So you’re heading to the beach or the cabin and you want a thrilling, spooky, or romantic book to take along? In this special edition of Unleash the Gospel book recommendations, we’ve rounded up some classic “genre” books—mysteries, sci-fi, spy novels, even some ghost stories!—that will keep you riveted while also opening up new vistas of the Catholic imagination!
Note: Books with mature themes are marked Mature. Otherwise, these are generally acceptable for readers 15 and up, though of course parents should preview and use their own discretion!
Top Pick: C.S. Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy, “Out of the Silent Planet,” “Perelandra,” and “That Hideous Strength”
“Thulcandra is the world we do not know. It alone is outside the heaven, and no message comes from it.” -“Out of the Silent Planet”
In this lesser-known series by the beloved author of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” an unassuming philologist is whisked away on an interplanetary adventure with supernatural stakes.
Follow Elwin Ransom (likely based on J.R.R. Tolkien) as he travels the galaxy, explores ancient civilizations, battles the devil for the soul of another world and opens the gates of the heavens through a surprising ally: the wizard Merlin. These fast-paced sci-fi gems meld vivid extraterrestrial sights and sounds with profound theological insights into God’s endlessly creative and loving nature. Many of Lewis’ favorite themes are present here, including medieval astrological signs, the creative power of language and the celestial hierarchy by which God’s glory multiplies and refracts outwards through all his creation.
For a rollicking adventure and a prophetic vision of the forces (both good and evil) at war for our world, you can’t do better than the Cosmic Trilogy.
- Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun.” This tetralogy by this Hugo-award-winning (and devout Catholic) sci-fi master will upend everything you think you know about science fiction! Very Mature
Top Pick: Tim Powers’ “Declare”
“In this world or the next, I can’t say I’m sorry.”
If you’ve been looking for the perfect Cold-War-meets-Old-Testament-monsters spy thriller, look no further: Tim Powers’ “Declare” is all that and more.
For an unknown reason, young spy Andrew Hale is flung into the espionage and excitement of the secret war behind the Cold War. Armed only with scraps of information and a flagging belief in goodness, Hale must stand against the most powerful evils of this world and the next, including those that lurk in his own heart.
Drawing on the treacherous life of (at least) triple-agent Kim Philby, Bedouin legends and the most mysterious passages of the book of Genesis (the climax takes place on the icy slopes of Mount Ararat), Powers weaves a heart-pounding thriller unlike anything you’ve read before. Tip: in this and other Powers novels, check the dates against the liturgical calendar; the feast and fast days are often clues to the story! Mature
- G.K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday” upends the spy genre, and the universe itself, in its hunt for God.
- Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana” tracks a hapless accidental spy’s efforts to invent and uncover a nonexistent spy network while wooing his clever secretary.
Top Pick: Suzanne Wolfe’s “The Confessions of X”
“This is the harvest of my life, and it is good.”
In this remarkable romance, Suzanne Wolfe pieces together the scant historical record to tell the story of X, the long-time lover of St. Augustine and mother of his son, Adeodatus. St. Augustine, whose “Confessions” is considered the first memoir, wrote little of his lover and son, but what he did write indicates that he deeply loved them both and struggled mightily to give them up in pursuit of God.
From the bustling streets of Carthage to the quiet country villa of St. Monica, Wolfe recounts the story of the great Saint’s conversion from the perspective of X, the woman he loved and left for Christ. The grace St. Augustine writes of so powerfully fell like a stone into his own life and touched all those around him with its ripples. With lyrical prose and lush historical detail, “The Confessions of X” is a touching tale of love—human and divine, a dramatic portrayal of how God gives and takes away and a moving meditation on the winding road faith calls us all to walk.
- Katy Carl’s debut novel “As Earth Without Water” brings a priest into contact with his former lover and shows how submission to God clarifies all parts of our lives.
Top Pick: Eugene Vodolazkhin’s “Laurus”
“Perhaps on the boundary of the world, I will learn something about the boundary of time.”
“Laurus” is not primarily a novel about time travel; rather, it is a novel about grace at work within time, and to tell its story, the narrative slips through history, both forward and backward. “Laurus” counts as a time travel book because it transports us out of the contemporary world and into the strange, vibrant, terrifying, comical world of the Middle Ages.
When a young Russian physician leads his beloved into mortal sin, he dedicates the rest of his life to atonement—and ignites a fire of madness and miracles that burns from the Volga to Jerusalem, and into the 20th century’s own tragedies and triumphs. This story is worth reading if only for the quips of rival holy fools and the unforgettable deadpan commentary on human misery by Russian monks.
Lisa Hayden’s translation retains the wonder and weirdness of the Russian original, juxtaposing contemporary slang with ancient phrases to weave a glorious tapestry of unexpected delights. You won’t be the same after reading this masterpiece! Mature
- Tim Power’s “The Anubis Gates” is at the top of the time travel genre, giving a flawless cause-and-effect chain spanning hundreds of years and many time jumps. Mature
Top Pick: Ron Hansen’s “Mariette in Ecstasy:
“His kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, Surprise me.”
Ron Hansen’s religious thriller is impossible to put down and keeps its mysteries intact to the very end. Set in a convent in upstate New York in the early 20th century, the novel follows a charismatic young novice who appears to be experiencing the stigmata. As her visions escalate, the convent and the surrounding region reach a boiling pitch of jealousy, religious fervor, doubt and desperate longing for clarity—which God does not seem interested in giving.
The novel is told entirely through letters, which ensures that we can never be really sure who to trust. Is Mariette a saint? Or, as some of her fellow nuns believe, is she conniving, wicked, insane or possessed? This novel gives a gripping look at how difficult it can be to recognize grace—and devilry—even when they are right in our midst.
- Susannah Clarke’s “Piranesi” is an unclassifiable novel that reveals itself slowly, as a courageous, golden-souled hero explores a mysterious, desolate castle that seems never to end. Mature
- Mikhail Bulgakov’s singular “The Master and Margarita” is a masterpiece of surrealist parody; the devil arrives in Moscow to wreak havoc and sow madness among the self-congratulatory Soviet literary scene. Mature
Top Pick: Dorothy Sayers’ “The Nine Tailors”
“He was roused by the pealing of bells.”
Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries earned her a place alongside Agatha Christie as a queen of the Golden Age of Mystery, and “The Nine Tailors” is one of her best. When an unknown man is found dead in a bell town in the flooded fenlands of England, no one can say how he died. But Lord Peter scents evil in the wind. In the midst of the town’s preparation for a record-setting change-ringing, in which bell-ringers play intricate mathematical sequences over hours and even days, Lord Peter finds himself tangled up in a mystery as complex as the patterns of the bells.
Sayers’ own life was as full of intrigue as her novels. One of the first women to graduate from Oxford, she corresponded with literary lights like Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, was friends with C.S. Lewis, and earned the censure of Tolkien. She worked in advertising and designed the famous Toucan Guinness ad before penning the Lord Peter mysteries.
This gripping mystery gives a chilling look at the unintended consequences of both sin and justice and will keep you guessing till the last page.
- G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown Mysteries” are far better than the new streaming series makes them seem, as the dumpy little priest searches out the darkest corners of the human heart and shines the light of orthodox Catholic teachings of God’s love.
And one last honorable mention…
After a creepy experience during a lonely stay in a Scottish castle, devout Catholic political philosopher Russell Kirk became convinced that death and the afterlife were much more mysterious than many of us suppose. He penned “Ancestral Shadows,” a collection of ghost stories that unfold against the backdrop of a Catholic cosmos, where purgatory, heaven and hell are all very real—and very close. Read one of these tales for your next campfire tale, and enjoy both the shivers down your spine and the ensuing discussion of how our actions in this life radiate out into the world beyond.