Anchors Aweigh! A Flotilla of Good Reading | The Reader’s Shelf

A ship, be it one that travels on stormy seas or one that defies gravity and speeds through starry skies, is a symbol of adventure, freedom, and exploration. Even landlubbers will want to launch their own voyages of discovery with these journeys.

In Beat to Quarters (Back Bay: Little, Brown. 1985. ISBN 9780316289320. pap. $13.99), C.S. Forester constructs a swift adventure novel that enthralls readers with the pace of war and the perils of love. Horatio Hornblower captains the H.M.S. Lydia to a top-secret rendezvous off Nicaragua in 1807. Lydia, 36-gun frigate, has seen better days. Her timbers leak and her deck planks creak under the crew’s weight. When Hornblower unwillingly allies himself with a psychopathic warlord named El Supremo, the Lydia must go into battle against a ship twice her size with double her firepower.

Rafael Sabatini, the author of romantic and adventure classics such as Scaramouche and Captain Blood, also wrote The Sea-Hawk (Norton. 2002. ISBN 9780393323313. pap. $13.95; ebk. ISBN 9781775416555), a swashbuckling tale first published in 1915. Set in the 16th century, the novel recounts the adventures of Sir Oliver, a Cornish knight kidnapped and imprisoned as a slave on a Spanish galley. Eventually freed, Sir Oliver becomes a famous pirate and plots revenge against his evil half-brother, who had a hand in his kidnapping.

In Sea of Glory (Penguin. 2004. ISBN 9780142004838. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781440649103), Nathaniel Philbrick traces the adventures of a squadron of ships sent on a global voyage of discovery by Thomas Jefferson. The U.S.S. Vincennes led the expedition, and her crew surveyed Antarctica, retraced the steps of Capt. James Cook, and reached South Africa. Along the way the ship encountered every manner of danger and survived when the other ships under her flag could not. Even though the expedition’s discoveries formed the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution, the shortcomings and malfeasance of the Vincennes’s captain, Charles Wiles, ultimately tarnished the expedition’s ­reputation.

A nonfiction classic of maritime history, Walter Lord’s A Night To Remember (Holt. 2005. ISBN 9780805077643. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9781453238417) recounts the voyage of the doomed R.M.S. Titanic through the eyes of her passengers and crew. First published in 1955 and based on interviews with survivors, Lord’s thoroughly researched and precisely written account vividly captures the full story and emotional impact of the tragedy. In the sections that chronicle the catastrophic sinking, he details the heroics, fear, and cowardice that colored the night. In the sections about the ship herself, Lord makes the Titanic come alive once more and relates the major events surrounding her inception and creation.

Another classic, this time from the realms of sf, is Rendezvous with Rama (Spectra: Bantam. 1990. ISBN 9780553287899. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780795325755), Arthur C. Clarke’s multi-award-winning novel that details the discovery of an alien spaceship, the Rama. What civilization created it, and why is it tearing through space? A crew is sent to investigate, and readers follow their explorations as the team tries to uncover the ship’s many secrets, its purpose, and, most important, its origin and creators.

Mystery and intrigue abound in Jack McDevitt’s futuristic Polaris (Ace: Berkley. 2005. ISBN 9780441012534. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9781101208311). The crew and passengers of Polaris, a space-faring yacht, disappear during a scientific field trip. Sixty years later, antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his assistant Chase Kolpath discover items from the lost vessel. As the plot unfolds, the two use their archaeological skills to track other artifacts that might reveal the fate of those lost aboard the ship. During their interstellar travels, however, Benedict and Kolpath also discover that a shadowy force desires those secrets to be left among the stars. The intrigue only intensifies as the pair deal with saboteurs and the truth about Polaris becomes ever more complicated.

One of the most memorable and famous stories of spaceship survival is that of the 1970 mission of Apollo 13 (Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. 2006. ISBN 9780618619580. pap. $14.95). James Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger describe the harrowing days of disaster aboard the wounded space capsule and its successful return to Earth in this dramatic and heroic account full of scientific descriptions. As fans of the film starring Tom Hanks may recall, the ship is only a few days into its mission to the moon when an explosion occurs that cripples the vessel. The three-man crew, led by Lovell, has little choice but to seal themselves in the lunar module. From there, the astronauts and the ground crew at NASA attempt to figure out a way to get everyone safely home.

This column was contributed by Alex Tray, a recent MLIS graduate from the University of Washington iSchool in Seattle

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at