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“Where the Crawdads Sing” Review

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Where the Crawdads Sing

I may be a little late to the game with this review since Where the Crawdads Sing has been garnering attention for over 4 years now. I actually read it when it came out but wasn’t doing adult book reviews at that point. With the new movie bringing it to the top of best-seller lists again, I re-read and revisited my thoughts on this much-lauded book. As I re-read it (and stayed up too late) I remembered why it’s a bestseller. And then I remembered why I ended up hating it.

SPOILER ALERT: This review is going to utterly spoil the big reveal about the murder mystery. Sorry folks; I’m going to recommend against reading it anyway.

Busy Mom Quick Synopsis

6 year old Kya watches her mother, siblings, and father abandon her one after another. With minimal community support, she scratches out a precarious survival alone in the marsh. As she comes of age, she desperately seeks love and acceptance in the wrong places. A mysterious and isolated woman living alone in the swamp, the townspeople regard her with suspicion. When the town’s golden boy is murdered, fingers quickly begin to point Kya’s way. Does she have a single friend to defend her?

Why it’s a best-seller

First of all, it’s a beautifully written story about nature. That’s not a compliment I hand out lightly. Delia Owens must have a deep love of the flora and fauna of the North Carolina marshes. Her genuine delight in natural beauty and belief in the healing power of nature make this book memorable. As a fellow nature lover, I enjoyed her descriptions of the wonder of God’s creation.

Secondly, it’s a heart-warming story. An abandoned young girl from an abusive family beats the odds to educate herself and build a successful career as a writer and illustrator. It’s the stuff of Hallmark movies and human interest articles. Honestly, it’s so far-fetched it strains credibility.

Third, it’s a fast-moving storyline with a murder mystery intertwined. It keeps you turning the pages after your bedtime.

Why I don’t recommend Where the Crawdads Sing

First and foremost, skip this book because of the gratuitous sex scenes. There are multiple fade-out to fully described scenes, some with an underage teen Kya, along with a rape scene. Can you skip over them fairly easily? Yes, you see where the scene is going and can skip a few pages. Did they need to be in this book? Nope. They add nothing to the story and feel voyeuristic. And they definitely make this book a hard no for teens.

On a more philosophical level, I disliked the theme about people being fundamentally highly evolved animals. Kay interprets human interactions in animal terms, perhaps not completely unnaturally given her isolated life. But the author does not lead the reader to the conclusion that Kya is wrong here. Kya’s morality is a Darwinistic survival of the fittest code of ethics. And this leads to the ending, which I hated.

Throughout the book, the big conflict is whether Kya is guilty of the blatant murder of her former boyfriend Chase. As the reader, you’re assuming soft-spoken and nature-loving Kya is innocent. You’re condemning the townspeople for prejudice and judgment against an eccentric outlier. When her lawyer brings forward enough doubt to convince a jury to acquit her, you’re cheering.

But then… the last pages of the book, you realize she did it. She cold-bloodedly plotted the murder of the ex-boyfriend who lied to and later attacked her. Was he a horrible human being? Yes. Does this make me feel any better about the “heroine” murdering him with full intent and not in self-defense? No.

What bothered me most about this jarring conclusion was the feeling that throughout the entire book, the author is trying to set up the reader to condone the murder. It’s like Delia Owens is trying to have the reader walk away going, “Well, maybe murder is okay, sometimes.”

Not a conclusion that sits well with me!

For books I do recommend for adults, check out my For Catholic Parents page!

“The Ark” and “Rowan Farm” Review

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Charming Post-war historical fiction about German refugees

There are so many thought-provoking and well-written historical fiction stories about World War II. I even did a list of World War II Chapter Books for Catholic Kids last year to round up all my favorites in one place. But when I discovered The Ark and Rowan Farm recently, I knew I had missed out on an important perspective! I’d read so many books from Jewish, American, English, Polish, and other allied perspectives. But I had never heard about the aftermath of World War II for the German people: the average family who found themselves penniless and homeless in an impoverished and fractured country.

Margot Benary-Isbert is uniquely qualified to write about the German refugee plight. Born in Germany in 1889, she lived through World War II with difficulty due to her failure to cooperate with the Nazis. After the war, her home was given over to the Russians and she fled to western Germany where she spent many years sharing a small apartment with two other refugee families. She wrote The Ark and Rowan Farm to provide encouragement and hope to German youth. And she succeeded!

The Ark

In The Ark, we meet Margret Lechow, a teenage war refugee. With her mother and three surviving siblings, Margret struggles to survive and find a home. Like many German families, the Lechows lost their home, money, father, and one sibling in the war. But the Lechows are special because they still have hope and a will to survive and thrive. You’ll love the positive portrayal of the frail mother who holds the family together. And your heart will be warmed by the teenage kids who don’t hesitate to take on adult responsibilities to keep their family fed and sheltered.

The Ark is a story about how small kindnesses can change lives. Whether it’s the Lechows befriending an orphan boy, a cranky old lady finding it in herself to give a little, or a generous farmer taking a risk and offering a job to a stranger, lives change for the better.

Rowan Farm

A year after the events of The Ark, sixteen year old Margret and her family are reunited at Rowan Farm where they set up house in an old boxcar. The joys and pains of reunion with their war-damaged father are dealt with gently. Margret struggles to move past her memories of losing her twin brother, again handled with discretion, though it is clear her brother was shot in front of her.

Animal lovers will enjoy the fact that Margret finds healing through caring for litters of Great Dane puppies, rehabilitating a Shetland pony, and growing her flock of chicks and sheep. As a farmer, Margot Benary-Isbert obviously understood the magic of nature, animals, and growing things to heal trauma and restore meaning to lives.

There’s a wonderful subplot about a group of schoolchildren working to build a home for returned war veterans.

In this second book, there’s a small touch of romance in the background between sixteen-year-old Margret and her employer’s son, but absoutely no content at all.

Clean and Charming

The Ark and Rowan Farm are two of the most charming and well-written books I’ve read in a while. I enjoyed them thoroughly as an adult. But, the intended audience is teens, for which I found them quite appropriate. No language, great discretion about war violence, and no sexual content. I recommend both books for middle school and older to provide a humanizing perspective on typical German families in the post-war years.

Buy both books through my Amazon Affiliate links: The Ark and Rowan Farm

“How the Angels Got Their Wings” Review

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Gorgeous and Grace-Filled!

In his latest picture book, How the Angels Got Their Wings, Anthony DeStefano continues his pattern of producing beautiful books for children. In this new book, he explains in his trademark gently rhythmic verse who the angels are, why some angels are bad, who the archangels are and what they’re known for, and where we might find them.

An Exciting Drama

Angels are a fun topic for kids. These amazing rational beings with real superpowers fascinate my kids. My five year old loved the vivid illustrations in How the Angels Got Their Wings, especially the cosmic battle between the good and bad angels. She also loved the concept of looking for angels in daily life. Whether they’re in disguise or invisible, we’re surrounded by these amazing beings all the time and definitely don’t think about it enough! This picture book will help kids of all ages to connect more deeply with these heavenly friends.

Find Out More

Note that particularly young or very sensitive children may be upset by the images of the devil, so be sure and check out the full length picture preview of the book on Sophia Institute Press before buying if you have very young ones.

You can buy this gorgeous and grace-filled picture book through my Amazon affiliate link, How the Angels Got Their Wings, or from publisher Sophia Institute Press.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of “How The Angels Got Their Wings” in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

Love beautiful Catholic picture books?

Check out my reviews of some of the other great offerings in recent years from Sophia Institute Press!

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“Station Eleven” Review

Station Eleven

An immediate national bestseller, Station Eleven is a contemporary dystopia by Emily St. John Mandel. After a flu pandemic destroys 99% of the world’s population, most of the remnant live in small survival-focused communities. But not all. The Traveling Symphony travels around the Midwestern United States performing classical music and Shakespeare plays. Because “Survival is insufficient.” The real magic of this book is in its presentation of the truth that art and beauty and culture are worth preserving even in the darkest of times.

Survival is insufficient.

Station Eleven

Art and Beauty Matter

What made this book memorable was the fundamental truth that even in extreme circumstances, beauty and truth shine through. The post-pandemic world depicted in Station Eleven is bleak, ruthless, and uncivilized. In stark contrast to the overall darkness of a collapsed world, the truth and beauty in Shakespeare and classical symphonies shine forth and touch the hearts of everyone who hears the Traveling Symphony’s performances.

Likewise, the beauty of friendships and family are a powerful theme in Station Eleven. This is where we’ll find happiness in a dystopian world, the novel teaches, whether it’s siblings saving each other during the early days of the pandemic, loyal friends risking their lives for each other, or simply a father baking bread for his children.

But Goodness Should Also Matter

And here’s where the book loses its moral compass. Starting with a glitteringly beautiful premise about beauty and truth redeeming a dark world, Station Eleven loses its way in the moral morass of twenty-first century subjectivism and social agendas.

The biggest problem is the depiction of religion as a path to insanity and evil. The “Prophet” is a mentally unbalanced polygamist and killer who hunts the Traveling Symphony. This Bible-quoting villain is Station Eleven‘s one and only religious character or reference point.

On the other hand, all the “good” characters live according to their own moral systems- which are predictably modern and anti-traditional morality. The members of the Traveling Symphony engage in various extra-marital relationships. There’s a homosexual character who keeps bemoaning his dead boyfriend, which is so unnecessary to the plot and character the “normalizing” agenda just screams through.

Suicide is held up as an acceptable alternative to living in a difficult world. A disabled character kills himself to make it easier for his brother to survive.

Should I Read It?

Maybe. For all it’s problems, Station Eleven is a well-plotted and thought-provoking story. There’s a lot of shaky morality, but I will give the author credit for refraining from including any sex scenes whatsoever. That’s actually pretty unusual for a contemporary book in this genre.

If you’re wondering about violence: yes, there’s some violence. Members of the Traveling Symphony defend themselves against the Prophet’s men on a few occasions. Somewhat graphic descriptions of wounds, but on the positive side a main character talks about the gravity of killing, how it haunts you forever, how awful if it has to be done even in self-defense.

If you are an adult who enjoy dystopias and you don’t mind sifting through the author’s anti-religious views, you may find Station Eleven worth the time and even moving. But I definitely do not recommend this book for teens or those who are just looking for a “good, clean book.”

If you’re going for it, here’s a link to buy it through my affiliate link: Station Eleven

For other book ideas, check out My Book Lists for kids and teens or my For Parents section for adult ideas.

Review of Fahrenheit 451

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“It was a pleasure to burn.”

Fahrenheit 451

With a memorable first line, Ray Bradbury introduces his classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. In a world where books are forbidden and houses are fireproof, “firemen” prowl the streets and pump fire into any homes where books remain. But fireman Guy Montag finds an open book one day and sees the words “Once upon a time…” And his life begins to change.

Fahrenheit 451 is timely

For a book written three quarters of a century ago, Bradbury’s novel rings eerily true in our current day. Bradbury imagined a world where people were isolated by earbuds, entertainment devices, and a constant stream of entertainment. Looking at you 21st century teens- and adults!

Bradbury portrays a society which chose to abolish books because they made people uncomfortable. His imagined society began by censoring then turned to burning. Instead of books while rile people up, his world pushes pleasure and forgetfulness. These are the two remedies his world chose to the problem of pain and unhappiness.

Did it work? Not at all. In the opening pages fireman Guy Montag shows us a world where suicide is so common it’s become the norm. It’s socially acceptable for teens to drive at high speeds in an attempt to kill others or themselves. No one notices- or remembers- when their neighbor dies.

The Power of History and Education

Bradbury had a powerful message that his generation didn’t heed: whoever controls the education of the young and historical narrative controls the future. In the world of Fahrenheit 451 no one knows what is true or false because they have lost the ability to remember much of anything themselves and have no written records to help them. Guy Montag can’t even remember how he met his wife a decade ago. He is amazed when someone tells him that firemen haven’t always set fires but used to put them out.

But there’s hope. Guy’s life is changed when he meets two outliers. First, an old professor who has secreted away books both physically and in his memory. Then, a teenage girl who is awake to the beauty of nature and open to learning from the memories of her ancient uncle. Awakened himself, Guy can’t unsee the disorder of the world he lives in. He sets out to set a new kind of fire and wake up those around him.

A Warning and a Hope

Fahrenheit 451 is a warning. But it’s also a hopeful book. Guy finds other rebels and learns their plan to preserve the knowledge of the world in memory and oral recitation until people are ready to hear wisdom again. Like the monks in ancient times, Guy joins the ranks of the preservers of ancient wisdom.

Older Teens Should Read It

Because this book is thought-provoking and hopeful, it’s perfect for high schoolers. Any content? Well, it’s wonderfully clean from all sexual content. Bradbury says the romantic interest is “a man falling in love with books.” There’s a few instances of taking the Lord’s name in vain by characters in moments of crisis, though these could also be interpreted as genuine cries for help.

The most important thing for parents is to make sure their kids are mature enough for the stark despair of the early chapters where one suicide attempt is dwelt on in detail. There’s also some violence later including one man setting another on fire and watching him burn, described in some detail.

Despite these caveats, I think most older high schoolers will appreciate and take away a lot from this book! The symbolism is very rich and rewarding to track down. (Why the salamander? Why the snake? Why the hearth?)

But Also Adults

But if you’re an adult who hasn’t read it yet, Fahrenheit 451 is worth the time even for busy moms! It’s short: less than 200 pages. It’s fast-paced. And it’ll make you think! My moms book club really enjoyed our discussion on this.

You can buy a copy through my affiliate link: Fahrenheit 451

To find more books your high schoolers may enjoy, check out my book lists, especially Good Books for Catholic High Schoolers Part 1 (Age 14 and up) and Good Books for Catholic High Schoolers Part 2 (Age 16 and up).

Review of “Armor of God” Series

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Chivalry and Catholic Virtues meet in Theresa Linden’s Armor of God series, specially written for First Communicants.

Have or know a child who’s preparing for or just made their First Holy Communion? This series is just for them! Theresa Linden explores the six parts of the Armor of God listed in Ephesians 6 against a interest-catching backdrop of knights and quests. These books are sure to captivate 6-8 year old Catholic children and help them internalize and desire the virtues!

In the first book, Belt of Truth, George, a young page, has a lying problem.

George wants more than anything to be a knight. When he learns that Truthfulness is a necessary virtue, he’s dismayed. How can he stop lying when it seems like the best way to solve his problems and keep out of trouble? Watch George grow and practice virtue throughout this first book so that when he really gets in trouble, he is able to stand strong and tell the truth. He earns his first piece of armor: the Belt of Truth.

As the series continues, George learns about the other parts of a knight’s armor and other virtues including Righteousness, Peacefulness, and Faithfulness.

There’s also plenty of scuffles, sword fighting, horses, dragons, and more. Parents can feel good about giving this clean, virtue-driven series to their young kids to read. And kids can enjoy the fun of the chivalric era while imbibing some good morals.

Is the Armor of God series just for boys?

Nope! Girls will enjoy the fact that the knight school is for boys and girls! Boys train to be knights, and girls train to be dames. But they all get to practice all the fun parts of training. A girl is one of the three main characters that carry the series.

To buy the Armor of God Series, you can use my Amazon affiliate link to Belt of Truth or buy directly through the author’s website TheresaLinden.com!

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BritNotes on Amor Towles

Amor Towles is a contemporary American novelist whose historical fiction has been topping charts in recent years. He’s notable for his ability to capture the spirit and emotional quality of a time and place in his novels. I think his second book in particular has the staying power and universal appeal which will make it stand the test of time.

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Rules of Civility

Towles’ first book, Rules of Civility, plunges the reader into 1938 New York City nightlife. Katy, a secretary with social ambition, rides the ebb and flow of New York social life, rubbing elbows with millionaires, playboys, and beggars. A coming of age, rise and fall type of story.

I appreciate how Towles captures the spirit of his historical setting. The reader feels a part of the aimless, pleasure-seeking New York nightlife scene of the rich and troubled.

Content: promiscuous relationships, a man engaging in sexual relationships with women for their money, the main character engaging in a sexual relationship with a man she doesn’t love. Their is some explicit sexual content and some fade outs.

Recommended reading age: adult only, and you’re not missing much by skipping this one.

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A Gentleman in Moscow

Simply put: I loved A Gentleman in Moscow. This one is in a whole other class than Towles’ other two novels.

This may be because it’s got a unique storyline going for it. In 1922 amidst the outbreak of the communist revolution, aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov is placed on house arrest in the attic of the Metropol, a magnificent hotel across the street from the Kremlin. The entire book takes place in the Metropol. You’ll meet an unforgettable cast of characters who live in the hotel. You’ll learn how Rostov keeps his sanity for decades of imprisonment. You’ll learn about Russian cuisine and etiquette and emotions. You’ll fall in love with the Metropol and Rostov’s adopted family there. There’s even a devious villain to hate. This is a beautiful, lyrically told, memorable story.

Content: Rostov eventually begins an affair with a famous actress. Although it’s clear they are engaging in a sexual relationship, there is nothing too explicit or offensive.

Recommended reading age: adults.

Buy it through my affiliate link: A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel

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The Lincoln Highway

The Lincoln Highway is the poignant story of a wide cast of characters who are brought together in one memorable road trip along the Lincoln Highway, the first continental highway. A young man released from prison early, his bookish little brother, his estranged sweetheart, his two escaped prison buddies, their families, the drifters they meet… this book peeks through the windows of their lives in mid-twentieth century America.

This is not an easy book to read. There’s death: intended and unintended. There’s manslaughter and straight up murder and suicide. There’s mental illness and child abandonment and sin and broken families. But there’s also friendship and sacrifice and glimpses of hope. Once again, Towles manages to capture the emotional atmosphere of a particular place and time.

Content: one unfortunate (and needless) description of a “circus” at a brothel with naked women riding horses and other scantily clad women. One teenage boy tries to force another to go to bed with a prostitute.

Recommended reading age: adult only.

You may also enjoy my list Good Books for Catholic Adults.

Review of “Discover the Brothers”

Introduce your children to a plethora of religious orders with Jake Thibault’s unique new books: Discover the Brothers and It’s Fun to be a Nun.

Do you know how many religious orders there are? Actually, I don’t either! But I learned about many I have never heard of in these colorful and engaging new books. On each page, there’s a detailed drawing of a Religious Brother (or Sister in the companion book) carrying out the particular charism of his order. Some brothers are serving the poor, others teaching, others praying, singing, even cooking! Each page also has the charism or motto of the order written out for you.

In the tradition of religious brothers having a special devotion to Our Lady, each page also contains a Marian image. Play I-Spy with a younger kid, or have an older kid try to remember all the different titles of Our Lady as you page through Discover the Brothers.

Also check out the sister book (haha, get it, Sister book?) about nuns: It’s Fun to be a Nun. You’ll learn about many orders of Sisters and their missions and charisms.

Carthusian? Dominican? Trappist? Franciscan?

As someone who never learned to identify religious orders by their habits, I’m hoping these books will help my kids and I become more knowledgeable about the differences between orders. I’m envisioning this turning into a Catholic card game: name the religious habit and charism!

(Note that both books focus primarily on traditional orders with religious habits but there is one to two orders featured, out of 30 plus in each book, that do not have a habit.)

I really like the idea of giving my kids more exposure to religious orders. These books seem like a great place to start! They reminded me of what a wealth of different orders are out there- one to fit any person drawn to a religious vocation.

You can buy both books through my affiliate links: Discover the Brothers and It’s Fun to be a Nun.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of “Discover the Brothers’ and “It’s Fun to be a Nun” from the author in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

Find more of my favorite Catholic picture books on my list Good Catholic Books for Catholic Preschoolers and Kindergartners .

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Review of “Joseph’s Donkey”

In the spirit of the Year of St. Joseph, here’s a new Christmas story for your family about Joseph’s Donkey.

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From the author and illustrator that brought us the beautiful and bestselling Our Lady’s Wardrobe and Our Lady’s Picture Book, here’s a brand new book to put under your Christmas tree this year!

Joseph’s Donkey is a gorgeously illustrated story about the gentle earthly father of Jesus and his equally quiet and noble helper. See the events of the Holy Family’s journey to Bethlehem, the Christ Child’s childhood, Egypt and back again, and the quiet years at Nazareth through the eyes of this gentle donkey.

Little children will love the detailed depictions of the Holy Family’s life and affection for one another.

The gentle, rhythmic poem captures the spirit of these years of peace and harmony. Sometimes we forget the decades of silence before Jesus began his public ministry!

Animal loving children will also love the pictures of a young Jesus with his donkey.

Death and New Life

The story concludes with the death of the donkey at an advanced age. I’ve noticed a theme in Anthony DeStefano’s books: he wants children to experience death as an opening of the eyes to a richer, brighter new life. Like the Seed in The Seed Who was Afraid to Be Planted, Joseph’s donkey falls asleep to wake to a more beautiful world than he had ever imagined.

If you love St. Joseph, you’ll enjoy this lovely and luminous book!

Find it for sale through my Amazon affiliate link: Joseph’s Donkey

Or find it on my Christmas Picture Book list at Bookshop!

To see more of my favorite Christmas picture books, check out my complete list:

Disclaimer: I received a copy of “Joseph’s Donkey” from Sophia Institute Press in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

“The Night the Saints Saved Christmas” Review

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What if Saint Nicholas got sick on Christmas Eve?

In this fanciful new Christmas story, author Gracie Jagla comes up with an imaginative solution. All the saints of heaven work together to save Christmas by delivering gifts to their homelands! From Saint Joan of Arc on her horse to Saint John Paul II on his skis, each saint finds a way to bring gifts to their country’s children.

The Nights the Saints Saved Christmas is a beautifully illustrated celebration of the Communion of Saints and the true meaning of Christmas.

Your little ones will learn a bit about some great Saints in this gently rhyming story. Short text and detailed illustrations combine to make this the perfect Christmas story for the 2-6 year old crowd!

Parents will appreciate the focus on giving versus receiving. There’s also a tie in to the true meaning of Christmas being adoring the Christ Child versus the presents.

Who is Santa Claus?

I loved how The Night the Saints Saved Christmas affirms Sant Claus’s sainthood! As you may know, “Santa Claus” comes from the Dutch for St. Nicholas. This book acknowledges the popular western custom of attributing Christmas gifts to St. Nicholas without undermining the true meaning of Christmas.

Whether you “do” Santa Claus or not, your kids will enjoy this whimsical story about the saints working together to help the children of earth. See if you can spot some of your favorite saints; my kids were excited to see Pier Giorgio Frassati and the Fatima children!

You can buy this book through my Amazon affiliate link: The Night the Saints Saved Christmas

Or buy it through my Bookshop page: Christmas Books for Catholic Kids

To see more of my favorite Christmas books, check out my list of Favorite Christmas Picture Books.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of “The Night the Saints Saved Christmas” from Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.