History, Non-Fiction

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Every month, the Modern Readers discuss what types of books we collectively would like to be reading. In February 2016, one of our number mentioned that Erik Larson would be doing a talk in a nearby town, so we figured Dead Wake would make a great book club choice!

5 - April 2016 - Dead Wake

Synopsis

On May 1, 1915, with World War I entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “greyhounds” – the fastest liner then in service – and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game. As the Lusitania made her way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small – hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more – all converged to produce one of the greatest disasters of history.

Review

Novelistic nonfiction is the moniker attributed to Erik Larson’s particular brand of history writing, meaning, he chooses what to write about based on his ability to find a narrative embedded naturally in an historic event, and Dead Wake is no exception. The “narrative” found in Dead Wake is really a blend of about ten narratives, switching between the passengers on the ill-fated Lusitania, its captain, the commander of the U-boat that sank it, the employees of the mysterious Room 40, as well as Churchill and President Wilson.

Through alternating narratives (not to be confused with points-of-view), readers are able to come to an understanding of the intricate details of the sinking of the Lusitania in Larson’s account of the disaster. And therefore, invariable, every reader, regardless of their previous knowledge and study of the event and circumstances, will learn something new. For most, the shocking and new information centers on the Germans and new revelations of The Sound of Music‘s well known male lead, Captain Georg von Trapp, or discovering the existence of the Royal Navy’s Room 40 which decoded German transmissions. However, as a student of German history, of these two narratives I was already aware and it was therefore simpering, lovesick Wilson that befuddled me. The leader of isolationist America was alternatively heartbroken and lovestruck and not particularly focused on the war going on in the world around him, which was news to me. I had always defended the visionary of the League of Nations to his critics, but I need to revisit my position…

I had reservations about Dead Wake, but after reading it, and hearing Erik Larson speak, they were quickly squashed. I highly recommend Dead Wake to anyone who truly enjoys a compelling retelling of historical events.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780307408877 • 480 pages • originally published in March 2015, this edition published March 2016 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 4.06 out of 5 stars • read in April 2016

Erik Larson’s Website

Dead Wake on Goodreads

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Dead Wake

Fiction, Historical, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

I purchased Leviathan shortly after I started working at a bookstore, nearly two years ago. It was not, however, until Scott Westerfeld came to said bookstore back in the spring that I remembered that I had the book at home, still sitting on my shelf unread. After a friend finished all three in the series in the course of one night, and I watched Wonder Woman, set during World War I as well, that I figured it was about time I finally read Leviathan.

Synopsis

Alek is a prince without a throne. On the run from his own people, he has only a fighting machine and a small band of men.

Deryn is a girl disguised as a guy in the British Air Service. She must fight for her cause – and protect her secret – at all costs.

Alek and Deryn are thrown together aboard the mighty airship Leviathan. Though fighting side by side, their worlds are far apart. British fabricated beasts versus German steam-powered war machines. They are enemies with everything to lose, yet somehow destined to be together.

Review

Like Marie Lu, Scott Westerfeld is an author who walks the line between middle grades and young adult. Each of his series, and there are many, including the Uglies, are accessible reads for middle schoolers, high schoolers, and adults alike. His effective storytelling and dynamic characters insures that one will never be bored when reading his books and they have great staying power – Uglies, published over 10 years ago, is still a staple in bookstores and on school reading lists.

But I wasn’t particularly intrigued by Uglies, I was much more intrigued by Westerfeld’s take on the start of World War I and his Darwinists and Clankers. The British Darwinists have woven together the “life-threads” of various animals to create everything from great flying whale ships to messenger lizards and many “beasties” inbetween. The German & Austrohungarians have crafted mechanical machines, referred to as “clankers.” Main characters Alek and Deryn are often trying to one-up each other in terms of determining which are better, beasties or clankers. Steampunk definitely suits Westerfeld’s storytelling style.

Leviathan, told in third person but in alternating perspectives between Deryn (Dylan) and Alek, weaves together a complex tapestry of the motivations behind the start of World War I, blending fact and fiction until you have to forcibly remind yourself that the British didn’t set off across the continent in a giant whale zeppelin. As with LegendLeviathan is the perfect book for both boys and girls of all ages, especially for teenagers who love a good adventure that doesn’t center on romance.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $11.99 • 9781416971740 • 440 pages • originally published October 2009, this edition published August 2010 by Simon Pulse • average Goodreads rating 3.91 out of 5 • read in July 2017

Scott Westerfeld’s Website

Leviathan on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Leviathan

Leviathan (2)