Reboot Review: War of the Whales

War of the Whales: A True Story; Joshua Horwitz, Simon & Schuster
Reviewer: Hanna Clutterbuck

Joshua Horwitz’ War of the Whales has all the elements of a good beach-read thriller: compelling characters, a tight mystery, even a cute animal: in this case, beaked whales. However, Horwitz is talking real life: he spent six years researching and documenting the struggle between environmentalists and the United States Navy over the issue of Naval sonar. The basic dispute is thus: the Navy maintains that increasingly loud and complex use of sonar is critical to defense of the United States; environmentalists point out that Naval sonar disrupts the ability of whales and other sea creatures to navigate and has indexresulted in catastrophe for ocean life.

Horwitz begins his story with a mass stranding of whales in the Bahamas in March of 2000; at least ten whales of various species are known to have beached themselves overnight. A few were rescued and returned to open ocean. It’s impossible to tell, by the way, if these whales were healthy enough to survive or simply died later. Most of the stranded died from exposure. The ‘man on the spot’ was Ken Balcomb, ex-Naval officer and longtime marine mammal researcher with a history of many years working with the beaked whales that thrive in Bahamian waters, a number of which were among the stranded. Balcomb was also aware of a Naval sonar station on the islands as well as the presence of an unusual US destroyer.

From here, Horwitz’ story reads like a good Michael Crichton: Balcomb calls in help, the Navy stonewalls him, Balcomb collects his evidence and blows the whistle on what he believes is deliberate Naval whitewashing of the effects of sonar testing on marine mammals. Here the heroic lawyer steps in; the kind they make movies about. Joel Reynolds, working for the National Resources Defence Council, has been waiting for a case like this. For years, he has been edging his way towards direct confrontation with the Navy and, by extension, U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife over sonar testing in sensitive waters.

One of the strengths of Horwitz’ painstakingly researched book — other than providing the novice with a working understanding both of sonar and whale biology — is that he has resisted the temptation to construct a villain. From the point of view of Balcomb, the whales, and anyone concerned about the health of the oceans, the Navy steps right up to meet the need for a a bad guy. It would have been very easy for Horwitz to paint the Navy jet-black — creating a classic good guy/bad guy dichotomy between the black-hat military and the white-hat environmentalists. However, Horwitz avoids such easy distinctions and instead takes the time to elaborate on the mentalite of the Navy; inasmuch as a civilian can, he tries to explain why they are doing what they are doing, what the history is that leads top brass to behave in what seems like a deliberately inhumane — and illegal — way. Whether or not this is convincing to the reader in terms of the damage done is a question too individual for prediction.

Sometimes the narrative gets bogged down with personal details; Horwitz clearly spent a lot of time, face to face or otherwise, with his main ‘characters,’ particularly Reynolds and Balcomb, and absorbed a great deal of their personal history. Some details — like the painful break-up of Balcomb’s fourth marriage — seem unnecessary and almost intrusive. Since it helps determine Balcomb’s future involvement in the court case and his move from the Bahamas to the Pacific Northwest, where he has another chance to indict the Navy for sonar testing on a different whale group, the reality TV-style re-enactment of the moment of emotional break-up — in a bathtub, no less! — seems unnecessary.

There is no happy ending to this story; instead, there is a small step forward in a very, very long walk. If you’re looking for edutaining beach reading this summer, War of the Whales would be a good choice. Or you could hold out and wait for the movie!

Review: Vaughn Entwistle’s The Revenant of Thraxton Hall

by Susan Jacobsen

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall by Vaughn Entwistle is a unique, entertaining romp through an alternative history set in Victorian-era England. The Strand is still in publication, Bram Stoker manages the Royal Lyceum Theater, and the Society for Psychical Research is in its nascent stage. The game is afoot as Arthur Conon Doyle, the creator of the much beloved Sherlock Holmes stories, sets out to solve a mystery of his own. Accompanied by his friend Oscar Wilde, whose over the top personality and quick wit provides ample comic relief, Doyle travels to a mysterious manor owned by an even more mysterious young woman in a curious quest to prevent a murder before it happens. Along the way they meet a variety of colorful characters ranging from the famed medium Daniel Dunglas Home to a fez-wearing familiar, and the plot inevitably thickens as Doyle and Wilde get closer to the time and place where the murder is supposed to occur.

Combining mystery and suspense with a sprinkling of humor and a dash of romance (as well as a dollop of the paranormal for good measure), Entwistle tells an entertaining, engaging tale in vivid prose with apt description. While the story is, of course, completely fictitious, the author portrays the time period with historical accuracy, brining Victorian-era England back to life on the pages of the book. To put it into the words of Oscar Wilde’s character, the story is truly a “mind-ripping spectacle that will leave you both confounded and astonished.” While the plot is at times preposterous, the quality of the writing and the liveliness of the story allow readers to easily suspend their disbelief in the interest of simply enjoying a good tale. This light, fun novel effortlessly blends fact with fiction to produce what is, overall, a highly enjoyable read.

More by Entwistle: click here

Review: But Enough About You

by Tabatha Hanly

But Enough About You by Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley’s But Enough About You is a collection of essays on friends, enemies, frustrations, and life lessons. Buckley begins the book telling (confessing isn’t the right word) his readers that he lies to them (reader beware, veracity may be subject to the author’s sense of humor), however, it only takes a few pages to decide it does not matter if the stories are true: they are still interesting, funny, and moving. Be it the heartfelt memorials to lost friends, the story of a President who calls himself “The Vishnu,” or the fake development histories which I hope are true, Buckley’s style and humor keep you turning the pages even while you think ‘that couldn’t possibly be true…could it?’

Drawing on his experience in politics, aging, and making people laugh, Buckley’s topics range from politics to travel and iconic authors, with a stop off for horoscopes somewhere in between. Amid stories that make you snort with laughter over the antics of former presidents, there are accounts of beautiful cities viewed with beautiful companions. The travel essays focus more on the experience of exploring a new place than the physical beauty of the landscape, as the title to “Into Thin Hair” attests, but Buckley doesn’t forget to gush about how beautiful the Pere-Lachaise cemetery is, nor to muse on the lives of its residents. For those looking forward instead of back, Buckley’s vaguery-free horoscopes are nothing if not specific and directive; they offer practical advice such as “Go easy on the hollandaise—your cardiologist has four kids in college and is just looking for an excuse to do a triple bypass” and “Menace the people at the next table with the pepper grinder.”  At least they don’t warn you to watch out for an attractive stranger.

Beyond the astrological advice, these essays have something to teach, whether it is the startling fact that successful adults still get nervous, or that it is probably best to wait until your child is out of the toddler years before teaching him to ski Buckley mixes his well-known humor and wit with the emotional and introspective to cross topics and genres in a series of essays that somehow all fit into one book.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of But Enough About You, if only to learn how an explosive device became a chew-toy for the First Pooch and why there is a chapter called “You Thieving Pile of Albino Warts.”