The best maritime books

7 authors have picked their favorite books about maritime and why they recommend each book.

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Dead Wake

By Erik Larson,

Book cover of Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake is a history lesson disguised as a thoroughly engrossing story. Larson skillfully tells the tragic tale of the British ocean liner and the German U-boat that torpedoed her. He paints a vivid picture of the 1915 era and the maritime tragedy that helped push the United States into World War One. I was struck by the many similarities between the sinking of the Lusitania and the 1994 B-52 crash at Fairchild, particularly the multiple warnings that went unheeded and the missteps that preceded the tragedy.  


Who am I?

Being a connoisseur of historical nonfiction and a survivor of the 1994 shooting spree and aviation disaster at Fairchild Air Force Base, allowed me to create a unique narrative of the two tragedies. I’ve been naturally curious since childhood and grew even more observant and detail-oriented during my career in law enforcement and criminal investigations. I appreciate books that delve into historical disasters and tragedies giving us the opportunity to learn from other people’s experiences. When I realized none of my favorite authors were writing about the Fairchild tragedies, I took up the challenge myself. Warnings Unheeded is the result of more than seven years of research, it is an incredible story and a timeless lesson from history.

I wrote...

Warnings Unheeded: Twin Tragedies at Fairchild Air Force Base

By Andy Brown,

Book cover of Warnings Unheeded: Twin Tragedies at Fairchild Air Force Base

What is my book about?

On 20 June 1994, a former airman opened fire on the patrons and staff of the Fairchild Air Force Base hospital. The first of his many victims were the doctors who had warned of his descent into homicidal madness. Four days after the shooting spree, a B-52 bomber plunged to the ground during an airshow-practice flight. Some of Fairchild’s most veteran aviators were killed when the massive airplane crashed, including a reckless senior pilot and the young commander who had fought to have him grounded. 

This incredible narrative reveals the signs of impending violence and disaster as seen through the eyes of the men and women who witnessed the tragedies unfold. Written by the man who ended the killing spree, Andy Brown gives a firsthand account of his pistol-versus-rifle gunfight and offers a candid insight into the hidden cost of becoming a "hero."

Set Sail for Murder

By Carolyn Hart,

Book cover of Set Sail for Murder

Carolyn Hart is one of those cozy mystery writers who effortlessly reel me into their world. Set Sail for Murder satisfies my longing for travel with its itinerary and the lush vivid descriptions, as well as having an enjoyable mystery at its core. As a former journalist, I’m also a sucker for retired reporters turned sleuth. I read this first on a train, and it made the hours fly by. As soothing as the sound of waves gently lapping a boat. 


Who am I?

After years dedicated to the hard facts of a newspaper reporter’s life, including a sting covering the police beat, Carmen Radtke has changed her focus to fiction. She’s been fascinated by both history and mystery as long as she can remember and stays dedicated to the truth behind the lie, and the joys of in-depth research. As a repeated emigrant, she is enthralled by voyages into the unknown and the courage (or madness) that takes.


I wrote...

The Case of the Missing Bride: An Alyssa Chalmers mystery

By Carmen Radtke,

Book cover of The Case of the Missing Bride: An Alyssa Chalmers mystery

What is my book about?

The Case of the Missing Bride was inspired by an ill-fated voyage I stumbled upon during unrelated research. In 1862, reformers arranged for a group of impoverished young women in recession-stricken Australia to set sail for the newly formed province of British Columbia. They were supposed to marry prospectors but never arrived. Their undiscovered fate kept me awake at night, until I came up with an explanation that seemed plausible to me. The result was the first Alyssa Chalmers mystery, which became a Malice Domestic finalist and was nominated for a CWA Historical Dagger. I have no way of knowing if my idea is correct. What I do know is that these courageous young women deserve to be remembered.

The Golden Rendezvous

By Alistair MacLean,

Book cover of The Golden Rendezvous

Fast-paced, exciting, with enough twists to keep me reading without a single break – this is one of my all-time favourites by prolific author Alistair MacLean. I found myself chuckling and, in the next instant, holding my breath as the First Officer has to outwit terrorists who have taken over the tramp carrier cum cruise ship “Campari.” But what I enjoy most is the mix of humour and lightheartedness that balance the high octane thrills which are grounded in meticulous research.


Who am I?

After years dedicated to the hard facts of a newspaper reporter’s life, including a sting covering the police beat, Carmen Radtke has changed her focus to fiction. She’s been fascinated by both history and mystery as long as she can remember and stays dedicated to the truth behind the lie, and the joys of in-depth research. As a repeated emigrant, she is enthralled by voyages into the unknown and the courage (or madness) that takes.


I wrote...

The Case of the Missing Bride: An Alyssa Chalmers mystery

By Carmen Radtke,

Book cover of The Case of the Missing Bride: An Alyssa Chalmers mystery

What is my book about?

The Case of the Missing Bride was inspired by an ill-fated voyage I stumbled upon during unrelated research. In 1862, reformers arranged for a group of impoverished young women in recession-stricken Australia to set sail for the newly formed province of British Columbia. They were supposed to marry prospectors but never arrived. Their undiscovered fate kept me awake at night, until I came up with an explanation that seemed plausible to me. The result was the first Alyssa Chalmers mystery, which became a Malice Domestic finalist and was nominated for a CWA Historical Dagger. I have no way of knowing if my idea is correct. What I do know is that these courageous young women deserve to be remembered.

The Cat's Table

By Michael Ondaatje,

Book cover of The Cat's Table

This really is a gem of a book. The reader is left guessing whether it is a memoir, auto-fiction, or stand-alone fiction. From its deceptively simple beginning, it cleverly deals with so many of life's big issues with a thoughtful lightness of touch. The book is written from the perspective of grown-up Michael, but Ondaatje explores the confusion and frustration of the child who was made to sail halfway around the world to a new home and the subsequent impact the journey has on the adult Michael. 


Who am I?

Stories of migration journeys and their knock-on impact through the generations are part of my family history. Like Jacques, the key protagonist in Austerlitz, I too wasn’t told the whole story of my family’s past. Stumbling on stories of colonialism, migration, and racism as an adult has opened up an understanding of a very different world to that of my childhood. The books I have recommended are all excellent examples of migration stories and through the use of beautiful prose pack a punch in a ‘velvet glove’.


I wrote...

Boundless Sky

By Amanda Addison, Manuela Adreani (illustrator),

Book cover of Boundless Sky

What is my book about?

This is the story of a bird so small that fits in your hand, flying halfway around the world looking for a place to nest. This is the story of a young girl from northern Africa fleeing halfway around the world looking for a place of peace. This is the story of Bird. This is the story of Leila. This is the story of a chance encounter and a long journey home.

"Beneath the surface, one can find many opportunities for a deep conversation about belonging, welcoming, and freedom from oppression and danger.- Youth Book Review Services,

"A beautiful exploration of friendship, the parallel migrations of Bird and Leila, and the welcome they receive in their new home." - Library Girl and Book Boy

A Path in the Mighty Waters

By Stephen R. Berry,

Book cover of A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossings to the New World

Washington Irving once famously described a long sea voyage as a “blank page in existence.” Stephen Berry’s analysis of James Oglethorpe’s Georgia Expedition, which sailed from England to colonial Georgia in 1735, shows that the opposite was true. Rather than merely serve as the stage on which the human drama of migration played out, the sea voyage was a dynamic actor in the experience itself. Far from land, migrants had time and space to reconsider their views on society, religion, and identity in ways that shaped their new lives in America.


Who am I?

As an emigrant myself (I left Ireland in the late 1980s), I’ve always been interested in understanding the process of moving from one place to another; of existing in that liminal space between “being here” and “being there.” I spent several years researching the letters and diaries of nineteenth-century Irish migrants for my book, The Coffin Ship, but found the answers led to new questions on how other peoples, in other places, have managed being somewhere between “here” and “there.” These are some of the books that have helped me along that long, emotional journey.


I wrote...

The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine

By Cian T. McMahon,

Book cover of The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine

What is my book about?

The standard story of the exodus during Ireland’s Great Famine is one of the tired clichés, half-truths, and dry statistics. In The Coffin Ship, I offer a vibrant, new perspective on an oft-ignored but vital component of the migration experience: the journey itself.

Between 1845 and 1855, over two million people fled Ireland to escape the Great Famine and begin new lives abroad. The so-called “coffin ships” they embarked on have since become infamous icons of nineteenth-century migration. The crews were brutal, the captains were heartless, and the weather was ferocious. Yet, as my book demonstrates, the personal experiences of the emigrants aboard these vessels offer us a much more complex understanding of this pivotal moment in modern history.

The Only Way to Cross

By John Maxtone-Graham,

Book cover of The Only Way to Cross

This book focuses on the golden era of Transatlantic travel in the Twentieth Century when engines made sail no longer a variable. Ships were larger and accommodation more spacious and opulent. The author is particularly good at describing the details of little-appreciated shipboard life such as gambling and the professional gamblers who fleeced wealthy participants.

A confession—this book was the cornerstone in my appreciation of the history of Transatlantic passenger shipping. First published in 1972, it has been reprinted in both hardcover and softcover many times since. My hardcover edition has a good section of relevant pictures with captions to tie them into the text, and a chart spreadsheet inside the front cover of the lines and their ships through the decades of the century.

Lots of interesting narrative and useful pictures. What’s more to want in a book to be read for pleasure?


Who am I?

I am a passionate, long-time collector of Ocean Liner material. I am recognized as a Member of the Board of The Ephemera Society of America, the Board of The Friends of Fort George, the Council of the British Ephemera Society and other historical and collector organizations. I was thrilled to be Recipient of the 2017 Award of Merit by The Ephemera Society of America, I was engaged by The Bodleian Library at Oxford University to author a book which captured some of the highlights of my extensive 60-year collection of Ocean Liner material which has been donated to the University. This book, sold globally, is the result of that work. 


I wrote...

Secrets of the Great Ocean Liners

By John G. Sayers,

Book cover of Secrets of the Great Ocean Liners

What is my book about?

My book uses letters and diaries as well as a wealth of illustrations to capture the secrets of ocean liner voyages during the 100 golden years of cruise travel. Secrets are exposed which have long been hidden in this author’s massive 60-year collection of ocean liner material, recently donated to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

From the infamous Titanic and the ill-fated Lusitania to many of the other stellar ships of that era, meet the people, their menus, their fashions, their parties, and their romantic trysts with ship’s officers. These insights of personal accounts and rare pictures come from a unique archive that now exists in the Special Collections at Oxford University. You will not discover these secrets anywhere else.

Rites of Passage

By William Golding,

Book cover of Rites of Passage

Lord of the Flies – at sea. Golding won the Booker Prize in 1980 for this novel about a tragedy that unfolds aboard a ship sailing to Australia in the early nineteenth century. Edmund Talbot narrates the tale in lively, entertaining letters to his godfather and benefactor, an English lord. 

Talbot is a thoroughly unpleasant character – an entitled, self-serving snob, whose pursuit of a woman, portrayed as a jolly jape, would earn him an assault charge today. 

The first part describes Talbot’s impressions of his fellow passengers, including the laughable Reverend Colley; his coming to terms with the stench and discomforts of ship life; his commitment to learning nautical terms – the ‘tarry language’ of the sailors. The second half veers off into such a surprising tangent that it is hard to describe without giving the game away. Through Colley’s diaries, we understand more clearly what has been going…


Who am I?

I am a historical fiction writer living in a landlocked village in the Chilterns, UK. I became obsessed with long sea voyages while researching my debut novel, On Wilder Seas, which is inspired by the true story of Maria, the only woman aboard the Golden Hind during Francis Drake’s circumnavigation voyage in 1577-1580. I immersed myself in the literature of the sea, in early modern sailors’ accounts of their terrifying voyages, in their wills and diaries, in maps and sea-logs. A ship is the perfect setting for a novel: the confined space, the impossibility of escape, the ever-present danger – and the hostile, unforgiving sea is the ultimate antagonist.


I wrote...

On Wilder Seas: The Woman on the Golden Hind

By Nikki Marmery,

Book cover of On Wilder Seas: The Woman on the Golden Hind

What is my book about?

Inspired by a true story, this is the tale of one woman's uncharted voyage to freedom. April 1579. When two ships meet off the Pacific coast of New Spain, an enslaved woman seizes the chance to escape. But Maria has unwittingly joined Francis Drake's circumnavigation voyage as he sets sail on a secret detour into the far north. Sailing into the unknown on the Golden Hind, a lone woman among eighty men, Maria will be tested to the very limits of her endurance. It will take all her wits to survive - and courage to cut the ties that bind her to Drake to pursue her own journey. How far will Maria go to be truly free?

The Unsinkable Greta James

By Jennifer E. Smith,

Book cover of The Unsinkable Greta James

Out in March of 2022 (so pre-order if you’re reading this before then—your future self will thank you!), Jennifer E. Smith’s family story finds itself at the intersection of music, travel, familial love, and romantic love. When Rockstar Greta James finds her life spiraling downward, the music she loves and the people she loves are the only way out. 


Who am I?

I’m Jill Santopolo, a novelist, editor, and mom who was born in New York and currently lives in Washington, DC. I’ve written Everything After, More Than Words, and The Light We Lost, which was the Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick in February 2018. My books have been named to The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Apple, and Indiebound bestseller lists, and have been translated into more than 35 languages. I love Instagram and rarely ever use Twitter (but you can find me there, too)--and music makes my heart sing. When I was growing up I learned to play the piano, flute, and piccolo, and I loved singing and dancing.


I wrote...

Everything After

By Jill Santopolo,

Book cover of Everything After

What is my book about?

Emily Gold has come a long way since she lost her two passions fifteen years ago: music, and her musician boyfriend Rob. She's a psychologist at NYU who helps troubled college students like the one she once was. And she’s found love again—she and her husband Ezra want to start a family together.

When a tragic event occurs that too closely echoes her past, and parts of her story come to light, her perfect life is suddenly turned upside down. Then Emily hears a song on the radio about the woman who got away. The melody and voice are hauntingly familiar. As Emily's past passions come roaring back into her life, she finds herself asking who she’s meant to be and who she’s meant to love.

The Paper Boat

By Thao Lam,

Book cover of The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story

This wordless picture book uses gorgeous collage art to soften the frightening story of a wartime escape from Vietnam. The use of ants as a refugee metaphor, and the intertwined wordless stories of ants with a fleeing human family, may make the story a bit complex for very young readers. But the lack of text, in this case, makes it a perfect read-together book and conversation starter. It is a story of hope, courage, and kindness, which are key pillars for refugees to survive and thrive. Separately, we all tend to focus on the biggest, most current, refugee crises (and there are many!). Yet children should also hear refugee stories from around the world and through history. What do these journeys have in common? What makes them unique? What can we learn?


Who am I?

The refugee story is deeply rooted in my family, as my (great-/) grandparents fled Europe for a safer life in America. I grew up listening to their stories of escape and trying to integrate in their new land. Human rights were also a focus of my graduate studies – and later in founding the Human Rights Watch Committee NL and joining the Save the Children Board of Trustees. I am a writer and poet, Board member, and former strategy consultant who always wanted to write refugee stories for children. Their stories are difficult. But children should understand that although the world is not always safe or fair, there is always hope.


I wrote...

Counting Kindness: Ten Ways to Welcome Refugee Children

By Hollis Kurman, Barroux (illustrator),

Book cover of Counting Kindness: Ten Ways to Welcome Refugee Children

What is my book about?

Counting Kindness: Ten Ways to Welcome Refugee Children traces the refugee child’s journey through a hopeful lens: 1 boat…helping us on our way; 2 hands…lifting us to safety; 5 wishes…giving us hope... Come with a family as they travel out of danger to a safe place and are shown all sorts of kindness along the way. This unique counting book is full of empathy and hope for all children, everywhere.

Illustrated by Barroux, Counting Kindness is published in 10 countries; endorsed by Amnesty International, nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal and DC Library Association Three Stars Book Award, and won a Northern Lights Award. 10% of author royalties will be donated to Amnesty International. A follow-up book, Counting in Green, is forthcoming in 2023.

Lifeboat 12

By Susan Hood,

Book cover of Lifeboat 12

A page-turning, true-life adventure! The story is told in first-person verse by 13-year-old Ken Sparks whose parents send him from England to Canada at the start of the Blitz as part of the British government’s ill-fated child evacuee program. Five days into the crossing, his ship, the SS Benares, is torpedoed by a German U-Boat, and as it sinks fast, Ken finds himself in a lifeboat with five other boys fighting for their lives. I read this book and loved it from page one. Although they come from very different backgrounds, Ken and Käfer share endearing qualities: pluck, resourcefulness, and a child’s optimistic view of the world. All of which stand them in good stead.


Who am I?

A longtime student of history, particularly WW2 and the Cold War, my interest was personally piqued when I started to discover more about how my husband’s family narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo – and certain death in a concentration camp. I’m driven to write novels set in this era for middle grade kids – featuring brave young heroes faced with moral dilemmas– so they can learn about the horrors of antisemitism, tyrants, and war because “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”


I wrote...

One Boy's War

By Nancy McDonald,

Book cover of One Boy's War

What is my book about?

It’s the summer of 1940. Following a brush with death on the Irish Sea, ten-year-old Käfer Avigdor unexpectedly finds himself back in London. There, he stumbles upon a sinister Nazi plot that targets hundreds of people in Britain – including the most powerful man in the country. The one person who might be able to defeat Adolf Hitler. With the Germans threatening to invade England at any moment, Käfer musters all his courage and ingenuity in a valiant effort to thwart the Nazis. But will he succeed in time to save the day? As told by Käfer himself,  One Boy’s War (the sequel to Boy from Berlin) is inspired by real people and historical events. BookLife Prize calls it “an adventure story with truly high stakes. Young readers are unlikely to have encountered a hero like Käfer Avigdor.”

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