FLETCHER OF THE BOUNTY
by Graeme Lay
(Fourth Estate, $37)
Reviewed by Siobhan Harvey

Fletcher Christian, infamous mutineer of HMS Bounty, is a man much mythologised. Legions of history books, including the applauded Caroline Alexander's The Bounty (2003), have pored over his endeavours and motivations.

Movies have employed the talents of actors such as Marlon Brando, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn to portray him as hero and villain alike. He's also had starring roles in fictions by authors Val McDermid, Peter Hamilton and Laurie Lee. Like many whose fame - or infamy - has become the stuff of modern legend, such portrayals have turned the real Christian into an allegory: the rebel exiled for standing up to injustice.

New Zealand author Graeme Lay has already penned a successful trilogy of historical novels about enigmatic seafarer James Cook. As these and his back catalogue of books prove, Lay is a master of understanding the Pacific, its people, and its past. Now, he's turned his hand to composing a novel about Christian's life, Fletcher of the Bounty; it's a natural fit.

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Rather than replicating the lionized depictions of Christian, Lay has fashioned him as a human being the reader can believe in, a man of weakness and worry as much as flair. His thwarted hopes of following his siblings to university; his years of service as stablehand to his wealthy relatives; his dreams of adventure realised; his exile and passion: Lay's story is invested with intrigue and compassion, not to mention a saga to match the Odyssey. Along the way, life's big themes - obstruction, aspiration, freedom, rebellion, passion - abound.

This is also a book stronger for Lay's thorough research. His Christian is persuasive in detail, event and setting. Whether it's Cumbria, the Isle of Man or Tahiti; whether it is Christian's school meeting with Wordsworth or the impact of Cook's death upon his aspirations, the author's understanding of the minutiae of his subject's life is clear without ever being obvious or burdensome upon the narrative flow.

There are minor inconsistencies an editor's eye should have picked up: for instance, Christian's imagined 1793 musings on the cirrus cloud wouldn't have been possible, for Father of Meteorology, Luke Howard, didn't publish his Essay on the Modifications of Clouds until 1803. Nothing to deter readers, though.

With his latest, Lay taps into a superb literary seam. The late UK author Douglas Reeman (pseudonym Alexander Kent) proved the popularity of historical novels involving naval life. Combining all the adventure, personality and history of such books, Fletcher of the Bounty is a real gem.

GWENDY'S BUTTON BOX
by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar
(Hodder & Stoughton, $26)
Reviewed by David Hill

This is the book as shelf ornament: hardback, handsome creamy paper, page frames, shaded black and white illustrations, large font, wide margins, extensive white spaces and just 160 pages. Make that the book as slim shelf ornament.

"By Stephen King and Richard Chizmar": I'd better declare my prejudices here. I know there's a long tradition of co-op workshops in the visual and performing arts but, in fiction, I always wonder if the contributing writers are admitting limited energy, ideas, skills, commitment or several of these.

I know Stephen King devotees across the planet will rise in wrath at the idea - I know the guy is a global brand as well as an author and that Chizmar also has had success in the horror/fantasy genres - but I found this novella both slight and saggy.

At a local playground, 12-year-old Gwendy Peterson meets a peculiar black-clad man reading Thomas Pynchon (naturally). He gives her a box which can destroy the world (naturally) because she is The One (same adverb).

Will Gwendy push the ultimate, black button? She spends 10 years deciding while she moves through middle school to college, sex, murder and a career as a novelist. She's a gutsy, mostly genuine, gifted teenager, and you'll get involved in her dilemmas of power versus responsibility.

Meanwhile, the mahogany, strangely lit box dispenses delectable chocolates and antique silver dollars, helps her parents stop drinking, lets her break limbs and win at cards. Oh, and it also assists Jim Jones to massacre his Guyana commune and sends nasty Frankie to rot in hell - literally.

But the authors don't seem to know what their story is meant to be. Comparisons to Nixon and Brezhnev with their deadly buttons come panting in. There are some neat comedic moments (where in the house do you keep a gift that can annihilate the Earth?) and some clunky, would-be profound moments ("The world is insane. You only have to watch the news to know that.").

Psychology and motivation are erratic, even absent. A lovely boyfriend gets his skull stoved in? Never mind; have another chocolate. The hyper-natural bits are best when left in the shadows. A black hat flying circuits around the heroine feels silly; the obligatory splintering-bone, disintegrating-flesh, exploding-head scene wallows. Gwendy veers towards and wants to be lots of things, but fades out short of them all.

THE WANDERERS
by Meg Howrey
(Scribner, $38)
Reviewed by Ethan Sills

Two questions sit at the heart of The Wanderers, the third novel from American writer Meg Howrey: how far are you willing to travel in order to find yourself and what exactly do you leave behind in the process?

Howrey is far from the first person to explore these ideas in fiction, yet by attaching them to a simulated mission to Mars, she has found new angles and depths in this familiar genre.

The characters are a half-dozen titular wanderers, who contend with being removed from their loved ones for 17 months. We spend most of our time with Helen, Sergei and Yoshi, the astronauts shoved together as part of the simulated mission, becoming increasingly detached and disoriented as the journey progresses.

Yet the chapters focusing on the aimless, adrift family members are where the novel really shines. Helen's daughter, Mireille, Sergei's son, Dmitri, and Yoshi's wife, Madoka, are trying to define themselves as individuals as well as the relatives of world-renowned astronauts, and their flaws and struggles make for the more intriguing character studies.

Inspired by a real experiment, The Wanderers never strays far from reality. It may boast some futuristic elements, but the story is a grounded and nuanced entry in the space mission genre - fitting, given that the astronauts never actually go to space.

Howrey's writing is relaxed and digestible even when tackling the more scientific matters, making for a light but filling read. Even when the characters are pretending to hurtle through space or are getting drunk with robots, the story never feels outlandish as the emotional and personal issues of each character remain front and centre. Think less sci-fi, more slice of life.

It is baffling then, after succeeding in crafting such layered, contradictory, brilliant characters for nearly 300 pages, that Howrey feels the need to write such forced conclusions for each storyline. Since she seeks to explore such broad ideas around family and relationships, it is not unexpected she tries to answer them, yet the drama and peculiarities of each character are lost in a slap-dash rush to the final page.

Those last few chapters cause The Wanderers to resemble the central simulation; looks good, has depth, but the further you get, the further from reality you go.