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Friday, May 18, 2012

Anthony Hope - The Prisoner of Zenda

I listened to the audio version of Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda, narrated by James Wilby, and completely fell in love with James Wilby's voice.  I've listened to audio versions of other books and this really was the best, hands down.  I'm not sure if I'd have enjoyed the book half as much if I read the printed version.  Wilby captured the "voice" of the main character brilliantly, in addition to all the other characters, and had fantastic pacing.

Originally published in 1894, the story, itself, is a rather fun adventure, though the star-crossed love part of it is a little too overwrought for me (this said by an aspiring paranormal romance writer, right?).

It's the story of an indolent English gentleman, Rudolf Rassendyll, whose ancestry can be traced on the wrong side of the blanket to the Royal House of Elphberg, which rules the (made-up) country of Ruritania.  He bears an uncanny resemblance to his cousin and the man who is about to be crowned King Rudolf V.  Rudolf R. pays a visit to Ruritania and soon becomes entangled in a plot by the King's brother, "Black Michael", who wants the throne for himself.  Rudolf finds himself impersonating the King in efforts to thwart Black Michael, and sword fights and other daring deeds ensue.  Rudolf also falls head-over-heels for the noble Princess Flavia (this is the star-crossed love part of the story).

I guess I like happy endings, and so (*spoiler alert*) wasn't completely satisfied with the bittersweet ending of this one, particularly when I discovered that it's even less of a happy ending in the sequel, Rupert of Hentzau (well, I guess it depends on how "happy ending" is defined.  If dying "honorably" is happy, then I guess it was... though maybe an ongoing struggle with ambiguity would have been more interesting).

The ruthless, daring, and ever charming Rupert of Hentzau, by the way, steals the show from under the feet of the noble hero, Rudolf, in The Prisoner of Zenda. Rupert struck me as a precursor to the typical hero of romance novels being written now - or, rather, Rupert if he fell in love and was somehow reformed by it.

I found an interesting website, The Ruritanian Resistance, pointing out certain ironies regarding King Rudolf V.  Perhaps Black Michael was not as black as he's painted.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Patricia Wentworth - Wicked Uncle

Twenty year old Dorinda Brown takes on a job in post-WWII Britain as secretary to the fragile and rather useless Linnet Oakley, who can't seem to do much but lounge around in a filmy negligee.  In her capacity as secretary, Dorinda is invited to a house party of the Oakleys' neighbor, Gregory Porlock, who is also a business partner of Linnet Oakley's husband, Martin.  Greg Porlock turns out to be none other than Glen Porteous, Dorinda's "Wicked Uncle", who abused her aunt and ran off with all her money.  Dorinda last saw him some seven years ago, and the aunt had since passed away (from other causes).

Greg Porlock has decided to invite all the people he's in the process of blackmailing to the house party.  This includes not only Linnet Oakley, but a handful of others.  What's surprising is that Greg Porlock managed to not win the Darwin Award years ago.  Still, it's an opportunity for the house guests to all become suspects in a murder case.

The incomparable Maud Silver, a private enquiry agent and consummate knitter, who managed to save Dorinda from one of the Wicked Uncle's nefarious schemes, is invited by Dorinda to help solve the murder, which she does with her usual aplomb.

There's some great characters in this one, including the truly horrible Marty Oakley, the six year old progeny of Linnet and Martin Oakley, and the literally crooked "entertainer" and traitor to the Crown, Leonard Carroll.  I wondered while I was reading the book who or what inspired this particular character; he was different than her typical stand-bys.

There's also a charming love story interwoven in it, between Dorinda and her elegant older cousin, Justin Leigh, though this gets put on hold after the preliminaries in order to focus on the murder plot line.

In all, I thought Wicked Uncle standard Patricia Wentworth fare, a rather fun, light read.  If anything, it was a bit more complex than some of her other stories, as the different suspects all have their own backdrop stories and motivations for wanting to murder their blackmailer.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Georgette Heyer - Pistols for Two

I'm a big fan of Georgette Heyer's mysteries and romances.  I think she's truly one of the masters of a genre she largely pioneered, Regency romance not written by authors living in Regency Britain.  Her Regency romance novels sparkle with wit, romance, and fun, while, as far as I can tell, remaining true to the historical context (as much it is possible for a "contemporary" author - she wrote from the 1920s to the early 1970s) .

Pistols for Two, a compilation of eleven of her Regency-era short stories, mostly romances, doesn't disappoint.  She effectively distills into the short story format what she does in her novels, no easy feat. Heyer is amazingly economic and effective, effortlessly establishing the characters and their dilemma from the get-go - then bringing the story to its delightful happy ending. Many of the stories are elements of what shows up in her novels, with the same themes, plots, and characters types, and I suspect that they may have been precursors to later novels.  Although these elements are familiar to any reader of Heyer's novels, the stories remain fresh and thoroughly enjoyable in their own right. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Journeys of the Great Explorers: Columbus to Cook

I just finished listening to this very cool series of lectures, Journeys of the Great Explorers: Columbus to Cook, given by Glyndwr Williams of the University of London, produced by The Modern Scholar.

It begins with Marco Polo in the fourteenth century and concludes in the late eighteenth century with James Cook.  The lectures focus on the maritime explorers, tracing the perils and progress of these various explorers as they sought to explore and exploit new territories for personal and national economic gain.

I thought Dr. Williams provided a fair-handed as well as compelling portrait of the explorers, Columbus, Drake, Dampier, Bering, and Cook, to name a few, and the historical context of their voyages.  He also brought vividly to life a sense of the conditions in which they sailed, in all its brutality and daring.

Listening to the series made me want to learn more... Must be a sign of how much I enjoyed it, though I never would have guessed that I'd find maritime exploration so interesting.