Sunday, April 3, 2016

Book Review: The Lost Island (Audio)

The full name is The Lost Island:  A Gideon Crew Novel, by Douglas Preston, and unlike the The Amber Room, which I reviewed some time back, it is a nearly perfect fiction audio book for listening to on a trip.  Normally I prefer non-fiction historical books, like The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II or The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, but it is getting harder for me to find the kind I am looking for in stores.  I took a chance with The Lost Island in part because it was on sale.

The Lost Island is not great literature, but it is nearly perfect for listening to on a drive.  When I say it is not great literature, I mean both that it has actual flaws and also that it is not the sort of thing that would appeal to a certain kind of literary snob.  Its actual flaws are basically three in number:
  1. The characters are a bit too superlative.  The main character, for example, is a former physics researcher at Los Alamos.  It's nice to see that the physicist is not treated as a clueless dweeb, as so often happens in fiction, but on the other hand there is nothing about his character which betrays him as a physicist.  Gideon Crew is actually more of a con man than a physicist; he spends a lot of time figuring out how to make people do things for him, but he really never spends any time wondering how something works.  So he's a former physicist, an accomplished thief and con-man, a gourmet chef, etc.  All the characters are like this, which can only partially be compensated for by the fact that they have been intentionally recruited for their skills.
  2. Even taking into account the superlative characters, there are still at least 5 moments in the book when the odds of survival were less than 50%.  An amazing run of good luck is something of a distraction.
  3. There are too many wildly improbable, basically unrelated science-fiction elements for this to be a great book for reading, though it still works fine for listening while driving.  I'll try to avoid saying too much more, in case someone wants to read the book.

As for the "great literature" angle, well, I take "great literature" with a grain of salt.  I think a lot of the claims are meant to create the impression that the person making the claim is so well-educated and sophisticated, when in fact that person has merely found out what is popular in the group with which he identifies.  Also, I think we tend to exaggerate the literary quality of books which reflect our own worldview.  Certainly Catholics these days seem to vastly overstate the profundity of Tolkien, who was a Catholic and who is currently popular but who was neither one the world's greatest writers nor a Doctor of the Church.

But a great work of literature may not be a great audio book.  The Bible is great literature, as well as the inspired Word of God, but it is terrible as an audio book.  I know, because I have tried several times to listen to it as an audio book.  The pace is too fast and too linear when played on CD; to treat the Bible seriously, some time for reflection and for skipping around for comparison with other passages is necessary.  A good audio book for a long drive cannot require one's entire attention.

So what about The Lost Island?  Without giving too much away, its title is an homage to The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, and it has a few similarities to that novel.  I would say it is closer in style and content to some of the books by H. Rider Haggard, such as King Solomon's Mines and She: A History of Adventure.  Since it starts with Gideon being asked to steal a page from the Book of Kells, I was afraid it would be a shoddy rip-off of the already shoddy Da Vinci Code, but rest assured it is not.

In summary, this was a fun, extravagant yarn that can help keep you from getting bored on a long trip but that does not demand close concentration.  I strongly recommend it for any long drive.

EDIT:  I forgot to mention another stunning problem.  At the climax of the book, a catastrophe occurs as the result of the actions of the characters.  However, for this catastrophe to have been possible at all, it would have been possible for natural causes to have triggered it, and it is a virtual certainty that they would have long before Gideon and the others ever saw the island.  This flaw is hard to overlook precisely because of its importance to the overall plot.

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