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Playing by Heart

     At its core, Playing by Heart (from Vinspire Publishing) is the story of two teens struggling to follow their true calling, even when it conflicts with their father's selfish goals. It's a sweet historical romance recommended for ages 12 and up.  For a brief plot summary, see the left sidebar of this page (under the cover image).

     Playing by Heart was inspired by two amazing sisters who were far ahead of their time--mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi and composer Maria Teresa Agnesi. For information about them, see this website I created

     Playing by Heart is available wherever books are sold, including your favorite independent bookseller here or through links on the publisher's website.


Book club members: subscribe to Carmela's Creativity Newsletter to download Discussion Questions for Playing by Heart here


Teachers and homeschooling parents: subscribe to Carmela's Creativity Newsletter to download a FREE Teacher's Guide containing book-related student activities and discussion questions for Playing by Heart here.


I'm thrilled the response to Playing by Heart has been so positive. I'm especially honored that DePaul University Education Professor Roxanne Owens called the novel "a must-read addition for school libraries everywhere." See her full review below, along with other review excerpts. 

     I'm also honored by all the awards Playing by Heart has received, in particular,  the Catholic Arts and Letters Award (CALA) and a Catholic Press Association Book Award. The Catholic Press Association noted that "So much of the history of Italy is noted in this book that it could be a selected read for high schools." See more of their feedback below. Additional awards and accolades are listed in the right sidebar. For links to online reviews, see this page.

Review Excerpts

"Martino's romantic read features lovable characters and is vibrant in setting and detail. . . . The attraction between Emilia and Antonio is sweet and innocent, and readers will hope for their relationship to blossom. All in all, Martino's latest is a sweet and pleasurable read."



"Martino explores the gilded passageways of Hapsburg-era Milan's
white aristocracy with technically accomplished descriptions of privilege, luxury, and teenage longing."

—Kirkus Reviews 


"Particularly of interest is the description of the lavish balls held in Italy; sumptuous clothes and fancy carriages come alive, as does the hustle and bustle of such events—and the pressure."

The Historical Novels Review


"The characters in this book are interesting and very likable. Topics covered are family ties, vocation and feminism. Being a historical romance will enable this book to be appealing to a variety of readers. So much of the history of Italy is noted in this book that it could be a selected read for high schools."

 —Catholic Press Association


"This well-researched novel will leave you feeling like you

time-traveled to 18th century Italy, but Playing by Heart'story of 

young women trying to fulfill their potential and find their place

in the world is timeless."

—Today's Catholic Homeschooling


 "A gripping YA romance set in a vibrantly described Italy. A SILVER MEDAL WINNER and highly recommended."

—The Wishing Shelf Book Awards


"This novel explores many themes relevant to modern readers,

especially the role of women in a society where they are asked to

play gender-defined roles rather than fulfill their own dreams.

Martino is able to accomplish this by filling her novel with a page-turning plot, relatable and engaging characters, and descriptions of

Italy and court life that fill the reader's imagination."

Italian Catholic Bollettino


"This story is a pleasure to read. There's no lack of characters to root for or interesting scenes to lose yourself in."

—YA Books Central (YABC) 


"I read this novel in a single sitting! The story of sisters

Emilia and Maria Salvini is riveting, rich, and like a lovely piece of music, impossible to forget."

 —Louise Hawes, author of The Language of Stars and The Vanishing Point 


     "A virtuoso performance by Carmela Martino. You'll love Emilia Salvini in her impossible quest to be herself at a time and place when girls had no choices."

—Mary Jane Beaufrand, Edgar Award honoree and author of Primavera and Useless Bay 


"A beautifully composed tale of love, faith, and family! Playing by Heart is sure to win the affection of its readers."

—A. J. Cattapan, author of Angelhood and 7 Riddles to Nowhere


     "Playing by Heart is a lyrical story that captures the reader from the first page. The words literally sing. Authentic, strong character voice, rich and detailed historical setting, and an intriguing plot all come together to create a can't-put-it-down book. The story provides a look into the fascinating world of 18th-century Italy in a way that no history book ever could. The fact that Playing by Heart is based on the lives of extraordinary real women who were quite ahead of their time makes it a must-read addition for school libraries everywhere. Carmela Martino's writing style blends the historical facts with the emotional family life details in a way that creates a dramatic, beautifully written novel that will capture the hearts of readers of all ages."

—Roxanne F. Owens, PhD, Chair, Teacher Education, DePaul University


     "In Playing by Heart, Carmela Martino transports readers to the palazzos and salons of eighteenth-century Italy, revealing from one sublimely crafted and evocatively detailed page to the next the lives of two passionate and inspiring sisters—women who are both far ahead of their time and absolutely believable, and who, thanks to Martino's rich characterization, linger in the mind as dear friends might, long after this beautiful, compelling, and ultimately hopeful novel draws to its rewarding end."

—Karen Halvorsen Schreck, author of Broken Ground and Sing for Me


     "Playing by Heart is as lyrical as the gifted musicians that inhabit its pages. Carmela Martino, in an impeccably-written story, captures both the grace and refinement of 18th-century Italy and the timeless dilemmas to which the modern reader can relate—the pressure of familial expectations and obligations, living in the shadow of a sibling, the desire to direct one's own destiny, and love tested by time, distance, parental resistance, and class."

—Carolyn Astfalk, author of Ornamental Graces and Rightfully Ours


     "Strong, intelligent female characters and meticulously researched detail drew me into this novel of 18th-century Italy. Intrigue, music, and love are all ingredients in this tale of upper-class teen girls seeking to steer their adult lives. This is an Italian tapestry come to life."

—Mary Ann Rodman, author of Yankee Girl and Jimmy's Stars



     "It's tricky to write an historical novel. It's even trickier to write a really good one, and for it to speak to an adolescent audience. Yet Carmela Martino's done exactly that: Brought history alive through masterful storytelling. Her teenage Sisters Salvini breathe on every page. You experience their joys and pains as they make their ways in a restrictive society that won't understand or appreciate their extraordinary talents. You cheer them on as they confront their own, internal limitations with a growing maturity, mind, and yes, heart. Indeed, Playing by Heart achieves what we look for in good historical fiction: Teach us something about today through yesterday—and entertain us in the process."

—Marie Ann Donovan, EdD, Associate Professor of Teacher Education, DePaul University


     "This beautiful story takes place over 200 years ago, yet its lessons are timeless. Emilia and Maria have so much to teach us about balancing one's calling, one's gifts, and what brings one joy. Both young women navigate these decisions with grace, beauty, determination, and compassion. And, in our current age where instant gratification seems to be expected, Carmela Martino gives us the gift of watching true love blossom slowly."

—Peggy Goralski, Director, Middle School Faith Formation, St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church


     "Set in 18th-century Milan, Playing by Heart is a symphony of romance and faith with an undercurrent of social commentary. Will Maria and Emilia's father sacrifice their futures on the altar of his own ambitions to join the noble class? Carmela Martino's novel for teen readers explores family ties, vocations, and discernment of the best ways to use God-given gifts. Cue up some Vivaldi or Pachelbel and settle in for an intriguing tale."

—Barb Szyszkiewicz, Editor at CatholicMom.com 


     "Carmela Martino has created a historical heroine contemporary readers can relate to. Emilia struggles to be her own person and pursue her own dreams while still meeting her need to please her family, friends, and society in general. The fact that Martino was able to do this while immersing the reader in Milan in the eighteenth century is astounding. One doesn't feel overwhelmed with description, yet it's easy to imagine Emilia's world. Little tidbits of detail reveal the extensive research that must have gone into the writing. A glossary aides in understanding this remarkable time and place."

—Gayl Smith, MLS, retired K-12 Teacher/Librarian


     "This is a heartfelt romance, very much a period piece but it would resonate with women in our day. It documents the struggles of any gifted woman trying to overcome gender bias. The relationships between the sisters and their eventual fates is quite captivating as they unfold. And it tells a tale of love, which is complicated by the age in which Emilia and Bellini lived, but love stories are timeless."

—Dorothy Strening, Retired Parish Liturgy/Music Director