Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair
by Jasper Fforde
Recommended Age: 17+

This first of the adventures of British "SpecOps" agent Thursday Next is set in 1985 England - but not quite the same 1985 or the same England we know. In this world, or timeline, or whatever, the Germans won World War II, Wales is a People's Republic, and England is a police state in which the Goliath Corporation wields a sinister amount of influence. Also, England has been at war with Russia for over 130 years over a muddy little Black Sea peninsula called the Crimea, and the war has not gone well. People take literature VERY seriously - violently, criminally, dangerously so. And among the bizarre things that are possible in this world are time travel, vampires, werewolves, cloning, and reverse extinction (everyone seems to have a pet dodo, for instance).

But now something really weird has become possible. Thursday's mad inventor Uncle Mycroft has invented a device that allows people from the real world to enter the world of a novel or poem... and to bring back people from the novel or poem, to the real world.

Uncle Mycroft is quite innocent, thinking that this will make a nice form of entertainment-- merging the worlds of tourism and literature, maybe. But some really, really nasty people have really, really nasty plans for Uncle Mycroft's little thingy. One of those people is an arms manufacturer with a name that made me laugh out loud, I don't know how the guy who plays him in the movie (if there is one) will be able to say it with a straight face. But I can't print it here.

The other really nasty guy, even worse, is a freakishly powerful, fiendishly evil person named Acheron Hades, who believes that evil for its own sake is more fun than evil for personal gain. Is Hades really all that bad? Well, let's see. He can hear his name whispered at fifty yards, can steal your will away from you, deceive your senses, and deflect bullets without even trying. Also, he kills without remorse, and has a group of equally remorseless henchmen following him around. So yeah, Hades is pretty bad.

And now Hades has done something that makes killing people look like a mildly bad habit. He has stolen Uncle Mycroft and his latest invention, as well as the original manuscript first of Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit (which isn't so bad) and then of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (which is perfectly dastardly), threatening to destroy one of the world's great literary treasures for ever.

And of all people in the world, the only one who can stop him is Thursday Next. A woman who is struggling to sort out her mixed-up love life, recovering from scenes of death and carnage that have scarred her forever, worried about her Dad who is a rogue time-cop on the run, more worried about her country which may never extricate itself from the Crimean quagmire, and faced with an enemy who has destroyed everyone who has opposed him to his face...except her.

And at the climax of the story, she has to face him inside the world of Charlotte Brontë's mid-19th-century romantic novel, defending fictional yet very real people from a stone cold killer, fighting to preserve a literary treasure and trying to figure out how to stop a military catastrophe that will almost certainly follow if she succeeds in her mission. Plus, there's the little matter of the "original" ending of Jane Eyre...

So here is a fascinating, hilarious, exciting, and rather violent story about an alternative-history modern fantasy world, and about real people having adventures together with characters out of classic fiction. With themes that echo Neverending Story, the Hitchhiker's Guide books, Alice in Wonderland, and the fantasies of Edward Eager, it also has the adult situations, intelligent literary conversation, and rather naughty sense of humor (not to mention language) of, say, Alan Beechey's Oliver Swithin mysteries. So give it time, youngsters-- time you can spend reading Shakespeare, Dickens, Brontë, and Wordsworth, so that you can better enjoy this book!

Lost in a Good Book
by Jasper Fforde
Recommended Age: 17+

This second of the “Thursday Next” adventures that began with The Eyre Affair is exciting, funny and mentally engaging. A romp in an alternative-1985 England, where there are no airplanes and Germany did not lose in World War II; while on the other hand time travel, undead problems, and resequenced mammoths, dodos and Neanderthals are part of every-day life. Everyone is nuts about literature, a whole category of crimes has grown up around forged Shakespearean plays and, just to make the insanity complete, there are ways of actually getting into a book and (for characters in the books) of going from one book to another--or even into the real world.

Thursday Next is a Litera-Tec operative, fresh off saving Jane Eyre from a homicidal redaction by demonic super-villain Acheron Hades. But being a hero hasn’t made things easy for her: the Goliath conglomerate wants her blood. The Brontë Federation is split over whether the new ending of Jane Eyre is an improvement. Some ChronoGuard agents want to use her to catch her elusive, time-traveling, rogue-agent father. And now someone is trying to use strings of fantastic coincidences to kill Thursday, who has just found out that she is pregnant.

Plus, she has a week to find out what is going to cause all life on Earth to turn into pink goo and stop it from happening. A new Shakespeare play has turned up and a creepy politician plans to turn it into political gold. Worst of all, just when Thursday needs him most, her husband Landen is erased from history.

Oh yes, and it turns out that her pet dodo, Pickwick, is a girl.

I haven’t even mentioned half of the things Thursday is up against in this wild and woolly book. If I had, this review would be nearly as long as the book. Somehow it all works, right down to how Thursday learns to jump into the world of books, where she becomes an apprentice operative for an organization called (I kid you not) Jurisfiction. Whether in the world of Jurisfiction, or in the “real” world, she is bound for all kinds of weird trouble, ranging from automobiles falling from the sky, mayhem at a book sale, a showdown with a Supreme Evil Being, and a trial lawyer who communicates in footnotes.

Meanwhile, characters and in-jokes from literature--great and not-so-great--abound: from Carroll to Kafka, from Austen to Arthurian legend, plus a dash of Dickens and a shot of Shakespeare, a bit of Poe, and enough tidbits that if you catch them all, you should be able to pass a college literary reading-requirement. If you don’t get them, you’ll just have to read more! And in the end, the book leaves plenty of room for the next "Thursday Next" novel: The Well of Lost Plots.

The Well of Lost Plots
by Jasper Fforde
Recommended Age: 17+

In this third "Thursday Next novel,” a celebrated Literary Detective has taken refuge from reality (where her husband has been cruelly erased), into the world of books. And I don’t just mean that she locks herself in a room full of books and reads day and night. Those of you who have followed the series so far won’t be surprised to know that she has actually entered the realm populated by fictional characters and beasts. Living in an unpublished novel by way of the Character Exchange Program, Thursday undergoes her apprenticeship as a member of Jurisfiction: the force that polices narrative integrity, and the boundary between truth and fiction.

The world in which this book takes place is a wild, weird, chaotic world full of literary gags, genre crossovers, and glimpses of your favorite book characters “between the pages” where you know them well. It is a world where novels take shape in the Well of Lost Plots, complete with merchants, parasites, and scrapyards for verbs and plot devices. It is a world where the characters in Wuthering Heights need anger management therapy, where dangerous creatures are corraled in the pages of an unpublished sci-fi novel, and where “fiction infractions” (such as changing the plot of a classic novel) are judged by the court of the King and Queen of Hearts.

Thursday finds herself working with characters from Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, pulp sci-fi, romance, and adventure novels. Professionally, she is driven to solve a series of vicious murders in which the targets are her fellow Jurisfiction operatives – and the motive has something to do with a new “book operating system” that is about to go online. Privately, she wants to help the characters in Caversham Heights save their book from being scrapped, so that she can stay there and give birth to a child whose father has been eradicated from history. And even more privately, Thursday has to battle an enemy who has invaded her own mind, threatening to make her forget her one true love.

Perhaps not for the underage and certainly not for anyone who hasn’t read at least a few of the books lampooned in its pages, The Well of Lost Plots is an absolute must-read for the rest of us: the continuation of an irreverently original series that, amazingly, continues to break new ground. Like the other Thursday Next tales, this book is belly-laugh-funny, mentally stimulating, and scary-exciting in swift alternation, and often at the same time. The “book world” introduced in the earlier stories achieves levels of fantastic oddness you never dreamed of, while the characters (particularly our heroine) continue to grow in emotional depth. Still linked to the almost-as-bizarre, alternate-1980s England from which Thursday came, with its genetically re-engineered dodos, time-traveling secret agents, and other quirks too numerous to describe here, it promises more adventure to come in the fourth novel, Something Rotten, as well as the spin-off series called Nursery Crime, whose origins form a part of this story.

Something Rotten
by Jasper Fforde
Recommended Age: 17+

Thursday Next returns, not only for a fourth adventure full of sci-fi weirdness, outrageous comedy, danger, extreme sports, and literary high jinks. She also returns to her hometown of Swindon, in her alternate-1980s version of England, where croquet is a full-contact sport, where literary characters, historical figures, extinct creatures, and the undead walk around while real people can be erased from existence by means of time travel. It is a world with game shows called Name That Fruit!, with commercial sponsors like the the Toast Advisory Board, with a mighty business conglomerate making a bid to become the next world religion, and with a runaway fictional character trying to take over the British government. And of course, it’s up to Thursday Next to stop him.

Fresh off a two-year stint as the head of Jurisfiction – the police force that watches over the world of books – Thursday returns home with a toddler son who only speaks typesetters’ gibberish, a vague plan to restore her eradicated husband, and a dithering Danish prince named Hamlet. Before long, her problems have multiplied. Her undead-slaying friend, Spike Stoker, needs her help rescuing the president from a detour through death. Meanwhile, Spike’s chirpy wife turns out to be an assassin with a contract on Thursday’s head. Also meanwhile, the local patron saint has predicted that if the hometown croquet team wins the national, the Goliath corporation and a political tyrant will fall. Not that she needs any more pressure in her life, Thursday suddenly finds herself managing the team – and knowing that if they fail, the world will come to a fiery end.

Plus, Thursday needs to save loads of Danish literature from being burned (don’t ask). She needs to do something to save the plot of Hamlet from a hostile takeover by The Merry Wives of Windsor (really, don’t ask). She has to cope with a husband who flickers in and out of existence, an over-aggressive pet dodo, and the problems arising from having Otto von Bismarck, Hamlet, and the mistress of Horatio Nelson under one roof. She has eerie encounters with genetically engineered monsters, a series of near-death experiences, and a device invented by her uncle who cannot remember what it does. But naturally, her most pressing problem is the difficulty in finding good child care.

How does she balance all of these weird and dangerous adventures in only a couple of weeks’ time? With fast reflexes, a faster wit, an instinct for literary integrity, and guts, guts, guts! From an athletic arena where lawyers and judges are part of the game, to a group therapy session called “Eradications Anonymous” – and all the way through one unbroken series of scary, loopy, fast-action escapades, where the boundaries, between fiction and reality, life and death, past and future, are all blurred. You name it, Thursday Next does it once again: she makes you laugh out loud; she moves you emotionally; she offers moments of fast-paced excitement, eerie chills, and straight-to-the-gut social satire. And even after four books, her story seems fresh and original right to the alarmingly satisfying end.

Will the chapter titled “Final Curtain” really be the last we see of Thursday Next? I hope not. But even if so, the spin-off Nursery Crime series continues to show great promise. [UPDATE: A fifth book in this series is out now: First Among Sequels.]

The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime
by Jasper Fforde
Recommended Age: 13+

Though not directly connected to the Thursday Next series, this “Jack Spratt Investigates” novel clearly comes from the same irresistably twisted mind. Set in an otherwise realistic, present-day world where characters from nursery rhymes are free to mix with the general population – as are blue-skinned aliens from outer space – it transforms the often told demise of Humpty Dumpty into an adult police-procedural. Who knew that “sat on a wall, had a great fall” wasn’t the whole story?

The result is a constantly engaging mixture of the life-like and the absurd, of goofball humor and a suspenseful, sometimes gruesome murder investigation. Part of the fun – and part of the danger, too – comes from the fact that, in Jack Spratt’s world, criminal investigation is dominated by a Guild, whose members are just like the sleuths of pulp novels and mystery magazines. In fact, they are the sleuths of novels and magazines, since the Guild controls the publishing rights to the account of every mystery they solve.

And poor, plodding, methodical, ordinary Jack Spratt is not a member of the Guild. A happily married family man with no vices, a crummy car, and a lack of flamboyant personal traits, he seems fated to spend his entire career running the underfunded, unappreciated Nursery Crime Division of the Reading police. And that may not be a very long career, either, if his flashy rival, Friedland Chymes, gets his way. Jack finds it hard to get the government to seriously prosecute the crimes he solves, when Chymes’ sleuthing sells police-procedural magazines and dazzles the press.

And now, using every dirty trick in the book (“the book” being something only Guild members get to read), Chymes is trying to take over the Humpty Dumpty investigation. Still, Spratt doggedly toils on, gradually winning the respect of his new partner, Mary Mary. (If you pay very strict attention, you will discover that until recently, Jack’s squad included officers named Butcher, Baker, and Candlestick-Maker). Meanwhile, the investigation leads them to consider a colorful assortment of suspects, and as the body count climbs, to face ever greater danger.

Wickedly funny, with a disturbing weirdness that somehow never spoils the sense of underlying realism, this is a truly original entertainment. I look forward to exploring Fforde’s new world again, as he has already hatched a new Nursery Crime novel: The Fourth Bear.

The Fourth Bear
by Jasper Fforde
Recommended Age: 14+

This second novel in the Nursery Crime series, itself a spinoff from the Thursday Next chronicles, maintains the same high pitch of literary loopiness as the preceding book. Beyond belief, Fforde doesn't seem even close to running out of steam, even after five previous novels intensely saturated with well-read in-jokes, cosmic weirdness, and oodles of the unexpected.

Jack Spratt, lead detective of the Reading police's Nursery Crime Division, has had some well-publicized successes lately, such as solving the murder of Humpty Dumpty and capturing the Great Long Red-Legg'd Scissor-Man. But the good press quickly disappears when an attempt to rescue Red Riding Hood from a ravening wolf goes pear-shaped. Suddenly Jack is suspended from the force, pending a psychiatrist's decision whether to allow him back on duty.

This only adds to a complicated set of problems. Punch and Judy have moved in next door and are disturbing the peace of his neighborhood. A crooked car salesman named Dorian Gray has sold Jack a car that seems to be in league with the devil. Jack's associates, Sergeant Mary and Constable Ashley, are becoming romantically involved, even though they belong to different species. Jack himself is plagued with marital problems (mostly relating to somebody else's marriage), conflict with his boss, and questions about his own reality. Plus, the case he isn't supposed to be working on (because he is on leave) keeps getting tangled up with another case he isn't supposed to be working on (because Detective David Copperfield is in charge). He doesn't mean to interfere, but it just happens.

Oh, I suppose you'll be interested in knowing what the two cases are about. Would you believe me if I told you that one of them has to do with anthropomorphized bears, illicit traffic in porridge and honey, and a dead journalist named Goldilocks? Would you feel any better if I mentioned that the other case involves an escaped Gingerbreadman who is like a cookie-cutter copy of Hannibal Lecter? No? Well, then you definitely don't want to know about the theme park based on the Battle of the Somme, the mysterious explosions that keep killing competitive cucumber growers, or the challenges of putting together a guest list for the wedding of Jack's daughter to the Greek god Prometheus. The beauty is, it's all so far-out that I can tell you all this, and you still have no idea what happens in the book!

Welsh author Fforde comes to this book armed with a vast knowledge of folklore, literature, and many other topics, a highly imaginative approach to the police procedural novel (never once does he claim to be describing authentic procedures), an irreverent and frequently wacky sense of humor, an eye for segments of society that want lampooning (such as the press, multinational corporations, politicians, etc.), and some illustrator friends who are always good for some neat bogus ads and front-plate drawings. So armed, Fforde blasts away relentlessly, pinning you down with a covering fire of sobering truths, sucker-punch jokes, and exciting plot developments until you surrender to his weird vision and follow him captive to the last page. Overworked metaphors aside, Fforde is an entertaining guy, and in this book he is at the top of his form.

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