We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler | February 2015 | Bloomsbury | $26.00
A boat has gone missing. Goods have been stolen. There is blood in the water. It is the twenty-first century and a crew of pirates is terrorizing the San Francisco Bay.
Phil is a husband, a father, a struggling radio producer, and the owner of a large condo with a view of the water. But he’d like to be a rebel and a fortune hunter.
Gwen is his daughter. She’s fourteen. She’s a student, a swimmer, and a best friend. But she’d like to be an adventurer and an outlaw.
Phil teams up with his young, attractive assistant. They head for the open road, attending a conference to seal a deal.
Gwen teams up with a new, fierce friend and some restless souls. They head for the open sea, stealing a boat to hunt for treasure.
I really struggled to get through this one — and, in fact, didn’t. Finish it, I mean. The only reason I even tried to finish it is because it is only 280-something pages. But… nope.
Here’s the thing: I’ve seen a few negative reviews that compare the author’s Lemony Snicket works to this one. But how can that be fair? Those are fantastical books for kids. This is realistic fiction for adults. Apples and oranges. I’m starting to understand why J.K. Rowling chose to publish her grown-up books under pen names. People can’t help but judge what someone has written in comparison to their previous works, no matter how silly the comparison is.
I bring this up because I haven’t read the Lemony Snicket books. I have nothing to compare the author’s latest offering to. And I still didn’t like it.
A big, big part of what made me put We Are Pirates down, never to be picked up again, is the writing style. We’re talking lots of short, chopped up sentences within rambling stream-of-consciousness-y paragraphs. I have never particularly loved this style of writing.
Here’s a sample (and yes, it really is all in one big paragraph like this):
Phil Needle looked out to sea but was distracted by his own face in a photograph sitting on top of the piano, among the ones of his ravenous wife and the little thief they’d conceived. He could not hear if Gwen was still crying down the hall. “She seems isolated,” he said finally, and got up without his cupcake or his wife. He walked through the kitchen and passed the office and the room where Marina did her painting and paused for a moment at the door to the bathroom. He walked very quietly on the carpet, but he could not hear anything when he got there. He could open the door, or knock on it, and in the small room try to hug her and make her feel better. She would be crying into those dumb towels. He could tuck her hair, again, behind her ears. But he had to decide on a punishment. She would be punished, and, or, also, maybe she hated him. So Phil Needle walked away and stood for a minute in the office doorway looking at the projection of the fake tree rattling against the fake window and the desk with the last of the invitations. On the other side of the wall, Gwen was still furious, with furious words on her hands, although of course Phil Needle did not know, and could not have known, the terrors on the horizon, the bloodshed and the ravaged citizens. And yet at that moment he might not have been surprised. He felt unready. He had raced home to face the alarums of trouble, stopping only for cupcakes, and then had not been able to make himself useful. He’d said nothing. He’d ruined his wife’s diet. He […]
I don’t know… if that quote looks appealing to you, maybe you’ll enjoy this book?
I was also pretty regularly confused. Wait, who is our POV character right now? What is going on? What is the meaning of all this?!?! This is probably a failure of attention on my own part, but there you have it. The book was just not holding my attention.
Add to this the extremely self-centered, boring, petty characters and you have a recipe for a bad book. I’m not whining about how the characters are “unlikable” — I mean, yeah, they are, but that’s not the point. The point is that they aren’t actually interesting.
Going with 2 stars instead of 1 because (a) despite my being bored by the characters, Handler really works hard to make the reader feel immersed in realistic, believable people’s brains and (b) that 1 star thing is usually reserved for books I outright dislike, and I’m merely disappointed in this one.
It’s really too bad, because I had very much been looking forward to reading this! The book was favorably reviewed in trade pubs (Kirkus calls it “affecting, lively, and expertly told” and the PW review actually uses the word “jaunty”). I loved the concept and the cover art and Daniel Handler has a pretty good reputation.
Maybe the exception to that good reputation is his distasteful joke at the expense of National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson this past December. I mean, Handler is obviously well-liked enough to have been invited to help host the event, but he definitely put his foot in his mouth and soured the occasion. I do think he apologized magnificently, though, with his massive donation to We Need Diverse Books, a group that supports writers of color and books featuring characters of color (and similarly underrepresented groups).
So in an effort to end this negative review on a positive note, I want to point y’all in the direction of We Need Diverse Books!
Publication information: Handler, Daniel. We Are Pirates. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. EPUB file.
Source: Provided by publisher via NetGalley.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.