Mini Review: At The Point Of A Cutlass by Gregory N. Flemming

A nonfiction book review?  Rather uncharted waters we’re in, eh?  Well, not entirely, but it’s true that I rarely read a nonfiction book cover-to-cover.  But when this one arrived at my bookshop, my fearless manager/Captain said that he’d ordered them with me in mind.  Of course I had to see what manner of swashbuckling was contained therein.  Here are a few of my thoughts on Gregory N. Flemming’s lovingly-researched pirate narrative.

At The Point Of A Cutlass follows the thrilling adventures of Philip Ashton, an unlucky fella who was kidnapped from his fishing vessel by pirates, forced to serve on their ships of lost souls, and eventually marooned on a Caribbean island.

Even though I almost always prefer fiction over fact, At The Point Of A Cutlass had enough anecdotal detail to keep me interested.   Facts and figures and numbers get all jumbled up in my brain, but good characters make a story come to life.  And shiver my timers, were there some unbelievable individuals in this here yarn!   The wicked captain Edward Low was one such menacing figure – behaving so badly as to chop off and roast pieces of his captives’ faces!  Pirates always needed able-bodied men to replenish their crews, so talented sailors were just as valuable as gunpowder and fresh water when they looted a vessel.   Given Low’s vicious reputation, it’s understandable why Phillip Ashton didn’t manage to take the noble way out of his predicament upon being captured and forced into the lawless life.

I feel like maybe there wasn’t quite enough information about “the pirate capture, bold escape, and lonely exile of Philip Ashton” to fill an entire book. As a result Greg Flemming filled out the pages with various anecdotal details about key players in the nautical history of the same place and period.  I’m really not complaining, because too many pirate stories will never be a problem in my reading adventures. I actually found the chapters detailing Ashton’s personal journey less interesting than the information about the various pirate crews who terrified the American East Coast during the Golden Age of Piracy.

(I was also reminded, while reading, that Cotton Mather was a complete asshole and one of my least favorite figures in New England’s history.  Medical proficiency aside, that guy needed to stop.)

Flemming introduces his readers to ambitious captains; desperate escapees; adventurous priests; and some hapless pawns in the early 18th century’s war on piracy.  We revisit the gallows multiple times in the course of the book, and now I’ve added Nixes Mate Island – a gibbeting site right near my own Boston harbor – and Rhode Island’s “Gravelly Point” to my list of morbid places to visit.

Pirate Captain Edward Low. source

Reading about ruthless pirates marauding my own neck of the woods as they sailed between Newfoundland and the Caribbean Islands was very encouraging to my own ambitions.  I’m actually quite surprised that the pirates Low, Lowther, and Spriggs aren’t more notorious nowadays.  Their methods of “coercion” puts modern-day frat boys to shame: captives had to eat plats of wax candles and run the gauntlet until they agreed to sign the ships’ articles, and that’s only one of the least-disfiguring punishments they practiced.  Not necessarily my style, but pretty exciting stuff. My attention waxed and waned a little as the book’s style switched capriciously between character-driven adventure stories and different subjects.  Nonetheless, At The Point Of A Cutlass was a pretty fast read which I’d recommend to anyone who likes swashbuckling history and adventure stories.

Star Ratings:

Subject: **** (4 stars)

Pacing: *** (3 stars)

Key Figures: ***** (5 stars)

Wiring: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

(My thoughts on the book were originally posted on my blog.)

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Book Review: Deadweather And Sunrise (The Chronicles of Egg #1)

 

Alas and alack! My pile of Pirate Books To Tackle has grown so monstrous that I should have avoided starting a new series on top of everything. Usually I gravitate towards stand-alone books in my reading ventures, because life is too damn short. But several stalwart and fervent young readers of the 9-12 persuasion have recommended Geoff Rodkey’s series to me – especially on Pirate Fridays when I make a point to wear stripes and my little spyglass – so I figured it was high time I set off at full sail into The Chronicles Of Egg. There are three books currently available in the series, but I started at the beginning with Deadweather And Sunrise. Because even though I don’t like to read by no landlubberly rules, it’s sometimes best to start at the beginning. That’s just how stories work.

Here’s what awaited me in the New Lands, where lies the smelly island Deadweather – and other islands with varying stink-levels – sit surrounded by the Blue Sea:

Egbert is the youngest of three siblings, the only children on Deadweather island. His father runs the uglyfruit plantation with a keen eye for business and a thumping for anyone not pulling their weight. Most of the other employees are pirates who have come back from the sea missing large chunks of their anatomy. Egbert’s brother and sister (Adonis and Venus… I do not jest) also enjoy a spot o’ violence now and then. Meaning that they cause their little brother as much pain as possible whenever they get the chance. But, with a newfound enthusiasm for booklearnin’ and a begrudging acceptance of constant bruises, our earnest narrator isn’t ready to confine himself to growing old on Deadweather just yet. The island is a beloved rendez-vous for pirates, ruffians, and criminals who celebrate the unwashed life. It’s dirty and violent and overshadowed by a tall, sooty volcano. When Egbert’s father comes back from the volcano with something secret on his mind, the family hitches a pirate ship to Sunrise Island to have a chat with their lawyer.

The streets of Sunrise Island are clean and shining; the people are clean; and there’s this new thing called “tourism” gaining a lot of popularity. Egbert is shocked when his family is invited to stay with the wealthy Pembroke family at their beautiful estate. Mr. Pembroke is head of the mining business on the island, and we all know that money controls everything, so he’s pretty much The Man. Of course, Egbert quickly falls in love with Mr. Pembroke’s daughter, Millicent, who is spoiled but friendly and beats him soundly at croquet. It’s too bad that some dire aerodynamic circumstances remove Egg’s family from the surface of the map and spoil their fun.

After the Pembrokes’ hospitality runs suspiciously dry, Egg finds himself tossed about on the seas of adventure. Our much put-upon hero rapidly changes from a battered farmer’s son to a stowaway; a pirate captive; a castaway; and a treasure hunter. He has unpleasant encounters with mean little rich kids and dreadful pirates all in the space of one day. However, there are also moments of surprising kindness from other seemingly-scary pirate captains (and even scarier, but prettier, wealthy lasses). Egg makes friends with a kid who first tries to bite him to death, and finds out that he, himself, can be quite courageous when the need arises.

Egg’s pride and survival are at stake, so in this first volume of his adventures he has to roll with whatever punches life can throw at him. There’s treachery all over the place, and beautiful Sunrise might not be so different from the odious Deadweather island after all.

I had a rollicking good time reading Deadweather and Sunrise, mostly because it offered exactly what I expected. I don’t want to suggest that the plot was overly predictable, because it wasn’t. I had no idea what path the story would follow, and would have been surprised by the twists and turns even if I had some preconceived notions. I just mean to say that I wanted to read something funny and swashbuckling, with one adventure after another. I expected pirate jargon and a general dislike of bathtime. Cannon fire. Sand in uncomfortable places. Scurvy knaves robbing the rich and keeping it for themselves, because they’re scurvy knaves, damnit. I was satisfied on all accounts, with several instances of uproarious guffawing thrown in for good measure.

Geoff Rodkey can write an adventure story with a pace so fast you’ll get whiplash, while still laying on the gross-out details and snappy banter. The interactions between characters were lively and Egg’s internal narration was smart and sincere. It’s not a realistic story in the slightest, but that’s just fine. I appreciated the snide little nods to how thoroughly ridiculous industries like tourism and environmental exploitation can be, and I hope that the issue of mistreating indigenous people is developed further in the following volumes. That particular problem came off a little old-fashioned in Deadweather and Sunrise, but I have high hopes for the two other books which I haven’t yet had a chance to read. In this volume, the filthy rich and the grubby poor can be equally villainous and heroic, so that’s one edifying literary spyglass into the world’s weirdness, at least. That, and don’t believe everything a grown up tells you. Trust neither pirates nor parents.

With the imaginary setting and the jumble of 18th and 19th century details, the piles of misfortune which heaped themselves upon our fearless young fella took some Snicket-esque turns for the melodramatic now and then. Mix the Baudelaire siblings’ magnetism for misfortune with Jim Hawkins’ seafaring misadventures, and you’ve got The Chronicles Of Egg. You know what? I say huzzah to that! Sometimes you just want to get lost in the tumultuous seas of perilous adventures.

Deadweather and Sunrise was a thrilling, cutthroat adventure with enough sword-crossing to keep me itching for a fight. It was easy to root for Egg and his friends, so I’m pleased to know that the rest of the series was well underway before I started reading. The eleven year old lassie who first recommended The Chronicles of Egg to me was right to say that I would like it even though there were some gross bits, because the salty; smoky; sooty; smelly atmosphere was just the right setting for my favorite kind of pirate action. Humor of the light-hearted and gallows varieties combined for an entertaining yarn which would be perfect summer vacation reading material. Now go storm the shores of your local bookshop and set sail!

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 9 and up

Book Review: The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

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A great ensemble cast and a middle-school heist. I really wish Varian Johnson had written The Great Greene Heist while I was in middle-school, because it turns that joyless institution into the setting for some thrilling escapades.

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 9 and up

This was a fun, fast-paced book about navigating through the equally fraught realms of friendships and cons. Jackson Greene is a lovable swindler. His heists and schemes follow an ethical code and never stray too far from the realm of academic life. He’s the sort of wise-cracking scamp and rambunctious genius everyone wishes they could be – neither afraid to show his smarts nor ashamed to accept help when it’s needed. It was tons of fun to hang out with him and his crew as I read about their complicated quest to bend the rules and and serve some justice.

The nature of crime and corruption in The Great Greene Heist are low-key enough to save plenty of room for humor and misadventures. Jackson and Gaby de la Cruz used to be close friends – in fact, there was a chance they might become something more – but now they’re not talking, even though her brother Charlie is Jackson’s best friend. Things are awkward between them, but that doesn’t mean that Jackson can just stand by while a spoiled, smug scum-bag like Keith Sinclair rigs the student elections out of Gaby’s favor. Sure, Jackson’s sworn off cons ever since he got caught bending one too many of the school’s laws. But for a friend, even the risk to his own future security is worth the effort. Plus, it’s obvious after only a few pages that Jackson is at his best and brightest when planning something spectacular, splashy, and of questionable legality. It runs in the Greene family: from his grifter grandfather’s Code of Conduct to his ultra-cool older brother’s history of impressive plays. So he pulls together a team of the very best from each social sphere of Maplewood school, and prepares to pull one over the students and administration who think money can buy results away from the most dedicated candidate around.

A great ensemble cast can sell me on even the most questionable plot or writing, and this wasn’t even a very questionable book. Sure, some elements of the story could possibly be out of touch: I’m not sure if school elections and basketball games can really make or break someone’s social life anymore. An awful lot rides on new video games and rumors, while I don’t think middle-schoolers are quite so easy to impress nowadays. But I could suspend my disbelief and follow the hi-jinks with mirthful curiosity, because I liked how all the different characters played their parts. There’s that certain appeal in stories like Ocean’s Eleven, in which success rides on the combined efforts of a dynamic team. Drama from within, as strong personalities clash, amps up the stakes while keeping our emotional investment going strong. Since Jackson Greene’s various cons really only have an affect on peoples’ social, academic, and extra-curricular lives – there are no loaded guns or ticking bombs here – a lot was riding on the characters.

Luckily, it’s a really cool gang. These kids defy all sorts of stereotypes, while letting their weird interests and skills speak for themselves. There’s a trekkie techie with a secret crush on the school’s hottest cheerleader. And that cheerleader happens to be a “science goddess,” too. Charlie de la Cruz has reporting skills which keep him observant, while his sister’s devotion to what’s fair and right makes her the unequivocal best candidate in the school’s political race. New recruits include the small and fearless Bradley Boardman, and their necessary “bankroll,” Victor Cho. And everyone is necessary, because while Jackson Greene has more than enough charisma and smarts to go around, the heist he plans to pull will require teamwork, under-cover excursions, and some nifty gadgets.

Too bad not everyone’s as loyal as our hero. When Keith Sinclair and the school’s utterly despicable principal get wind that their own nefarious plans are at risk from this colorful crew, they set out to shut down operations. It was easy to root for Jackson’s team as events lead to a complicated and satisfying denouement at the school dance. The omniscient point of view lets the reader see the injustices going down in shady offices and in abandoned hallways, so when things threaten to go south for our heroes I couldn’t help cringing in anticipation. But these kids are smart, they’re funny, and they’ll not give up easily.

The Great Greene Heist is a great example of how a story can be thoughtfully diverse and also full of mainstream appeal. I particularly enjoyed how they took advantage of the fact that adults rarely take kids as seriously as they should, turning some teachers’ innate racism and condescension against them. There’s a great scene in which the secretary can’t tell the difference between Asian boys, so it’s her own fault when they trick her with some absurdly easy disguises. Kids tricking grown-ups never gets old, especially when that sort of casual profiling happens all the time to young people who deserve much better. Cultural differences are recognized and celebrated, but no one acts as a “token” attempt at diversity. Even though it’s not a long book, each character had their own clear motives, worries, and full personalities. They just are how they are, and they look how they look, and they’re too busy taking over the school to worry about it.

All in all, this was a fun book which manages to make middle-school life exciting. I think anyone going through those years of special misery would love Jackson Greene’s swagger. He’s exactly the sort of person I wish I could have been back then. All the characters felt like my own group of friends by the end, and I hope we’ll see more of them in the future. I also want to read more about Jackson’s family and their history of adventures! His brother and grandfather had small roles, but totally piqued my interest. The easy writing style, fast pace, and memorable characters in The Great Greene Heist stole my attention completely. I highly recommend it to middle-schoolers looking for a fun and easy diversion, or even for strong readers in elementary school who need to psyche themselves up for the years ahead. If middle-school could only be half so exciting in real life.