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The Nautical Notebook Bookshelf

Reviews of cruise- and ocean liner-related books from our home library. All reviews are

by Lisa Plotnick unless noted otherwise.


Click on the title to be directed to the appropriate review:


Boileau, John, Titanic and Halifax

Bruns, Brian David, Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Water Line

Chirnside, Marc, The Olympic Class Ships: Olympic, Titanic and Britannic

de Kerbrech, Richard, Ships of the White Star Line

DiFulgo, Robert J. Titanic’s Resurrected Secret--HEW

L’Episcopo, Joseph B, One Final Voyage

Lord, Walter,  A Night to Remember (Quick Review)

Mandel, Peter, My Ocean Liner: Across the Atlantic on the Great Ship Normandie

Maxtone-Graham, John, Liners to the Sun

Maxtone-Graham, John, Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner

Meyers, L.T. (Publisher), The Sinking of the Titanic (Quick Review)

Miller Jr., William H., Pictorial Encyclopedia of Ocean Liners, 1860-1994 (Quick Review)

Miller Jr., William H., Picture History of the Andrea Doria

Pressler Jr., David W., Olympia: The Life and Times of a Greek Goddess

Scott, Devon M., S/S Norway: Memories in Imagery


Titanic and Halifax

John Boileau


Halifax, Nova Scotia has strong ties to the White Star Line's RMS Titanic. The coastal Canadian city was chosen to handle the recovery operations immediately after the liner sank - a task that involved many individuals, businesses, and houses of worship. This book describes these events along with a retelling of the ship's story and the fates of several passengers.


Overall, it's a good recounting of the Titanic tragedy, yet I was expecting more on the prominent role of Halifax in the aftermath of the ship's demise. There are, of course, many other volumes that cover this aspect in more depth. Therefore, I recommend this book to beginning and intermediate students of Titanic history. It provides the basics and more without getting into the minutiae that would please only the most avid Titanic historians.


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Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline

Where the Crew Lives, Eats, Sleeps, Wars, and Parties. One Crazy Year Working on Cruise Ships.

Brian David Bruns


As a veteran cruiser (20+ years) and budding travel writer, the topic of this mini-memoir caught my eye while browsing through a bookstore. I had heard of the book and had read its mixed reviews, yet thought I would judge for myself—and have my own mixed review to report. In most ways, I was not surprised—I knew the general aspects of the crew's living and working conditions by talking with various waiters and cabin stewards over the years. Still, the picture painted by the author was vivid, and I was able to look past the (um) extra-curricular activities as diversions.


What I gleaned from this book, and what surprised me, were its parallels to land-based, large corporate employee life in the States—the honeymoon period, cliques, promises (both kept and broken), and being in the right place at the right time—sans the working conditions, of course. My main negatives were that these topics were not covered in great depth, the book ended abruptly, and that the writer's ego often had me wondering to the extent to which he may have stretched the truth. Even so, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to cruise travelers looking for a quick and easy read that isn't meant to be taken too seriously.


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The Olympic Class Ships: Olympic, Titanic and Britannic

Mark Chirnside


This is the ultimate resource book on White Star Line's Olympic class ships. As such, it is a thorough research piece that examines the history and technical aspects of the three ocean liners that comprised this class--Olympic (in service 1911-1935), Titanic (1912), and Britannic (1915-1916). As a long-time fan of the great liners, Olympic in particular, I consider this an essential part of my library. It is my contention, one shared with the author, that Titanic cannot be put into proper perspective without examining her sister ships; therefore, I also recommend The Olympic Class Ships to those familiar only with the most famous of the trio.

The author immediately puts the ships' histories into context by examining their owners, the shipyard in which they were built, and the competing ships of the rival Cunard Line. We then are treated to details of the lives of each ship in turn--including technical information and remembrances of crew and passengers--but not necessarily in isolation. After all, the lives of the three ships were indeed intertwined, as history impacted each of the ships' designs at different points in time.

Mr. Chirnside's thorough research extends to the appendices. Aside from the expected chronologies, there is a wonderful analysis on
Californian's role in the Titanic story, and--something I've rarely seen--a tribute to those who perished on Britannic, the only one of the three that did not see passenger service.

I was surprised to learn that the author was a University student. I look forward to reading his future works over what I suspect will be a very promising career.


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Ships of the White Star Line

Richard de Kerbrech


For most people, the White Star Line is synonymous with the ill-fated Titanic. Yet, as Richard de Kerbrech’s 2009 book shows us, the White Star Line was so much more. I highly recommend this exemplary history of not only the 89 ships that served under the White Star Line banner, but also of the line itself.


From the line’s first ship (Oceanic, 1871) through its merger with former rival Cunard Line (1934), Mr. de Kerbrech guides us through a chronology of the White Star Line, including detail on its liners and cargo ships, mechanics, routes, and business dealings. The book is presented encyclopedia style, with detailed histories of each ship, including, for most, a line that describes the derivation of the ship’s name. Every chapter opens with a narrative on the era that will be presented, which also puts the line’s history in context of the passenger shipping industry as a whole. For example, White Star Line was very involved in the Japan and New Zealand trades as these areas opened up to shipping.

Yet, the profiles of the ships are indeed the main strength of this book. While White Star Line is often noted for its disasters (Titanic and Atlantic), there are several success stories that are often overlooked. Its first ship, Oceanic, was in service for 25 years—pretty impressive for its time. Germanic was in service for 75 years (between three owners), including World War I duty. And then, there is my favorite ship, Olympic, the pride of the White Star Line when she was launched in 1910. Photographs enhance the retelling of the ships’ histories.

Although I read the book front-to-back for purposes of this review, it is intended to be a resource as needed. And, it certainly excels in this respect, and others. Liner fans will likely consider this an important component of their libraries, while those who are familiar with just a few of the White Star Line’s ships will find value in its detail and the context in which these ships operated.


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Titanic’s Resurrected Secret--HEW

J. Robert DiFulgo


Historical fiction is a challenging genre. An author must create a storyline within a setting that once existed while minimizing confusion between fiction and fact. The difficulty intensifies when a historical character is brought into the mix, particularly in a prominent role. This is the reason that I assess this book as "just ok" rather than a “must-read.” As a Titanic student, I was already familiar with the life of Harry Elkins Widener (HEW) and feel that too much artistic license was taken.

What appealed to me about the book, however, were the detailed descriptions of sites that were part of Titanic's history, such as Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, where many passengers were buried. It was evident that the author did a great deal of research on the ship and her passengers -- which, sadly, is lacking in several works of other writers.

The story itself was somewhat interesting as the fictional Alexei delved into his obsession with the unnamed passenger associated with grave marker 223. His quest led to another fictional character, whose fictional association with passenger 223 was key to Alexei suspecting he had found a link to HEW.

However, we must not confuse this with reality, and I hope the actions described in this book do not become intertwined with the real HEW, a fascinating gentleman in his own right.


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One Final Voyage

Joseph B. L’Episcopo


One Final Voyage is an enjoyable novel about the farewell voyage of an ocean liner after 25 years of service. During the story, we are introduced to delightful—and interesting—passengers, meet many crew members ranging from stoker to Captain, learn about the competitiveness of developing new methods to cross the Atlantic, and encounter suspenseful moments as the ship's aging machinery is put to the max. The character development is superb, and the details of the ship's inner workings incredible.


The setting for this gripping story is perhaps the most famous ship of all-time—RMS Titanic. Clearly, this is a work of fiction that requires the reader to suspend knowledge of events that occurred after 1912, most notably history of the White Star Line as well as the first World War and Great Depression. The modification of this history is key to the story that unfolds onboard, one in which the author combines, successfully, three of his interests--passenger ships, aviation, and Russian culture.


As an ocean liner fanatic, it was a bit disconcerting to me, at times, to read dialogue from passengers who had perished on Titanic in reality. Yet, this book differs from other fictional accounts of the liner as it does not attempt to hide that it's a fabrication. One note—as this is a self-published book, there are several typographical errors and inadvertent misspellings. Yet, even as an editor in real life, I did not find these distracting as the story held up well.


I look forward to reading the remaining two volumes of the trilogy, Oceanic Crossings and Atlantic Colours.


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Quick Review:

A Night to Remember

Walter Lord


A Night to Remember should be on the bookshelves of anyone interested in the true story of Titanic. Published in 1955, highly renowned maritime historian Walter Lord was able to share actual experiences of those who survived this tragic event in the North Atlantic roughly 40 years earlier. Unlike sensationalized versions of this oft-told story, Mr. Lord provides perspectives of passengers from all classes of accommodation, as well as members of the crew, bolstering them with statistics and historical facts. The individual stories bring a human element to the disaster, without the romanticism that typically overshadows most accounts of this dreadful night.


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My Ocean Liner: Across the North Atlantic on the Great Ship Normandie

Peter Mandel (illustrated by Betsey MacDonald, introduction by John Maxtone-Graham)


I purchased this book for my son, then nine years old, prior to our 2003 transatlantic crossing on Queen Elizabeth 2. While technically a children’s book, it quickly became one of my favorites and is stored in my library rather than in his.


The story follows Paul, a nine-year-old who is traveling with his parents from New York to Le Havre in 1939 on the French Line’s SS Normandie. The main means of transportation at this time was ocean liner, and we share Paul’s adventures as he explores the ship, makes friends, and learns about how the ship is operated. It’s a cute story that also serves to acquaint the reader with the historic ship, as Paul’s adventures take him, chapter by chapter, to the dining room, sun deck, bridge, and engine room. Through Paul’s eyes, we also experience the excitement of boarding, a storm at sea, and even a sighting of Queen Mary as Normandie approaches her destination. All are described in detail, and enhanced by illustrations created by Betsey MacDonald. Even the little details that amaze a child, yet might escape the observations of an adult, are noted—such as the cabarets (“like little fences”) on the edges of the dining room tables to keep items falling off while the ship is in motion.


Another wonderful feature of My Ocean Liner is its historical accuracy. All of the text and illustrations were reviewed by respected ocean liner historian John Maxtone-Graham. Mr. Maxtone-Graham also puts the voyage into perspective by sharing historical information in the introduction he penned.


In summary, Mr. Mandel has written a wonderful introduction to ocean liner history for the younger set that also captures the attention of the adults. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in passenger ships, particularly to future ocean liner fanatics and their parents.


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Liners to the Sun

John Maxtone-Graham


If you are looking for a gift for the cruise enthusiast in your life, you cannot go wrong with Liners to the Sun, a written documentary of cruising’s past and how it continues to influence shipboard life today. This 500+ page volume by respected maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham contains something for everyone, covering topics such as shipbuilding, class distinctions, crossing vs. cruising, and the future of the cruise industry.

The author’s intent was for the reader to gain a better appreciation of what today’s cruises have to offer by studying their origins on earlier cruises and crossings. He accomplishes this through delightful, engaging accounts of actual voyages, as seen by the passengers and crew who experienced them.

Endure a storm on
Friesland in 1895, chronicled in a passenger-run newspaper, and attend a passenger reunion on land one year later. Join the Ochs family on Victoria Luise in 1913 to explore the nearly completed Panama Canal, and call on Caribbean ports via a convoy of the ship’s lifeboats. Journey from New York to Rio on the legendary Normandie in 1938, and revel in the antics of the crossing-the-line ceremony. Relive several of the author’s own cruises of the 1980s, including a trip to the Caribbean on the Norway during her inaugural season, the Far East portion of a Rotterdam world cruise, Alaska on Fairsea, and a transatlantic repositioning cruise via the North Cape on Royal Viking Sea.

Observe what goes on behind the scenes of a cruise ship. Spend a day with a cabin steward, and see the precursors of today’s popular towel animals. Learn the origins of the Captain’s Dinner. Witness the camaraderie that exists at sea, as
Sea Venture (later known as Pacific Princess) was called upon to rescue passengers stranded during a power outage on Queen Elizabeth 2.

Shipbuilding fans will enjoy visiting the shipyards to observe the construction of Song of America in 1981 and the lengthening of
Royal Viking Star several months later. Those interested in the architecture of cruise ships will enjoy learning how ships were converted from "indoor" transatlantic liners to "outdoor" cruising vessels.

Mr. Maxtone-Graham’s text is enhanced by numerous photographs taken over a 90-year period. Images of swimming pools and promenade decks are especially appealing, as are the many pictures that show off the ships’ profiles.

Liners to the Sun was originally published in 1985, and was reissued in 2000 with an up-to-date introduction by the author. However, all of the cruises depicted in the current edition took place before the book’s original publication date. While consistent with the intent of the author, I would have liked to have also read Mr. Maxtone-Graham’s firsthand impressions of today’s megaships and the trend towards more casual, individualized cruising.

Liners to the Sun is an excellent work, and should certainly enhance the future cruising experiences of its readers. I highly recommend it to anyone who agrees with the author that "the best islands in the Caribbean have propellers."

Originally published by the reviewer in SeaLetter Cruise Magazine, April 2001


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Quick Review:

Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner

John Maxtone-Graham


With his latest book, John Maxtone-Graham reaches two audiences–those who want to learn more about Titanic and those who wish to explore further study on their own. Mr. Maxtone-Graham (whom, I must disclose, I have met personally) takes the wonderful approach of visiting numerous aspects of Titanic's history that include the important roles of Morse and Marconi, the dock built specifically for Titanic and her sisters, and the small Cunarder Carpathia that came Titanic's rescue. Most poignant was the chapter on crew memorials–in all my years of study, this was the first time I had come across this subject. Mr. Maxtone-Graham also does a great service to future Titanic historians by giving us several areas from which to choose, providing a fantastic basis for each. This was a fantastic. extraordinarily researched book that I know will be among the sources I consult the most in my studies.


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Quick Review:

The Sinking of the Titanic: Thrilling Stories of Survivors, with Photographs & Sketches

L.T. Meyers, Publisher


This is one of several books published soon after the Titanic tragedy, and is a compelling read that lives up to its subtitle of “Thrilling Stories of Survivors.” Given its rush to market, it contains several details that have since proven to be inaccurate, a point clearly noted on the book’s copyright page. While not an authoritative source—I leave that to Walter Lord’s well-researched publications—this book has a place on our shelf as it represents a snapshot in time, capturing the emotions of survivors within a year of an event that transformed their lives.


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Quick Review:

Pictorial Encyclopedia of Ocean Liners, 1860-1994

William H. Miller, Jr.


This is the most frequently referenced book in my library. Pictorial Encyclopedia of Ocean Liners is a comprehensive volume with photographs and statistics on over 400 liners. Information includes shipyard, year built, gross tonnage, length, width, engine type, speed, number of passengers (by class, if applicable), original and subsequent names and owners, and ultimate fate. An appendix includes preliminary statistics on mid-1990s newbuilds, including Century, Grand Princess, and Carnival Destiny. Although it may be considered dated by today’s cruisers, it is an essential publication for anyone interested in the history of passenger ships. This 142-page, large-format paperback is perfect to bring on your next cruise to learn more about some of the ships you’ll encounter in port, particularly those in Europe, where the more recent of these ships now serve.


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Picture History of the Andrea Doria

William H. Miller, Jr.


I have been a huge fan of William H. Miller Jr.'s books for many years and own several dozen of his "Picture History" ocean liner books. Still, I will do my best to give a balanced review of Picture History of the Andrea Doria. Although it was published in 2005, I realized only recently that this volume was not in my collection, so that was rectified very easily. It is definitely a fantastic addition to my library.


My favorite aspects of the book were, of course, its photographs, but also the historical text that accompanied them. Over the years, the depth of Mr. Miller's descriptions have increased and provide a lot of detail for ocean liner buffs. Among these is the way the ship fits into the history of its nation's passenger vessels in terms of interior design, engineering, purpose, and other factors.


While ocean liner fans will likely find this analysis intriguing, I doubt the same can be said for those who want to learn about one particular ship. Of the 183 photographs in the book, fewer than 70 are of Andrea Doria. And, just two of the seven chapters are devoted to the Doria. The remainder of the book covers the early and late years of the Italian Line, the Doria's sister ship Cristoforo Colombo, notable ships of other Italian companies, and the resurgence of Genoa as a shipbuilding site. In this respect, there are some overlaps with the author's The Picture History of the Italian Line, 1932-1977, published 1999.


Even so, the chapters on Doria can stand on their own for those interested, but purchasers should be aware that Doria is often put in the context of other ships.


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Olympia – The Life and Times of a Greek Goddess

David W. Pressler, Jr.


From the time I stepped onboard Regal Empress in 2001, I felt an immediate connection with this charming liner, the former flagship TSS Olympia of the Greek Line. Her gorgeous wood interiors were captivating, as were many other remaining features of her past. Yet, even as an ocean liner aficionado, I knew little about her; my information was gleaned from snippets of stories and posts on the Internet and a mention or two in the books within my liner collection. So, I was beyond thrilled when I located a copy of David W. Pressler, Jr.’s masterpiece Olympia – The Life and Times of a Greek Goddess, which traced the nearly 50-year history of this intimate vessel. And, I was even more thrilled as I read it.


Mr. Pressler packs a lot of history in this nearly 200-page volume, including a detailed chronology of her modifications from Olympia to Caribe I to Regal Empress. Deck plans of all of these incarnations are included—a major highlight for ship geeks such as myself. Photographs also document her transformation over the years, and show how the passenger ship industry changed, as well. A key, and unique, portion of the book is that in which members of the crew share their thoughts on the vessel as she neared her retirement. Mr. Pressler’s love of the ship shines through his clearly written commentary, making this a pleasure to read and an honor to own.


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S/S Norway: Memories in Imagery

Devon M. Scott


Have you ever concluded a cruise vacation and realize that you had forgotten to take photographs of several areas that were important to you? Or wished you had photographs of some behind-the-scenes spots that are off-limits to passengers?


This was the case for me after my 2001 cruise on SS Norway, the former SS France of 1962 and NCL’s flagship through the 1980s and 1990s. Thankfully, I now have Mr. Scott’s new book to fill in the gap. And, it is a superb collection of nearly 60 photographs of the ship in the early 2000s, when Mr. Scott was the official on-board historian. Thus, these photographs are presented through the eyes of a knowledgeable ocean liner historian and are accompanied by text that both educates and provides professional insight. Although the photographs were taken late in the ship’s career, Mr. Scott captures many areas that exude historical significance, such as original artwork, cabin fittings, and even the switchboard!


In full disclosure, I have known Mr. Scott since meeting him onboard SS Norway ten years ago. Even so, I do not believe that this influenced my enjoyment of the photographs or descriptions. Admittedly, the price of the book seems high for its length (approximately US$25 for 25 pages), yet this is one of those situations in which the product is well worth it. I highly recommend this book, available through the publisher, to those who have traveled onboard SS Norway or SS France, those who have an interest in liner and cruise ship history, and anyone who is curious as to why this ship endures in the hearts of so many.


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