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REVIEW:  Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart

REVIEW: Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart

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Dear Readers,

A few months ago, a friend of mine asked me to help her clarify something from this book. She needed to know a fact from it but didn’t have her copy handy. Did I have the book and could I look it up? Of course I had a copy – several, in fact, I think – and I was happy to pull it out and start reading. With the reading going smooth as silk, I was soon lost in the opening scenes. The needed fact was, unfortunately, quickly clarified and with several other books waiting for my attention and possible reviews, I reluctantly put this one aside. When I heard the news of Stewart’s passing, I began a frantic search for where I’d laid the book because, even though it’s not my favorite, I just knew I had to read it now.

Charity Selbourn and a friend from her former teaching days are on a much deserved holiday in the south of France. As Charity settles into her room at their hotel, she becomes acquainted with a young English boy and his slightly out-of-control mongrel dog named Rommel. Giving his name as David Shelley, the two chat a bit about English Romance poets and it’s at this time that Charity gets the unmistakable feeling that David has faced some awful event in his life which has aged him past the knowledge a 13 year old boy should have.

During that civilized French custom of l’heure d’aparitif, Charity sees and guesses at the nationalities, professions and details of her fellow hotel guests much to the amusement of her friend Louise. Later she meets up with one of them who fills her in on the grisly details behind David’s unhappiness. His father was accused, though acquitted, of murder. It was a Crime of Passion during which David was knocked unconscious and, as the newspaper headlines will have it, Richard Byron must be unhinged.

Since indolent Louise isn’t interested in sight-seeing, Charity has the idea of asking David’s step-mother if he can join her for a day outing. It’s then that Charity learns more than she wanted to know about Richard Byron who is hot on the trail of his son, a son who acts terrified of him and begs Charity to hide him from his father.

The plot thickens when Richard, knowing Charity must be hiding his son from him, tracks her down. A game of cat and mouse ensues with Charity embroiling herself deeper and deeper in a game of murder. Unless she discovers the truth behind these events, she just might be the next in the sights of a cold-blooded killer.

There are certain books which I find myself slogging through and some magical ones which flow like a powerful river, pulling me in and sweeping me along almost effortlessly. Most of Stewart’s books are the sweeping kind. Before I knew it, I’d read almost half the book and only put it down only for the necessities of life.

There are lots of similarities among Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense books. Usually the setting is exotic – or would have been so when the books were first written, the heroine is either young or slightly naïve, the identity of the hero might be in doubt, police presence is light to non-existent, and the heroine is quietly but quickly swept into a situation far beyond anything she’s ever encountered though the driving force behind the plot remains a mystery. These books generally feature ordinary, every day people placed in circumstances they never anticipated or are initially prepared for but the hero and, especially, heroine rise to the occasion and see justice done and wrongs righted.

Yeah, that paragraph pretty much sums this one up but let me delve into what makes it special. I love the chapter headers from famous English literary works with which Stewart would have been well familiar. In reading the various obituaries, I found it sad that she had been unable to accept positions at either Oxford or Cambridge which her intelligence had secured for her. But her knowledge shows in the characters’ intelligence. Charity casually associates Yggdrasil with a tree in the courtyard of the hotel and she and Richard can quote poetry and lines from Shakespearean plays to each other with ease.

The descriptions of the food are to die for. But along with that is the understanding of how important well prepared food is to the French soul. It’s national honor on the line with each meal and the whole is taken quite seriously. It’s a joy just to read about.

I can also see the locations in the south of France. The towns, roads and flora of the region jump off the page. I can see the heat shimmering off the scree of white rocks with harsh green juniper hanging on for dear life, the chalky dust rising from the winding roads, the prickly plants, the golden-amber shafts of sunlight slicing through shutters closed to hold out the afternoon heat with the only relief to be found in the shadows. I’ve never been to Provence but because of this book, I’ve “seen” it. I also love the descriptions of how to drive in France – full on, peddle to the metal, horn blaring and not giving an inch.

Reading Sunita’s excellent review of “Wildfire at Midnight,” brings to mind things which didn’t bother my much younger self when I initially read most of Stewart’s books. Everyone smokes like a chimney and drinks like fish albeit with a casual sophistication and elegance. Charity is not quite as naïve as other Stewart heroines being a widow who lost her RAF husband during the war and who had at one point had to support herself as a teacher. Her husband introduced her to fast cars and thankfully Charity learned to handle them and to relish speed. She does a fair amount to save herself and David and the only blunder she commits is due to a lack of knowledge rather than being stupid.

One thing my older self enjoyed more this time around is that Charity’s first husband, Johnny isn’t demonized or made into an angel. He was a man with some faults but also lots of strengths. He loved Charity and she loved him. But she hasn’t turned him into some saint nor has she sworn never to love again and put herself on a shelf to worship at his shrine. I’m also not usually one to buy into love at first sight and though that doesn’t really happen here, love does come as kind of a thunderbolt yet I still believe in it which says something about the way Stewart can convey emotions.

The men of the book tend to be on the take-charge side but then as Louise reminds Charity, she seems to like her men that way. The hero might come off as a bit high-handed even after the initial misunderstandings behind his attitude are explained. Stewart also indulges in a little stereotyping of Frenchmen though in one case it serves to help Charity along during the chase to Marseilles. The term “negro” is also used at least twice and though it doesn’t appear to me to be used as an outright insult, still the word is there and this could be a trigger.

As to the reason behind the plot, there’s no hope of guessing it early on. The details don’t begin to be revealed until the final third of the story and one character becomes a deus ex machina during the finale. Even after the villains are vanquished, an ending wrap-party is needed in order to tell the whole.

This novel appears to be a favorite of several DA readers and would, I think, serve as a good starting place for new readers as it has many of the standard elements Stewart included in several of her suspense books. If you go into it realizing that it does have some issues which date it and that the clarity of the resolution gets a bit blurry, you’ll probably do just fine with it. The evocation of the locale, the food and the characterization are more than worth the price of an admission ticket. B+

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  The Road Ahead by Christabel Bielenberg

REVIEW: The Road Ahead by Christabel Bielenberg

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Spoiler (Possible Triggers): Show

The beginning of the book covers the arrival of Allied/Russian troops in Germany and mention is made of rape. Also, later in the book, Christabel talks about an Uncle in England who, for reasons she never knew, disliked Jews.

Following her wartime memoirs in “The Past is Myself”, Christabel Bielenberg continues her story from the end of the war. Germany was devastated by war and its aftermath, while to the author Britain seemed grey and exhausted. She was soon appointed “The Observer”‘s special correspondent in Germany and, reunited with her husband – technically an enemy alien – she joined the struggle for reconciliation with, and the rebuilding of, a defeated nation. A near-fatal accident to her husband, and her own illness, persuaded the young couple to turn their backs on England and Germany, and make a new start farming in Ireland. Although life was harsh at first, the beautiful scenery of the Wicklow Mountains provided a haven for the family and for the hosts of young people from all over the world who joined them each summer. Christabel became involved with the Peace Women of Northern Ireland, and learned as much as she could about her adopted country.

Dear Readers,

Last month I reviewed the first book that Christabel Bielenberg wrote about her experiences as a wife and mother in wartime Germany, “The Past is Myself.” Once I got all my April and early May new books read and reviews written, I treated myself by going on to read this, her second book. It’s told in the same humorous style as her first book, manages to convey the tremendous bustle of her daily life and that of her family, doesn’t diverge from the main path of the story but is also deeply moving.

The story picks up right where “Past” left off with Chris, her German husband Peter and their three sons living in a small German village in the Black Forest where first Chris and the boys and then Peter – once he’d been released from Ravensbrück Prison Camp for his part in the July 20th, 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life – lived in the second half of the war. A few Russians had already been through there, had looted a little but then moved on. They were waiting for the other shoe to fall at the close of “Past.”

Well, the shoe not only fell but was then picked up and used to whack the villagers as the French auxiliary troops then arrived. Looting, rape, random destruction, more looting – chickens were a favorite – and more rape followed before the regular French Army arrived to occupy the area. Chris – who spoke French – worked out the magic words to say – “Yes, I have a big husband. He’s with the Commandant right now but is going to be back soon” – to keep the auxiliaries at bay and soon most of the women of the valley, along with their chickens, were taking refuge with her.

Chris boldly decides to seek out the Commandant in a neighboring town and gets from him a pass which allows her to travel at will – first on a bike and then by rickety car if she can find any gasoline. Eventually a British captain arrives in her village and the sight and sound of his and his drivers’ voices is enough to cause Chris to melt down in tears with shear relief. He then gives her an introductory letter along with the advice that nothing works miracles so fast in the Army as having a great big rubber stamp to make things look official. With these in hand, she and Peter are off to see his family in Hamburg and to seek work for Peter in post-war Frankfurt.

Meanwhile Chris’s family in England are hard at work getting her and the boys permission to come to England where Chris puts the boys in boarding school – or boring school as her middle son calls it. Chris temporarily becomes a correspondent in Germany for a British newspaper where she watches first hand the efforts to dig – literally in Berlin – the country out of the rubble. Lots of effort and red tape later, Peter can finally join them in England.

Before the war, Chris and Peter had briefly thought of moving to Ireland where Chris had relatives but ultimately they decided to stay in Germany and see if there was anything they or their friends could do to avert the war. Now having made the decision not to stay in post-war Germany, they looked once again to buying some farm land in Ireland and putting down roots – so to speak.

Chris’s description of her family, and her efforts to find a suitable farm that they could also afford is like something out of a comedic BBC TV series. I can see this being filmed. Seriously. Her trip in her aunt’s elderly car, which required a crank to start it, which had no floorboards in the back, a leaking roof on which her cousin had poured rubber cement which then leaked on her and the whole screeching to a halt and thus causing more rubber cement to slide forward and down the windscreen/shield all because a momma duck and ducklings waddled across the road had me in stitches.

Eventually a decrepit farm is bought and milk cows are purchased. It’s then that Chris discovers she’s not truly cut out to be a farmer’s wife but she gamely struggles on, even at one time turning a hand to being a ewe midwife. She and Peter, and the boys during school breaks, carry on, work hard and start to see progress. Chris also learns the history of their farm going back 1,000 years from the old retainer herder who’s lived there all his life. Eventually summer at the farm turns into a YA United Nations as friends, children of friends and various assorted strays come to live, perfect their English and harvest hay and barley for Peter’s contract with Guinness.

The years flow on and Chris ends the book with thoughts of her past and future as her large extended family and friends set up the celebration for her 70th birthday. The edition I have is a combination of both her books along with extra material including 1 extra chapter each that didn’t make the books plus some letters and diary entries Chris made during her time in Germany that her family found after her death. They also make compelling reading especially her chapter about her mother’s life which shows that Chris had a stellar model for the way to live a life She lived an amazing life, made a boatload of friends, influenced people for good and must have been a wonderful person to talk to. B+

~Jayne

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