We Are Pi­rates by Daniel Han­dler, Blooms­bury USA, 288 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Robert Ker

Daniel Han­dler is one of the most in­flu­en­tial au­thors of re­cent decades, although you may never have heard his name. As Lemony Snicket, how­ever, his “A Se­ries of Un­for­tu­nate Events” books have sold by the truck­load and set a prece­dent for young adult and chil­dren’s nov­els that still res­onates to­day. En­tire shelves of book­stores are filled with se­ries that bor­row Snicket’s quirky lan­guage and mis­chievous, know­ing tone to great suc­cess.

Snicket’s se­ries was pub­lished be­tween 1999 and 2006. Be­fore and since that span, Han­dler pub­lished books un­der his own name that gar­nered some ac­claim but didn’t achieve any­thing close to rak­ing in the for­tune that “Un­for­tu­nate Events” did. How­ever, his 2011 young-adult book, Why

We Broke Up , earned him a Michael L. Printz Honor for teen lit­er­a­ture and was swiftly picked up for film adap­ta­tion.

His lat­est book, We Are Pi­rates , harks back to his first pub­lished work, 1998’s The Ba­sic Eight . That manuscript re­port­edly scared off pub­lish­ers due to its overly dark tone in de­scrib­ing the life of a teenage girl. If it had been his first novel, We Are Pi­rates might have done the same. It’s about a teenage girl named Gwen, who works out her angst by tak­ing to the high seas of the San Fran­cisco Bay Area in a makeshift pirate ship with her best friend and a mot­ley crew of mis­fits for the pur­poses of plun­der­ing un­sus­pect­ing ves­sels. This story runs along­side that of Gwen’s fa­ther, who ex­pe­ri­ences a cri­sis at a turn­ing point in his ra­dio-pro­duc­ing ca­reer.

What could be con­sid­ered de­light­fully macabre in the “Un­for­tu­nate Events” nov­els comes off as merely mean-spir­ited here. What could be con­sid­ered glee­fully gothic when writ­ten for chil­dren is mostly de­press­ing when the dark edge takes on more ex­plic­itly mor­bid shad­ows for an older au­di­ence. He leaves lit­tle doubt that he holds af­fec­tion for his char­ac­ters, but the act of read­ing this book is not a joy­ful one — even be­fore the pirate voy­age shifts from whim­si­cal fan­tasy to a vi­o­lent re­al­ity.

Han­dler does have a pe­cu­liar way of con­vey­ing the world — which is his great­est strength, but it’s also a weak­ness. Of Gwen’s fa­ther, for ex­am­ple, Han­dler writes, “He was a land­lub­ber, with no sea legs even in his own house, and his daugh­ter, his baby, was storm­ing in the next room, un­hinged, unan­chored, and grounded.” The re­lent­less­ness of this kind of phras­ing and his scat­ter­shot de­tails makes the book un­usual, but it also holds read­ers at a dis­tance, for­bid­ding them from con­nect­ing to the char­ac­ters.

It’s also hard to thread the nee­dle when you’re us­ing ob­tuse and ec­cen­tric lan­guage to tell a story that in­cludes miss­ing chil­dren, mur­der, Alzheimer’s dis­ease, and is­sues of gen­der and race. Han­dler has had re­cent trou­ble with the lat­ter of late, hav­ing made taste­less jokes while hon­or­ing AfricanAmer­i­can writer Jacqueline Wood­son at the 2014 Na­tional Book Awards (he has since apol­o­gized and do­nated con­sid­er­able sums to the non­profit We Need Di­verse Books). In We Are Pi­rates , the au­thor’s om­nipresent nar­ra­tor adds to the book’s un­even tone with quirky and know­ing asides through­out, in­clud­ing when he di­rectly in­forms his au­di­ence that nearly ev­ery­one in the book is white. This book is the lat­est in a se­ries of un­for­tu­nate events for him.

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