Book Reviews

Men Against the Sea

Was Captain Bligh a villain – or a hero? If you've read the Bounty Trilogy, you know Bligh cuts a controversial figure in the pages of fiction and nonfiction alike. Read Bernie's review of the second book, Men Against the Sea, and decide for yourself.

Captain Bligh is my hero. I know: you’re likely reading that statement and assuming that I’ve gone off the deep end.  Captain Bligh, a hero?! But I’m not alone in saying that. 

So says Thomas Ledward, Acting Surgeon of HMS Bounty and the other loyal seamen put off the Bounty by the mutineers, when they took control of the ship on 28 April 1789.  While the mutineers had enough scruples not to execute Bligh and those who remained loyal to him, the only alternative they had was to set them adrift in the ship’s launch, designed to hold about a half dozen men for short trips. 

Cast away in the middle of the sea, Bligh and those who went with him (18 altogether) in the launch, had little in the way of food or equipment.  It was quite unlikely any would survive for long. 

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

When Amy meets Nick, it’s love at first sight. Something out of a movie. Magical. And, maybe, deadly.

Kansas City native Gillian Flynn crafts the oddest, most uncomfortable love story in her third book, Gone Girl. The novel opens with Nick, unhappy and alone, thinking about his wife’s head. Or, more specifically, the shape of her skull, the shape of her brain, and how he would open it to look at her thoughts inside. After he manages to quit thinking about her head, he lugs himself out of bed, goes to a bar that he owns and when he returns home late that afternoon Amy is nowhere to be found.

Nick’s search for his wife and the local cops’ growing suspicion against him is highlighted against Amy’s diary entries, which indicate that although she loves her husband, she is also terrified of him. These entries make Amy’s family, the cops and the town all feel pretty certain that Nick has something to do with her disappearance, that perhaps he killed her. After all, Amy left a beautifully wrapped present for Nick to commemorate their fifth wedding anniversary, while Nick didn’t even manage to make a dinner reservation.

American Shaolin

Armchair athletes the world over are glued to television/ computer/smartphone screens soaking up the quadrennial celebration of the Olympic Games in London.

They’re holding their breath as Michael Phelps parts the waters to win his umpteenth medal.

They’re getting dizzy watching the U.S. Gymnastics team tumble their way into our hearts and onto cereal boxes.

They’re staring at their feet and marveling at Oscar Pistorius, the “Blade Runner,” as he proves one doesn’t need to be fleet of foot to run a relay, merely iron-willed.

But what about all those other non-Olympic sports? They can be just as suspenseful, competitive, dangerous, and epic as gold-medal competitions.

Just ask Jon Krakauer, the only survivor of his team to summit Mount Everest right before one of the deadliest storms descended on the Top of the World. He chronicles the harrowing adventure in his bestselling Into Thin Air. Krakauer’s tense and painful memoir of the most deadly season on Everest gives readers a you-are-there experience. Come for Krakauer’s solid storytelling, vivid characterization and detailed descriptions of the terrain. Stay for the raw emotion as Krakauer also exorcises his survivor guilt.

The Bedlam Detective

There is something about the phrase “Master of Lunacy” that just makes you want to read the book.

In Stephen Gallagher’s The Bedlam Detective it is 1912 in Edwardian England and the privileged are still entities unto themselves, managing lush estates and commanding the service of those around them.

Sebastian Becker is an investigating agent of one of the Lord Chancellor’s Visitors in Lunacy, a function of the Lunacy Act of 1845. Becker’s job: to evaluate the landed gentry for madness and determine the need for institutionalization.

The book opens with Becker on a train to the seaside village of Arnmouth and the subject of his latest investigation, Sir Owain Lancaster. Sir Owain’s sanity has been in question since he returned from an expedition to an uncharted area of the Amazon. The journey claimed the life of every participant, including Sir Owain’s wife and only son.

My Invented Country

In My Invented Country Isabel Allende offers a relatable, human, and sometimes bold journey through her years growing up in the Chile of Augusto Pinochet.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

If there is a single author who rightly deserves to be considered the king of travel fiction, it’s Jules Verne. Get Bernie's review of A Journey to the Center of the Earth, part of a series of reviews of classic novels about journeys.

Chasing the Sun

In checking the weather every day, many look outside to see if the sun is shining. But how much thought is given over all the ways this distant star makes life possible on planet Earth and its pervasiveness in culture?

In Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life, Richard Cohen traces the story of the sun and how it has been used and viewed throughout recorded time. The sun has been the object of many myths all over the world. Solstices and equinoxes have had celebrations as people recognize how the sun influences the changing of the seasons. Some of these events take places in structures such as Stonehenge in England where the sun shines through the center of the monument on only one day a year. Ancient people feared solar eclipses as they saw them as portents of doom. Over time, humans have worked out when eclipses would happen so they came to be expected events.

True Sisters - Dallas

Full of hope and having absolute trust in their prophets, 600 Mormons left Iowa in 1856 for their promised land in Utah. Many who had gone before had uneventful journeys. But those in this congregation were lucky to reach Zion alive.

Based on the Martin Handcart Company transmigration, historian and novelist Sandra Dallas’ new book, True Sisters, tells the gripping tale of this fateful group of emigrants.

They started late, not leaving Iowa City until the end of July. It was doubtful that they would reach Zion before the winter blanketed the mountains. But they had supreme faith that they were God’s chosen people and would be kept safe. Under direction of their leaders, they made handcarts to pull across the heartland prairies and the rugged terrain of the west.

Previous handcart makers had used up all of the dry wood, resigning the Martin Company to use green wood, which is far more susceptible to breakage. The prophets had not promised them an easy trip – sacrifice was part and parcel of the religion – but the suffering experienced by the Martin Company exceeded what most people could endure.

Railsea

China Miéville’s latest book, Railsea, takes an ambitious run at a classic heavyweight - Moby Dick. The comparisons are plentiful and easily made, but Railsea turns the story of revenge into something completely its own.

In this cross between a parody, re-telling and homage, the characters in Railsea are dealing with monstrous moles, turtles and earthworms instead of sea creatures. The sea is actually a strange sort of earth, the boat is a cross between a train and a coal cart, and Captain Ahab is a woman. Just go with it.

Shamus Yes ap Soorap (Sham for short), rides the tracks on an endless sea of rails, apprenticed to a doctor and yearning for a different job. When he finds a piece of salvage in a wreck that suggests there is a world out there that is rail-less, a utopia of sorts, he becomes determined to find this haven and the orphaned children whose parents died in the wreck. However, his captain destroys the image and instead insists on following her own philosophy – to catch and kill the tooth-colored moldywarpe (mole, in common English) that bit her arm off years ago.

The Entitled by Deford

Can’t throw? Can’t catch? Can’t get a ticket to the All-Star game? These baseball novels will be “bery bery” good to you. No other American sport lends itself so well to fiction. Both come with beginnings, middles, and ends and neither are over until the last pitch is thrown.

Before you check out these bat-cracking reads, hit up our Facebook page – we’re asking fans to vote on their favorite literary characters to form an Off-the-Shelf All-Star Team of literary proportions.

The List by Siobahn Vivian

Some kids breeze through high school with good looks and good grades, while others can be their peers' object of torment. Is there a hierarchy of status based on attractiveness? Siobhan Vivian puts this to the test in her YA novel The List.

Upon arrival the Monday morning before the Homecoming dance, students at Mount Washington High School find a list posted everywhere. “The List” has been a tradition for as long as anyone can remember, be it good or bad. One girl in each grade, 9th-12th, is named the prettiest and her popularity soars.

Unfortunately, one girl in each grade is also named the ugliest. Her social acceptance becomes questionable as everyone seems to acknowledge the list as gospel. This year’s list is no different – four girls are named the prettiest, and four girls are named the ugliest in each of their respective grades. The prettiest senior is a shoo-in for homecoming queen, and the ugliest senior makes the list for the fourth year in a row.

Home by Toni Morrison

In Toni Morrison’s latest novel, Home, 24-year old Frank Money is an African-American army veteran struggling to maintain his sanity, his manhood, and find his place in the world a year after returning from the Korean War.

Less than 200 pages long, this short but powerful offering begins with Frank escaping from a Seattle mental hospital for reasons he can’t or chooses not to remember. Once free, he begins a dangerous and eye-opening journey back to his younger sister, Cee, who is gravely ill under mysterious circumstances in Georgia.

As the plot unfolds, Frank desperately struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, encounters senseless racism, learns what the real meaning of “home” is for him, and eventually confronts the truth about a horrible and deadly decision he made in Korea that has continued to “tilt” his mental stability.

The novel is structured so that it is mainly told in third person, but with Frank periodically narrating chapters. This arrangement works well because we get a first-hand glimpse into Frank’s private thoughts, while from the third person aspect, we learn more about Cee and her own story of sorrow and hardship.

Boleto book cover

Boleto by Alyson Hagy is not some archaic Western. It is about a young man who could be my contemporary, but who nonetheless lives in a different America than I do.

Handyman by Carolyn See

Most folks don’t think of reading when the weather is nice. They’d rather be outside at a park, or gardening, boating, or doing the backstroke. But for just about any summer activity, there’s a book to match it.

If you’re heading to the pool, grab The Handyman by Carolyn See, a dreamy and surprising novel about the life of an aspiring painter who doesn’t know what to paint. So he turns to handyman work instead and in a myriad of ways, changes the lives of all the people he works for, never realizing that his inspiration is right in front of his eyes.

If you’re going to visit a historic forts or Civil War battlefield on your summer trip, consider Dreaming the Bull by Manda Scott. Celtic warrior queen Boudica was once the most feared leader in Brittania. But in a battle with the Romans she has lost her beloved warrior-dreamer brother, Ban. Ban was taken prisoner by the Romans and has been indoctrinated into Roman military society only to return to the land of his birth and wage a new war on his sister and her armies. A thrilling historical novel with complex characters and suspenseful plot.

The War of 1812

In 1783, the United States ended its revolution against Great Britain and began to build the new country. But early in the next century, once again England and America faced disputes, which ultimately led to war.

J.C.A. Stagg in The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent provides a concise narrative of this event, which is marking its bicentennial this year. President James Madison urged Congress to declare war against England to protest the British Navy’s practice of impressment – that is, stopping American ships and taking sailors to help out their tired forces.

In 1812, England and France were at war over Napoleon’s desire to control Europe. Many felt Madison had a weak case for war, and many in Congress opposed it. Diplomacy tried and failed to settle the issues between the two countries. Neither side wanted war, but in June 1812, the war began.         

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