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!

Book Review: The Deep by Alma Katsu

Title: The Deep
Author: Alma Katsu
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Horror/Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Someone, or something, is haunting the Titanic.

This is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the passengers of the ship from the moment they set sail: mysterious disappearances, sudden deaths. Now suspended in an eerie, unsettling twilight zone during the four days of the liner’s illustrious maiden voyage, a number of the passengers – including millionaires Madeleine Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, the maid Annie Hebbley and Mark Fletcher – are convinced that something sinister is going on . . . And then, as the world knows, disaster strikes.

Years later and the world is at war. And a survivor of that fateful night, Annie, is working as a nurse on the sixth voyage of the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, now refitted as a hospital ship. Plagued by the demons of her doomed first and near fatal journey across the Atlantic, Annie comes across an unconscious soldier she recognises while doing her rounds. It is the young man Mark. And she is convinced that he did not – could not – have survived the sinking of the Titanic . . .

I had high hopes for The Deep, but sadly, I finished the book feeling underwhelmed after struggling throughout to stay engaged.

Partially, this may have been due to mistaken expectations. I expected a story about something coming from the deep to menace the Titanic and the people on board. I mean, based on the cover and the title, that’s reasonable, right? But that’s not really the story here, not exactly.

The Deep reads mostly like a fictionalized recounting of the Titanic’s doomed voyage. We meet the famous real-life first class passengers, including the Astors and Guggenheims, and see the luxury of their accommodations. At the same time, we’re introduced to the fictional Annie Hebbley, a stewardess working in the first -class cabins, as well as several other fictional passengers.

Much of the story is a straight-forward narrative of upper class and lower class, the gossip and intrigue that ensues by having so many people of privilege in this exclusive setting, and the below-stairs pressure on the ship’s serving crew. We don’t actually spend any time in steerage, coming closest in the presence of two boxers who charm the first-class passengers while running cons and planning for a new life in New York.

The supernatural elements creep in as weird things happen involving Annie, her strange connection to a couple and their baby, and some unexplainable interludes with a few of the top tier passengers.

The Titanic scenes alternate with scenes on board the Britannic four years later, where Annie works as a nurse to wounded soldiers, and which undergoes its own nautical tragedy.

Look, a novel about the Titanic has to hit certain beats. It needs to follow the historical events, present some of the real-life characters, and give a sense of the scope of the tragedy. The Deep is only partially successful here. The scenes amongst the first-class passengers focus on their petty interactions, but as a whole fail to really captivate or give a sense of the grandness of the sailing. And there’s more or less a complete disregard for the passengers in steerage. They’re referenced in passing, but we really don’t get any sense of their experience.

As far as the iceberg and the sinking, these are told through the eyes of the characters we’ve come to know, but again, the main events seem just like backdrop.

I ended up interested in the ghost-story twists revealed toward the end of the book, but that’s not enough to rescue what was mostly a struggle to stay interested. The supernatural elements are scattered throughout the story, but not strongly enough to create any sense of suspense or horror.

Perhaps the ghost story would have been better served by being set on an anonymous, fictional ship. You don’t need the Titanic for the story that was ultimately told, and that piece of the narrative just isn’t grand enough to have an impact on what we know of the true tragedy of the Titanic and its passengers.

I’ve read other works of fiction set on the Titanic which hew very closely to the real events and yet manage to bring us up front and center. The two that come to mind most strongly are Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge and The Midnight Watch by David Dyer. Both are excellent.

For me, The Deep was not a great reading experience. And it’s up to you whether you’d consider this a plus or a minus, but I’ve had images of Titanic (the movie) firmly embedded in my brain ever since starting the book. And obviously, Celine Dion’s soundtrack has been haunting me ever since…

Book Review: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

midnight watch2Synopsis:

(via Goodreads):

As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. When they learned of the extent of the tragedy, Lord and Stone did everything they could to hide their role in the disaster, but pursued by newspapermen, lawyers, and political leaders in America and England, their terrible secret was eventually revealed. The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction.

Told not only from the perspective of the SS Californian crew, but also through the eyes of a family of third-class passengers who perished in the disaster, the narrative is drawn together by Steadman, a tenacious Boston journalist who does not rest until the truth is found. The Midnight Watch is a powerful and dramatic debut novel–the result of many years of research in Liverpool, London, New York, and Boston, and informed by the author’s own experiences as a ship’s officer and a lawyer.

My thoughts:

The Midnight Watch is a strong debut novel built on meticulous research of the historical records. Prior to reading this book, I’d never even heard of the Californian, but a quick Google search shows just how real this nightmare story is. The Californian was nearby at the time that the Titanic was sinking, close enough to potentially have been able to save most or even all of those lost in the tragedy, and yet the ship did nothing in response to the Titanic’s distress signals.

The author does a painstaking job of recreating the events of that terrible night. In alternating chapters, we see events unfold through the eyes of the men onboard the Californian, especially Herbert Stone, and then learn of the Titanic and the possible involvement of the Californian through the perspective of John Steadman, a journalist who specializes in giving voice to those who’ve died in tragic circumstances.

It’s shocking to read that the officer of the watch saw the rockets, understood them to be distress signals, and then contacted the captain, only to do nothing once his captain chose to do nothing. The subsequent sets of lies and cover-ups and self-deceptions are equally disturbing and confusing. Why didn’t the Californian respond? How could Captain Lord live with himself afterward? Why didn’t the second officer do more if he truly believed he was witnessing a ship that needed help?

While The Midnight Watch lays out the events and presents a fictionalized accounting of what may have been going through the minds of the men involved, of course we’ll never actually know the truth or why this terrible inaction transpired while people were dying nearby.

The book is well-written and the character of John Steadman is appealingly flawed — a man who pursues the truth, even while drinking himself into oblivion and at the risk of his job. Captain Lord remains a haughty enigma. It’s impossible to truly understand his role in the Titanic’s sinking, but the portrayal of him here is certainly unflattering.

The piece of The Midnight Watch that carries the greatest emotional power comes toward the end, as the book includes the (fictional) account written by Steadman, called “Eight White Rockets”. Steadman’s piece describes events on the Californian that night, intercut with his recreation of the final hours spent on board the Titanic by a family of eleven — a mother, father, and their nine children — who all perished in the sinking. (This family, the Sage family, were real people who died in the disaster; the author has imagined what their experience might have been and why none survived.)

So many years later, the tragedy of the Titanic continues to fascinate us. The Midnight Watch describes a less well-known aspect of that terrible event, bringing to light facts and people that most with a casual interest in the Titanic today are probably unfamiliar with. The Midnight Watch blends historical details with a fictional story of journalistic research to create a compelling and moving tale. If you enjoy historical fiction and want to know more about the Titanic disaster, be sure to check this book out.


The details:

Title: The Midnight Watch
Author: David Dyer
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 5, 2016
Length: 323 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Shelf Control #12: The Dressmaker

Shelves final

Welcome to the newest weekly feature here at Bookshelf Fantasies… Shelf Control!

Shelf Control is all about the books we want to read — and already own! Consider this a variation of a Wishing & Waiting post… but looking at books already available, and in most cases, sitting right there on our shelves and e-readers.

Want to join in? See the guidelines and linky at the bottom of the post, and jump on board! Let’s take control of our shelves!


My Shelf Control pick this week is:

DressmakerTitle: The Dressmaker
Author: Kate Alcott
Published: 2012
Length: 306 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Just in time for the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic comes a vivid, romantic, and relentlessly compelling historical novel about a spirited young woman who survives the disaster only to find herself embroiled in the media frenzy left in the wake of the tragedy.

Tess, an aspiring seamstress, thinks she’s had an incredibly lucky break when she is hired by famous designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon to be a personal maid on the Titanic’s doomed voyage. Once on board, Tess catches the eye of two men, one a roughly-hewn but kind sailor and the other an enigmatic Chicago millionaire. But on the fourth night, disaster strikes.

Amidst the chaos and desperate urging of two very different suitors, Tess is one of the last people allowed on a lifeboat. Tess’s sailor also manages to survive unharmed, witness to Lady Duff Gordon’s questionable actions during the tragedy. Others—including the gallant Midwestern tycoon—are not so lucky.

On dry land, rumors about the survivors begin to circulate, and Lady Duff Gordon quickly becomes the subject of media scorn and later, the hearings on the Titanic. Set against a historical tragedy but told from a completely fresh angle, The Dressmaker is an atmospheric delight filled with all the period’s glitz and glamour, all the raw feelings of a national tragedy and all the contradictory emotions of young love.

How I got it:

I bought it.

When I got it:

A couple of years ago, after stumbling across a mention of it on Amazon.

Why I want to read it:

One word: Titanic! I’m always fond of historical fiction, and setting a novel onboard the Titanic and then addressing the aftermath sounds perfectly fascinating.


Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link below!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and have fun!

For more on why I’ve started Shelf Control, check out my introductory post here, or read all about my out-of-control book inventory, here.

And if you’d like to post a Shelf Control button on your own blog, here’s an image to download (with my gratitude, of course!):

Shelf Control

Wishlist Wednesday

Welcome once again to Wishlist Wednesday!

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Please consider adding the blog hop button to your blog somewhere, so others can find it easily and join in too! Help spread the word! The code will be at the bottom of the post under the linky.
  • Pick a book from your wishlist that you are dying to get to put on your shelves.
  • Do a post telling your readers about the book and why it’s on your wishlist.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to Pen to Paper somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

From Amazon:

Tess, an aspiring seamstress, thinks she’s had an incredibly lucky break when she is hired by famous designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon to be her personal maid on the Titanic. Once on board, Tess catches the eye of two men—a kind sailor and an enigmatic Chicago businessman—who offer differing views of what lies ahead for her in America. But on the fourth night, disaster strikes, and amidst the chaos, Tess is one of the last people allowed on a lifeboat.

The survivors are rescued and taken to New York, but when rumors begin to circulate about the choices they made, Tess is forced to confront a serious question.  Did Lady Duff Gordon save herself at the expense of others? Torn between loyalty to Lucile and her growing suspicion that the media’s charges might be true, Tess must decide whether to stay quiet and keep her fiery mentor’s good will or face what might be true and forever change her future.

Why do I want to read this?

To tell the truth, I’ve long been fascinated by the story of the Titanic, even before Kate and Leo brought us Rose and Jack (sniff…). I’ve read other novels either centering on the sinking of the Titanic (Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge) or featuring the Titanic as a catalyst for plot developments or as an event that sets the tone for a particular period (most recently, The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe).  I only just stumbled across a reference to The Dressmaker this past week, but I think it sounds wonderful, especially the combination of historical figures (Lady Lucile Duff Gordon was a real survivor of the Titanic) with fictional characters who can provide a more intimate point of view. One of the synopses of this book mentions that the plot focuses a great deal on the aftermath of the sinking and the trials that were held, and while I’ve read a great deal about the tragedy itself, I haven’t seen much about the fall-out afterward such as the public reactions and the official investigations.

The Dressmaker sounds like a book that I’ll love! I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

Have you read The Dressmaker? What did you think? And what are you wishing for this week?

Quick note to Wishlist Wednesday bloggers: Come on back to Bookshelf Fantasies for Flashback Friday! Join me in celebrating the older gems hidden away on our bookshelves. See the introductory post for more details, and come back this Friday to add your flashback favorites!