Book Review: Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee

Title: Luck of the Titanic
Author: Stacey Lee
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: May 4, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: YA historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Valora Luck has two things: a ticket for the biggest and most luxurious ocean liner in the world, and a dream of leaving England behind and making a life for herself as a circus performer in New York. Much to her surprise, though, she’s turned away at the gangway; apparently, Chinese people aren’t allowed into America.

But Val has to get on that ship. Her twin brother, Jamie, who has spent two long years at sea, is on board, as is an influential circus owner. Thankfully, there’s not much a trained acrobat like Val can’t overcome when she puts her mind to it.

As a stowaway, Val should keep her head down and stay out of sight. But the clock is ticking and she has just seven days as the ship makes its way across the Atlantic to find Jamie, audition for the circus owner, and convince him to help get them both into America.

Then one night, the unthinkable happens, and suddenly Val’s dreams of a new life are crushed under the weight of the only thing that matters: survival.

I’ve been a bit obsessed with Titanic this week, after seeing the movie again after so many years, so I decided to dig into this YA historical novel about a Chinese-British teen and her Titanic voyage.

Valora and her twin brother Jamie grew up in London, the children of a Chinese father and a Cockney mother. Their father taught them a thousand ways to get by, whether through get-rich-quick scams, trickery, or performing amazing acrobatics and passing the hat. After the deaths of both parents, Jamie left England behind to work in the boiler-rooms of ships sailing the world, and Val worked as a lady’s assistant to a wealthy upper class woman.

Val’s employer, Mrs. Sloane, booked passage on Titanic for herself and Val, but then died shortly before the sailing date. Val decides to go anyway after learning that Jamie will be onboard as part of a crew of Chinese shipworkers being sent to New York and then Cuba for their next assignment.

Val plans to brazen out the sailing by pretending that Mrs. Sloane is there with her, keeping to herself in her first-class cabin, but plans go awry almost immediately. Val is denied boarding, as the Chinese Exclusion Act is in effect in the United States, and without authorization papers, she’ll be turned away immediately in New York. Val doesn’t take defeat so easily, and deploying her courage and acrobatic skills, she manages to sneak onboard, then find a way to inhabit Mrs. Sloane’s cabin and, courtesy of a black mourning veil, pretend to be the wealthy woman.

Meanwhile, once the ship sails, she reunites with Jamie, and divides her time between the first-class quarters and the lower deck seamen’s quarters, donning “sea slops”, eating in the third class dining hall, and concocting plans to perform a twin acrobatics act for the circus bigwig also traveling on Titanic.

The first 70% or so of Luck of the Titanic is the story of Val’s desperate attempts to avoid having her deceptions discovered, convince Jamie to give up his sea career and start a life with her in New York, and find a way to audition for the circus. And then, of course, none of this matters any longer, once the fateful night of April 14th arrives and Val and Jamie begin a struggle to survive as the Titanic sinks.

As with any book about Titanic, once the ship hits the iceberg, the drama is amplified and the scope of the human tragedy takes over the narrative. Naturally, this section of the book is the most moving and compelling. Val and Jamie take risks and make bold moves to try to ensure the survival of the crew they feel responsible for, but at the same time, each is committed to making sure the other makes it onto a lifeboat before it’s too late.

I found myself not entirely swept up in the book as a whole. It skews a little young, in my opinion — it might be good for a younger teen audience, but as an adult reader who often enjoys YA, I found it a little lean and less than believable. Val’s impersonation of a first class traveler, her stowaway status, and the remarkable luck she has in mostly getting away with it all and finding key allies stretches reality. In particular, the scene of how she gets on board in the first place is so beyond belief that it sets a tone of “okay, REALLY?” that lingers throughout the book.

The writing also didn’t sit particularly well with me. There are some truly clunky descriptions:

His back is steep and contoured like the cliffs of Dover when golden sunlight falls upon them.

… and some that I didn’t particularly understand. I really have no idea what these two are supposed to mean:

His hair tapers to a curve at the nape of his neck, like a hook waiting for a wriggly finger to bait it.

… brown rubber-soled shoes look as faithful as a pair of beagles.

Some of the dialogue is awkward too, although it’s not clear to me if the author is trying to capture era-appropriate slang or the Cockney influence. Either way, it doesn’t particularly flow.

“Jamie’s the oldest born, which means he’s the most important one, and he loves the queasy seasies.”

“Well, aren’t you a nelly naysayer, rabbitin’ on, all gloom and doom.”

I did appreciate learning about the status of the Chinese passengers, the rampant discrimination they faced even among the other immigrants in steerage, and the teachings and superstitions that Val and Jamie learned from their optimistic yet unsuccessful father.

Authors setting fiction in such a well-documented setting have a very specific challenge: Creating fictional characters to inhabit a world where every person present historically is known and accounted for. Some real-life Titanic passengers are present in the narrative, and as in the movie Titanic, where Jack Dawson is missing from ship records because he wasn’t a registered passenger, Val’s stowaway status is a viable excuse for how someone could be on the Titanic without ever becoming part of the written history.

Luck of the Titanic is compelling by the end, but it would be hard to write a story set on the Titanic that isn’t. I had too many issues with the believability of the story and the characters’ actions to truly get absorbed by the book as a whole — but overall, the approach was interesting enough to hold my attention, even if I wasn’t fully invested.

Titanic! A few thoughts (and books) in honor of the movie’s 25th anniversary

25 years! Has it really been 25 year since we (I) sat spellbound for 3+ hours watching the epic love story of Jack and Rose and the terrible tragedy of the Titanic’s sinking? (And for some of us, 25 years since we watched this movie MULTIPLE TIMES??)

It’s true. This month, in honor of the 25th anniversary, a remastered 3D version of the movie was released in theaters… and naturally, I had to go see it. Yes, I’ve seen the movie more than once already (three times, I think, which is still fewer viewings than some of my more fanatical friends can claim), but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to experience it once again on the big screen.

I’m so glad I did! I went this past Monday… and loved every moment. Sure, some of the panned-out views of the ship are more glaringly CGI than they seemed 25 years ago, but still — the visuals are gorgeous, and the overall impact is still there, powerful as ever.

It was sweet seeing how young Kate and Leo were back then, and while the romance still has its fair share of super cheesy lines, I still found it lovely, and I truly enjoyed the experience.

Here’s the trailer for the anniversary re-release:

Sigh. I’m not over it. Clearly.

Meanwhile, creator James Cameron hosts Titanic: 25 Years Later on the NatGeo channel (also streaming on Disney+), a one-hour retrospective that goes back and revisits some of the new developments and discoveries about the Titanic that have come about in the last 25 years… and most crucially, settles the door debate once and for all!

Could Jack have lived if he’d gotten onto the floating door with Rose? Was there enough room for two? The show recreates the moment in a controlled environment, having two stunt people try out different options for sharing the space and seeing if Jack’s body temperature could have remained high enough for him to survive until a rescue boat arrived. I gotta admit, it was pretty fascinating! Spoiler for those who don’t plan to watch — it’s a maybe! After trying several difference options, one scenario did seem to suggest that Jack and Rose could have both survived, but only if they’d known to situate themselves in just the right way, which seems doubtful. So… I’ll stick with the idea that there really wasn’t a viable choice, and mourn for poor Jack, who sacrificed his own life to give Rose the change to live.

Here’s a little snippet:

The whole show is fascinating — definitely worth checking out!

Meanwhile, back in the world of books…

Having watched Titanic this week, I’m in the mood to read about it too! I’ve read several novels set on the Titanic, and have a few others on my to-read list:

I’ve read:

Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge (published 1996)

I read this book over ten years ago, and while I don’t remember many of the fictional elements, I do remember being impressed by how well this book conveys the human tragedy and the awful timeline of the events.

The Midnight Watch by David Dyer (published 2016)

Heartbreaking story about the SS Californian, a ship that was near enough to see Titanic’s distress flares yet waited to offer assistance. Woven into the narrative is the story of a family traveling in steerage on Titanic. Combined, these two plotlines make for powerful reading. (review)

The Deep by Alma Katsu

Oh dear. This one really did not work for me. It’s a ghost story/horror story set onboard Titanic, and I found it pretty muddled and unnecessary. In some ways, the ghost story might have been much better if it were set on a random ship, but combining it with the Titanic story was not great. (review)

But wait, there’s more! Here are a handful of Titanic-themed novels that I either own copies of or have on my TBR list, but have yet to read. (I’m sure there are many, many more to choose from, but these are the ones that have caught my eye so far):

The Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee (published 2021)

Valora Luck has two things: a ticket for the biggest and most luxurious ocean liner in the world, and a dream of leaving England behind and making a life for herself as a circus performer in New York. Much to her surprise, though, she’s turned away at the gangway; apparently, Chinese people aren’t allowed into America...

Note: I’m starting this book today!

A Brilliant Night of Stars and Ice by Rebecca Connolly (published 2022)

Shortly after midnight on April 15, 1912, the captain of the Carpathia, Arthur Rostron, wakes to a distress signal from the Titanic, which has struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage. Though information is scarce, Rostron leaps into action, determined to answer the call for help. But the Carpathia is more than four hours away, and there are more questions than answers: Will his ship hold together if pushed to never-before-tested speeds? What if he also strikes an iceberg? And with the freezing temperatures, will there be any survivors by the time the Carpathia arrives?

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord (published 1955)

OK, this one is non-fiction, but it’s supposed to be an amazing read:

First published in 1955, A Night to Remember remains a completely riveting account of the Titanic’s fatal collision and the behavior of the passengers and crew, both noble and ignominious. Some sacrificed their lives, while others fought like animals for their own survival. Wives beseeched husbands to join them in lifeboats; gentlemen went taut-lipped to their deaths in full evening dress; and hundreds of steerage passengers, trapped below decks, sought help in vain.

The Girl Who Came Home by Hazel Gaynor (published 2012)

A voyage across the ocean becomes the odyssey of a lifetime for a young Irish woman. . . .

Ireland, 1912 . . .

Fourteen members of a small village set sail on RMS Titanic, hoping to find a better life in America. For seventeen-year-old Maggie Murphy, the journey is bittersweet. Though her future lies in an unknown new place, her heart remains in Ireland with Séamus, the sweetheart she left behind. When disaster strikes, Maggie is one of the few passengers in steerage to survive. Waking up alone in a New York hospital, she vows never to speak of the terror and panic of that fateful night again...

The Second Mrs. Astor by Shana Abé (published 2021)

This riveting novel takes you inside the scandalous courtship and catastrophic honeymoon aboard the Titanic of the most famous couple of their time—John Jacob Astor and Madeleine Force. Told in rich detail, this novel of sweeping historical fiction will stay with readers long after turning the last page...

Have you read any great fiction about the Titanic? Or do you have a favorite non-fiction account to recommend?

I’m sure my Titanic obsession will ease up a bit as time goes by… but seeing the movie again definitely brought up all those feelings!