BOOK REVIEW: ‘Playing by Heart’ Carmela Martino

bf6a14_411c0964ef724b8c815c9fffceea37fd-mv2_d_1400_2100_s_2Synopsis:

She could compose anything . . . except the life she wanted.

 

Emilia Salvini dreams of marrying a man who loves music as much as she does. But in 18th-century Milan, her position as “second sister” means she’ll likely be sent off to a convent instead. Ironically, Emilia’s pious older sister, Maria, would gladly become a nun. But Father won’t allow it—her brilliant language skills are too important to his quest for noble status. Emilia’s only hope to avoid the convent is to prove that her musical talents are as indispensable as Maria’s skills. First, Emilia must earn the respect of the music tutor who has always disdained her, simply for being a girl. But before Emilia can carry out her plan, Mamma, her greatest supporter, dies in childbirth.

In her sorrow, Emilia composes a heartrending sonata that causes the maestro to finally recognize her talent. He begins teaching her music theory alongside handsome violinist Antonio Bellini, the great-nephew of a wealthy marquis. The two begin as rivals, but making music together gradually melds their hearts. When Antonio abruptly quits their lessons, Emilia assumes it’s because her family isn’t nobility. More determined than ever to help Father acquire a title, she dedicates a set of compositions to Archduchess Maria Teresa. The archduchess is so impressed that she helps Father become a count. Having finally won Father’s favor, Emilia expects she’ll now be betrothed to Antonio. But the repercussions of her family’s new status threaten not only her dreams, but her sister’s very life.

 

This was a really lovely historical romance for teen readers—and indeed, I think adults would enjoy it as well. The characters were nicely drawn, and realistic, and the plot worked well. Faith was present in the characters’ lives and actions, without being preachy or ‘in your face’ (yey!).

One of the things I most enjoyed was how vividly and convincingly Martino drew the historical period. I especially appreciated the lack of the politically correct anachronisms that you find shoe-horned into so many historicals nowadays. For example, the young women in the story accept that their fathers will be the ones to decide who they marry, and whilst they work in such ways as they can to influence their fathers’ choices, there’s no twentieth century railing against the injustice of their predicament. Unjust, it certainly is, but they would not, then, have perceived it so—it was a fact of life—and it is refreshing that Martino presents things like this authentically.

Many of the descriptions are beautiful, as well, such as, ‘I heard music everywhere—in the whispering of the wind and the rustling of the trees.’ I also very much enjoyed the information at the end about the real life sisters that inspired the novel.

I will say that the synopsis did mislead me into expecting that something dramatic—in the ‘action’ sense of the word, would transpire later in the book, but by the time I actually reached the end, this misunderstanding had been cleared up, so it had no impact on my enjoyment and simply provided a good hook for part of the novel!

My one real (but extremely minor) niggle would be that the ending seemed very abrupt, and when the novel ended (trying to express this without spoilers!) characters were acting as though something was definite, that was in fact not definite, and which could quite easily have been completely altered by the occurrence of a far from unlikely event. Maybe I am just a paranoid pessimist, but I certainly felt that if I were any one of the characters, there is no way I would be assuming all was settled at that moment in time. It is possible that we were supposed to assume all would go as planned on the basis of a particular dream someone had had, but all the same, I would have at least liked an Epilogue, even just one paragraph, to confirm what actually did transpire.

A minor niggle, though, and I certainly look forward to reading other books by this author.

 

[I received a free copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. The author is a fellow member of ‘Catholic Teen Books’.]

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The King’s Prey’ by Susan Peek

35075872Synopsis:

An insane king. His fleeing daughter. Estranged brothers, with a scarred past, risking everything to save her from a fate worse than death. Toss in a holy priest and a lovable wolfhound, and get ready for a wild race across Ireland. Will Dymphna escape her deranged father and his sinful desires? 

For the first time ever, the story of Saint Dymphna is brought to life in this dramatic novel for adults and older teens. With raw adventure, gripping action, and even humor in the midst of dark mental turmoil, Susan Peek’s newest novel will introduce you to a saint you will love forever! Teenage girls will see that Dymphna was just like them, a real girl, while young men will thrill at the heart-stopping danger and meet heroes they can easily relate to. If ever a Heavenly friend was needed in these times of widespread depression and emotional instability, this forgotten Irish saint is it!

I recently read (and reviewed) Peek’s ‘Crusader King’ and loved it, so I was delighted to receive a review copy of her new book, ‘The King’s Prey’. ‘The King’s Prey’ tells the story of little-known Saint Dymphna of Ireland, patron saint of those with mental illness. I hadn’t really heard of this saint before reading and I deliberately didn’t find out about her, so I read the entire novel not knowing whether she was a confessor, a martyr, a hermit, or what—which hugely added to the suspense of the story, so if you don’t know anything about her, don’t go and look her up, just buy ‘The King’s Prey’! It’s all the introduction you could need!

Although there was the odd hint of plot convenience here and there (characters making stupid-but-convenient decisions being the chief offenders) I could not put this book down. Peek interweaves what is actually known about St Dymphna (Princess Dymphna, in fact) with the fictional story of her companions, and others. I was gripped from the first chapter, desperately wanting to know not only what happened to the princess saint, but also what happened to estranged brothers Breoc and Turlough—and not to forget the wolfhound, Sam.

Some of the misunderstandings that take place between characters were absolutely agonising—and something I was totally not expecting happened part way through that eclipsed them all. Ultimately, I simply had to read straight to the end to find out what happened. It’s full of adventure, heroism, romance, and lovely characters, and it also gives a sensitive look into the world of someone suffering from mental illness. I don’t feel I can say more without giving things away, so I suggest you simply read it for yourself.

I would highly recommend this book to both adults and young adults. I think it is suitable for all but the most sheltered and sensitive teens, since although St Dymphna’s insane father wants to marry her, it is all handled extremely discretely and age-appropriately.

 

[I received a free copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. The author is a fellow member of ‘Catholic Teen Books’ and the Catholic Writers Guild.]

 

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Hush Hush’ by Michelle Quigley

51iHrSVY9sLAnother book review, I’m afraid! I’ll try and review some more films soon!

 

Blurb: ‘Why do I have to stand here and pretend that everything is alright, when the truth is I want to curl myself up into a ball and die somewhere?’

Molly is a normal sixteen-year-old working as a factory girl in Derry, Northern Ireland, until one night her world is turned upside down. After experiencing a brutal attack, she is left mentally and physically broken, slowly withdrawing from her family and community, suffering in silence. She tries in vain to keep her increasing despair to herself, but life has more surprises and heartache in store. As her family battle to conceal a dreadful secret and expected allies shun her, Hitler steps up his invasion of Europe. With the outbreak of war an even greater strain is placed upon her family when her brother enlists in the army. Will she ever manage to make amends with him again? And with gossip rife among the community, will her secret remain hidden forever?

Hush Hush will draw you into Molly’s struggles and desires and leave you hoping that maybe, just maybe, there is someone out there who can help turn her life around.

 

This was a gripping read that I should have put down more often than I did. Molly is a sympathetic heroine and the characters and scenarios were, for the most part, very credibly drawn. There was also a really lovely love interest (I want one!), and for me the romance was a very satisfying part of the plot.

To begin with I found some of the writing a little awkward, but I suspect it was mostly due to the differences in Northern Irish dialect and phrasing since I got used to it and stopped noticing it quite quickly.  The Northern Irish and Irish settings were vividly drawn and made me want to go and explore them! The historical angle was also fascinating, especially the glimpse at the culture of the period.

In many ways this book could be described as a fable about lying, and the consequences of lying. All the way through runs this huge ‘if only’. If only she had told the truth… But this pent up frustration makes the climax of the novel all the more poignant.

The only thing that really annoyed me was what some reviewers have called the plot ‘twist’ at the end. Quigley carefully leaves the identity of the attacker up in the air for the majority of the book, making it a mystery. Is it one of two possible candidates – or someone else entirely? It’s an effective technique, only I suspected that while we were supposed to assume it was one suspect, it might turn out to be someone else.

My issue was that if it was this other person, some of the scenes in the novel were implausible, because it was not credible to me that the first person narrator could think about certain things without thinking related thoughts that would give away the identity of the rapist. Essentially, by including such scenes, Quigley should have been ‘proving’ that a particular person wasn’t the rapist – but I had a feeling this might prove not to be the case and I was irritated when my suspicions proved correct.

As a Catholic I was also a little frustrated by the fact that at one point, in a time of need, Molly decides to pray the rosary every day. When she plunges further into despair and darkness, we are never told whether or not she is doing it. In fact, the whole subject is never mentioned again. I would have liked to known more.

However, these two small niggles don’t change the fact that overall HUSH HUSH was a gripping, satisfying read, with a strong, life-affirming message, and I would recommend it, especially to Catholics and all those committed to the cause of life.

 

Please note, the rape is fairly discreetly described, but I would strongly caution anyone who has suffered a sexual assault.

I received a free copy of this book in return for an honest review.

BOOK REVIEW: Crusader King by Susan Peek

51oNMQBgpiLI thoroughly enjoyed Crusader King and I’m sure I will read it again, which always says a lot about a book. Peek draws her characters very well, making them memorable and distinct whilst still credibly historical. It’s the main character who really steals the show, though: Baldwin IV of Jerusalem. I knew almost nothing about him before reading the book, but he’s such a lovely character, and so holy – in such an appealing way – that I spent much of the book wondering why he was never canonised.

Having finished the book, I remained fixated on this question for some time, coming to two possible explanations:

Explanation 1) Since Peek is writing for young people, she may justifiably have down-played any negative aspects of Baldwin’s character and emphasised all the positive ones. As a friend of mine once put it – historical fiction remains fiction, if you want pure history, go read a textbook.

Explanation 2) Baldwin really was that holy and good, but since the people with power and money (the nobles) spent his life waiting for him to die so they could seize his throne, they probably weren’t going to feel like spending money trying to get him canonised; whilst the people who loved him (the common people) had no power or money. And both nobles and common people were all too soon after his death conquered by the Saracens, after which they had no freedom to pursue anyone’s canonisation and probably did well to remain Christians themselves.

I certainly hope the reason Baldwin IV isn’t a canonised saint is the second reason, not the first. But either way, the book is a fantastic read. Though I did keep wishing a certain fictional friend had actually existed in real life, and had actually done the thing Baldwin asks him to do. How different the history of the Middle East might have been! If you want to make sense of that spoiler-free comment, you’ll have to read the book!

My one major niggle was that as an adult reader, I would have liked more detail at times. The book passes very quickly over great swathes of events in Baldwin’s life, especially in the later part, and I would have been perfectly happy with a much longer and more detailed book. However, Peek is writing for young people, not for adults, so whilst I hope she might one day write a full, detailed, adult version, this cannot really stand as an actual criticism since she does what she sets out to do well.

Off to look for more books about Baldwin IV, though I doubt I will find anything more satisfying than this one!

Edit: To add information received from the author (below):

Susan Peek says: “To answer your question, Baldwin’s cause for canonization was indeed introduced, and he is considered Blessed in France, but not universally. The French version of his name is Beaudoin, and many boys are named after him. I am not exactly sure why his cause was halted. He truly was very holy; even non-Christians acknowledge his great sanctity.”

Lovely to know!

I received a free copy of the book whilst acting as a reviewer for the Catholic Writer’s Guild. ‘Crusader King’ subsequently received the Seal of Approval.

REVIEW: Hacksaw Ridge (2017)

hacksaw_ridge_posterUK Rating: 15

Release Date: 26th January 2017

Running Time: 139 minutes

Director: Mel Gibson

Genre:  War, Action, Biography, Period

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn

SYNOPSIS: Mel Gibson directs Andrew Garfield in the visceral true story of a war hero who didn’t fire a single shot. Scarred by childhood experiences with his alcoholic WWI veteran father (Hugo Weaving), devout Seventh Day Adventist Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) resolves never to touch a gun. This proves something of a challenge when he enlists in the army to fight in WWII. As a conscientious objector, Desmond insists on his right to serve as a medic. But he’s bullied by his unsympathetic comrades, who consider him to be a coward.

His greatest test comes during the notoriously bloody Battle of Okinawa. Returning to the director’s chair for the first time in a decade, Mel Gibson celebrates a very different kind of hero in this intense, blood-soaked true-life tale of faith, courage and patriotism. Andrew Garfield is on outstanding form as the pacifist whose single-handed acts of bravery saved 75 lives.

(Synopsis from Cineworld.)

 

So, this is the second of a pair of linked film reviews, the first being a review of ‘Amish Grace’. I’d suggest you read it first it you haven’t already.

So, the second review, about ‘Hacksaw Ridge’. I thought this was a superb film. An inspiring story of a pacifist staying true to his conscience and religious convictions, and an unflinching portrayal of the horrors of war, handled in such a way that the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers who do fight and kill is never denigrated. The latter on its own is quite an impressive film-making achievement.

The film could be said to take place in three acts. Act one, formative moments from childhood, leading into a satisfying and wholesome romance, as Doss courts Dorothy (who slaps him for kissing her without asking her permission first!).

Act two is a boot camp adventure cum courtroom drama, as Doss resists the army’s attempts to break him and force him to carry a weapon. It is refreshing to see a Hollywood film in which there is no apology for, or concealment of, the character’s Christian faith, and this is so all the way through the film.

Act three is a war film. A bloody, brutally honest war film, but like none I’ve ever seen, since it revolves around a hero who never fires a single shot or takes a single life. Interestingly, Mel Gibson actually left out at least two significant heroic actions on Doss’s part, feeling that the audience simply wouldn’t be able to credit it, and would assume he was making it up. (To read what these incidents were, scroll down to below the trailer, but they include SPOILERS.)

So, how come I’ve just recommended ‘Amish Grace’ for its extreme discretion in depicting violence, but am now praising ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ (because ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is a very graphic film, and will certainly not be for all viewers, even among the adults).

Well, I watched ‘Amish Grace’ just the weekend before ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, and as I mentioned in the review, I was bowled away by how well they managed to handle such a horrible crime without showing one shred of violence on screen. Then I watched ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ and came out thinking what a superb film it was, partly because of its utter refusal to hide, glamorise, romanticise, or in any other way conceal the full horror of war. Needless to say, the contradiction struck me. Which approach is correct? Graphic violence, or nongraphic violence, that is the question…

Of course, the answer is that neither approach is ‘correct’; it depends entirely on how it is done, and why. (And indeed, what is being shown. It’s hard to conceive how anyone can benefit from watching ten little girls shot, for any reason.) Such a lot of films featuring graphic violence are simply violence-porn. There’s no reason for the gore other than to titillate and provide pleasure to the (surely perverse) viewers. Or the other category of ‘bad’ graphic films, into which Brad Pitt’s recent film ‘Fury’, a thoroughly unpleasant work in so many ways, surely falls, where the violence seems deliberately gratuitous, with absolutely no goal other than to push the boundaries and shock the viewer.

But sometimes—and perhaps especially with war films—there is a good reason for showing a lot of graphic violence: simply in order to show the pure unvarnished truth. So many war films glamorise combat, romanticise it, conceal the full horror of the battlefield. Sometimes it’s good to have a film that shines the light of truth on war, and the truth is graphic, and horrific. Throughout the film, it always feels as though this is what ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is seeking to do. The battle scenes aren’t pleasant to watch, but if they strip away people’s illusions about war, they’re serving a good purpose.

My one criticism would be that I felt some of them went on a trifle longer than was strictly necessary, but on the other hand, if you’re in a battle it probably feels like forever, so you could say there is realism in having a bit of length to them!

According to Desmond Doss Jr. (Doss’s only child): “The reason he [Doss] declined [to have his story filmed] is that none of them [those seeking to film it] adhered to his one requirement: that it be accurate. And I find it remarkable, the level of accuracy in adhering to the principal of the story in this movie.” And it does seem, as films go, to be a very accurate one, although the filmmakers have made a few small alterations in the early section, sometimes to heighten tension and drama, and other times to streamline and more simply convey background.

For example, Doss’s convictions about killing stemmed from a combination of a childhood fascination with Cain and Abel and the commandment ‘Though Shalt Not Kill’, and a violent confrontation involving his father, uncle, mother and a gun. All these influences are portrayed in the film, but in ways slightly altered from reality. However, the only significant change to the key battle scenes seems to be the leaving out some of the heroism! Which is a shame, but reading the IMDB discussion boards, Mel Gibson’s fear was clearly well justified!

Overall: A great film that satisfies on many levels. One for the shelf.

Sex/Violence/Profanity: Brief honeymoon scene, not very graphic. CONSIDERABLE graphic war violence. Sensitive viewers strongly cautioned. Considerable crude language.

Heroism Mel Gibson left out [SPOILERS]:

1) In reality, the cargo nets weren’t already fixed to the cliff when Doss’s battalion arrived. Doss was one of three volunteers who scaled the cliffs to fix the nets in place under the guns of the Japanese defenders.

2) After being wounded by the grenade at the end (17 pieces of shrapnel stuck in him) Doss treated himself, then waited for 5 hours before soldiers could get to him to evacuate him. As they headed for safety he saw a badly wounded man. He insisted they stop so he could try to patch him up, then gave up his place on the stretcher to the other man. Whilst waiting for the return of the stretcher, a sniper shot him, shattering his arm. So he fashioned himself a splint out of a discarded rifle stock and crawled 300 yards to safety, under enemy fire.

3) And lastly, not specifically heroism on Doss’s part, but fascinating all the same: a Japanese soldier had Doss in his sights, but every time he went to fire, his rifle jammed!

Information from www.historyVsHollywood.com. The article goes into greater detail about the changes made by the filmmakers.

REVIEW: Silence

silence_2016_filmUK Rating: 15

Release Date: 1st January 2017

Running Time: 161 minutes

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre:  Period

Starring:  Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson

(This review contains Spoilers)

Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ is a ‘Marmite movie’. You love it or you hate it. Tim Hanley, writing for the Catholic Herald, describes it as, “the most profound piece of Catholic art produced in recent years”, whilst Monica Miller in Crisis magazine considers that although, “This movie seriously examines Christian themes and ideas” it is not in fact a Christian film. I would have to agree with the latter statement. ‘Silence’ is that most dangerous of things, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It is not the main character’s apostasy itself that is so problematic. None of us know if we would stand or fall. This beautifully filmed and acted piece could easily have been a sensitive portrayal of human weakness. But it’s not. Rodrigues isn’t shown as apostatising from simple weakness, unable to bear the emotional torment or to withstand the voice of the devil (so loud and clear through the coaxing authorities). Instead, he hears—or thinks he hears—the voice of Jesus telling him that apostasy is okay. Clearly Our Lord forgot to mention that in the Bible.

Rodrigues lives out his life spiritually dead, only, the film hints, it’s all okay really, because deep, deep down, he still believes—even though he obediently writes books ‘disproving’ the Christian faith. Even though he never again gives even the tiniest public sign of his faith. Even though he apostatises over and over again. Even though he appears to refuse absolution to someone begging on their knees. This is all okay, because he’s doing it to save the lives of the Japanese believers. Their lives, note. He—and the film—seem to have forgotten the existence of souls.

So what is the final message of ‘Silence’? That staying alive and avoiding suffering are far more important than keeping the faith. That the importance of our mortal life here far outweighs that of our eternal destiny.

This film is poison. Beautiful, well-acted, compelling… and spiritual cyanide.

Overall: I suggest you avoid. With a barge pole. Preferably a blessed one.

Sex/Violence/Nudity: No sexual content. Scenes of torture and execution, quite graphic. No graphic nudity.

MINI REVIEW: A United Kingdom (2016)

 

a-united-kingdomUK Rating: 12A

Release Date: 25th November 2016

Running Time: 111 minutes

Director: Amma Asante

Genre:  Biography, Drama, Romance, Period

Starring: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, Terry Pheto, Jessica Oyelowo

Synopsis: Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana causes an international stir when he marries a white woman from London in the late 1940s.

A well-made, well-acted and satisfying tale of love across a racial divide and in the face of strong political opposition. Some events in it reminded me of ‘The Lady’ though with a happier conclusion. It never quite takes flight in quite the way Amma Asanti’s previous film, ‘Belle,’ does, but it never drags either and is very well worth watching. I was deeply shocked by what Winston Churchill does in the film, though. 😦

Sex/Violence/Profanity: Marital sex only, non-graphic. Moderate violence (a fistfight, primarily). Racist language.