Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Terri's Review - The Voyage of the Narwhal

Talking grew difficult; their beards froze to their neckerchiefs and saliva sealed their lips. The wind tore tears from their eyes and froze their lids together.

Thus is the atmosphere in The Voyage of the Narwhal, an historical adventure novel by Andrea Barrett. It is set in the mid-nineteenth century; the Narwhal is a whaling ship that has been outfitted for an Arctic voyage. The mission is to find out what happened to the Franklin expedition, apparently lost some years before exploring the Arctic. It is a bit of a race, as other expeditions have also set out to find Franklin’s ship.

The Narwhal’s naturalist and the book’s main protagonist is Erasmus Darwin Wells. He is the voice of reason on the voyage, compared to the commander, Zechariah Voorhees (Zeke), who is young and daring and doesn’t give much thought to the consequences of his actions. He puts his crew at risk on a number of occasions. He is the commander only because his father funded the expedition and built the ship.

Though I haven’t read many adventure stories, there are some elements here one would naturally expect – daring, danger, hardships, near death experiences, an unhappy crew, an unreasonable commander, and so on. Barrett's brilliance lies in her descriptions of the atmosphere and settings:
...any acknowledgment of sickness made the men nervous. So did the darkness, and the daily task of scraping from bunks and bulkheads the frost that formed from their breath while they slept. It was disturbing, Erasmus thought, to watch the air that had lived inside their lungs turn into buckets of dirty ice. Tossing the shavings over the side, he felt as if he were discarding parts of himself.
Waiting at home for the return of the Narwhal are Lavinia – sister to Erasmus and fiancĂ© of Zeke – and her companion during the men’s absence, Alexandra. We are privy to their lives as well. They set to work hand coloring plates for an entomology book Lavinia’s two other brothers are publishing. Lavinia uses the work to fill her time, but Alexandra takes to the work and begins drawing illustrations for another book. She is the strong independent one and introduces the theme of women’s rights and abilities into the story. She and her family are abolitionists.

This novel holds adventure, intrigue, mystery, and a bit of magical realism right alongside issues of human rights – treatment of and attitudes toward the indigenous people of the Arctic, the Esquimaux, are explored.

Highly recommended (unless you’re trying to keep warm in frigid temperatures!).

Saturday, February 6, 2010

New member, Introduction

::waves to the group::

I just discovered TOPP last week and was thrilled to find that there are many other readers who share my obsession with this prize, which has introduced me to so many of my favourite writers. (If you're curious about what I like to read, there's more about that here. I'm really looking forward to getting to know you book-wise.

There were a few sniffles and whimpers when I realized that I had just missed Orange January, but I'll be ready for July and, in the meantime, I'll be getting steadily Orange-r after the 2010 longlist is announced on March 18th ... shouldn't there be a countdown widget somewhere on this blog? ::grin:: I've really enjoyed browsing the reviews posted here, so many of which only make me want to Read More Orange.

If you were to look at my reading logs for January and February you wouldn't likely recognize me as an Orange Reader, but I have read some other books by OP nominees during that time (like Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead, Jane Urquhart's biography L.M. Montgomery) and I think Marina Endicott's novel Good to a Fault has a good chance of making this year's list.

And my OP reading will increase substantially in the coming weeks: next month I'm planning a wee Pat Barker focus in anticipation of reading her 1996 longlisted novel The Ghost Road and then I will obsessing with 2010's longlist.

The challenge of there being regular additions to the list is that there are always more books and authors to follow up with; I've only read 68 of the OP titles so far, but I know there are many more favourites to be discovered amongst the titles that yet await, so I'm up for that challenge. It's nice to know I'll have company on that journey.