The Garden of Fragile things? More like the Garden of Fragile plots

Have you ever picked up a novel that at first grabbed your attention but about halfway through you began to doubt your decision making abilities and upon finishing, thought, “What the hell did I just read?” I bet you have.

This happened to me earlier this summer. I found a book through Amazon’s Prime Reader program. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the program it’s Amazon’s version of a lending library, comprised mostly of first time authors with a few notable authors thrown in just to make the first timers feel like they are in good company.

I picked out Richard J. O’Brien’s The Garden of Fragile Things based on reviews I read on Amazon and Goodreads. The novel is billed as “A dark fantasy in the tradition of Stephen King’s It, and Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life.

From the book:

In the late 1970s, Joe Godwin was just twelve years old, living in a working-class neighborhood. Plagued by bullies and a volatile home life (turns out, not so much), Joe spends his time with his friends in search of adventures. The discovery of an abandoned mansion during a camping trip in a state forest sets up a series of consequences in motion between the boys, inhabitants of the mansion, and the others who occupy the garden behind the colossal home.

Having enjoyed both of these, I thought, “Why not?”I spent a rare quiet day the book. What a waste of time! There’s a day I won’t get back. It’s not just that the book is bad, we’ve all picked up bad books now and again, or at least books that we personally consider bad. The main problem with this book is that it reads as if an actual twelve-year-old boy wrote it; one who has no understanding of just how vital plot and story continuity is to fiction.

Some of the characters in this novel act, well, out of character. Take Joe’s mom. She tries to forbid him from joining his friends when they go out to “trick or treating” on Halloween citing all the bad things that could happen to him, yet does not stop him from running out of the house and down the street in a rage upon hearing about the murder of a friend. His parents never bother to go looking for him. A sympathetic cop brings him home. In fact, there are several instances of cops bringing this kid home for minor infractions yet he’s never punished. I never did understand why the jacket talks about a “volatile home life.”

Early in the novel the reader is led to believe that some of the grownups know about the odds things to come and are getting ready to stop some type of evil force lurking just outside of town but this is never fleshed out, and is dropped from all mention by the middle of the book.

We are introduced to the standard teen bully; at least at first he is modeled on the archetype bully, but over time becomes a rapist when he forces a gay middle school boy to perform a sex act, and then becomes a murder suspect. We are given no explanation as to his motives, or shown proof of guilt. The reader is told after the fact about his disappearance and imprisonment for murder. This had me wondering why he was in the novel in the first place. His inclusion did nothing to move the story along. There would be no effect to the story if his and the character he murdered were removed from the novel completely. Now, it is possible that O’Brien was trying to create several red herrings in order to keep his readers guessing as to what kind of evil was to come, but in his inept hands the herrings felt more like dead ends in the maze of a poorly constructed plot line.

Some of the issues I had with the novel can be blamed on poor editing by O’Brien’s publisher. Half way through the novel a character’s name is changed, and then changed back. One chapter ending has Joe and his friends setting up a campsite, the next chapter starts with them getting to the campsite. But given so many inconsistencies in the over all story line these errors only added to the poor quality of the read.

Before we get to the worst part of this book, we have to go back to the beginning and plot setup of the novel. I will try not to spoil too much (though I do not recommend reading this book) but as a warning, there will be a little spoiled ink in the coming paragraphs.

The book begins with a reporter looking to interview a 44-year-old man who is a patient of a mental hospital. The patient was tried and convicted of the murder of his three childhood friends in the summer of 77. This man is none other than Joe Godwin. The reporter is not so much interested in these particular murders, but in the disappearance of 30 children between 1865 and 1963 (keep this number in mind, we will get back to it). The reporter thinks that Joe “may have been exposed to certain anomalies in Franklin Forst, the very same anomalies that may have lent themselves to the unexplained disappearance of more than two dozen children over the past century and the half” (p1).

The reporter is denied the interview, yet inexplicably is mailed a manuscript penned by Joe relating the events that led to his incarceration. So no interview but is allowed to read Joe’s story? Why? This is never explained.

The main plot of the novel centers on a mysterious trail that leads to a typical creepy house in the woods. The boys stumble upon the trail and house while camping in a local state forest. For boys who are not good at camping, they seem to do it a lot in this story. As the boys try to work out the mysterious trail and its otherworldly guardians things go from bad to worse. Almost every Lovecraftian type of monster you can imagine lives in and around the house, as if the author was vying for the “Most use of Lovecraft” award. The climax of the book is a gore fest of death for Joe’s friends. He alone manages to escape after setting fire to the house.

It was jarring enough to read about the gruesome deaths of young boys but what set me over the top was how Joe ended up being tried for the murders. “They all stared at me for a long time without saying a word. They didn’t have to. It was evident by their expressions that they all believed I was guilty for setting what would go down in Yorkville history as one of the biggest fires in Franklin County” (p218). This group that was staring at Joe included his mother and father who never asked Joe what had happened. All assumed his friends were dead because they did not make it out of the woods.

Everyone including psychiatrists agreed upon hearing Joe’s story about the evil house and monsters that Joe’s mind “was fractured beyond repair, a butcher who harbored no respect for human life”(219). On the surface who could blame them? After all stories about evil monsters and friendly warning gnomes is farfetched. There would be no way for Joe to prove his innocents, right? Wel…

Joe pleaded with his parents and the authorities to allow him to show them the burned out house where the carnage took place but they ignored him. “Somewhere out there in the forest, trapped perhaps in some borderland between the world we know and another world ruled by chaotic, primal forces were two of my friends”(p219).

Wait, what?? The authorities had nothing tying Joe to murder yet refused to search for two of the bodies? Then how the hell do they know the boys were really dead? Given this information why didn’t it occur to anyone to think about the possibility that the boys were in hiding because of the forest fire? Again, no one went up and recovered the bodies?

How was Joe convicted of their deaths if their bodies were never recovered? Why would a perfectly normal kid who had no previous signs of mental illness decide to become a mass murder? Seriously, the cops never went looking for the bodies? Their parents never demanded it? Nope. Joe is thrown into a mental hospital for life even though there is no proof tying him to a murder weapon or of missing dead bodies.

I tried giving the author the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps somewhere hidden in his passages were signs that Joe may have been an unreliable narrator and was in fact insane and not only made up the story about the house, but was also responsible for the earlier teen death. But there is nothing that hints at this twist. Remember in the beginning we are told that a reporter finds the disappearance of local children odd. And early on in the book several old men talked about the impending horror.

If O’Brien wanted to, he could have had the bodies brought to the morgue and shown that they were in fact murdered at the hands of Joe. That would have made more sense and made for a rather creepy but satisfying read. But no. Joe is carted off to a mental hospital based on his story alone.

Who writes such a slapdash ending like this, other than a 12 year-old boy who has yet to master a tightly woven story line? Would you believe a teacher of creative writing is responsible for this mess?

By now you may be wondering why I’m bothering to review a bad book. We all know they are out there, and most of us who write reviews don’t bother to waste our time on them. But given that a creating writing college instructor wrote this mess, I could not help but be irritated! Is this the level of teaching that goes on in our college creative writing classes? Is this what writing student are being taught? No wonder there are so many bad books of late. How can O’Brien possibly teach creative writing when his own is so poorly constructed and executed? I cannot express my dismay enough at this level of writing by a college instructor.

O’Brian should not be anywhere near a classroom unless he is a student.

Shakespeare buffs may be surprised by “Will”

Marlow & Will. Of course they are beautiful. It’s an American show after all

Damn it’s hot; unseasonably hot even by Nevada standards. Normally the west eases into summer with the temperatures slowly rising so that by the time late August rolls around we are acclimated to the heat. But oh no, not this summer. This summer started in the triple digits and there seems to be no sign of cooling down. How hot is it, you might ask? Last night’s thunder clouds didn’t result in any dry lighting. It was as if even the lighting didn’t want to be anywhere near the scorching heat.

Compounding the heat wave issues the air conditioner in our office building isn’t working properly, forcing us to work in stifling conditions. Forget hot yoga, I’m doing hot work. For a woman of a certain age (cough, cough) this is beyond acceptable as I have my own private summer to deal with. The quote “I’m melting, I’m melting”, springs to mind as I do nothing more after work than lay under a large fan and pant. Will this horror never end?

I haven’t attempted to write these last few weeks as my brain is fried by the time I get home. I have tried to do some reading, but this summer’s choices have been duds. I think I will do a book review on what to avoid, later in the week.

I did, however, manage to watch the pilot episode of TNT’s “Will”. Between all the hype & criticism I figured I would keep an open but skeptical mind and decide for myself if this is a series worth watching. For those of you who may have missed the announcement, here is how they are selling the series:

Will tells the wild story of young William Shakespeare’s (Laurie Davidson) arrival onto the punk-rock theater scene in 16th century London — the seductive, violent world where his raw talent faced rioting audiences, religious fanatics and raucous side-shows. It’s a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s life, played to a modern soundtrack that exposes all his recklessness, lustful temptations and brilliance. 

My first thought when I originally read this was, ‘Does TNT know something scholars do not?” How do they know he was reckless and lustful (his brilliance is obvious) and so dismissed it as part of the dumbing down of the American youth. I mean really, is this the best we can hope for as far as showing Shakespeare to a young TV audience? But then again, we are talking about America so, you know…

Someone mentioned to me that if this turns out to be a gateway to an interest in Shakespeare, it couldn’t be all that bad, could it?

Thanks to Amazon video, I was able to purchase the first episode. So, fan overhead, a glass of ice water at my side, I got through the entire show without falling asleep or screaming at my TV.

Without giving some of the plot away (what little plot there is) here are my initial thoughts.

The set and wardrobe designs are bright, I mean dazzling! For 16th century London where most everyone was poor and shabby, all the characters were dressed as if Yves Saint Laurent personally picked out their clothes. The only difference between the well off and the poor was the amount of dirt rubbed into the designer clothing. This brilliance of color on every pixel of the screen didn’t pull me in; it was actually a little jarring at first. But, as the London scene unfolded I realized the desired effect wasn’t to pull the viewer into 16th century London, but to 70’s London, more specifically the underground punk scene. This begs the question, if the producers want to modernize Shakespeare for young audience, why the punk era? How many kids born after 1990 know anything about mosh pits and rooster comb hairstyles? And yes, we get both in this show.

Having it set in the Hip-Hop era would have made a little more sense. And given that one scene was a takeoff on a rap battle (battle of words in this case) may have played better. Not that I am complaining, the punk era worked for me, but I’m old enough to have been in a mosh pit and spent hours listening to The Clash (the background music of choice for” Will”).

And of course, this being an American show, the entire young cast is beautiful; complete with dazzling white teeth. This has led to some criticism of the show by others, so I won’t go to deep into this topic. Only to say that I was not as surprised by this as others were. Again, we are talking about American TV.

The plot was on the thin side, but then again, how much plot can you have when it involves a young 16th century playwright and his quest to become famous? The opening scene informs us Will is a married man with three children so there cannot be a love interest, right? Wrong! On his very first day in London Shakespeare meets a woman who finds him attractive, and he her. We see where this is going… And of course it gets there quickly.

There is some tension built around the religious persecution of Catholics. We are led to believe that Shakespeare’s family has strong Catholic views, and even though it may mean death, his father instructs him to deliver a letter to his uncle; a letter that if falling in the wrong hands would out the family as Catholic Doesn’t this man have his own raven? Oops, sorry, wrong show. But the explanation as to why the Catholics are being rounded up and tortured is brief and if one is not paying close attention is lost. If I remember correctly it is an eight-sentence discussion between two men. If this is to be the sub-plot then I would have expected more because those who are not history majors may wonder what all the fuss is about.  

Though the show was not bad, I’m just not sure it will work. The characters are far too stereotypical to be interesting. The torture and brutality may wear thin (I’m told later in the series there is a bear baiting scene in which the poor creature is disemboweled), and the plot is so thin you can see right through it.

But yet, I encourage those of you who are fans of Shakespeare to at least watch the first episode because surprisingly, there are a few smart scenes that only true Shakespeare buffs can, and will appreciate. It was fun to “see” Robert Greene calling Shakespeare an “upstart crow” and losing face while doing so. I am sure the anti-Stratfordians would not appreciate the idea of Shakespeare writing a play and giving credit to Marlow, but I snickered.I wish it the show was a little more interesting, because it is obvious someone on the writing staff knows their Shakespeare.

“Will” is not a show I care to watch, but to be fair to TNT, I am not into any show (save GOT) that uses graphic violence as a plot device. I’m not opposed to it, I’m just over it (sorry Walking Dead). Others may not be so sensitive.

I cannot tell if this will bring about an interest in Shakespeare; there was no reciting of any of his work in the first episode. Perhaps as the story processes there will be brief scenes involving his work and making it relevant to today’s youth. But even if it doesn’t I can think of worse ways to spend time out of the summer heat. Reading a poorly written book comes to mind.