By request of a couple different blog followers, I recently read The Wind, the Road, and the Way, one of Jenny L. Cote’s popular Epic Order of Seven series. This Biblical fiction series follows the adventures of seven special talking animals who, in this fantasized version of the Bible, play a key role in helping Jesus and His apostles. Sound a bit bizarre? Well, it is definitely a creative interpretation. In this part of the series, Max, Liz, and the other animals race around freeing Peter and Paul from jail and conversing with Mary and Jesus. The question is: are these books misleading for Catholic kids?
To Give Due Credit
The commendable part of this series is that Cote really does do a tremendous job weaving in some serious Biblical exegesis. In this book which focuses on the end of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, she includes explanations of Jewish feasts and how Jesus fulfills them. She explains how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecies. She includes interesting tidbits about what the number of fish the disciples catch represents, and what a net breaking or not breaking might symbolize. There’s a lot of fascinating information that I would love my kids to encounter. But, big caveat here, not all the exegesis is is line with Catholic teaching.
Out of Line with Catholic Teaching
For all the solid exegetical details Cote includes, whenever she retells a part of the Bible that supports Catholic teaching, she ignores the implications, or even changes details to suit her story line. For example, in the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaeus in Luke 24:13-35, Catholic scholars typically interpret the disciples recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread as a Eucharistic reference. Cote instead adds in her own details about the disciples noticing Jesus’ pierced hands during the meal and thus recognizing Him.
Another convenient example of skirting tricky verses comes with anything to do with Peter and Petrine privelege. In fact, I laughed about the explanation of Matthew 16 which somehow completely ignored that the verse is about Peter at all.
But the big deal breaker for me was that Cote takes the common Protestant position that Mary had other children. In parts of The Wind, the Road, the Way, Mary is described as interacting with her four “other sons,” Jude, James, Simon, and Joses. Denying Mary’s perpetual virginity is a very common Protestant stance, and another example of why the theology and exegesis in these books cannot be trusted.
Although I appreciate Cote’s attempt to bring Biblical exegesis to tweens and teens in an accessible package, I cannot recommend her books for Catholic readers. Unless a parent is willing to put considerable effort into dissecting these books sentence by sentence with their child and verifying or disproving the exegetical claims, there is a serious danger that young Catholic readers will become confused or shaken in their faith. I’d rather have my kids reading great Catholic Biblical exegetical works like Scott Hahn’s Understanding The Scriptures, Life of Jesus, or, for younger readers, Cavin’s Great Adventure Storybook.
Dear Mr. Knightley is certainly not a classic, but at the same time it isn’t simply fluff literature. The majority of the book is a series of letters written by Samantha Moore, journalism grad student, to the mysterious benefactor who is paying for her education. The multitude of references to Jane Austen books, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Daddy Long Legs, and other classics are enjoyable for book lovers. But this is certainly not a period-era book; in fact, there is quite an intentional dichotomy between the civilized classical world Samantha, commonly known as Sam, wishes she belonged to and the raw, rough life she has actually lived.
Sam has unquestionably had a tough life.
Her earliest memories are of abuse from her parents. In and out of the foster-care system for years, never connecting with a foster family, she ends up on the streets at the age of 15. After months on the street, she ends up in a Christian group home, where she finds a precarious sense of safety. Yet after years of danger and tumult, she finds herself unable to connect with those around her, instead
The question becomes, how can Sam heal from her traumatic life?
There are two answers offered in the novel: first, that Sam needs to “find herself,” and second, that she needs to learn to trust God. I was pleasantly surprised by the second theme, which is subtle and not fully developed, but undeniably present.
With the first theme about healing by “finding yourself,” I was concerned initially about Gnostic influences, but ended up deciding that the author’s intent was simply to show that Samantha needed to stop hiding behind her impersonations of literary characters. Samantha had perfected the art of copying the speech and mannerisms of whichever character she thinks appropriate for the situation: an amicable Jane Bennet, a ruthless Edmond Dante, a spirited Lizzie Bennet. Of course, this is a dangerous habit since it distances others and keeps them from meeting Sam herself. Sam learns that in order to make real friends, she has to let go of pretending to be her literary companions. The theme here is about stopping hiding your past, personality, or vulnerability, but rather embracing the unique experiences that molded you.
The second theme about healing as learning to trust in God is not as fully drawn out, but the Christian influences in Sam’s life are undeniable. Most of the people who help her are Christians: the priest at the group home, the professor and his wife who “adopt” her, the mysterious benefactor. Sam notices these people have a peace and certainty that she admits to wanting for herself. She finds when she chooses forgiveness, she finds peace and joy. There is no radical conversion in Dear Mr. Knightley, but the reader can certainly assume that with the continued influence of her good friends, Sam eventually will find her way home to Christ.
Who would enjoy Dear Mr. Knightley?
Refreshingly clean, this book is perfect for older teens and adults. I would not recommend it for younger teens due to some descriptions of domestic abuse and a plot line about Sam’s first boyfriend, Josh, pressuring her to “sleep over” with him. Although Sam refuses and eventually breaks up with him over his unfaithfulness, her reasons for refusing are rather nebulous. The teenage reader would already need to be able to make the correct moral judgments about the situation since Sam does not have the benefit of a strong moral compass.
This book is perfect for a light, quick read on vacation, when the kids are falling asleep, or at the end of a long day. The literary allusions are delightful, the romance between Sam and Alex is sweet, and there are some worthwhile themes about friendship, trust, and healing.
I love reading almost anything. Even calculus books and Russian novels. But when on vacation, I generally crave lighter literary fare. If sandy beaches or mountain views are in your not so distant future, here are some fun light novels to help you rest and rejuvenate. They’re organized by genre so pick your favorite flavor.
Christian fiction is a genre I recently spent some time exploring. My research netted me many poorly written novels I dropped after a few chapters, but also some clean, enjoyable mysteries, adventures, and romances, perfect for a vacation.
Dani Pettrey’s Submerged is a fast-paced mystery/romance set in beautiful Alaska. Pettrey is a decent writer and this book has a sweet theme about second chances and redemption. If you fall in love with the characters, there are several sequels including Shattered and Stranded.
Dee Henderson’s books vary greatly in quality, but I did enjoy her O’Malley series. The Negotiator is the first in a series of seven books about a family of adopted siblings who each work in a law enforcement or first-responder type career. Each book recounts an exciting mystery while also tackling a faith-related question such as the Resurrection, trust in God, or why bad things happen to good people. The answers Henderson provides to these questions are not always complete, but a Catholic reader can practice their apologetic skills and think about even better answers!
Long Time Coming by Edie Claire was a thriller with a twist: the biggest villain may not be a villain. A thought-provoking look at psychology, prejudice, and buried memories, with a healthy dose of romance to lighten the mood.
Leslie Lynch is actually a Catholic author, and the mention of subjects like theology of the body gives her novels a unique flavor. Her Appalachian Foothills series is another sequence of adventure-romance style novels about young women with dark troubled pasts who find healing through friendship, love, and the Catholic church. Kudos for a positive portrayal of Catholics, but also a warning that Lynch’s books are darker than most other Christian fiction, involving subjects like rape, abortion, and addictions.
Michael O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri: A Novel might not actually be the best book to haul on vacation if you’re flying at over 800 pages, but if you’re not worried about tonnage, it is a typical O’Brien novel: thought-provoking, creative, and well-told.
I love a good mystery, and have yet to find a modern author that matches the brilliance of the writers in the golden age of mystery! Also, I appreciate that these writers were able to tell a captivating story without needing to have the sleuths be sidetracked with lurid sex scenes.
You can’t go wrong with an Agatha Christie such as Ordeal by Innocence. Her mysteries are fast-paced, well-plotted, and utterly bewildering. She is truly the Queen of Mystery.
However, don’t overlook her contemporary and fellow female author Dorothy Sayers. I actually enjoy Sayers’ books even more than Christie’s. Her sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, introduced in Whose Body?, actually does fall in love with a woman on trial for murder in Strong Poison. Their tempestuous courtship and marriage add interest to the mysteries they make a hobby of solving together.
Margery Allingham is another golden age mystery author. Her detective, Albert Campion, stars in a long series of novels including Look to the Lady, a whodunit, and The Tiger in the Smoke. Allingham’s mysteries are clever, but also follow the life events and character development of Campion.
Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals is a new favorite of mine. Check out my Review of My Family and Other Animals for more details about this hilarious book, perfect for lovers of all creatures great and small.
Leave It to Psmith by P. G. Wodehouse could, or to be more accurate has, made me smile during some of the most trying seasons of life. And on vacation? My husband and I laugh till we cry at this master writer’s spot on similes and knack for situational comedy. If you have not read Jeeves & Wooster, you need to. You will be a more cheerful person after encountering Wodehouse. Also your vocabulary will expand tremendously.
Although you may not immediately think of L. M. Montgomery in conjunction with comedy, I actually find her depictions of small town life and insight into human flaws and foibles quite amusing. Anne of Green Gables‘s escapades are even funnier to read as an adult, and the later Anne books are actually meant for adults.
I won’t deny that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma are her best works, but if you haven’t read some of her lesser known books, they are a perfect length and lightness for a vacation! For example, Northanger Abbey is a clever satire of Gothic novels.
Kristin Lavransdatter is has a graver theme and tone than most of the books on this list, but if you are more of a classics fans, then you won’t be disappointed by this sweeping tale by the master writer Sigrid Undset. If you have already enjoyed reading about Kristen, Undset’s The Master of Hestviken trilogy is also excellent.
Gone with the Wind is certainly worth reading. Margaret Mitchell’s novel captures the aura of the Civil War so vividly, and her heroine is so unforgettable (both for spirit and selfishness), that this novel just flies by despite its length.
If you are fascinated by World War II, read Aline’s unique account of her involvement in The Spy Wore Red. From clothing model in a department store to undercover agent to Countess, Aline’s life is colorful and captivating.
I also enjoyed The Zookeeper’s Wife, an account of how one family’s courage made a small difference and saved lives during the turmoil and persecution of World War II.
Without having watched a single episode of the hit TV show Fixer Upper, I read The Magnolia Story on a friend’s recommendation. What a beautiful story about a couple filled faith in God and each other.
Who doesn’t love the Sound of Music? But I love The Story of the Trapp Family Singers even more. Maria Von Trapp recounts the real story which inspired the beloved movie. Heartwarming and imbued with love for the Catholic faith, this book has always been a favorite of mine.
Moms and dads need fiction too! I firmly believe it is not only important but integral to a balanced life for parents to read books too. This list has a lot of readable classics, some fun mysteries, some historical fiction, some Catholic fiction, and some humor. I hope the books on this list inspire, refresh, and satisfy your thirst for the good and true and beautiful!
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In Port William, a love for the land and for neighbors create a tight-knit farming community in rural Kentucky. Wendell Berry‘s Hannah Coulter is a wise elderly woman’s reflections on her life and loves for both people and places. A touching, tantalizing, sometimes tragic picture of a way of life that is mostly lost.
Kristin Lavransdatter by Norwegian Catholic author Sigrid Undset is a beautifully-written trilogy about sin and its far-reaching consequences as seen in the life of a Norwegian woman from girlhood to death.
Undset’s other famous trilogy, The Master of Hestviken, is less recognized in America, but she considered it her greatest work, and I agree that I found it even more powerful than Kristin Lavransdatter.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is a fascinating mix of an apologia for Catholicism and a recognition of the imperfection of individual Catholics. In addition to his overarching theme of Catholic redemption, Waugh describes the decay of the English aristocracy around the time of World War II. This masterfully written classic is one of my very favorite books to savor.
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken is not fiction at all, but rather his autobiographical tale of true love, found first in his wife, then ultimately in God. This beautifully written and moving book details Vanauken’s love affair with his wife, conversion to Christianity with the assistance of C. S. Lewis, and strengthening of faith through the devastating loss of his wife.
One of my favorite Steinbeck books, East of Eden explores themes of family history, free will, depression, truth, and more. Very dark at times with a sadistic female antagonist, the theme in the end is about forgiveness and the truth setting one free. For a shorter introduction to Steinbeck, try The Pearl, which is a heartbreaking story about greed and true happiness.
Desperate to make ends meet, small-town spinster Barbara Buncle writes a book inspired by her neighbors. General chaos and hilarity ensue upon publication of Miss Buncle’s Book. Clean, good, cozy fun!
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’sCrime and Punishment is a masterpiece both on philosophical and literary levels. My favorite Russian novel, this book deals with deep themes such as redemption through suffering, true happiness, and ends justifying means.
Chesterton wrote so many fabulous fictional works! In The Ball and The Cross, a Catholic and atheist find an unlikely affinity in their passion about their beliefs. Manalive is my favorite: a hilarious and thought-provoking apologia for a joyful life. The Man Who Was Thursday is one of Chesterton’s most famous works, a fast-paced adventure with a subplot of allegory.
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is considered the very first detective novel ever written! Collins uses multiple narrators to tell an engrossing, well-written story. The Woman in White is also excellent.
Michael O’Brien’sVoyage to Alpha Centauri: A Novel achieves the considerable feat of captivating the reader for a whopping 587 pages. Lengthy, yes, but still surprisingly readable, Voyage to Alpha Centauri is a futuristic story of a voyage from earth to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. The quirky, wise elderly narrator, Neal, is juxtaposed to the controlling, totalitarian government most obey blindly.
Till We Have Faces is a haunting and thought-provoking retelling of the Psyche story from Greek mythology. Psyche’s older sister sets out to write this angry charge against the gods who have ruined her life, as she sees it. But in the process she discovers her own faults and finds truth.
North and South is a novel of contrasts: the gentile South and the industrialized North of England, humanism and capitalism. British literature fans will enjoy this classic work by Elizabeth Gaskell.
G. K. Chesterton’s biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas are a wonderful balance of carefully researched history, theological and philosophical insights, and Chesterton’s signature poetic imagination. These biographies are memorable and well-worth reading.
In any contest about sheer hilarity and perfect use of the English language, I consider P. G. Wodehouse invincible. His Blandings Castle series will have you laughing until you cry with its cast of idiosyncratic English aristocrats, servants, and imposters.
In Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz captures the decadence of ancient Rome and the passionate conviction of the persecuted Christians.
In stark contrast to Wodehouse’s levity, Flannery O’Connor‘s The Complete Stories are quite dark on the surface, often dealing with tragedy and ugly sin. But each story contains a lesson about human nature and motivations and insight into O’Connor’s Catholic vision which the discerning reader may discover.
Agatha Christie is the queen of the golden age of mysteries. Her plots are clever and thought provoking in more ways than one. Her most famous books, such as Murder on the Orient Express, feature eccentric Belgian detective Hercules Poirot. Christie’s Miss Marple stories illustrate that crimes whether large or small can often be solved by a knowledge of basic human nature. Sometimes humorous, often tragic, Christie’s mysteries satisfy the human desire for justice, though her solutions strike a discordant note with a correctly informed Catholic view of morality. At times, she advocates solutions such as allowing a criminal to kill himself as a merciful solution.
Although Christie is the queen of mysteries, I personally prefer Dorothy Sayers, who is considered by many a close second in the lineup of golden age mystery writers. Her Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery series feature aristocrat sleuth Lord Peter whose lazy manner masks a sharp intelligence. I am partial to Sayers’ books because in addition to producing a fine mystery, she also writes from a broad liberal arts platform, rife with references to other great literature and philosophical insights.
Cry, the Beloved Country is a thoughtful book about racial injustice in Africa. It’s a beautifully written book about the dignity of all people. Sad yet hopeful.
Jan Karon‘s Mitford series, beginning with At Home in Mitford, is a charming, calming collection. Father Tim, an Episcopalian minister, ambles amiably through life, accompanied by his eccentric parishioners. Funny and light-hearted.
A modern classic, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene captures perfectly the anger and jealousy and emptiness of a man looking for love in the wrong places. The narrator feels his lover has abandoned him for God and sets out to learn why. Will he be transformed by his search?
Susan Fraser King recounts the life of Saint Margaret of Scotland in a fascinating way. Queen Hereafter tells the story of a young Margaret’s tumultuous life, highlighting her calm trust in God which carried her through her many trials.
The Count of Monte Cristo is a formidable volume, but really, it does move fast! This famous work by Alexandre Dumas explores themes of revenge and forgiveness in an unforgettable way.
Kate Morton writes wonderfully plotted multi-generational historical fiction mysteries like The Secret Keeper. I love how she keeps the reader guessing right to the end. I also enjoy her vibrant elderly narrators, who are often the protagonists of her works.
Yes, everyone has read Pride and Prejudice, but have you read all of Jane Austen?
If you have an appreciation for the classics, you will empathize with Samantha, the protagonist of Dear Mr. Knightley. A modern romance with many nods to classic literature. Check out my full review here!
The Brontë Sisters‘ major works are classic novels. Often dark in their themes, these are nonetheless important books with great insight into human nature.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written due to its picture of human nature with all its complexities and faults. This is a lengthy read, but fast moving enough to keep the reader’s interest.
Treason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan England by Dena Hunt is a gripping historical fiction novel detailing the story of a Catholic priest secretly but faithfully performing his ministry to the persecuted English Church. An inspiring story of faith and love of Christ under trying circumstances.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a fascinating historical fiction novel set during World War II. Two sisters help the French resistance while struggling to survive the horrors of the war. So much depth to this novel; read my Review of “The Nightingale” for full details!