Reading vs. Research: Pirate Edition (and a reading list)

This is yer Captain speaking.  We’ll be taking a quick break from the folklore and fairy tales for this very important compendium of pirate and nautical literature I compiled a while ago.  I’ve attempted to make clear the distinction between books I read for fun and books which are research, but those lines keep crossing over themselves whenever I least expect it. This is by no means a complete list, but for anyone who wants to read some jolly swashbuckling tales or learn more about the Age of Sail, you might find something of interest.  Please comment with any recommendations, if you will!

One of two pirate shelves in my room.

As if my poor brain wasn’t taxed enough trying to keep books I just want to enjoy separate from books full of information I need to understand, there are certain times when I think I’m just reading something for fun, only to realize that I ought to be taking notes for a novel or story I’ve got in the works. And there are times when the opposite is true: I expect to learn a lot from a book and then I close it hours later having had a jolly time between the pages, but I’m no more educated than I was when I started. I’m going to try and explain this distinction using some of the books I’ve read or researched on the subjects of piracy and maritime history/adventure, because no time spent reading about scurvy knaves and mutinous plots is time wasted.

1. Black Jacks: African American Seamen In The Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster = RESEARCH

This book is full of exactly the sort of information I desperately needed to figure out for the Middle Grade novel I’m writing. The author did a phenomenal amount of research, and has peppered his facts and figures with some truly excellent anecdotes of brave seafaring escapes and daring (well deserved) rebellions. It’s an exciting book, but definitely a history text instead of a fast-paced narrative. I doubt I’ll end up reading every page of Black Jacks, as it’s due back at the library soon, but will probably end up skipping around to all the passages which talk about black pirates specifically. That being said, there are some history buffs, nonfiction readers, and salty souls out there who could probably get through this book as a weekend’s reading. It’s written well and super interesting, and I do heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in this most worthy of subjects. If my own word is not enough for ya’ (and why should it be? I want to steal boats for a living!), here’s an article about an inmate who was imprisoned for bank robbery, but got inspired by Black Jacks to work towards a goal of eventually becoming a sailor, as the sea had always called to him.

Source: Washington Post

My weather-beaten and unfeeling heart was warmed near to cooking when I saw that W. Jeffrey Bolster and Gregory White had kept in touch throughout his incarceration, and that this fellow sea-rover had realized his dream of freedom at last. Good stuff, eh? That’s one of the most uplifting true stories I’ve read in a while. Three cheers for books, for the sea, for Gregory White, and for the long list of Black mariners from centuries past who are getting attention at last! Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah!

2. Powder Monkey by Paul Dowswell = READING TURNED RESEARCH

I took this one off my nautical shelf after I finished reading Bird because I needed to get myself back into pirate-mode but I still wanted to get lost in some good children’s fiction. Powder Monkey is a novel for young people, though I’d not readily give it to any youngsters who are too faint of heart as it’s bloody and historically accurate in its grim portrayal of the 19th century Navy life. I thought this book would be a gripping adventure, and was thus prepared to get fully absorbed in the shipboard drama and perilous environment which I so adore in my favorite books about Naval sailing ships. Powder Monkey seemed like a Young Adult foray into a genre which boasts excellent historical fiction like Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and Maturin series. There were plenty of similarities, to be sure, but Powder Monkey wasn’t quite so up-to-snuff in the plot and character divisions. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. On the contrary, I had a great time reading it, despite the many gruesome sights our poor young hero must face as a pressed lad helping to man a cannon in a time of war. The thing is, I think that I liked Powder Monkey so much because I expend an unusual amount of brain power worrying about press gangs and trying to figure out how a sextant works or what disaster would have to befall a person to warrant a hook for a hand. These are not necessarily the concerns of every young scamp. What might have been a somewhat less-than-inspiring quest for entertainment turned into a really exciting two days of research. Once I stopped grumbling to myself about the thin plot and started admiring Dowswell’s portrayal of life aboard the Miranda – not an easy life for a lad – I was happy to read Powder Monkey all the way through. Some of those harrowing facts and descriptions will haunt me for a good long while. I just wouldn’t press the book on a kid who wasn’t already interested in learning about the age of sail.

3. Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer = READING

Just read this book, you lubbers, and you can thank me later. This is everything a YA novel about the age of sail should be. It does provide a fairly faithful picture of life for a wayward ragamuffin at sea, but the story and – most importantly – the characters are so good that you won’t want to put the book down for a moment even to find a pen or look something up on Wikipedia. I’ve written a longer review of Bloody Jack here and can assure you all that it’s one of my top fifteen favorite books of all time. The following two books in the Jacky Faber series, The Curse of The Blue Tattoo and Under The Jolly Roger are also excellent, though the series gets a little drawn-out from there. No matter! Jacky Faber is one of the best narrators in children’s fiction, and the sort of scallywag I wish I could be. I re-read this first book frequently whenever I’m missing Bar Harbor, and while it certainly gets me keen to write my own pirate book, I’d absolutely call what I do “reading” instead of “research,” because I’m usually clutching at my heart in a fit of emotion or laughing way too hard to get any real booklearnin’ done from these adventures. Go and find this book right now. Captain’s orders.

4. On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers = READING

I bought this book years ago, when the pirate novel I was writing at the time bore very little resemblance to the book I’m working on now. I wanted to have a supernatural bent to my own story at the time, and maybe include the ghosts of some pirates past. Years went by, I read many a book which included real historical figures as characters and sent hapless young protagonists back in time, and I eventually decided to toss those notions overboard. Maybe when I was trying to fit ghosts and magic spells into my own story, On Stranger Tides might have had some useful information in it. But while it is definitely a thrilling and swashbuckling romp, the details of the plot must be taken with a whole fistful of salt. For one thing, there’s voodoo and magic. I love me some voodoo and magic – in fact, I write about them all the time! However, it’s important that we remember that most pirates terrorized the shores and sea without the assistance of talismans or curses. Even as far as superstitions go, Powers has definitely adjusted the historical facts to suit his narrative. And why shouldn’t he? This is storytelling, after all! I liked the supernatural aspects of On Stranger Tides just fine, but would not take anything I discovered from the story as historical inspiration unless I’d found some other trustworthy sources. There’s also the weird inclusion of very real pirates in the totally fictional story, which might be fun for some readers but never failed to trip me up. Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, Jack Rackham, and several of my other heroes make cameo appearances in On Stranger Tides, and whenever I encountered one of them I always wondered, “but what were they actually doing on that particular Wednesday?” These were real live ladies and gents of fortune, and it’s perfectly fine to fictionalize their lives to enrich the plot of a novel, but that makes the novel good for entertainment purposes only.

5. Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities by Terry Breverton = RESEARCH

This handy encyclopedia contains “a miscellany of the sea and all things nautical,” and it’s been a stalwart companion while I write. A good friend gave it to me for my birthday a few years ago, in Scotland, and she clearly knew me better than I knew myself because I don’t know how I would get through a chapter without it, now. The entries are brief and fascinating; it’s not exactly a complete account of every fact ever associated with the sea, but provides excellent inspiration when I’m wondering, what nautical fact could I throw into this chapter to make it more…briny? Breverton’s collection contains a whole list of Pirate Haunts And Targets; explanations of how common phrases originated from shipboard life; tiny biographies of impressive sailors, including scores of sea-dogs I’d never heard of before; and very helpful explanations of weapons from the Age of Sail, which I have consulted many a time this month. The chapter I’m working on right now deals with weaponry and I’m completely baffled by the amount of Things Designed To Kill You which existed back then. So thanks, Terry Breverton, for making my research so easy to tackle! This book is invaluable to my own research, but I promise you it would make an excellent gift for anyone who likes sea stories and/or random curiosities. Pages and pages of fun facts, I tell you! Amuse and impress your friends, enemies, and that person next to you on the ferry with obscure histories about doomed warships and the etymological origins of sea-slang. Or just give them Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities and they can amuse and impress themselves…

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Other pirate books to read for fun:

Pirates! by Celia Reese – Good historical fiction and girls kicking butt!

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates by Caroline Carlson – A jolly adventure for younger readers.

Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie – My favorite story in the history of stories.  Captain Hook is a classic.

Capt. Hook: Adventures of a Notorious Youth by J.V. Hart and illus. by Brett Helquist – Great twist on Captain Hook’s backstory.  Obstinate young scallywags causin’ all sorts of trouble.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – Another classic sea adventure.  Long John Silver is one of the best pirate characters in history.  I want to be him when I grow up.

Silver: Return To Treasure Island by Andrew Motion – I bought this in Edinburgh last year and still haven’t read it.  Once it’s summer I intend to re-read Treasure Island and then dive into this continuation.

A High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes –  Wildly under-appreciated novel about a pirate crew which ends up in charge of a bunch of children.  I get really excited about it here and even have it as one of my “staff picks” at the bookshop.

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton – Ridiculous but fun swashbuckling thriller.  Best taken with the same grains of salt as On Stranger Tides.

Other pirate books recommended for research:

If A Pirate I Must Be: The True Story Of “Black Bart”, King Of The Caribbean Pirates by Richard Sanders – I read this when I was in high school and Bartholomew Roberts has been one of my favorite pirates ever sense.  Entertaining story of an unbelievably cool captain.

The Republic Of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down by Colin Woodard – I think the subtitle says it all.  A rather sensationalized account of pirates and their enemies, but includes tons of great facts and talks about several important figures.

The Pirate Hunter: The True Story Of Captain Kidd by Richards Zacks – Whole book entirely about Captain Kidd, which was a gripping read but had tons of great information.  Helped me appreciate the sea shanty, too. 

Under The Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly – Real pirate adventures were sometimes even more bloody and thrilling than the myths Cordingly dispels.

A General History Of The Robberies And Murders Of The Most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson (pseudonym) 1724. – Excellent contemporary account of real pirates written during the Age of Sail.  Shows how the world pirates lived in viewed them and profiles some Captains best not forgotten.  This book is still in print today.

Easy-to-read history books which mention some admirable pirates:

Famous Last Words by Jonathan Green – A morbid and entertaining collection of the last thing people said before they died.  Includes some great 18th century zingers as well as criminal’s last declarations before being executed, tragi-comical accidents, and some rather touching examples too.

Badass by Ben Thompson – An entire book devoted to famous badasses from history, written by the fellow behind badassoftheweek.com.  Naturally there are plenty of sword-weilding action heroes from the sea as well as land.  Includes Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, and Lord Nelson, amongst others.  You can read an old review I wrote of it here.

Princess Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie – Each chapter is about a princess from history who decided to lead thrilling lives of ill-repute.  Includes lady pirates and generally inspiring role models for every young lass who likes sporting a crown and a cutlass in equal measure.

There are plenty more books on the subject which I recommend, and infinitely more which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.  Only last week I was at a bookstore in Central Square which had a whole little section devoted to Nautical resources!  As you might imagine, my inner pirate capered throughout the shelves in jubilation.

2014-03-01 13.36.42

By the time I’m finished writing this damned book, I’m sure that there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of additions to this list.  Some books will be full of shocking facts, others with thrilling stories, and undoubtably some with appallingly bad writing.  To all of the above, I say huzzah!  Bring it all on, me hearties, because there’s a lot I still don’t know about seafaring life.  The only solution is to keep on reading.

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Archived Review: Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on July 4, 2011

Star Ratings
Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character Development: **** (4 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Writing: ***** (5 stars)
Overall: ****1/2 (4 ½ stars)
Age Range Recommendation: Ages 13 and up.

As the intrepid reader could probably figure out from the cover of this YA novel and its title, Bloody Jack has something to do with pirates.  Therefore, one can only deduce that I absolutely love it (and I do!).  However, Bloody Jack by L.A. Mayer does not follow the roving adventures of a pirate crew.  The main protagonists are, in fact, pirate-hunting members of the English Navy in the end of the 18th century.  More specifically, the main character and her comrades are lowly ships boys on the HMS Dolphin, and although I traditionally spurn the actions of pirate-hunters I do make an exception for this book because it is bloody amazing.

Bloody Jack begins in the rancid streets of London, where the narrator, Mary Faber, is a street urchin in a gang of beggar children.  Their main problems include hiding from a nasty fellow called Muck, who wants to sell their bodies to a doctor for dissection, and avoiding violent gangs made up of other urchins.  When Rooster Charlie – the leader of Mary’s gang – is found dead, she steals his clothes and disguises herself as a boy so that she can be left alone as she wanders London looking for a way towards a better life.  This better life is sought aboard the HMS Dolphin amongst some other rag-tag children as a ship’s boy, although there is a pressing problem of being discovered as a girl on the close quarters of a ship.  At this point, Mary changes her name to Jacky Faber and she and the other ship’s boys set sail for adventure.

The title of the book, “Bloody Jack,” comes from the nickname bestowed by the crew upon “Jacky” after she shoots a pirate in the chest during a raid.  As she insists so adamantly in her narration time and time again, Jacky is not actually brave at all.  She was just trying to save the boy for whom she harbored a very very very secret affection.  The adventures in this book are daring and impressive; there’s a good amount of violence and even more suspense.  However, my favorite parts of the story are Jacky’s adorable and funny descriptions of daily life aboard the HMS Dolphin.  She includes the science and complications of maneuvering a huge vessel, the cruelties inflicted upon ship’s boys by the bo’sun and midshipmen, and the horrors of trying to disguise one’s gender when puberty hits with full force.  Her narration is by turns funny, sweet, tragic, and biting; her description of the sound the bos’un’s whistle makes had me laughing like an idiot in Starbucks, only to have me trying to disguise my sorrow by pretending to choke on a donut soon after when she tells her mates not to to watch her if she is hanged because she doubts she’ll be very brave at the end.

I recommend Bloody Jack to anyone over 13 years of age for two specific reasons.

Reason Number One: I first read the book when I was twelve or so, and while I heartily enjoyed it some of the references to things like prostitution and other such wantonness went a little over my head.  A huge plot point involves Jacky going through puberty and not understanding what is happening to her, and this is much funnier once the reader does know what is going on.  In the second half of the story there is a bit of romance, and although I’m not going to give much of anything away, Jacky makes a few amusing statements which would be better understood by teenagers.  She is, at that point in the book, around the age of fifteen.

Reason Number Two: There are some seriously dark themes in this story.  At one point, Jacky stabs a member of the crew who tries to rape her, and this is why she’s terrified that she’ll be hanged.  There’s death a-plenty, even amongst the children, and the pirates they are hunting turn out to be incredibly cruel scoundrels.  Jacky describes in detail a time during her life in London when a teenage girl was hanged for criminal charges and wasn’t heavy enough to die immediately, and the portrayal of how the hangman breaks the girl’s neck is certainly not for the faint of heart.

Jacky’s voice is addictive and memorable, I found myself thinking in her style of speech for days after I finished the book, and L. A. Meyer writes so convincingly as a thirteen year old girl that it can be hard to remember that he’s a Navy veteran in his 60s.  The writing never ceases to be entertaining, even when the plot takes a turn for the far-fetched.  At one point Jacky finds herself flying over the ocean strapped to a kite, which I suppose could be technically possible but was certainly hard to picture.  However, these little deviations from the realm of realism never once impede the story’s progress.  The depictions of 18th century seafaring life are accurate without being pedantic; we learn about ships as Jacky does and she never fails to see the HMS Dolphin in a humorous light.  Unlike in Patrick O’Brian’s novels, which are also very good, the reader doesn’t need to keep a diagram of a ship handy (although there actually is one in the front of Bloody Jack.)  This being a book originally for children, things are presented clearly and amusingly, and it’s easy to feel as though the life of a ship’s boy is totally where it’s at.

There is a whole slew of Jacky Faber novels, the second of which is called The Curse Of The Blue Tattoo.  I shan’t mention the plot of the sequel as it contains massive spoilers for Bloody Jack, but it’s almost as good as the first book.  Although Bloody Jack comes from the point of view of a teenage girl, I would recommend the book to anyone who likes sea-faring adventures and anyone who likes coming-of-age stories which are both uproariously funny and deadly serious.

In a week your devoted Morgan shall be voyaging up to an island in Maine to stay in the town where Bloody Jack was written.  I go there every year and I’ve met Meyer’s wife a few times.  She works in the shop which sells his paintings, which are marvelous and very nautical.  I will think of you fondly during my adventures, dear readers, and I will wish very hard that my life were as awesome as that of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy on the HMS Dolphin.