The Labors of Hercules – A. Christie
Audio performance by Hugh Fraser
Hercule Poirot is about to retire. Leaving his detecting career behind, he plans to take his little grey cells to the country where he will cultivate gourmet vegetable marrows. Before he departs, he determines to undertake 12 more cases; cases of special and particular interest, which will mirror the labors of the classical Hercules. Twelve cases that also give Agatha Christie an opportunity to write 12 wonderful short stories for the little detective.
I thought this was an exceptionally good collection. There was a bit more comedy than in many of her stories. Christie seemed to be poking fun at her little Belgian detective, gently and with affection. Hastings does not appear in any of the stories, but this is the first time I’ve read anything of the resourceful butler, George. (Mildly reminiscent of Peter Whimsy’s Bunter.) Miss Lemon remains ever resourceful and Inspector Japp appears briefly in a story that includesPoirot’s version of ‘THE woman’. I especially liked the spinster, Miss Carnady, who appears in two of the stories. She reminded me a bit of Sayers’ Miss Climpson. (I always wonder about the parallels between these great dames of mystery writing.)
Some of the stories worked better than others. A few were dated in bias and attitude. Hugh Fraser’s performance made all of them enjoyable.
Enchanted April –Elizabeth Von Armen
Audio performance by Eleanor Bron
3.5 stars ( round down to 3)
Four women of various ages decide to share the rent of an Italian villa for the month of April. Two of the women are bored and dissatisfied with their marriages, one is a selfish elderly widow, and the fourth is a snobbish, young, single aristocrat.
I loved the setting of this book. I want to book a month’s vacation there. Although, I would definitely choose different companions. The book was first published in 1922; so the mannerisms, concerns and personalities of these women were a bit dated. I just could not warm up to any of them. I was expecting more feminine bonding in the course of the story and was very disappointed with the arrival of the husbands. The easy resolutions in marital relations were too simplistic for the seriously troubled relationships.
At the end, I just wanted to shoo all of the annoying people out of the villa, so I could go sit on the terrace and enjoy the beautiful view in peace !
I previewed several audio versions of this book before settling on Eleanor Bron. She gave a solid performance with a good variety of voices for the different characters.
The story is told by the eunuch, Javaher, closest advisor to the Princess Pari. Javaher is uniquely positioned to navigate the treacherous political pathways of Iran’s 16th century court intrigue. While her father lives, Pari is in an unusual position of power and influence. After her father’s murder, her influence within the court decreases drastically.
This was an interesting look at historical events and a culture that are completely unknown to me. So, I can’t speak to how much this fiction conforms to fact. As a novel, this book was enjoyable reading. The descriptions were very rich and the action was well plotted. I was drawn into the conspiracy and the trauma of the story. I liked the major characters and I was saddened by the tragic events of the story. Clearly it was as dangerous to be female in the Iranian royal family as it was to be a female relation of 16th century English monarchs.
Simon Vance handles the accents and varied voices with his usual expertise. His performance goes a long way to set the exotic atmosphere of the story.
The Garden of Evening Mists- Tan Eng
“Memories I had locked away have begun to break free, like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf. In sleep, these broken floes drift toward the morning light of remembrance.”
When Yun Ling first comes to Yugiri in the decade following World War Two she remembers her sister’s death and their three years in a Japanese death camp. When she returns to Yugiri 40 years later, she remembers Aritomo. Aritomo, once the Japanese emperor’s gardener, created Yugiri, the Garden of Evening Mists. The garden was designed and built before the war in the Camaron Highlands of Malaya. Yun Ling has spent most of her life trying to forget, but as her aging brain threatens to erase her memories forever, she begins to record her story.
This is an intricate, layered story that worked beautifully on every level. The prose is poetic and suited to the exotic location. As the story develops, it is filled with details about Japanese gardens, woodblock printing, and surprisingly, tattoos. The characters are flawed, complex, and very real. They are people who grapple with devastating loss, survivor guilt, divided loyalties, and dangerous secrets. In the end some of the secrets are revealed. Some of the truth will never be completely revealed. Despite the lack of definitive answers, the ending of the book felt entirely correct.
Anna Bentinck’s performance of this book was outstanding. She handled all of the character voices and accents perfectly. I was especially impressed that she was able to maintain a consistent voice for Yun Ling while perceptibly aging the voice for the different time periods of the narrative.
Vaclav & Lena ??? H. Tanner
Audio version performed by Heybourne/R. Lowman
Vaclav and Lena are 20th century Russian immigrant children growing up in New York City. The story is about friendship, family, secrets, and truth. It???s a picture of the immigrant experience within a coming of age story. Vaclav is a bright, imaginative boy who is loved and protected by his devoted mother. Lena is a neglected orphan left in the care of a disinterested Aunt. These children come together through their shared Russian background. They develop the kind of intense friendship that is a survival skill of lonely, isolated children. Vaclav draws Lena into his obsessive plan to become a great magician. Much time and imagination go into planning the first performance of ???the act???.
I expected to like this story more than I did. The characters are well drawn. Vaclav???s mother, Raisa, is the quintessential mother; always striving to do the best thing for her son and never knowing if her decisions are correct. Her parenting decisions are complicated by her alcoholic husband and her uncertainty about American culture. She tries to be like the American mothers she sees on T.V. Vaclav is a hyper-imaginative, self-centered little boy. Even as the 17 year-old at the end of book, he is amazingly unconscious of anyone else???s needs. Lena is a wounded, lost child. The happy ending of her new life as an adopted child is too simplistic given the damage that must be repaired.
I listened to this book. The audio production was well done with two performers. Kirby Heybourne read most of the story that was devoted to Vaclav???s perspective and Rebecca Lowman read the portion of the book that was told from Lena???s viewpoint. They did a good job with accents and character voices and they did as much as could be expected with a stilted prose style. I???m guessing that the author deliberately chose to write in the manner of an English Language Learner (ESL). It was a good ploy at the beginning. Short, repetitive, sentences; this is the way that I introduce language to my second language students. The problem for me as I listened to this book, is that I think Tanner continued her ESL voice for too much of the narrative. It was tedious to listen to paragraph after paragraph of sentences in which a character???s name is repeated over and over without the use of pronouns. I was left with the feeling that 17-year-old Vaclav had become fluent in English, but the author had not.
Right Ho, Jeeves ??? Wodehouse
Audio version performed by Jonathan Cecil
Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves travel to Brinkley Court to sort out the romantic travails of Madeline and Gussie, Angela and Tuppy.
They attend an historic prize giving at Market Snodsbury Grammar School and assist Aunt Dahlia in retaining the services of the culinary genius, Anatole. It???s absurd, hilarious and full of wonderful word play. The audio performance by Jonathan Cecil is absolutely ???spot on.???
Wooster and Jeeves make me laugh out loud. This was the perfect light-hearted read to place between more serious subjects.
The Inimitable Jeeves ??? Woodhouse
Audio version performed by Jonathan Cecil
This is the second Jeeves book in the series. Each chapter is like a short story organized around recurring characters and returning several times to the romances of Bingo Little. Bertie takes a brief trip to New York City which allows Woodhouse to direct some wonderful word play and satire at Americans. Jonathan Cecil provides six hours of entertaining ear candy.
This audio version is performed by Craig Wasson. I enjoyed his reading very much. King creates so many completely human, likable characters and every one of them is voiced believably. Wasson handled regional accents from Maine to Texas realistically without being overly exaggerated. I loved that he added a bit of Burt Lancaster to his pawn broker voice. I liked his Walter Cronkite better than his Chet Huntley impersonation, but both of them added flavor to the story.
The Winter Sea ??? Susanna Kearsley
Audio version performed by Rosalyn Landor
Two love stories for the price of one. What could be better for an engrossing summertime book? There is even the cooling benefit of the harsh coastal weather of Scotland in Susanna Kearsley???s The Winter Sea.
Carrie McClelland is a successful writer of historical fiction. She has begun work on a novel about the 1708 Jacobite uprising. On a trip to Scotland to visit her agent she begins to ???hear??? the voices of characters insisting to have a place in her novel. As Carrie???s novel is written with the help of her writer???s trance and the voices of her characters, she is also drawn into her own fulfilling new relationship.
That synopsis makes this book sound simplistic and trite. I did not find it to be so. The historical setting is rich and accurate. The characters are well developed. The ease of Carrie McClelland???s ???writer???s trance??? connection to the memories of her ancestor must be every novelist???s dream, but I did not find this one fantasy element to distract from either of the stories. The dual love stories are of the bitter sweet, but mostly happily ever after variety. Romantic, but not graphic, I would have no trouble sharing this book with a young person.
Rosalyn Landor performanced this book. She did a wonderful job with the varied accents and with creating distinct male and female characters. Overall, she might have been a bit over-dramatic, bordering on maudlin. However, the book does have a sweeping theatrical atmosphere, so some melodrama may have been unavoidable.
Northanger Abbey ??? Jane Austen
This was the first book that Austen wrote. She sold it; it was never published; so she bought it back when her other books became successful. Possibly she intended a rewrite. Her brother had it published after her death.
The story concerns the teen-aged Catherine Moreland who has little experience of the world, but much experience with gothic romance novels. Austen manages to make Catherine comic in her awkwardness and excessive imagination, but lovable in her direct honesty. This book has all the satire and social commentary of Austen???s later books, but other than Catherine, I felt the characters lacked depth. Although Catherine???s brother has a failed love affair with one of her new friends, Austen only deals with the effect this has on Catherine???s relationship with Isabella. Little is said about the brother. Nothing at all is known about Eleanor???s relationship to her Viscount. That marriage is only mentioned because it allows Catherine and Henry to marry. I missed the more complex interplay of multiple characters and plot line that occur in Austen???s later books, but I enjoyed Catherine???s runaway imagination.
Juliet Stevenson gives a wonderful performance of this book. Each character is captured distinctly while she adds to the atmosphere and the comedy with her animated reading.
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