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.

Does our mind a prison make? Hag-Seed a review

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About a year ago Hogarth Publishing reached out to a group of authors for what seemed like an impossible task; take a Shakespeare play and redo it for a modern audience. Eight authors took up the challenge: Tracy Chevalier; Margaret Atwood; Howard Jacobs; Anne Tyler; Jeanette Winterson; Edward St Aubyn; Gillain Flynn, and Joe Nesbo. You can read about it here http://hogarthshakespeare.com/

Although the lineup is impressive the news was met by a lot of criticism by authors, scholars, and the public alike. Why attempt to update the master when it is clear that his works still hold up? There were many an online discussions about the subject, and blog posts blasting the idea of modernizing Shakespeare. I had to laugh at the hypocrisy of one author who took a dim view to the Hogarth’s undertaking while making sure to let his readers knew he would be retelling Hamlet from Marcellus’ point of view.

The publishing house did not do its self any favors by the lack of explanation of how the authors were going to go about it. Many understood it to mean that these eight authors thought themselves worthy of changing words and scenes. The outcry over the “retooling” went on a little to long before it was announced in subsequent interviews that the author were simply taking the plots and retelling them as modern works literature.

Yet the unease that many felt was not allayed when the first go, Winterson’s book, The Gap of Time based on The Winter’s Tale, did not do well with mature book readers and critics alike. I picked it up while at the library one day and found that it read like a sappy young-adult novel, complete with short sentences and a heroine that sounded like a Disney Princess. I had to agree with the critics of the endeavor; if this was to be the norm then this was not going to turn out well. At least that was my opinion at the time. Oh but soon, I would learn just how wrong I was at least when it comes to Atwood’s book, Hag-Seed based on the Tempest.

Now, I have to be honest. I am no fan of Atwood. I read her book The Handmaiden’s Tale years ago and found it mildly disturbing. But I understand that she is a popular author so when the favorable reviews for Hag-Seed started popping up I simply chalked it up to her popularity with the masses. But once again Twitter prompted me to do a double take. Readers from all over started posting about how good it was. And so, one rainy day I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

One of my favorite things about the Amazon Kindle app is the ability to download a free book sample. So on this rainy day, I downloaded the sample and started reading. And to my amazement, I couldn’t put it down. Oh I had to read this book! The first two pages pull you in and demand your complete attention. Felix, the Prospero of this book had placed a spell on me, but not enough for me to purchase the Kindle edition. $13.00 for the opportunity to read a book that cannot be placed in a shelf of honor or passed to a close friend? Never!

I refuse to pay over $9.00 for a Kindle book (and even that hurts) so I searched my local library for a copy. The one and only copy was checked out but due back in a few days so I reserved it, and picked it up the following Friday. By Sunday morning I had finished the book.

From the publisher:

Felix is at the top of his game as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have amazed and confounded. Now he’s staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, it will heal emotional wounds.

Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And also brewing revenge.

After twelve years, revenge finally arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here, Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him. It’s magic! But will it remake Felix as his enemies fall?

This re-imaging of The Tempest has everything a good novel should. An unforgettable character in Felix, a haunting character in Miranda, Felix’s long dead daughter that he cannot let go of, and some light comic relief peppered throughout the story in the guise of the inmates. But the most remarkable thing about this book is Atwood’s keen insight into The Tempest and what it can mean to a modern audience.

Atwood gives us a sympathetic character in Felix. He is man who cannot let of his past, and it becomes his prison. He lost his three year old daughter Miranda to a fever because he was too self-absorbed to notice her illness. He allows Miranda to haunt him. He imagines she is still with him, and over the years he sees her as she would be had she lived. They talk and play Chess. Being a mere wisp of a ghost she cannot leave the house Felix lives in, so she too is imprisoned.

Felix spends his days in a local correctional center producing Shakespeare plays staring the inmates. It is here that Felix hatches a plan for revenge on those who were instrumental to his downfall. And this thirst for revenge is yet another prison as Felix cannot move forward or move from his lowly station. Yet it is the inmates and an unwitting subject caught in Felix’s revenge that finally help him break free.

For those who love to study and even teach Shakespeare, the scenes in which Felix and the inmates discuss the play make the book worth reading. He encourages them to find all of the prisons within the play and they have a serious discussion about what constitutes a prison. Is it a place? Yes. A state of mind? Most certainly. But most importantly to the inmates and to the original play, it is usually circumstances beyond our control.

Arial and Caliban have always lived on the island, but it is not until Prospero shows up do they both find themselves trapped. The inmates identify with these two characters as they see society in the character of Prospero. One inmate noted that Prospero shouldn’t have been surprised when Caliban turned on him and tried to rape Miranda. Prospero made him feel as if he belonged and then “turned natural” when it came to wanting Miranda. “She was the only woman there. What else was he supposed to do”?

Felix does not allow his incarcerated actors to swear so he devises a plan that allows them to pick out Shakespearean insults and fling them at will. Flesh-eater, and a pox o’ your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog (or several versions of this phrase) are favored by the inmates.

It is in the middle of the book that the inmates take center stage as they work though the play and its message. And it is here that the book really has its heart. It’s just too bad Atwood did not take more time to develop these characters. I felt she used them and then tossed them aside, much like prison inmates feel used by society. Maybe that was her intention, but I felt she could have given us one or two stand-out characters that we could grapple with and debate over just as we debate over Caliban and his role in The Tempest.

This sub-plot of the inmate’s education makes up for the larger plot of revenge. When we get to the revenge scenes we find that Atwood, always imaginative, stretches the bounds of credibility. But in this she is forgiven because the book ends on such a heartfelt note.

It cannot be easy to take on Shakespeare. To look at one of his plays and think, “hum..how can I modernize this, how can I make it appealing to a larger audience?”

Thankfully Atwood does not take us scene by scene or even try to recreate the absurdity of the shipwrecked fools. Doing so would have cheapened her book. The setting is no place for fools; prison life is subject to too many harsh realities and dangers. But this is also what makes this endeavor a little dangerous. By eliminating characters and scenes (and adding a few of her own to the play-within the book) there is the danger that readers may think they’ve read The Tempest, or at least a stand-in for the play, when in fact they’ve hardly scratched the surface. No, Atwood’s book is a nod to Shakespeare, and nothing else.

This is a fine book, and I do recommend it. However, I am not sure Atwood has met Hogarth’s original intent, if their intent was to modernize his plays. But then, their intent is a still a little ambiguous. The one line from the About section their website reads: The Hogarth Shakespeare project sees Shakespeare’s works retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today. I am still unsure of what this means. You will just have to read the book for yourself and decide if this book is up to the unnecessary task of retelling Shakespeare’s story. Yes, I think the task is unnecessary, but if it produces books like Hag-Seed, I think the endeavor is at least worthy of consideration.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret Hag-Seed Random House. October 11, 2016. Print Edition

Hogarth Shakespeare Online http://hogarthshakespeare.com/

Next up, I thought we would start talking about Shakespeare’s work, in the original. We are going to go thru the plays alphabetically one by one, finding one or two points for consideration and how they relate to our modern era. First up All’s Well that Ends Well and the study of obsession.  Stay tuned!