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: ‘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.

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.

REVIEW: Child 44 (2015)

Child 44 posterUK Rating: 15

Release Date: 17th April 2015

Running Time: 137 minutes

Director: Daniel Espinosa

Producer: Ridley Scott

Genre: Thriller, drama, romance

Starring: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Vincent Cassel, Paddy Considine

“There is no murder in paradise.”

This is a hard film to review without giving spoilers that would really reduce the impact of the film, so I’ll try not to be very specific about the plot. It’s being billed as a serial child killer thriller set in Stalinist Russia (how unpleasant, you may think, but the trailer intrigued me). Sure enough, I found the serial-killer angle wasn’t half so important as the one-line description would imply. Which is probably why it is so good (at least in my opinion – the crime genre leaves me fairly cold, as a rule). This is far more a film about two people trying to survive in Stalinist-era Russia, their journey as people, and as a couple, than it is a serial killer thriller, though that plot strand does provide considerable forward momentum, especially in the second half.

Rather than try to give a spoiler-free summary of the plot, may I suggest you just scroll down and watch the trailer, then carry on reading (if you’re still interested)! (Though the trailer does simplify the plot considerably, focussing primarily on the child killer strand.)

It was only gradually at the beginning of this film that I realised Leo, the main protagonist, was not, as I had vaguely assumed from the trailer, an army officer, he is in fact MGB (Ministry of State Security). Think KGB or secret police. An unlikely hero, then. However, we quickly come to see that he is about as decent as anyone doing that job in Stalinist Russia can hope to remain – he seeks to bring his prisoners in alive and goes ballistic when a fellow officer summarily executes two people (though he, not the other officer, is reprimanded!). Later in the film, other revelations and events also brought home to me that he hadn’t necessarily had much choice when it came to his job – to refuse such a position would probably have led to him being denounced as an enemy of the state. However, we are given no information about how he arrived in the role and he seems content in his comfortable life at the beginning of the film (though like the vast majority of characters, his ‘loyalty’ to the state seems little more than the attitude that has to be presented in order to survive – not too surprisingly in Leo’s case, since his parents died in the state-imposed famine in the Ukraine, although he was then adopted by a Russian army officer.)

Choice is a major theme in this film, and the choices the characters face are wrenchingly hard. Over and over, people must choose between say, a friend, and their own family. Sometimes even between their family and their own life. It is through these choices that we see our unlikely hero, Leo, and our heroine, his wife Raisa, grow, both in themselves, and together. This growth makes it an enjoyable film from a Christian perspective, although the religious and spiritual silence of the era, is, to the believer, deafening. Almost every character is totally absorbed with simple survival – there is no space for ideals. ‘You know what people get around here when they demand the truth?’ Raisa warns Leo. The fact that some characters choose to try to do what is right, regardless, is one of the most satisfying elements of the film.

Despite it becoming clear from very near the beginning of the film that Leo’s and Raisa’s marriage is not the idyllic thing he believes it to be, characters display strong marital fidelity in the film, and as I’ve already mentioned, the way they grow together left this viewer very happy. Certainly one of the most heart-breaking scenes for me was when Raisa finally tells Leo the truth about their marriage. Which may sound odd in a film about child murders, but as I said, that is only one strand of the plot.

The film has quite a long running time (137 mins) but I was gripped throughout. It was one of those films where you genuinely did not know how it would end (happy or sad?). People expecting a straight-up serial killer thriller will probably be disappointed. So, from a few things I’ve read online, will fans of the book, at least with the ending. Having not read the book, the twist that is left out (or at any rate, left non-explicit) sounds bizarre and one I’m perfectly happy to have been spared – but fans will probably disagree.

The UK rating is 15 and the list of warnings is fairly unpleasant (strong violence, strong language, sex, child murder theme), but I was actually pleasantly surprised by how restrained the film was. The one sex scene is largely shielded by a bed’s foot board and certainly the child murders are never shown on screen and details/photos of the bodies are not shown too close up – some things we really do not need to see. See below for a more detailed description.

Christian reviewers will no doubt be indignant at, and moved by, the persecution of a man who was in a homosexual relationship – the hard choice he is offered is 15 years in a gulag (a likely death sentence) or writing a list of every man in the town he knows to have had sex with another man. But they may also roll their eyes slightly when they reflect that out of every far more numerous group persecuted under Stalinist rule (Christians, Jews, Muslims and many ethnic groups, to name a few) it’s the plight of those committing homosexual acts, surprise surprise, that gets the attention. Sigh.

There are a few moments when it’s not entirely clear how something specifically happened, for example when at one point the secret police turn up, but it’s always broadly possible to understand (someone was overheard, recognised, etc.). Although I would normally have preferred more clarity, I could not but appreciate that the not-knowing placed the audience in exactly the same position as the protagonists – who also do not know, which on reflection I think was very effective. The fight scene in a muddy ditch was unequivocally a flaw, though. I mean, seriously? How are you supposed to tell who is doing what to whom?

The film has, surprisingly, or at any rate disturbingly, been banned from theatrical release in Russia, although it will be made available to purchase on DVD or online. Apparently they’re keen to present the Communist era in a favourable light, just at the moment, and this is definitely one of those films where you leave the cinema just thanking God that you weren’t born in that place and at that time.

Overall: An atmospheric and character-driven thriller. I really liked this film, and am sorry to see it getting poor reviews elsewhere. I’ll be looking for an excuse to see it again, and I suspect that it is one for my shelf.

Sex/Violence/Profanity/etc: One sex scene, fairly discreet. An implied scene of off stage rape/sexual assault/torture (what actually happens is never revealed). An attempted assault, possibly would-be sexual. Theme of child murder, images of naked murdered children, not shown that close up. Multiple scenes of adult violence including several executions/shootings, stabbings and violent struggles – however, few graphic wounds are shown, with the exception of a severe head injury. One suicide, one attempted suicide. Shot of a mangled body from a distance. Scene of a mentally disturbed man simulating torture on himself. Two torture scenes, brief and without bloody violence. Considerable and continual atmosphere of threat. I honestly don’t recall much of the language, but according to the British Film Classification Board some of it is strong. Theme about men in homosexual relationships – the activities are condemned, but the men are also cruelly persecuted.

Have you seen this film? What did you think?

REVIEW: Lore (2012)

Lore poster by Source. Licensed under Fair use via WikipediaUK Rating: 15

Release Date: 12th October 2012

Running Time: 109 minutes

Director: Cate Shortland

Genre:  Drama, romance, thriller, war film

Starring: Saskia Rosendahl, Kai-Peter MalinaNele Trebs

Made in German, but by an Australian director, Lore is a very good film, but not a very enjoyable one. Yes, it’s one of those. The titular protagonist, Hannelore (Lore), who could be a poster girl for the League of German Maidens (female equivalent of the Hitler Youth), is left holding the baby (literally) when her Nazi parents abandon them. Not just the baby, but her younger sister and even younger twin brothers. Her mother tells her to take them to her Grandmother’s in Hamburg, a distance of five hundred miles, before walking away down the road to surrender to the Americans. When they can no longer stay where they are and are forced to attempt the journey, they discover that no trains are running. They must go on foot, trading their few belongings for food – or for breastfeeding, since, making their plight even worse, the baby is not yet weaned.

Help and protection comes from an unlikely source – a young Jewish refugee, Thomas. The children’s desperation is made clear by the fact that they stick with him – for the obvious reason to do with life-long indoctrination, and for another that I cannot mention without spoilers. Lore is also struggling, in the midst of this, with her awakening sexuality, leading to an even more complicated relationship with Thomas.

This is a grim film. It paints a very believable picture of the grief, confusion, and above all, denial, that many Germans felt at Hitler’s death and Germany’s occupation. In one scene, Germans are saying to one another that the photos of the dead in the concentration camps posted by the Americans on the walls of every town are fake, that the people are actors, it’s all staged. Lore is, in a way, lucky, because, for reasons I won’t disclose, she knows for certain that this is not the case. As, one suspects, do those speaking, deep down.

The only refugee to give any help to the children, at least for free, is a woman wearing a cross around her neck, a tiny flash of humanity in an otherwise unflinching portrayal of how fear makes people look out for number one. The ending is satisfying from a Christian perspective, in that a main character appears to be coming to terms with the fact that their whole life is built on lies, and to be rejecting those lies. The film is also a powerful reminder that the enemy are people too, who can suffer, and hope, and be afraid, however misguided they are.

It is not a perfect film. It’s one of those films where the characters don’t speak much. This creates an eerie, mysterious atmosphere, but is basically taken to an unrealistic degree, and results in the viewer not feeling they really know the characters. This, in turn, blunts the emotional impact of many of the events. There are also a couple of irritating inclarities or inconsistencies, such as a pivotal scene when one character seems to need papers, but others somehow get by without.

Overall: Definitely one to watch, so long as you’re not expecting a war film with lots of bangs and explosions and running around. This is a war film all right, but its power is in its unremitting portrayal of the reality of war (or its aftermath), not in action scenes. The auditorium was full when I saw this (at a local film society) and the audience was completely silent throughout. People hardly twitched or coughed. Engrossing, albeit uncomfortable, viewing. However – not one for sensitive viewers (see below).

Sex/Violence/Profanity/etc.: A scene of lower body female nudity from the front, upper body female nudity from behind, a bare breast (during breastfeeding), several scenes of a man fondling a woman (one during rape), a scene of masturbation/fondling (the borders between the two are blurred). Two women are shown with blood-streaked thighs after (implied) rape, one of the women is dead. Another women is shown being raped, not so graphically. There are several scenes of the macabre (ants crawling on bloody skin) or of graphic wounds. A scene of a man who has committed suicide. Two murders (one by gunshot, one through bludgeoning with a rock). Photographs of concentration camp victims. Scenes of theft, sometimes with violence. The film is in German and subtitled – I do not recall any swear words in the translation, it’s possible there were some. It’s a rather engrossing film and hard to remember! Apologies if I’ve forgotten anything, but this should give you a pretty good idea the sort of thing to expect.

Have you seen this film? What did you think?

REVIEW: Suite Francais (2015)

Suite_Francaise_posterUK Rating: 15

Release Date: 13th March 2015

Running Time: 107 minutes

Director: Saul Dibb

Genre: Drama

Starring: Michelle Williams, Matthias Schoenaerts, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Riley, Margot Robbie, Ruth Wilson, Alexandra Maria Lara

This is not a film I would usually go and see, since, in a nutshell, it’s about a married Frenchwoman falling in love with a married German officer after the occupation of France during the Second World War: in other words, it’s one of those films that glamorise adultery. As a rule I avoid films like this since I don’t particularly wish to watch or support them. However, relationships between people who should be enemies always catch my attention – as a Christian the message that the enemy is just a person too is one I like to see put across. But I would probably still have decided against seeing ‘Suite Francais’ if one final fact hadn’t irresistibly piqued my curiosity.

It’s based on a novel. But it’s not a novel written in more recent years, like Anne Widdecombe’s compelling but morally dubious ‘An Act of Treachery’. It’s a novel written during the Second World War by Irène Némirovsky, a French author of Jewish descent. Two novels, in fact, the second unfinished, out of a planned series of five. But they were never completed because sadly Irène died in Auschwitz. The manuscripts lay unread in a suitcase in her daughters’ keeping, presumed to be a journal too harrowing to be read, until 1998. They were published as one novel in 2004 and perhaps not surprisingly with that history, became a bestseller.

And now a film. When I read about the history of the novel, I was astonished that anyone dared to write a novel about such a subject at the time of the occupation. But it makes sense if you see the film – can’t say more without spoilers. Also, the novel apparently followed many different characters, whereas the scriptwriters concentrated on a smaller group, thus making the treasonable relationship more prominent.

I thought the film was good but definitely not a masterpiece. It kept my tense attention throughout but fell rather flat at the end. The main character, Lucille, says little in the first part of the film, giving one scant idea of the deeper aspects of her character beyond her love of music and her sympathy with her poorer tenants, but creating a very poignant sense of a person trapped in a life they hate.

The more practical theologian in me couldn’t help wondering what a marriage tribunal would make of her marriage – she had only met her husband-to-be twice before the wedding and was put under considerable pressure by her father and by circumstances (her father’s approaching death) to agree to the wedding. On the other hand, she was not dragged to the altar and says that she, ‘convinced herself she was in love with him’. But that’s one for a marriage tribunal.

Very few references are made to the wife of the German officer, Bruno. The first reference led me to believe she was dead, he says that, ‘she doesn’t miss me any more, not now,’ the second made it clear she was alive, from which one had to deduce she was perhaps having an affair herself, and at any rate, did not love him. This carries the clear connotation so common nowadays, that it is therefore fine for Bruno to have an affair too. Sigh.

The film really excels in recreating a French village of the period, with all the tensions between the wealthier and poorer inhabitants, the tenants and the landlords, and it was from these relationships that the most unexpected twist in the film comes. Satisfyingly, from a Christian perspective, it is a twist that takes a character presented as a weak, near ‘baddie’ and makes them the focus of the audience’s sympathy. It is also a keenly painful lesson in the unintended consequences of telling lies.

Overall, I would hesitate to recommend this film too highly due to the benevolent view it takes of adultery. As a film, it is good, but the ending, though happier than one might have expected for some of the characters, is very underwhelming, with an irritating ambiguity as to the fate of a main character.

Sex/Violence/Profanity? There is a (visually) fairly discreet adulterous sexual scene, a more graphic pre-marital sexual scene viewed from a distance and some naked men viewed from a distance. There is some relatively unbloody violence including a war scene and an execution. I don’t recall much in the way of swearing. Apologies if I’ve forgotten anything. UK rating is 15.

Have you seen this film? What did you think?