Madam, Will You Talk?

Charity suffereth long and is kind.-1 Corinthians 13:4

“Where’s David?”
“Who’s Johnny?

This is the first published work of Mary Stewart, who is widely credited with inspiring what became a whole genre of fiction: Romantic Suspense. So I guess you could say that this is the book that started it all. Set in the early ’50s this first novel introduced readers to the evocative descriptions of exotic locales that she became so famous and appreciated for. To say the least, her heroines do not suffer from dreary lives. Mary’s exciting adventurous novels must have been a welcome respite from the gloom and hardships of post-war England.

It has been decades since I last read this story but there were a few things that I had never forgotten from the 4 or 5 times I read this previously. This time I listened to it on Audible read by famous actress Emilia Fox. The friendship blossoming between the young English tourist and a haunted but charming young boy in France and his evident fear of his father. She is determined to protect him at all costs. I remembered the tense cat and mouse chase between Charity Selbourne, our heroine, and her very scary “enemy” through the countryside and towns of France. Charity sabotaging his car using a secret trick her late husband Johnny taught her in order to buy her some time to get away from him. The ghost of Johnny, who was a race car driver before he was killed on a mission over France during WWII, is present throughout the novel. The war looms large in this story. Johnny taught Charity how to handle fast powerful cars. That skill saves her life.

“When you let excitement in, Johnny would add, in a lecture-room sort of voice, fear will follow.”

That quote always stuck with me.

The episode that stood out for me more than any other was her car race to rescue her love and the boy David from the hands of their potential murderers. Her use of her considerable driving skills becomes a deadly weapon. Charity’s development from just a nice and very frightened young woman to a formidable adversary is just awe-inspiring.

I remembered how quickly and shockingly the love story flared when I first read it. With my modern sensibilities, It was a little troublesome how firmly trust and long-term commitment between the two were established. But I went with it. I guess it does happen like that sometimes. Two other things that were also difficult for me on this re-read were the constant smoking and the way that Charity was marginalized and kind of infantilized by the hero after her courage and heroics.

But after the darkness and fear, the closure, joy, and hope of the ending were so satisfactory.

“And so it ended, where it had begun, with the little Jewish painter whose death had been so late, but so amply avenged. And, ten days later, with The Boy David carefully boxed in the back of the Riley, my husband and I set our faces to the South, and the Isles of Gold.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

January 7, 2021

Amberwell

By D. E. Stevenson

This is the story of Five Little Children and How They Grew. I listened to this on Audible read by Lesley Mackie. With her gentle voice and slight Scottish accent, she added a lot to my enjoyment of this sometimes somewhat dark novel. While we hear about the children and their story it almost felt like I was being told a fairy tale and it was lovely, hoping as I was for happily ever afters for the children after the storms had passed. And lessons learned and justice served for those that required them.

The Ayrton children, two boys, and their three younger half-sisters are the children of two parents who don’t know or love their children or even care to. They are not socialites, jet setters, or workaholics, or V.I.Ps who are too busy with their own affairs to pay attention to their children. They are conventional and stolid pillars of the community. They keep the children from church and school and pretty much just ignore them unless they are of use or can’t avoid them. They just do not have any love in them. It was very odd.

Left to their own devices, they bring themselves up, thanks to a loving Nanny who unfortunately has little influence with the parents, and they do a wonderful job. Roger and Tom, in time, go off to boarding school where they learn that their parents and family are not normal. The reader spends the most time with Nell and Anne. The beautiful older sister, Connie, is nice as a little girl, but grows up only wanting to avoid unpleasantness and difficulty and doesn’t feel things very deeply. She gets married because that is what girls did and like her parents before her, we learn she is a horrendous parent, but in a different way. Nell and Anne are almost pathologically shy (unsurprisingly) sweet, and very close, with Anne being somewhat of a free spirit. They are both bright but ignorant scholastically and socially. It is Anne who was the most interesting with her fey ways, stronger spirit, and her unusual infectious laugh which is triggered mysteriously and unexpectedly.

It was no use of course. When Anne began to giggle it was hopeless trying to stop her. Anne shook with internal convulsions; she was seized with uncontrollable mirth and flung herself upon the bank writhing helplessly. The others caught the infection and laughed too. “What are we laughing at?” asked Gerald at last in a trembling voice. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes. “Come on, Anne. Tell us the joke.” “Anne can never tell you,” said Nell hastily …“Anne can never tell you the joke, and even if she does it isn’t a bit funny.

The war comes and has a dramatic effect on Amberwell, the center of the universe in this book. Mr. And Mrs. Ayrton are inconvenienced by the war, but that is the end of their involvement. But Roger and Tom go off to do their duty and become fine young men. Roger marries and has a baby. Nell comes out of her shell somewhat and becomes the dependable rock of the family. Anne, however, goes off to London with their Aunt and under her influence disgraces the family by eloping without the blessing of her parents. She disappears off the face of the earth. And we lose the most fascinating character in the book. Throughout the novel, the reader and Nell are consumed by Anne’s fate. Is she well and happily married? We have reason to hope, but why doesn’t she write? Or is she in dire straits? We don’t know until the end.

There are some sad and tragic times as well as a lot of growth and hope in this novel. Despite the happy ending, there were some disappointments and a boatload of loose ends and unrealized promise. Hopefully, the sequel (Summerhills)will resolve some questions and fates and provide some more closure. But I really liked this gentle and serious story with its intricately fashioned characters, insight, thoughtfulness, and atmosphere. **3 1/2 stars, rounded up**

Rating: 4 out of 5.

December 22, 2021

The Fair Miss Fortune

by D. E. Stevenson

What a sweet, funny, and charming book! That is if you like old-fashioned chaste romances set in the English countryside. And who doesn’t? Well lots of people, I guess. But I like them. Not as a steady diet, but if they are as well written, and as beautifully narrated as this one, I could get used to it.

Miss Jane Fortune causes quite a stir when she comes to the insular village of Dingleford with her old nanny to open a tea shop. She charms everyone in sight with her beauty and sweetness. Especially the eligible bachelors. Everyone except Mrs. Prescott who sold her her cottage/future tea shop. She is an overbearing entitled old battle-ax who mercilessly bullies and dominates her son Harold. You know the type. Miss Fortune and the most eligible bachelor in the village, Charles Weatherford, soon become quite close. One day, Jane’s twin sister, Joan, a slightly more impulsive and unconventional version of Jane, comes to stay. She is escaping from an amorous Frenchman who has vowed to chase her to the ends of the earth. Jane agrees to keep Joan’s existence a secret, to protect her. Thus begins, at times, an hilarious comedy of errors, wonderfully narrated by Patience Tomlinson. I listened to this on Audible. Charles, meeting Joan, thinking she’s Jane, is very confused by her indifferent behavior and falls out of love with her. Joan unaccountably falls in love with the browbeaten mama’s boy, Harold Prescott, who is amazed at her sincere interest (as is the reader). The scene where Mrs. Prescott visits Jane, thinking she is the shameless hussy who is attempting to ensnare her beloved son is priceless. Jane may be sweet, but she has enough spirit and poise to spare. She is not to be underestimated, especially in the face of the character assassination of her beloved sister.

The book is peopled with some very well-drawn characters: Jane and Joan’s nanny, Charles’ Mother, the shopkeeper who sells Harold some exercise books, the middle-aged colonel, horrid Mrs. Prescott, and especially Harold, who knows he is “a worm” but vows to make himself worthy of the Fair Miss Fortune.
The only criticism I have is the book ends too abruptly and leaves some loose ends regarding the endearing Harold and his mother.
Probably if I had read it it would have been 3 stars, the narration made it 4. so **3 1/2 stars**

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

December 2, 2021

The Bookshop of Second Chances

By Jackie Fraser

This time last year we went away. We stayed in a tiny cottage near Rye. Our eighteenth Valentine’s. We drank champagne and sat in front of an open fire and said things like, “Still here, then!” and told each other we loved each other. I think one of us may have been lying.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book written in the present progressive tense before: Mrs. McCain smiles at me. “I’ll let him know you’re here. Have a seat.” I haven’t time to, though, as the door on my left is opening and here’s Alistair Gordon, hand out in greeting. “Mrs. Mottram. It’s good to finally meet you.” Once I got over trying to figure out how Thea, our heroine, is able to tell her story while it is actually happening, I quite enjoyed it. 43-year-old Thea is trying to recover from the pain of her recent separation from her adulterous husband of almost 20 years and the loss of her job. When she gets a letter telling her that her Uncle Andrew has left her a cottage and a book collection in his will she feels that this is just the break she needs. She jumps at the chance to go to Scotland for a time to get a fresh start.

As she settles into the small community and starts making friends, she decides she quite likes it and decides to get a job and stay a little longer. She convinces the obnoxious, rude, and anti-social bookstore owner to take her on, despite the warnings of her new friends. She is confident she can handle him. And, thanks to her sense of humor, she is right. They work well together, Thea increases the store’s sales with some creative marketing and takes charge of developing more of an online presence on social media. A single woman, a quaint bookstore, and a picturesque town. It’s practically a genre. Soon it is evident to the reader, the town, and everyone except Thea that the curmudgeonly but very attractive Edward has fallen head over heels in love with her. And Thea is not indifferent.

After things finally come to an emotional head, Edward being Edward fires her. She is devastated. This turning point happens with plenty left to go in the book. Why did he do that? Why did he renounce their friendship? What is the bitter feud with his brother, the laird, about? Why did Edward, the older brother, renounce his title and lands and open a bookstore to make his living? Will Thea go back home to Sussex or will they be reconciled? What about her husband Chris? I loved that we are not kept in suspense for long. 

**Spoiler**

Edward comes to terms with his feelings very quickly and they become a couple. Thea learns to navigate the challenges of their very different backgrounds and values. But once they declare their love there is no doubt that when regretful Chris visits her having second thoughts that Thea is in no danger of going back to him. Thea’s home and new life is with Edward in Scotland.

**end spoiler**

By the end of the book, we realize just what a force of nature Thea has become. She is quite a different woman from the one who came to the little town, and miserable Edward is a new man. Her future is bright and is to be envied.

This is a funny, warm and romantic story with great character development, lots of atmosphere, not a lot of plot, but with some suspense and drama thrown in. I enjoyed alternating between reading and listening to the story on Audible.
**3 1/2 stars**

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

December 20, 2021

The Fledgling

By Elizabeth Cadell

This is the story of a journey of a most formidable and inscrutable 10-year-old girl. Tory lives a lonely restricted life with her elderly aunts and equally elderly governess in an ancient castle in Lisbon. Her widowed and still grieving father, whom she hardly knows, decides she must go to school in England to gain some balance in her life. On the way to England, she discovers her chaperone is a nasty drunk and a thief. They are together on a train until he “somehow” leaves the train in pursuit of his luggage he “somehow” thinks has been mistakenly off-loaded by the porter. Tory makes her way to London contentedly alone and, safely in her care, is a priceless gold figurine that had been stolen by the man from the chapel of her aunts.

She is to stop over with her father’s cousin, for a day, before making her way north to her boarding school. Phillipa is lively and lovely as well as frank to a fault. She is forthright and open and she wastes no time expressing her justified disapproval of Tory’s father and his failings as a parent. Even though, or maybe because Tory is quiet and prefers to watch and listen, she immediately feels a kinship and rapport with this distant cousin. Because of her trust and confidence, she confides in her about the figurine which she had meant to keep secret until she could get it back to Portugal. This sets off a chain of events that extends her stay with Phillipa and brings her father back from South America. She becomes acquainted with a boy and his dog, a wicked old lady, a nice old lady, and a suspicious but upright highly placed government official. To further add to the mix, both her father and the stern official both used to be engaged to the charming Phillipa. And Phillipa is still in love with one of them.

This is a thoroughly delightful novel starring one of the most intriguing children I have run across in a book. Let’s just say it would not be wise to oppose her. By the end of the book the people Tory likes or loves are happy and the ones she does not like are not happy. Her future is bright with the promise of newfound freedom and a new family.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

November 15, 2021

The Moon-Spinners

By Mary Stewart

**Spoilers**

I had just seen the Disney movie The Moon-Spinners for about the millionth time motivated by reading Hayley Mills’s autobiography. I had forgotten how different it was from the book. In both, Nicola Ferris our 22-year-old young heroine runs across Mark in Crete while on vacation with her forty-something cousin Frances. In the book, Mark is already wounded and in hiding with his Greek friend, Lambis. In the movie, they are both guests at a small family hotel. They meet at a party the first night but the next morning, he is mysteriously missing. Of course, the book has Colin, Mark’s kidnapped little brother instead of the friendly Greek youth of the movie. That was a plus. Mark’s and Nicky’s anguish and our suspense over whether the bad guys had killed Colin or taken him hostage added a lot to the novel. The scenes where Nicky and Colin find a buried body that appears to be Mark’s and the discovery of the truth later make gripping reading.

There is one main thing, though, that I feel the movie improves upon and that is Mark’s motivation for his conflict and danger from Stavros and company. In the book, Mark and Colin are threatened because they witnessed a murder among thieves. But in the movie, Mark was accused of stealing some jewels in London and the only way he can clear his name is to follow Stavros to Crete, recover them, and prove Stavros was the real thief. This brings in the iconic Pola Negri to play the part of Madame Habib to whom Stavros is bringing the jewels to sell. Those scenes, and also the scenes at the diplomat’s house that they take refuge in only to find out he is one of the gang are really suspenseful and add a lot more adventure to the plot of the movie.

I did enjoy the Moonspinners very much despite the sub-par narration of Daphne Kouma. Her enunciation was not the clearest and she often whispered to convey tension or suspense in the story which also made her difficult to understand sometimes. The romance between Mark and Nicky was very slight and rather subtle, but it was sweeter than in the movie. The characters of Colin and Lambis added some humor and depth. Nicky’s successful Cat and Mouse with Sophia, Tony, and Stratos until she makes a fatal mistake keeps you on the edge. And of course, Mary Stewart’s description of the land and the character of the people and their ways were very evocative as always. The book is lighter than some of her books in which the lead characters are a little more mature, but none beat this one for charm.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

November 5, 2021

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

By J. K. Rowling

This a review of the Audiobook performance of this wonderful book. I love the Harry Potter book series and the movies and am currently, slowly but surely, listening to them on audio. I have read this book twice before. I listened to the first in the series read by Stephen Frye which was marvelous. The last two, by Jim Dale, because I don’t have a choice in the United States. I much prefer Stephen Frye. I know Mr. Dale has won numerous awards for his reading of this series, but there is one aspect that regrettably presents itself frequently. It is the voices of the 3 kids, especially Hermione. He often makes them sound querulous and whiney. Hermione’s “Haaaaaarrrrrry” is just like nails on a chalkboard to me. I am hoping that as the trio grows older, the squeals will abate. I have no quarrel with the way he pronounces Voldemort (with a silent “T”) But his pronunciation of the spell “Accio” as Ah-see-o absolutely drives me up a wall.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

January 19, 2019

The Austen Playbook (London Celebrities #4)

By Lucy Parker

Set in the glittering world of London’s West End theatre and a country estate, this is a sparkly, light, and frothy romance between a scary theatre critic and one of his frequent targets, an actress who comes from a long line of theatrical leading lights. Freddy Carlton, our bubbly light-hearted heroine is torn between wanting to please her illustrious father, who wants her to be a “serious” actress like her grandmother, and her own love of musical romantic comedies, the genre in which she shines.

When she accepts a role in a new interactive live TV production called The Austen Playbook behind her father’s back, it throws her together with her nemesis, James Ford-Griffin, because it is to be filmed at a private theatre on his family’s estate. Not only has he been very rude when reviewing her serious dramatic performances but their grandparents had an affair that did not end well and the two families have been enemies since.

Taking an equal stage with the satisfying “opposites attract” romance, are numerous other plots, seamlessly woven together. We have family drama and reconciliation, imminent financial disaster, a plagiarism scandal that threatens to bring down a family and their legacy, professional rivalries, and many more!

This book was just delightful. The romance was solid and well-paced, the dialogue sparkling and witty, and the plotting intriguing and intelligent. The theatre-world setting seemed authentic. There was a lot going on, but each character and story were given their due with plenty of suspense, mystery, and tension as well as romance. Lucy Parker is definitely on my radar. This is my first book by her, and I am quite excited.

I listened to this on audio, read at breakneck speed by Billie Fulford-Brown. Take a tip from me and turn the speed down to 90% so you can keep up.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

October 24, 2021

The Enchanted April

By Elizabeth Von Arnim

“And the more he treated her as though she were really very nice, the more Lotty expanded and became really very nice, and the more he, affected in his turn, became really very nice himself; so that they went round and round, not in a vicious but in a highly virtuous circle.”

This was a lovely book narrated beautifully by Nadia May. The story is already well known, I think, if not from the book then by the multiple award-winning and Oscar-nominated movie, directed by Mike Newell. I saw the movie again a couple of months ago, was inspired to (finally) read the book, and now I want to see the movie again!

Four very different women disappointed by life and love, strangers to each other, decide to rent a beautiful villa in Italy together. Two are married and two are not. The two married ones, Lottie Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot were once in love with their husbands and vice versa but time and temperament have estranged them. Lotty is shy and spiritless and her husband squashes her. She has very little filter and is sometimes awkward and imprudent. She has not been an asset to his career. Rose has driven her husband away by her devotion to her church and doing good works for the poor. She coldly disapproves of him. He leaves her to herself and to her religion. She is confused by her unhappiness. Rose and Lotty are getting away from their husbands as much as they are attracted by the prospect of escaping London for beautiful Italy. Mrs. Fisher is a dried-up selfish old snob who lives in the past. Beautiful wealthy Lady Caroline is trying to escape men altogether. They all inevitably fall in love with her at first sight, much to her dismay, and won’t leave her alone. She calls them “Grabbers”. She was the most interesting of the four women, to me. Improbably nicknamed “Scrap,” She is self-absorbed, but I loved her. All she wants is solitude, but people won’t stop bothering her. Her lovely countenance hides inner bitterness, boredom, and disillusionment.

“…but it was her fate that however coldly she sent forth her words they came out sounding quite warm and agreeable. That was because she had a sympathetic and delightful voice…. Nobody in consequence ever believed they were being snubbed. It was most tiresome. And if she stared icily it did not look icy at all, because her eyes, lovely to begin with, had the added loveliness of very long, soft, dark eyelashes. No icy stare could come out of eyes like that… it got caught and lost in the soft eyelashes, and the persons stared at merely thought they were being regarded with a flattering and exquisite attentiveness. And if ever she was out of humour or definitely cross— and who would not be sometimes in such a world?—-she only looked so pathetic that people all rushed to comfort her, if possible by means of kissing. It was more than tiresome, it was maddening. Nature was determined that she should look and sound angelic. She could never be disagreeable or rude without being completely misunderstood.”

Poor lady!

One by one, by the end, all four of the unhappy women, have their lives transformed by the enchanted beauty of San Salvatore. Two marriages are restored when their husbands visit and see their wives transformed. Lady Caroline learns gratitude and sees herself with clear eyes, and finally realizes that love is a blessing, not a curse, and, perhaps, lets it into her life. Mrs. Fisher, who was thoroughly unlikeable and badly behaved for almost the whole book, learns life still holds love and value for her despite her age, starts to look ahead and not back. As they walk away from San Salvatore and the (enchanted?) villa, we hope and pray they take the enchantment with them permanently. We think they do.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

October 11, 2021

One Day in December

By Josie Silver

I listened to this book on audio with Elinor Tomlinson reading the main protagonist Laurie’s part. She did a great job but boy her voice is very posh. The reader who voiced Jack was good too, but for some reason, I didn’t think the timbre of his voice matched the character. But that’s just me. Not his fault.

This was a good love story and well written. I was attracted to the story because something similar happened to me once except we were in cars, not at a bus stop. Nothing came of it. We never met. The ending was very happy for the two main characters and almost made up for the problems I had with the story. It was very cinematic. I can just see it as a movie scene in my mind’s eye. Since this was a Reese Witherspoon book club pick, It just may be a film someday, although it would probably be a little difficult given the limited plot. I almost feel it is more of a love story between two best girlfriends rather than a romance.

Now, my problems. Throughout a lot of the story our hero, Jack, behaved badly. Cringingly so. The man Laurie married was such a good guy and behaved with amazing trust, maturity, and patience. He also loved her so much. He would make a great hero in his own book.

**spoiler**

As far as her relationship with her husband, Oscar, she was hypocritical and stubbornly self-deluded. she made a conscious decision to marry (“I choose you, Oscar, every day.”–or words to that effect) Nice words, Laurie. Too bad you didn’t walk the walk. Having chosen Oscar, and made her vows, she decided not to continue with the marriage on the lamest of excuses. She betrayed him and her vows in her heart. I felt like she was casting around for an excuse to divorce him and Oscar’s promotion and permanent transfer to Brussels full time just fell into her hands and boy did she pounce on it. She didn’t want to admit to herself that she was in the wrong and a less than sterling character. Or the author did not want to paint her in that light, I should say. I feel like Ms. Silver wrote herself into a corner in that she could not split them up without contradicting their established characters, or something tragic happening. The excuse that Laurie did not want to move to Brussels with him was so phony and lame. I can’t help but think she, indeed, was setting him up for a sequel. In my opinion, killing him off certainly would have ticked all the boxes as a solution to getting Jack and Laurie back together. This was a big problem with me, but another problem I had was with the temporary estrangement between Sarah and Laurie. I think Sarah really over-reacted and skipping out on Laurie’s wedding where she was maid of honor was really despicable and over the top. It just didn’t ring true. Their reconciliation was largely “off-screen,” thus missing an opportunity for some good emotional drama and tears. As such, it was very anticlimactic.

**end spoiler**

So, Ms. Josie Silver, I have told you the problems with the book and even told you how they could have been corrected. Now the least you can do is write a sequel featuring Oscar’s love story. Then all will be forgiven!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

February 15, 2019