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I've now read three of Patrick O'Brian's twenty (completed) novels featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin. For those who may not be aware of it, this is the series of novels used as the basis for the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

 

The most important aspect of these novels is the wonderfully described setting: British naval ships during the early 19th century. O'Brian (POB to his myriads of fans) had a wonderful talent for putting the reader right there on the quarterdeck. He must have done extensive research into the times: conduct, food, shipbuilding, sailing, geography, linguistics, et cetera. His detailed descriptions of the most minute sailing tasks alone testifies to his knowledge. I was even able to find a quote from O'Brian (but I can't remember where) which said that he read very little contemporary literature and that he mostly focused his time and energy building up his knowledge of his chosen setting. In this regard, O'Brian seems similar to Alan Furst with his World War Two novels.

 

I also enjoyed the very distinct and surprisingly opposite personalities of both Aubrey and Maturin--surprising considering they're such good friends. While none of the novels go any great depth into characterization, there are still enough personalities, feelings, and opinions to add to the story. It would have been a huge benefit if O'Brian could have fleshed them out a bit more, but they are at least satisfactory.

 

In addition to characterization, I would also add plot and language to the weaknesses of these novels. If you take away the setting, either the historical setting or the naval setting, O'Brian founders. This is apparent in Post Captain, the second in the series, where Aubrey and Maturin rent a house in the countryside and engage with society. Ironically, O'Brian has Jack Aubrey say:

"I do not think I am well suited to the land."

[sarcasm]Who'd've thunk O'Brian could be so postmodernist.[/sarcasm]

 

The novels also have a very episodic feel to them. In some cases, the story seems like a collection of small assignments (Post Captian). In others, it seems like an endless series of misadventures, constantly distracting them from their goal and, ultimately, just dragging out the novel (The Far Side of the World).

 

As alluded to earlier, the language also suffers a bit. The dialog is quite good and in keeping with the times, but the narrative is uneven--at least for the earlier books in the series. I noticed a huge change in O'Brian's narrative style when I read The Far Side of the World, the tenth in the series. By that time, he had opted for a simpler, more straight-forward style, in contradiction with the uneven attempt at grand prose found in the first couple.

 

I don't mean to trash these novels. To my way of thinking, the setting more than makes up for the problems regarding characterization, plot, and language, which are still tolerable. I'll probably read one or possibly two a year for that alone.

 

For anyone interested, here are some links that I found useful:

 

http://cannonade.net/aubrey.html - a wonderful list of maps detailing Aubrey's naval journeys. At this time, it's still a work in process, but the first couple of novels are complete. You can even follow each leg of each journey. However, be warned: you may inadvertently read a spoiler if you jump to the next leg before you've read that part of the novel.

 

http://www.sea-room.com/

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aubrey-Maturin

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rating_system_of_the_Royal_Navy

 

http://www.geocities.com/cjstein_2000/dictionary.html

 

http://thedailynews.com/boats/nauticalterms.htm

 

 

 

* EDIT *

 

http://www.hmssurprise.org/ - among other things, it has a link to a good deck plan (http://members.aol.com/batrnq/Surprise/Surprise1.htm)

 

http://www.io.com/gibbonsb/pob/

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Square_rig - a good introduction to the sails

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This is probably the best series of naval adventures that have been written. In a way it is shame that Patrick O’Brien chose this genre because a lot of people have missed the chance to experience one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century.

I was lucky enough to discover these novels in the 1980s and have re-read them a couple of times. I like that Mr O’Brien took is time and allowed a story to be spread over three novels because the voyages of the time would take that long. I also enjoyed the lack of action that is so prevalent in other naval adventures. The author allowed the story to takes as long as was authentic.

I would recommend these novels to everyone.

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I love these books and recommend them to everyone I can. I always get the same mystified response while I am raving on and on about 20 books about the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars! If that doesn't pique their interest (and it doesn't), then I talk about the book where Jack opposes enclosure and how interesting it was to learn about that issue in that way. That doesn't help, either. I apparently am unable to describe the books in a way that makes them sound interesting.

 

I first bought The Wine Dark Sea for my father, not realizing that it was midway through a series. After reading it, he realized that it was a series and started from the beginning. He was a biologist and the thing that he and his biologist friends raved about was the natural history that is such a big part of the books. As my younger brother said, "You feel certain that there must actually be a tortuga aubriensis" [a tortoise that Stephen Maturin discovers and names after Jack Aubrey]. One of my father's friends only permitted himself to read 6 pages a night so that he wouldn't get through them too quickly. I was never that disciplined.

 

I will say that I found the first book slow going. I didn't know the characters well enough to enjoy the first scene the way I did when I re-read it and the sailing terms were daunting. Somehow, the little drawing in the front of a ship and its sails and masts never, ever contained the item I was trying to identify. But I just got over it and enjoyed the books as much as I could, learning a lot about rigging and such as I went on. I had actually abandoned the first book when my younger brother said, "Try again. I know you will love the books, so you just have to try again." And he was right.

 

After I had read the entire series I discovered A Sea of Words, which defines many of the words used in the book that had defeated me before. I wish I had had it while I was reading. I definitely recommend it. It is out in paperback and has been for some time.

 

It's also interesting that so many of the terms that we use today came from sailing. I knew many, but there were also a number of surprises. There's one book where you understand, very quickly, why "three sheets to the wind" means someone who is completely drunk. Why? Because "sheets" means "sails" and you would have to be completely drunk to sail "three sheets to the wind."

 

I must say that I found the battle depictions to be thrilling, without exception. I held my breath throughout one battle, only to read in the afterward that "of course" readers would recognize it as the Battle of Trafalgar. I hadn't, but enjoyed it nonetheless. We recently had a Turner exhibit at the local art museum and all of the POB fans I knew eagerly attended in order to stand in awe before the painting where Nelson's flags spelled out "England expects each man to do his duty." There is one chase scene that my younger brother and I still talk about.

 

My sole "complaint" was that his female characters were rather one-dimensional, but that was hardly enough to keep me from reading such a wonderful series. Just talking about them in this post makes me want to re-read them all again.

 

So many books, so little time.

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Book 01 - Master and Commander

The story begins in the port of Mahon, Minorca, where the Royal Navy has a base. A lieutenant Jack Aubrey is at a musical evening, where he meets Stephen Maturin, a physician. Very soon they become friends as they discover they share a love of, and talent for playing music. When Aubrey is assigned a ship, the Sophie,  Maturin, who is without a job at this time, agrees to sign on as ship’s doctor. While the ship is being provisioned and the crew assembled we are led into the dark corners of the harbour environment and can almost smell the tar and the salt air and the dampness of our surroundings.

As they sail the seas up and down the coast of Europe and into the Med they engage with the French and fight many battles. The Sophie performs well and her captain becomes known as ‘Lucky Jack Aubrey’. His ‘luck’ is more a case of keeping a tight, well-rehearsed, respected and happy ship. We follow the fortunes of the ship’s company during each engagement and are shown the finer workings of ships at sea under canvas.

Whilst Aubrey’s story is that of engagements at sea, Maturin’s story is that of naval medical matters and natural history*. Maturin is an ardent naturalist and is as often found cutting up a fish as sewing up a wounded crewman. It is in this novel that he performs the outstanding operation on a crewman’s brain that gains him huge respect.

It cannot be easy to initiate 20/21 century readers in the life and times of seafarers of the 1800s, but this novel uses the classic technique of introducing someone ignorant so that everything can be explained naturally. This is how both Stephen Maturin and the reader get to learn about life in the Royal Navy and on the Sophie.

As with Harry Thompson’s novel, ‘This Thing of Darkness’, I found the ship to be a character in her own right, which is how, I suppose, Captain and crew also view her. The Sophie has her own way of acting/reacting to wind, weather and circumstance which is part of what makes this novel, for me, so exciting.

The writing style is easy, relaxed and comfortable, given that we are in the early 1800s. Vocabulary and dialogue are of the time and I was delighted to find the longest (unchallenged non-technical) word in the English language nestling quite happily in a sentence so typical of Maturin that he wrote in his journal: “There is a systematic floccinausinihilipilification of all other aspects of existence that angers me.”

There were, though, a couple of things I was not wholly happy about. Firstly, I did not pick up enough of Maturin’s backstory to completely identify his nationality - possibly something I missed. His name didn’t help either as I am not aware that it is of Irish origin. Secondly, the sub-plot didn’t come across too well. Whether it is to be resurrected in following novels I don’t know, but I’d have been more than happy even if it wasn’t there.

Finally, a description to share: “... it would have been difficult to imagine a pleasanter way of spending the late summer than sailing across the whole of the Mediterranean as fast as the sloop could fly. ... and Stephen could remember an evening when he had sat there in the warm, deepening twilight, watching the sea; it had barely a ripple on its surface, and yet the Sophie picked up enough moving air with her topgallants to draw a long straight furrow across the water, a line brilliant with unearthly phosphorescence, visible for quarter of a mile behind her ... And days when the perfection of dawn was so great, the emptiness so entire, that men were almost afraid to speak.”

* Patrick O’Brian was the biographer of Sir Joseph Banks; ‘Joseph Banks, A Life’.

 

ETA: Edited to take out spoilers

Edited by Ting Mikyunyu

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Lucy Eyre wrote in The Guardian about why she loves Patrick O'Brian's novels. In an article entitled Why Patrick O'Brian is Jane Austen at Sea she says "There are two types of people in the world: Patrick O’Brian fans, and people who haven’t read him yet."

 

The article, written for Patrick O'Brian's centenary is a brilliant explanation of why these books are so good.

 

 

Ting, I hope you are hooked and will read more of the series.

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Lucy Eyre wrote in The Guardian about why she loves Patrick O'Brian's novels. In an article entitled Why Patrick O'Brian is Jane Austen at Sea she says "There are two types of people in the world: Patrick O’Brian fans, and people who haven’t read him yet."

 

The article, written for Patrick O'Brian's centenary is a brilliant explanation of why these books are so good.

 

 

Ting, I hope you are hooked and will read more of the series.

 

Many thanks for the link, tag. And I'm hooked, lined and sinkered already! Am on #2. :)

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Book 02 - Post Captain

Jack Aubrey finds himself on dry land - and most uncomfortable it is, too. He is without a ship, and his prize-agent has absconded, leaving Jack and others in debt and despair. However, there are ladies and Jack obviously has a certain appeal. Regrettably, his best friend Stephen Maturin equally has an eye for one of the ladies and so a little tension enters their relationship.
In order to avoid his creditors Jack takes off for the continent with Stephen and finally we begin to learn more about this mysterious gentleman.
On their return to England, Jack is given a vessel - and it’s a rather weird boat with a bow at each end, and various other experimental adjustments. Needless to say it’s a devil to handle and Jack does his best to make it more acceptably shipshape and responsive. However, there is trouble; she is not a happy ship.
Stephen finally comes into his own.
Things move ahead and Jack is given temporary captaincy of a proper ship, the Lively.

Often, these days people think that sailing ships were places of hard graft, unpleasant smells, brutality and damp rot. But when the sun is out, the sea is calm and you are in good company, ships at sea can be like cats at play:
“The recent training had had effect and although the fire was still painfully slow ... it was more accurate by far ... A palm tree trunk, drifting by on the starboard bow [that’s the right side for non-nautical BGOers - Ting :) ] three hundred yards away, was blown clear of the water on the first discharge; and they hit it again, with cheers that reached the Medusa ... most of the Medusa’s time was taken up trying to overhaul the Lively. She set topgallants, ... and she tried studdingsails and royals as the breeze moderated, only to lose two of her booms, without the gain of half a mile. The Lively’s officers and her sailmaker watched with intense satisfaction ...”

O’Brian, having observed early on that Jack is happier a sea than on dry land, seems to be talking of himself also. The sea-going scenarios crack along at a stunning pace; more so than the land-based episodes. But since most of the land-based scenes are of a romantic nature, maybe that has something to do with it.

As always the writing and vocabulary are very much in character with the times and the situation - with the occasional unusual use of words or word structure, O'Brian also has a gift for indicating dialects and accents with a subtle use of phrasing, rather than going the phonetic route.

 

ETA: edited to remove spoilers
 

Edited by Ting Mikyunyu

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Book 03 - H. M. S. Surprise

 

There is just one problem with trying to write about a Patrick O’Brian novel and that is - that it’s almost impossible to stop to jot down some notes; or when you have managed to stop, you are so far ahead you can’t find where you wanted to go back to.

‘H. M. S. Surprise’ is the third in the series, and right glad I was to meet the frigate of the title, knowing from the film “Master and Commander, the far side of the world” that she was a favourite ship of her Captain, Jack Aubrey.

There are a lot of adventures in this novel: battles on land, battles at sea and all in exotic places which are beautifully described. There are also some shocking moments, some tender moments and not a little romantic turmoil for both Aubrey and Maturin.  Their relationship is becoming deeper and more interesting as their personalities play off against each other, yet at the same time complementing their shared talents.

We are beginning to learn much more about our main characters, as well as some of the two hundred or so sailors of various nationalities - a number of whom will stay with us for many voyages to come. Each of them has a unique personality: Pullings, midshipman; Bonden, Jack’s coxswain who has no truck with rank and is not afraid to say so; Preserved Killick, Jack's steward who holds Jack to account when Jack’s clothes get shot up and cut up during battle. These and many others keep the ship’s company - and the reader - alive and alert.

As to the Surprise herself, you cannot but begin to love her as deeply as Jack does. It was in this ship that he began his nautical apprenticeship, aged 12 - meaning that she is now an elderly vessel. In the intervening years she had been well cared for, but certainly not to the standards Aubrey would have liked and he spends a great deal of effort, imagination and energy in putting her to rights, so much so that she gets a new lease of life:
“For a glass and more the watch on deck had been waiting for the order to lay aloft and reduce sail before the Lord reduced it Himself; yet still the order did not come. Jack wanted every last mile out of this splendid day’s run; and in any case the frigate’s tearing pace, the shrill song of her rigging, her noble running lift and plunge filled him with delight, a vivid ecstasy that he imagined to be private but that shone upon his face, reserved and indeed somewhat severe - his orders cracked out sharp and quick as he sailed her hard, completely identified with the ship.”

What helps to keep the reader engaged is the way O’Brian keeps a sentence going, phrase upon phrase, rather like the continuous swell and chop of the sea itself. There is a capital storm that lasts for four pages; it left me as exhausted as the Surprises themselves (though a lot drier!):
“ ‘Hold on! Hold on!’ and again the thunder of a falling sea, a mountainous wave; the intolerable pressure on his chest; the total certainty that he must not let go of the sail clutched under him; his legs curled round the bowsprit to hold on: hold on ... strength going. But here was breath again in his bursting lungs and he reared up out of the water bawling’ ‘Man the halliards. D’ye hear me aft? Man the halliards there!’ ”

These novels just get better and better!

 

ETA: edited to remove potential spoilers

Edited by Ting Mikyunyu

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Book 04 - The Mauritius Command

 

The story opens with Jack Aubrey living in a cottage in Hampshire – on half pay and with no ship. He is not really happy; he is not at sea. Then his good friend Stephen Maturin arrives with an important letter and some fresh mushrooms.

 

The vessel is the Boadicea, her captain Charles Loveless; but Charles Loveless is indisposed and Maturin – having huge influence in this particular instance – is able to persuade the Admiralty to give the vacant command to Jack Aubrey. The mission is to dislodge the French from their bases in Mauritius and Reunion. As Maturin explains it the plan is to: "capture Reunion and Mauritius, to install a governor, and to possess them as colonies, valuable not only in themselves but as posts along this most interesting route." To which Aubrey replies: "A capital notion. It has always seemed absurd to me, that islands should not be English – unnatural."

 

This is, in fact, the reconstruction of a real campaign, as the author explains in his Author's Note. "The groundwork for the tale, a little-known campaign in the Indian Ocean, is factual …"  This includes all the major ships, their real manoeuvres, their burnings, or sinkings, or captures. Knowing this, for the reader the campaign as it unfolds is amazing. The closing paragraph is very satisfying.

 

Maturin's involvement in this story is all about diplomacy and politics at which he seems to be a master. For Maturin the naturalist there are rare glimpses of strange and exotic creatures – including a mermaid. However, he continues to assist with doctoring and performs another skull opening operation to the delight of the crew. 

 

The friendship between Stephen and Jack continues to develop. (Even at the beginning, neither we nor Jack can be sure that Captain Loveless's continued indisposition hasn't been 'assisted' by Maturin's ministrations, though we never get confirmation of this.)

 

Somehow these books keep getting better.

 

http://cannonade.net/aubrey.html - a wonderful list of maps detailing Aubrey's naval journeys. At this time, it's still a work in process, but the first couple of novels are complete. You can even follow each leg of each journey. However, be warned: you may inadvertently read a spoiler if you jump to the next leg before you've read that part of the novel.

 

I have checked this site and the maps are a really good and useful companion to the books. This project is now 59% complete.

 

ETA: edited out potential spoilers

Edited by Ting Mikyunyu

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05 - Desolation Island

I have started at the back with 'The Naval World of Jack Aubrey’ by N.A. M. Rodger which documents the critical period of the Admiralty at the end of the 1700s and into the 1800s when old traditions were breaking down, to be replaced with ones that were, frankly, problematic and counterproductive.
One of the most important changes was that before the end of the century captains were encouraged to enrol their own crews, from their home areas, and stay with them as they moved from ship to ship. This created a strong bond and loyalty between master and men. For no apparent good reason this system was suddenly discouraged by the Navy, the structure broke down and was aggravated by the French wars when more and more men were needed quickly and were being drafted in from various sources, including press gangs and prisons. The incidents of mutiny rose alarmingly, as did brutality towards lower ranks by officers, many of whom had no naval background.
This, of course is the era covered by the Aubrey-Maturin novels.  Aubrey is one of the traditional benevolent captains, a professional who has over the years created a strong following of men and is distressed when they begin to get poached by other captains of the new order. That is why we so often read how delighted Aubrey is - and sailors are - to be reunited from time to time.

Now I'll read the novel.

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05 - Desolation Island, the beginning

 

Once again we start off at home with Jack Aubrey and the family: wife, mother-in-law, two daughters and a son. Jack is a rich man, having received prize money from the ships he captured a few years ago in Book 4. He is now spending that money on gambling and wild schemes and it is quite obvious that, in his naivety of all things to do with life ashore, he is being fleeced by everyone.

Then Jack is notified of a new mission - to Botany Bay in New Holland (Australia) to bring back ‘Breadfruit Bligh’ - he of the famous mutiny who became Governor of New South Wales, but has caused yet more mutiny and is to be brought home. Jack's ship is the Leopard. She is no great beauty, and at her best Jack would describe her as ‘a playful carthorse’.

Stephen Maturin meanwhile has been absent on his ‘alternative’ activities, but something significant happens and his next assignment becomes tightly entwined with Jack’s and they sail together with a quantity of ‘transports’ - criminals. Stephen’s reliance on laudanum (mentioned in passing in previous novels) is now becoming more apparent.

Jack gets a decent crew together, including some old favourites both below and above: Mr Pullings, who is now a First Lieutenant, Preserved Killick (his steward), and Mr Babbington. To Stephen he admits to being “so comfortable with all my old shipmates and followers.”  Unfortunately, only a few hours before they were to sail, the Admiral of another mission comes and takes 100 of Jack’s crew for his own ship, which leaves Jack having to find more - strangers and landlubbers - at very short notice.

There are now a complicated series of relationships to deal with in a restricted space: Maturin, with some of the 'passengers'; and Jack with another Captain on his crew (a situation to be avoided at all cost, but in this case unavoidable).

There are some lovely exchanges. Jack to Killick as his breakfast is being served:
“Where is the Doctor? And take your thumb out of the butter.”
“At work since six bells in the morning watch, your honour,” said Killick, with intent; and in a very low voice, “It worn’t in it: nowhere near.”
 

ETA: corrected Killick's job description and take out a possible spoiler.

Edited by Ting Mikyunyu

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Many thanks for the link, tag. And I'm hooked, lined and sinkered already! Am on #2. :)

 

I thoroughly enjoyed your review of Master and Commander, but am really glad, relieved in fact, that I came across it after finishing the book, as there are so many spoilers in it, that my enjoyment of the book would have been severely impaired if I'd come across it any earlier.  As it stands, I will have to avoid your later posts until after reading the respective books, but will look forward to reading them then.  Maybe a spoiler alert at the start would be helpful for others?

 

On the nationality/origin of Stephen Maturin.  I'm fairly sure that O'Brian is being deliberately obscure.  The Irish roots are obvious, but there are strong implications that he has Spanish, probably Catalan connections too.  However, O'Brian already appears to want to encourage the reader to work things out rather than saying so straightforwardly; there are several such instances in M&C alone.

Edited by willoyd

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I thoroughly enjoyed your review of Master and Commander, but am really glad, relieved in fact, that I came across it after finishing the book, as there are so many spoilers in it, that my enjoyment of the book would have been severely impaired if I'd come across it any earlier.

 Sincere apologies for 'spoiling', Willoyd. I am never quite sure how much of the story to include and will be more careful in future. I look forward to reading your own reviews and comments in due course.

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Sincere apologies for 'spoiling', Willoyd. I am never quite sure how much of the story to include and will be more careful in future. I look forward to reading your own reviews and comments in due course.

Write your review the way you want to write it, Ting. Those of us who haven't read the book and want to can read the review later. Cherrypie does this a lot, she waits until she's finished the book and then reads the comments/review. Everyone else has the same choice.

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Write your review the way you want to write it, Ting. Those of us who haven't read the book and want to can read the review later. Cherrypie does this a lot, she waits until she's finished the book and then reads the comments/review. Everyone else has the same choice.

Thanks, Luna; you are right about delaying to read the reviews. But, I was a smidge fearful of giving away too much, and I think my reviews were getting a wee bit long anyway. So I'll try to restrain myself - however exciting they get! :)

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05 - Desolation Island, the middle to the end.

 

How much adventure and excitement can one novel hold?

 

The Leopard becomes an unhappy - and unlucky - ship. There’s a ‘Jonah’ amongst the crew, a ghost, a contagious disease, a vindictive Dutchman chasing behind; and the seas become monstrous: “And now the extreme danger of sailing in a very heavy swell became more and more apparent: in the troughs ... the Leopard was almost becalmed, while on the crest the full force of the wind struck her, threatening to tear her sails from their boltropes or to carry away her masts: even worse, she lost some of her way at the bottom, whereas she needed all her speed to outrun the following seas, for if they were to overtake her she would be pooped, smothered in a mass of breaking water.” (And that’s one sentence. See post #9 which aso talks about the way O’Brian writes that keeps the action going so effectively.) Finally, there is the arrival at Desolation Island. There they encounter La Fayette, an American ship and we learn of the possibility of war against America.

Jack Aubrey is sorely tried on this voyage. Contrast his gullibility and uncertainty ashore at the start of the novel against his total mastery of harrowing situations at sea, where his interaction with the men and his decisive actions are so well handled. There are wonderful moments with the training of the young midshipmen.

Stephen Maturin continues to pursue his 'alternative' occupation and is able to effect some conclusions. In his capacity as naturalist he finds Desolation Island a ‘paradise’. The many species of bird, mammals are totally tame. Thankfully O’Brian does not get graphic about the way the crew treats them. More he dwells on Stephen’s own joyous encounters with them - and the cabbages.

The relationship between them continues to grow more comfortable. Though in this adventure they have little time for music, the occasions when they are able to play are touchingly told. On another occasion Jack asks Stephen: “You might choose to say a prayer or two. My old nurse always said there was nothing like Latin, for prayers.” Throughout the novel there are many such moments for a quiet smile.
 

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Thanks, Luna; you are right about delaying to read the reviews. But, I was a smidge fearful of giving away too much, and I think my reviews were getting a wee bit long anyway. So I'll try to restrain myself - however exciting they get! :)

 

There are no set rules on how to write a review but you can put spoilers in if you wish (click here for details)

 

I think that it's a little cheeky for a new member on their first day to be telling other members how to post reviews, imho.

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This book contains the one line my brother and I quote to each other all the time, something like

"600 souls, all lost."

.  I guess if I have to introduce it with "something like," we aren't really quoting it.  It's a completely harrowing moment.  One of the best books of the entire series. 

 

Apparently, this reviewer (about whom I know nothing) agrees with me about this being one of the best of the superb books that make up this series.  It's certainly one of the most memorable, especially for that scene that ends with the quote (more or less) that I put in the spoiler.

 

 http://petergalenmassey.com/2013/09/15/the-5-best-aubrey-maturin-novels-by-patrick-obrian-book-reviews/

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There are no set rules on how to write a review but you can put spoilers in if you wish (click here for details)

 

I think that it's a little cheeky for a new member on their first day to be telling other members how to post reviews, imho.

 

Sorry, first day contributing after a while away and then a while lurking, but actually subscribed to the board for some years.  I used to be active a few years ago, but it seems that the vast majority of my posts from the past have disappeared. 

 

My apologies if I was being cheeky. On rereading, I can see why you feel that.  It was meant to be a positive comment, with a suggestion bolted to the end to help others coming to this fresh, but there was rather more suggestion than positive.  A late night lack of concentration is the only excuse I can offer.  Sorry Ting, and thank you for taking it so well.  Perhaps the review below might be a bit more helpful.

Edited by willoyd

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Master and Commander *****
 

I started reading Patrick O'Brians famous Aubrey/Maturin series of books, set in the naval world of the early nineteenth century, some years ago. I'm not very good at sustaining a series though, and after the first four, all of which I rated highly, it petered out - goodness knows why.  The new year seemed a good time to pick this sequence up again.  Given the gap, I decided to start from the beginning (a very good place to start!).

Master and Commander has the same title as the Russell Crowe film, but that was primarily based on the tenth book, The Far Side of the World (as it was subtitled), and there is little other than the odd, minor episode translated from this book to the film.

The film was, I thought, good, very good. Indeed, it is one of my favourite half dozen films (and I'm not even a particular fan of Russell Crowe). The book, however, is far, far better! In Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the friendship between whom is the linchpin of the book and the series, O'Brian has created, in my opinion, two of the great characters of twentieth-century literature, as well as one of the most interesting relationships: Aubrey, a big man, inclined to overweight, bluff, inclined almost to boorishness on occasions, quick-tempered, music lover, riven with insecurity in relationships, yet so confident in his role as a naval officer, almost childlike when it comes to women; Maturin, small, lean, intellectually curious, full of human insight except where his own life is concerned, secretive....I could go on with both, they are so well developed. Together they make a formidable literary team.

O'Brian not only has some wonderful characters (it's not just Aubrey and Maturin who come so alive for me), but an ability to tell a great story. He makes no bones about the fact that much of what he includes is founded on historical fact. Indeed, the role played by Aubrey is based strongly on the real-life personage of Thomas Cochrane, Earl of Dundonald, a famous naval figure of the Napoleonic Wars (and later). Many of the episodes in Master and Commander are lifted straight from reality: the fictional HMS Sophie is the alter-ego for the historical HMS Speedy, for the Cacafuego read El Gamo, whilst the descriptions of the climatic actions of the last fifty pages or so, even if seen through Aubrey's eyes (who was in the same position as Cochrane was at the time), could almost be an historical recount. The book is equally littered with real historical characters, right down to the captains of the various ships (and the master of HMS Speedy was also a Mr Marshall - surely no coincidence given O'Brian's attention to detail). But, there is no doubt that this is a work of fiction, and that O'Brian is more than capable of weaving his own highly intricate web.

There are one or two issues that readers have faced on encountering this series. In particular one of the first things the reader notes is that O'Brian doesn't take any prisoners on the technical front. His language is full of the naval jargon of the time, and a fighting sailing ship involves a huge amount of it! Many readers have complained about this, frustrated at being unable to tell stays from shrouds, royals from topgallants! Equally, O'Brian so gets into the early nineteenth century mind, that some readers have found it hard to follow the whys and wherefores of what is happening.

Well, that is certainly one way of looking at this book. Another way is to recognise the richness of what O'Brian is doing, immersing the reader as much as possible in the lives of the characters. In fact, when I first read Master and Commander, I had little comprehension myself of what the jargon meant. However, if you just let it flow over you for the moment, O'Brian usually finds a way to explain it. Thus, early on in the book, Maturin, a landlubber himself, is taken up the mast of the Sophie, and has the masts and rigging explained by one of the seaman. Stays? Shrouds? No problem now! And if you don't understand completely, and want to (I actually enjoyed several books without fully understanding all the technical words by any means), there are some brilliant companion volumes available (I found myself relying mainly on Dean King's), which in themselves make for fascinating browsing. Whilst one needs them less and less, they become more and more interesting!

This all might seem hard work, and I suppose it might be if, as one Amazon reviewer commented, one believes that books should stand on their own and life is too short for it to be otherwise. But what O'Brian has done with this book (and later ones) is go beyond that, to something that attempts to take the reader beyond the confines of the book, into a world that is vividly real. It's a bit like watching a large screen HD television for the first time, after being used to a standard one for years. I'm already looking forward to the next exciting episode!!


 

Edited by willoyd

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Very nice review.  Thank you.  I love this series.

 

We've apparently had two big crashes on this board.  The first one occurred before I joined, so I don't know what was lost then.  We lost a lot of things in the second crash.  Probably your earlier posts were lost then.  But welcome back.

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This book contains the one line my brother and I quote to each other all the time,   It's a completely harrowing moment. 

 

You are right, Binker. Your spoiler is absolutely the most stomach-lurching line in the book. I remember how I felt when Captain Aubrey said:

"My God, oh my God. Six hundred men."

It was like hitting a brick wall.

 

And thanks Willoyd for your review. I have to agree that the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin just keeps getting better and better (Apologies, I'm using that phrase much too often). Equally, I love the ships. For me each one is a character in her own right - and I am amazed at the technical excellence of a captain who can 'play' them with such panache.  As for the naval jargon, it still scuppers me, but like you say, that doesn't detract from the sense and beauty of the environment. And as for the film, I need to watch it again very soon - maybe this weekend.

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Edited by Ting Mikyunyu

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06 Fortune of War

This novel begins where Desolation Island ends, and we get a brief report on how Jack Aubrey completes his mission to New Holland - and what a time of it he had, finally shepherding the Leopard into Pulo Batang, Dutch East Indies, with more than a few assuming him and his ship lost. Having made his report and participated in a game of cricket, he is notified of his new command, the fastest and best-armed frigate in the navy. But it is in England, and Jack has to get home to take command of her. However ...

... it is 1812, and on their way home war is declared with the United States. So not only has the British Navy got the French Navy to contend with, they also have the largely underestimated American Navy to deal with as well. Suddenly, Jack finds he is not quite su 'lucky' after all.

Stephen learns that some of the undercover shenanigans he undertook previously have been bearing fruit. Little does he know that before this year is out his manipulations may turn and bite him. Mrs Villiers reappears and causes all kinds of confusion to Stephen’s usually well controlled emotions.

Enough to say that after some horrendous encounters, and with Jack badly wounded, our good friends end up in Boston. A large portion of this novel takes place on American soil, and is worthy of any land-based adventure story you can think of.

The final action of this novel is an English man-of-war calling out an American man-of-war; the resulting duel is everything we expect of Patrick O’Brian.

 

This novel is different from previous ones in that there are some much longer discussions about politics, and procedures, and various other weighty matters. Jack falls away as the main character, leaving us with Stephen and his cloak-and-dagger operations. There are fewer light-hearted moments making this, for me, a rather darker story.

Some asides:

There are fewer animals featuring this time, though there is a rather endearing wombat that is not by any means Killick’s favourite.

The derivation of ‘cut no ice with me’ is, according to O’Brian the Iroquois expression “katno aiss’ vizmi”, meaning unmoved, or unimpressed. There is on-going debate about this.

Stephen’s coat has been ripped in a brawl.
Jack says: “Will you give me your coat? It is only the sewing of the pocket.”
“I admire the way you sailors sew,” said Stephen, watching him.
“A pretty set of scarecrows we should look, if we were to wait for women to do it for us,” said Jack, stitching away.

Before engaging another ship in battle, officers change into full dress uniform. ‘All the officers were there, and all had changed their uniforms [...] as a mark of respect for the enemy and the occasion


 

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