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Larry Verstraete's Night Table recommendations

Wednesday, Feb 03, 2010 at 10:21am

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk by Jennifer Niven

Much of my reading these days is related to topics I am writing and, as a result, leans heavily on non-fiction. At the moment, I am part-way through The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk by Jennifer Niven (Hyperion, 2000). The Karluk was a former whaling ship converted to floating laboratory that left Victoria, British Columbia on June 1913 on a scientific mission headed by expedition leader Vilhjalmar Stefansson. Six weeks into the journey, the Karluk became locked in ice north of Alaska, pitting the 28 people aboard - scientists, Inuit hunters and sailors - in a life and death struggle against the elements. Only 17 survived the ordeal. Drawing on archival reports and the diaries of survivors, Niven recreates the story of the Karluk with such fluid detail that I feel that I am on the mission myself, experiencing the same rollercoaster ride of anxiety, fear and decision-making that the passengers on the ill-fated journey likely felt themselves. So far, the book has been a fascinating read.

Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson

A book that I just finished is Erik Larson's Issac's Storm (Vintage Books, 1999). Having thoroughly enjoyed a previous Larson book (The Devil in the White City) I had high expectations for this book about Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau, who lived in Galveston, Texas at the time of the epic hurricane of September 8, 1900. Larson does not disappoint. He is a master of dynamic storytelling and impeccable research. By bringing minute details to the foreground, Larson paints a broad picture of the fateful day, and guides the reader through the struggles of the fledgling Weather Bureau and its representative, Cline, as the greatest natural disaster in American history bears down on Galveston. Suspenseful and informative from start to finish, I was entranced to the very end.

Next on the reading queue for me, another Larson book - Thunderstruck - the interwoven story of Hawley Crippen, a murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless. Judging by Larson's record so far, I expect to be anchored to my chair for hours.


Larry Verstraete (B.Sc, M.Ed.) is a Winnipeg writer and educator whose most recent book is At The Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times (Scholastic Canada, 2009), a collection of more than twenty true life stories about life-threatening situations and the wrenching choices made by the people facing them. He recently celebrated the book's launch on January 28th at the McNally Robinson Grant Park location.
Categories: Reviews, Discussions, Authors

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The Ice Master

- Jennifer Niven

Trade paperback $31.99
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The Karluk set out in 1913 in search of an undiscovered continent, with the largest scientific staff ever sent into the Arctic. Soon after, winter had begun, they were blown off course by polar storms, the ship became imprisoned in ice, and the expedition was abandoned by its leader. Hundreds of miles from civilization, the castaways had no choice but to find solid ground as they struggled against starvation, snow blindness, disease, exposure--and each other. After almost twelve months battling the elements, twelve survivors were rescued, thanks to the heroic efforts of their captain, Bartlett, the Ice Master, who traveled by foot across the ice and through Siberia to find help. Drawing on the diaries of those who were rescued and those who perished, Jennifer Niven re-creates with astonishing accuracy the ill-fated journey and the crews desperate attempts to find a way home.

Isaac's Storm

- Erik Larson

Trade paperback $24.95
Reader Reward Price: $22.46

September 8, 1900, began innocently in the seaside town of Galveston, Texas. Even Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau failed to grasp the true meaning of the strange deep-sea swells and peculiar winds that greeted the city that morning. Mere hours later, Galveston found itself submerged in a monster hurricane that completely destroyed the town and killed over six thousand people in what remains the greatest natural disaster in American history--and Isaac Cline found himself the victim of a devestating personal tragedy. Using Cline's own telegrams, letters, and reports, the testimony of scores of survivors, and our latest understanding of the science of hurricanes, Erik Larson builds a chronicle of one man's heroic struggle and fatal miscalculation in the face of a storm of unimaginable magnitude. Riveting, powerful, and unbearably suspenseful, Isaac's Storm is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets the great uncontrollable force of nature.

The Devil in the White City

- Erik Larson

Trade paperback $25.99
Reader Reward Price: $23.39

#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER o NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST o From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Splendid and the Vile comes the true tale of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and the cunning serial killer who used the magic and majesty of the fair to lure his victims to their death. 

"As absorbing a piece of popular history as one will ever hope to find." --San Francisco Chronicle

Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.

Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America's rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair's brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country's most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his "World's Fair Hotel" just west of the fairgrounds--a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. 

Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.

The Devil in the White City draws the reader into the enchantment of the Guilded Age, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. Erik Larson's gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.


- Erik Larson

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A true story of love, murder, and the end of the world’s “great hush” In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the interwoven stories of two men—Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication—whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time. Set in Edwardian London and on the stormy coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners, scientific advances dazzled the public with visions of a world transformed, and the rich outdid one another with ostentatious displays of wealth. Against this background, Marconi races against incredible odds and relentless skepticism to perfect his invention: the wireless, a prime catalyst for the emergence of the world we know today. Meanwhile, Crippen, “the kindest of men,” nearly commits the perfect crime. With his superb narrative skills, Erik Larson guides these parallel narratives toward a relentlessly suspenseful meeting on the waters of the North Atlantic. Along the way, he tells of a sad and tragic love affair that was described on the front pages of newspapers around the world, a chief inspector who found himself strangely sympathetic to the killer and his lover, and a driven and compelling inventor who transformed the way we communicate. Thunderstruck presents a vibrant portrait of an era of séances, science, and fog, inhabited by inventors, magicians, and Scotland Yard detectives, all presided over by the amiable and fun-loving Edward VII as the world slid inevitably toward the first great war of the twentieth century. Gripping from the first page, and rich with fascinating detail about the time, the people, and the new inventions that connect and divide us, Thunderstruck is splendid narrative history from a master of the form.