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.

Christmas Grace, by Leslie Lynch

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Leslie Lynch breaks new ground in her second Christmas novella. Although she invites us to spend Christmas on the other side of Louisville, Kentucky, she warns us to steer clear of Gertie, Ella and Natalie—three generations of brokenhearted women who dread the holidays.

Recently widowed, awash in grief, and stumbling through the shambles of her life, Gertie, 74, gathers more grief than consolation from her daughter. She avoids the domineering Ella, 50, during the holidays.

Mason, Ella’s husband, bemoans the fortunes of his slumping law firm. He sees Ella more as a convenience than a consort. He expects her to drop her own plans to exhibit her ceramic creations in order to arrange the “traditional,” client-wooing Christmas gala.

Pregnant with Ella’s and Mason’s grandchild, Natalie, twenty-something, plans to ignore the holidays. They remind her of her husband, Connor, deployed to a war zone. She tells her mother, “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to help you…No Christmas for me…. I’ve just turned into a Grinch.” She cherishes her moments on Skype when she can almost touch Connor through her laptop screen.

Gertie proves the most imaginative, if reckless, in mending her broken heart, plunging into an extreme makeover, planning a sky-dive, and taking up with a guy on a turquoise motorcycle, she sparkles as she weaves and crashes through the story line.

The bulk of the novella measures the accumulated weight as each family emergency presses against Ella’s shoulders and forces her resentment to bubble to the surface. Obsessed with his declining client base, Mason ignores Ella’s plight. While squeezing the “Merry” out of “Christmas,” he snuffs out the embers of Ella’s love for him. He not only stifles his family-life but the flexibility essential for his company’s survival. Much to his dismay, Ella decides to dig in her heels.

Can Leslie Lynch, the award-winning romance author, snatch these harried “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” before they go up in smoke? There’s no easy fix. Those who anticipate their own hectic holiday appreciate the pain of apparently insoluble family situations. Christmas Grace offers them hope, adjusts their frame of mind, and revives the meaning of the words Christmas, family and holiday.