The Top 10 Shark Books (that are in my house) Just in Time for Shark Week!
This, like most best-of lists, would be more accurately titled Top Ten Books I Happened to Read, because who are they kidding, right? But I’m going one better with Top Ten Books I Happen to Own because in a desperate attempt at one-upmanship, I even took a picture of the books on my list to prove they are mere inches away from me right now. Which means I had to re-buy some books, track down others. Think of the money and effort wasted to prove some sort of listicle integrity here. Normally all of this would be embarrassing, but not during Shark Week. “Live every week like it's shark week," isn't that what Tracey Morgan said once? And look what happened to him.
10.) 'Meg: Hell’s Aquarium' by Steve Alten
I’m off to a shaky start because I barely finished this and ended up hunting down the memory of a Meg I knew in junior high instead (more on her later). But I figured this book had to be a no-brainer, in both senses of the word. The movie trailer looked decent, with a gargantuan human-sized fish tank (shark-sized human tank?) and a submarine-sized beast sliding by a window.
So I grabbed Meg: Hell's Aquarium thinking that must be what the movie’s based on (and that's a pretty funny name right up there with Dante's Toilet, but shouldn’t it be Hellquarium instead?). Either way, it wasn’t great! After some requisite shark POV action, it opens with an extended all-dialogue scene of exposition that might be the most excruciating ever put to paper. Imagine those scenes in a movie where someone on one end of a phone has to shoulder the burden of telling the audience everything that’s being discussed. Now imagine that with five people simultaneously on the same phone. But it's in a car. I’m guessing someone decided this would be the most efficient way to get readers up to speed with the other books in the series, or to cue in idiot readers like me who started in the middle because of the hilarious title, but the good news is it led to another Megalodon book, and you’ll find her further upstream. So why put this book at number ten on a top ten list? Didn’t you read my intro? Also, anyone who owns more than ten shark books is nuts.
9.) 'The Beach' by Alex Garland
According to a recent study done by the Department of Pathology and Bacteriology at Stanford University, shark books are so popular in the summer because they're considered sweet-ass beach reads, which makes sense because any "beach read" would do double duty by justifying sitting on the beach, of course, and by making you not want to go into that freaky water. So The Beach might be doing triple duty here because what’s a beach without a shark? And this book has two of them. The crucial shark encounters in the chapters labeled Jaws One and Jaws Two, (there are all sorts of movie-title chapters, including Reanimator, Batman, Cabin Fever, and The Third Man) effectively signal the rising and falling action, the first being a triumph and the second being a tragedy. Or vice versa, depending on how annoyed you are with these kids. It’s basically the best episode of Road Rules ever, and exactly how that show should have ended.
8.) 'Journey Under the Sea' by R.A. Montgomery and 'Jump the Shark' by Jon Hein
The Choose Your Own Adventure series did have a book called You Are a Shark, yes, but you didn't start out a shark, and that isn't nearly as fun. But even worse, that book bragged that you could "choose from 14 possible endings.” And Journey Under the Sea (the second book in the series from back when they were trying harder and had much better cover art) had more than 40 endings! And the shark endings were definitely the scariest. So take that, You Are a Shark. I mean, I don't want to sound like someone who says "When we were young, we had more endings," but when we were young, we totally had more endings. I'm also throwing Jon Hein's Jump the Shark in here tied at number 8 because I just found it on my shelf and there's a shark fin on the cover and that shark certainly had an impact on pop culture, even if the book itself "jumps the shark" about a third of the way through by suggesting the band Boston jumped the shark with three perfect albums. What are you even saying, Jon? Don’t worry, this list gets more on-brand as it goes.
7.) 'Jaws' (and 'White Shark') by Peter Benchley
The passages from the shark’s point of view started a trend that’s been a bit worn out in the genre. But it was still surprising here (and, as I'll get to in a sec, essential in Close to Shore, though it demystified things a bit in both Megs), and, in fact, this technique worked so well in Benchley’s bestseller that the success of Spielberg’s film can probably be traced to how effectively he translated these moments into a suspenseful shark’s-eye view on-screen to accompany John Williams' famous thumping theme music.
Some interesting differences between the big hit book and bigger hit movie that people kinda forgot include the fact that Dreyfuss’s fussy scientist is having an affair with Brody’s wife! And also he gets munched when he goes in the cage, which means we’re supposed to think he deserved it. There's some nutty subplot about the mafia, too (what?), and the shark doesn’t get exploded, instead it just dies from a broken heart and/or repeated stabbings. So it’s a very ‘"70s ennui" novel with unhappy people grumbling a lot, and you can almost hear Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” playing on a submerged radio. But I love that sort of thing (Peter Gent's North Dallas Forty is another perfect representation of that era’s existential crisis creeping into America’s favorite pastimes).
These days, Jaws gets a bad rap from the snobs, but what else were you going to read in the summer of '75? Oh, so you read it now and decided it was overrated and problematic? Be older. Also, because you kids made him feel bad, Benchley took a misguided crack at writing another killer shark novel, this time crossing a shark with Nazi science (!) in White Shark, a.k.a. Der Weisse Hai, where a crazed SS officer/ex-Olympic triathlete is given metal jaws and claws and runs amok like all Nazi science projects (a great white shark, get it??) until it gets exploded real good in a decompression chamber. See what your shaming will drive people to?
6.) 'Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916' by Michael Capuzzo
Michael Capuzzo's bestseller about the infamous Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 hits most of the key points of Jaws, and, in fact, it’s more fun comparing the movie Jaws to this book instead of Benchely’s fictional counterpart. Here, just like the movie, you have fortune seekers tossing out Thanksgiving roasts, boats sinking from shark head butts, oily local government types eager to make excuses over the loss of tourism dollars (weirdly enough, a killer whale was a common suspect taking the blame back then, and, even weirder, giant snapping turtles!), and you get the same depictions of frenzying local fishermen bumbling around with dynamite, and the notorious "half-ass autopsy" on the dock (except instead of a license plate, a bunch of baby sharks spill out).
Also there’s a young Dreyfuss-like icthyographer who comes to town barely able to contain his scientific zeal around such a slaughter, and a grizzled Quint-like taxidermist whose boat was pulled backwards and almost sunk, and even Pippet the dog! (except blame is reversed there, as it turns out dog paddling is catnip to sharks, though catnip and dog-paddling might be mixing metaphors).
The biggest difference though is the real-life great white perpetrator was only a third the size of its cinematic cousin, a mere 10 feet in length, which is still damn big for the cramped waterways it was cruising through, and plenty lethal. But this is a true story, so it reads more like shark true-crime, and, in fact, the title In Cold Blood would be perfect here (sharks are cold-blooded like lizards, right? I'm pretty confident. I'm not even going to Google it).
There’s just so much to recommend. You’ve got crazy, old-timey theories like blaming the shallow-water shark attacks on the new swimsuits that exposed women's legs like tasty drumsticks, and another hypothesis that the shark was drawn by human waste, meaning the victims were literally up Shit Creek! You’ve got President Woodrow Wilson *this close* to declaring a “War on Sharks.” You’ve got chapters that alternate between the shark’s daily routine and the victims'.
Some criticisms would be the 100 pages of background details before the first attack (the book only averages about one shark attack every hundred pages). I’m not sure if that’s a bug or a feature, but it’s definitely a different kinda pace, and the sort of confidence that I haven't seen since, yep, '70s eunnui movies! And there are some inconsistencies in the witness accounts, such as one witness describing the tug of a vacuum in the water before he’s bitten and noting it as a current, but then, on the same page, the author says history never recorded his thoughts and that only “the sea told his story.” Is the author the sea? I checked the author pic and no, he’s not the sea. But then later, there’s a blow-by-blow this same victim gives on the rescue boat as he wavers in and out of consciousness before his death. Pick one, huh, Poseidon?
But for me, the highlight is definitely the empathy generated by reading about this starving and suffocating shark making wrong turns in brackish creeks, and this overpowers the human stories (intentionally or not), which means you kind of root for the shark to get away. So, unlike Meg and more like Jaws, here the chapters told from the shark's POV were the most engaging, especially when seemingly 293 chapters end with a shark heading ominously toward civilization. But I still wish someone would make a movie about the scene in this book where they filled a dummy with meat and explosives and dressed it in the clothes of a victim.
5.) 'The Raw Shark Texts' by Steven Hall
It took me awhile to figure this out, but “Raw Shark Texts” with a British accent sounds like “Raw Shah-k Test,” so… Rorschach Tests! Get it! Everybody got it but me. This is why it took me thirty years to understand the advertisement “Every Kiss Begins with [the letter] ‘Kay.’” Anyway, as I was reading it, I thought the “conceptual shark” was eating all the Z's, until I realized the book was from overseas. Hey, that rhymes.
I’m not sure if this is underrated or overrated but everyone seems to have a strong opinion. But, basically, if you put a flip cartoon toward the end of a book, readers are going to get excited. What you’ve done there is to convince them they're a genius absorbing that abstract concept rapid fire, not flipping through a gimmick that literally eats the pages. Though a torn page halfway through has the same effect on me, meaning I'm burning through that book five times as fast just so I can throw it away when I'm done. Bonus, inside this book is a wonderful takedown of the language plague “At the end of the day.” Stop saying that! It’s right up there with "Not for nothing." Also, so many book and movie reviews pride themselves on their clever "It's _____ meets _____,” but no one mentions The Phantom Tollboth meets City of Glass here? And it’s totally that. But backwards?
A warning though: Your mileage may vary based on your tolerance of exchanges like “‘Who died and made you wise?’ ‘God?’ ‘Fuck off.’” But the “fuck off” is important, and the author knows it. Luckily lines like "We only see starlight because all the stars are bleeding" make up for it. And the climax where the characters act out the final scenes from Spielberg's Jaws with Post-It notes and laptops and goddamn office supplies is way more effective than it has any right to be.
4.) 'Zombie Sharks with Metal Teeth' by Stephen Graham Jones
The “shark” in this one is almost as abstract as the one in Raw Shark Texts, but this collection of short horror fiction feels altogether more shark-like than even straight-up shark books. Except here it’s the teeth of Jones’ unforgiving imagination, and the fear of the sea can be easily equated with the fear of the cosmos in these stories. And sometimes both are combined, as they are in his hard-boiled (not that kind of hard-boiled) space lobster story. Along with outer space, there's also the fear of inner space, where human bodies are corrupted, as well. And even the fear of Muppets Space! No joke, there’s a story in here about Muppets that’s played straight and terrifying but oddly heartrending, and this is why there are laws against Muppet sharks. Even Jim Hensen never dared to create one, and he built all that crazy Dark Crystal shit.
3.) 'Megalodon' by Robin Brown
Now this is the real Meg. I’d forgotten about her until I read Alten’s book, since I stumbled onto this one back in junior high. And even though it’s dangerous to read two books with (almost) the same title (seriously, notice how shows like The Walking Dead, which squander believability with little or no concern, even after 75 seasons still wouldn't dream of having two characters with the same name), I went back to this cruelly ignored (and obviously ripped off) minor classic for that satisfying splash of nostalgia. And it holds up well enough to secure its spot here.
The new Meg movie (partially based on the first book in the Meg series, along with Dante’s Toilet) copies the initial human encounter in Robin Brown's Megalodon, but does it no better. Plus, Megalodon enlists two dolphins and a killer whale in the battle with the bigger-by-the-minute monster sharks, and they talk! The dolphins and the killer whale talk, I mean, not the sharks. What would sharks even say? "Close my stupid eyes"? "You gonna eat that gristle"? "License plates are like popcorn"? Mabye this novel reads much more “dry” than the fast-moving pulp of Alten’s books, sort of like Charles Pellegrino’s dust-mite (!) horror book Dust (which I’d also recommend if you can still find it), but there's something to be said for that distinct flavor of a horror novel written by your dadcore science teacher with all the asides and fascinating but unrelated facts left intact. Oh, and did I mention the talking killer whale?
2.) 'Motherfucking Sharks' by Brian Allen Carr
I go back and forth between this and Repo Shark (spoiler alert) as my favorite shark book of all time that I happen to own, and today Carr's book is number two. Highly recommended to anyone, like myself, who wished someone would have taken the premise of Sharknado deadly serious (or SNL’s famous “Land Shark” skit).
But it’s much more than that, of course, with its dusty hellscapes and positively Old Testament gruesomeness. And there’s also an almost Choose Your Own Adventure-esque interactive feature here where Carr makes you complicit in the deaths of innocent characters, using his skills to break the fourth wall and force your imagination to melt into his, or maybe his just devours ours to form a sort of sand-blasted, blood-soaked turducken? My one gripe is I always want a lot more of it, this tale told by a prophet so badass he carries around the skulls of his dead family which he probably juggled, I can't remember, and sharks so badass they don’t even need an ocean. Or a motherfucking tornado.
1.) 'Repo Shark' by Cody Goodfellow
Sort of like Hard Ticket to Hawaii meets Die Antwoord meets Elmore Leonard, this is the story of a repo man who heads to Honolulu with drugs up his ass to repossess a stolen Harley-Davidson that (oops) happens to be in the possession of The King of All Sharks. Is that something you want to read? If not, why not? If so, what's wrong with you?
More than anything, this book is fun. It’s perverse and violent sure, but it’s also hilarious (rumor has it the original title for this was Donny Punani). And where else are you going to find shape-shifting shark gods and murderous Dr. Phils or marvel as the chopper from Easy Rider gets thrashed all over again, all while learning about respectable literary tropes such as Chekhov’s Auto-Fellatio? You haven't heard of that one? Okay, you know how they say if someone hangs a gun over a fireplace in the first act, by the third act it has to go off? Well, in this book, if the hero is trying to give himself... uhhh, if he’s “pill-bugging” (you'll learn new words!), then by the end of the book… he has to go off. And by the time we get to this inevitable, er, outcome, Goodfellow’s skill at balancing suspense, action, and sticky Jackass-like predicaments will have you convinced it really was the only way. The sheer audacity of this climax means it gets the top spot today. No reputable beach read, no matter how big these new sharks are swelling up, will ever be able to go toe-to-toe with writing as hysterically fearless as this. I also learned a lot about Hawaii, so now I never have to go. Saved thousands. Lives, I mean, not dollars.
Did I miss any shark books? Not in my house I didn’t, but feel free to add any of yours in the comments!
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