Review of “The Princess Diaries”

Princess Diaries review book cover

This book starts out with an epigraph from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which is a true classic about acting like a princess inside even in the worst of circumstances. Unfortunately, The Princess Diaries does not live up to the epigraph or remotely inspire princess-like behavior in its young audience. I really dislike it when books marketed for tweens and young teens are full of sexual content, so prepare for a rant!

The premise

This diary is clearly intended to appeal to the 12-14 year old crowd. It’s the secret musings of Mia, a 14 year old high school freshman with tough hair and a phlegmatic personality. Used to hanging out with the school misfits, Mia becomes unexpectedly popular when she finds out she’s actually a European princess. Positives in this book? There are some basic positive themes about good friendships and anti-bullying and Mia is a reasonably likeable heroine.

But really, who wants their 12 year old reading about sex stuff?

This book is chock full of a completely unnecessary amount of content focused on sex. For example, right off the bat Mia speculates about her mother’s new boyfriend: “he’s not so cool if he’s sticking his tongue in your mom’s mouth.” Mia goes on to wish that the cool boy in school would put his tongue in her mouth though. Throughout the book, Mia spends a lot of time thinking about whether her mom is sleeping with her new boyfriend, and at one point does discover him in her apartment in boxers.

Another highlight is a long conversation between Mia, her best friend Lilly, and Lilly’s 18 year old brother. They talk about condoms and spermicidal fluid, losing their virginity, and who they’d choose to have sex with if they were the last person alive.

Other highlights include joking about her best friend’s brother sexually harassing her, and also Mia brushing off a creepy blind guy who gropes her as unimportant. Mia also laughs at herself for not knowing what “frenching” was when she was 11, like her cousin did. At one point, Mia’s grandmother the Princess Dowager calls her a hooker. At another point Mia describes a woman who inspired her; the inspiring part seems to be that the woman has plastic surgery lips made from her vagina.

What’s the big deal with lying again?

Like other modern “children’s” books, The Princess Diaries sadly normalizes lying and deception as a part of life. Mia frequently lies to her parents. At first, she tells herself in her diary to “stop lying.” But then she seems to “grow” in her view on lying and her self-coaching becomes: “tell the truth except when doing so would hurt someone’s feelings.” And later, “stop lying, and/or think of better lies.”

Political Bent

Another issue of note is Mia’s rather anti-religion, “open-minded” worldview. She admires Madonna because she “revolutionized” fashion by dancing in front of burning crosses and “wasn’t afraid to make the Pope mad.” Mia is proud that she refuses to go to church because she “refused to pray to a god who would allow rain forests to be destroyed in order to make grazing room for cows who would later become Quarter Pounders.”

Mia is also anti-gun, and pro-propaganda. She tells her readers that a stalker is allowed to buy a machine gun “in this country thanks to our totally unrestrictive gun laws.” Fact check: you can’t just buy a machine gun in America. That’s been illegal since 1986.

Mia’s a proud child of divorce. She lives primarily with her doting Bohemian mother and spends summers with her filthy rich royal father. Her parents are friendly to each other, but Mia confides that “things would majorly suck, I think, if they lived together.” She’s “perfectly happy” with her divorced parents.

Turning over in her grave

I doubt that Frances Hodgson Burnett and her heroine Sara are grateful for the tributary epigraph, which really doesn’t fit this teen novel. Unlike Sara, who strives to be a princess, Mia spends most of the book either complaining and acting out because she’s a princess or obsessing about boys and sex. I found little to redeem this book. It really reads like an intentional attempt to indoctrinate young girls into a certain political and sexual mindset.

There are so many better princess books out there! Shannon Hale’s fantastic Princess Academy series is a great example of a modern princess book which focuses on female friendships, sacrifices, and coming of age.

For other worthwhile Princess books, check out this list!

For better romances for teens, check out this list!

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.

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

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!

Review of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

Cover image The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a Science Fiction cult classic. Intended for adults, this clever book, full of sometimes off-color British humor, is now often featured on reading lists for kids as young as 10 and 12. Is it appropriate for young Catholic middle schoolers? I submit that it is not for several reasons.

Sexual humor

As is not unusual in British humor, there is a fair amount of innuendo in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For example, there are similes such as: “He had an odd feeling of being like a man in the act of adultery who is surprised when the woman’s husband wanders into the room, changes his trousers, passes a few idle remarks about the weather and leaves again.” There are also references to sex, whores, and nudity. For example: “Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6.” Or “five hundred entirely naked women dropped out of the sky on parachutes.”

Drinking

There’s a fair amount of drinking, often portrayed humorously. Ford, an alien stranded on earth, drinks excessively to pass the time. He also encourages Arthur, a human, to get drunk as a suitable preparation for death.

Poking fun at Religion

Another favorite “humorous” topic in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is religion. One of the major plot lines is that the Earth was created by Slartibartfast, a custom planet designer, by order of a group of hyperintelligent pandimensional beings who appear on earth as mice. These “mice” build super computers who are more intelligent than they are to answer questions such as “what is the meaning of life.” The answer to that question, according to the computer, is 42.

In the Name of Humor

Both the sexual innuendo and the religious jabs are obviously supposed to be funny. Sensibilities vary greatly about whether this sort of humor is actually funny or, in fact, offensive. Obviously this is a prudential judgment on each parents’ part about whether they are comfortable with their children reading this material. I most often see this book recommended for tweens and teenagers. Please remember that it was not intended for children and be forewarned about the religious jabs and sexual innuendo.

Looking for better books? Check out my book lists!

Review of “Dune”

Dune book review

Dune is often called a Science Fiction masterpiece. Now, in 2020, it’s coming out as a movie that will probably be a major hit. After the release of the movie, I’m guessing the Dune books will enjoy a new wave of popularity, so I recently read them with a view to determining their level of appropriateness for teen readers. In order to make this review a manageable length, I will concentrate on the issues I found in the first book.

Premise

Dune‘s setting is a futuristic interplanetary society where noble houses, a corrupt emperor, a power-hungry pilot’s Guild, and big-business CHOAM vie for power and wealth. There’s also the Bene Gesserit, a warrior-nun group which pursues its own agenda striving for racial purity and power. Wealth in the world of Dune is measured in terms of Melange, also called Spice, a drug which has whole universe under its thrall.

The plot centers around Paul Atreides, a teenager coming of age in one of the noble houses. Paul’s family takes charge of Arrakis, the planet which produces all the Spice. Paul is a unique combination of visionary, genius, and leader. With the aid of his Bene Gesserit mother Lady Jessica, he becomes the leader of the Fremen, a nomadic warrior tribe who control the Spice fields. At the head of the Fremen, Paul takes control of the Empire.

There’s no denying that the scope and richness of the Dune series is captivating. The insights about greed for power and wealth and its results are commendable. I even appreciated the first book simply as a literary work. But as a parent, I found several concerning aspects with this book on multiple levels.

Concerns

Drug Use: the entire planetary system in the world of Dune is addicted to Spice, their drug of choice. Many are well aware of this fact, but choose addiction because they want the heightened senses and visions the Spice brings. There is a heavy emphasis on the powers and enhancements the drug provides. A recipe for encouraging teens to try drugs, anyone?

Sexual content: Lady Jessica is a concubine. There is a scene where another Bene Gesserit “sister” is sent by her husband to sleep with a teenage boy whose DNA they want for their breeding program. Paul takes a concubine from among the Fremen and has a son with her. None of this is particularly graphic; it is more stated than described.

Anti-Catholic content: The Bene Gesserit are basically nuns. Well, except they’re obsessed with preserving the best genes, so frequently become concubines, commit adultery, and so on. They use terms like “Reverend Mother” for their leaders. They send “Missionaries” to other planets to sew seeds of “storylines” in case one of the sisterhood is ever in need. The concept of an “awaited Messiah” is one of these intentionally created legends.

Both the depiction of Bene Gesserit and use of Messiah motif are troublesome. In the world of Dune, the coming of a Messiah is basically a big hoax carefully planned for millennia. “Religion” is an intentional manipulative force used by the Bene Geserit to further their own secret goals of racial purity.

Conclusions

I really dislike it when authors take Catholic terms and intentionally try to pervert the mental connotations, seeding doubt and reversion in the reader’s mind when they hear terms like “Reverend Mother,” “Messiah,” or “Missionary.” In Dune, this agenda extended to the entire concept of religion. For me, that largely ruined the Dune books so I wouldn’t recommend them for teens.

But, if you have an older teen who loves science fiction and really wants to read them, I recommend encouraging an analytical approach. For example, ask your teen to intentionally try to spot all the examples of twisting Religion and Christian terms in a negative way. Or ask them to form an opinion on whether author Herbert was intentionally normalizing drug use and free love. A mature teen can gain a lot of benefit can by this kind of intentional analysis.

Looking for better books for your teens? Check out my book lists, especially my lists for high schoolers!

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!

This post contains Amazon Affiliate links.

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”

This post may contain Amazon Affiliate links .

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 “The Books of Bayern”

Goose Girl Cover, Books of Bayern Review

After thoroughly enjoying and reviewing Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy trilogy, I’ve been working my way through her Young Adult series, The Books of Bayern. Like Princess Academy, there is much to admire in the Books of Bayern. These books have a similar focus on strong female characters, the importance of friendship, and sacrifice. They are overall a clean and captivating fantasy series that older teens will enjoy.

This post may contain Amazon affiliate links.

The Premise

The Books of Bayern are set in a fantasy world where certain people are given the “gifts” of being able to communicate with and even control animals, wind, fire, water, or people. In the first book, The Goose Girl, Princess Ani finds her throne usurped by a ruthless imposter who uses her gift of people-speaking for evil. Ani’s gentle spirit wins her friends, and these friendships prove as important as her own gift of wind-speaking in regaining her throne. And, of course, winning the heart of the heir to the throne.

The subsequent books, Enna Burning, River Secrets, and Forest Born, have similar plotlines about consciously choosing to use your gifts for good or evil, friendships, and young love. Each features a unique, strong heroine: gentle Ani, fiery Enna, smart Dasha, and shy Rin. Each heroine must learn to control her gifts and use them for good.

Positives Themes

Overall, these books have inspiring, positive themes for older teens. Free will is one major theme. Ani and Dasha consciously choose to use their talents to benefit others. Enna misuses her gift at first, but repents and resolves to never harm another person again. Rin also struggles with her power to manipulate others but chooses to not use her gift rather than use it for evil. Always, personal choice and responsibility are upheld.

Other major themes include friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice. Friends undergo great dangers to help one another. Ani saves Enna’s life in the second book at the risk of her own. There’s also a theme of sacrificing for country. Enna and Razo are willing to undertake a dangerous diplomatic mission in the hopes of preserving a fragile international peace.

Another great theme is mercy and forgiveness. On many occasions, Ani, Enna, and their friends go the extra mile to attempt to capture enemies without having to kill them. These heroines have an innate respect for human life, even if it’s the life of a sworn enemy. They even attempt to save Ani’s nemesis throughout the series. They also extend mercy and forgiveness to one another with grace.

Although the first three books have romantic plot aspects with main characters pairing off, I appreciated that Hale deviated from this pattern in the fourth book by having Rin remain single for now. Rin is more troubled by her gift than the other heroines, and makes a very mature choice to refrain from relationships for the time being to work on improving herself.

A Few Criticisms

Although the themes are mostly positive in The Books of Bayern, there are a few potential areas of concern for parents of tweens and younger teens.

These are fantasy-adventure-romance stories, so invariably there is a certain level of romantic exchanges and kissing. Overall, these exchanges are not particularly graphic. No more than the occasional passionate kiss. But teen romantic love is a definite plot aspect, so if you have a younger teen you don’t want focusing too much on romance, skip these for now.

Along the same lines, there are a few occasions where bad guys leer at or threaten the heroines where there are definite sexual harassment undertones. There are also a couple occasions where even the good guys notice a girl’s figure or beauty in a somewhat objectifying way.

There’s also a decent amount of violence, especially in the second book, when Enna gets too obsessed with burning and revenge and starts setting people on fire. More sensitive younger teens might not like the death toll in these books.

Overall, A Fun Fantasy Series for Mature Teens

Teens who enjoy fantasy and adventure will enjoy these books as light, overall uplifting reads. Given the caveats above, I recommend them for older teens versus tweens and younger teens. Tweens and younger teens will appreciate the Princess Academy books much more!

For more of my favorite books for teens, check out these lists:

Review of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Book Poster Image

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is one of those oft-recommended young adult series. It’s promoted as a modern classic by many libraries. Even some reputable review sites like commonsensemedia.org recommends it for 12+. The series premise is that four close friends share a special pair of jeans which help them stay close even when apart. The depiction of strong, healthy female friendship is moving and imitable, but there are definitely concerning aspects of this series Catholic parents need to be tracking.

Great premise, poor writing

Bridget, Lena, Tibby, and Carmen share a robust, close friendship. Always there for each other, always ready to sacrifice for one another, the parts of this series that focus on their friendship are in fact quite inspiring. The writing style, however, is shallow. The plot is not well-planned, and the character growth is uneven or inconsistent with some of the characters. I might have forgiven some of this though if I wasn’t so concerned with the amount of sexual content in a tween/teen series.

Too much focus on sex

There are really two themes in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. One is female friendship, the other is discovering your sexuality and losing your virginity. This series is written for a secular audience, so perhaps this is the norm in public schools, but Catholic parents may be startled to learn that this series describes events such as 15 year old Bridget seducing her 19 year old soccer coach. In a later book, 18 year old Bridget begins a similar seduction of her married archaeology professor, but at least stops at passionate making out, for what that’s worth. Tibby, at 18, fornicates with her boyfriend and then has a pregnancy scare. Lena, at 18, engages in nude modeling in art school and eventually loses her virginity to a guy she admits to not really loving or seeing marrying. Throughout the series, a lot of the plot is concerning who will sleep with who and when? Interesting content for a series that is supposed to be promoting positive teen behavior.

Lessons: too vague, too incoherent

Are the consequences of all this sexual misconduct negatively portrayed? Sometimes. Bridget falls into a year long depression after seducing her soccer coach and being rejected. The message is that it was a mistake because she was “too young.” But then, two years later, when she meets the soccer coach again and they fall in love, apparently she is now “old enough” and having sexual relations is acceptable. According to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, having sex with your boyfriend is just fine as long as you’re “old enough” and “feel” right about it.

After Tibby fornicates with her boyfriend, she is terrified she’s pregnant, which causes her major anxiety and leads to breaking up with the boyfriend. But again, the message is not that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but rather that the timing was wrong. Even as Tibby regrets that she might be pregnant, the author makes sure to clarify that she didn’t actually regret having sex, because “she was ready.”

So The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants delivers a typical secular message that sex outside of marriage is okay overall, as long as you’re “ready” and not “too young.”

Great Premise, but unfit for Christian consumption

I would love to see a similar series with themes about strong female friendships, loyalty, and growing up, but done in a way that is appropriate for Catholic teens. Sadly, none of the teens in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants have any sort of moral compass regarding sexuality and relationships. Lacking guidance from wise adults or any philosophical or religious formation, they make decisions based strictly on what feels right to them. Consequently, the characters in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants are poor role models. I cannot recommend this series for Catholic teens under any circumstances.

Review of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Books

A Guide for Parents

Rosemary Sutcliff was a prolific writer of historical fiction for children from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. Her fascination with ancient England in its earliest days led her to write primarily about this exciting time period. Although often labeled juvenile historical fiction, her well-researched and finely written books can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Although most of her books are refreshingly clean, enjoyable stories, a few of her books contain more adult content that Catholic parents might not appreciate their younger children reading. In this review, I include plot summaries and guides to objectionable content for over 10 of Sutcliff’s best known books.

Amazon affiliate links included.

The Eagle of The Ninth by Sutcliff, Rosemary 2004 Edition (2004)

The Eagle of the 9th

The Eagle of the Ninth is a fantastic story of Roman-occupied Britain and one of Sutcliff’s most beloved books. A young Roman centurion embarks on a quest to clear his father’s legion from the dark rumors which surround it. There are great themes about friendship, loyalty, true freedom, and coping with disabilities. There’s also a subplot of a clean, sweet romance, though parents might want to know that the girl is quite young: earlier teens. This is true to the historical time period in which girls married quite young and therefore didn’t bother me. Appropriate for 10 year old advanced readers; I recommend age 12 or older for most readers.

The Silver Branch (The Roman Britain Trilogy)

The Silver Branch

Generations after the events of The Eagle of the 9th, a young Roman surgeon lands in Britain and finds himself thrust into a pivotal role as Emperors rise and fall in the disintegrating Roman empire. The Silver Branch is a completely clean and enjoyable book with a shy, brave protagonist. Great for 10 and older.

The Lantern Bearers (The Roman Britain Trilogy Book 3)

The Lantern Bearers

Another volume which follows the descendants of The Eagle of the 9th hero, The Lantern Bearers is a more serious look at the repercussions of Rome withdrawing from Britain. A major theme is trying to save bits of civilization from the darkness of barbarian invasion. Other themes include the horror of slavery and family loyalty. There is a forced marriage which turns out all right in the end; clean and appropriate for young readers.

Sword at Sunset (Rediscovered Classics)

Sword at Sunset

Sword at Sunset, a retelling of the Arthurian legends, is one of my least favorite Sutcliff books. This sequel to The Lantern Bearers unexpectedly jumps into all sorts of more adult content, such as a steamy incestuous seduction scene. A theme throughout the book is homosexuality among the “knights.” Artos, the Arthur character, says he wishes his whole army was homosexuals since it saves trouble with girls. The homosexual couple is highly romanticized, actually having the most stable and loving relationship in the book. This stable homosexual couple is a foil to Artos and his queen’s troubled marriage. There is also an adultery scene with some explicit details. Definitely avoid this one for younger readers.

The Mark of the Horse Lord (Rediscovered Classics)

Mark of the Horse Lord

The Mark of the Horse Lord is a darker, more violent Sutcliff book. In several ways reminiscent of The Prisoner of Zenda, The Mark of the Horse Lord is the story of an ex-slave who is asked to impersonate a British king. Parents will want to be aware that the ending involves the protagonist committing suicide in an attempt to protect his tribe from annihilation. Suicide is portrayed as the noble course of action and admirable. Better for older teen readers.

Outcast

Outcast

In Outcast, Sutcliff is at her best with a clean, intriguing story about a Roman boy, raised by a British tribe, then outcast due to superstition. The story of this boy’s sufferings is sad, but there are great themes about the horror of slavery and the light of friendship. Younger sensitive readers may be upset by the cruelty of the slave treatment described. Readers who enjoyed The Eagle of the Ninth will also enjoy Outcast.

Image result for song for a dark queen sutcliff

Song for a Dark Queen

Song for a Dark Queen is another darker Sutcliff story. This book tells the tragic story of Boadicea, the British queen who was treated unjustly and cruelly by the Romans. In addition to being a very tragic, dark story, this book is relatively high on sexual references, including jokes, tribal customs of fornication during the Harvest Festival, and an erotic naked dancing scene.

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff (April 11,2005)

Black Ships Before Troy

In this retelling of the Iliad, Sutcliff succeeds in capturing some of the splendor of this epic while simplifying the language to make it accessible for younger readers. Black Ships Before Troy follows the original plot closely, so plot elements include Paris abandoning his wife to pursue Helen, and Helen in turn abandoning her husband to run away with Paris. There are no explicit scenes. However, the terrible repercussions of their sins are very clear; the message is that Paris and Helen acted dishonorably and caused incredible suffering to many in a ripple effect. Appropriate for 14 and older.

Flame-Colored Taffeta

Flame-Colored Taffeta

Flame-Colored Taffeta is an unusual Sutcliff story insofar as the protagonist is a young girl and the setting nearly a millennia later than most of her works. This is a clean, interesting book about two children who act mercifully towards a Jacobite spy. The caveat with this book is a plot element involving Damaris, the protagonist, using a witch charm to blackmail someone into helping her. Damaris knows she’s doing something wrong; it is a classic scenario of the ends justifying the means in the author’s eyes.

Blood-Feud

Blood Feud is a fascinating book which delves into the movements of the Saxon races south to Constantinople. It also explores the dark custom of blood feuds among the Saxon people where sons fight to the death to right family wrongs. This is not portrayed as particularly right or wrong but rather the way the custom went. Another interesting theme in this book is Sutcliff’s “tolerant” approach to religion. She portrays religion as being more rooted in an individual’s ethnicity and family history than in a conviction of absolute truth. Better for older teen readers.

The Sword and the Circle: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

The Sword and the Circle

The Sword and the Circle is Sutcliff’s second take on the Arthurian legends. In a more typical courtly style than Swords at Sunset, Sutcliff recounts the tales of Arthur’s knights of the round table. Sutcliff uses the unsavory version of Arthur’s origins: his father lusted after a married duchess and started a war to have his way with her. Arthur himself ends up committing incest with his sister which leads to Mordant. Various knights fall into sexual sins, such as Lancelot being seduced and committing fornication with Elaine, and Tristan and Iseult committing adultery. Overall these scenarios are recounted factually rather than with graphic details.

A Mixed Bag

As you can see, Sutcliff’s books are a bit like Russian roulette if your children pick them up at random. A few of her books contain a fair amount of sexual references, though they are generally not graphic. However, many of her other books are completely clean and excellent historical fiction. The best part of her books is an ongoing theme about saving “keeping the light burning,” by which she means saving culture, art, civilization itself from being smothered.

Guides to more books will be added here as I read them.

Review of “Dear Mr. Knightley”

Affiliate Links Included


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.