The Island Of Dr Moreau

I found The Island of Dr Moreau to be a much better read than H.G. Wells's prior attempt, The Time Traveler. This is most likely due to two main reasons, the first of which is that the urgency that strikes the lead character in this work is actually portrayed very well to the reader, whilst in The Time Traveler, no matter what events face the protagonist, it never really seems that he is in mortal danger. The second reason is that I found the story of a lot more interest - being left on an island full of beast men versus going to the future and discovering that humanity has split into a bunch of weedy cattle and underground dwelling cannibals.

I found this book to be a perfectly readable novel, it was never a struggle to get through where I found I needed to rest after a certain number of pages. Whilst not as gripping as Dr No, to give a recent example, it is still a compelling story that makes you want to turn each page to discover the secrets of the island and what happens to its inhabitants. The character of Dr Moreau himself is also fascinating, as we know little about him and his motivations. I was reading an article online that discussed the film versions that have been made from this book, and how they often seek to clarify Moreau's reasoning for his experiments as being a mad scientist or trying to take over the world. I think it is infinitely more chilling that he is doing it just because he can.

Dr No

Dr No is everything that a novel should be. A fast, free-flowing plot, adventure abound and evil Chinamen. I noticed the difference between this and Diamonds Are Forever as in Dr No, the ending doesn't seem unnaturally short as if the author ran out of space. Not wishing to ruin anything, but the story seemed perfect, at least to me - nothing seemed hurried or glossed over, and each chapter segues well into the next. This is another tale I want to see remade and filmed as close to the book as possible. With the current direction of Bond movies, that's a hope at least. It's incredible to see how far the movies went from the direction of the books before the series was rebooted.

I had a thought whilst reading this that if Dr No were to take after 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, it would most likely keep the same start but as soon as Bond makes it to the island, it would document his explorations in jungles and swamps and rivers in the most minute detail. I'm still bitter over that book! But this is certainly one to read if you get a chance (and are a fan of adventure). It also features an incredible rant by M, to wit:

"See what I mean, 007? Just the sort of mares' nest these old women's societies are always stirring up. People start preserving something - churches, old houses, decaying pictures, birds - and there's a hullabaloo of some sort. The trouble is these sorts of people get really worked up over their damned birds or whatever it is. They get the politicians involved. And somehow they seem to have stacks of money. Other old women, I suppose."

Raiders & Rebels - A History Of The Golden Age Of Piracy

Raiders & Rebels is not like the majority of pirate books out there. Rather than focusing upon individual captains and their swashbuckling adventures, it instead presents the story of pirates as a chronological history and ties them all together with a lucidity not often found in a history book. Perhaps it is that the subject matter is of more interest, but this book starkly contrasts with Cuba: A New History which I recently tried reading but returned on the shelf to await future endeavours.

I really liked the approach of this book. It almost focuses less on the pirates themselves and more on the world in which they lived in, reasons why they turned pirate and what they were up against. Of course, there are recounts of the adventures they got up too, but it also introduces characters I had never heard of before, such as the Governor of the Bahamas, Woodes Rogers. The author himself has done a commendable job as he has an extensive notes section to show just where he is getting his evidence from, and has produced a highly readable book.

Now I love pirates anyway. I think they are a very interesting episode from history, full of larger than life characters which oddly enough makes the subject quite bearable as opposed to dull generals or some such. (Not that I am necessarily opposed to dull generals, sometimes they had quite good scandals, or so I am proposing). But I would like to say that I am not some pirate geek who fell in love with Pirates of the Carribbean and decided he wished to be a pirate. I think pirates are a great way to make history interesting to those who say that the subject is a terrible bore, and it is one of the earliest ways to see how ordinary people in action. This book does justice to the subject (you can see that the author really took time and effort in writing it) and is equally at home for those who love to read of adventure or those who appreciate good works of literature.

And now to finish with a quote that I found quite good:

Another, Thomas Morris, twenty-two, wearing bright red ribbons, when asked whether he repented of his wickedness, replied: "Yes, I do heartily repent. I repent I have not done more mischief, and that we did not cut the throats of them that took us, and I am extremely sorry that you aren't all hanged, as well as we."

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

I am only one third of the way through this story, but I am quite disappointed with it and considering stopping reading it and leaving it for a time where I don't have 64 books and audiobooks to get through. I think I was expecting something else given previous Jules Verne books that I have read (Around The World In Eighty Days and Journey To The Centre Of The Earth). And to be fair, 20,000 Leagues starts off in a similar tone, with a huge whale being sighted and chased/hunted. Then there was a twist, which I thought rather good, that the whale was in fact a submarine, and our heroes are captured for sake of a better word and taken below the sea.

Now at this point, given Verne's reputation for adventure, there were a couple of potential directions that this story could veer. Perhaps there was an underwater world of humans who shunned the land-dwellers. Maybe the captain was a maniac who would cruise to the deepest parts of the oceans to do battle with huge sea creatures. I was wrong it seems as instead, they just go sightseeing.

I suppose in the days before documentary series like The Blue Planet, in a time where people could never see below the sea (or even imagine a submarine), this would have been quite fascinating, and Verne's imagination in constructing this world is still to be commended. But having seen all these things on a tv screen, it lacks the excitement for me. Why do I want to read about man's wonder at walking on the sea floor amidst a seaweed forest when I can just pop in a DVD? I had a quick scan through the remaining chapter titles and with exception of one called "The Squid", they all would appear to be concerning travelling around in the sea or exploring part of the sea. So it's going to the bottom of the reading pile for now.

A Journal Of The Plague Year

A Journal Of The Plague Year by Daniel Defoe is an account of when the great plague visited London in 1665. There is a debate among scholars as to whether this is purely a work of fiction or based upon some memoirs that Defoe discovered (ostensibly of his uncle H.F., a person of the same initials who supposedly writes the account we read). Either way, it was a very interesting look at the plague and its ravages through London.

I was surprised to read how slowly the plague moved through London. It started toward the west, and slowly made it's way east. I know that it was spread by flea bites and not an airborne pathogen, but I still expected it to travel faster than it did. A Journal is not just a strict narrative however. It includes accounts of what the author derides as nonsense from astrologers, old women and quacks, a wonderful story concerning three men from Wapping who decided to escape and ended up living in Epping Forest with some escapees they found, and general stories from when H.F. wandered around the town, such as concerning the naked Quaker. It is also interesting to read what was thought to spread the plague (contact with an infected person, which given it was flea bites isn't too off the mark), and the various ways that were devised to combat the spread. A lot of attention is paid to the plight of the poor, generally so as they were unable to flee London and make safe retreat to the countryside. You can't help but feel sympathy for the poor of those days as they struggled to make a living and just survive the year.

I did think though that the book suffered a little from not being divided up into sections. It is effectively a 242 page essay, and in some parts I found some of the musings not entirely relevant and sometimes caught my mind wandering. For the most part though, I found it to be a very interesting account of life during the plague, fiction or non-fiction.

As I was reading A Journal, it struck me that the seemingly oft-quoted 'fact' by historians nowadays, that the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed any last semblance of the plague, is a nonsense, and I was intrigued to find the following amidst the last few pages of the book:

"But the time was not fully come that the city was to be purged by fire, nor was it far off; for within nine months more I saw it all lying in ashes; when, as some of our quacking philsophers pretend, the seeds of the plague were entirely destroyed, and not before; a notion too ridiculous to speak of here, since, had the seeds of the plague remained in the houses, not to be destroyed but by fire, how has it been that they have not since broken out, seeing all those buildings in the suburbs and liberties, all in the great parishes of Stepney, Whitechapel, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Shoreditch, Cripplegate, and St Giles, where the fire never came, and where the plague raged with the greatest violence, remain still in the same condition they were in before?"

That quotation also illustrates one of the difficulties, at least for me, of reading 17th and 18th century literature - the massively long sentences. It reminds me of reading primary sources from the 1640s in A-Level History, with seemingly a whole page being one sentence.

The following is a part of the book that frankly I never seem to tire of coming across, which is the almost folk beliefs of people which nowadays seem quite ludicrous and yet very imaginative. Viz:

"I have heard it was the opinion of others that it might be distinguished by the party's breathing upon a piece of glass, where, the breath condensing, there might living creatures be seen by a microscope, of strange, monstrous, and frightful shapes, such as dragons, snakes, serpents, and devils, horrible to behold. But this I very much question the truth of, and we had no microscopes at that time, as I remember, to make the experiment with.

It was the opinion also of another learned man, that the breath of such a person would poison and instantly kill a bird; not only a small bird, but even a cock or hen, and that, if it did not immediately kill the latter, it would cause them to be roupy, as they call it; particularly that if they had laid any eggs at any time, they would all be rotten."

The final thing which I have to remark upon is the actual book itself. I purchased a copy of this book in the Barnes & Noble Library Of Essential Reading, a rather grandiose titled collection, but the cover, paper and print are all nice to behold. However, I would stop short of recommending this particular edition, and any others in this collection until I have assurances from Barnes & Noble that what I noticed in this particular book does not happen throughout their whole Essential Reading set. At first, I noticed a typo, which I was willing to overlook as we all make mistakes. But then I kept finding them, and they were what I think of as stupid mistakes, as you will see below:

P34 - 'as if the plague was not the hand of Cod'
P39 - 'concerning the infection of the pague'
p60 - 'it was the loth of September'
p85 - 'yet where they had tent perhaps their wives and children away'
p118 - 'by degrees his head tank into his body, so between his shoulders, the the crown of his head was very little teen above the bone of his shoulders'
p180 - 'prodigious numbers which would have been tick at a time'
p233 - 'I cannot but leave it upon record that the civil officers, such as constables, head-boroughs.Lord Mayor's and sheriff's-men'

To me this mistakes are especially infuriating as they are all foolish and careless to have made. If I am paying for a book, I do not expect so many idiotic mistakes. We will see if Barnes & Noble get back to me.

That aside, this is an interesting book for anyone who may feel obliged to pick it up - I think that speaks for itself as it is hardly a book that one would casually look upon and decide to read.

The Time Machine

The Time Machine is H.G. Wells's first novel, and as he himself pointed out in a preface, it is apparent. That is not to say that it is a bad story by any means - a man inventing a time machine and travelling to the future to discover that mankind has split into two distinct races which are pretty much cattle and hunters - but I would not go so far as to label it a must-read by any means. In all honesty, I was more intrigued by the future world the Time Traveller journeys to after he visits the fate of mankind; the grotesque environment full of vile giant crabs.

As an aside, I find it astounding that Penguin can see fit to charge $9 or £8 for a 90-odd page book. For a book of this length, I think $5 would be fairer.

A History Of The English-Speaking Peoples: The New World

The second part of Churchill's history of England, and I am full of praise once more. I found this edition to be very easy to read, which surprised me after I read my thoughts on the first part. Perhaps it is due to the fact that this edition has a much smaller time-frame to focus upon and so Churchill can dwell upon matters in more depth. I especially wish that I had this book when I was taking A-Level History back in England, as the discussions on the cause and effects of the English Civil War were my favourite parts of the book. I found this to be a surprise, as prior to reading I was dreading this section due to having any interest in this topic slowly drained away over two years with a dull and lifeless teacher. But as usual, the writing form of Churchill made this a joy to read, and reignited my interest in this area. Thanks Winston!

My only minor complaint about this book is that sometimes Churchill throws out names without explaining who they are or why they are being mentioned. There was one part where he suddenly mentions Rupert as being a naval commander in the 1660s. Now, due to my earlier reading of this book, I had looked up Prince Rupert on Wikipedia (and discovered that in the civil war he had a white dog that the Roundheads feared as a witch's familiar) and so I knew that he was an admiral at some point following the Restoration. Otherwise, I would not have known that this was the same Rupert. But this is only a minor complaint.

And of course, it wouldn't be a Churchill book without some anecdotes. They mainly stemmed from the Henry's VII & VIII, but here are my favourites:
  • The charges against the Great Earl were serious enough apart from his suspect favour to Perkin Warbeck. Had he not burned down the cathedral of Cashel? The Earl admitted it, but excused himself in a fashion that appealed to the King. "I did it, but I thought that the Archbishop was inside."
  • Pope Julius II, who had been besieged by a French force in Rome, had excommunicated the entire French army, and now grew a beard, an adornment then out of fashion, and swore he would not shave until he was revenged upon the King of France.
  • At the Field of the Cloth of Gold, five years before, King Francis [of France] had mocked at her [Queen Catherine, Henry VIII's first wife] behind the scenes with his courtiers, saying she was "old and deformed". A typical Spanish princess, she had matured and aged rapidly.
  • A magnificent and valuable bed, which had lain in the Treasury since it had formed part of a French nobleman's ransom...
  • A dead dog was flung through the window of the Queen's [Mary I] chamber, a halter around its neck, its ears cropped, and bearing a label saying that all the priests in England should be hanged.
  • We must not be led by Victorian writers into regarding this triumph of the Ironsides and of Cromwell as a kind of victory for democracy and the Parliamentary system over Divine Right and Old World dreams. It was the triumph of some twenty thousand resolute, ruthless, disciplined military fanatics over all that England has ever willed or ever wished.
  • The English Puritans, like their brethren in Massachussetts, concerned themselves with the repression of vice. Swearing was an offence... one man was fined for saying "God is my witness," and another for saying "Upon my life." Soldiers were sent round London on Christmas Day before dinner-time to enter private houses without warrants and seize meat cooking in all kitchens and ovens. Walking abroad on the Sabbath, except to go to church, was punished, and a man was fined for going to a neighbouring parish to hear a sermon.
  • In these days, when the Catholic Church raises her immemorial authority against the secular tyranny, it is hard to realise how different was the aspect which she wore to the England of 1679, with the recollection of the fires of Smithfield, the Massacre of St Bartholomew, the Spanish Armada, and the Gunpowder Plot.
One other thing of note from this volume is the story of the Founding Fathers from the Mayflower. We all know that they left the shores of England supposedly in the search for religious freedom due to there not being toleration toward Puritans (who given their zeal and literal interpretation of the Bible, are effectively the 17th Century equivalents of the Taliban) to practice their extremism in Britain. What generally is not told is that once they had settled and established a colony, they were intent upon denying the right of toleration that they themselves sought upon others of non-Puritanical belief. So effectively a major holiday in the United States celebrates a bunch of bigots. That's not meant to be an anti-American statement, but rather something that I was struck by as the common story retold is that they sought tolerance and freedom, but not that they were a collection of bigoted extremists.

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