The Steps Up the Chimney–William Corlett


I read William Corlett’s Two Gentlemen Sharing and fell in love with his wit and his style.  When I investigated him as an author and found that he had written a children’s fantasy series, I was intrigued and rushed to order the first in the series.

The Steps Up the Chimney feels, to start, like a bad reflection of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Three children are sent to live with their uncle in a weird old house isolated in the country.  The opening scene begins on an isolated train platform.  There is no war in the background, but, instead, the children’s parents are off to Africa to help the beknighted on that continent.

Uncle Jack is an engineer who works with nuclear energy, but he’s gone off the grid to refurbish a Tudor mansion, along with his pregnant girlfriend, Phoebe.  They have no television, no central heat, and are vegetarians.  Corlett makes a big deal of their decision not to marry, which is voiced by the youngest sibling, Alice.    Near the end of the novel Phoebe tries to explain to Alice why they’re not marrying (it would be hypocritical to have a religious service since they’re not church-goers) and that it doesn’t matter whose last name the baby carries.  Alice is not quite up for this feminist approach, but there are three more books in which she can be softened.

The magic portion of the story involves the ability to inhabit and communicate with animals and a magician who (sort of) dwells in a hidden room in the old mansion.  Again, like Lewis’ classic, the children explore the rooms of the house and try to explain why the angles do not all add up  This exploration leads them to a magical space that belongs to two worlds.  Like Lewis’ classic, there are talking animals.   Like Lewis’ classic, there is good magic and bad magic.  Even Corlett’s good magician, however, is, as one of the girls describes him, a misogynist pig.  He cannot be blamed too much, however, since he’s over 500 years old.

The story has a rough beginning, but picks up pace about a third of the way through. However, it never quite leaves behind the feel of a formula production, which was disappointing.

As a huge fan of fantasy literature of this type for middle-grade readers, I still found this book enjoyable and look forward to seeing how Corlett develops his three protagonists and plays out the plot lines he establishes in this opening volume.

Finished 3/12/12


Abigail & John: Portrait of a Marriage–Edith B. Gelles


Biography is the secret passion of the aging American reading population.  If you share in this secret passion, I urge you to pick up Gelles’ portrait of the Adams’ marriage.  Gelles has written on Abigail previously, which led me to believe that she might not be overly generous to John, who left Abigail alone for most of a decade while he pursued his political calling.  However, Gelles’ image of both partners is complex enough to seem likely.  Abigail is industrious and giving, but mean and even daring at times, such as when she continues a flirtatious correspondence with James Lovell.  John seems selfish and heartless as he ignores Abigail’s pleas for him to return home from Europe.  However, once they are reunited, he cannot stand to be parted from her and, as president, begs her in a series of letters to rejoin him in Philadelphia.  Even his choice to disinherit Charles, his alcoholic second son, seems like a human response to the disappointment of a father whose eldest son had followed in the family footsteps of duty to country and Puritanical virtues and who could not fathom the fate of a beloved second son.  In John’s disavowal of Charles rests the confused heartbreak of a parent who cannot understand what has gone wrong, but also cannot support the result.  Gelles makes a reasonable case that Adam’s behavior after the loss of his second term as president was as much driven by his grief over the loss of Charles to his alcoholism as to his public humiliation and feelings of personal betrayal by friends in government.  This is not the motivation of a cold, callous father.

Gelles’ portrait of Abigail reveals a woman we can admire for her independence and hutzpah and with whom we can commiserate as she loses children, misses her husband, and feels out of place in high European society.  Her portrait of Adams argues for a man who felt the weight of history pulling him along, even when it hurt himself and his family.  I was intrigued by his close relationship with John Quincy and young Charles when they accompanied him to Europe and to his grandchildren after his retirement from public life.  All in all, if time travel were possible, I would choose to meet Abigail in London as she solidified her sense of country and expanded her personal horizons and John in the first ten years of his retirement at Peacefield as he reflected on his career and immersed himself in his family.

I left high school thinking American history was boring, particularly the revolutionary period.  I’d been there done that year after year after year.  But not like this.  Gelles writes the best type of biography.  Her portrait follows the life of the Adams’ marriage, but uses that narrative stream to educate us about gender, religion, and the economy, as well as politics of life at that time.  The back cover of my Harper Perennial paperback edition bears a quote from the Washington Times… “a love story for the ages.”  I would agree, but it’s as much the love story of a family for their country and of the reader falling for the Adams as it is the love of Abigail and John.  An absolute must read.

Finished 3/5/12