Monday Book Review: The Other Side of Freedom by Cynthia T. Toney

Here’s another book from one of the authors!

Title: The Other Side of Freedom

Author: Cynthia T. Toney

Genre: historical fiction

Age group: middle grade

Summary: (from author’s website)

In a southern farming community in 1925, thirteen-year-old Salvatore and his Italian immigrant father become involved against their will in a crime that results in the murder of an innocent man and family friend. Will Sal keep the secrets about that night as his father asks, or risk everything he and his family cherish in their new homeland, including their lives?  Amidst bigotry, bootlegging, police corruption, and gangland threats, Sal must discover whom he can trust in order to protect himself and his family and win back his father’s freedom. Sal’s family, their African-American farmhand, and the girl who is Sal’s best friend find their lives forever changed as dreams are shattered and attitudes challenged in a small community called Freedom.

Those of you who have seen my previous reviews of Cynthia’s Bird Face series might be surprised to hear she’s taken a little break from her usual young adult contemporary genre to write a middle grade historical. The Other Side of Freedom is an engaging and suspenseful tale that will have you hoping poor Sal and his family can find a way out of this mess they’ve gotten into. This book is a quick read with likable characters. Sal’s friendship with his best friend Antonina is the kind of friendship all kids want–a buddy they can be open and honest with, the kind of person with whom they can share all their secrets.

As a work of historical fiction, this story offers some insight into what it was like for Italian immigrants who tried to be law-abiding citizens but were often harassed and coerced by some of their fellow Italian Americans who were mobsters. If you’ve enjoyed Cynthia’s other books, be sure to check out this one.

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Word of the Year 2018! (And the Good News Jar of 2017)


Welcome to 2018! I hope this year will be one of many blessings for all of you.

As I’ve done for the last five years, I picked a “word of the year,” a word to give this year some focus. When I started in 2013, I chose the word optimism. I chose that word to shake off the negative feelings I’d had toward my writing career–and lo and behold–I ended up with my first Chicken Soup for the Soul book that year and my first book contract the next year.

In 2014, the word was trust–as in trusting in God’s plan.

In 2015, the word was grace. This was the year my mother ended up passing away. As she was passing, one of my sisters-in-law said, “Gee, your mother even dies gracefully.” May I ever strive to live as gracefully as she did.

In 2016, the word was mercy. Pope Francis had declared it the Year of Mercy, so why not?

Although I never blogged about it, my word of the year for 2017 was balance. I think I quickly lost sight of that word.

This year, I decided to do something a little bit different and let fate (or perhaps it was really Jennifer Fulwiler) chose my word. Every year Jen create a “saint of the year” generator to help her fans pick a patron saint of the year. This year, I got St. Lucy.

She seems like a good fit since she was Italian and is a patron saint of writers. I’m also glad to hear she’s “against dysentery,” because who wants that! 🙂

Then Jen decided to create a word of the year generator. Since I had yet to come up with my own new word of the year, I decided to give it a whirl. Some people kept hitting the button until they came up with a word they liked, but I decided to go with the first word I got . . . and that word was . . .

According to my friend Merriam-Webster, “untangle” means “to loose from tangles or entanglement: straighten out,” and the examples MW gave are “untangle a knot; untangle a mystery.”

With work, my doctorate program, multiple circles of friends, writing groups, family, church events, Order of Malta work, writing projects, and speaking events, it certainly seems like my life has plenty of “threads,” each deserving of its own time and attention, but how to untangle them all? How to make sense of where and how to pay attention to each thread?

So that is my word of the year. In 2018, I will try to untangle any knots in my many threads. Who knows, I may even untangle the mystery of how to develop the plot for the sequel to Seven Riddles to Nowhere.


Some of you may also recall that I keep a Good News Jar every year. In this jar, I periodically drop in a slip of paper on which I have written some good news. While many good things happened during 2017, I only managed to get 15 pieces of good news into the jar this year. I think my friend Carmela Martino had far more in hers. We’ll see what happens in 2018!



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VIDEO: My EWTN Bookmark Interview

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Doug Keck of EWTN’s Bookmark program. During our time together, we talked about my middle grade mystery Seven Riddles to Nowhere, the award it had just won, and why I decided to set the story in Chicago. The interview aired last week on EWTN, so I can now share it with you here.

My interview begins at about the 13:00 minute mark. Also in this episode, you can see Joe Wetterling talk about the Catholic Writers Guild, Lisa Mladinich discuss her book Heads Bowed: Prayers for Catholic School Days, and Cathy Gilmore sharing her Virtue Works Media project.

Video Courtesy of EWTN Global Catholic Network


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Monday Book Review: Playing by Heart by Carmela Martino

I’m so excited today to introduce you to a brand-new YA romance from my good friend Carmela Martino. I met Carmela through the Catholic Writers Guild and soon discovered that we have many things in common: we are both Chicagoans, we are both members of SCBWI, we both write young adult and middle grade novels, and we are both Italian Americans. Carmela is also a writing teacher who earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College.

Therefore, when Carmela asked if I’d read an early copy of her book, I jumped at the chance. Thankfully, I was able to squeeze it in during my “slow” season this summer. 🙂

Monday Book Review: Playing by Heart by Carmela MartinoTitle: Playing by Heart

Author: Carmela Martino

Genre: historical romance

Age group: YA (young adult)

Summary: Emilia Salvini dreams of marrying a man who loves music as she does. But in 18th-century Milan, being the “second sister” means she’ll likely be sent to a convent instead. Emilia’s only hope is to prove her musical talents crucial to her father’s quest for nobility. First, though, she must win over her music tutor, who disdains her simply for being a girl. Too late, Emilia realizes that her success could threaten not only her dreams for her future but her sister’s very life.

Playing by Heart is inspired by two amazing sisters who were far ahead of their time—one a mathematician and the other a composer.

I loved this story for several reasons. First of all, you know I’m going to love a story set in Italy, right? 🙂 At the time this story takes place, Italy wasn’t a unified country yet, but this story set in Milan still made me feel like I was back in good old Italia! There’s a good sprinkling of Italian words throughout, but don’t worry if you haven’t studied any Italian. There’s a glossary of terms at the back.

Second, I love that this story is based (albeit loosely) on two real-life sisters, and that Carmela works historical events into the story. For example, she includes an actual visit that the Archduchess Maria Teresa made to Milan at that time and makes it fit perfectly with the tale of these two sisters.

Third, I love that this story shows a little “girl power” at a time when girls had little power over their own lives. It’s true that their father is using them for his own gains, but the girls are well educated and trained at a time when most were only taught “housekeeping” skills.

Finally, who doesn’t enjoy a sweet romance with a quiet but handsome young man and a beautiful and talented girl who is up for the challenge of proving herself worthy?

Playing by Heart is a beautifully composed tale of love, faith, and family!

The book is now available in paperback and ebook through both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Want a chance to win a free copy? Then check out the giveaway on Carmela’s blog as part of her blog tour. Click here.

Also, come join the fun at the Facebook Launch Party for Playing by Heart on October 17, 2017, from 7-9 p.m. Central Time.

There will be many great prizes, including a copy of my YA novel Angelhood, so come join us!

Click here to R.S.V.P.

Join the Facebook launch party for Playing by Heart and you could win a whole bunch of prizes, including a copy of my award-winning YA novel Angelhood!




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Monday Book Review: Dear Pope Francis

I received a copy of this book from a friend this past summer. If you haven’t read it already, it’s even cuter than you might imagine!

Monday Book Review: Dear Pope FrancisTitle: Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Letters from Children Around the World

Author: (um . . . this should be obvious) Pope Francis!

Genre: picture book

Age group: ALL!

I figured this book would be cute. I mean, how could Pope Francis answering kids’ questions not be cute? I was surprised, however, at just how deeply it touched my heart.

The first surprise was that the children’s letters are included exactly as they were written in their original language right in the book. This includes the drawings that each kid made to go with their letter. I’m not sure if the children from around the world were all instructed to include a drawing, but at the very least all the ones included in the book have a drawing.

Check out my review of this award-winning book from Pope Francis!

In a sidebar to the left of the child’s letter and drawing is a picture of the child, his or her age and country, and a typed English translation of the letter.

On the page opposite the child’s letter is the Pope’s typed response with his signature at the bottom. Each response from the Pope is told in his usual, colorful manner. He is a bit of a storyteller at heart, and his responses often include imagery.  For example, he tells twins from the Netherlands that he has much work left to do, but he is old and has “very little thread left in the spool.”

He also references their drawings in his responses, interpreting them as an important part of the question. Reading his letters is almost like eavesdropping on a grandfather talking with his grandchildren. He compliments them on their drawing and eases their fears about some of life’s big questions.

This book would make an excellent addition to a child’s home library or a great gift for First Communion.

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Monday Book Review: Battle for His Soul by Theresa Linden

In June, Theresa Linden’s book Battle for His Soul won first place in the CPA Book Awards for the teen/young adult category. Recently, I had the pleasure of reading this third book in the West Brothers series.

Monday Book Review: Battle for His Soul by Theresa LindenTitle: Battle for His Soul

Author: Theresa Linden

Genre: contemporary fiction

Age group: young adult

Summary: Jarret West is tired of his two brothers. His twin Keefe has had some sort of religious conversion, and his younger brother Roland is clearly his father’s pet who never gets in trouble and always gets what he wants. Jarret’s guardian angel, Ellechial, is frustrated. He wants to help Jarret avoid the temptations of the demon who is haunting him, but without prayers, Ellechial doesn’t have the powers, armor, or sword to do much. Thankfully, some of Roland’s friends have recently formed a prayer group. Their prayers are going to be needed as Jarret’s dad has just brought him and Roland on a trip to Arizona where the temptations are about to increase.

As I mentioned, this is the third book in the West Brothers series. Last year, I reviewed the second book Life-Changing Love.  While the books can be read as stand alones, I’d recommend reading them in order so that you can see the spiritual development of the three brothers progress chronologically.

This is the only one, however, where we get chapters written from the perspectives of the characters’ guardian angels. It’s a neat twist in the series and provides the reader with a look into the spiritual warfare that goes on around us all the time.

One of my favorite parts of this book was the description of the prayer group during Adoration. One of the more powerful angels has ensnared some lesser demons. When the priest brings out the monstrance, the captured demons start to groan. Their captor insists, “Every knee will bend,” and even the demons are forced down before the Lord as the tabernacle door opens. They moan and beg, “Don’t make us look upon . . . Him” while the angels sings glorious songs of praise. This description of what happens on a supernatural level during Eucharistic Adoration will probably forever change the way I experience it.

I wanted to bring up one misconception held by the main character Jarret. Toward the end, he begins to wonder if God really exists. He says, “Atheists had a few good theories, the Big Bang and evolution and all.” This is a common misconception that a lot of non-Catholics have. They think Catholics don’t “believe” in evolution. Neither the Big Bang Theory nor evolution are contrary to the teachings of the Church. In fact, the Big Bang Theory was first proposed by a Catholic priest, Fr. George Lemaître, who studied astronomy at the University of Cambridge and later earned a Ph.D. at MIT. (You can read more about it here and here).

Some people think faith and science is incompatible, but this is simply not true. In June, I had the pleasure of meeting Brother Guy Consolmagno, the director of the Vatican Observatory, a very funny and learned man who knows a great deal about astrophysics and (to my great delight!) young adult literature. We were both speaking at a writing conference. I was on the YA authors panel, and he was on the science writing panel. I loved what Bro. Guy had to say about pursuing a career in the sciences and being a man of faith. I wish I could remember his words exactly, but the general idea was that by pursuing science, he was pursuing God. When you study creation, you inevitably find the creator.

Perhaps in the fourth installment of the West Brothers story (due out later this fall), we’ll see some more characters make this connection between the beauty of the world around us and our creator.





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Monday Book Review: The King’s Prey by Susan Peek

We don’t talk enough about mental illness. We stigmatize it and then want to sweep any discussion of it under the rug.

So it’s little surprise that I didn’t even know there was a patron saint of the mentally ill and emotionally disturbed until I heard about Susan Peek’s The King’s Prey. This is the story of St. Dymphna of Ireland intertwined with the tale of two estranged brothers, one who suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Just like in her book St. Magnus: The Last Viking, Susan has created a nonstop thrill of a story that readers will find hard to put down.

Title: The King’s Prey

Author: Susan Peek

Genre: historical fiction

Age group: young adult

Summary: Princess Dymphna’s life has become a nightmare. Her mother has died, and her father has gone insane. Overcome with grief, her father begins to believe Dymphna is his wife and vows to marry her. When she’s forced to flee the castle to escape her dad, Dymphna runs to the hut of her mom’s former minstrel, a young married man named Brioc. Unfortunately, he has his own problems. A tragic incident from his childhood has left him with feverish nightmares, and he can’t remember exactly what happened to all of his family members, except that they’re almost all dead. The only other living member of his family is a brother who had declared he’d had enough of him.

Susan Peek is a master at keeping up suspense and tension. I read this book when, quite frankly, I really should have been reading some other books. Susan weaves the tale of the two brothers together with the tale of the fleeing Princess Dymphna, and it’s hard not to get swept up into these characters who are running for their lives.

Given the fact that this is a tale of a young woman fleeing from a father who wants to marry her, the back of the book suggests that it is best for ages 16 and up due to mature themes. Personally, I think a mature 14 or 15 year old could handle it since Susan never gets graphic about what would happen if her father got her hands on her. I think adults will shudder more than teens will at what is implied. However, there is a certain amount of violence as the story involves some martyrs, so parents should use their best judgment as to whether or not they feel their young teens are ready to handle it.

Highly recommended for older teens, fans of historical fiction, and for those who want to look at saints in a whole new way!


I’m linking up this post with “An Open Book,” a monthly link up of book-related blog posts. Check it out here or on


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Seven Riddles to Nowhere wins another award!

In case you haven’t already heard, my middle grade mystery Seven Riddles to Nowhere won Honorable Mention for Catholic children’s books at the Catholic Press Awards last Friday!

Check out the award-winning middle grade mystery Seven Riddles to Nowhere by A.J. Cattapan

This is a very broad category that included both fiction and nonfiction, and everything from picture books and early chapter books to middle grade books. First place went to a book for children written by Pope Francis, so you can see how tough the competition was!

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That time I went to Lourdes and God whacked me upside the head

Everyone who goes to Lourdes and enters the healing water baths has a story. I guess it’s time I finally told mine.

In case you haven’t already heard, I had the opportunity to visit Lourdes on pilgrimage with some of my fellow members of the Order of Malta. Every spring, Knights and Dames of Malta from around the world take “malades” (the French term for sick people) to Lourdes for spiritual and physical healing.

When I became a Dame of Malta in November of 2015, many people at the Investiture ceremony asked if I’d done the Lourdes pilgrimage yet.

“Um, no.”

“Oh, you must go,” they all said. “It’s an experience you won’t forget, and the candlelit rosary procession is so beautiful!”

I’d heard stories from people who’d been to Lourdes. My own sister-in-law had told me how she had visited Lourdes when she’d had a skin rash. The water was ice cold, she said, but when she came out her skin felt like it was on fire and she dried instantly. In fact, everyone I talked to who had been in the baths said they dried off right away.

Hmm, it sounded like a cool pilgrimage. Still, it would be expensive, and I’d have to save up personal days to get enough time off of work.

Less than a week after my investiture into the Order of Malta, my fellow YA author friend Stephanie Engelman posted shocking news. She had woken in the middle of the night to nurse the youngest of her five children and ended up finding her husband on the floor. He’d had a massive heart attack.

As news unfolded over the course of the next few days, details surfaced that felt like God was whacking me upside the head and saying, “Invite them to Lourdes! Sponsor her husband Ray as a malade.” You see, Stephanie’s first book was less than two months away from releasing. The book’s about the power of the rosary. Ray had gone into a coma, and it was while his parish community was holding a special rosary prayer session for him that Ray’s condition began to improve. As I heard details of all this, I kept thinking about the candlelit rosary procession at Lourdes.

Long story short, I eventually asked Stephanie if she and Ray would be interested. Due to timing, we couldn’t get into the 2016 pilgrimage. We had to wait to file for the 2017 pilgrimage, which was probably for the best because I needed time to save up some personal days at work.

Luckily, Ray was accepted as a malade, and so off we went.

Each malade at Lourdes gets his or her own “pod.” This is a group of people who helps care for the malade during the trip. That pod consists of a caregiver (usually a family member), a host (who keeps us all in line), a charioteer (who pulls the voiture the malade sits in), and a few other Dames, Knights, or volunteers to help push the voiture (that was my job) and/or fetch whatever the malade needs (water, umbrella, etc.).

The malades and their caregivers visit the baths on the second day of our pilgrimage. Anyone else on the pilgrimage has to wait until the last day.

Since I had been on a pilgrimage to Rome three years earlier, I knew not to expect any major religious experiences. They just don’t seem to happen for me when I’m with a group. I think it’s due to the same reason I don’t get much out of group retreats anymore. I’m much more ready and open to listening to God when I travel alone or when I go on a silent retreat. Maybe it’s because I have such an Energizer Bunny sort of lifestyle. I go, go, go. And all that “going” means it’s hard to slow down and have profound moments.

In fact, as we processed from one event to the next in Lourdes, one of the thoughts that ran through my mind often was, “I am your worker bee, Lord. Just put me to work.”

And when it came time to pray, the only prayer I could think of went a little like this: “Listen, Jesus, you know I’m not good at this pilgrimage thing, so I don’t expect much for me during this time. Besides, there are a lot of really sick people with us on this trip, people who need a lot more healing than I do. So whatever graces you might have had planned for me on this pilgrimage, why don’t you just pass them along to someone else who needs them more?”

In a way, it took the pressure off of me. On my previous pilgrimage, I’d felt incredibly saddened when everyone else was having profound encounters with God, and I was not. That’s why I ended up returning to Rome three months later on a solo trip, so that I could sit in silence with God and feel His presence again.

This time around I didn’t want to feel bad if other people had profound experiences with God, and I didn’t. Let them have their healing. I’d find time later to sit in silence with God.

Despite all that, I still decided to try to get into the baths on the last day. I had been warned that you sit and wait outside the baths for hours. In fact, I’d witnessed that for our malades three days earlier. It took a great deal of time to get them through, and we’d even had a reserved time for them.

So on that last afternoon of our pilgrimage, I headed to the baths with some of my fellow Knights and Dames from the U.S. We lined up outside the baths and took our turn shuffling along the benches outside the baths while we listened to the rosary being recited over and over again. Usually, the rosary is recited in a variety of languages. However, the people volunteering to lead the rosary that day must’ve been Italian because Italian (and a little bit of Latin) was all we heard. For nearly three hours!

This is the entrance to the baths. Do you see that long line of people? Yep, that’s how long you wait!

On the bright side, I finally got the Hail Mary memorized in Italian. 🙂

While I prayed along as best I could, I settled myself in for the long wait. I’d been told this long waiting is “part of the process.” Honestly, from the tales I’d heard, it sounded like this “process” made people either so sleepy or so anxious that by the time they got into the baths, they were a bit disoriented. Everything inside the baths themselves happens very quickly, and I lot of people felt like their time in there was more of a blur than anything else.

I was determined to “rest up” during my prayer time so that my senses would be alert and ready to take it all in. I didn’t want my bath time to rush by so quickly that I felt I missed it.

After hours of praying the rosary in Italian, it was finally time to enter. First, just a couple of you at a time enter the building and sit on yet another bench. You are seated across from a number of booths that have closed curtains. When a curtain is opened and a guest leaves, another person from the bench is invited inside.

Once inside the curtained area, you notice that this is really just an antechamber to the bath itself. This is the “dressing area.” It’s maybe 8×8 feet. Along the walls to your right and left are rows of plastic white chairs. Above the chairs are hooks. Several volunteers in blue and white striped aprons stand around “shielding” women by holding up blue robes to cover the women as they undress.

I was instructed to hang all my clothes on one of the hooks and place my shoes under the chair while a volunteer held a blue robe behind me. When I was ready, she wrapped the robe around me, and I stood by the plastic chair for a moment until the curtain on the other side of the antechamber opened, and I was led into the bath itself.

The bath room is not much bigger than the antechamber. On the opposite wall was a square depiction of Mary. Between that wall and where I stood was a small, shallow pool. It was maybe three feet wide and five feet long, and only a couple of feet deep.

The blue robe was unwrapped and somehow the women volunteers simultaneously wrapped me in a white sheet that had been dipped in the bath water. Already I could feel how ice cold that water was going to be. In fact, I’d heard so many stories about how shockingly cold the water was that I think that had become one of my chief concerns. I had visions of shivering madly like when I took swim lessons in the summer when I was a kid and had to jump up and down in the pool to stay warm.

As the ice cold sheet was wrapped around me, I took in a deep breath. Everyone said my time in the bath would fly by, so I told myself I could handle the cold. It wouldn’t last long.

The lead volunteer instructed me to step onto the first step inside the bath, to make my prayer intentions quietly, and then to make the sign of the cross to indicate when I was finished.

I stepped down. The freezing water hit me, but I was intent on making my prayer intentions. I’d prepared for this for days, so I wasn’t going to let the moment slip by. When I was finished, I made the sign of the cross, and a volunteer on each side guided me down the remaining steps into the water.

I breathed deeply and slowly as I plunged further and further step by step into the ice cold water. Amazingly, I didn’t start to shiver. I simply breathed my way through the painfully cold water. “You can make it,” I told myself. “This won’t last long.”

After taking a few steps closer to the opposite wall, the volunteers told me to sit down in the water. I took another deep breath and exhaled as the icy water rose above my waist. Then the volunteers gently leaned me back into the water until it came up to my neck, being careful to keep my head above water.

Immediately, they brought me back up. The volunteer on the right lifted my hand onto a horizontal silver bar that was fastened to the wall below the square depiction of Mary. The volunteer on the left did the same with my left hand. Then the volunteer on the right grabbed my left hand and pulled it over the right.

What kind of a game was going on here? Then I realized she was getting me to turn around. My time in the bath was over. I simply had to walk back out of it.

When I got to the top of the steps, I thought, “Well, here it comes–the instantaneous drying.” I didn’t expect my skin to feel like it was on fire like my sister-in-law had. She was the only I’d heard that happening to, but everyone talked about drying off right away, so I stood there while they removed the white sheet and re-wrapped me in the blue robe.

Hmm. Something was wrong. I wasn’t dry immediately. “Oh well,” I thought, “maybe people didn’t actually mean immediately immediately. Maybe they meant back in the antechamber.”

The full Lourdes uniform for the Dames of Malta

So I let the volunteer guide me back into the antechamber, where another woman held my blue robe open to shield me while was instructed to put back on all of my clothes. This meant donning, once again, my entire uniform for the Order of Malta, which included a white skirt, a long sleeve white blouse, a red cardigan, the long black and red Order of Malta cape, my shoes, and the white veil for my head. (See photo to right. Is it just me or do we look like we should be Red Cross nurses during WWI?)

As I put my shirt back on, I thought, “Huh, that’s funny. I’m still not dry.”

I put on the skirt. Nope not dry yet.

I put on the red cardigan. Still dripping.

I put on the cape. Not dry yet.

I put on my veil. I’m still dripping. I can feel it running down my legs. For crying out loud, I’m going to have to put on my shoes now, and my feet are all wet. Why have I not dried off yet?

And that’s when I heard a voice say, “You told me I could pass it on.”

Heart stopped.

God had just figuratively whacked me upside the head again. Don’t tell me to pass it on and then be surprised when I do it.

You see, God let me stand there and drip as a sign that he had taken my prayer seriously. He had passed on whatever graces He had planned for me to someone else. I’d received a physical sign of the spiritual graces someone else would get. God just had to sort of “whack me upside the head” to get the point through my thick skull.

The grotto where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette

And so I put my shoes back on my wet feet. And I squished my way out of the baths. And I walked around the grotto where, in 1858, our Blessed Mother had appeared to Bernadette and told her to bring people to the spring she would find when she dug through the mud.

And my heart was full.

The title of this blog post is a bit of a tongue-in-check nod to the absolutely beautiful blog post “That Time I Went to Lourdes and My Son Got Healed,” written by the mother of the malade that I cared for while in Lourdes. Please visit her blog here. You will not regret taking the time to hear her Lourdes story!

Also, to learn more about my friend Stephanie, whose husband I sponsored, please visit her blog here.



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Monday Book Review: St. Magnus, the Last Viking by Susan Peek

Susan Peek is known for writing historical novels based on the lives of lesser-known saints–and boy, does she bring these characters to life! This is my first novel by Susan Peek, and I look forward to reading more.

Monday Book Review: St. Magnus, the Last Viking by Susan PeekTitle: St. Magnus, the Last Viking

Author: Susan Peek

Genre: historical fiction

Age group: young adult

Synopsis: In the eleventh century, Magnus Erlendson became the second son to one of the two ruling Jarls of the Orkney Islands (just north of mainland Scotland). Due to the strange change his grandfather made to his will on his death bed, Magnus’s father and uncle are co-rulers of the Orkney Islands, and when they die, Magnus’s older brother and cousin are set to be co-rulers. However, Magnus’s cousin Hakon has other plans for how he’d like to be Jarl, and they don’t include having Magnus’s brother ruling beside him. Magnus, himself, is a brave young man who is also very pious and wants all men to forgive each other their wrongdoings and turn their hearts to God. Can he bring peace to his homeland?

Susan Peek’s tale is a fast-paced thriller that moves from one battle scene to the next. We tend to connect what we read to background knowledge we already have, and since I know little of 11th and 12th century Scottish history, I kept thinking of the movie Braveheart will I read this! However, unlike the Mel Gibson movie, Susan’s main character is a young man who would rather spend his time in prayer than in battle. Nonetheless, Magnus is a brave young man who isn’t afraid to take up his sword when it’s time to defend his family and his homeland–even from attack by own of their own. This is not a “quiet” book of saintly virtues, but rather a deeply engrossing tale of how one might live a life of prayer and penance in the midst of heroic action!

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