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My Favourites: some personal recommendations

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In the Spotlight

The Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian

This brilliant fiction series of 20 novels follows the fortunes of Jack Aubrey, an officer in the Royal Navy at the start of the 19th century, and his friend Stephen Maturin - a physician, natural philosopher and secret agent.

I have always loved reading, and must have read many hundreds (if not thousands!) of books over the years. Half way through 2000, I stumbled across Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels and devoured them one after the other (there are 20 books in the series). I thoroughly enjoyed them, and they will definitely be permanent residents in my bookcase. My current work as a consultant on website accessibility for a major UK charity has made me even more aware than I was before of the needs of blind and visually impaired people, so as well as linking to the print versions of these books, I've also included links to the audio cassette editions. Mind you, these are just as useful for people who drive a lot as they are for others who, through disability, can't access standard printed books! Interestingly, the first sales of these books here has been of the audio cassette edition.

The Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian

The Antarctic

It's highly unlikely that I'll ever visit the Antarctic, but it is a location that fascinates me, as does the history of its exploration. The first book about the Antarctic that really hooked me is actually a novel, "Antarctica", by Kim Stanley Robinson, who is better known, perhaps, for his acclaimed science fiction novels about the exploration and colonisation of Mars (see below for details of these).

Robinson actually visited the Antarctic in the process of researching the background to this book, and fell in love with the place. His love of this extreme environment shows clearly in the way he writes about it, and about the people who live and work there. A recurring theme in his books is how environments shape people and cultures, and this book is no exception. Plenty of action too, but the focus is very definitely on the characters and how they are changed by the physical environment in which they find themselves.

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Kim Stanley Robinson / Paperback / 1999

Synopsis: An epic, futuristic disaster novel set in the wastes of Antarctica. Like the world it protects, the Antarctic Treaty is dissolving.

Review: In the near future Wade Norton has been sent to Antarctica by Senator Phil Chase to investigate rumours of environmental sabotage. He arrives on the frozen continent and immediately begins making contact with the various scientific and political factions that comprise Antarctic society. What he finds is an interesting and diverse mix of inhabitants who don't always mesh well but who all share a common love of Antarctica and a fierce devotion to their life there. He also begins to uncover layers of Antarctic culture that have been kept hidden from the rest of the world, some of which are dangerous indeed. Events are brought to a head when the saboteurs - or "ecoteurs" as they call themselves - launch an attack designed to drive humans off the face of Antarctica.

This is Kim Stanley Robinson's first book since his award-winning Mars trilogy, and while some of the themes may be familiar to seasoned Robinson readers the book is never less than engrossing. As usual Robinson does a masterful job with the setting of his story, and anyone interested in Antarctica won't want to miss this one.

-- Craig Engler, Amazon.com

Robinson included a bibliography of books about the Antarctic, and highly recommended Apsley Cherry-Garrard's book "The Worst Journey in the World". Cherry-Garrard was one of the members of Scott's final polar expedition, and the book is his own account of that expedition. The title actually refers to one specific episode, when Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard trekked through the winter darkness to get some penguin eggs for scientific research. This episode, and Cherry-Garrard's thoughts on it and its aftermath, produce a most beautiful quote:

"And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, "What is the use?" For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin's egg."

A few months after reading "Antarctica", and just before Christmas 1999, I was browsing in a local bookshop, and there on the shelf was a copy of this book. Remembering how much Robinson had recommended it, I persuaded my husband to get it for me as a Christmas present. I wasn't disappointed. Cherry-Garrard has a spare, understated style of writing which allows the magnitude of what these men attempted and endured to shine through. It inspires awe at their achievements as well as a lingering sadness for their failures. Overall, though, it left me with a sense of having marched alongside these men, and of having shared their experience.

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The Worst Journey in the World

Apsley Cherry-Garrard / Hardcover / 1994

Synopsis: Tells the story of Scott's last expedition to the Antarctic from its departure in 1910 to its return in 1913. The author was, himself, a member of the expedition. The party was plagued by bad luck, weather conditions of unanticipated ferocity and the physical deterioration of the party on the last part of the journey. Confronted by the shattering knowledge that Roald Amundsen had reached the South Pole a month before them, Scott's party then had to negotiate the last part of the journey, a doomed attempt which entered into modern history.

A book which I haven't read but which is highly recommended and which I'll be buying when I can, is "In the Heart of the Antarctic", by Sir Ernest Shackleton - an account of his attempt to reach the South Pole in 1906.

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In the Heart of the Antarctic

Ernest Shackleton / Paperback / 2000

Synopsis: This is the story of the "Farthest South" expedition, told by its leader. After enduring biting winds, short rations and crevasse-ridden glaciers for over a year, Shackleton's party faced a desperate forced march to return to their ship, The Nimrod, or face being marooned on the ice.

Around the same time that I was reading Cherry-Garrard's book, the BBC re-screened a series of natural history programmes, presented by the acclaimed Sir David Attenborough, titled "Life in the Freezer". The series explored the natural history of the Antarctic, and, like all of Attenborough's natural history programmes, was beautifully filmed and presented. As well as publishing a video of the series, the BBC have also published an multimedia CD-ROM titled "Attenborough`s Antarctic".

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Life In The Freezer

BBC Video / David Attenborough (Presenter/Narrator) / 1994


  • PAL format
  • HiFi Sound, Colour, Box set, Closed-captioned, PAL
  • Number of tapes: 2

Synopsis: David Attenborough presents Life In The Freezer, a wildlife/natural world series which looks at how all forms of life in Antarctica survive in temperatures below 70 degrees Centigrade and wind speeds of 120 mph.

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Attenborough`s Antarctic

BBC Multimedia


  • David Attenborough presents the exploration of the South Pole.
  • Richly illustrated CD-ROM you can investigate the Antarctic Terrain.
  • 6 guided tours introducing the key natural history themes within the programme.
  • Build your own slide show from the programmes pictures and music.
  • Finally you can build your own electronic project.

Review: Attenborough's Antarctic is a deliberately ingenuously titled CD-ROM, since of course the Antarctic is the world's last great unexplored territory. A continent in its own right - and, according to Graham Hancock, the home of a lost civilisation - vast swathes of the Antarctic remain largely unknown. Nevertheless, this package still goes a long way towards developing an understanding of the history and nature of this remarkable place.

The range is very diverse. There are detailed and well-illustrated field guides of some of the sturdy creatures who survive down here - top marks to the regal King Penguins - as well as a series of historical and natural historical quests to keep the user's interest, tours of 6 regions narrated by the mellifluous David Attenborough, and a retelling of the stories of some of the explorers - Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton - who became famous for their obsession with the uttermost part of the earth.

Attenborough's Antarctic has been very well put together. The graphics and video shots are beautiful, the topographical maps give an unexpected sense of perspective to the "white continent", and the CD-ROM will be of much use to people putting their own Antarctic presentations together, coming with software that allows you to compile your own presentation using its text and illustrations. It is both a useful and an interesting package, which seems destined to have a long shelf life.

-- Toby Green

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy

As I mentioned above, Kim Stanley Robinson is best known for his trilogy about the exploration and colonisation of Mars. This is a marvellous set of books, again focussing on how our environment shapes us and the culture and society we create. From the initial group of scientists and explorers, we see the growth and development of a unique "Martian" society, with its own customs and mythology, and the growing tensions, personal and political, between those who want to keep Mars pristine and those who believe it should be changed to suit human needs. The descriptions of the Martian landscape are detailed and beautiful, and the interplay of personalities, politics, economics and religion quite, quite believable.

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Red Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson / Paperback / 1993

Synopsis: Mars - the red planet - is a barren landscape of mankind's dreams of space. This book follows the colonization of the planet, as a cratered wasteland is turned into a human habitation.

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Green Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson / Paperback / 1994

Synopsis: Mars: the Green Planet. Man's dream of a new world is under way, but corrupted. Red Mars is gone, ripped apart by the violent and failed revolution of 2062. The First Hundred have scattered or died, and for the moment their dreams with them. The rebels are underground, dreaming of their utopia.

Review: Kim Stanley Robinson has earned a reputation as the master of Mars fiction, writing books that are scientific, sociological and, better still, fantastic. Green Mars continues the story of humans settling the planet in a process called "terraforming". In Red Mars, the initial work in the trilogy, the first 100 scientists chosen to explore the planet disintegrated in disagreement--in part because of pressures from forces on Earth. Some of the scientists formed a loose network underground. Green Mars, which won the 1994 Hugo Award, follows the development of the underground and the problems endemic to forming a new society. -- Amazon.co.uk

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Blue Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson / Paperback / 1997

Synopsis: Mars has grown up. It is fully terraformed - genetically engineered plants and animals live by newly built canals and young but stormy seas. It is politically independent. A brave and buzzing new world. Most of the First Hundred have died. Those that remain are like walking myths to Martian youth. Earth has grown too much. Chronic overpopulation, bitter nationalism, scarce resources. For too many Terrans, Mars is a mocking utopia. A dream to live for, fight for ... perhaps even die for.

Review: The final volume of a trilogy that began with Red Mars and continued with Green Mars, Blue Mars completes the story of the "First Hundred", a pioneering group of explorers who have overseen a terraforming project that transformed Mars from a lifeless planet into a world habitable by humans. An anti-ageing breakthrough has kept the First Hundred alive for three centuries and in that time, their motives, desires and passions have evolved in ways that parallel the changes on Mars itself. Conceptually complex and daring, the publication of Blue Mars marks the completion of a modern science fiction masterpiece. -- Amazon.co.uk

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© 2001 Donna Smillie <dms@zetnet.co.uk>