Desolation Island is the fifth of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. It starts with a brief domestic interlude: Jack and Sophie are doing pretty well for the moment, but trouble looms on the horizon; and Stephen is not doing very well at all, poor thing. (One of the glimpses of the Aubreys' domestic life establishes that their twin daughters have a former bosun's mate as a nursemaid; I do wonder what growing up with sailors as staff would be like.) Then Jack and Stephen are off in the "horrible old Leopard" to rescue William Bligh, who some years after the Bounty mutiny has been made Governor of New South Wales (Australia) and now faces yet another mutiny. (O'Brian has moved the dates of this a bit, but apparently he also has 1813 happen about five times over, so in the grand scheme of things, not that big a deal.)
This book is something of a change of pace for the series. Before this one, I would say that the highs and lows of each book were of about equal magnitude; but in this book, the highs don't seem as high to me: not so much victories as just getting by. This is not a bad thing—I think in the long run I will find it a welcome and realistic development—but since I get very emotionally involved with characters, it made for kind of a long listen.
A note on the text: Amazon sent me one of the line of new trade paperbacks of the series, slightly larger and less pastel. Unfortunately the text seems to contain a fair number of OCR errors, turning "I yearn for fur, a deep, deep bed of fur, and a fur nightgown too!" (chapter 9) into "tool!" and so forth. This is a real shame.
A note on the reading: Patrick Tull doesn't give the American characters anything I would call a contemporary American accent, but since I don't know what an American accent would sound like in 1811 or 1812, I can put up with this just fine.
As always, a spoiler post follows.
SPOILERS for Desolation Island; here's the non-spoiler post if you got here by mistake.
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The announcement in Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced is in a local paper; Miss Marple is vacationing in the area, reads the paper, and slightly knows the young man who ends up dead at the appointed time and place, so of course she looks into matters. I suspected the murderer in this quite early, and it was crystal-clear by the fourth of five radio episodes, so the plot isn't the most interesting part of this. Instead, I was interested by two social things, the first of which was the heavy emphasis on the social upheaval wrought by WWII and the way that long-standing community ties didn't exist any more; it seemed a historical window on British anxieties. The other thing was of interest only because it would have gone right over my head as a kid: Miss Hinchliffe and Miss Murgatroyd live together in the neighborhood and are almost over-the-top in their butch-femme roles; the text doesn't say they're lovers, because I don't think Christie novels do that, but it seems a very strong possibility.
A note on the radio adaptation: Mitzi, the Eastern European refugee, would probably be annoying enough on paper, but she's appalling out loud.
Chad found Robert Mash's How To Keep Dinosaurs on a random dealer's table at Boskone. This is a perfectly deadpan guide that takes the form of a guide to dog or cat breeds, except for dinosaurs. Apparently it's based on current knowledge of things like sizes and anatomy, and on informed speculation for some behaviors; I don't know how accurate it is and I don't really care, because it's just so much fun to read.
It's divided into categories by purpose, such as "Dinosaurs as House Pets," "Dinosaurs for Eggs and Meat," and "Dinosaurs for Zoos and Safari Parks." Within each category is a page or so on a given species; the page starts with a translation of the name, which I skimmed right past until I realize they were also deadpan: "Riojasaurus: 'Rioja Lizard' . . . after its liking for Spanish wine," or "Stegosaurus: An unintended spoonerism of Stesagorus, son of Cymon, the half-brother of Miltiades (son of Cypselus)." Then there are information icons, such as a teddy bear ("likes children") or a teddy bear with a bite out it ("likes children to eat"), or one of a series of hats (dunce cap, "worryingly stupid"; mortar board, "worryingly clever"; gas mask, "worryingly flatulent"). The text includes general comments on the dinosaurs' personalities and tendencies, and notes on their feeding, housing, breeding, and availability.
I don't really think I can adequately convey how wonderfully silly this is without extensive quoting, so let me find a few good bits. For instance, the entry on Deinonychus, a meter-high carnivore, notes that
There is a major problem: the third claw. This is designed for eviscerating, and human victims are not uncommon: one angry swipe is enough and no amount of dromaeosaurid regret (and they are often heart-renderingly penitent) can bring the victim back to life. At last regulations are being drawn up to compel all private owners to trim the third claw. . . .
As Deinonychus was discovered only in 1969 there has been little opportunity to see how it can be useful to its owner. However, it is an extremely intelligent dinosaur and a handful of advanced owners . . . have managed to tame Deinonychus and then train it and test its intelligence. There are several Deinonychus who can play Poker and are brought together by their owners to play in tournaments against each other. The dinosaurs play in gropus of four, sitting at small tables.
On the facing page is a full-page color photograph-like illustration of dinosaurs playing cards with hunks of meat for chips, like dogs but with bigger claws and teeth. (The illustrations throughout are very good.)
Or there's the introduction to the section on "Dinosaurs for Recreation and the Circus," which notes,
Gallimimus has been particularly hard hit by the demise of animal acts in circuses, where it specialized in acts of daring and stoicism. This stoicism, together with good eyesight, has made it ideal for umpiring cricket matches, particularly test matches, which may last for five days without any appreciable action. Off the sports field, other talents of Gallimimus can be exploited. Nowhere is this more evident than on the dance floor. Any dance involving high kicks is improved tenfold by the addition of a troupe of these glamorous dinosaurs. The less talented may content themselves with morris dancing, but the Gorgeous Gallimimids of the Galop have made the Pigalle in Paris a byword for Gallic insouciance and chic.
Or these remarks on Incisivosaurus, which will be familiar in kind if not degree to readers of dog-breed books:
Housing: In one sense it is easily housed: any cage, such as that used by your wombat, will be comfortable and even luxurious, but not, unfortunately, secure. Its buck teeth are not there just to improve its looks: they are there to gnaw. Rodo ergo sum, it seems to say (though probably in Mandarin). In practical terms, this means that it will gnaw its way out of almost any normal cage or container, however sturdy. Once out, it will gnaw its way into the home; once in, it will content itself with the destruction of only one or two items of furniture (keep a stock of unwanted chairs and tables that can be 'sacrificed' each time it enters) and then it will settle down with a nice bone, if you can find one for it. Cuttle bones are too flimsy. Give it something really substantial to gnaw: a cow's pelvis will keep it happy for hours.
Enough. You get the idea. My only regret in reading this is that I don't quite know what genre category to put it in; "sf and fantasy" somehow seems inadequate, though it will have to do for now.
Suzanne Enoch's Flirting with Danger and Don't Look Down are the first two books in a new contemporary romance/suspense series. They're being marketed as chick lit and shelved in romance, and I never would have found then without the word-of-mouth known as LiveJournal. To paraphrase what I said when I saw the first reviewed there: Capers! Trust issues! Lack of Big Misunderstandings! I must have this.
Flirting with Danger opens with Samantha Jellicoe breaking into the house of Rick Addison. She's a second-generation thief who's been hired to steal a piece of art out of Addison's mansion. However, when she gets there, she finds a security guard, Addison (who is supposed to be out of the country) . . . and a bomb. She manages to save Addison, though not the security guard, and ends up the prime suspect. She wants to clear her name, Rick wants to find out who planted the bomb and why, and so they team up to investigate.
They are sexually attracted to each other from the start, but their involvement isn't nearly so simple or straightforward as "fall into bed, live happily every after." They are very different people who lead very different lives—see "trust issues," above—and I appreciated the way that the series doesn't gloss over the time and effort needed to make their lives mesh. Indeed, the second book, Don't Look Down, starts with Sam leaving Rick over an argument about how involved he's going to be in her new security business.
Well, okay, actually Don't Look Down starts with Sam breaking into Rick's house for practice and then the two of them having sex; they don't fight until Chapter 2. I'm not particularly interested in the sex scenes—possibly I just can't deal with the phrase "pert tits" [*]—but I don't find it difficult to skim them.
This is also how I treat the sex scenes in J.D. Robb's In Death novels, and there are some other mild similarities. Rick is from the other side of the pond, rich, famous, and arrogant; I occasionally wanted to wait until he was facing away, yell "Roarke!", and see if he turned around. Then there's the tough female protagonist, the mystery/suspense element, and the slowly building ensemble cast. Enoch's books are present-day and rather fluffier than the In Death series, but might appeal to fans of those books all the same.
[*] I have no idea whether this is a genuine Britishism and I don't care. Which leads me to an objective criticism: the books head-hop like crazy, switching between Rick and Sam mid-scene and often leaving me confused for a sentence or two. I really wish people wouldn't do that (another point of similarity with J.D. Robb).
The plots of these two books are a bit of a mixed bag. Flirting with Danger is a moderately complicated story, accumulating bodies and motives as it goes, and keeping Rick and Sam in constant danger. It ends up answering all of its questions but one, as far as I can tell, and that one is pretty minor (ROT13: jurer qvq ur trg gur teranqrf?). The next book is weaker, which in part is the general problem with suspense series where the protagonists aren't law enforcement: usually they start investigating because they're in danger, but unless they are appallingly unlucky, they can't be in danger in every book. Instead, a prospective client of Sam's nascent security business is murdered in his home, and Sam feels obligated to look into the matter. The plot's much less twisty, the stakes are lower, and the solution ends up being less thematically interesting than that of Flirting with Danger.
I got these out of the library and have now bought copies of my own. These are very entertaining and moderately non-guilty lunchtime reading, and while there are things I'd like to see improved, I will certainly read at least the next one.
Last Chance to See is Douglas Adams' non-fiction book about trips to look for endangered animals around the world. Mark Carwardine is a zoologist who went with him; he's listed as a co-author and contributed an epilogue, but the main text is classic Douglas Adams and just as entertaining as his better novels. For sheer emotional effectiveness, in fact, I think it surpasses his fiction with its remarkably horrifying description of a Komodo dragon eating a goat. Perhaps I was particularly suspectible because I was listening to Adams read it while I was in stop-and-go traffic, which tends to make me sick to my stomach anyway—but all the same, I don't recommend it to the squeamish. (If you're not, the text of the Komodo dragon section is online at The Digital Village.)
(I listened to most of this as an audiobook read by the authors. It's very hard to find and the quality of my copy is quite bad in spots, which is why I only listened to most of it. If you can find a copy, though, I recommend it as I recommend Adams' readings of all his works. Well, except for that fifth Hitchhikers' book, because that doesn't exist in my universe.)
Anyway, this is as much about the traveling to see endangered animals and the people who are working to save them as about the animals themselves, and thus is a good mix of tales about quirky people, strange creatures, and the weird things that happen to you when you are Douglas Adams. I can't quite imagine that someone who liked Adams' novels wouldn't like this, though I suppose anything's possible.
The blog Another Chance to See provides updates on the animals visited by Adams and Carwardine, which makes me wish again that Blogger supported categories (actually, I think I'll offer space on steelypips and a MT blog to the maintainer).
Patrick O'Brian's sixth Aubrey-Maturin book, The Fortune of War, opens with something a little unusual for the series to date: explicit recaps of the prior book's events, in the form of Jack and Stephen making oral reports to others. This is slightly tedious to someone who's just finished Desolation Island and thus remembers perfectly well what happened in it, but it signals how closely connected this book is to the last. There were Americans aboard the horrible old Leopard, you see, with whom Jack and Stephen had consequential interactions; and now it's the War of 1812.
In terms of highs and lows, this book is shaped like a U: it gives Jack and Stephen a time of rest, relaxation, and happiness, and then plunges them (with shocking abruptness) back into tension and danger, which continues for a good while before swinging upward again. The balance between Jack, Stephen, and other characters, which I think of as another distinguishing characteristic of the shape of these books, is fairly even between Jack and Stephen, I would say, with Diana Villiers (yes, she's back) as a strong secondary character.
The other non-spoilery thing I want to say about this book is that it's the first book whose substance made me aware of being an American while I was listening—though I don't know that my reaction was necessarily because of my nationality, since Jack and Stephen are somewhat conflicted as well. The war with America is thought by both of them to be a stupid war caused by foolish actions of the British government, and so on one hand, it makes sense for the listener to root for the Americans, because more victories might end it sooner. On the other hand, Jack especially gets so damn depressed when the Royal Navy loses that a listener sometimes roots for the British just so they'll cheer up. Anyway, I found the ambiguity interesting.
(I'm often aware of being an American when it comes to the language. This book it was listening to Patrick Tull talk about Captain Brook and then finding that the text calls him Captain Broke. Do the British really say "I'm sorry, I broke your toy by dropping it in the brook" with both words sounding the same, or is this just one of those funny family name pronunciations?
A spoiler post follows.
Scattered SPOILER thoughts on The Fortune of War. Here's the non-spoiler post if you got here by mistake.
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