes. Is the Warriors series the worst book your child could be reading? No. But there are so many better written books with better themes for this age range!

Need better ideas?

Check out this list of Books about Talking Animals if your children love animals.

Or check out my Middle Grade Reading Lists:

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Review of “Educated”

Educated is the emotional and thought-provoking memoir of a young woman who grew up in a dysfunctional family. Tara Westover’s family was physically abusive, emotionally abusive, and verbally abusive. This makes her memoir a poignant and inspiring story about a girl who fought her way out of the backwoods to Harvard.

In many ways, Tara’s story parallels J. D. Vance’s story in Hillbilly Elegy, a similar modern rags to educational riches story. But in a fundamental way, Tara’s story differs from Vance’s. These two young authors’ interpretations and take-aways of the dysfunction they grew up with differs dramatically. Tara fixates on homeschooling as a fundamental problem in her childhood, whereas Vance admits his problem was an unstable family life.

Educated?

You see it in the title. Tara sees her fundamental triumph as overcoming her educationally neglectful background. Educated is peppered with comments along the lines of “I never knew about the Holocaust- because I was homeschooled.” With typical liberal distaste, she dismisses homeschooling as a poor education.

The notion that homeschooling is an inferior education has been so thoroughly debunked Tara’s blanket dismissal is almost laughable. Really, the only question up for debate is whether homeschooling provides an equal or better education to public school. The only way I can explain her disdain for a well-respected method of education is to believe she is projecting her own experience onto the many, many thousands of homeschooling families in America.

Homeschooled or not Schooled

From Tara’s account, her family did not engage in much formal education. You might better say she was not schooled than home schooled. Yet she self-admittedly had high reading comprehension skills and enough education to prepare for and pass the ACT’s with minimal help from an older sibling.

Would it have been better for her parents to provide her with a more structured and aided educational experience? Definitely. But is a public school style, teacher-directed education actually necessary for educational success? Tara herself, about half of her other siblings, and many other famous homeschoolers such as Abraham Lincoln show that learning, and the thirst for more learning, can be awakened in a variety of ways.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say Tara’s non-traditional education was a large part of the reason she did succeed academically. Assuming she had been in a typical public school, most likely she wouldn’t have had such an impressive higher education trajectory. Would a typical public school education have given her such an uncommon interior drive and thirst for education? Maybe, but maybe not. And what caught her instructors’ interest? That she was different because she had been homeschooled. Would they have pulled strings, finding her scholarships and study abroad opportunities, if she had been exactly like everyone else? Probably not.

Hillbilly Elegy Life Lessons

J. D. Vance’s memoir is a fascinating counterpoint to Tara’s. Vance came from a comparable abusive background, but spent his years in public school. Does he credit public school with any of his success? Nope. In fact, he repeatedly emphasizes that he struggled academically despite having every possible opportunity for success at school. What does Vance say made the difference and turned around his downward academic trajectory? It was when he finally moved in permanently with his grandmother in high school and entered a stable living situation for the first time in his life. For Vance, having stable relationships and peace at home were key to academic success.

You can see how Vance’s thoughts apply to Tara’s situation. He might say that her fundamental problem was not that she grew up homeschooled, but that she lived with an abusive, mentally unstable family. Vance would say that like himself, Tara wouldn’t have thrived academically in the public school system either. Her academic success began when she began to put physical and emotional distance between herself and her family.

Still Processing

Is Tara’s story inspiring? Absolutely. But is her portrayal of homeschooling problematic for the average American reader? Yes. I would almost call this book anti-homeschool propaganda, except for the raw pain that bleeds out of Tara’s words, showing her very real wounds. This poor young woman is still reeling from a terrible childhood. Fixating on homeschooling as the problem and education as the solution may help her not focus on the real problem in her life: an abusive family that she struggles to come to terms with. It’s just a shame that she is choosing to vilify homeschooling. I hope that such an intelligent person as Tara will eventually process and accept that her own experience of homeschooling (or not schooling at all) is far from a typical American homeschooling experience.

Should you read Educated?

Be warned: Educated has quite a bit of domestic abuse and violence. Tara’s abuse from her older brother is particularly painful to read. If you can get past the violence and anti-homeschooling theme, then it is a well-written memoir about a young girl’s self transformation and will to survive. Alternatively, check out Hillbilly Elegy for a thought-provoking story sans the anti-homeschooling themes. (Note that Hillbilly Elegy is heavy on language.) Both these memoirs are absorbing and popular recent books: great for book club discussion or personal reading and reflection.

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golden monstrance against blurred church interior

Review of “Giorgio’s Miracle”

Giorgio's Miracle

Giorgio’s Miracle by Laurie Schmitt is a charming little story about a Eucharistic Miracle. Giorgio is a sweet, devout boy who loves our Eucharistic Lord and is troubled by the lack of faith he sees around him in Turin. He begins to pray for a miracle to reignite the faith of the townspeople of Turin. Little does he know that his beloved donkey friend Franca will play a part in the miracle!

Giorgio’s Miracle is a wonderful book to read to 4th-6th graders to inspire a love of Jesus in the Eucharistic. I think some aspects of this book would be great for first communicants, but can’t recommend for that young an age due to some violence from the two villains in the story. These two thieves are cruel to each other and to Franca the donkey; sensitive children may be upset by this part of the story.

This book is an imagined version of how the the Eucharistic Miracle of Turin in 1453 occurred. It will be sure to inspire faith and interest in Eucharistic Miracles. Overall, Giorgio’s Miracle would make a great addition to a Catholic library or study of the Eucharist.

Giorgio’s Miracle is available to purchase here at Shop Mercy, where purchases help support the Marian priests and brothers at the National Shrine for Divine Mercy.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of “Giorgio’s Miracle” from the author in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

scenic view of rainforest

Review of “The Tree of Healing” and “The River of Life”

These two lovely books from Catholic author Diana Gonzalez Tabbaa are a breath of peace in a stormy world. With a simple and gentle voice, Tabbaa takes on the difficult question of children facing the problem of suffering. (Have you noticed I love books about the question of suffering?) The Tree of Healing and The River of Life are the perfect books to help tweens and teens grapple with the problem of pain.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I earn a small fee for qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

The River of Life

Twelve year old Anthony lives on a beautiful estate with his loving and holy parents. But when his father dies suddenly, Anthony’s faith and trust in God are shaken. He sinks deeply into grief and loneliness. But soon, he rediscovers God’s love and goodness through the healing power of nature, hard work, and a little help from a mysterious young man named Raphael.

“God has been using all creation to draw me to Him.”

The River of Life

The Tree of Healing

Thirteen year old Rose, Anthony’s daughter, can’t remember her deceased father. Her mother is broken by the loss of her spouse and emotionally distant with Rose. This is a moving story of a lonely young teen who finds love in the right place: God’s arms. As in The River of Life, Tabbaa weaves in themes about Creation, mysticism, and heavenly help.

Beautiful and Moving Books

I can’t say how much these beautiful stories moved me. The lovely art and poetry round out the stories and provides a spark to encourage contemplative prayer. The mystical undertones are unusual to find in fiction- a wonderful surprise. I imagine The Tree of Healing and The River of Life will help draw many young people closer to Christ through contemplation of suffering and Divine Providence.

“It is within Your Heart, open at the cross, that I may pour myself out with You and share in Your Life, the Life of God.”

The tree of healing

I received a copy of “The Tree of Healing” and “The River of Life” from the author in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

love heart flowers spring

Review of “The Plans God Has for You”

The Plans God Has for You

The Plans God Has for You: Hopeful Lessons for Young Women is a fantastic new book from Amy Smith and Emmaeus Road Publishing. Our modern world is fast-paced, stress inducing, and confusing for teens. Teenage girls desperately need to hear Amy’s message about hope, trust, and being a Christian in a fallen world.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I earn a small fee for qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

Jeremiah 29:11

The heart of Amy’s message is found in Jeremiah 29:11, a perfect verse for teenage girls to memorize.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope.

Jeremiah 29:11

The Plans God Has for You dives deep into this verse, applying it to friendship, the sacraments, family, dating, and more. Amy urges girls to internalize this message of hope and love from God to us. She explains how this verse can carry girls through suffering, how it helps us approach our friendships and relationships, and how it calls us to shine Christ’s light in the world.

What Makes This Book Special

Amy speaks directly to teen girls with a voice they will easily connect with. She keeps her points short, sweet, and poignant. In The Plans God Has for You, teens will find references and quotes from their favorite Christian bands, classic movies, and popular modern saints. Of course, my favorite part was Amy’s generous quoting of classic books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, and Jane Austen. The best chapter, in my opinion, is the one where Amy delves into Austen’s themes about happiness, marriage, and true love. There’s deep wisdom in these classic novels that can teach modern day teens that true love waits, is patient, is hopeful.

Perfect for Teen Girls

I would happily gift this book to teenage girls I know. It’s inspiring, it’s easy to read, and it’s clean! The only mention of sex is a paragraph that affirms the value of chastity and the goodness of sex, when used as God intended between husband and wife. Parents will appreciate Amy’s effort to focus teens on enjoying friendships, family, personal growth, and their relationship with God. Although I think the target audience is teens, there is a lot of wisdom for college aged women too. And I enjoyed it as a mom! The Plans God Has for You is a breath of fresh air!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of “The Plans God Has For You” from Emmaeus Road Publishing in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

The Plans God Has for You

For more great books for Catholic teens, check out my lists!