Friday, 22 August 2014

Desolation Island, by Patrick O'Brian

5 stars

We've now reached the fifth book in Patrick O'Brian's fantastic Aubrey/Maturin series and I'll admit that, by this point, I am no longer a regular reader but have lost all objectivity and become a squealing fangirl.

Desolation Island finds lucky Jack Aubrey installed once more in Ashgrove Cottage. He's not so lucky on land however, and is being bilked out of his rapidly dwindling Mauritius Command prize-money by grasping tradesmen and card sharps who see him coming. Things are turning so badly that even his loving wife, Sophie, is starting to wish he was at sea again. Meanwhile, my beloved Stephen isn't faring so well either. That bloody Villiers woman is back in town and tormenting him once more, the laudanum monkey that's on his back has got bigger and meaner, he's lost a bunch of intelligence papers in the back of a cab and a patient on the operating table and, to top it all off, has even had a pop at an Admiral. Thankfully, Jack soon accepts a new command - the Leopard, a huge ship with a bad reputation - and a new mission: to rescue Captain Bligh (yes, that Captain Bligh) who's on the other side of the world with another possible mutiny on his hands. Before you get too excited though, remember that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and before we can meet any infamous historical persons we've got a whole heap of ocean to get through, on a boat transporting convicts (including women, Heavens above! One of whom, Mrs Wogan, is a suspected spy) and stuffed with indifferent officers who think nothing of trying to undermine Jack's authority at every turn.

Before long the convicts' appalling conditions mean gaol-fever is sweeping the ship and corpses shrouded in sails are soon slipping over the side. And that's even before 'Firebox' Peggy Barnes, one of the infernal women on board, has opened her legs and given most of the sailors a venereal disease. A brilliantly tense and thrilling sea chase over the course of a number of stormy days, in which the undermanned Leopard is pursued by the much bigger and better manned Dutch warship Warkhaamzeid, sees several large holes punched in the ship before an iceberg finishes the job, ripping a hole in the hull and snatching away the rudder, leaving the few left aboard after abandonment by the many who'd rather take their chances in a dinghy to bail like hell and hope for land. And through it all, the delightfully sneaky Stephen is quietly intercepting Mrs Wogan's letters and filling them with falsehoods before sending them on their merry way.

Every second of these books is a delight to me - whether it's learning about the many harsh realities of life in the Age of the Sail, Stephen's passion for the creatures they come across, or the snarky asides at boozy dinners - I could even roll around in giddy ecstacy at the sentences that make my eyes cross ('A burton-tackle to the chess-tree,' he called, loud and clear. 'Lead aft to a snatch-block fast to the aftermost ring-bolts and forward free.')

I could easily read nothing but these books for the rest of my life and die satisfied, but at the age of 35 I've only got fifteen left to go (sniff!) and so I'm probably best off eking them out a little.

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