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.

The King’s Prey, by Susan Peek

 

Terrible but true, Princess Dymphna flees Daemon, her father who, in his madness believes her to be his late wife, Odilla. He demands that Dymphna marries him. With the aid of her confessor and a few companions, Dymphna flees across Ireland and eventually reaches Belgium.

Susan Peek stays true to the Lives of the Saints’ outline for St. Dymphna. She fills in the gaps with a fast moving tale of her companions, especially two brothers, Brioc, her minstrel and Turlough one of her father’s soldiers. Like the fog of war, confusion and misinformation plague Dymphna’s escape. Peek amplifies tensions and leads her characters into conflict, danger, and excruciatingly painful decisions.

Although the words Irish and Catholic seem to be welded together, Dymphna story shows her not only as a Christian but a consecrated virgin living in a pagan household. Her father’s druid companions ignore her religious values and agree to the king’s intended incest.

Dymphna’s plight resonates with many young women in society today. She suffers attempted sexual abuse in her home. She becomes a homeless runaway, a refugee, and a victim of violence and the uncontrolled mental illness of her father. Through all of her flight, she places her hope in God and takes consolation in His protection. She submits to God’s will. In the end, through her intercession, God showers blessings on her friends. She remains a patron of those troubled with mental illness.

Turlough and Brioc dominate the novel. Their entire family dies of disease and famine. The older brother, Turlough makes a desperate choice to save the young Brioc, setting them at odds for many years. Turlough cannot persuade Brioc of his love. In fact, every attempt to help Brioc convinces the younger brother that Turlough plans to kill him. Throughout most of the book, Turlough attempts to reconcile with Brioc. His attempts are thwarted by conditions related to Brioc’s own mental illness. Dymphna brings the brothers closer.

 

Susan Peek writes for the younger readers, a word that will rouse them. She has devised a clever, perhaps labyrinthine tale, a tragedy of errors on the part of Brioc and his wife, Ethlynn. They experience a difficult life, and their role in Dymphna’s escape only deepens their pain. Peek delivers a spellbinding tale of suspense.

 

The King’s Prey should appeal to young, religious Catholics, but would engage people of other faiths and ages. Victims of family sexual abuse, runaways, and refugees can see in Dymphna a courageous companion. Hers is a heroic tale and will grip the reader’s emotions.

 

Since I am a fan of Saint Dymphna, I wanted a greater focus on her life and thoughts. Unfortunately, little information is available. The story of the brothers, although fictional, did have an impact. The most powerful moments came in the last chapters of the book where Dymphna rewards her friends, and the brothers have a chance to untangle their relationship.

 

Of all the characters, I liked Turlough the best. He always loved Brioc, made difficult decisions to save him, and responded to Brioc’s rejection without malice.

 

Susan Peek’s mission is to bring to light some of the forgotten saints such as Saint Magnus, the Last Viking, and Saint Camillus de Lellis. The King’s Prey clearly brought attention to Saint Dymphna. I would like to see more research into her life and her patronage extended in a world that is in woeful need of her strength.

 

The Perfect Blindside, by Leslea Wahl

At sixteen, Jake Taylor is an Olympic medalist, a snowboarding prodigy, and a big fish transplanted to a small pond. He annoys Sophie Metcalf with his arrogance. She plans to expose him for the thoughtless egotist she thinks he is, but she discovers Jake’s considerate and haunted side. A warm and caring friendship grows between them, until they stumble across a dark secret near an abandoned mine. Threats of violence hinder Sophie and Jake’s investigation, but each tries to protect the other by placing themselves in danger. If they persist in their inquiry, Sophie may write a spectacular exposé on criminal activity in her “boring” little town and Jake may add luster to his celebrity status, or they may both end up buried in an abandoned tunnel.

Several interesting themes run the length of the novel. Jake’s celebrity comes at a price. Former and potential friends awed by Jake’s fame walk by, leaving him hungry for true companionship. In place of normal relationships, Jake is pushed and pulled by parents, coaches, sponsors, and his agent who manage every detail of his life. Then there are the stalkers. They all want something — an autograph, an endorsement, a secret rendezvous. The specter of drug dealing and abuse dances at the edges of Jake’s world. Throughout the book, Jake’s stardom attacks him from within and without.

As this book illustrates, teen romance could be defined as “an out-of-mind-experience.” A perfectly normal, happy, and ambitious teen like Sophie transforms into distracted, mooning creature under the influence of ancient biological impulses programmed into our earliest vertebrate ancestors. She and Jake suffer the agony and ecstasy of falling in and out of love—the thrill of realizing that a special person wants to be a close friend and the rage when one believes that the other may have betrayed their friendship.

Sophie is prayerful and religious, although sometimes judgmental. Jake and his family have dropped out of the church and seldom pray. As career pressures and pursuit by vengeful criminals weigh on Jake, Sophie suggests that he may find an answer in prayer. Will he remember this advice when he hits rock bottom?

Author Leslea Wahl shows both originality and dedication to research. She entertains the reader with a strong plot with side trips into the swirl of world-class snowboarding, a tour of scenic Colorado, and the running of the maze of contemporary teen culture. She builds suspense by alternating the points of view with each chapter. Jake sets up a situation, and Sophie reacts, priming the reader for Jake’s comeback. There is no shortage of tension, conflict, and interest as the reader weighs both sides of the developing story. Jake’s dialogue is a clearly that of a masculine young adult. Sophie comes across as a strong, well organized, intelligent, and honest young woman. Both are pleasant and likable. They could become an ideal couple.

Teens should enjoy The Perfect Blindside because of the celebrity aspects, the snowboarding and skateboarding culture, but most of all because Jake and Sophie are believable and loveable characters. They are romantic, but more importantly, each is willing to make tremendous sacrifices for the other, even if they feel betrayed.

Parents will appreciate the difficulties of raising a celebrity teen. In fact, Jake’s ordeal might discourage those parents intent on channeling their children into a life of fame and fortune. Mothers and fathers might also value the advice given by Jake’s and Sophie’s parents. The fictional characters didn’t always take that advice, but grown-ups can hope that their teens might recognize the value in adult wisdom, given the consequences of ignoring it.

I enjoyed The Perfect Blindside. There were some weak points in the plot, but Jake and Sophie more than made up for them. It was interesting to walk in the shoes of both characters. I would assign The Perfect Blindside 4.8 out of five stars. It did receive the Illumination Book Award, so my enthusiasm is not exaggerated. The Perfect Blindside kept me interested, shared intriguing details about snowboarding and the dark side of the celebrity life. It cautions readers about the destructive outcomes of drug abuse. The book’s most endearing aspects are its main characters. Sophie and Jake are as real as many people I’ve met in my life. I’d like to see them again and am happy that the book ends with the suggestion of future adventures with this teen duo.

Rightfully Ours, by Carolyn Astfalk

 

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When Carolyn Astfalk unearths a newspaper clipping about a treasure hunter who struck gold, she turns it into a young adult romance novel. That took some doing, but as Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” A keen observer, Astfalk soaks her written pages with reality. Rightfully Ours, like her other romance novels appeals to the senses, especially those associated with food. You can smell the baking cookies and feel the bite of a January freeze. Her understanding of human emotions transports her readers into the minds of her characters as they experience blessings in the guise of disasters and conflicts. The reader cannot take for granted that a happy ending awaits in the last paragraph.

Rightfully Ours tells of buried gold, but more importantly, it reveals something far more precious in rural, North Central Pennsylvania.  Ron Mueller guards Rachel, his fourteen-year-old daughter with strict rules about dating. He quickly introduces potential boyfriends to his “three-barrel shotgun” to assure their compliance with his standards. Economic pressures persuade Ron to lease the southern portion of his property to a gas-mining/fracking operation and to rent an in-law cottage located near his house, unwittingly creating conflict, temptation, and a compelling story.

Ron’s tenant, Paul Porter—the brother of one of the fracking roughnecks—is sixteen. He and Rachel live next door to each other, and they ride the same school bus. Thrown together, Rachel’s awkwardness and Paul’s resentment keep them apart. Eventually, Paul’s teasing shows Rachel that he knows she exists. Slowly their relationship warms and endures tragedies, misunderstandings, discoveries, and disappointments. Despite Mr. and Mrs. Mueller’s efforts to discourage teen passions, Paul and Rachel find themselves unsupervised. They struggle to decide what is best for their short term and long term relationship. Readers can identify with Paul and Rachel as their love develops and feel their pain as storms tatter and threaten what they have and may soon lose.

As in the newspaper inspiration for Rightfully Ours Paul and Rachel discover gold. Unfortunately, the treasure lay on state land. They cannot lawfully own it. The man in the newspaper article requests a finder’s fee. That’s when everything becomes complicated, but not as wild as what happens in Rightfully Ours.

Carolyn Astfalk brings life to the pages of her books. She fills her teenage romance novel with tenderness, humor, and irony. As with Romeo and Juliette, parting with Rachel and Paul will be “sweet sorrow.”

I had the privilege to work in the Catholic Writers Guild Fiction Critique Group with Carolyn Astfalk as Rightfully Ours came to be. She shared each new chapter and eventually sent me a review copy of the completed book. I’ve enjoyed all of Carolyn’s published and unpublished novels including Ornamental Graces and Stay with Me. I am grateful for her assistance with my own efforts.

Racing the Devil, by Charles Todd

Racing the Devil is the nineteenth book in the Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery Series and a tantalizing read. Like many previous Rutledge Mysteries, in Race with the Devil, the Inspector chases after a mass murderer who attacks anyone who obstructs his or her dark ambitions. Targets include Rutledge.

THE PLOT

Seven British Army officers pledge to meet in Paris, a year after the eventual conclusion of the Great War. The five who survive the trenches find that their battles continue after the Armistice. Someone, perhaps one of the five, tries to kill the others.

A year after the Paris reunion, a motorcar belonging to one of the five crashes in a Sussex village near the lime cliffs known as the Seven Sisters, killing the driver. The local constable calls “The Yard” for assistance. Enter, Inspector Rutledge.

The novel’s subtext speaks of the wreckage left in the wake of war—depopulation, especially among the best and brightest of the young men; grotesque physical and emotional wounds among the survivors, and the remains of their families; and the rusting remnant of the nation’s infrastructure. So many horses die in the war that unemployed blacksmiths turn their smithies into automobile repair shops—a salient detail in a story focused on cars and “accidents.”

Rutledge fans will notice a diminished role for Hamish Macleod. Hamish stars in his own, recent short story: The Piper, but his scarcity may say more about Rutledge’s long-term health than anything else.

THE SERIES

Charles Todd offers his readers, in addition to a tense, absorbing mystery, a travelogue of Southeast England, circa 1920, a prose rich in imagery, and period references. The reader would be wise to consult a detailed roadmap of the United Kingdom to follow the action. Online searches for images of the local landscape and geological features can add perspective.

Todd’s time machine douses readers with frequent rain, guides them through the tents and booths of market days, feeds them sandwiches, cakes, and pub fare, and nearly drowns them in tea, whiskey, port, and the ever-looming pint. Todd reanimates regional traditions and institutions such as the town constable. Rutledge encounters an assortment of local policemen and learns the value of those who have served long and well. They know everyone in and everything that happens on their patch. Then, there are the others who guard their turf and milk it for any benefit it may bring to themselves.

A master craftsman, Charles Todd can be counted on to ratchet up the level of suspense and conflict. He leads his readers on a merry chase by introducing squads of characters with means, motive, and opportunity. Just when the guilty individual seems to have been arrested, Todd saves another major wrinkle to unfold.

Race with the Devil is never boring. It’s the type of story where the readers may glance at the clock to realize that Todd has kept him or her up beyond the normal bedtime hour. The only regret is that fans must wait another year for volume twenty.