Thursday, August 20, 2015

Duty and a pile of coconuts

I've enjoyed a number of books about the great and not-so-great explorers who ventured into the unknown.  While there's certainly a romantic idea of being the first to see new lands and bring back great discoveries, more often than not the intrepid explorers faced dangers and incredible hardship in inhospitable places, and some were never heard from again.  For me, any thought of exploration kinda loses it's allure when the food runs out!  Even when expeditions were successful, the explorers didn't always return to fame and glory, but at least some got to sail in beautiful places like the south Pacific.  And I remember hearing in several of these books about "the mutiny on the Bounty."

While I was reading The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander, I was surprised that no one I mentioned it to had heard of it.  I remember seeing a book about it years ago and I know several movies have been made over the years, but apparently it's not one of those bits of trivia most bother to remember.  In 1789, Lieutenant William Bligh sailed the Bounty, with its crew of 46, to the beautiful island of Tahiti.  He'd been there before with Captain James Cook, but now his goal was commerce: he was to obtain breadfruit plants to start plantations in the West Indies.  Bligh was a conscientious captain who looked out for the health and welfare of his men, even while insisting upon order.  Unfortunately, a combination of combustible personalities, the beauty of Tahiti and its women, and a pile of stolen coconuts led to a mutiny that left Bligh and 18 of the sailors abandoned on the rough seas in a very small boat.  It was so heavily loaded that even small waves broke over the sides, and it seemed a certain death sentence.

But Bligh managed to sail this tiny boat and crew for 3,500 nautical miles (over 4,000 land miles) through violent storms and open ocean (with almost no food!) to a safe harbor.  Even more incredible was that only one man died, and that was in a clash with unfriendly natives.  News of this amazing feat and the eventual court martial of most of the mutineers who were apprehended a few years later in Tahiti, was talked about for decades.  Some were hanged for their crimes, but Fletcher Christian, the one who led the mutiny, was never seen again.

But the story doesn't end there.  With savvy legal help, two of the mutineers managed to get pardons from His Royal Majesty, and several of the families involved worked hard to change the narrative of the incident.  Bligh's temper and salty language – particularly over the stolen coconuts – was soon blamed for inciting the mutiny.  But Caroline Alexander sorts through the facts and weaves a surprisingly interesting tale of the challenges of living on a small ship in a big ocean – and even tells what happened to Christian.  And it's a very detailed story, with so much information that I found it slow reading in the beginning.  Before long, however, I was caught up in it and couldn't put it down.  She even tells where Christian and the others ended up, and what became of the community they established.  The maps and illustrations were great to help follow the story, but I wished it had included a list of the 46 men on the ship and their positions at the beginning, since it was hard to tell them all apart.  The extensive detail and backstory might put some readers off, but in spite of a slow start it turned out to be a great summer read.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The end of the world is fun

Fun to read about, that is.  (And no, I'm not talking about the Book of Revelations.)  People in the publishing industry have been saying dystopian books have run their course and we're moving on to realism  the contemporary kind of realism of John Green (not me, of course) who writes of nerds and cancer.  Perhaps, although every once in a while I run across a dystopia that falls in the "guilty pleasures" category, such as The Living by Matt De La Peña.  (If you were paying attention you downloaded a free audio version of it a few weeks ago.)

Shy, a Mexican-American kid from a small border-town near San Diego, is working on a cruise ship and earning good money. He's still dealing with his grandmother's recent death from Romero's Disease when a drunken guest approaches him near the railing.  They talk for a few moments, but before Shy knows what's going on, the man jumps overboard. Shy tried to hold on to his sleeve, but the man seemed intent on ending his life. But on the next cruise, a mysterious man in a suit wants to know exactly what the guy said to Shy before he jumped. But none of that matters when the ship is hit by a huge tsunami and he's fighting for his life... or does it?

Don't get me wrong: I had some problems with this book. First, the story is very predictable  it was hard NOT to see where it was headed almost from the beginning. Second, the profanity is pretty bad (and really stands out in the audio version). Plus, it drags when Shy and Addy  the snotty rich blonde girl (of course, you knew there had to be one)  are adrift on a raft, fending off sharks and trying to survive. And yet, in spite of all that, I couldn't stop listening. It's heavily plot-driven but the action kept me hooked.  Surprisingly, the characters are mostly well-developed and likeable. de la Pena is a pretty good storyteller.

In fact, when I saw an advance copy of book 2, The Hunted, on Amazon Vine, I jumped on it.  And in the interest of not giving away any spoilers, I'll only say that Shy and his friends finally reach Los Angeles and now face a city that has descended into chaos.  The government has walled off California and the people have set up zones to prevent the spread of thieves and disease. It wasn't as good as the first book even though it was less predictable (in some ways), but still a fun read. Some of the characters (Carmen, especially) seem less well-developed than in the first (she's almost a caricature), and aren't as likeable, but the 'dystopian' aspect of the series comes through more here than in the first one. It was still enough fun that I breezed through it in a few days.

So, if the end of the world is still fun for you, give Matt De La Peña a try.