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REVIEW:  The Road Ahead by Christabel Bielenberg

REVIEW: The Road Ahead by Christabel Bielenberg


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+


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REVIEW:  Her Best Laid Plans by Cara McKenna

REVIEW: Her Best Laid Plans by Cara McKenna


Dear Ms. McKenna:

During a vacation around ten years ago, I observed a couple of teenagers beginning a flirtation in the hotel pool. It made me wistful for those unexpected, thrilling crushes of adolescence, those miniature relationships that sometimes happened when two strangers around the same age wound up in the same place for awhile. Although the main characters are adults — thank goodness! — Her Best Laid Plans captures the pleasure of that experience, and let me enjoy it vicariously again.

Jamie is disappointed in her first night in Ireland. After putting her life plans on hold for years for her boyfriend — and then getting dumped — she’s now yearning for adventure and cute Irish guys, but the only pub she can find is full of men her dad’s age. Then as if on cue, a gorgeous young bartender named Connor takes over the bar, ready to listen to her tale of woe:

‘I hope you’ll find the young men of Ireland sympathetic to your plight.’
She laughed. ‘I hope I’ll be able to find any young men on this trip, period.’
Connor looked demonstrably to either side and then down at his own chest, and held his arms out in mock surprise to say, Behold, a young man, at your service!

As Jamie psychs herself up to take advantage of this “made-to-order vacation fling,” the language of the story continued to evoke the thrill of the unexpected youthful romance:

“The excitement and the possibility, the newness… it charged her, thrumming as surely as the bike between her legs.”

“It all felt so tenuous, like a middle school crush. She had to remind herself, I could probably have him if I wanted to.

“…why did she feel fifteen again, dizzy from a guy’s touch?” And Connor, we learn, has similar feelings: “I’m some skinny kid again, trying not to make an arse of myself with a girl.”

Jamie and Connor aren’t extremely young — she’s 23, he’s 28 — but they’re both still embarking on adult life, not yet settled down. Jaime can see they’re well matched by observing Connor’s living space:

His apartment looked just right. Not sophisticated, but not immature. Suspended between the two, just as she was herself.

Mind you, this is most definitely an adult story. Things heat up fairly quickly and then stay heated (within mainstream romance limits.) But I was less captivated by the most passionate sex Jamie and Connor engaged in than by their first provocative teasing of each other, over a game of snooker:

‘Would you fancy making this a bit more interesting?’
‘How so?’
‘Friendly wager?’ Flirtatious wager, to judge by his tone.
‘How much?’
‘Name your prize.’
She thought a moment. ‘If I win, a glass of your finest whiskey. On the rocks.’
‘Fair play.’
And if you win?’ She leaned in, cocking the cue along her thumb and knuckle.
‘If I win… if I win…’
His fingers drummed the table’s ledge until Jamie raised her eyes.
‘Your finest kiss,’ he said with a devil’s smile. ‘On the mouth.’

[Jamie has won]

‘You deserve a taste of this yourself, for saying so.’
He eyed the bar, finding his customers placated. ‘You’re a bad influence.’
She shrugged and took another sip. The whiskey was making her feel bold in the most natural, essential way.
Connor nodded his surrender. ‘Fine. That’s top-shelf — I won’t say no.’
With a smile, she took one more generous taste, than rose on her tiptoes. He caught on just in time, leaning in to bridge the gap. Their noses brushed first, then their lips. She held the glass between them, one of his shirt buttons teasing her knuckles — a strange and perfect little intimacy. A different sort arrived as their lips met, the contact rocking through her with a sharp, hot bolt.
All at once woozy, she kept it brief — just enough of a kiss to let him taste her winnings, then she dropped back on her heels.

The downside is that nothing that followed was as delicious as that initial kiss. Their physical relationship continues to be almost dully perfect: Jamie rhapsodizes that it’s like they already know each other. From her point of view that’s great, but we’re not learning much about them as people, or as a couple, though the sex — and since it’s a short, steamy novella, there isn’t much place else to put characterization or depth of emotion. The only conflict is the limited amount of time they have before Jamie’s return to Boston — although you could argue that Jamie’s reluctance to once again get sidetracked by a man is also a conflict. In any event, I never felt very invested in their sexual relationship; I liked both characters and appreciated how their story eventually worked out, but there was no compelling reason to care all that much that they were getting it on.

At its heart this is a story about new beginnings — even the ending is a beginning. It didn’t have a whole lot of punch to it otherwise, but that aspect was just right.  C+



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