Book review: Arthur C Clarke — Dolphin Island

Book 68

This YA novel was first published in 1963, and was set around fifty years in its then-future. Nearly fifty years on, it has aged remarkably well. Right on the first page, I was taken back to the sensawunda I had when I first read this book as a young teenager around thirty years ago — not least because in the first paragraph Clarke beautifully evokes the sense of wonder his teenage protagonist feels at the sight of an international cargo vessel and the daydreams it inspires about the places it has seen.

When sixteen-year-old Johnny Clinton finds that the giant hovercraft has made an emergency landing near his home, his curiosity leads him to sneak aboard for a look around, and leaves him trapped as an accidental stowaway when it lifts off again unexpectedly. The orphaned Johnny’s not too upset at the idea of being carried away from the home he’s reluctantly offered by his widowed aunt, so he doesn’t come out of hiding until the craft crash-lands in the Pacific Ocean. The crew have abandoned ship, and Johnny is left with nothing but a packing crate and his own clothing to keep him afloat and sheltered — until a pod of dolphins find him and and save his life by pushing his makeshift raft the hundred miles to the nearest land.

That land is Dolphin Island, an island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef which is home to a research station studying dolphins. The station tracks down where Johnny came from before he’s even released from the infirmary, but he’s offered the chance to stay, an offer he’s quick to accept. He rapidly builds a new life for himself, one that mixes ongoing formal education with involvement in the scientific work on communicating with the dolphins. There’s more than a little adventure as well.

This is an excellent short novel, with an engaging protagonist, an interesting story, and some superb world-building. Clarke drew on his own experience of skin-diving on the Great Barrier Reef to paint a wonderful word picture of the Reef and its marine life. Clarke’s extrapolation of technology hasn’t suffered too badly as reality caught up with it — it’s different to what really happened, but not so much so that it jars. And glory be, the story hasn’t been visited by the Sexism Fairy. There’s a distinct absence of female characters, but not in a way that says that women shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about difficult things like science. Definitely one for my keeper collection.

LibraryThing entry

Book lust

I have in general been very good about Not Buying More Folio Society Books. But a recent thread on the FS group on LibraryThing prompted me to go off to eBay last weekend to see if I could finish off a themed set where I missed the last couple of books I might have been interested in, courtesy of having moved to the US. And there on the first page of search results was a book I had been wanting for 13 years, but had never quite gotten around to buying — the Folio Fifty. This is a bibliographic volume with a selection of essays, and a detailed bibliography of all the books published by the Society in its first 50 years. And its starting price was a tenner including postage, it had 2 hours to go, and nobody had bid on it yet.

I couldn’t ignore that.

I collected it from the sorting office this morning, it having been too big to fit through my letterbox. It is beautiful. And it’s mine. For rather less than it would have cost me had I bought one new from the Society when it was first published in 1997. The phrase “all good things come to those who wait” seems oddly appropriate here. :-)

Book log: Georgette Heyer — A Blunt Instrument

Book 67

The fourth Superintendent Hannasyde book. Earnest Fletcher is found dead in his study, with a large dent in his head from a blunt instrument. On the surface he’s a well-liked and respected man, but it soon becomes apparent that his nephew and heir is not the only one with a possible motive for killing him. Unfortunately for Hannasyde, some of the people with motives are also his best witnesses, and some of them also have good reason to try to protect some of the other people with motives. He has a number of precise statements of the time of various events in the half hour leading up to the murder, most of which are not compatible and some of which are almost certainly true. It’s only after a second murder that he begins to suspect the truth…

I actually spotted the murderer straight off, which bothered me not at all, as part of the fun was trying to work out whether I was right. The story itself is great fun, with Heyer’s usual collection of sharply drawn characters, and her usual odd couple romance in the background.

LibraryThing entry

Book log: Reginald Hill — Midnight Fugue

Book 66

The 24th book in the Dalziel and Pascoe. Hill is once again playing entertaining literary games; this time around he’s using the format of timed chapters giving overlapping strands of a story that plays out in just 24 hours, and playing on the musical theme of a fugue, with a book that’s all about what happens as a man emerges from a fugue in the psychiatric sense. You don’t need to understand exactly what he’s doing to enjoy this story, but the techniques add depth to an entertaining police procedural.

The Fat Man has just returned to work after being nearly killed in a bomb blast two books back, but he’s still not fully recovered, and the world has moved on in his absence. Thus when he gets a call for help, he’s inclined to treat it as personal hobby rather than official case until he’s sure what he’s dealing with. But the case all too quickly snowballs, as a racketeer-turned-respectable sends in a team to ensure that the dead past stays dead.

There’s ongoing development of the continuing characters, some beautifully drawn new characters, a lot of (often very dark) humour, and a brilliant twist at the very end. Not quite my favourite of the series (that’s still Dialogues of the Dead/Death’s Jestbook), but well up there.

LibraryThing entry

September book log

Yes, you’re getting spammed with the book log today. Sorry about that, but it’s the first time in a week I’ve felt up to posting. I’m going out to meet kalypso_v at the local Thai takeaway shortly, so I’ll shut up after this one. :-)

54) Agatha Christie — Sparkling Cyanide [audiobook]
Reviewed 12 September.

55) Agatha Christie — The Blood-Stained Pavement and other stories [audiobook]
Reviewed 15 September.

56) Brian Aldiss — “Equator” and “Segregation”

57) Philip Jose Farmer — Timestop

58) Frank Herbert — The worlds of Frank Herbert

59) Diana Dors — Behind closed Dors
Logged with brief notes on 19 September.

60) Miss Read — Village School
Logged with brief notes on why DNF on 25 September.

61) Roger Elwood — Continuum 1
Logged with notes about individual stories on 26 September

62)Georgette Heyer — They Found Him Dead
Logged with notes 2 October

63) MC Beaton — Death of a Gossip
Logged with notes 2 October

64) MC Beaton — Death of a Cad
Logged with notes 2 October

65) John Wray — Lowboy
Reviewed 2 October

Plus a book discussion thread about Shamini Flint’s “Inspector Singh Investigates” series, posted on Dreamwidth and LiveJournal on 18 September.

That looks like quite a lot of books, but given that two of them were DNF and a third had been mostly read some time back, it’s not as impressive as it looks. Still not bad on the ones actually read all the way through.

Book review: John Wray — Lowboy

Book 65

I received an uncorrected proof copy of this through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme, having been sufficiently intrigued by the description to request it even though it’s outside my usual reading range.

Description: In the tunnels beneath New York a young man is missing. With each passing minute he heads deeper underground, further from the world of light and reason and closer to the moment of his great surrender. Above ground Ali Lateef of the NYPD is assigned the case. The boy’s mother Violet is reluctant to help and Emily, Lowboy’s girlfriend and only confidante, appears to have vanished too Can Lateef find Lowboy before it’s too late?

As it turns out, I think on the basis of the first few chapters that it’s probably a superb piece of writing, but I’m finding it sufficiently disturbing to read that I don’t really want to keep reading it. Lowboy is a 16-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, off his meds and on the run in the subway system of New York. The book opens in his viewpoint, and he’s clearly already losing connection with reality, although you don’t get the details until the next chapter, in Lateef’s point of view. Wray’s prose is stunning, in a blend of psychological thriller and litfic that provides a dizzying look inside Lowboy’s damaged mind, contrasting it with the world as it appears from consensus reality. Too dizzying for me, and I’m abandoning ship in large part because Wray is so good at what he’s doing here.

In spite of which, I’d still say that this book is one more reason for me to keep requesting Canongate’s offerings to the Early Reviewers. I’m glad I tried this one, even if in the end it wasn’t for me.

LibraryThing entry

Book log: MC Beaton — Death of a Cad

Book 64

Second in the Hamish Macbeth series. In this one, Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, Hamish’s friend and object of adoration from afar, brings her new fiance home to meet her parents and assorted house guests, most of whom have cadged an invitation because Henry Withering is a successful playwright and thus has snob value. Unfortunately one of the house guests is Captain Bartlett, boor, ladies’ man, and all round cad. Bartlett is found dead by shotgun on the morning of a grouse shoot, apparently having made an all too common mistake of using the gun as a prop to get over a fence without making sure it was unloaded first. Hamish is unconvinced by this explanation, but Priscilla’s father is determined to believe that it was an accident, and Priscilla’s father is chums with the Chief Constable. Even when Hamish provides evidence that can’t be ignored, he’s initially pushed out of what has now become a murder investigation. But wiser heads prevail, and Hamish finds himself on the trail of a killer.

An enjoyable piece of light reading, though as with the first not one that inspires me to hunt down the titles I don’t already have.

LibraryThing entry

Book log: MC Beaton — Death of a Gossip

Book 63

First in the long-running Hamish Macbeth mystery series. I picked up four of the early entries in the series a couple of weeks ago, as I was a fan of the 1990s tv adaptation but somehow had never seen the books before. Unsurprisingly, there are significant differences between tv and book in the details of the universe, but the tone is pretty much the same. Hamish is a gentle, lazy, laid-back crofter’s son who has found a comfortable niche as the village constable in a remote Highlands village. But when murder comes to Lochdubh, he finds himself unwilling to be pushed aside by the city cops who have written him off as too lazy and stupid to be of use. And lazy Hamish may be, but stupid he certainly isn’t.

The titular gossip is Lady Jane Winters, a member of the new class at the local fishing school. The students on the residential course are a mixed bag of people, all with their secrets to hide — secrets Lady Jane is only too willing to hint at, making it clear that she knows more about each of them than they’d like. And when her corpse is all too literally fished out of the river by one of the class, it becomes clear that there’s more than a spoilt fishing holiday at stake for someone.

It’s an enjoyable enough book, although I think I liked the tv adaptation better. The characterisation feels a bit thin to me, even allowing for it being a fairly short novel. On the strength of this and the second one, I wouldn’t be inclined to go out and explicitly collect the entire series as I have with some other mystery series, but I’d be perfectly happy to read any that came my way.

LibraryThing entry

Book log: Georgette Heyer — They Found Him Dead

Book 62

Third of the Superintendent Hannasyde mysteries. Silas Kane is the senior male member of the Kane family, childless owner of the Kane family fortune. When he’s found dead at the foot of a cliff one morning’ his family are distressed, but most of them suspect nothing more than the obvious — he insisted on having his usual evening walk along the clifftop path in spite of it being a foggy night, and must have missed his way. But when his heir is found shot dead not long after moving into the family residence, Silas’s death takes on a more sinister aspect. And it’s not as if there’s a shortage of motives. A nice obvious one is that the other partners in Silas’s business wanted to go into a risky but potentially profitable deal, one that could only go ahead with a capital injection from Silas, which Silas wasn’t willing to give. And of course, Silas’s nephew and heir Clement needed the money he inherited, and Clement in turn has the next oldest cousin as his heir. Then there’s pure personal animosity as a motive for an eighty-year-old lady, of all people, to have committed one of the murders.

Hannaysde’s problem is that there are several good candidates for each murder, but anyone with good motive and means for one is a poor candidate for the other. If, of course, the death of Silas really was a murder and not just an unfortunate coincidence of an accident. And that’s before it becomes clear that someone is now targeting Clement’s heir.

I spotted the murderer fairly early on, when the second murder took place, although I didn’t work out how he’d done it. It took me a little longer to make the connection on what his true motive was. This is no criticism of the book, because Heyer kept me guessing almost to the end as to whether I was right. That’s just as much fun as not spotting the clues until near the end. And there’s plenty of entertainment along the way, with ample red herrings, a cast of characters large enough to provide plenty of character interaction without being too large to keep track of, and some sparkling dialogue.

Hannasyde is a recurring character, and there are references to earlier cases, but he’s actually something of a cypher in comparison with the one-off characters he encounters. There’s no real development of him as a character from book to book. Instead, what shines here are the character studies of the people caught in the backwash of murder. They’re often stereotypes or exaggerations, but still are nicely drawn caricatures of certain personality types, and the way they react to stress.

Great fun, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

LibraryThing entry