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.