Monday, October 14, 2013

Pressing On More Sail

Post Captain (Aubrey/Maturin, #2)Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dancing bears and loons that fancy themselves teapots? No, number two in the series is not a typical Aubrey/Maturin adventure, yet it is perhaps better than the first!

While book one, Master & Commander, was about war and friendship, the second book, Post Captain enters the love arena, and friendship is put to the test. Of course war is not forgotten, this is a historical fiction series set during the Napoleonic Wars after all. The career of our hero Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy intertwines with his unlikely friend's, an Irish/Catalan surgeon, natural philosopher and (view spoiler) named Stephen Maturin. In this volume, containing one of the most ludicrous episodes in their adventures, the two must navigate the dangerous waters of the Peace of Amiens, which ceases hostilities for all of Europe...just not for Aubrey and Maturin.

If you survived book one's interminable explanations of naval terminology and are willing to give Patrick O'Brian a second chance, you'll be rewarded by the second book's smoother, more balanced plotting. The man's writing is worth your effort (and patience if you're not into the subject matter). He's been called the Jane Austen of his genre and that complimentary comparison is no more apparent than in Post Captain. With the Peace, Aubrey and Maturin find themselves back on land and prey to debt collectors and a predatory woman trying to find suitable victims husbands for her very Bennet-esque family of all marriage-aged young women. A love triangle ensues that would be at home in any of Austen's Something and Something novels.

Woman do not play a huge role in the series, but a much larger one than might be assumed in books about naval warfare. Often they are in the background, off-stage if you will, influencing the actions of the principle characters, but when women do take the stage, they know their lines. O'Brian fleshes them out well, imbuing them with spines and brains, or a lack thereof when appropriate. They come alive and stand as well-rounded as the men.

If you've migrated to this series for its entertaining action, sea battles, technically correct descriptions of sailing, worry not! Some of the subject matter (even Aubrey's ship itself!) is a touch unorthodox, but there's still enough of what you came for and I doubt you'll be disappointed in continuing on with this very satisfying series.

Setting Sail!

Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin, #1)Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Master and Commander begins English author Patrick O'Brian's lush and literary epic seafaring historical fiction series based on the career of a naval captain during the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

Through out the entire series O'Brian delves into the themes of love, war and friendship. At the heart of M&C is the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and Irish surgeon and naturalistic Stephen Maturin. When they meet at the book's outset - Aubrey a lieutenant without a ship, Maturin a doctor without a penny - they nearly kill one another, but fortune forgives all and these two entirely opposite individuals are brought together into an unlikely but mutually beneficial friendship, one that at times tests boundaries, but also one that warms the reader's heart.

To fully enjoy these books you must cast your mind into that period, the very dawn on the 19th century, the Age of Sail, the Age of Enlightenment and Reason. As much of the story plays out upon ships serving the Royal Navy, English customs and manners are the rules of the game. Serving under the Englishman Aubrey and being Irish, Maturin and a fellow countryman bridle at this, but follow suit and guardedly hide their pasts to preserve their own skins.

At the beginning of the series Aubrey is the focal point. O'Brian fashioned him after real-life naval hero Admiral Thomas Cochrane. Brash, daring but not reckless, Cochrane made the perfect image from which to mould fictional heroes. Among other writers, C.S. Forester used Cochrane to create his much beloved Horatio Hornblower character. Though an admiral by the end of his career, Cochrane was not as widely known to the world outside of England after his own time (there's only so much room for the Nelsons and Wellingtons of the world), so his career could be mined for material, even mirrored in many cases, without the general reading public catching on a century or two later.

At first I hesitated to read O'Brian's work. I'd just read Forester's Hornblower series and I felt like O'Brian was merely treading upon his coattails. But Forester's work had left me wanting more and I'd also recently seen Peter Weir's movie "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," which I enjoyed, so while perusing books at a shop one day and coming across M&C I flipped it open and read a couple paragraphs. I was hooked. The writing flowed with an ease, brilliance and heart that Forester's more stoic prose lacked. O'Brian is called the Jane Austen of his time and genre. Perhaps that is off-putting for some, but for me it equates literary excellence. It means exercising the English language and thrusting your pen into purpose-driven plotting.

Some will find the in-depth descriptions of ships and ship life laborious. I can't totally disagree. In fact M&C's publishers were hesitant to green light the book for that very reason. Here's a suggestion: muscle through those bits. Don't worry if you don't know the difference between bow and stern, port and starboard, or the maintop and the bilge. Stephen Maturin is used as the landsman foil through which much naval jargon may be learned and if you remain as ignorant as he does, you'll be fine. But on the other hand, if you like sailing, the navy, and attention to friend, you've struck gold!

Reading about old naval battles may not be everyone's cup of tea. Thankfully O'Brian goes well beyond other writers of the genre, such as C.S. Forester's more limited scope by delving deep into the minds of his main characters. The full range of human behavior and the resulting affects it has on their actions is entwined so beautifully with O'Brian's full descriptive prose, touching on all the senses. Those with short attention spans demanding constant action maybe too impatient to read through these elegantly and intricately designed scenes with their highly tuned subtlety and nuance. But most will probably find that the author has struck a marvelous balance between literary high-mindedness and high-seas adventure.

Rating: I am tempted to give this five stars, and if it weren't for the too-lengthy and minute descriptions of naval matters, I probably would.

The Movie: Movies based on books are what they are: condensed versions that are not always representative of the original. Sourced from two books (and maybe more), while entirely leaving out a storyline integral to the book series, Weir's directorial effort represents M&C fairly well in its bursts of action between languid pauses to breathe in real life and the horrors/wonders of the world.

Another Great Novel from the Author of "Winter's Bone"

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is another excellent book from Daniel Woodrell, who returns with his first novel since Winter's Bone in 2006.

In 1928, the tiny town of West Table, Missouri, was shattered by the explosion of the Arbor Dance Hall. Forty-two of the town's residents were killed in the explosion and in the fire that followed; dozens of others were injured. But although many explanations for the tragedy were put forward, the guilty party or parties were never identified and prosecuted.

Some townspeople blamed local gypsies; others thought that St. Louis mobsters were responsible. Some wondered if the explosion was the work of the local minister who preached hell and damnation and who railed against the "sinners" who patronized the dance hall.

Alma Dunahew is the mother of three boys and works as a domestic in the house of the town's leading banker. Alma's sister, Ruby, is a carefree young woman who uses and disposes of men as the spirit moves her, until the night she too becomes a victim of the dance hall tragedy.

Alma has her own idea about what happened that night, and as the incident overwhelms her emotionally, she gradually loses touch with reality. She alienates members of her own family and many of the townspeople; she loses her job and has to cobble together a living as best she can.

Years later, in 1965, her grandson Alek is sent to spend the summer with her and over the course of the summer, Alma slowly tells him the story of the events that led to the explosion of the dance hall. It's a riveting tale, told mostly in flashbacks and it grabs the reader from the opening line.

"She frightened me at every dawn the summer I stayed with her," young Alek later recalls. The reader can only be enormously impressed by the skill with which Daniel Woodrell tells Alma's story.