In a Dark Wood–Amanda Craig

I enjoyed Craig’s Life of Idleness, but this novel, which precedes it, was leaps and bounds beyond it in terms of dragging me into its dark wood and making me more interested in what was in the dark than what was lit.

Benedick Hunter is newly divorced from his author-wife and is in such a deep depression that he cannot even face seeing their two children, Cosmo and Flora.  The novel begins as Benedick is packing up their London home and he finds a book of fairy tales written by his mother.   It falls open and he begins to read and so begins his odyssey to discover who his mother was and why she killed herself when he was six years old, the same age as his son, Cosmo.

No one wants to give him straight answers about his mother, even her friends and certainly not his father, whom he resents and dislikes with the passion usually only a teenager can muster.  Benedick blames his father for his mother’s death, as they had divorced that year when Nell, Benedick’s stepmother, entered the picture.

Benedick’s mother-figure is Ruth, with whom he goes to live after leaving the home he had shared with his wife.  Ruth is a psychotherapist by trade, but does not push Benedick and allows him to sulk in squalor and only pushes gently when he asks questions.

Ruth, like Benedick’s mother, is an American ex-patriot and she pushes Benedick to go to America to meet his maternal relatives.  He avoids this action until he has talked to everyone he can think of in England who knew his mother and only when he reads one more fairy tale does he realize all of his answers are across the ocean.

Benedick and Cosmo engage in a great adventure that seems out of whack from the start as Benedick bounces on the hotel bed for so long each day that even young Cosmo becomes bored with it, but Benedick is still enchanted.  They do New York to see his mother’s publisher, then hit the South to meet his aunt, who lives in a old Southern estate that she now runs as a guest house, along with her daughter, Rose, with whom Benedick falls in love instantly.  She is the woman from his mother’s illustrations and he creates a world around her that mixes desperation for belonging and love that Freud would have much to say about.  It’s only after they sleep together that they discover yet another of Benedick’s mother’s dark secrets, one which causes  Benedick to try to kill himself and which leads him to the answers he had sought so hard for most of the novel.

Craig weaves Benedick’s descent into serious mental illness with the palimpsest of his mother’s mental illness in the fairy tales into an engaging tapestry (much like the cover) that draws the reader deeper and deeper into the dark wood of their minds and the dark wood of the fairy tales.  She is so successful that one almost needs a prescription to recover their equilibrium after closing its covers.

Since Craig returned to Benedick’s ex-wife’s character, if only indirectly, in Life of Idleness, I have high hopes that we might see more of Benedick, hear an update on his condition, and that of young Cosmo and Flora, in her future work.

Finished 4/29/12


Love in Idleness–Amanda Craig

Smart chick lit.  Love it.

Theo and his British wife, Polly, have rented an Italian farmhouse near Cortona for a two-week summer holiday.  They’ve invited Polly’s friends, Hemani and her son Bron, and Ellen, a shoe and handbag designer, to join them.  Theo’s brother, Daniel, and his friend, critic Ivo, along with Theo’s and Daniel’s mother, Betty, round out the adults.  Guy, a gardener made famous on Channel 4, joins later.  Polly’s and Theo’s children, Tania and Robbie, provide impish/ill-bred undertones to the vacation.

Theo has made partner in his firm and is a workaholic who has stopped having sex with Polly.  Polly has let herself go and has lost herself in being the stay-at-home mom she desired in the face of her academic-feminist mother’s own benign neglect.  Daniel is an American academic who stayed in Britain after graduate school and now feels pressure from Betty to marry, preferably Ellen.  Hemani is a recently divorced eye surgeon who has cut herself off from her sexuality in order to be the perfect single mother.  Ivo plays the inveterate playboy.

Craig creates her story along the lines of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with firefly fairies and love potions.  Daniel needs to realize he is really in love with Hemeni and Ellen that she really needs Ivo.  Theo and Guy have secrets to reveal, also.  Poor Polly’s story is left to be told in another volume, which is possible as Craig has interwoven one large cast of characters through at least three novels, as she relates in her acknowledgements.

The story is genius, really.  It combines the Anglophile’s fantasy of living in Britain and the American’s romance of vacationing in Italy.  Curvy women find love, paunchy men get goddesses.  Vile children become sprites and the drudgery of caring for home and children becomes a life phase.  And Shakespeare fans get to live a good story all over again.  What’s not to like?

I’m starting Craig’s In a Dark Wood and approach it like a bag of Lay’s.  You can’t eat just one.

Finished 4/26/12

The Girl She Used to Be–David Cristofano

You know when you go to a romantic movie because you want to walk out all warm and fuzzy and see someone’s life work out?  And then it doesn’t and you’re not sure if you should be pissed off or bummed out or just frustrated like a teenager whose parents walked in three minutes too soon?

That’s The Girl She Used to Be.  Melody and her parents witnessed a Mafia hit when she was six years old and their lives ended.  They survived (for awhile), but they entered Witness Protection.  In a fit of teenage snit over a boy, Melody ratted out her parents to a local paper and 29 hours later they were dead.  So she is relocated over and over and over, but this time alone.  The story begins with her ending one identity, making up a threat, and starting another out of ennui.  But then she meets a son of the Mafia family when he breaks into her motel room while her agent walks along the beach and everything turns on its head.  She’s tired of running and living a lie and feeling insecure.  This guy is in love with her after shadowing her for years, wants to save her by taking her into the heart of his family under his protection, and, to top it all off, is gorgeous and well-mannered.  Go figure.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  Nicholas Sparks.  Stephanie Meyer.  It’s all about some handsome guy whose whole world revolves around us, around a woman, the woman who is telling the story.  And we eat it up because we want to be that girl with the guy who is tough on the exterior, but soft inside.  Who kicks the ass of the rest of the world, but wants to protect us and kiss us and bring us to climaxes we did not even dream were possible and this just by giving us the look.  Or flashing his abs.  It’s our version of a doe-eyed centerfold.   It’s a little uncomfortable to realize how appealing that story line is, but ok.

Here’s the brutal part.  After pages and pages of Melody whining about her lost life and then pages and pages of her forgetting about the death of her parents as she luxuriates in the pampering that can be bought by Mafia money and the feeling of security from being attached to the baddest bad ass in the room, she ends up alone.  Like, forever alone.   Virgin Queen alone.

So thumbs up for the premise and the first half of the book.  I could have even forgiven the whining if, after following the conventions of romance, the happy caricatures ended up together.  That’s the problem with genre.  When you try to bust it, you risk alienating your audience. Would Pride and Prejudice have been such a hit if Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy didn’t end up together?  No way, Jose.  I don’t read romance to have a literary experience.  Or to close the cover feeling worse than when I opened it.  Geez.

As with  a hangover, the best cure for a bad ending is to start reading again.  My fingers are crossed.

Finished 4/23/12

English as a Second Language-Megan Crane

Anglophile? Check.   Suffered through grad school? Check.   Love the idea of reading books for a year (as a job)?  Check.  Harbor an inner snark just dying to be let out?  Check.

Then get out the discrete book cover and grab this book for a quick weekend read.  Megan Crane spent her grad school years in the UK, then moved to Cali and wrote this first novel about a mid-20s (well, that’s charitable–late 20s) woman looking for meaning who ends up in grad school near Manchester because her ex told her she couldn’t.

She’s hard-edged, sharp-tongued, drinks like a fish and smokes like a chimney.

And everyone, except Suzanne, loves her.

She says stupid things in her seminars, but ends up with a distinction on her first big paper and acceptance into the doctoral program.

This book is very lite in intellectual calories, but it’s all kinds of fun to fantasize about a year in England with two blokes as your best mates in the pub and two smart women to be your besties as housemates, the ability to drink and smoke and still look great, the chance to do nothing but go to school without having to hold down a job or, seemingly, work that hard at staying in school.

Here’s the reality part:  Megan Crane earned a PhD in literature from an undisclosed British university and went on to write five chicklit novels, but, my own face is red here, she also writes Harlequin romances as Caitlyn Crews and she seems to be churning out one a year.  I don’t know whether to be embarrassed for her or cheer for her.  I guess, like Suzanne, I hate her and want to be her all at once.

Finished 4/22/12



The Bridge in the Clouds-William Corlett

The last in the Magician’s House Quartet ends with a big battle, much like Lewis’ The Last Battle.  The forces of the Magician, Stephen Tyler, battle the unleashed forces of the now repentant could-be-evil, oops, now evil again, apprentice, Morden. Yes, kindness is what heals evil, but apparently one dose will not do the trick.

I kept reading this series even though they are mechanical at times (it’s always embarrassing to see a story’s skeletal structure) because I wanted to see why Corlett wrote them.  He’s said elsewhere they were inspired by his partner and it would be fun to hear more about that.  Not knowing the whole story behind the inspiration, I’m left saying they’re stories for agnostics.

The bridge in the clouds is, basically, a rainbow and it’s the bridge from now to those we’ve lost.  So there’s a sense of afterlife.  There’s a clear sense of good and evil, but it’s not simplistic.  Morden is misunderstood and can potentially be saved, but is not.  His army is made of rats, but the leader of the “good guys” is a rat named Rattus Rattus, whom young Alice first despises, then loves when she sees him for who he is, not who he appears to be.    Most people choose to follow evil out of fear.  Love makes the world go round. Everyone has a gift and it’s different from the gifts of those around you.   All solid lessons for young people.

The magician gives a nice lesson about being present when he talks to the children about time travel and says there is only now and that if we remember to live now, we will all become gold (the alchemy piece that runs throughout the series).

William is still the rational one and Alice and Mary the ones attuned to emotion, which is echoed in their adult counterparts, with Phoebe the vegetarian being moody and emotional as she senses the coming battle and Jack the scientist walking around oblivious.  William and Jack will have higher earning potential and greater autonomy in western culture with their skills, but, you can say awwww here, it’s Alice, Mary, and Phoebe who really save the world.

This series has an odd underlying commentary on gender.  Jack and Phoebe live together, but do not marry.  Their daughter, Stephanie, is named after Stephen Tyler, the magician, who is disappointed (until the end) that she isn’t a boy.  Tyler calls Alice Minimus until the end, when he says he was mistaken to give her a masculine gender because being a girl is just fine and changes her moniker to Minima.  Phoebe breastfeeds in book three, which Alice finds disgusting, but which skill she uses as a defense for why Stephanie is better off with Phoebe than Jack.  The other children say men can raise children as well as women since children don’t breastfeed forever.  Meg Lewis and Henry Crawden are star-crossed lovers who reunite in their twilight years in the last book, but Meg has spent her life alone and in poverty (cavorting with nature because that’s what women do) while Henry married, had children, and lived in great prosperity (because he engaged in business using his sharply rational mind because that’s what men do).

These books were written in the late 1980s/early 1990s, but it would be nice to see a fantasy series along these lines that does not inadvertently reinforce these gender norms in young readers.

There are some nice speeches in this last book, which is, of course, a perfect place for big-theme speeches.

My favorite didactic bit came in the form of a speech from the dying magician, who told the Constant children, “Do your best in your own time!  That is all that anyone can ask of you, or that you can ask of yourselves.  If, at the end, we can say with certainty and truth that we did the best we could, then we have fulfilled this great burden, this great gift, that is called life.”

A worthy message in any age.

Finished 4/20/12

The Tunnel Behind the Waterfall–William Corlett

Book Three of the Magician’s House Quartet was worth sticking with the series.  Corlett’s characters are still stiff at times and seem more like a medium for a message than fully developed personalities, but they receive more dimension in this story and the overarching narrative of the Magician, Stephen Tyler, and his interaction with the Constant children is further fleshed out.

What seems in volume one like an atheist’s answer to Narnia is further complicated with mentions of God and the contemplative notions of emptying the self. There are some irritating negatives in this volume.   The oldest sibling, William, embodies the stereotype of men as overly rational and his sisters of women as emotional.  Alice, the youngest, has been the most consistent in seeing the Magician, but Mary, who previously was scorned for falling in love as her major hobby, becomes the biggest convert.

In this volume of the series, the children are on summer holiday and are faced with the threat of the land around the Golden Estate being sold and developed into a vacationing funfair and hotel complex.  Together with their uncle and Meg Lewis, with whom they saved the badgers in volume two, the children work to save the sacred place that surrounds Golden House and deepen their understanding of magic.  In a long speech, the Magician tells them magic should only be used for good, for un-selfish reasons.  He then berates a variety of selfish actions in the modern world that have caused famine, global warming, species extinction, etc.  The Tennessee legislature has most likely banned this book in light of their recent decision about global warming in the curriculum.

The connection to Tudor England grows stronger as we learn that the antagonist, Morden, was executed as a wizard in his own time.  And, as Miss Prewett, the local historian, says, “Never trust a person who doesn’t like history!” (112).


Finished 4/17/12

The Door in the Tree–William Corlett

This is the second in the Magician’s House Quartet, a series I found through Corlett’s book about a gay couple who move into a small, rural English neighborhood.  Oh, the places we go!

The Constant children are back to the Golden House on spring holiday.  Before two full days pass they are entering the bodies of animals and talking to time-traveling wizards again.  Alice, the youngest, is frustrated with William and Mary, her older siblings who are having a hard time accepting that their previous experiences were real.  A major theme, with which Corlett beats one around the head, is that if we think too hard, magic can’t happen.  We have to just let it be, live in the moment, pay attention to our surroundings.  There’s also a strong animal-rights theme involving some badger baiters.  Even little Alice starts to think vegetarian Phoebe might be onto something.

Corlett just does not seem to be a writer who knows children.  Alice, Mary, and William don’t quite ring true.  The lessons are too heavy-handed and yet shallow.  This contradiction reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, but with less doctrinal clarity.  What I don’t understand is how this series made it into a BBC series.

At the same time, I’m intrigued just enough to finish reading the two remaining books in the series in order to see the grand plan–and I’ve already bought them from Thriftbooks.

Finished 4/16/12