***Group Read: H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian

Converses75 Books Challenge for 2011

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***Group Read: H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian

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març 9, 2011, 3:29 pm

A number of people on my thread expressed interest in having a group read of a Patrick O'Brian book; we decided to read the third book in the series, H.M.S. Surprise, since it's a good place to start and the first two aren't nearly as good.

We're going to start on April 1; I will post useful links and introductions to the characters to fill in what you would have known from the first two books shortly before that.

For those who haven't heard of them, the Aubrey & Maturin series is a wonderful set of 20 novels set during the Napoleonic Wars; they're nautically oriented, with the main characters being a ship captain, Jack Aubrey, and his friend Stephen Maturin, a surgeon, but they stubbornly resist pigeonholing. (The writing and characterization is leaps and bounds beyond the only other "sea stories" I've read, C. S. Forester's Hornblower books.) I love them. O'Brian's characters are very sympathetic, but they are not transplanted 20th- or 21st- century people, either. They're real true eighteenth-century people.

There's a post about a reread of the series here, which might help you decide if you want to join in the read. (the site is SF-oriented, which explains the tone of the post; many SF fans enjoy these books because of the detailed immersion in a world very different from ours.) If you like Naomi Novik's Temeraire books, you absolutely must read these -- Novik owes a huge and acknowledged debt to O'Brian. (There's even a sly reference to Stephen in one of the later Temeraire books.)

març 9, 2011, 4:00 pm

I read all 20 (plus the unfinished 21) several years ago, just before I found LT. Starting with Book 3 is probably a good idea; that's the book that hooked me on the series, though I think a couple of later ones were my favorites. I'm not planning to join the group read, since there are other (so many other) books I want to read right now, but I'll be interested in the comments. Happy reading to all of you!

març 9, 2011, 5:37 pm

I've linked to this thread on the group wiki page.

març 10, 2011, 12:09 pm

Thanks, drneutron!

ivyd, I debated about starting with #1 vs #3, but decided that the higher quality of #3 was worth the slight amount of missing background. I haven't read 21 yet, and I'm not sure if I'm going to; on the one hand, it's the only new Aubrey & Maturin that I haven't read that I'm ever going to get, and that's a powerful attraction; on the other hand, I don't think I can bear to have the last bit of O'Brian be an unfinished draft trailing off into nowhere, I think I'd prefer to let Blue at the Mizzen be the end, it's as good of a place to stop as anything. (I don't want to say more here and risk spoilers for people who haven't even started the series yet.)

març 18, 2011, 10:44 am

Bumping this thread so more people can see it!

març 22, 2011, 7:52 pm

I've got my book from the library, so I'm all set to go! The book is calling to me, but I'll wait for April 1!

Karen O.

març 23, 2011, 9:02 am

I'm not a member of 75 Books Challenge, but I'd love to join you in reading H.M.S. Surprise if I might. I'm just finishing with the Spring Training group read in 75 Books Challenge, so this is perfect timing for me. The group reads in this group just seem to be calling me lately.

març 23, 2011, 9:47 am

Absolutely, cbfiske, the more the merrier! Join us!

març 23, 2011, 2:34 pm

>4 lorax: I understand your reluctance with 21. My son-in-law has read the rest of the series twice, but agrees with you about 21. For me, since I couldn't bear not to know what else 0'Brian had to say, it was all right; it doesn't leave as many loose ends as you might expect, but it really doesn't add much either.

març 25, 2011, 1:42 pm

Ohhhh!! This is very exciting! I'm not sure if I will be able to participate, but I'm going to try. I tried reading Master and Commander several years ago and found it very slow and challenging. Should I try to give it another shot? Will I be woefully behind if I just start with the third book?


març 25, 2011, 2:58 pm

>10 weejane: In my opinion: Yes (try again). No (you won't be that far behind). At least, not if lorax fills you in on the few things you need to know. Master and Commander is by far the slowest and most difficult book of the series. There are a few plot points that will be helpful, and you won't be quite as well versed in the workings of a sailing ship (if, that is, you understand and remember what he tells you), but otherwise it'll be fine. To put it in perspective -- if I remember correctly, the movie needed to use plot elements from the first 3 books just to have enough material for 1 movie!

Editat: març 25, 2011, 3:21 pm


No, you won't be behind! Lots of people find the first book a rough go, which is why we're starting from the third. A few days before April 1 I'll post some basic introductory information from the first couple books so you know who the characters are, and links to some useful sites.

As for the movie, ivyd, a lot of the plot is taken from the tenth book, actually, with bits and pieces of individual incidents grabbed from other earlier books in the series.

A note on the nautical terminology -- a lot of people find it easier to just glide over it with "And then they did some things to make the ship (go faster/turn/slow down)". If you get too frustrated with it, it's not essential, and Stephen is always there as the eternal bewildered landlubber to ask questions and help the reader along.

ETA: The reason we aren't starting with the second is because it's one of the weakest books in the series. The third, on the other hand, is one of my favorites, and certainly has one of my very favorite lines.

març 25, 2011, 9:31 pm

#11 & 12 - Cool beans! Thanks! I'm still undecided about whether to give the first book a try but I would like to try to join you all for the group read.

març 30, 2011, 5:00 pm

Welcome, everyone!

This post will provide general background information for the first two books to get you up to speed on the characters, and links to some helpful resources. (By the way, for the younger of us, H.M.S. Surprise was first published in 1973; it will qualify as a "book published before you were born" on the TIOLI Challenge for April for those of us under 38.)

When the series begins in Master and Commander, Jack Aubrey has just been promoted to Commander and given command of the brig Sophie. He asks Stephen Maturin, a doctor and natural philosopher who he has just met, to be the ship's surgeon. Stephen serves, as he does throughout the series, as a useful stand-in for the reader who is completely bewildered by nautical jargon. Finally Jack and the Sophie capture a much larger Spanish frigate, leading to the hope of prize money. The second book, Post-Captain, is mostly set on shore, and introduces Diana Villiers -- who both men are courting -- and Sophia Williams, who Jack successfully woos. At some point between the books, Stephen has become an intelligence agent, a role that will become increasingly important later in the series, and in this book Jack is promoted to captain.

That's the one paragraph basics, low on spoilers but just so you'll know who these people are. More detailed summaries, including many more details and mentioning many more characters, are available on the Wikipedia pages (one word links to each book) for the novels.

There are a number of reference companions to the series, if anyone wants to check your libraries, but I'll be happy to look up anything that's in A Sea of Words or Harbors and High Seas. The latter is useful mostly for its maps, and there are online maps for the first few books in the series available at http://www.cannonade.net/ .

I can't wait to start! I've been holding off on the next book in my current reread so I'm not reading two O'Brian books at the same time, which would be enormously confusing, and I hope that at least some of you like the books as much as I do.

març 31, 2011, 6:29 am

Thanks for the background information, lorax. I'm looking forward to starting this read.

març 31, 2011, 6:43 pm

Thanks, lorax. (I was in high school in 1973...) I have about 50 pages to go in my current book, should be able to finish this evening so I'm ready to start April with a clean slate.

abr. 4, 2011, 8:33 am

I got 80 pages into HMS Surprise over the weekend. I was thoroughly confused in chapter 2, so I read the Wikipedia links to the the previous two books, which I hadn't read before because I didn't think they'd register, so heading into chapter 3 I felt somewhat more oriented. And that's where I am... Fried brain from 60 hour work weeks, so my escapist reading for the weekend was a kid's book.

Editat: abr. 4, 2011, 9:18 am

Really enjoying this one so far. I especially like the portrayal of Stephen Maturin. I was able to get quite a bit read, so I'm up to chapter 6. I know real life will be intruding, so I have a feeling my reading will be slowing down, but this book definitely is not a chore for me to pick up. I was able to borrow a copy of Harbors and High Seas from the library and I have to say that I am finding the maps a great addition to my reading.

qebo: chapter 3 is where things really started getting going for me.

abr. 4, 2011, 9:55 am

qebo, yes, this one does start a little slowly; usually the books hit their stride once we get to sea. In this case though poor Jack is on blockade duty at the start, so it isn't until the messenger at the end of chapter two that things really get going. I'd forgotten how odd the very beginning of this one is, with the discussion of the importance of prizes that none of our characters are actually involved in; it's very strange to start off a book with someone speaking, when you have no idea who they are until the next page!

abr. 4, 2011, 1:13 pm

Just checked out the H.M.S. Surprise from the libs this morning. I hope to start it at some point soon. Most likely it will be on the bus as the softball team has an away game tomorrow.

abr. 5, 2011, 3:45 pm

I had the same difficulty as others with the very first few pages (what in the world is going on?!), but that cleared up. I am really liking the characters and the writing so far (I'm only a few chapters into it). This should be a terrific read!

Karen O.

abr. 6, 2011, 11:33 am

I'm sitting on my hands here, because I don't know how far people are, and I don't want to spoil anyone. There's a bit of characterization of Stephen on the island (I hope that's sufficiently vague) that I just adored, when he describes it as "paradise" -- that's so very, very Stephen. I'll quote it, if people don't mind mild spoilers or are far enough.

abr. 6, 2011, 12:01 pm

Hmm, maybe we should have a schedule of when potential spoilers are permitted? I've read through chapter 4. Or, other group reads have spoiler and non-spoiler threads. Maybe each spoiler could be preceded by chapter #?

abr. 6, 2011, 1:17 pm

A spoiler preceded by a chapter# would work for me. I'm in the midst of chapter 6. I'd love to hear your quote, lorax. I have a few parts I've loved too.

abr. 6, 2011, 2:44 pm

I just finished the section with Stephen on the island (I think - chapter 5?).

Like Karen/klobrien2 I struggled at the beginning but I seem to have got into the story now.

abr. 6, 2011, 8:07 pm

I am lame and have yet to start. I remember how hard the first book was to start and ended up putting it down. I hope that all these comments will help.

abr. 7, 2011, 9:11 am

Here's the quote, from chapter five:

"'Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,' {Stephen} murmured, straightening to survey the island, a smooth mound like a vast worn molar tooth, with birds thick in all the hollows. The hot air was full of their sound, coming and going; full of the ammoniac smell of their droppings and the reek of fish; and all over the hard white surface it shimmered in the heat and the intolerable glare so that birds fifty yards up the slope could hardly be focused and the ridge of the mound wavered like a taut rope that had been plucked. Waterless, totally arid. Not a blade of grass, not a weed, not a lichen: stench, blazing rock and unmoving air. 'This is a paradise,' cried Stephen."

That's just so Stephen. He's very good at what he does, both in the medical and the intelligence lines, but his passion is always natural history and especially birds, and he looks at everything through that lens. (I've seen similar islands in Mexico, and been downwind of them, though they're all protected so I haven't been on them. Much as I love birding, "paradise" is not a word that would spring to mind to describe guano islands.)

I'm in the middle of chapter six now too -- it's a long chapter, even by the standards of the series, and it contains possibly the single funniest sentence in the entire series. (I'm not going to quote that one. You'll know it when you come to it.)

Editat: abr. 7, 2011, 1:18 pm

lorax: Thanks for the quote from chapter 5. Stephen's love for natural history does show through in that one. "Paradise" would not be my first thought either.

I've now conquered chapter 6 and am on to chapter 7. I think I know which quote you mean in chapter 6. My family has had to hear me laughing as I quote it to each one of them in turn. I loved the entire incident. You could say that Stephen's love for natural history collides with life aboard ship making this incident possible.

abr. 9, 2011, 7:04 pm

I finished chapter 6 today. I'm quite liking Stephen for his scientific mind, curiosity, and sense of humor. I'm not getting so much impression of Jack as a person.

abr. 10, 2011, 6:58 am

I've just finished chapter 9. I agree with you about Stephen, qebo. I'm really liking Stephen myself for all the reasons you mentioned. As for Jack, I found that I got more of a sense of Jack as a person from chapters 8 and 9. I'm also really liking the friendship between Jack and Stephen.

abr. 11, 2011, 11:46 am

I think it's been long enough that we can open it up to general discussion through, say, chapter six? Please mark posts with spoilers but I think enough of us have made it that far that we can talk about it now.

abr. 16, 2011, 9:02 pm

I finished the book today. I enjoyed parts of it, but if I hadn't heard such rave reviews from quite a few people, I doubt that I'd be inclined to read another book in the series. As it is, I have Master and Commander on hand, and I will probably read it, partially for another try, and partially in hopes that it provides context to flesh out the main characters and make sense of the emotional entanglements. In this installment, Sophia is a near nonentity, and Diana evokes reactions that seem out of proportion to her immediate presence. I think that I would have benefited from paying more attention to names and roles early in the book, to make the personalities and interactions more meaningful. It's a small closed world aboard a ship for months on end. I'm not sure how much is me and how much is the writing style that I remained chronically disoriented re location, elapsed time, and plot.

abr. 18, 2011, 7:15 am

Thanks, lorax. I've also finished H.M.S. Surprise and enjoyed it very much. You've given me a new series to conquer as I definitely will be reading all the books now.

In your first post, you referenced Jo Walton's blog of her reread of the Aubrey-Maturin series. I agree with her statement that she appreciates the ability of these books to "suck you into their world". I felt very much a part of the H.M.S. Surprise world and was very caught up in the characters and plot. I admired the friendship between the very different Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin and was glad to go along on their journeys.

Starting with book three didn't seem to disorient me, although I have to admit that I have watched the Master and Commander movie and dipped into the book Master and Commander and so had been introduced to the characters previously.

One pre-chapter 7 SPOILER (not too much of one) I really liked:

Chapter 5 includes Jack's review of the ship's company. For me, this was a great introduction to the world of the H.M.S. Surprise, from the marines to the midshipmen, gunners, etc. We get a lot of information in this section in a very interesting way. Very skillfully done on Mr. O'Brian's part.