Playing by Heart, by Carmela Martino

 Emilia Salvini, her mother, and sister Maria speak through a curtain with Zia Delia, the girls’ aunt, and a cloistered nun. Delia’s parents send her to the convent against her will because they lack money for her dowry. Emilia, Maria, and their two younger sisters realize that their family can only afford two dowries. Two daughters would be sent to the convent. The others would marry a man of their father’s choosing—often a widower whose first wife died in childbirth leaving children for his new wife to mother, a man who may be three times her age; he with children as old as his new bride.

 

Nevertheless, Playing by Heart is a young adult romance because Carmela Martino writes with heart, capturing her readers in a web of passion, sorrow, longing, and desperation. She serves a full course cultural experience touching on the plight of women in the eighteenth century, the class system, social climbing, and family structure. She makes the impossible come to be.

 

Before judging Signor Salvini for dispatching his daughters either to the convent or an arranged marriage, remember that he follows the customs of the times. He takes the unusual step of educating Maria (mathematician and linguist) and Emelia (musician and composer). Unfortunately, he uses them as pawns in his quest for elevation to the nobility.

 

Seemingly helpless, Maria—who prefers the convent to an arranged marriage—and Emelia—who wants to marry for love—find unusual allies who could turn the minds of even the most domineering men.

 

Maestro Tomassini criticizes his student Antonio Bellini (Emilia’s love interest and a commoner) because of his musical compositions—although technically adequate—lack passion. He praises Emilia Salvini because her compositions reveal her deepest emotions. Carmela Martino listens to the Maestro and writes with passion. She ensnares the reader with tendrils of concern for the characters. She smoothly guides Emelia and her family into impossible circumstances from which there is seemingly no escape. Her readers faithfully follow although they can see no light at the end of the tunnel.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed Playing by Heart and would rank it among the best novels I’ve read this year. It has a wide appeal to anyone interested in history, music, women’s rights, and fiction. Carmela Martino is meticulous in her attention to details: classical music, color, feelings, interpersonal dynamics and eighteenth-century politics, dress, and customs. The reader will not only enjoy the story but will grow with the experience of Playing by Heart, especially since Carmela Martino bases her characters on actual eighteenth-century Milanese sisters. Playing by Heart will not disappoint even the most discriminating reader.

 

The author provided a pre-publication copy so that I could write this review.

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Standing Strong, by Theresa Linden

The tagline for Standing Strong—Theresa Linden’s most daring novel—reads: “Blessed is he who is not scandalized in me.” Most young adult novels ignore the spiritual life, some ridicule it, or replace it with fantasy. Standing Strong embraces spirituality—with a strong Franciscan flavor—as God shapes the lives of Jarret and Keefe West, and brings peace to their family.

Readers of the first three West Brothers novels know Jarret as narcissistic, manipulative, and cruel—a teen just waiting for karma to catch up with him. His favorite targets include his twin, Keefe, an unwilling accomplice, and their younger brother, Roland—Jarret’s frequent victim.

 

Rather than karma or Satan, it is mercy that catches Jarret. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, Jarret resets his priorities, sincerely attempting to amend his life. He admits his mistakes and avoids the people, places, and circumstances associated with his earlier misdeeds. He shows genuine compassion to his family, friends, and even his enemies. Unfortunately, he grows overconfident, and the lure of his deeply ingrained habits and the expectations of his classmates impede his spiritual progress. He finds himself rejected; crying out, “God, why do you make this so hard?”

 

Keefe, Jarret’s perennial foil is so used to deferring to his brother, their father, and anyone who challenges him that he stalls on his journey to the religious life—mired in self-doubt, and his fear of wrath, ridicule, and rejection. Can he make the leap of faith, faith in himself and his calling, despite the apparent obstacles and contradictory signs? Can he embrace the scandal of Jesus?

 

The author devises an elaborate series of subplots that pit Mr. West, Roland, and his friends, Channel—Jarret’s voluptuous girlfriend—, and strangers along the road who deflect the West twins from their holy trek.

 

Standing Strong appeals to a wide audience, especially troubled high school students and those contemplating the religious life. Theresa Linden’s research into adolescent psychology and the life, legends, and spirituality of Saint Francis of Assisi erects a sturdy framework through which she threads her themes.

 

The author shared the pre-publication copy of Standing Strong that enabled this review. I thank her and applaud her creative spirit.

The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch, by T.M. Gaouette

 

 The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch by [Gaouette, T. M.]

At age ten, Benedict carries massive chips on both shoulders. Having passed from bad foster homes to worse, he dreads the uncertainty of new surroundings and new rules. When he arrives at The Sunshine Ranch, he doubts the sincerity of his new foster parents, David and Martha Credence and withholds his affections lest he is ripped again from friends and security. Benedict sees the other foster children as rivals and doubts that his good fortune will last. Over the next four years, he remains aloof, not daring to trust that he has found a home and family.

When foreclosure threatens The Sunshine Ranch, Benedict’s doubts seem to be confirmed. Although David and Martha ask Benedict and their other foster kids to have faith that God will provide, Benedict refuses to believe. But Micah, Benedict’s roommate, and chief rival keeps the faith. Eventually, Benedict realizes that The Sunshine Ranch gives him the only happiness that he has ever known, and that his constant worry and fear prevent him from enjoying it.

David and Martha Credence and their many foster children embody generosity and unquestioning faith. Theirs is an impossible task — they welcome hard-case kids like Benedict and scrape together the resources to meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Benedict, on the other hand, provides a counterpoint to everything the Credence family attempts to share. Too wounded by his early life experiences to accept the healing they offer, he’s likely to reject them and run away into the night. Micah, the optimist, has suffered as much as Benedict, but he always sees the bright side and attempts to wear down Benedict’s rough edges.

The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch appealed to every emotion: there are joy and sadness, richness and loss. T.M. Gaouette delivers a powerful story with an emotional wallop, filling her pages with surprises and suspense, mystery and romance, pain and growth. Unquestionably, this novel is a page turner.

I would recommend this book for family reading. Biological progeny and foster children, biological and foster parents can see themselves somewhere in the pages of this book. It will especially benefit students preparing for careers in social services. I enjoyed reading this story because its characters deeply touched me. I pray that many couples will follow the example of David and Martha Credence and provide a loving home for foster children.

Turning in Circles, by Michelle Buckman

Turning in Circles cover, MIchelle BuckmanWithin a sleepy farm community along the South Carolina coast, two families coexist. The Thaines and their neighbors enjoy hard work, hospitality, horseback riding, pie, ice tea, kittens, and each other. The Darlingtons favor extortion, white privilege, domination, abuse, dog fights, and freedom from the consequences of their nefarious activities.

Turning in Circles brings the Thaines and Darlingtons into conflict. A love story but not a romance, it describes how the sins of the parents—adultery and neglect—reemerge in the tragic delinquency of their children—youthful indiscretions that expose the Thaines to the dark desires of the Darlingtons.

The Thaine matriarch locks herself in her studio to focus on her artistic labors, while Daddy Thaine works the fields and pastures from sunup to sundown. He charges his daughters, Savannah and Charlie, with the responsibility of feeding and cleaning up after the horses and chickens. Savannah dutifully obeys, but Charlie evades dirty work, ignores her mother, and fears that her father has rejected her.

More than anyone else, Savannah Thaine loves her sister, Charlie. “Vannah” plans an idyllic life for the two of them, never leaving their rustic microcosm, much like the relationship between their mother and her sister, Myrtle. Charlie has a different idea, though. She craves love and validation from bad boy Dillon Smith—dark-eyed and “trouble on two feet from the day his mama left.” Dillon dominates and controls Charlie, as he drags her into his sinister world. Despite Savannah’s pleadings and warnings, Charlie drifts ever closer to disaster, compromising her family and dashing Savannah’s dreams.

Savannah realizes that Charlie is on a dangerous path, but cannot sway her from it. She is unwilling to expose her sister to parental censure, fearing she would lose Charlie’s love. Savannah views Charlie as a second self, spoiling her and shielding her from parental wrath. When Dillon captures Charlie’s affections, Savannah slips into codependency, enabling Charlie’s secret life. Throughout the narration, Savannah laments her cowardice. If only she had acted.

Sheriff Darlington ensures that his relatives, including Dillon Smith, escape the consequences of their frequent felonies and misdemeanors. Those outside the Sheriff’s clan, such as the Thaines, not only feel the full weight of the law but suffer blackmail and intimidation. Charlie’s delinquency provides the leverage the sheriff needs to destroy the tranquility in the Thaine family. Darlington demands that Daddy Thaine sell him Boudicca, a barely tame mare of spectacular beauty, if he doesn’t want Charlie to go to jail. Charlie senses her father’s resentment, which drives her deeper under Dillon’s control.

Savannah, the narrator, dominates the novel. She is aloof, inflexible, and naïve. She fails to reach most of her goals. The warnings she directs at her sister miss their mark, but change the lives of bystanders. Her dream to live like her mother and aunt is shattered, but she finds that after a horrible gloom there is a new dawn, as she grows into adulthood.

Analytical and inflexible to a fault, Savannah frequently dissects words and gestures, inferring deeper meanings and sinister plots. Despite her cerebral inclinations, her family and classmates describe her as naïve. In her search for deeper meanings, she often ignores the obvious. For instance, although she spends almost every free moment with Ellerbe, the boy next door, she dismisses him because he doesn’t fit into her plans for the future, and she thinks he’s incapable of understanding the implications of recent events. Ellerbe, less given to introspection, believes that a horseback ride is the solution to every problem in the world. Horses feature prominently in the story: Ellerbe loves his mare, Snow, as Daddy Thaine dotes on Boudicca. Woe to the Darlington who threatens the love between a man and his horse.

Although this is a young adult novel, its realism should alert parents to the possibility that their behavior could cost them their children’s loyalty. Parental examples, their obsession with their own concerns, their betrayals-especially adultery-can deeply scar their children, distorting their values and behavior.

Michelle Buckman’s tale opens during August’s heat and humidity—slow and sleepy—but climaxes with the impact of a diesel locomotive hitting an eighteen wheeler packed with dynamite. She bolsters her prose with sensory tones and often drifts into a poetic imagery that may lull her readers into complacency before the shocking climax.

Buckman succeeds in creating a gripping novel that burns its way into the reader’s memory. Turning in Circles begins on a tranquil beach, but ends on the shore of a different emotional galaxy.

Names on Walls

Memorial Day reminds us of those who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. Do we take it personally or is it just a holiday that gives us a long weekend?

On a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, I noticed the monument to those who died on the Battleship Maine. Do you “Remember the Maine” that battle cry that rallied us into the Spanish-American War? No visitor stopped to touch the wall, make rubbings, or even read the names. Will the same come true for the Vietnam Memorial?

I made my first contact with war when I was about three and a half. The family gathered around the most magical piece of furniture in the house, the Philco radio. President Roosevelt announced that we were at war. As I grew, the war became part of the family’s life with Ration Books and War Bonds, the collection of tinfoil, scrap metal, newspapers, and bacon fat. Four uncles and many family friends entered military service. One never came back.

Uncle Eddie had arrived in England only eighteen days earlier. On a training mission, he and his crew flew their B-24 Liberator bomber over the Irish Sea. Upon their return to base, the plane exploded. The grateful citizens of Birkenhead, England—south of Liverpool—carved Eddie’s name and the names of his companions on a memorial. My Aunt wrote that flowers decorate that monument all these years later.

In 1944, The Selective Service System drafted my thirty-four-year-old father into the Navy. We walked him to the Green Line Bus and waved goodbye. He called that night to say that he had been assigned to the USMC Reserves. Eventually, he participated in the invasion and occupation of Okinawa.

I vividly remember a day in September of 1945, when Dad, Mom, and my younger brother met me outside Our Lady of Perpetual Help School. When we had walked home, Dad opened his duffle bag and handed my brother and me Marine fatigue hats and knapsacks. We wore them beyond the point of utility. These battle mementos and endless viewings of John Wayne movies convinced us that we, like Dad would join the Marines.

Growing up, we dressed in parts of our father’s uniforms and joined the neighborhood boys in war games. The only kids excluded from our melees were the young baby boomers and girls.

As the years passed, my younger and youngest brothers joined the Marines. Although my youngest brother and a girl who lived down the block never played our war games, they both saw action in Vietnam. As part of a recon unit, my brother dropped out of helicopters with a massive radio on his back. He has the scars to prove it. The girl joined the Army. Captain Eleanor G. Alexander R. N. died in a plane crash with other nurses and a group of Vietnamese children. You can find her name on The Vietnam Memorial.

I met Rich Roughgarden at Notre Dame. He illuminated his architectural drawings much like an ancient monastic scribe. They were works of art, science, and social commentary. Shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Rich took me along on a road trip east. I visited friends in Brooklyn and attended the Notre Dame-Syracuse game in the old Yankee Stadium. Rich and I lost track of each other, but years later, I noticed his obituary in the Notre Dame Magazine. He served in an engineering unit and died in an accident. His name is on the Wall.

Many served and continued to serve. I know three who died in accidents. Like many, they never fired a shot in anger, but they stood between us and the shooters. They and those who fell in the service of their country remain forever young. Take a moment to remember what they did for us. They deserve our thanks and prayers.

Rejoice! Gospel Meditations, by Louis Evely

Lent invites us to refresh our souls, to refocus our lives, to set things right. Rejoice! by Louis Evely, has a way of growing us out of our comfort zones into the light. It challenges us to lift our crosses and follow Jesus. Evely writes: “There were times when Jesus was frightening in his logic, frightening in his relentlessness. He went beyond what was said of him; beyond the half-measures at which the Law had reasonably stopped. Jesus allowed nothing to stop him. He knows only one law: love. And from that law, he draws consequences with logic, which must either electrify or repel his followers.”

Consider the tax collectors and harlots who flocked to the desert to see St. John the Baptist. They asked John, “What must we do?” To their surprise, John told them, “If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same.” Luke 3:11.  To approach God who we cannot see; we must first approach our neighbors, especially those in need. The message of John and later Jesus electrified their followers. Imagine the joy among the penitents at finding the path to forgiveness and love. Imagine the community that benefits from their joyful giving.

Consider the Pharisees. Why instead of the Pharisees, did the likes of Matthew, Zacchaeus, other tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes flock to Jesus? Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection and angels. They maintained their zeal for the Law and awaited the Messiah. “They should have been Jesus’ staunchest supporters.” On the contrary, many of them joined in the call for Jesus’ death. Evely explains that “The Pharisees were proud of their faith, their knowledge, their good works, and their religious observances. Therefore they were closed to God’s gifts and God’s forgiveness, for they did not believe that they were in need of either.” They believed that they had saved themselves through their rigorous observance of the Law. In their assumption of righteousness, they not only rejected God’s mercy, but they refused to extend mercy toward the unrighteous. Imagine their frustration when Jesus said that they had to change their whole approach to God and that their earlier efforts may have placed them behind the hated tax-collectors on the path to God. The message of Jesus repelled them.

Evely used the Parable of The Prodigal Son to compare the Pharisees to the tax collectors and sinners. The older son keeps the Law, but he does so, resentfully. The prodigal, like the tax collectors, rejects the discipline of the Law, but at least he realizes his sinfulness. He is willing to confess to his father and beg a place among his servants. The father, like God the Father is something of a prodigal in his mercy toward the younger son. God squanders love on sinners and reproves the cold-hearted legalists. God’s ways are not our ways.

Evely observes, “It is one of the paradoxes of human nature that we often find more generosity, compassion, and willingness to serve among libertines and loose women than among our moral rigorists.” To underscore his claim, he cites the Parable of the Vineyard Workers. Those who endured the heat of the day received the same pay as those who worked only one hour. Evely writes that those who worked longer should have rejoiced at the good fortune of the last to arrive. The day-long workers grumbled at their fair wage, but Jesus made the point that the vineyard owner was free to do with his money as he wished, despite how it appeared to the workers. God’s ways are not our ways.

If we proclaim Jesus in our liturgy, we must live according to His teachings by radiating God’s love. “God is no more and no less visible than love itself,” Evely writes. “Other men see it and know that the Spirit of God is present. In the early church, only men ‘filled with the spirit’ were chosen for important missions. And the pagans said of the first Christians, ‘See how they love one another!’ The love of these Christians was such that, through it God Himself was made visible.” The lives of the early Christians proclaimed the Law of Love. In loving, they won the culture war against their pagan environment. Why today, have so many churches closed or serve only the elderly? Why today, do some Catholics fear the lure of the secular culture? Shouldn’t they be more concerned about cold-hearted Church members who lack the compelling love that denoted the early Christians and attracted new Christians?

Wishing you an invigorating Lent, one that brings rejoicing.

Louis Evely also wrote a collection of meditations focused on the Easter-Pentecost season: Joy: Meditations on the Joyful Heritage of Christianity.

Ornamental Graces, by Carolyn Astfalk

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 If you enjoy emotional rollercoasters,Ornamental Graces by Carolyn Astfalk is your book.

Among the author’s many gifts is her ability to conjure up fictional characters in many shades of human decency. Imagine, if you will, Dan Malone. He has let himself go; his business teeters on the brink of failure, and he has lost Kristen, his girlfriend. He struggles to prop up his sinking prospects but hasn’t exactly gotten his act together.

The voluptuous Kristen is a masterwork: pampered, pouty, petulant, a manipulative genius–one of Astfalk’s most impressive creations. Although Kristen and Dan have broken up, she still haunts his existence.

The novel opens with Dan sitting in a freezing shack surrounded by Christmas trees. While his landscaping business hibernates, Dan is selling the trees to make ends meet. Enter the pretty, perky, and pure Emily Kowalski—the polar opposite of Kristen. Dan is attracted but feels that he’d never be good enough for her. Nevertheless, Emily gives him a chance.

Dan’s incredible blunders push their relationship to the breaking point and beyond.  Although his clumsiness damages his chance with Emily, Kristen deliberately interferes, so she embarrasses Dan and demeans Emily. There’s also a stalker—not merely a nuisance, but an actual threat to Emily, Dan and any chance they may have as a couple.

On the positive side, Dan’s grandmother and her cooking comfort him, especially whenever he blows another chance with Emily. Grandma is a cross between a matchmaker and Dan’s guardian angel.  Emily’s brother, sister-in-law, and their kids also raise the general level of stability and hopefulness. Beneath the surface of each example of human solace is the fact that Dan, Emily, and their families connect through the power of their shared religious faith. They have to believe in miracles because there’s no way they would make it without God’s blessings and guidance.

Ornamental Graces is a wonderful Christmas and year-round romance that keeps the reader engaged from beginning to end.

Other romances by Carolyn Astfalk—again with fascinating characters and engaging plots—include Stay With Me (2015) and Rightfully Ours, scheduled for publication in April of 2017.

Carolyn Astfalk and I belong to the Catholic Writers Guild Fiction Critique Group. As one of her critique partners, I received a copy of each chapter as she wrote Ornamental Graces, Stay With Me and Rightfully Ours.