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The Last Bookaneer: A Novel by Matthew Pearl

The Last Bookaneer: A Novel (2015)

by Matthew Pearl

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3612344,135 (3.4)16



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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
In 1890s New York City, a mixed race young man by the name of Clover, working in a railroad dining car, meets a book peddler named Fergins. Fergins is English, and kind enough to lend Clover books when they meet. Eventually, Fergins starts telling Clover of his adventures as an assistant to one of the last great bookaneers.

In the nineteenth century, copyright law in nearly every country left the works of foreign authors, or works originally published in other countries, unprotected. This created the trade of bookaneering--stealing manuscripts before the authors could sell them. Writers lost out financially, but publishers made greater profits while book buyers got books comparatively cheaply.

In 1890, Fergins and his bookaneer employer, Penrose Davenport, learn that Robert Louis Stevenson, living in Samoa, is at work on what may be his last great masterpiece of a novel. And they are off on what will be the last great bookaneer escapade, before the new international copyright convention, at last protecting authors internationally, goes into effect on July 1. [Note: really cursory research seems to indicate this chronology is not right. Never mind; it makes for a great story!] They work their way into the confidence of the Stevenson household in Samoa, and then scheme and contrive to locate the manuscript so they can steal it as soon as it's finished. They're not alone; another successful bookaneer, Davenport's rival Belial, is already there.

Davenport and Belial are both dangerous, ruthless men. Stevenson is a great deal more wily and dangerous than they realize. It's a suspenseful and absorbing story, with an entertaining twist.

It takes the reader longer to see what's happening in the frame story of Fergins and Clover, which has its own unexpected twist.

The characters are handled very well, and one can find oneself lured into liking characters one has more than enough information to know should not be trusted. Once I got well started on the story, I couldn't put it down.


I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publsher via Penguin's First to Read program. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
Copyright laws are to go into effect on both sides of the Atlantic. Bookaneers are book pirates who steal from authors, booksellers, current owners and give to buyers who have hired them. It is learned that Robert Louis Stevenson is dying and working on his seemingly last book and the most elite bookaneers are after the book.

I loved this book. How imaginative! I like the glimpse into Stevenson's life in Samoa. I also like how the story is told--past and present (present being 1890's.) Characters abound--all flawed. I rooted for Davenport but was shocked by all their endings. Excellent storytelling. I was grabbed from the beginning and held on for the ride. A keeper! ( )
  Sheila1957 | Apr 28, 2018 |
It seemed like such a cool concept. I've read a few of Matthew Pearl's books, from his debut ('The Dante Club') and more. This sounded intriguing: stealing manuscripts prior the enactment of stricter copyright laws and the adventures that come along. I like historical fiction and historical fiction that revolve around books is always something I enjoy.
The POVs somewhat alternate (sometimes for one chapter, sometimes several) between waiter Culver and Fergins, a bookseller on the train Culver is usually on. We see Fergins as he gets introduced to bookaneers and their world, plus the grand adventure of pursuing a manuscript of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Yet overall it was a disappointment. I've always found Pearl's writing somewhat clunky: often much too wordy, takes too long to describe certain things, and quite often seems more in love with the concept of his stories rather than being able to execute them well. It's been several years since I've read any of his books, but I'd say his 'Dante' book remains his best one. I've kept reading hoping it would improve, but his style is very difficult to read though.
Overall it was a disappointment. Borrow from the library. I'm not sure I'll be reading anything else by Pearl, sadly.
  ( )
  acciolibros | Feb 11, 2018 |
Before the International Copyright Act of 1891, American publishers were free to publish books by writers from England or anywhere else outside the United States without worrying about contracts or royalties. Writers like Charles Dickens hated this situation, for almost as quickly as their books were published in their home countries they were being published in the U.S., where the writers won fans but nothing else.

Matthew Pearl saw the possibilities for a low-key adventure tale in all this, and the result is “The Last Bookaneer,” which takes place just before the end of the era of book piracy. Two such pirates, one who calls himself Belial when he isn't pretending to be someone else and another named Pen Davenport sail to Samoa when they hear Robert Louis Stevenson has gone there to die, but not before completing his masterpiece. Each wants to steal the manuscript as soon as Stevenson completes it and take it to New York. The narrator for most of the story is Fergins, a bookseller who sometimes assists Davenport.

Belial gets close to Stevenson by pretending to be a priest, while Davenport pretends to be writing a travel book. There not being that many English speakers in Samoa, the author welcomes both of them into his home.

Pearl tries hard, but his novel never really catches fire. Perhaps pirates and books just aren't as exciting as pirates and buried treasure. Or maybe the story's leisurely pace defeats its purpose. You make be able to guess which of these characters becomes "the last bookaneer," but you are not likely to guess how this comes about. So in that sense the novel is a success. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Feb 9, 2018 |
Using the "bookaneer" as a hook for a novel is a fabulous idea, but this really just didn't work very well for me. Very slow, the framing device was odd, there was a weird combination of too much and not enough backstory, and the whole main plot point was pretty unbelievable. A miss, I'm afraid. ( )
  JBD1 | Sep 23, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
A Literary Treasure on an Island.

Before films, before television, before pop music, there were books, and writers. There are famous writers now, but the level of fame that could be reached by a popular writer in the nineteenth century is almost beyond our imagining. After killing off Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan-Doyle was called “the most-hated man in London” by fans who wore mourning clothes, when Charles Dickens died mourners paraded passed his grave for three days, and during this time fans frequently paid top-dollar to see authors read their works in sold-out theaters. The latter was important to writers, because many had more fame than fortune. Lax or non-existent copyright laws made it astonishingly easy for publishers to pirate an author’s works. Readers got cheap books, publisher’s got rich, and the writers...well they became famous, but they didn’t earn a penny.

This phenomena is the starting point for Matthew Pearl’s latest novel The Last Bookaneer. I got a kick out of the title, but the title is just the start. For the last decade or so Mr. Pearl has been a master of the literary historical thriller, and his latest is no exception.

Near the end of the nineteenth century Pen Davenport is the most infamous bookaneer in the world. He will go anywhere and do almost anything to get his hands on the most wanted, and newest manuscripts. Soon an international treaty will be signed, and the bookaneers will be needed no more. For his last heist, Davenport decides to travel across the South Pacific, where a dying Robert Louis Stevenson labors to finish what many believe will be his greatest masterpiece. For the first time he will not be working alone, as he decides to include, or kidnap, depending on your point of view, the easy-going book-seller Edgar Fergins, to record this final adventure. Unfortunately for them, Davenport’s greatest rival, the fiendish Belial is also after Stevenson’s manuscript. The rest of the book is a smart and thrilling battle of wits as the two vie for literary treasure amid social and political upheaval in the wilds of Samoa.

If this were all there was to this book it would be good. As it is, there is a ton more. Mr. Pearl knows the era, and the conventions of the fiction of the period, and he honors them as often as he turns them on their head. Subplots and backstories abound, but they augment rather than hinder the main story-line, giving it richness and depth. The plot is smart and clever, and kept me on my toes the whole time. Stevenson and his family were enthralling, and Mr. Pearl gives us a deep and detailed world without slowing the pace. Of particular interest is his treatment of Samoa, which he brings to life with loving detail. The Island’s natives are also well-drawn, transcending the condescending way the European characters view them, to become strong deep characters, especially Vao and Tulagi.

The Last Bookaneer is more than just a clever literary thriller. Without stopping to lecture Mr. Pearl manages to touch upon the nature of creativity, and gives his bookaneers a surprising amount of depth and complexity to their philosophies and lives. I was particularly moved by Kitten, a bookaneer who is also the love of Davenport’s life. Her story, and her character were so strong and moving that I wanted more. Tie it all up with an surprising and satisfying ending and you have a novel worthy of Stevenson himself.

Review by: Mark Palm
Full Reviews Available at: http://www.thebookendfamily.weebly.co...
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Some books are to be tasted, others are to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. -Francis Bacon
No, I suppose you never heard of such a creature. -E.C. Fergins
For my children
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Back in my salad days laboring for the New York Center and Hudson River Railroad Company, I would always keep an eye out to see if he would enter our car before the hour of departure.
“Authors do not create literature; they are consumed by it.”
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As the 19th century draws to an end, two bookaneers are caught up in a colonial war on Samoa as they compete to steal Robert Louis Stevenson's last manuscript and make a fortune before a new international treaty ends the bookaneers' trade forever.

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