|Publication year: 2011
Time and place: Civil War era US
Narrated in: first-person
First sentence: “There’s no such thing as a perfect book,” Mr. Ochocinco says.
|Publication year: 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction
Time and place: one of Francis Drake‘s expeditions, 1577
Narrated in: first-person
First sentence: “It was as fine a morning to be whipped as any I had ever seen.”
“I knew I was no hero. It was equally unlikely I was any braver than the next man.”
Punished for a crime he did not commit, young Peregrine James is encouraged to leave England for the time being. He manages to be hired as a cook’s help on Francis Drake’s Pelican, one of the ships in a small fleet getting ready to (secretly) sail to Panama. Having never been on a ship, Perry does not know exactly what to expect, but he is smart enough to realize that the adventure about to begin is one fraught with danger. His motto however is “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well”; he decides that he will just do his best and hope that nothing bad happens. But you know how they say, if you want to make God laugh tell Him your plans…
As the author states in an interview,
“I am meticulous about historical accuracy. My aim in writing At Drake’s Command was to embellish history rather than to manufacture it. Most of the characters, with the exception of Perry and a few others, actually sailed with Drake. Wherever possible I use their very words to express the opinions they voiced while they were among the living.”
Now, I don’t know very much about Drake and his voyages, quite the opposite, but this is exactly the feeling I got while reading: that the author has done his homework, not only when it came to historical accuracy, but also with the ship-related stuff. There were moments when I felt like I was actually there, sailing with Peregrine, and I really enjoyed it. You know you’re reading a well-written book when you lift your head and look at the room around you and wonder how you got there — and this has happened to me while reading ADC at least once. However, in this particular case this was for me both a pro and a con, as it turns out I am not very interested in the particulars of the life on board of a ship, so my reading got a bit slow-going now and then. For people into that kind of thing this book is probably a dream come true though :)
Perry himself was a character after my own taste: despite his youth he is anything but reckless, and he is genuinely concerned about doing the right thing whenever needed. I very much liked that he was very down-to-earth; whenever he’s in trouble he realizes that he’s on his own, as he’s the lowest in rank on the ship, and as such not worth the extra effort his rescue would cost any of the officers. While this sounds like a harsh approach, it felt nevertheless realistic; it works well in the book, not in the least because it gives Perry’s ingenuity more than one opportunity to shine :)
My one regret was that I, the reader, didn’t get to see more of Drake himself. There is of course a very good reason for that (Perry’s status as the lowest of the low would have occasioned him very little contact with the highest-in-command), but I was quite curious to see a bit of the man behind the myth. Speaking of which, another character I have had the pleasure of encountering in the pages of the book is Thomas Doughty, who, at the time the book ended, has just been given the lead of the Pelican (the peak of his fate before his downfall). He was actually one of my favorite characters because of his no-nonsense attitude, despite the fact that he is treating young Peregrine somewhat less than kind.
Now that I think about it, the book is sorely lacking female characters — but this is only to be expected in a book about a 16th century voyage at sea.
However, this severely restrains the types of relationships available in the book. In the end, the only possible dynamic is the camaraderie developing between Perry and the rest of his mates. I was glad to see him adapt so well to the sea life, and I was even gladder to see how he interacted with the various people he runs into while doing his job. There is his “boss”, the Pelican’s cook, who can’t quite stand Perry because his (Perry’s) cooking is too fancy; there is a cook’s help that tries to sabotage Perry for taking his position; and there’s also (my favorite) a Spanish cook full of confidence in his skills, who treats Perry in a manner unexpectedly friendly under the circumstances. The first of these is the best written one as, while the other guy is mostly openly hostile, they do share at least a moment of mutual understanding, leading me to think that perhaps they will get on friendlier terms somewhere in the next books.
Thoughts on the ending
Gah! A cliffhanger ending!! I’m starting to get really fed up with those. Using this feels like an author is too lazy to get the reader actually interested in hes/her characters, choosing instead to focus on arousing the reader’s immediate curiosity and no more. Sad.
What’s even sadder is that in this case Perry was sort of interesting enough — I definitely wouldn’t have avoided reading a sequel, had a set of his adventures ended in this book. I do realize that since it’s all supposed to be one long trip it would have been a bit tough to separate the story in three different pieces in such a way that it would have had a semblance of a meaning, but in my opinion it would have been worth it. As it is now the ending feels sort of random (it could have been any number of scenes earlier on later, with the exact same effect), with an added bonus of feeling extra manipulative due to the cliffhanger thing. Ah well.
Recommend it to?
People interested in naval historical fiction are bound to love it, I guess :)
(I cannot say for sure since I am not one of them, but it seems to me it’s right down their alley)
Mr. Utterson just knows there is something wrong with his friend Jekyll. Not only he’s been acting withdrawn lately, but he also changed his will with an unusually worded one. The new version states that were something to happen to Jekyll, were he to suddenly disappear, a certain Mr. Hyde is to inherit all of his fortune. Now, Utterson has only a passing acquaintance with this Hyde, but he agrees with everyone else who’s ever met him: there’s something about him that sends shivers down people’s spines; he feels… evil. Utterson suspects that the man is somehow forcing Jekyll’s hand, perhaps even scheming to kill him, to get his hands on his fortune; he feels compelled to solve the mystery of the man, and rescue his friend from his clutches.
“If he be Mr. Hyde,” he had thought, “I shall be Mr. Seek.”
But then a murder happens; Hyde kills someone in cold blood, and there has been a witness. Wanted by the police, Hyde disappears. In his absence, Jekyll flourishes again, becoming the man he once was.
First of all, I was surprised to see that this is a very short book. Until now my sole acquaintance to the story has been via the musical, and the plot there has a bunch of characters, including not one but two romantic interests. As such, discovering that the book has little to no plot at all, and very few characters was… quite unexpected, to say the least. It is obvious while reading that the author intended it to be a novella centered around a mystery, no more.
We’re first introduced to Hyde, via a secondary character. The peculiar way he makes people around him feel does not go unnoticed. A connection between him and Jekyll is mentioned in passing — he has a check with the latter’s name on it — and it is the first time their association makes Mr. Utterson uncomfortable. He has some suspicions, and it is obvious that the reader is supposed to share them, and is supposed to wonder, together with him, about this Mr. Hyde — who might he be, what does he have on Jekyll for the latter to act so strangely whenever the former is mentioned? A web of misdirection is woven around the reader, and I was sorry that I already knew the key to the mystery, because otherwise I am certain I would have found the big reveal simply stunning.
THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON
(although since there’s an expression that has entered the vernacular you too probably know who Hyde was and how he related to Jekyll; however, in case you don’t, you definitely want to stop reading here)
Since nothing much other than the big reveal happens in the book, and the said big reveal was anything but a mystery to me, my expectations rapidly lowered towards the ending. For a while the book seemed flat and I didn’t expect to enjoy the remaining pages — and I was surprised to see I did. I thought the ending was handled very, very well: I knew who Hyde was, of course, but I didn’t know how he came to be, or how he came to stay, and I loved the missing pieces I have only now discovered. For example, I loved the theory Jekyll had about man’s dual’s nature:
I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements. If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.
I loved how Hyde was at first a smaller man, as Jekyll mostly led a noble life until then, a life that did not allow the evil side of him the chance to grow:
The evil side of my nature, to which I had now transferred the stamping efficacy, was less robust and less developed than the good which I had just deposed. Again, in the course of my life, which had been, after all, nine-tenths a life of effort, virtue, and control, it had been much less exercised and much less exhausted. And hence, as I think, it came about that Edward Hyde was so much smaller, slighter, and younger than Henry Jekyll.
It’s interesting to notice that in time, as Hyde got to satisfy his every pleasure, this is reflected in his physical appearance too: his size actually increases. And then, I loved how the discovery of the drug that alternately let Hyde free and imprisoned him back in Jekyll’s skin was nothing but a fluke — Jekyll seems to have bought a certain medicine that was (unbeknownst to him) impure, one way or another; when his initial supply is depleted there is nothing he can do to recreate his potion again. I also loved the description of Jekyll’s feelings in his first moments as Hyde:
There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill-race in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.
A thing that I did not love as much was the ending: show spoiler
Although of course I do realize this is the only way things could have been satisfactorily ending. Ah, but still.
Nitpick: something that has somewhat disappointed me in the story is that the initial theory was that Jekyll was searching for a way to separate the evil side of a person from his good side. And he did manage to isolate the evil in him, in the person of Hyde. Thing is, he explains at one point that this is the way the drug works:
The drug had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine; it but shook the doors of the prison-house of my disposition; and like the captives of Philippi, that which stood within ran forth. At that time my virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion; and the thing that was projected was Edward Hyde.
(this very idea is another one of the things I loved about the book)
Thing is, by this description I would have expected him to be alternately good and evil — under the incarnation of Hyde I figure that the good, angelic side of Jekyll is the one that’s imprisoned (since all evil was Hyde, only the good parts remained). Which makes me think that taking the drug again should have imprisoned Hyde (and all the evil with him) and set free everything that was good in Jekyll (probably in the guise of a third character). Yet this is not how it happens — the evil side is alternately set free (Hyde), or mixed back in with the good (Jekyll), a thing that I think directly contradicts the aforementioned quote.
Not that I am complaining all that much. But still, my nitpicky nature felt the need to comment on it :)
Recommend it to?
I expect everyone and their mother has read this (teensy, tiny) book by now. However, I heartily recommend it, as long as you know not to expect anything sensational: it’s a simple, straightforward story, that hinges on one big twist at the end. Of course, the contemporary reader knows what the twist is, but I thought the book enjoyable nonetheless.
Main characters: Jake Epping/George Amberson
Time and place: 2011/1958-1963, US (a small part of the book takes place in Derry, Maine)
First sentence: “I have never been what you’d call a crying man.”
Verdict: Loved it :)
Meet Jake Epping, 35. An English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and recently divorced. He leads quite an ordinary, uneventful existence, until one day a phone call turns his life upside down.
“When you go down the steps, it’s always 11:58 A.M. on the morning of September ninth, 1958.”
Turns out time travel is in fact possible. Sure, it’s always in the same time and the same place, but it is quite a huge discovery nonetheless. It’s also a chance for Jake to put right things that once went wrong, starting with the day a demented father killed his wife and children, and ending with (why not) one of the biggest events in recent history, the JFK assassination.
However, the past does not easily accept to be changed. Each step away from the original timeline is a struggle — would Jake be able to win?
Oh, how I have waited for this book! Ever since I first read there was going to be a Stephen King book involving time travel and wanting to change history for the better I was totally hooked. And now that I have read it I can only say that it was every bit as good as I imagined it to be :)
Getting to see the life in 50s/60s-small-town-America through the eyes of a contemporary was quite a treat for me. I loved how, particularly at first, Jake kept comparing the old ways with his present-day ones, and usually it was the present that kept falling short. Life seems to have been a lot more peaceful half a century ago, complete with people that are (were) nicer and a lot more trusting. Some of the official IDs (the driving licence, if I remember correctly) didn’t even have photos!
One of my favorite scenes regarding past/present differences was when Jake went to a bank to make a deposit, and noticed how everything was done on paper. A thing that was only to be expected, since the PCs were still a long way off, and yet the mere idea struck me as novel in an it’s-so-obvious-why-didn’t-I-think-about-it-before kind of way. For some reason I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around a computerless bank (which only goes to show how used I got with having computers everywhere around me, since I cannot quite imagine a world without them).
Another notable difference between the then and now was that smoking seems to have been everyone’s favorite pastime back then. A thing that’s only natural, I guess, since no connection with cancer had yet been made, and all the papers were filled with ads portraying smoking as the coolest thing ever — and yet I, like Jake, found somewhat strange a world more often surrounded by blue smoke clouds than not, simply because it was so very different from the way things are now. I love books that make me think of things I have never thought of before, so this book was to me a winner from this point of view at the very least.
To be honest, Jake felt a bit Mary Sue-ish to me (or whatever the male counterpart of a Mary Sue is). He is supposed to be this ordinary teacher, but as the book unfolds it turns out there is nothing he cannot do, be it lindy hopping, killing people in cold blood, directing a successful play or writing what was quite likely to be a best-selling novel. His drive to do (what he considers) the right thing never falters, despite the fact that he knows the past will not allow to be changed without putting up a brutal fight. And, Mary Sue or not, I very much admired him for that. As I liked the way he always ended up teaching English, because this chance to help young minds expand was what he considered his vocation. I really do not have anything to reproach him, other than his being a tad too close to perfection :)
As a character, Lee Harvey Oswald was sort of a weaselly young man. There was no way in the world for the author to pull off making him sympathetic, and so he didn’t even try. The first time we ever meet Oswald is during an argument with his wife, Marina, whom he treats like dirt, and it all goes mostly downhill from there. And, of course, adding to that we have the fact that we only get to see him through Jake’s eyes, and Jake is not exactly an objective party (I am quite certain that Oswald would have been despicable enough even if he had the benefit of a not-so-subjective narrator, though). This however makes him feel more like a caricature (having some traits exaggerated while others are ignored) than a real human being — not that I am complaining in any way, the book is long enough as it is, plus the author didn’t have that much creative freedom in this case, as Oswald’s character has been documented over and over again. And yet, wouldn’t it have been even more interesting if the line drawn between good and bad had been at least a little blurry?
I should now say something about Sadie too. However, for most of the book I didn’t have that much interest in her. Sure, I loved to see the relationship between her and Jake develop (mostly because I liked him and so I wanted him to be happy), but other than that there was always something that felt to me a bit off about her, although try as I might I cannot quite put my finger on it. Perhaps she seemed to me overly-fragile and likely to break — I say that because somewhere in the last bunch of pages she starts acting sort of badass (she even threatens someone with a knife), and I actually liked her then, despite the fact that the said change did not seem all that plausible to me. Or who knows, perhaps I have just read her wrong, or did not pay her enough attention or something. Either way, we just did not click.
Jake however totally clicked with her :)
By now I have read quite a bunch of reviews, and mostly they all agree that the relationship between Jake and Sadie was one of the best things in the book. Ah, and it is indeed a nice relationship (particularly if we consider I enjoyed reading about it despite my less-than-lukewarm feelings for Sadie), but was I as impressed by it as some of the rest of the world? The answer is no, but this may well be my fault; after all, I started this book in order to read about time travel and affecting timelines and the likes, while a love story I could very well take or leave :)
I was very happy to discover that this is a very tame book, horror-wise, as there is almost no gore at all (at least by Mr. King’s standards), and there’s only a slight hint of evil lurking nearby — just enough of it to be deliciously creepy, no more. The vast majority of the plot revolves around Jake’s attempts to create a better future. At times this can turn out to be somewhat boring, as in order to take action Jake needs to stake out his ‘targets’ for a while, however for me there always was present an underlying sense of excitement: “will he be able to pull it off?” and “how will he be able to pull it off?”
What I liked most
The time travel! I am first and foremost a time travel buff, so how was I not to like it? :)
The history part of it! Seeing as I am also a history buff, I was bound to jump for joy seeing how I had an opportunity to learn more about a couple of people (JFK/LHO) that up until now I knew rather little about.
And then there’s of course the small details, such as I found it interesting how Al could afford to have the cheapest burgers around the area because he bought his meat from the past, at ’58 prices :) Although in his case it would have been a lot wiser if he had raised the prices a bit, methinks; as things were most people avoided Al’s establishment thinking that the meat in the burgers couldn’t possibly be actual beef given how cheap it was.
What I liked least
The time for nitpicking is upon us: at one time Jake is writing both a book and his memoirs, saying about the latter something like “these are the pages you are reading now”. But. But then he is forced to make a quick escape to the present day and he leaves the pages behind1 :) (and of course they get lost in the reset when he gets back in 1958)
Other than that, the one moment I found least enjoyable was the one when Jake sees a part of Sadie’s name (“DORIS DUN”), and it was the same as a part of the name of a woman whose husband has tried to kill her — so boom, all of a sudden Jake has this crazy idea that Sadie’s husband too will do the same thing. While I did get (and enjoyed) the parts regarding the past “harmonizing” with itself, this particular moment seemed to me to be pushing it a teensy tiny bit too far.
Thoughts on the ending
Unexpected and, as such, nothing short of brilliant :)
Recommend it to?
The Goodreads rating is 4.27, so if you have at least a passing interest in either Stephen King or time travel stories, I heartily encourage you to give it a try.
Written by the same author:
- I am actually hoping to be wrong about this one, it seems to me quite a big slip up if the author did indeed slip. [↩]
Genre: Historical Romance
Main characters: Miss Emmaline Dove, Harrison Robert Marlowe
Time and place: 1890s, London
First sentence: “Working for a handsome man is fraught with difficulties.”
Verdict: Cute but forgettable.
“She knew the rules for nearly everything, and yet, she couldn’t help wondering if those rules had anything to do with what was right and what was wrong. Worse, she was beginning to think that despite being a mature woman of thirty years, she knew nothing at all about life.”
Growing up in a family obsessed with morals and propriety, Emma knows everything there is to know about society rules. She wants to share her knowledge to the world, and what better way to do that than write a book? Especially as Emma works as the secretary of Viscount Marlowe, the owner of the city’s leading publishing house. And yet, try as she might and edit as she might, the Viscount is adamant that what she writes about is too boring to ever see the light of print.
And then one day Emma decides she’s had enough. She resigns her job and takes her manuscript to Marlowe’s main competitor, who offers her a column in one of his papers. She’s almost an overnight success, to Marlowe’s complete and utter surprise. What’s more, he’s downright awestruck by the changes her newly found situation effected in Emma: as a secretary she was a mousy thing, “as dry as dust“, always doing her lord’s bidding and always keeping her thoughts to herself; now however she turns out to be quite the opposite, she has a temper, and behind her propriety there is a fiery passion that Marlowe would so like to explore.
And then he kissed her…
Ten years before the book opens, Harry, the Viscount Marlowe, has divorced his then wife. What started out as a serious case of love at first sight (“I knew nothing of her character, nothing of her mind, nothing of her temperament, but I didn’t care. I fell in love with her the first moment I looked into her eyes. She had the biggest, darkest, saddest eyes I’d ever seen. I’d set myself on marrying her before the introductions were even finished.“), ended up in disaster, so for Harry there was no other choice. A divorce however was considered in very bad taste at the time, so, although he had both money and a title, society shunned him. What is worse, his sisters were shunned too, and in an era when a proper marriage was important this hurt their perspectives quite a bit.
Years have passed and things are slowly coming back to a semblance of normality. Harry however still feels guilty about it, and he has sworn he will never get married again. He chose to live the life of a rake (totally unsurprising in such a book), having a string of mistresses he doesn’t really care about, nor does he ever spend more than a few months with1. And this is the state of the matters when the new, radically improved Emma enters the stage :)
At thirty, Emma considers herself firmly “on the shelf”. She’s a “girl bachelor”, “a woman, I was told, who should not indulge in self-pity because she has no husband and must earn her own living. Instead, she should be cheerful in her tiny little flat, practice strict economies and stringent moral principles, and make the best of her “unfortunate situation””2. Which is exactly the way Emma has built her life: she lives frugally in a tiny flat she shares with her cat, Mr. Pigeon, and when it comes to decisions she always makes the sensible ones. The turning point is her thirtieth birthday, when she realizes that her best years are behind her, and she has rather wasted them by never listening to her heart. So she quits her job, takes her life in her own hands, and never looks back.
Harry is described as “one of Britain’s rarest commodities: an eligible peer with money” :)
His mind revolves around his business and his strategies, because he enjoys a challenge, but also because he wants his family to lack nothing, as they are the ones who had to take the fall for his mistake all those years before. His heart is still smarting after his failed marriage, as he had dearly loved his wife and was completely unprepared for the misery each of them brought to the other. Something I really liked about him is that he is not afraid to admit his mistakes and take steps to correct them; he tries hard not to let his own opinions influence his views on cold, hard facts. Which doesn’t mean that his own biases never get in the way, it just means that he’s aware of said biases and knows when and how to scuttle around them.
There’s not much plot to speak of :)
This is mostly a character-driven story, where the interesting part is getting to see our two characters helping each other grow. This is most noticeable with Emma, who finally manages to let go of the overly-constrictive way she was brought up to live in (for example, she firmly believed that, when it comes to eating poultry in public, a woman should only eat the wings, because there is no equivalent human body part; anything else would be indecent). This is done very nicely, in a gradual and believable manner, and it’s one of the best parts of the book. As for Harry, he’s a bit more cliché, as his change mainly involves turning from a regular rake to a reformed one, but following his journey is fun nonetheless :)
What I liked most
Emma’s thoughts on turning 30 :)
Actually, the fact that she was thirty — what a coincidence, I am 30 too :P — because one sees this quite rarely in historical romance books (while the reason for it is quite obvious, I enjoyed the variation nonetheless)
What I liked least
There is a scene where Harry and Emma are left alone in a parlour, while the landlady is shortly detained elsewhere. Harry takes advantage of the fact that Emma’s propriety would not let her make a scene and starts telling her all the things he would like to do to her if the situation permitted. Emma enjoys it, despite herself, but the same cannot be said of me, as for some reason I have found that whole (long!) scene a total bore. I am willing to bet that the same scene is considered the best one by many, but I didn’t feel it advanced the action in any way. I get that it’s supposed to awaken in Emma the awareness of her own desires, but did it really need all those pages to do that? Yawn.
Thoughts on the ending
Quite a cute HEA :)
Recommend it to?
People who enjoy reading romance books, of course. It’s a nice, enjoyable story, not to mention its current Goodreads score is 3.92, the folks over at Dear Author‘s gave it an A, and Emmaline was chosen Best Heroine of 2007 in AAR’s 2008 reader poll.
- I cannot help wondering why a behaviour like that — breaking female hearts over and over again — would be considered attractive, and yet romance books abound in rakes other than normal, nice guys. Perhaps because at the time there was hard to find a middle ground, a guy could be either a rake or a total abstinent, and for some reason the former is considered better than the latter. [↩]
- quote from the author’s website [↩]
Rebecca Rowena Randall is the second of seven brothers, living with their mother in a small house that Rebecca likes to call Sunnybrook Farm. As the book opens, she is sent to live with her two spinster aunts, in hopes that this will be “the making of [her]“. Rebecca’s sunny disposition does not fit very well with the somber house of the aunts, but, by and by, she manages to soften any heart she encounters in her path.
I took up reading this on a whim, having found out about its existence from a list of books presumably read on the Titanic. I love this type of heroine (Rebecca belongs to the same league that Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna do), and as I was able to find it instantly both on Amazon (the Kindle version) and on Gutenberg Project I wasted no time and jumped straight into it. In the end, while I was right, and Rebecca did share the optimism an resourcefulness of both Anne and Pollyanna, her life struck me as a mere succession of events. Contemporary books have probably perverted my tastes and expectations, as I could not help finding only a very few of Rebecca’s adventures (while important for her, of course) important/interesting enough to be worth being mentioned in a book.
The setting is what I’ve come to think of as a typical small town, the kind where everyone knows everyone and no secrets can ever be kept from the nosy neighbors. There are a bunch of children too, more or less Rebecca’s age, so “Rebecky” is always surrounded by friends. Much as everyone loves gossip, there are no truly mean people in the village, and our heroine is liked by all.
Rebecca Rowena Randall is a rather extraordinary child. She has an intense personality, filled with artistic fervor and bursting at the seams with imagination. She takes great pleasure in the mere act of communicating (as one of the characters says, she’d more likely talk to herself than say nothing). She always has something interesting to say though (no small feat), which is I think one of the things that attract other people to her like moths around a flame. She’s written poetry all her life (clumsy worded at times, but correctly rhymed), she plays the piano, she is talented when it comes to drawing too — in a word, she is a very gifted young girl. All her intensity is mirrored into her large, dark eyes, the first thing that anyone noticed about her:
Rebecca’s eyes were like faith,–”the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Under her delicately etched brows they glowed like two stars, their dancing lights half hidden in lustrous darkness. Their glance was eager and full of interest, yet never satisfied; their steadfast gaze was brilliant and mysterious, and had the effect of looking directly through the obvious to something beyond, in the object, in the landscape, in you.
And then there’s Mr. Adam Ladd, a well-to-do thirty year old, who finds Rebecca fascinating, and who plays the part of a hidden benefactor for her more than once. When they first met Rebecca, not knowing his name, called him Mr. Aladdin, and she has been addressing him thusly ever since. While reading, I kept feeling that he has the potential to be a great character, to do something interesting, but, alas, he never did.
As for the aunts, I liked the way the author has chosen to draw them. The eldest is Mirandy, a stern old woman who likes being in control of everything and thinking herself too level-headed for sentimentalities. The quote that best describes her is “Miranda Sawyer had a heart, of course, but she had never used it for any other purpose than the pumping and circulating of blood“. She always tends to think the worst about people, and she is not particularly fond of Rebecca, seeing in her a beastly, disobedient child. The other sister, Jane, has a more peaceful nature, and is letting herself dominated by her elder sister. She did have a wild streak in her, though, and in her youth she ran away from home in order to be with her betrothed, wounded in war. Now however that spark is almost extinguished, as Jane is old and frail, but the very memory if it makes her far more understanding of Rebecca’s character than her sister will ever be.
The book is more of a series of vignettes out of Rebecca’s life growing up. To me they felt like simple preparations, paving the way for the real story, but alas, that intense, powerful moment I had expected never actually happened. Again, I have probably gotten way too used with the books written these days, fast paced and one twist following quickly on another’s footsteps. In comparison, Rebecca’s adventures feel rather subdued and quaint :)
What I liked most
My favorite adventure of Rebecca’s was the one with the pink parasol :)
At the time the book opens her most prized possession is a pink parasol that someone has brought her from Paris. She treasures it so much that she only uses it on cloudy days, taking great pains to always keep it away from the sun, as “pink fades awfully“. In Rebecca’s own words, “it’s the dearest thing in life to me, but it’s an awful care“. A few months later, Rebecca, inspired by a book she was reading, decides that she needs to punish herself for making mistakes (she often got caught in her inner world and forgot the outer one, so she always got into a scrape or another) as she saw this as a way of building character. When it came time to decide on a punishment, she chose for herself the harshest thing she could think of, giving up her cherished pink parasol:
That would do; she would fling her dearest possession into the depths of the water. Action followed quickly upon decision, as usual. She slipped down in the darkness, stole out the front door, approached the place of sacrifice, lifted the cover of the well, gave one unresigned shudder, and flung the parasol downward with all her force. At the crucial instant of renunciation she was greatly helped by the reflection that she closely resembled the heathen mothers who cast their babes to the crocodiles in the Ganges.
Alas, but then the little umbrella gets stuck somewhere inside the well and everyone wonders how come they cannot draw water anymore :)
Another quote of Rebecca’s, giving up the idea of becoming a missionary:
“Why, whatever God is, and wherever He is, He must always be there, ready and waiting. He can’t move about and miss people. It may take the heathen a little longer to find Him, but God will make allowances, of course. He knows if they live in such hot climates it must make them lazy and slow; and the parrots and tigers and snakes and bread-fruit trees distract their minds; and having no books, they can’t think as well; but they’ll find God somehow, some time.”
“What if they die first?” asked Emma Jane.
“Oh, well, they can’t be blamed for that; they don’t die on purpose,” said Rebecca, with a comfortable theology.
Last but not least, I found quite amusing that Rebecca’s father’s name was Lorenzo de Medici Randall, while his twin brother had been named Marquis de Lafayette Randall. Someone in that family must have liked history books :)
What I liked least
Other than the simplicity of the stories I have absolutely nothing to reproach it (but let us keep in mind it was written over 100 years ago, in a time where people’s lives were so much less eventful than ours today).
Thoughts on the ending
Quite a disappointment. The book ended way too soon!
Recommend it to?
Anyone who likes the enthusiastic-child-melts-everyone’s-hearts trope :)
“It was not the sea that was cruel, but the people.”
Grace Winter is 22 and she’s only been married for a few weeks when she becomes a widow. The ship that she and her husband were travelling on sinks, and Grace is one of the passengers of the few boats that were launched; sadly, her husband is not. The real trial is only now beginning though: there are 39 people in Grace’s boat, a bit more than its dimensions allow. As days pass, the hope of rescue dwindles and the weather becomes agitated; the boat’s load should be lightened — but how? Does some people’s chance of survival justify the death of others?
The premise of the book — thirty-nine people crowded on a tiny boat, a boat that spent twenty-one days at sea — reminded me of Life of Pi, which I loved, and this was the reason I ended up requesting it from NetGalley.
There are indeed similarities between the two books. This one starts out quite captivating, with the difficult choices that the people in the boat must make — their boat is overcrowded as it is, and so they have to steel their hearts at the plights of the people all around them. Particularly touching is a scene where they have to ignore a young boy, nicely dressed, whose mother has died after setting him on a plank. This moment will come back to haunt Grace, our narrator, now and then, and I can only imagine how unsettling the experience must have been.
Like Pi, the people in this boat have to make do with as little resources as possible. Their bodies grow gaunt, raw meat feels like a delicacy, the rains bring with it the blessing of sweet water. And also, like in Pi’s actual story, conflicts break out among the passengers, with some ending up dead. And this is where the book’s grip on my interest faded almost completely. Grace, as a woman, spends her time with the women in the boat, and so we know little to nothing about the talks going on in the men’s group. This is why my opinions/feelings only apply to the female travelers. And boy, they were a despicable lot. Scratch that, despicable probably is too strong a word — yet I cannot find any other right now, so it will have to do. The women spend their time gossiping, fabricating stories out of thin air, and then believing these stories themselves and reacting with indignation towards the ones the story’s about. Instead of wanting to keep peace — after all, they were all literally in the same boat — some of them sow dissent, while others are preoccupied with seizing as much influence and power as possible. While I do of course realize that this is the way things would probably happen in the given situation (as the average person has a tendency for all the things described), I cannot say I am fond of people acting in an average way in extraordinary circumstances. Which is why I spent half the book wanting to punch some of the said women in the face, and also why the moral ambiguity of most of the story was lost on me — to me there was nothing ambiguous about it, those women were in the wrong.
Consider that the people in the boat had one experienced sailor among them, just one. And he, albeit gruff and not very social, has done everything in his power to care for his little flock — he rationed the provisions, he instituted a schedule, he caught fish — and the idiots in the boat owed him their survival, such as it was. They themselves should have known that, as at one point they intersect with another boat from the same ship, and the people there seem a lot worse off. Now, this sailor, Mr. Hardie, may not have a completely clean character — he may have been a thief, but there is no proof of that, just stories upon stories upon stories, most of them fabricated as likely as not. But no, the women decided to hold him responsible for their situation (“He made his best guess, that was all, which was certainly better than mine. Yet I and others blamed him as if he knew the truth and kept it from us–capriciously, or as a form of punishment for our sins.“). They said he was a threat to them and he had to be killed. And this is supposed to be morally ambiguous? Not in my book it isn’t. It is one thing to kill someone to ensure your own survival and quite another to finish one off simply because you’ve grown tired of being under his command.
I should mention a few words about Grace. It’s interesting how, despite being the narrator, she didn’t feel that central to the book; she felt to me like yet another woman among those in the boat (although to be fair to her Grace did have the sense that the others lacked — or perhaps she just tells the story in such a way to make herself look good). I did like that she was a doer, not a talker; her motto is “God helps those who help themselves” and she considers hope “a weak emotion, a kind of pleading passivity or entrenched denial”. Her father went bankrupt and killed himself, and her mother, on hearing about this, went mad. Grace’s sister went on to become a governess, while Grace herself evaded this fate by marrying a rich guy (interestingly enough she considers her sister the weak one, the one who settled for less — I find the opposite to be true). Marriage seems to be Grace’s ‘weapon of choice’ (she finds herself a new husband before the book is done), and this has detracted from my initial opinion of her. I feel somewhat cheated in a way — I loved her motto, and a female character who believes in doing things herself can only be a likable one, I thought. But Grace spends the vast majority of the pages entrapped in an environment she cannot influence, regardless of what her philosophy may or may not be. The cases when she does find herself a mistress of her own destiny — after her father went mad and after the thing with the boat is fully over — her solution is marriage, which basically delegates the doing to someone else. Sure, she is very proud that she was able to secure her future by finding a rich husband — but is this really ‘doing something’?
Which brings me at last to the conclusion. Was this a bad book? I don’t think it was. Was this a book for me? Alas, unfortunately it wasn’t. I did enjoy it quite a bit at first, but as the characters revealed their true colors I became less than enthusiastic.
A quote (Grace recollects her former life):
“My mind was blank and terrified, unable to fathom what had brought my handsome and worldly lover to his knees in a patch of dirt that was not a rich and earthy loam built up through generations of natural processes, but a combination of horse dung and wash water and boot scrapings and kitchen scraps that were too spoiled for even the ragamuffins to eat. Then I realized with a shock that seemed to leap like primordial fire from Henry’s blazing eyes to my own that the thing that had brought Henry to his knees in that filthy courtyard was me.”
Recommend it to?
Anyone interested in reading a story of survival & psychological ambiguity. At the moment it has a rating of 4.05 on Goodreads.
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