Your Ultimate Cruise Guide


Editor's Picks: Cruise Books

Cruise Confidential A Hit Below the Waterline: Where the Crew Lives, Eats, Wars, and Parties One Crazy Year Working on Cruise Ships
by Brian David Bruns

If you've ever wondered what it's like to work below decks on a cruise ship, Brian David Bruns' Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline offers a riveting look at his life as a waiter onboard a series of Carnival cruise ships. His experience is clearly not all pretty -- 80-plus hour work weeks; wild crew parties; mental breakdowns; and having to protect his dining room cutlery from packs of waiter-robbers. But the tales are fascinating, his experiences colored by the melting pot world of mega-ships, a multi-cultural mix of crew and officers. For his part, Bruns is always the only American waiter onboard -- and he claims the only American to finish a contract in Carnival's restaurants. This is a backstairs scene that passengers never really see.

Cruise Confidential reads more like a novel than a tell-all and along the way you'll find yourself rooting for Bruns' real-life characters, from his Romanian girlfriend Bianca to his work station partner Ramona, and even for the author himself. But if you've ever hankered a notion for tossing land-lubbing life away for a romantic seabound career, Cruise Confidential will make you think thrice.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

Murder on the... [Multiple series titles]
by Conrad Allen

The author of this series of mystery novels has taken the time-honored tradition of "manor house" murders and set it afloat. The books have an excellent sense of period and interesting plots, all set on ocean liners and ships in the era prior to World War I. Beginning with the initial episode, Murder on the Lusitania, and continuing through six (soon to be seven) individual sequels, Allen develops not just each story separately, but also links them through his characters George Porter Dillman and Genevieve Masefield, ship detectives of growing repute.

The stories themselves move from ship to ship, line to line, and occur in a range of locales and situations. All involve a complicated murder (and other assorted crimes) and a range of characters from the traditional to the unique and even the famous. Each book ends not only with the resolution of the crime(s) involved, but a postscript recounts the ship's subsequent history and eventual demise. They are an excellent choice for shipboard reading, or at-home enjoyment. The only suggestion is to read them in sequence as they were written, since later books refer to the earlier ones and the detectives' relationship adjusts, changes and develops as time passes.

Start with Murder on the Lusitania (1999). This first book in the series introduces the "hero," American George Porter Dillman, born to a family of yacht-builders. He later becomes an actor and then Pinkerton agent who serves as Cunard's detective while passing as a passenger. Along with several lesser crimes on this inaugural crossing to New York, George must deal with the murder of journalist Henry Barcroft, a man with secrets whose passing was not universally regretted by others. The background is set with details of the ship and its passengers (from fashions to foibles) in a pattern that will continue in subsequent books. He is assisted by another passenger, Englishwoman Genevieve Masefield, herself on her way to a new life in America after a disastrous relationship, who discovers a new purpose in life while aiding George.

Note: Conrad Allen, whose real name is Edward Marston, is a Welsh-born and Oxford-educated history graduate and former lecturer who now has forty "crime" novels to his credit, each group of books set in a different period, though only the Conrad Allen pieces are oceangoing. See for more information.

--by Glenn Tucker, Cruise Critic contributor

Tricky Business
by Dave Barry

Extravaganza of the Seas – Now how could you resist any book set on a ship with a name like that? As one of America's best-known writer-humorists, Barry has also branched out into writing what might be called "caper" novels. This is his second, and revolves around a casino cruise that sails nightly from Miami, gets caught in a violent storm, and more importantly, is involved with dueling gangs, drug smuggling and money laundering, as well as an attempted heist.

The story is peopled with a range of characters, some funny and some not so, the language gets very strong in places, and the violence is certainly excessive, even if it does fit in with the story and some of the people in it. On the other hand, the description of the buffet alone is enough to make you laugh until you can't stand it, and some of the passengers and crew are classic Barry images that you'll remember long after you reach the bizarre ending

--by Glenn Tucker, Cruise Critic contributor

Ship of Fools
by Katherine Anne Porter

Ship of Fools, written in 1962, is set aboard a ship bound from Veracruz, Mexico to Bremerhaven, Germany, in the summer of 1931. Unusually, it carried both cargo and passengers (nearly one thousand people and goods ranging from bundles of hemp to sugar, and from Pueblo tile to bars of silver). Among the passengers are two Mexican Catholic priests, a young artsy couple from the United States, an often inebriated German lawyer and six Cuban medical students. Based on "Das Narrenschiff," Sebastian Brant's 15th-century moral allegory, the novel focuses on the lives of a group of international travelers, and touches upon themes of nationalism and prejudice -- in this case, anti-Semitism. I picked this book up hoping it would be an insight into sea travel of a bygone era with a solid dose of world history.

Honestly saying, I nearly jumped ship halfway through. The writing is exceptionally descriptive, but there's no clear flow or plot -- it's more of a very dense character study (and in 497 pages, I didn't grow to care about any of them).

According to some scholars, the ship itself is a metaphor for the world as it drifted into World War II. So the novel isn't even about the voyage, but something a bit more obscure. If you are a true literati, you might devour this critically acclaimed title. But it's not an easy poolside read by any means.

Death Cruise: Crime Stories on the Open Sea
by Lawrence Block

Okay, so the title is a little off-putting. Even so, Death Cruise: Crime Stories on the Open Sea is a great choice for your next cruise, where you can dip into it at your leisure. It's a collection of 20 short stories by 20 authors that were put together by Lawrence Block, who is also an accomplished mystery writer (the book is a compilation of fiction, by the way, not a true crimes kind of reality book).

All of the pieces center on shipboard life and happenings leading to murder and its aftermath; each one takes a different approach to the setting and the situation onboard.

Notable, of course, are the pieces by Agatha Christie and John Mortimer, which feature characters Hercule Poirot and Horace Rumpole, respectively. In some ways, the more interestingly innovative and intriguing pieces feature authors and writing styles less well-known to most of us; my favorite being the rather oddball, "The Time of His Life" by Carolyn Wheat that ends the book. There's something for everyone, murder-wise.

Full Body Rub
by Joseph Lisowski

A snappy murder mystery novel set in St. Thomas, Joseph Lisowski's Full Body Rub takes the reader into an island world where life moves at the speed of the slowly ebbing tide. But crime is on the rise in this tropical paradise, and when a corpse turns up at the Uptown Fitness club, the island's dark underbelly is further exposed.

The crime? The murder of "Hairless" Harry Schwartz, one of the area's top body-builders, and a regular at the Uptown Fitness Club. The problem? There isn't a single mark on Harry's rippling, muscular body. The cops? Useless without bribes. Mannie, the gym owner, already having hired a private firm to protect his clients, blames them for dropping the ball. So it's up to Al Sosa, head detective for Hollyhock Security, to solve the case and make things right. With no clues, no leads and a boss that won't get off his back, Al can't seem to make any headway. That is, until he makes the acquaintance of Ava, a tight little package who sparks his interest -- and major progress in the case. Or so it seems ... is she leading him on?

Though not really about cruising, Full Body Rub would serve as a nice companion to your next Eastern Caribbean cruise. When you make that stop in St. Thomas, you'll have a sense of the back street grittiness that lies just beyond the glossy, duty-free vibe of Havensight and downtown Charlotte Amalie.
Death on the Nile
by Agatha Christie

Death on the Nile is a vintage Agatha Christie novel that has stayed in print for 70 years and has never faded. Opening in England, the story quickly moves to Egypt and a cruise on the Nile, where the onboard murder of wealthy Linnet Doyle confounds everyone, even the redoubtable Hercule Poirot.

Set against a backdrop of palms and temples, and taking place in the cabins and public spaces of a small river cruise ship (want to get a more contemporary view? (Check out our review of Grand Circle Travel's River Anuket -- which took me down the Nile this winter) The story unfolds with murder following murder. In the end of course, all becomes clear as arch-detective Poirot and his "little grey cells" uncover means and motive as a truly surprising ending ensues. Redone (quite well) as both movie and TV special, the original continues to hold its own as engaging entertainment.

And p.s. -- it's available in easy-to-carry-on paperback!
by Erik Larson

Thunderstruck is the long-awaited follow-up to Erik Larson's bestseller, The Devil in the White City. In Thunderstruck, Larson tells the parallel stories of Guglielmo Marconi's invention and commercialization of wireless telegraphy and of Dr. Hawley Crippen, the patent medicine purveyor who killed and dismembered his wife to run off with his assistant.

What makes this book of interest to ship buffs is the story of how radio ended the isolation of ships at sea. In 1910, Crippen and his assistant, Ethel LeNeve, dressed as a boy, boarded the Canadian Pacific steamer Montrose bound for Montreal. The ship's captain suspected the pair of being Crippen and LeNeve. He radioed his suspicions to Scotland Yard, which dispatched Inspector Dew to Montreal on the faster White Star liner Laurentic.

The world's newspapers published daily accounts of the trans-Atlantic chase. Dew arrested Crippen and LeNeve onboard Montrose. While Thunderstruck lacks the strict parallel storytelling that made The Devil in the White City such a good read, it makes the development of ship-to-shore radio understandable for the general reader.

Santa Cruise: A Holiday Mystery at Sea
by Mary and Carol Higgins Clark

Being a huge fan of Mary and Carol Higgins Clark -- and a cruise aficionado to boot -- Santa Cruise: A Holiday Mystery at Sea, their latest collaboration, held much promise. Alas, the mystery novel felt more like Santa Snooze than Santa Cruise.

Here's how it went: Familiar characters Alvirah and Willy are two of 400 do-gooders given a free cruise on the newly refurbished Royal Mermaid's maiden voyage. The ship's captain, Randolph Weed, and his nephew Eric are gearing up for the sailing -- but for two very different reasons. Weed is fulfilling a life-long dream of helming his own ship for the first time. Eric sees dollar signs, inviting two mobsters onboard on the premise that he can get them to the fictional Fishbowl Island in the Caribbean where laws do not apply.

Of course, amateur sleuths Alvirah and Willy and her friends begin collecting clues as they notice small things onboard going awry.

So, is it a who-dun-it? Hardly. The reader knows 95 percent of what's going on and the story had no climax whatsoever, which is pertinent in a mystery novel. In short, this book was nothing like the Clarks' previous stories -- in fact, it didn't even sound or read like it was written by them.

Buzz Cut
by James W. Hall

Let's see ... an insane, techno-genius terrorist with an axe to grind takes over the controls of a cruise ship and sets its autopilot to collide with a supertanker off the coast of South Florida, blowing South Beach to smithereens. Sound familiar? Like maybe the movie, "Speed 2: Cruise Control"? Wrong. Buzz Cut is the novel "Speed 2"'s screenwriters "borrowed" the plot from. Unlike the movie however, the novel is chock-full of clever twists and turns. And it's peopled by eccentric, three-dimensional characters as colorful as a Key West sunset, including an idiosyncratic anti-hero, the misanthropic, Key Largo dropout, Thorn, who comes aboard at the invitation of his ex-sheriff buddy, Sugarman, the newly appointed head of security for the cruise line. Of course, Thorn winds up saving the day.

James W. Hall is a member in good standing (along with Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard and others) of the South Florida school of quirky, darkly sardonic mystery writers, a genre I like to refer to as "Palm Noir."

The Innocents Abroad
by Mark Twain

"I even promised that I would hide my uncouth sentiments in my own breast. But alas! I never could keep a promise."

Mark Twain's classic, The Innocents Abroad, is a personal travel journal of unique and unrelentingly funny stories as documented onboard the Quaker City, sailing out of New York for the Mediterranean. Related during a trip in 1869, Twain's adventure still resonates today, and reminds us that although times may change, travelers remain the same! It's also an awesome companion in ports of call, particularly in Italy and Spain. I adore my copy -- a hardcover, 2nd edition from 1903 with sketches of Twain onboard. But it doesn't matter if you splurge on an antique or opt for the bare-bones hip-pocket sized paperback. Either way, it's a great read.

Nothing Can Go Wrong
by John D. MacDonald and Captain Kilpack

Though Nothing Can Go Wrong is a bit dated, the stories within are not. Just as I did, I guarantee that you'll relate to particular characters we still observe today. This candid, and at times outrageously funny, story was written by one great mystery writer, John D. MacDonald, and one serious seaman, Captain Kilpack. Both have their own splendid style of narrative.

MacDonald is simply crotchety; a veteran cruiser, he decides to share his acute ability to inspect every part of the ships' devices in an honest manner, while Kilpack blends in his own behind-the-scenes anecdotes revealing his innermost feelings on amok passengers, ship pilots and port authorities. He dares to go against his own better judgment and offers up his admitted mistakes.

The basic scenes take place aboard the Mariposa in 1977. For spice, the authors sprinkle in various tales about the Mariposa's sister ship, the Monterey, and other freighters the captain has experienced. Nothing Can Go Wrong is the shipping company's assurance that the captain leaving his freighter to come aboard a cruiser will have no problems.

Skinny Dip
By Carl Hiaasen

The perfect novel for a beach or by-the-pool cruise vacation read, Skinny Dip follows the travails of a hapless couple aboard the M.V. Sun Duchess. Though the trip included visits to Puerto Rico, Nassau "and a private Bahamian island that the cruise lines had purchased (rumor has it) from the widow of a dismembered heroin trafficker," the real action focuses on the hubby's (and we'll avoid the "DH" moniker in this case) effort to throw his wife overboard. Whether he did -- or didn't -- succeed we'll leave for you to find out. But we'll offer this bit of advice: On a cruise ship, you never know who might be watching.

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