Monthly Archives: October 2014

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick

I don’t usually read non-fiction, and when I do, I don’t usually like it all that well. With “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” I’ll admit that I picked up the book because Ron Howard is directing a movie version, soon to be released, starring Chris Hemsworth. (Yes, I am a fangirl of both men.) Add in the fact that the book is a historical sea adventure and involves sperm whales, and I was in. I love sea adventures, having fallen in love with C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower books early in life. And sperm whales hunt giant squid, and that is just awesome. It didn’t hurt that the book won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2001.

“In the Heart of the Sea” tells the tale of the whaling ship Essex, sailing out of Nantucket in 1819 for the seas west of South America. The tale is told from the point-of-view of Thomas Nickerson, who joined the ship as a 14-year-old cabin boy. Through Nickerson’s account, we are introduced to Captain George Pollard, first mate Owen Chase, and rest of the intrepid crew. They set sail on what was to be a two to three year journey to hunt sperm whales for their oil. The voyage does not go as planned, and in 1820, the ship is sunk by an enraged sperm whale. The twenty man crew is left stranded at sea in three small whaling boats, 2,000 miles west of the coast of South America.  While the Marquesas Islands are 1,200 miles to the west, the stranded men fear that the islands are inhabited by cannibals. Instead, they choose to sail for South America. This course requires them to sail 1,000 miles south, and then 3,000 miles east, due to the winds and ocean currents. They spend 95 days at sea, and eight of the men survive.

This story is fascinating for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s true, and two first-hand accounts of the ordeal exist, written by Thomas Nickerson and Owen Chase. The Essex was the first whaling ship to be sunk by a whale; this act of aggression by a whale not only stunned the crew, but stunned the rest of the whaling community as well, for no one thought that a whale would be capable of what seemed to be calculated, aggressive intent. Then, the choices the castaways make as they fight for survival are mesmerizing. They feared cannibals, and yet they became them. The dynamics of personalities in the three boats are very different, and this matters greatly on who survives the ordeal. There is hunger, thirst, madness, and execution. There is dedication, commitment, and the resolve to survive. And, of course, there are whales and the beautiful, yet merciless sea.

I literally could not stop reading this book. Herman Melville was so entranced by the story that he was inspired to write his classic story, Moby-Dick. The tale is part horror story, part thriller, part sea adventure, with commentary on environmental issues, religion and the lust for the almighty dollar. This is the best book I’ve read all year. Highly recommended.

 

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Vicious, by V.E. Schwab

Vicious, by V.E. Schwab

Vicious, by V.E. Schwab

I’m going to start off this review by saying I don’t normally read books where I don’t like one of the main characters. I might start such a book, but after about chapter three, if I’ve failed to make a connection with someone in the book, I’m done and move on. So I was wary when I picked up “Vicious,” by V.E. Schwab. I had heard that the story was about the conflict between two supervillains, and while Loki from the Avengers is a supervillain, and I like him just fine, most supervillains are more…icky, if you know what I mean.  So “Vicious” had to grab me at the beginning, or I was tossing it aside.

Well, it grabbed me, and I enjoyed the whole thing, right to the very last page. In “Vicious,” we meet Victor and Eli, college roommates who are both brilliant, with twisted sensibilities and the tendency toward boredom. For his master’s thesis, Eli decides to investigate the phenomenon of “extra-ordinary” people. His theory? That people that clinically die and are then revived come back different, with new-found abilities. Victor, eager to avoid boredom, is on board with the investigation. And in very short order, both men “off” themselves so the other can revive him. And lo, both come back with superpowers. Victor quickly finds himself in jail, accused of murdering Eli’s girlfriend. When he gets out, years later, all he can think of tracking down Eli and duking it out. And of course, he gets his chance and sparks and blood fly. Other characters—Sydney, Dol, Mitch, and Serena—get a chance to add to the conflict as well.

A combination of “Flatliners” and “The X-Men,” “Vicious” is not without its plot issues. With all the medical technology of today, extra-ordinary folks should be making the papers every day, and of course, in the story, they were not. Still, Eli and Victor were complex characters, and neither could seem to decide if they were friends or enemies. They were adversaries as two chess masters are adversaries—they each wanted to win, but they each respected the moves the other was making. Point, and counterpoint, all through the tale. I really like this book. While I now have to read at least three books that make me feel warm and cozy, I’ll definitely pick up V.E. Schwab’s next offering.

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The Life We Bury, by Allen Eskens

The Life We Bury, by Allen Eskens

The Life We Bury, by Allen Eskens

College student Joe Talbert needs to interview a stranger in order to complete a paper for an English class. Joe heads to the local nursing home, and there, he meets Carl Iverson, a Vietnam vet and convicted killer, now come to die outside of the prison walls. Carl, convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl thirty years ago, is a daunting subject for Joe, but intriguing. And Joe, sincere and young and respectful, seems to be just the person to draw Carl’s story from the taciturn man. Carl’s story is compelling, and Joe begins to wonder if Carl is as guilty of murder as everyone seems to believe. And as Joe investigates, we begin to see that Joe may carry his own burden of guilt over a difficult episode from his past.

This is an excellent mystery, written in a compelling, readable style. Joe is likable and it is clear that he genuinely cares about Carl as he tries to find the truth in his story. Both characters, Joe and Carl, share burdens of guilt that bind them together. The pacing of the story is good, and I found myself reading late into the night to finish. As Carl’s life draws to a close, we see Joe rise through his difficulties to become something more. A wonderful debut.

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Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult

Jenna Metcalf is thirteen years old, lives with her grandmother and regularly visits her dad in the mental hospital. Yet, in spite of all the emotional drama that this could create, Jenna is fine with her life except for one small detail; her mother, Alice, disappeared ten years ago and no one can seem to find her. Is she dead, or has she run away, leaving her daughter behind? Jenna has to know the truth. Her mother was once an esteemed researcher on elephant grief, and she would never leave her research or her elephants willingly. Jenna has made no real progress to find out what really happened, and so she enlists the aid of a down-and-out psychic and an alcoholic private investigator. Together, they find her mother’s journal, and revisit the past to recreate the events leading up to the day Alice disappeared. As they start to put the puzzle together, they begin to realize that the truth might be something truly unexpected.

“Leaving Time” is a story of a mother’s mysterious disappearance, a daughter with questions, a washed-up psychic, and a world-weary detective; their stories weaving through the lives of the elephants who also share the tale. I really had a hard time deciding if I liked the human or elephant characters best. I particularly enjoyed how Ms. Picoult wove tidbits of elephant life into the story, and used those facts to highlight tidbits and truths in the lives of the humans involved. Beautiful, thoughtful, wise, and wonderful: “Leaving Time” is not to be missed.

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Rooms, by Lauren Oliver

rooms

Rooms, by Lauren Oliver

Richard Walker has just died, and his family is soon to arrive to start making the final arrangements for his funeral and for the sale of his empty home. Richard Walker’s family is not aware that Richard Walker’s home is not empty at all: It is the home of two ghosts, Alice and Sandra. Ghosts, as we know from the horror movies marathons from our youth, have reasons for their hauntings. They have baggage, and that baggage holds them back from leaving for the great beyond. Richard Walker’s family arrive: his ex-wife Caroline, troubled son Trenton, and unforgiving daughter Minna. Turns out, the living have their own share of baggage, and that baggage can hold them back from truly living their lives. As Caroline, Trenton, and Minna start to slough through all of Richard’s left behind stuff, they are forced to confront their own issues and unanswered questions. Watching it all, Alice and Sandra are confronting a few issues of their own.

At the heart, this is a book about forgiveness and letting go. “Rooms” gives us a glimpse into the hearts of both the living and the ghosts of the dead, as they all struggle with accepting their lives as they played out. An enjoyable read, simply because of the interesting telling. Perhaps, with this title, there were too many voices telling their tales, for I found I wasn’t terribly invested in any of them by the end. However, that might have been the point…to give us a larger view of these individual lives. And in providing such a view, the author succeeded very well.

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