Adventure Book Reviews: Testing the travel writer waters

After working with Julie to self publish her two books, Between a Rock and a White Blaze and The Trail Life: How I Loved it, Hated it, and Learned from it, I finally dove in and checked up on some of the competition. Also, after paying seemingly ever-increasing Kindle prices for major publisher house books (think Penguin or Random House), I also wanted to try some of the lower cost alternatives.

First was a book that I picked up on our Kindle from hiker Bill Walker, author of trail books on the AT and the PCT that continuously show up on Julie’s Amazon page as books that are often bought along with Julie’s books. I had them on my Wishlist for awhile and one day, both of his books were on special and were given away for free. I took them – and then didn’t read them…until a 13 hour flight home from Seoul, Korea. Based on the changing time zones and jetlag, I purposely wanted to stay awake for the entire flight. So I started reading Bill Walker’s AT book, Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. And I didn’t stop until I finished it a few hours later.

As a hiker that has completed the AT twice, the book was a fun read and a walk down memory lane in many ways. It is easy reading and I appreciate his attempts at humor, even if sometimes he goes a little too far for my tame tastes. I also appreciate that he hiked the entire trail and was generally a positive voice throughout.

Having been involved in shaping and editing trail books, I found many of the same issues arising that Julie and I have struggled with. For one, while his story starts out with some layering and clever writing, it seemed to level out as it progressed, finishing up with a simple, linear story that seemed to push towards the finish like a push to a trail town – not as much thought but more brute effort to get it done. I also found character development as a difficult task yet again. In writing non-fiction narratives about personal experiences, there is a fine line to walk with developing the main character adequately without dragging the book down in the author’s uninteresting personal details. The art of accomplishing this is difficult and apparent in Skywalker’s tale. He’s a 40+ year old man, apparently single, divorced, bachelor, bisexual – there is no mention of it. Without this information, it seems strange to read about him commenting on young women on the trail. Great that he’s attracted to them, no problem there, but without some background on him in this department, I struggled to appreciate his attention paid to young ladies. Similarly, he provided his work background and some info on his travel, but not enough to have a clear picture of how he was able to hike. He mentions living with his mother. Is he broke? Is he helping her? Maybe just frugal? As a reader, we want to have pertinent information to decide how we judge the characters. Is he a hero or is he a slacker? Is he Don Juan or is he creepy old guy hitting on girls way too young for him? It’s a challenge with writing these types of works and Skywalker has his troubles here – like many of us do.

However, in the second adventure book I read, Breaking Seas: An overweight, middle-aged computer nerd buys his first boat, quits his job, and sails off to adventure by Glenn Damato, he nailed it when it comes to character development in a personal narrative adventure book. He had me rolling with laughter as he described himself as the opposite of a lady’s man, 5’5”, fat, nerd, etc. He did it in an artful and tactful manner that avoided insincerity, came across as honest, yet not overly heavy or burdensome. He also was able to craftily weave his character development throughout the story breaking up the flow so it wasn’t a bogged-down, boring, linear story.

Breaking Seas is a story about a 41 year old single guy that, after giving up on his dream of marriage and kids, decides on his second big life goal: sailing around the world in his own sail boat, even though he has no experience with sailing. Many have probably heard me spouting off about how this is also one of my big life ambitions; it was high time I read about someone that actually did something about it. The story progresses perfectly for someone like me, little sailing background needing lessons and likely to learn the hard way. He takes lessons, buys a boat, fixes it up, and plots his course. There is good character development in describing his crew (I wonder if he got their permission/approval for telling their stories and if he changed their names?). There is suspense, drama, and some good stories of cruising on the open seas.

But man is it hard to make the narrator totally likeable when in fact the story is a true story and the facts are the facts. Without spoiling the book, Glenn’s finish to his journey is a letdown in many ways and though he spins a nice story of why he’s successful and why he’s fine with criticism, I was still disappointed. I felt that many of the things that he seemed to believe were out of his control or just his nature were more excuses than anything else. I really liked the guy, I liked the story, but in the end, he wasn’t the hero we all wanted. While he made a good attempt at being the hero and gave some philosophical insight at the end as to why he could still be the hero, he unfortunately fell short.

I feel like there is a lot to learn from reading these guys’ books, not only about life and adventures, but also with how to craft enjoyable self narrative adventure stories. They’re inspiring, they motivate me to keep adventuring, and to continue thinking about how I can challenge myself and my perspectives. This is a reason that a market for these types of books exists and I’m happy for this; I’m also glad Julie likes writing our story to share with adventure lovers. These books are also good reminders about how to craft a story. Damato did a solid job in this department while Skywalker struggled, especially as the book progressed. In the end, the biggest challenge with these types of books is that they’re true and most of us aren’t always the hero that everyone wants us to be. Maybe by keeping the idea in mind that our lives are indeed stories and potential works of art, we all can try to live like heroes more often. It sounds like something to strive for.

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