white notes beside a pencil on brown wooden surface

Review of “Educated”

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

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

Educated?

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

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

Homeschooled or not Schooled

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

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

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

Hillbilly Elegy Life Lessons

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

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

Still Processing

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

Should you read Educated?

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

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Books on Evolution and Intelligent Design for Catholic Teens and Adults

One day your teenager is going to ask the evolution question. “Was Darwin right and if so what does that mean for the Genesis creation account and our faith in a Creator?

If Darwin was correct in his theory that all life on earth can be explained by natural selection and evolution, how can the Genesis account be correct? Once they begin questioning the veracity of the Bible and God’s role as Creator, a teen’s faith can quickly crumble.

But does it have to be a Faith versus Science dichotomy?

There are 3 major lines of thought on the origins of life.

1. Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory is the most accepted in scientific textbooks. It assumes no Creator.

2. “Young Earth Creationism” is a primarily Protestant theory of the origin of life; it assumes the Genesis creation account is true on a mostly literal basis and posits a very young earth to fit with the account.

3. The third theory of the origins of life is Intelligent Design theory, which has been promoted by a minority of scientists ever since Darwin published the “Origin of Species” in 1859. Intelligent Design Theory accepts many of Darwin’s discoveries and theories, but still claims the need for a Creative Force: the Intelligent Designer.

My approach to the Evolution Question as a teen was to tackle it head on by reading everything I could find on the topic! I read a variety of books pro-Darwin, anti-Darwin, pro-Young Earth, anti-Young Earth, and pro-Intelligent Design. The key point to remember is that these are all scientific theories, which means none of them are proven. Whatever your opinion on the question of life origins and evolution, it’s worth looking at all the theories.

Though I include books that explain each theory, there is a predominance of pro-Intelligent Design books on this list since I personally find that synthesis of faith and science most convincing.

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

Pro Darwinian Evolution

Why read The Origin of Species? To get a fair idea of what Darwin actually claimed and what his evidence was.

Official Catholic Teaching

Humani Generis is Pope Pius XII’s teaching on the question of Evolution. He makes several important distinctions about what the Catholic Faith requires us to believe as regards the origins of human life. Key points include: that Catholics must believe the soul to be immediately created by God and that there is room for discussion about the creation of the human body. But Pius XII firmly states that Catholics must reject polygenism.

Pro Intelligent Design

Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box is one of the simplest and most elegant challenges to Darwinian Evolution I have read. He draws on emerging research in Biochemistry to show the fulfillment of some of Darwin’s own reservations about his evolutionary theory. After explaining the irreducible complexity of the cell, Behe argues for the existence of a Designer.

Pro Intelligent Design

Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell is an in-depth look at the sheer information contained in each DNA molecules, and what that means in terms of evolution and life origins. This book specifically focuses on the first origins of life.

Pro Intelligent Design

Darwin’s Doubt is a continuation of Meyer’s Signature in the Cell. Broader in its scope than the previous volume, Darwin’s Doubt looks at the Cambrian explosion, Darwin’s reservations about his own theory, and how most evolutionary theories presuppose an existence source of complex information.

Pro Intelligent Design

The latest in the Intelligent Design/Darwinism debate, Debating Darwin’s Doubt, is Stephen Meyer and other Intelligent Design scientists’ response to some of the criticism he received for Darwin’s Doubt.

Pro Intelligent Design

For the philosophically minded, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again is a convincing argument for Intelligent Design based on final causality and formal causality. Gilson’s teleological argument is pure philosophy: no appeals to religious authority or revelation.

Synthesis of Catholic Teaching

Polish priest Michael Chaberek’s recent book is a well-done synthesis of 2000 years of Catholic teaching on Creation and the various Catholic commentaries on evolutionary t heory in the last 200 years. Chaberek is notable for his honesty in explaining that though he is a proponent of Intelligent Design, there is nothing inherently contrary to Catholic belief in the concept of macro-evolution.

In Six Days by [John Ashton]

Pro Young Earth Creationism

In Six Days is a synthesis of many pro-Creationism scientists reasons for their beliefs. Geologists, paleontologists, and more explain their reasons for believing in a younger earth.

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by [Gould, Stephen Jay]

Pro Darwnian Evolution

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Stephen Jay Gould is one of the more convincing modernized Darwinian theories that attempts to “fix” some of the more glaring errors in Darwin’s original work while keeping the key tenets of Macro-evolution. His theory of punctuated equilibrium is fascinating. He posits long periods of stability punctuated by sudden bursts of evolutionary change. Why these sudden bursts of change?

Pro Intelligent Design

The Privileged Planet is a fascinating look at the uniqueness of planet earth. This book offers a physics and cosmology based challenge to the notion that our place in the universe is random.

Looking for more great lists for Catholic teens? Check out some of my other book lists!

Looking for more great books for Catholic Adults? Check out my lists for parents!

white flowers in focus photography

Review of “Courageous Women”

Cover of Courageous Women

Looking for a way to delve deeper into the Bible? Stacy Mitch’s Courageous Women is a wonderful Bible study for personal or group use. While focusing on the great women in the Bible, the author does not miss the greater vision of Salvation History. Courageous Women is an insightful exposition both of Biblical Heroines and the golden thread of God’s plan to bring salvation to mankind through the chosen people.

Perfect for Individual or Group Bible Study

Doing this on your own? If you’re a busy mom with only a few minutes a day for a Bible Study, this book will be a great fit! Each chapter is divided up into short sections so you can read a relevant Bible passage, commentary, and discussion questions in those few brief minutes you have for spiritual reading.

Have a Church group or book club that wants to do a Bible study? Do a chapter a meeting and enjoy the ease of having discussion questions prepared for you. There’s even a handy “leader guide” in the back of the book with suggestions for discussing each question.

For Adults or Guided Older Teens

Courageous Women is clearly intended for adult readers, though I think mature older teen girls could also enjoy this study. Parental caution advised with younger/innocent teens due to open discussion of some of the more scandalous events of the Old Testament, such as what “uncovering nakedness” means, prostitution, incest, sodomy, etc. Nothing graphic.

Be Inspired

As you read Courageous Women, you’ll be sure to find a Biblical heroine you identify with. Whether it’s Sarah, Mary, or a more unusual woman like Bathsheeba or Leah, you’ll find a woman with whom you can relate. Although these women lived many centuries ago, Stacy Mitch shows her readers that they were women like us with many of the same struggles, conflicting loyalties, temptations, and triumphs.

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Looking for more great books for Catholic moms? Check out my lists for adults!

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!

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!

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 “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.

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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 “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.