Review of “The Sword and the Serpent” Trilogy

Would you become a Christian if it meant certain persecution?

Cover "Sword and Serpent" review

The Sword and Serpent Trilogy is an exciting series which weaves together legends of many early Christian saints and martyrs into a fascinating narrative. Dr. Taylor Marshall, a Catholic Theologian and Philosopher, draws on what we know of the lives of iconic saints such as St. George, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Nicholas, and St. Christopher. Get to know these fourth century saints in a personal and inspiring way through these notable new novels.

“Saints aren’t born. They are forged.”

In his creative retellings, Dr. Marshall seeks to convey the humanity of great saints to the reader. By showing the journey of growth and conversion which saints like St. George and St. Christopher might have taken, Dr. Marshall makes these saints accessible and relatable to readers in a new way.

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In the first book, Sword and Serpent, Jurian (St. George) loses his home and family because of Christian persecution. Jurian’s coming of age and maturity parallels his journey in faith as he moves past anger and revenge to follow God’s gentle guidance. Along the way Jurian encounters and is helped by courageous saints like St. Nicholas, St. Blaise, and St. Christopher. The dragon Jurian meets is not quite quite the dragon you might be expecting. And he slays the dragon, but not by himself.

In the second book, The Tenth Region of the Night, female saints get more page space. St. Catherine of Alexandria, Aikaterina, jumps off the page with her prodigious intellect and insatiable thirst for truth which leads her to the One Truth eventually. Intermingled with Aikaterina’s story, Jurian’s journey continues as he works to free St. Christopher from his persecutors.

In the third book, Storm of Fire and Blood, Jurian travels into exile in the wilds of Britain, bearing the sword Excalibur back to its homeland. Meanwhile, Aikaterina rules Alexandria for her ailing father and debates with Emperors. All the Christians prepare themselves for the coming storm of Diocletian persecution.

Some Fine Storytelling

Quite independent of the religious merit, the Sword and Serpent trilogy is worth reading as a well-crafted story. The attention to historical detail is meticulous. The balance of humanizing the saints without diminishing their holiness is superbly executed. There’s a fascinating subplot about the sword Excalibur and Arthurian legends. There’s another intriguing storyline about the influence early Christian saints may have had on a young Constantine. A bit of myth, a bit of legend, a bit of historical fact combine to make a captivating and inspiring series.

Wisdom from the Past

The Sword and Serpent books superbly portray the first centuries of the Church when to be Christian was to accept persecution and eventual martyrdom. The courage and faith of these early saints during the Diocletian persecution offers an inspiration and a challenge to us all. In our post-Christian world, our children need books like these to remind them of where we came from and what heroic virtue we as Christians are capable of achieving.

Enjoyable For Teens and Adults

The Sword and Serpent series is completely clean and appropriate for teens. There is no foul language. Alcohol use is somewhat frequent, in keeping with the historical time period when beer or watered wine was commonly drank by all people with meals. No glorification of drunkenness though.

Given the backdrop of Christian persecution in the fourth century, there is some level of moderate violence. For example, some Christians are burned to death; others are fed to wild beasts. However, there are no gratuitously graphic descriptions of these acts of violence.

I wholeheartedly recommend this fine series for all teenagers and also for adults! The Sword and Serpent series is a perfect impetus to renew our sense of faith and hope and rediscover the power of the Gospel message.

Looking for more great books for Catholic teens? Check out my book lists!

15 Inspiring Books about Catholic Converts

I’m always inspired by conversion stories. The thirst for truth, the sacrifices, the joy of Catholic converts, is so heartening to experience vicariously through these first-person accounts of modern day converts like Jennifer Fulwiler, Edith Stein, Peter Kreeft, Abby Johnson and more.

In the days of the early, persecuted Church, the occasional brave Christian would write an apologia: an explanation and defense of his Christian beliefs. Even in later years, this tradition continued, as in John Henry Newmans Apologia Pro Vita Sua .The apologia tradition has been revived in recent years. Since Catholicism is such a maligned religion, high-profile converts are once again called to make a defense of their beliefs. Enjoy each modern day apologia on this list, and be uplifted and confirmed in your Catholic faith.

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Of all the conversion stories I’ve read, one of the most moving is Jennifer Fulwiler’s Something Other Than God. A passionately rational atheist, Jennifer is cruising through a Hollywood-perfect life complete with wealth, friends, and a handsome husband. But she keeps wondering, “Why does anything matter?” This book is funny and insightful and rationally argued all at once.

Rome Sweet Home

Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s story of conversion starts in a Presbyterian Seminary and ends in Rome Sweet Home. The Hahn’s journey is convicting in its Theological integrity, yet maintains an easy-to-follow conversational style throughout.

Yes, Left to Tell isn’t strictly a conversion story in the sense that Immaculee was raised Catholic. But, when she was confronted with the Rwandan genocide, her faith is tested by fire. This is her story of choosing to embrace her Catholic faith, forgiveness, and love as she experienced intense persecution.

Not God's Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms by [Holly Ordway]

Not God’s Type is English professor and fencer Holly Ordway’s journey from Atheism to Catholicism. I loved that Ordway’s lifetime of exposure to great literature plays a roll in her conversion. Also, you learn quite a bit about fencing.

When pressed, I usually admit Chesterton is my favorite author. Orthodoxy is his exuberant, joyous reflections on some of the formative ideas that led him to Catholicism. His wit and wisdom never disappoint.

Edith Stein is the dramatic story of the talented German philosopher who became a Catholic, a Carmelite Nun, and eventually died in Auschwitz.

Honey from the Rock

For more Jewish conversion stories, check out Honey from the Rock. Here are the moving stories of 16 Jews who found the fulfillment of their faith in Catholicism.

Surprised By Truth, Surprised by Truth 2, and Surprised by Truth 3 are a trilogy of thoughtful essays from a variety of (mostly) Protestant converts explaining their journey to Catholicism. Inspiring and give you a great basis in Apologetics. These books were a great source of faith growth for me as a teenager.

Chosen

Chosen is a chunky book, containing 23 conversion stories. There’s a pleasing diversity in this collection, which features Wiccans, atheists, agnostics, and Protestant converts.

Some times it seems like life issues like abortion, contraception, and sterilization drive people away from Catholicism. This refreshing collection of 10 conversion stories features the opposite: how the Catholic Church’s strong teachings on the sanctity of life led to conversions.

From Atheism to Catholicism by [Marcus Grodi, Brandon McGinley]

This collection focuses on atheists ( and agnostics) who found their way to Catholicism. Includes Joseph Pearce’s conversion.

The Price to Pay

Joseph Fadelle knew full well that to become a Christian in his country was to face death. This is a dramatic story of a young Islamic man’s determination to find truth and the true faith no matter what the cost.

From Islam to Christ

Derya Little’s journey from Islam to Protestantism to Catholicism is unlikely, to say the least! _ offers a fascinating story of God changing a young woman’s heart.

Abby Johnson’s conversion to Catholicism came right after her conversion to the pro-life cause, described in Unplanned. Both of Abby’s conversion were partially precipitated by her exposure to the faithful Catholics of 40 Days for Life. A very readable and fast-paced book.

Faith and Reason

Faith and Reason is a collection of 10 philosophers’ conversion stories. Each philosopher shares his or her meticulously considered reasons for choosing Catholicism. The theme in these essays is that wisdom and reason can lead people to God. Includes Peter Kreeft’s conversion story.

For more inspiring books for Catholic adults, check out my other lists!

Review of “Adrastea”

Adrastea book cover

Adrastea is a thrilling new fantasy novel by Anastasia Vincent. This exciting coming of age novel is inspired by some of my favorite high fantasy authors like Tolkien and Lewis. I also saw resemblances to the popular Wingfeather Saga. Teens (and adults) who enjoy Wingfeather, Narnia, and Lord of the Rings will certainly enjoy Adrastea!

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In-depth World Building

One of the best things about Adrastea is its well-developed fantasy world. This first book in The Annals of Orbis is set primarily in Arietis, a kingdom populated by Cievo: tree-dwelling people with antlers. Other inhabitants of Orbis include Humans, Elves, Snow Sprites, and Shefro. Each of the five kingdoms of Orbis has its own language, terrain, and race.

Betrayal and Exile

The action in this first book centers on the young Cievo Princess Adrastea. After witnessing her parents’ brutal murder at the hands of a human, she flees for her life. Finding unlikely allies in a human and a crippled Cievo, Adrastea survives and even thrives in exile. Naturally, she is determined to avenge her parents. But will revenge truly bring her peace?

Adrastea embarks on a journey to find her parents’ killer. But soon she finds her journey complicated by unlikely allies, betrayals, and new friends. This novel has a touch of mystery, lots of action and adventure, and several clever plot twists that will surprise you!

Classic Fantasy Themes

In high fantasy tradition, there are the classic themes of betrayal, redemption, and sacrifice. Like Lord of the Rings, there is inter-racial tension between the different inhabitants of Orbis. Adrastea has to move past her prejudice towards humans to work with her allies to find her parents’ murderer.

Coming of Age Story

This is a coming of age story which follows Adrastea from age 13 to 18. Adrastea’s transformation from troubled, attention-seeking child to mature young adult is well-written and will resonate with teens. Her friendships with kind, noble people of multiple races help her grow and learn to think past her own selfishness.

Strong Female Characters

I appreciated that this fantasy story focused on several strong female leads with a variety of personalities. Of course there’s quiet, moody Adrastea, but she is balanced with other female characters. There’s kind Aleta, a crippled girl who befriends the troubled young princess and refuses to be pushed away. There’s cheerful Daphne, an acrobat on a mission to save her sister. And then there’s exuberant Abene, who brings joy and friendship into Adrastea’s life.

A Variety of Villains

Similarly, Adrastea is far from one-dimensional in its take on evil. The cast of villains is quite diverse. There’s a cunning, evil sorceress, and there’s a greed-blinded uncle. There’s a hurting decoy prince who is manipulated by his wounded vulnerabilities. And there’s the Grapevine: a crew of ruffians. And there’s another crew of raiders with their own brand of justice and loyalty. Of course, there’s also Adrastea’s betrayer (no spoiler about who it is). With its diverse cast of antagonists, Adrastea keeps you guessing throughout about who the ultimate mastermind is.

Any content?

Parents will want to know that there is some amount of violence. The deaths are not graphically described, but people do die, sometimes at teenagers’ hands. I would compare the level of violence as comparable to Narnia and Wingfeather, so most teens should be fine.

There is no sexual content, no language, no alcohol or drug use.

Overall, this is a very clean book. Parents can feel safe giving their teens this creative, fast-paced new fantasy novel!

Adrastea is available in paperback, on kindle, and readable for free on Kindle Unlimited.

Adrastea back cover with blurb

Review of “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie”

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The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Flavia de Luce Novel by [Bradley, Alan]

70 year old Alan Bradley’s debut mystery novel quickly became an international bestseller- and with reason. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Flavia de Luce brings something completely fresh and new to the mystery scene. Amateur chemist Flavia is all of 11 years old, but when a stranger gets murdered in her family’s garden, she is instantly determined to solve the murder. Precocious and cynical and lovable, Flavia is a one-of-a-kind sleuth in these charming, well-plotted mysteries.

In the Great Tradition of Golden Age Mysteries

Author Bradley seems to have intentionally created a Golden Age of Mystery atmosphere in these novels. Like most Golden Age detective fiction, these books are set in English country houses and cozy villages. Each book opens with Flavia becoming involved in a murder investigation. The clues are provided for the reader so there’s actually hope of figuring out whodunit. The theme is always about bringing justice and restoring order to the house and village.

Surprisingly Clean

With an 11 year old protagonist, this series easily avoids many of the common racy relationship scenes common in mystery novels. There are a few plot points here and there involving adultery or promiscuity, but no explicit details. Since they’re so clean, this series is actually appropriate for teens too.

A Troubled Family

The sad part of these books is Flavia’s troubled family life. Her mother was absent, then dead. Her father is depressed and disinterested. Her sisters are frequently quite cruel. Flavia’s cynical nature is better understood after she explains how her sisters play cruel pranks such as leaving her tied up and locked in a dark cellar. Paradoxically, these same sisters do show loyalty on occasion, even saving Flavia’s life in one novel. The evolving relationship between the sisters is one of the threads that connects the books together and a reason to read them in order.

Given her troubled family situation, it’s no surprise that Flavia is no angel. She frequently lies, manipulates, and prevaricates. She disobeys adults habitually, breaks rules, plays malicious pranks and generally tries to get attention. She’s somewhat disturbingly obsessed with poisons. But despite all this, it’s easy to see this brilliant, lost adolescent’s potential, and you quickly begin rooting for her- not only to solve the mystery but to grow as a person.

A Mystery Series for Teens and Adults to Enjoy

Fans of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Sherlock Holmes will really enjoy these clever mysteries which reach back to the Golden Age for inspiration. Given Flavia’s troubled, precocious personality and the violent murders, I wouldn’t recommend them for younger teens. The books are intended for adults, but I think older teens would also enjoy them. Enjoy a little escape time as you peruse The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

Review of “A Lenten Journey with Mother Mary”

Book cover of "A Lenten Journey with Mother Mary"

Looking for a daily Lenten Meditation? A way to grow closer to Mary and Jesus this Lent? Check out Lenten Journey with Mother Mary by Fr. Edward Looney, a brand new book from Sophia Institute Press. Whether you’re new to Marian devotion or already pray the rosary every day, this book will help enrich your relationship with Mary and Jesus.

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A Meditation a Day

Lenten Journey with Mother Mary has a meditation for every single day of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday! As an additional bonus, Fr. Looney continues the devotions through the Easter Octave to Divine Mercy Sunday! Each day’s devotion begins on a very personal note with a direct quote from Our Lady, such as: “Let nothing else worry you, disturb you.” These quotes are drawn from a variety of approved Marian apparitions and set the theme for the day. The devotion then continues with a 2-3 page meditation, a sentence-long prayer, and a suggestion for a Lenten action.

Theme of the Week

Each week has a broad theme under which the individual days fall. Themes include intentional prayer, praying for others, healing, and examination of conscience. I particularly enjoyed the meditations during the Easter Octave, which focus on faith and trust in Divine Providence.

A Lenten Journey

The title about journeying is very appropriate for this book, which certainly leads you on a journey to deepen your relationship with Mary. By increasing your Marian knowledge and deepening your prayer life, this book leads you closer to Jesus through Mary. The heart-warming takeaway message in this Lenten devotional is: Mary prays for you. Mary loves you.

Want to learn more? See a full preview of Lenten Journey with Mother Mary on the publisher page.

Have children? Check out my list of favorite picture books to prepare for Lent and Easter!

I received a free copy of “Lenten Journey with Mother Mary” from Sophia Institute Press in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

"Lenten Journey with Mother Mary" cover

Review of “Ruby in the Water”

*** Warning: This review contains spoilers!***

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Ruby in the Water by Catholic Indie author J.P. Sterling was as unexpected as a rainstorm in the middle of a sunny afternoon. As a pluviophile, I love rain, so this is actually a compliment! This book explores so many great themes about disabilities, family, adoption, and coming of age. And equally importantly, Ruby in the Water tells a fascinating, relatable story about family secrets, forgiveness, and the power of love.

Coming of Age with Disabilities

Peter Arnold is without question a twice exceptional child. Because he was born prematurely, he has cerebral palsy, an undeveloped urinary tract, and a host of neurological issues. But he also has an incredible gift: a unique musical ability which brings him fame as a pianist from a young age. Navigating young adulthood isn’t going to be easily for medically complex, talented Peter.

A Special Family

Fortunately, Peter has the support of his devoted parents and five brothers and sisters to help him through the coming storm. The Arnold family is by no means portrayed as perfect, but parents Thomas and Anne’s dedication to and love for their children are truly inspiring. Ruby in the Water is peppered with flashbacks from both Peter and his parents’ perspectives, giving the reader a window into Peter’s challenging childhood and his parents’ graceful acceptance.

All is Grace

Without question, Ruby in the Water is a deeply Catholic book, but Sterling takes the higher road and lets her story speak for itself as regards its message. There is no pontificating or preaching here; just a gripping story that happened to happen to Catholics. The reader is left to decide on his own whether Anne and Thomas handle their challenges with greater grace because of their faith.

An Unabashedly Pro-life Story

Ruby in the Water does have an amazingly strong pro-life message since Peter is a late-term abortion survivor. This is only revealed at the end of the book, but clearly had huge impacts on the lives of Peter, his adopted family, and his birth mother. The brave souls who chose to save Peter’s life after a botched abortion are an inspiring example of truly embracing the pro-life view that every human life is precious.

A Short, Inspiring Book Mothers Will Enjoy

The magic of this book is the bond between Peter and his adopted mother Anne, whose love and patience shines through the tragedies. I think most moms will find themselves smiling and commiserating with Anne’s struggles to raise her brood of young children, especially with Peter’s special needs. Her graceful yes to God’s plan is an inspiration.

The only negative things I found to criticize in this book are a few editing errors that do give it a slightly self-published feel. Otherwise I am happy to recommend it for adults, young adults, and older teenagers. There is no objectionable content that would preclude younger teens from reading it, but this book will resonate more with parents and older teens.

I received a copy of Ruby in the Water in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

Review of “Dear Mr. Knightley”

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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.

Review of “The Nightingale”

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a truly compelling historical fiction novel: inspiring, humbling, thought-provoking, and devastating in turn. The story follows two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, from the time the first rumbles of World War II begin to affect France to immediately after the end of the war. By focusing on these two sisters’ very different but equally difficult paths through the war, The Nightingale succeeds in powerfully conveying the reality of the horror, the magnitude of the losses, the utter wrecking of lives in World War II. This book does not spare the reader from the awful depths that man can sink to. Yet the depravities man conducts are but a foil to the heights of heroism to which everyday people can rise. The Nightingale offers inspiration and hope with its themes about unbreakable love, heroic sacrifice, and the miracle of children.

The Nightingale is an affirmation of the power of all the forms of love to survive and thrive in the worst conditions imaginable.

The bonds of friendship are a potent force. In her small French hometown, Vianne and her best friend Rachel encourage and help one another to keep supporting their families, whether that is with words or by sharing the last morsels of food. When Jewish Rachel is taken away to a concentration camp, Vianne risks her own life to save Rachel’s son.

The love between sisters also survives the horror of war. Vianne and Isabelle had a tumultuous relationship growing up, but during the war each strives to protect the other as best they can. Vianne attacks a German soldier to save Isabelle. Isabelle distances herself from her sister’s family to protect them from the repercussions of her underground work. At the end of the war, Vianne searches tirelessly for her lost sister and brings her home.

The Nightingale depicts the love between parents and children as particularly beautiful and powerful. Vianne and Isabelle’s father Julien eventually gives his life to save Isabelle’s. Vianne repeatedly reflects that the only reason she continues struggling to survive is out of love for her children. Vianne’s husband Antoine writes to her from POW camp that she must remain strong for their children.

Love between man and woman also gets its due, mostly through Vianne’s clinging to Antoine’s memory through the years of war, and determination to rebuild their relationship afterwards. Isabelle’s relationship with Gaetan also illustrates the power of love to endure torture, sickness, and imprisonment.

The Nightingale is a paean to sacrifice, a tribute to the countless simple folk who made unimaginable sacrifices to help save lives during World War II.

At first, parents sacrifice for their children, townsfolk for their neighbors. But soon, the war make each person question what they truly believe about the sanctity of human life and how much they will risk to preserve it. First, Vianne saves and hides her Jewish friend’s son Ariel. Later, she helps save the lives of 18 other Jewish children, hiding them in an orphanage and forging identity papers for them. Her actions are all a heroic sacrifice, since they seriously endanger her life and her children’s lives. When asked how she could risk so much, Vianne tellingly says she does it for her daughter Sophie: what would she be teaching her daughter if she did not help save lives?

Her sister takes an even more risky path to help save lives. Isabelle envisions a way to help the English and American airmen escape from occupied France into neutral Spain. Although she realizes that she will almost certainly be captured eventually, tortured, and killed, she begins the “Nightingale Route.” She leads over 27 groups of airmen across the Pyrenees Mountains to safety before her capture.

One of the most beautiful sacrifices in the novel is after Isabelle is captured, when her father chooses to enter SS headquarters and confess to begin the ringleader of the “Nightingale Route” so that her life will be spared.

The Nightingale offers a strongly pro-life message about the blessing of children.

Returned POW Antoine says it most plainly: “This child… is a miracle.” All the main characters believe and live this truth throughout the novel: children are a miracle. They are the reason to keep going during the darkest years of the war. They are the cause for hope in a shattered world at the end of the war. Their existence is the healing as rebuilding begins.

The Nightingale is surprisingly clean with few exceptions.

As with any novel that attempts to accurately capture the atmosphere of occupied France, The Nightingale has its share of brutal violence. Vianne sees pregnant women shot, and experiences beatings and rapes herself. Isabelle is tortured and endures concentration camp life. The focus is not on the violence, though, but on the will to endure and survive the sisters exhibit.

There is little to no language. The only instances are the rare curse  in French or German.

As far as sexual content, there is only one rape scene described, and it is short and easily skimmed over by sensitive readers. There are references to a husband and wife making love, but no descriptions. The most problematic content from a Catholic perspective is that Isabelle and Gaetan do sleep together despite being unmarried. Again, there is nothing graphic described, but parents should be aware if considering letting their teens read this book. I personally think it is too intense for any but very mature older teens.

The Nightingale is a sobering yet gripping novel which I highly recommend for Catholic adults.

This book leaves you reeling, yet inspired. It’s an important book because World War II needs to be remembered. The unspeakable evils committed and the heroic virtue shown both need to be kept in memory. Laugh, cry, enjoy this fantastic novel.

Review of “The Awakening of Miss Prim”


The Awakening of Miss Prim is one of those rare, delectable books that you find yourself savoring, trying to spin out each chapter to the utmost. This novel by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera was first published in Spain in 2011 and translated to English a few years later. The English translation is professionally done, and I could almost believe the novel was set in England, except for the Spanish character names. Spain or England, The Awakening of Miss Prim has a cozy, old world charm about it that makes it the perfect book to curl with of an evening, beverage of choice in hand.

What is beauty?

What is marriage? What is peace? What is the purpose of education? What is friendship? What is truth? What is love? What is beauty? These are the questions pondered in The Awakening of Miss Prim. Miss Prim, a young woman with a string of impressive scholarly qualifications, comes to the tiny village of San Ireneo in search of “refuge.” Refuge from what? She can’t quite say.

San Ireneo is a village some might call backwards in its way of life. It ascribes to a distributism of Chesterton, the courtesy of old England, and the educational principles of the Greeks. People from around the world with a shared vision of creating a utopia, a The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, have created a unique society and culture in San Ireneo. Miss Prim is at once charmed, bewildered, and offended by San Ireneo and its people, but soon finds herself forming unexpected friendships.

In The Awakening of Miss Prim, friendship is the key to changing hearts.

Naturally a deep thinker who prides herself on her acumen, Miss Prim feels consternation when both her employer and new friends habitually challenge her every presupposition about life, religion, and literature. For example, at first she is mortally offended when her friends in the San Ireneo feminist society speak of finding her a husband. Over time, through her friendships with some of the members, Miss Prim realizes their intentions were loving, and even becomes open to listening to their views on how marriage is liberating.

The most important relationship Miss Prim forms is her unlikely friendship with her employer, enigmatically referred to as the Man in the Wing Chair. A dead language expert with a formidable intellect, he seems to delight in poking holes in Miss Prim’s pet theories about education, religion, and literature. Yet even as he exasperates her, his courtesy and genuineness lead her to contemplate his arguments with an open mind.

Rather than providing all the answers to the “what” questions, this novel offers food for thought.

Is the redemption a fairy tale? Or is it The Only Real Fairy Tale? Is marriage a harmony? A drawing together of opposites? Or both? Is beauty a painting, a field of flowers, a feeling? Does absolute truth exist?

The Awakening of Miss Prim provides trails of breadcrumbs leading the reader to what truth, goodness, and beauty is. Or rather, as the wise old monk advises, “Don’t be surprised if, in the end, you find beauty to be not Something but Someone.”

Perhaps in keeping with the theme of raising questions that aren’t quite answered, the book ends quite abruptly, leaving the reader to imagine the ending. This precipitous farewell to Miss Prim and San Ireneo is, in my opinion, the only real flaw in this imminently enjoyable novel.

This book is refreshingly clean of all objectionable content, and can be safely read by teens, though I think adults will appreciate it more thoroughly. On the other hand, the abundance of references to master writers like Dostoevsky, Chesterton, Virgil, and more may inspire teens to read some of these other great works.

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Norcia, Italia where Miss Prim went in search of beauty.  Photo credit to my husband.

 

Review of “The Weka-Feather Cloak”

The Weka-Feather Cloak: A New Zealand Fantasy is a fairly recent young adult fantasy set in New Zealand. Author Leo Madigan attempted to produce an engaging fantasy story which stretches the limits of time and space, while also writing a book deeply imbued with a Catholic vision. Catholic parents can rejoice that Madigan succeeded in his mission. Here is a young adult novel that parents can happily hand to their teens without fear of excessive violence, inappropriate content, or a secular agenda. On the contrary, teens will glean a wealth of positive lessons  and experience a deeply Catholic worldview.

The Weka-Feather Cloak is the story of Danny Mago, a Maori boy coming of age in New Zealand. Quiet, artistic Danny’s life is forever changed when he meets the mysterious new student at school, Zelia, and begins to work for a strong-willed nun, Mother Madeleine. Danny finds himself suddenly involved in an angelic mission, experiencing time travel, and helping Zelia recover a precious relic lost for centuries.

EXCITING ADVENTURE AND FANTASY WITH A CATHOLIC FLAVOR

This book is not a fantasy in the common sense of taking place in an imaginary world such as Middle Earth or Narnia. Instead, it takes place in New Zealand; the fantasy element comes from an elevator which can bridge time and space. Instead of elves or wizards, this book’s nonhuman characters are angels and demons. I loved the uber-rational angel who helps Danny understand his mission, and shuddered at the demon who attempts to thwart it.

Sometimes, The Weka-Feather Cloak is reminiscent of Indiana Jones adventures. Danny and Zelia are racing to save a precious relic of Christ from the villain William Kydd. The exotic New Zealand locale, quest for a precious historical artifact, and other-worldly elements of angels and demons impacting human events are sure to intrigue teenagers as much as Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But unlike an Indiana Jones film, in The Weka-Feather Cloak Danny must turn to spiritual weapons to defeat the demon. He finds strength in saying the rosary, protection in wearing a crucifix, and eventually defeats the demons through a liberal use of holy water. Because Danny is a small, shy teenager, he must learn to turn to God for help. He is a great example of what St. Paul means in 2 Corinthians 12:9 when he talks about God’s power being made perfect through human weakness. If Danny had been less frail, he might not have realized how much he needed God’s help.

A final particularly Catholic flair to this book comes from the intriguing glimpses Danny gets into eternity. Danny gets to see what angels may be like. He gets to experience some of the attributes of a glorified body. Most of all, he gets to see history from a perspective outside of time.

APPRECIATING GOD’S CREATION

New Zealand is breathtakingly beautiful: a fitting setting for this story which has major themes dealing with art and beauty. The book contains some truly beautiful descriptions of nature and what it reveals about our Creator:

“These vast continents with their mountains, deserts and rain forests, were a letter written by the Creator to mankind, a letter which told of his tender good-will, of his greatness and of his capacity to be little, of all his infinite variety of shade and color and light and impenetrability, it said everything mankind needed to know about him until he was ready to tell more.”

Little gems like this paragraph are tucked into this exciting adventure, making the reader pause and revel in the beauty of creation.

Another theme about beauty is that spiritual beauty is more important than mere physical beauty. Danny has a certain clarity of vision which allows him to see the beauty in a humongous, elderly nun, or in his disabled sister.

SEEING SPECIAL NEEDS ADULTS THROUGH GOD’S EYES

Danny’s older sister Angela has a neurological disability which renders her mute and confined to a wheel chair. From the beginning of the book, Danny’s attitude towards Angela is truly beautiful. He says that having a sister like her is a “strange, mysterious gift.” Danny and Angela have their own private sign language to communicate. Danny confides his deepest secrets to Angela, who sometimes gives him amazingly wise advice. Yet it is not until Danny experiences a miraculous journey outside of the normal time-space continuum that he sees Angela in all her beauty and potential as she will be in heaven.

ENCOUNTER INTERESTING SAINTS AND RELIGIOUS

Both while traveling through time and at home in New Zealand, Danny meets fascinating saints and religious who are friendly, fascinating people. He meets Lady Juliana of Norwich in 1399 and learns about the Eucharistic and God’s will while enjoying her hospitality and kindness. He also gets to meet Fra Angelico and the Silvestrine monks, learning how to create a fresco and participating in a snowball fight.

Back in current-century New Zealand, Danny becomes acquainted with the redoubtable Mother Madeleine and her eclectic order of nuns. Sister Eileen is admired and respected  even by bullies. Sister Paula has a dry sense of humor and a practical bent. Mother Madeline herself is wise and simple, extroverted and shy all at once. From all of them, Danny learns that the path to sainthood is for everyone.

CAVEATS AND CONCLUSION

This wonderful novel is great for teens and even mature tweens. One aspect for parents to consider is that it features some truly disturbing demons, clawed, hooded, and fire-breathing that terrorize Danny on several occasions. Beware these descriptions if you have an extremely sensitive tween or young teen. The only other potentially problematic point is that there is a decent amount of bullying described. Danny is called a “maggot” and threatened by the bigger kids at his high school on multiple occasions. However, on the positive side, these same bullies do eventually cooperate with Danny to save the day so there is some redemption here. Other than these two areas, the The Weka-Feather Cloak is a joy to read! And it’s on a steep discount at Amazon right now: half off!