The best books about the sea that aren’t just about sailing on it, or fighting on it, or drowning in it, but are really about the human condition

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been fascinated by "sea stories" since I could read, maybe before. I was born in Liverpool, my dad was in the navy, my family ran an 18th-century inn named the Turk’s Head after a nautical knot, and I’ve directed or written more than twenty films, plays, and novels with the sea as their setting. But they’re not really about the sea. For me, the sea is a mirror to reflect the human condition, a theatre for all the human dramas I can imagine. More importantly, I’ve read over a hundred sea stories for research and pleasure, and those I’ve chosen for you are the five I liked best.

I wrote...

The Time of Terror

By Seth Hunter,

Book cover of The Time of Terror

What is my book about?

This book is the first in a series of historical novels featuring the Anglo-American naval officer and secret agent Nathan Peake during the wars that followed the French Revolution of 1789. But although there is plenty of action at sea, much of it is set in revolutionary Paris at a time when the guillotine was installed in the Place de la Revolution, and terror stalked the streets. 

It is based on the true story of a British ‘black op’ when the royal navy smuggled millions of fake banknotes into France in hopes of wrecking the economy, but this is a timeless tale of terror as a means of repression and of achieving a particular political goal, and therefore as relevant now as it was then. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Clarissa Oakes

Seth Hunter Why did I love this book?

I loved this book because it isn’t just a great story; it demonstrates that the nautical genre, which is supposedly about rugged masculinity, heroism, male bonding, and man against the sea, can be about many other things too, even women!

There is nothing like a ship at sea for creating the ideal hothouse environment for a penetrating study of human nature, especially when you throw a woman into the mix. Clarissa Oakes is a stowaway on a 19th-century sailing ship, the only woman among 200 men, and the perfect catalyst for an explosion of male desire, jealousy, and rage.

It's probably the best book I’ve read in this genre for demonstrating just how much you can stretch the canvas to cover almost every aspect of the human condition.  

By Patrick O'Brian,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Clarissa Oakes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With factions on board, and multiple enemies to contend with, only the most careful navigation will save them.

As he sails away from Port Jackson, Captain Jack Aubrey feels nothing but relief at leaving the penal colony and its inhabitants far behind. But, unknown to him, hidden among his crew is one Clarissa Oakes. With Britain at war on two fronts, with both America and France, Aubrey's orders are to make for the Sandwich Islands and intervene in the conflict there.

How much trouble can one woman cause?

'One moment you laugh out loud at comedy rooted in character, and…

Book cover of Star of the Sea

Seth Hunter Why did I love this book?

I love this story because, for me, it’s a perfect example of why a ship is such a great platform for storytelling, a moving stage for a compelling cast of characters to act out the drama of their past and present lives while heading into an uncertain future.

The Star of the Sea is a "coffin ship," the name given to the leaking hulks that transported a million emigrants from Ireland to America during the Great Famine of the 1840s.

It’s a historical novel but for me, a timeless story about emigration and the human condition, of refugees fleeing the monsters of their past, war, famine, disease, whatever, into what they hope will be a brighter future, and of what happens to them on the way.

By Joseph O'Connor,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Star of the Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

* Over a million copies sold *

Rediscover Joseph O'Connor's monumental #1 international bestseller.

In the bitter winter of 1847, from an Ireland torn by injustice and natural disaster, the Star of the Sea sets sail for New York.

On board are hundreds of fleeing refugees. Among them are a maidservant with a devastating secret, bankrupt Lord Merridith and his family, an aspiring novelist and a maker of revolutionary ballads, all braving the Atlantic in search of a new home. Each is connected more deeply than they can possibly know.

But a camouflaged killer is stalking the decks, hungry for…

Book cover of Rites of Passage

Seth Hunter Why did I love this book?

Golding will forever be remembered for Lord of the Flies, but I think this is better (and so did he, apparently, a lot better).

It’s the story of people on a seemingly endless voyage from England to Australia in the 19th century, but for me, it’s like a spaceship on a voyage to another planet, like the spaceship in Alien with its own monsters aboard, the social mores, the injustices, the class privileges and prejudices, the sexual hangups, and the guilty secrets they carry with them. Pity poor Australia!

For me, it demonstrates that the sea can be a metaphor for reading (and writing). You embark on a journey, and you want to get to the end, but in a way, you want it to last forever.

By William Golding,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Rites of Passage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

Sailing to Australia in the early years of the nineteenth century, Edmund Talbot keeps a journal to amuse his godfather back in England. Full of wit and disdain, he records the mounting tensions on the ancient, stinking warship, where officers, sailors, soldiers and emigrants jostle in the crammed spaces below decks.Then a single passenger, the obsequious Reverend Colley, attracts the animosity of the sailors, and in the seclusion of the fo'castle something happens to bring him into a 'hell of self-degradation', where shame is a force deadlier than the sea itself.

Book cover of The Cruel Sea

Seth Hunter Why did I love this book?

I love this book because it’s the best book I’ve ever read about love at a time of war.

Put simply, this is the story of an escort ship during the Battle of the Atlantic in WW2, but there’s nothing simple about it. Montserrat uses the sea and the ever-present danger of the U-boats as a monstrous vice to squeeze blood onto the page.

All the hopes and fears of his characters, their passions and guilts, their love of life, and of their male comrades and the women they leave behind them. It’s all there under the magnifying lens of the war at sea, and of all five books, this is the best about the sea itself, the all-pervasive, relentless leviathan that rages and roars and rampages across every page.

By Nicholas Monsarrat,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Cruel Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on the author's own vivid experiences, The Cruel Sea is the nail-biting story of the crew of HMS Compass Rose, a corvette assigned to protect convoys in World War Two.

Darting back and forth across the icy North Atlantic, Compass Rose played a deadly cat and mouse game with packs of German U-boats lying in wait beneath the ocean waves.

Packed with tension and vivid descriptions of agonizing U-boat hunts, this tale of the most bitter and chilling campaign of the war tells of ordinary, heroic men who had to face a brutal menace which would strike without warning…

Book cover of This Thing of Darkness

Seth Hunter Why did I love this book?

This is a fictionalized biography of Robert Fitzroy, captain of the Beagle, on the epic voyage to the Galapagos with Charles Darwin that resulted in the theory of evolution and changed the world. For me, it’s such a great example of how a book about the sea can be about so many aspects of human life if not all of it!

I think what makes this story so compelling, apart from the many adventures and discoveries, is the fact that Fitzroy was bipolar. This is the thing of darkness in the title, and his battles against mood swings make this triumph of the human spirit, despite the ending. But you have to find out about that for yourselves.

By Harry Thompson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked This Thing of Darkness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is an epic novel of sea-faring adventure set in the 19th century charting the life of Robert Fitzroy, the captain of 'The Beagle' and his passenger Charles Darwin. It combines adventrure, emotion, ideas, humour and tragedy as well as illuminating the history of the 19th century. Fitzroy, the Christian Tory aristocrat believed in the sanctity of the individual, but his beliefs destroyed his career and he committed suicide. Darwin, the liberal minor cleric doubts the truth of the Bible and develops his theory of evolution which is brutal and unforgiving in human terms. The two friends became bitter enemies…

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Evil Alice and the Borzoi

By DK Coutant,

Book cover of Evil Alice and the Borzoi

DK Coutant Author Of Evil Alice and the Borzoi

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Professor Cross Cultural Psychologist Dog Lover Traveler Reader

DK's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Cleo Cooper, a cross-cultural psychology professor, is living the dream on the Big Island of Hawaii. With ocean-dipping weekends, she enjoys her dog, her job, and her boyfriend Ben - until the day she’s on a research vessel and a dead body is caught in the dragline.

The police determine it is murder and set their sights on a gentle former student, Kai. It doesn’t take much urging from Kai’s auntie for Cleo to investigate. But Ben grows distant, and Cleo’s dog grows ill. A couple of accidental deaths later, and someone makes an attempt on her life.

What happened to Cleo’s life in paradise? Can she discover the true killer? Can she stop the killer before the killer stops her?

Evil Alice and the Borzoi

By DK Coutant,

What is this book about?

Paradise is shaken when the body of a young woman is dragged onto a university research vessel during a class outing in Hilo Bay. Cleo Cooper is shaken when she finds her favorite student is on the hook for the murder. Danger lurks on land and sea as Cleo and her friends are enticed to search for the true killer. In between paddling, swimming, and arguing with her boyfriend, Cleo discovers all is not what it seems on the Big Island of Hawaii. But will she figure out the truth before she becomes the next victim?

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