Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “French Revolution”

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #23 The Scarlet Pimpernel

Few characters have the heroic cache that The Scarlet Pimpernel does, heck I first heard about the character when I was about 7 and watching Looney Tunes.

As time has gone on, I’ve seen and heard a lot more about the mythical and dashing: Scarlet Pimpernel. So when I found a tattered copy of the original 1905 novel by the Baroness Orczy, I was excited to give it a shot and see how the reputation stacked up to reality.

It’s a lot of fun to immerse yourself in the giddy fantasy of a swashbuckling hero. Kids do it every day, I did it, my brothers did it, I’d wager some kid is doing it right now. A lot of that same glee is apparent in the first pages of The Scarlet Pimpernel. As a mysterious hero scampers about the French countryside rescuing French aristocrats before the Reign of Terror’s guillotine can dispatch them. The tales of his derring-do are legendary throughout the sympathetic English nobility.

As the novel continues that’s pretty much all we hear of the Pimpernel: tales. As the Reign of Terror’s agents attempt to get at the hero through a former revolutionary ally now living among English nobility, we hear stories about his genius. As the trap is set and evaded and set again and evaded again…we hear about it, but never see it. And as the action builds to a potentially riveting climax, we hear about the events…but don’t see them happen.

Imagination and legend were good enough to turn The Scarlet Pimpernel into the prototype for all the  swashbucklers who would come after. But after a century worth of his successors, the story’s aren’t enough any more. After all, few kids dream of being the Scarlet Pimpernel any more (besides, why duel with real sabres when light sabres make that cool vwing sound?), and for the record, if the Pimpernel was secretly a cartoon duck, that might be a worthy twist.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR4 Review #6 – The Elusive Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

The Elusive Pimpernel is either the third or the fourth book in the series (I did some research, and I’ve gotten both answers). Citizen Chauvelin is back, and boy is he pissed. His star has fallen because of the Pimpernel, and he will have his revenge. He travels to England, supposedly as an ambassador, but mostly to trick Sir Percy to go to France, so that the Pimpernel can be captured and killed.

Chauvelin brings a young French actress with him, and uses her to draw in Marguerite Blakeney; Marguerite sympathizes with her fellow actress, and invites her to the Blakeney home at Richmond to entertain the Prince of Wales. Juliette de Marny, from I Will Repay, is staying with the Blakeneys, as Chauvelin well knows. He gives the actress a necklace that used to belong to Juliette’s mother, to provoke a confrontation. He succeeds, and Sir Percy agrees to a duel – which means they have to go to France, because dueling is illegal in England.

In the first book Marguerite Blakeney is described as intelligent, but she seems to keep getting herself into scrapes. For instance – Marguerite is so worried about Percy going to France, that she follows him on a forged passport. That she got from the French actress. Yeah, that’ll work out fine. So of course she gets arrested, and confined in Bolougne. Chauvelin has a brilliant plan – he wants the Pimpernel to humiliate himself and lose his honor to save his wife’s life. If he helps her escape, then the breadwinner of every house in Bolougne will be killed. Like that’s going to stop our Pimpernel. Chauvelin is outwitted once again, and the Pimpernel eludes him. Oh, he also saves some nice innocent people too.

The story once again follows the Pimpernelian formula, so it’s a good idea not to read them all in a row. But, it’s a nice light read, especially when the news out there in the world is often not so happy.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR4 Review #5 – I Will Repay – Baroness Emmuska Orczy

I decided to work my way through the Scarlet Pimpernel series – this is book two. The prologue starts before the French Revolution. The young Vicomte de Marny has called out the rich (but bourgeois) Paul Deroulede, who has spoken disrespectfully (yet truthfully) about the Vicomte’s inamorata, Adele de Montcheri. The men duel, and Deroulede disarms the Vicomte. Normally that would be the end of it, but the Vicomte won’t let it go. He wants full satisfaction, and goads Deroulede into rejoining the duel. Deroulede tries to take it easier on the youth, but the fool pretty much dives onto the sword, and dies.

The Duc de Marny forces his daughter Juliette to vow to avenge the family on Deroulede. Ten years later, Citizen Deroulede is beloved by the rabble, and declared to be “not dangerous” by Marat, so he has risen high in the Revolutionary government. One day, Juliette de Marny finds herself in his neighborhood, and she incites the crowd so that she has to be saved by Deroulede. He and his family take her in, and protect her. However, she is still bound by her vow, and looks for a way to ruin Deroulede.

Deroulede is friends with Sir Percy Blakeney, who is more of a bit player in this book. Sir Percy tries to talk Deroulede out of a very dangerous undertaking, but Juliette overhears, and uses what she hears to inform on Deroulede. The Terrorists come and search the house. However, while they’re there, Juliette realizes she loves Deroulede, and tries to save him. However, they both end up on trial and condemned. Will they survive? Well, duh. The Scarlet Pimpernel comes to the rescue, in a very clever way, and all is well in the end.

Orczy telegraphs quite a bit of the story, but one doesn’t read these books for the twists. It gets a bit obvious when a very large stranger appears, and begins driving events, but that’s coming from a modern, cynical reader. The books are adventures, and the good guys always win. They’re fun, easy reads, and they are also kind of informative. There are nuggets of information about the atrocities committed by the Terrorists – it wasn’t just beheading the gentry. There was a lot more going on, and the bits of information make me want to do some research and learn more. But not until after I’ve read all the rest of the books.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR4 Review #4 – The Scarlet Pimpernel by by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

“They seek him here, they seek him there, Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven? – Is he in hell? That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.”

I’ve known that rhyme since I was a kid, when I saw the Leslie Howard movie based on this play/novel. And then in the 80s (I think) I saw the Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour version. I had a picture of the Scarlet Pimpernel in my head: a wee, fey, clever dandy, who was pretty decent with a sword. My vision was a bit off.

It’s 1792, France, early days of the Revolution. In England, the lovely actress Marguerite St. Just is the darling of London society, and everyone wonders why such a brilliant woman is married to the fop Percy Blakeney (ok, he’s rich and titled – I’d be fine with that). In the book, Blakeney is repeatedly described as being large – so big, that it is continually remarked upon. He’s still a dandy, impeccably dressed, with Mechlin lace at his cuffs, a laconic demeanor, and a distinctive laugh. He’s not known as a bright shining light of intelligence. Marguerite had informed on an aristocrat back in France, who had gone to the guillotine. She had a good reason, but not everyone knows that. She had fallen in love with Blakeney, but was disillusioned with his frivolity. She was also very well-known for insulting her husband in public.

BUT – Percy’s seeming inanity masks the shrewd, calculating leader of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel: the savior of innocents from the Reign of Terror. THIS IS NOT A SPOILER – if anyone doesn’t already know this story, one still finds out within the first 50 or so pages. Percy is a bit disillusioned himself with Marguerite, because he only knows the bad side of the story of the denunciation of the Marquis de St. Cyr.

While the Blakeneys are living the grand life in London, Citizen Chauvelin appears (he’s real, although exaggerated) to blackmail Marguerite. Her brother is still in France, and apparently working with the Pimpernel. In order to save her brother, she helps Chauvelin to try to find the Pimpernel, not realizing that she’s married to him. Marguerite confides in Percy about her predicament, and he leaves quickly.  She figures out who he is, and hauls ass to France to save everyone. She travels with a member of the league, and is in a race with Chauvelin to reach Percy first.

While the writing is a bit overblown (common for the time), it is very easy to get sucked into the story.  I know I’ve been sucked in, because I have downloaded all the Pimpernel stories (I love my Kindle – sorry for the plug), and am working my way through the series. I have also started doing some research on the French Revolution. I learned a bit about it in school, but the stories give a lot more insight into what really happened.

Again, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that the Pimpernel triumphs.  That’s his job. The stories are good, old-fashioned, rip-roaring adventures, that I would recommend to anyone who wants fun story with no complications.

CommanderStrikeher’s #CBR 4 Review #22: Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution by Michelle Moran

*Audiobook Review*

I had always heard of the famous Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in London.  Every once in a while the news does a fluff piece about some new celebrity wax figure. I guess it is similar to getting your star on the Hollywood walk of fame.  I had no idea of the history behind the museum, or who the Hell Madame Tussaud was.  But, when I saw this book, and read the subtitle, “A Novel of the French Revolution”, I knew I had to read it.  I am fascinated with the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.  I read “A Tale of Two Cities” both my Sophomore and Senior years of High School (the one advantage of moving) and was hooked.  I have read several biographies of Marie Antoinette, and in 2005 finally achieved my dream and took a vacation to Paris.  One of the highlights of my trip was standing in the Place de la Concorde and looking at the plaque where the guillotine ended the French monarchy.

Madame Tussaud was born Marie Grosholtz, and at the start of the story is living with her Mother and her mother’s boyfriend, Curtius,  in Paris.  Curtius owned the Salon de Cire, a well-known wax museum, and Marie has learned the art of wax molding from him.  Commoners and the nobility came to their Salon to see wax figures of current political figures, royalty, and miscreants like the Marquis de Sade.  They continuously updated the figures to reflect the times. They were almost the TMZ of pre-revolutionary Paris.  Marie is the business head of the family and she has been begging Rose Bertand, the Queen’s dressmaker, to get Queen Marie Antoinette to visit the exhibition.  Marie Grosholtz is hoping that if the Queen approves of her own likeness, then the commoners will be beating down the door to visit the Salon de Cire.  Apparently she didn’t notice that the Queen wasn’t really very popular anymore.  Also, she must not have been paying attention to the revolutionary talk of men like Robespierre and Marat, even though her family regularly dined with them.

Eventually, Marie receives an invitation from Princess Elisabeth, the King’s sister, to come to the Royal Palace of Versailles and tutor the Princess in the art of wax sculpting.  This put Marie in an awkward situation. Some evenings she would dine with the revolutionaries and some evenings she would spend at masqued balls at Versailles.

French Revolution ensues.  Lots of people lose their heads.

This book was obviously well researched.  The mark of a good audiobook is when I find myself going out of my way to listen to it.  I couldn’t stop listening to this one.  I also learned quite a bit about the French Revolution.  I didn’t know that every evening all of the candles in Versailles were given to certain members of the nobility who got to sell them on the black market and keep the enormous profits.  Also, Marie Antoinette was required to wear completely new clothes every day, and the old ones were given to certain members of the nobility.  I read that Paris Hilton only wears an outfit once as well.

This was great historical fiction, and I am looking forward to reading some of Michelle Moran’s other novels, especially her upcoming novel about Napoleon.

5/5 Stars.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #41: The Eight by Katherine Neville

Neville’s debut novel is a humdinger. It is two parallel stories, one taking place in the middle of European upheaval around the French Revolution in 1790, and the other in 1972. Neville’s book is a dramatic tour de force, not only crisscrossing the globe and weaving in sophisticated themes on virtually every subject from religion, philosophy, mathematics, music, astronomy, architecture, game theory, economics, the politics of war, and much more, but also sprawling across multiple genres of writing, including historical fiction, romance, thriller/adventure, and fantasy. Her characters, apart from a handful of main protagonists, are drawn from every realm and age as well, including Catherine the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Robespierre, Talleyrand, Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Benedict Arnold, Johann Sebastian Bach, Leonhard Euler, William Blake, even modern heads of state Muammar Qaddafi and Houari Boumediene.

Her modern story centers around Catherine (“Cat”) Velis, a brilliant young computer specialist working in NYC who gets swept up into a global hunt for the mysterious Montglane Service, a fabulous chess set hidden for many centuries, which supposedly carries the code, or formula, for immense power. How she gets chosen by strange and unknown forces into taking up the search—her birthdate and the mystical figure eight into which her left hand’s lifeline falls—is as contrived as the unlikely characters she gets thrown together with, and unfortunately, despite her repeated near-death adventures and general spunkiness, this half of the novel is Neville’s weakest, by far.

But, oh my, the historical portion of her novel had me mesmerized. Two teenage cousins, sent as orphans into France’s distant Montglane Abbey, are abruptly deployed into Paris by the wily Abbess when she learns that church lands and properties are about to be seized by the French revolutionaries. The Abbess has been charged, as have her predecessors through the ages, with protecting the Montglane Service which was buried within the walls of the Abbey, and terrified of allowing its power to fall into the hands of “evil forces,” she scatters its pieces with her nuns when she sends them home and closes the Abbey. The cousins Valentine and Mireille take eight of the pieces with them to Paris, and become a collection point for any of the other pieces that might come under threat of capture. And here the story begins.

Neville adopts an effective technique, modeled on that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, of filling in a great deal of the history and significance of the Montglane Service through individual “tales” told by many of the historical figures that are scattered throughout her novel. She has done her homework well, and manages to brilliantly capture much of the political intrigue of the different periods about which she writes while weaving them into her plot. The two scenes I found most powerful were her nightmarish depiction of the day the “Terror” erupts in Paris, and her brilliant characterization of Johann Sebastian Bach’s genius through a virtual treatise on the mathematical science behind musical composition.

I think Neville somehow managed to produce a blockbuster of a book, which despite many serious flaws in both characterizations and plot contrivances, is riveting in its rich complexity. This book isn’t for everyone—you have to be willing to sit through the intricacies of a chess game, a detailed explanation of the Pythagorean Theorem, and the political machinations of monarchical succession in 18th century Russia, among other gems—but if you’re game, it will be worth the effort.

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