We Are Pirates

By Daniel Handler

(Bloomsbury, $26, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Daniel Handler’s career reminds me of that line in The Eagles’ “Hotel California:” We are just prisoners here, of our own device.” In Handler’s case, his “prison,” and a lush and lucrative one it was, was his phenomenal success as Lemony Snicket, author of the wildly popular 13 books in his A Series of Unfortunate Events and  four-book series All The Wrong Questions, written ostensibly for young readers but embraced by many adult readers as well. Writing under his own name, Handler published four previous novels, The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, Adverbs, and Why We Broke Up., but none achieved the success of his Snickety work. Though he grew up in San Francisco, where he and his family now live, Handler has plenty of Connecticut connections: he is a 1992 Wesleyan University graduate and his wife, the illustrator Lisa Brown, is from West Hartford.

What is this book about?

Larceny on the high seas! Well, maybe not so high: it’s San Francisco Bay we’re talking about. Living in a condo overlooking the water is Phil, an unhappy husband, mostly-failed radio producer, dreamer of rebellion and fortune hunting and the confused father of Gwen, a 14-year-old with issues. Gwen is a good student, an accomplished swimmer and a basically good kid, but she too is bored stiff and longs for some adventure, even if it means becoming an outlaw. Then there is Gwen’s new pal, her best friend Amber’s grandpa, a cranky old guy in a nursing home who has unwillingly set sail, metaphorically speaking, to the dread Isle of Alzheimer’s, but with Gwen and Amber will soon set sail for real on a piratical adventure.

Why you’ll like it:

Handler has a terrific sense of humor and can mix the dark with the light with skill. This book combines family drama, a coming of age tale, a going into that good night tale and a swashbuckling adventure. You may not have read a good pirate story since Treasure Island, but avast there, mateys, and get on board with this one.  It’s a delightful voyage.

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “Life is a confused and confusing mess—but it still offers plenty of room for mischief, as Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, informs us. When you’re a kid, you don’t know which side is up half the time. Then you grow up, and you really don’t know. So it is with Gwen Needle, who’s taken on the nom de crime Octavia (a good one, Octavia having been an exceedingly bad noblewoman of ancient Rome). It’s not that Gwen/Octavia is evil; she’s just antsy: “Twelve and thirteen she was pretty happy….Then one day boredom just set upon her with a fierceness.” She’s also penniless, since Dad, an always-pitching radio producer, is always this far away from landing a deal. Popped for shoplifting, she’s sent off to a veterans’ home to do community service. There, she meets an old coot who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s—not yet full-blown, Gwen’s warned, though the patient is given to flights of fancy and strange thefts of his own. He asks her if she’s there for a school project, and when she answers that it’s punishment, he growls, “Good, I’m glad. I don’t like the school project kids. You know you’re going to die when they come at you with a tape recorder.” Meanwhile, Dad keeps hoping the heavens will part and he’ll finally get to do something interesting with his life, like be an outlaw—a dream his daughter, it seems, is living, along with a band of merry mates, the old coot among them. Handler is a master at depicting the existential chaos all his major characters are living through, and with warmth, sympathy and considerable humor at that. The reader will delight in Gwen and old Errol’s escapades, which involve plenty of jawboning but some good old-fashioned larcenous action, too, all of which affords her the street cred to say piratical things like, “You take one more step away and I’ll split your gullet” and “Totally verily.” Affecting, lively and expertly told. Just the sort of thing to make grown-ups and teenagers alike want to unfurl the black flag.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Why do pirates appeal? Because, as 14-year-old Gwen Needle puts it, when you’re a pirate, you can “go anyplace” and “do whatever you want.” Compelling ideas to Gwen and her friend Amber, whose supervised lives—Gwen is not even allowed to take the bus alone—are the opposite of pirate freedom. The pirate lore comes from Amber’s grandfather, Errol, who’s just as trapped, in his case by Alzheimer’s and an old-age home he loathes. While Gwen and Amber visit Errol and plot kidnap and ruin together, Gwen’s father, Phil, tries to make it big in radio, which might be consolation for a wife who doesn’t like him much, a house he can’t afford, and a very angry daughter. Can a couple of teenagers, a befuddled old man, and a nursing home orderly really steal a boat and wreak havoc in San Francisco harbor? Sure, says Handler, crossing and mixing genres—dark and light, YA yarn and midlife doldrum—while making readers root for his 20th-century privateers. The book never quite decides how serious it wants to be, becoming dark when the adventure turns violent, then shirking some of the consequences of that darkness, but it does offer a jaunty and occasionally jolting, and honest take on the discomforts of youth, midlife, and old age, and how ineffective we are at dealing with them.”

The Independent on Sunday (UK) says: “Sails against readerly expectation to brilliant effect. Gloriously cut loose from much in the current book market, We Are Pirates is a pirate adventure for grown-ups set in modern-day San Francisco . . . It is a swashbuckling, wonderfully eccentric message in a bottle for those seeking a social order beyond the realm of traditional authority . . . Handler’s yarn, replete with as many twists and turns as the classic pirate stories, captivates from start to finish, but it is his stylistic exploration of the piratical yen for elsewhere which most cleverly shanghais the imagination.”

“A witty adult novel by Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler . . . . Lemony Snicket’s gothic humor lingers over this tale of upper-middle-class despair . . . [A] dark and whimsical novel . . . Yes, we are pirates, but we’re chained on barren land. Has that theme ever been explored in such a weird mixture of impish wit and tender sympathy?” says the Washington Post .

“Exuberant . . . Handler’s a master with language, crafting showstopping sentences that are fresh and funny . . . [He gives] everything the feel of legend, a story burnished with each retelling, and gleaming with rich moral lessons . . . Although the novel is a raucously funny adventure, it’s also a tragic exploration of the restlessness in all of us, of the ways we want to claim our happiness like buried treasure that might change everything. We Are Pirates is about how we try to forge our own destinies, and if we’re lucky, become heroes of our own stories,” says author Caroline Leavitt in her San Francisco Chronicle review.

Says Library Journal: “As the Huffington Post says, “If it’s possible to be criminally underrated yet also be a millions-selling author, then Handler is it.” He’s world famous as Lemony Snicket, but not everyone remembers that his last adult book, Adverbs (2006), won considerable praise for being both formally experimental and emotionally arresting. Here, conscientious-to-a-fault 14-year-old Gwen follows her dreams, rounding up a motley crew and becoming a pirate who spreads terror on San Francisco Bay. “

When is it available?

You can dig up this treasure at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.