OK, I did not like this. But what makes it rare is that, unlike most books I don’t like, this one is actually well written. Handler can write a character sketch and spin a phrase.There’s even an effective twist that I still found fun/surprising at the end of the novel when I no longer cared about anything and just wanted to finish. He just can’t write a believable plot or acknowledge the reader can only spend so much time with blandly reprehensible characters.
Pirates alternates between fourteen year old Gwen Needle and her dad, Phil. At first, this seems like it is going to be a tale of oblivious father and teen angsty daughter at odds that eventually bond/appreciate each other. But it is quickly revealed that Phil is actually a passive misogynist prick who thinks the world is owed to him and cares very little of his family beyond the happiness / convenience they can supply him*. Gwen has more than average teen angst when the reader realizes that she actually does have shitty parents. Unfortunately, the sympathy this garners Gwen morphs to baffled disbelief when it turns out she basically has the psychosis of a school shooter and she starts knifing fools with impunity.
Back to Phil: The book spends a lot of words on this asshole. As his sliminess is further revealed, as his terrible outlook on women is explored, as his martyr complex deepens whilst he remains oblivious to his privilege… it’s too much. There’s only so much undeserved self pity I can handle. Whine whine whine. He never learns and his plotline is pointless and could be excised almost entirely from this already slim book.
And back to Gwen: As punishment for shoplifting, our heroine is forced to volunteer at an old folks home. She starts hanging out with a dementia-riddled old navyman and after borrowing all his old seafaring books, starts harboring fantasies of piracy…
…and assembles a ‘crew’.
…and steals a ship.
…and launches a revenge-crusade upon all that have wronged her by pillaging the San Francisco bay.
This is completely ridiculous.
She’s fourteen, not eight. The Bay** is tiny, what are you actually going to get away with? Why did anyone, other than the old man and best friend, possibly join her? Why is she suddenly capable of remorseless, senseless murder? Note to all readers, children, writers: Having a passive, non-dad does not make it okay to kill, nor is it reason enough to maintain reader empathy with a stone-cold killer.
And here lies the crux of the book, and why it does not succeed.
*There’s a sort of murky almost-theme about people being emotional pirates — pillaging other people’s feelings for their own gain. It’s not well explored but kind of vomited up by Phil’s POV towards the end of the book.
**While it was pleasantly meta reading a book taking place on the 38 bus while riding the 38 bus, the novel does not do a good job of realizing San Francisco. Phil drives from LA to SF… and crosses the Bay Bridge (for plot convenience), which is in the east, not south. Despite living on the Embarcadero, Gwen does not know of the sea lions on Pier 39 until events in the book. Even Geary Street, the road that the 38 travels down is poorly described — Handler makes it quiet and seedy, and while it’s kind-of-maybe-slightly seedy at a few points, it’s bustling almost from beginning to end. Not quiet.