Erebus – Michael Palin

Palin’s Erebus is a comprehensive account of one of the most famous Arctic and Antarctic exploration vessels. Palin provides a detailed yet compelling overview of the life of Erebus, recently rediscovered in only 36 feet of water in the Arctic, where she has remained since her last voyage with Sir John Franklin in 1845.

erebusPalin’s Erebus reviews the life of the ship, from her first uneventful days as a warship to her watery demise in the mid-1800s in the infamous and mysterious Franklin North West Passage expedition. He offers information and direct quotations from numerous primary sources with engaging narrative, often breaking the tension with some levity. The scholarship is commendable and thorough. I found myself taking copious notes while reading, as I didn’t want to forget a thing.

Although there’s not a lot of new information presented here, Palin’s historical account of Erebus is sprinkled with descriptions of his own travels — to Hobart, where Erebus and Terror visited while Franklin was governor of Van Diemen’s Land, to Antarctica in 2014, to various places where Erebus docked during her service, like the Falklands. Palin includes historical accounts of Erebus’s time in these places, as well as his impressions of the landscape as it looks currently, and Erebus’s long-standing legacies.

Palin left no stone unturned, often literally, while tracking Erebus’s journey. He even reviews the plans by the master shipwright who outfitted her for her expedition to the Arctic. He reviews Erebus’s time in Antarctica under James Clark Ross, as well her time under John Franklin, where she ended her tenure. The last chapter of Erebus covers the recent resurgence in the Franklin mystery, and ends with Palin’s visit to Antarctica in 2017, to see the final places along the parties’ sojourn across the ice. I wish he had actually gotten to Erebus, and I look forward to future books containing new information from the recently discovered ships.

Some reviewers have complained that not enough time was spent discussing the Franklin expedition, but honestly, that’s not what I was reading this for. The book is called Erebus for a reason; and there’s more to this ship than just the Franklin expedition. If you’re looking for Franklin information, I recommend Russell Potter’s Finding Franklin; Palin’s Erebus is a thorough account of Erebus, and I was excited to read this to learn of her lesser-known voyage with James Clark Ross.

Erebus will appeal to Arctic scholars as well as armchair sailors like me. No sentence was superfluous and every chapter offered something engaging.

Highly recommended.

Many thanks to LibraryThing First Reviewers and Greystone Books for this advance copy in exchange for my review.

A Ladder to the Sky – John Boyne

Maurice Swift is the most loathsome protagonist, and I was smitten with his vileness.

ladderJohn Boyne has created another masterpiece with Ladder to the Sky. Maurice, self-centered beyond redemption, is an aspiring writer. The barrier to his success is that he lacks the talent of original thought. Blessed with movie star good looks, Maurice charms older, esteemed writers into becoming his mentors, using them for what he can, then dumping them, often with devastating consequences. As the novel progresses, Maurice’s ambition grows into a monster that he must keep feeding.

John Boyne is a rare author who has created such a despicable main character who also captures the reader’s enthusiasm. Maurice’s shamelessness is juxtaposed with his victims’ inexplicable adoration which creates tension that never waivers. The ending is a resounding smash.

Highly recommended.

Many thanks to Penguin First to Read for this advance copy in exchange for my review.

Bowlaway – Elizabeth McCracken

Spoon River Anthology meets Cold Comfort Farm in this quirky story of a family-owned candlepin bowling alley that spans generations. There is a whisper of magical realism with a hefty dose of down-to-earth wisdom.

bowlawayAt the turn of the 20th century, Bertha Truitt, described as matronly and jowly,  wearing a split skirt, is found lying face down in the local cemetery. She sits up and explains that she’s the inventor of candlepin bowling. The townspeople are perplexed and mesmerized by Bertha Truitt and are delighted with her candlepin bowling alley, where they can bowl away their problems. Even women are encouraged to go, and it becomes a place of camaraderie.

Bowlaway follows Bertha Truitt and her husband, Dr. Sprague, and all their descendants in this small town in Massachusetts. Every character under the spell of Truitt’s Alley has their own demons, their own agendas, their own desires. As the years pass,  the bowling alley must change with the times as well as the aims of those who run it and those whose souls are captivated by the candlepins. Bowlaway has many stories of love and loss, and is handled with tenderness.

McCracken’s writing is sharp and full of joie de vivre. I had to get out my tape flags to mark pages several times because her wordsmithing was so intelligent. It’s getting a special place on my shelf because I know I’ll smile every time I see it.

Many thanks to HarperCollins for an advance copy in exchange for my review. It was a privilege to read.

Lights on the Sea – Miquel Reina

Lights on the Sea is a mythic story of a meek retired couple on the adventure of their lives.

lightsontheseaHarold and Mary Rose Grapes lead an isolated existence in their small yellow house perched on the edge of a cliff. Facing eviction due to the government deeming their house unsafe, Harold and Mary Rose go to bed after packing their belongings, resigned to accepting the inevitable. They wake in the morning, however, to find themselves in their little house adrift in the middle of the ocean. During the night the house had plunged off the cliff, and because it was built on porous volcanic rock, Harold and Mary Rose are now bobbing like a cork in the yellow house, destination unknown.

Faced with dwindling resources and terror of the open sea, Harold and Mary Rose are stressed to the limits of endurance. The couple also bears the additional burden of grief that cripples their daily life. They meet some others along the way, outsiders from a different culture who help them with their physical survival and their mental stagnation.

Although the message can be heavy-handed towards the end, it is sympathetic nonetheless. Part tall tale, part love story, Lights on the Sea would appeal to any generation of reader.

Many thanks to Miquel Reina, Netgalley, and AmazonCrossing for this advance copy in exchange for my review.



Tale of a Tooth – Allie Rogers

toothPrecocious Danny is 4-years-old and lives with his beloved mom, Meemaw, in their derelict Sussex flat, struggling to get by. Besides Meemaw, Danny loves two things: his best friend, a plastic dinosaur named Spiny, and watching a dinosaur documentary on his mom’s cracked iPhone, Tale of a Tooth. Life is bearable for Meemaw and Danny until Karen comes into their lives. Meemaw is smitten with her, but Danny never warms to her, referring to her in the worst language he knows, a “horrible poo”.

Tale of  a Tooth is a story of abuse and poverty, but also a tender story of love between a mother and son. Told through Danny’s perspective, the comparison to Emma Donoghue’s Room is inevitable, but, like Room, this child’s interpretation afforded a tenderness to an otherwise heartbreaking story. The reader also understands how Meemaw is feeling through Danny’s explanation of how her “color” is: red and pink when she’s first flushed with love for Karen, and later grey and brown when she’s reeling from betrayal and fear.

Though the subject matter is difficult, I enjoyed this book and Rogers’s finesse at presenting the effects of domestic abuse through the eyes of a child.

Many thanks to Edelweiss and Legend Times Group for this copy in exchange for my review.


Always Look on the Bright Side of Life – Eric Idle

idleI grew up watching Flying Circus, and loved it, even though I was really too young to understand or decipher the accents (“Spam” notwithstanding). I’ve passed my love of Monty Python onto my kids, even visiting Doune castle to buy coconuts and recreate Holy Grail (with my daughter playing Terry Gilliam, I as Graham Chapman), like thousands of other daft tourists.

Your face will ache from smiling while reading this, and it’s chock full of name-dropping, which, TBH, is everyone’s secret shameful reason for reading a celebrity memoir (AmIRightAmIRight – NudgeNudge!) And there are lots of photos, which I appreciated. This book made me laugh out loud while I was sneak-reading at my kid’s Open House at his elementary school. Whoops.

I loved all the anecdotes of Eric hanging out with famous people, and the backstory of how many sketches came to be. I even learned about some projects of his that I was unaware of, having been unfortunately born too late (stupid 1975) and in the wrong country (stupid Yank) to encounter many of them on the BBC. I paused many times while reading to get on YouTube and catch up.

Eric’s kind heart is obvious, as shown through his endearing friendships with George Harrison and Robin Williams, not to mention all the Pythons. He’s had a rich life full of love and good friends. Laughter really does bring people together. I’d love to hang out with him sometime. I’ll even supply the booze.

If you love Python, or saw the title of this book and began to whistle, or just know him as the guy from the Figment ride at Disney World, you can’t go wrong with this one. It’s entertaining, hilarious, and insightful. Highly recommended.
Many thanks to Penguin First to Read for the advance copy in exchange for my review.

French Exit – Patrick DeWitt

french exitFrances Price in French Exit reminds me of a blue-blood, eccentric friend of my mom’s who was so blind to her wealth that once, while enjoying her first experience dining at a Waffle House, asked if they had Russian dressing for her salad. Another time a waiter explained that there was no smoking allowed inside the restaurant, and she casually waved her cigarette in the air and said, charmingly disarming him, “Well, let’s just pretend, shall we?”

French Exit is the story of the disdainful and weary Frances Price, widowed and rapidly running out of money, and her feckless son, Malcolm. Shocked to  learn of their dwindling funds, Frances and Malcolm flee to Paris in order to stay rent-free in a friend’s apartment. Accompanying them in their getaway is Small Frank, the aloof cat that Frances believes houses the soul of her dead husband. Once in Paris, Frances and Malcolm unintentionally acquire a coterie of hangers-on that create madcap antics while attempting to contact Frances’s dead husband (who is cavorting around the Paris streets as a cat). Trust me, it actually makes sense.

This story is chockablock full of quirky, clueless, insolent characters that are completely endearing. You can’t help but love them. They are full of entitlement and haughtiness that lends itself to deadpan humor and dry satire. Their complacency, however, is only a fine sheen over their much deeper heartbreak and tenderness.

French Exit is ultimate DeWitt. Enjoyable through and through.

Many thanks to Edelweiss and HarperCollins for an advance copy in exchange for my review. When DeWitt writes his next book, can I review it, pleasepleaseplease?