Monday, August 25, 2008

4 Book Reviews

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels
by Jasper Fforde
Recommended Age: 17+

The fifth adventure of alternate-reality literary detective Thursday Next takes place some 14 years after the events of Something Rotten. In the years since the 1988 SuperHoop (the croquet final that decided the fate of the world), a lot has changed in Swindon. Spec-Ops, including Thursday's literary division, have been disbanded. As far as her stay-at-home husband Landen knows, Thursday has settled down to a quiet life as a partner in a carpet-laying firm.

But actually, the carpet business is only a front for her continuing, off-the-books detective work. In this parallel version of 2002 England, time travelers, genetically-engineered monsters, the undead, and large-as-life literary characters mix with regular folks - folks like Thursday's stalker, who moonlights as her partner in a cheese-smuggling ring; like her writer husband, who has been trying to sell a book titled Fatal Parachuting Mistakes and How to Avoid Making Them Again; like her son Friday, who was supposed to join the ChronoGuard at age 13, invent time travel, and save the world numerous times over, but who at age 16 lies in bed until noon, speaks in monosyllabic grunts, plays in a garage band, and smells nasty; and like her elderly mother and aunt, who spice up their spare time by detaining market researchers in their parlor with feigned dementia and uncomfortable small-talk.

So even slaying demons, chasing rampaging dinosaurs, talking with ghosts, and smuggling illegal cheese isn't a big stretch for Thursday's weird world - a world where the government's biggest worry is the Stupidity Surplus, and where the worst criminals are imprisoned in a time-loop in the checkout line at T. J. Maxx. But actually, Thursday's spec-ops work is itself a front for her really secret job: policing the border between reality and literature as an agent of Jurisfiction.

In Book World, Thursday is a very important person. She is the only "real" person who regularly and legally drops in, and as such she serves as the "Last Bastion of Common Sense" on the high-and-mighty Council of Genres. But trouble is brewing. Forced to babysit two hopeless agents-in-training - both of whom look just like her, because they are her fictional counterparts from the Thursday Next books - she must also get to the bottom of a Goliath Corporation attempt to drive busloads of tourists into fiction, the reappearance of an assassin who was last seen gunning for Thursday years and years ago, a government scheme to turn Sense and Sensibility into a reality show, and most seriously of all, the steadily falling number of people reading books. This is a lot to battle when your ability to jump into fiction is slipping, when a mind-bending baddie has planted false memories in your mind, when a badly-written lookalike is trying to steal your life, and when the end of time may be at hand - and the fate of everything depends on a spotty teenager who hasn't washed his hair in weeks!

My reviews of the Thursday Next books are, necessarily, full of run-on sentences. How else am I supposed to give you even the daintiest sip of the full-flavored fun Fforde has in store for you? It is wild. It is wacky. It is sexy, scary, and drop-dead smart. And above all, it is side-splittingly funny. At times the characters seem to be reading their lines off cue cards - they're just too perfect to come out of the mouths of real people! Nevertheless, the weirdness and originality of Fforde's fantasy continue to fascinate. His gags (such as a clandestine cheese sale, and an encounter with a demon) leave you gasping and crying with laughter. And his complex, kaleidoscopic narrative reminds you, page after page, that no form of entertainment can touch a good book. You'll probably finish this one with a good-sized list of other books to read, from Conan Doyle to Austen and beyond. If you belong to practically any fandom (including Harry Potter), you will spot a reference to your first love while you fall in love with this book. And if you notice, as I did, that not all the loose ends get tied up (for example, the minotaur), you will be warmed by the hope that this First Among Sequels will not be the last.

Tales of the Greek Heroes
by Roger Lancelyn Green
Recommended Age: 10+

All right class. What do you know about the gods and heroes of ancient Greece? How many Olympians can you name? Who were the Argonauts and what did they seek? What were the twelve labors of Hercules and why did he do them? Which gods made babies with mortals, and what did those babies do when they grew up? Well? Are you ready for the quiz? Do you even care?

Some kids like science fiction. Some like fantasy. Some like adventure, mystery, what have you. And some kids like reading stories based on the ancient myths. There have always been some kids like that, but there do not seem to be many these days. I was never one of those kids, but I still enjoyed this book. I do know one of those kids, though. He's going to love this book.

Roger Lancelyn Green was a kid like that, too. Inspired by the tales of Andrew Lang and H. Rider Haggard, Lancelyn Green fell in love with the world's oldest tales. He learned Greek and Latin, studied ancient manuscripts, traveled abroad - especially to Greece - and then wrote over a dozen books retelling traditional tales. This is one of the best-known and -loved of them.

You may have read collections of ancient Greek and Roman myths before. I have. I remember reading anthologies about gods and heroes when I was a kid. The stories were not connected. It was often difficult to figure out how they fit together. One sensed complicated lines of relationship between characters and events, but there were so many gaps and seeming contradictions that it was hard to make sense of them. Plus, there would always be boring passages where the editor quoted a bit of the original Greek or Latin at you (of which, thanks to the wonders modern education, you couldn't read a word). Or the clever fellow would put things in a roundabout way, assuming you knew what he was talking about, when in fact you had no frame of reference to pick up on his subtleties. Bottom line, reading about mythology always seemed like work - school work, most likely; dry, dull, difficult, and full of trivial details that you knew you were going to be on the quiz - but other than that, you couldn't make out why you needed to learn them.

The real problem was that you didn't read Roger Lancelyn Green's version first. This is the book you should have started with! This is the one that makes sense of it all! Lancelyn Green fits the main people and events of ancient Greek mythology together in one easy-to-read narrative flow. He uses language of simple grace, rather than obscure poetry, to explain who was who and what they did. His writing style is tight, clear, and vivid. You may disagree with his theories about how and why these stories got started, but it's hard to argue with such a comprehensive and approachable view of the entire body of Greek myth.

Lancelyn Green had a massive wall-chart showing how everyone and everything in these stories connected together. After reading the way he tells the tales, you won't need a chart like that. It's that clear, and it is thrilling to read, and if it gets you hooked on ancient myth you will be better prepared to begin reading the versions by Kingsley, Hawthorne, Rouse, Vernant, and others. Or maybe you'll just get hooked on classic tales told the way Lancelyn Green tells them. If so, you may be interested in knowing that some of his other books include The Tale of Troy, The Tale of Thebes, Tales of Ancient Egypt, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, Adventures of Robin Hood, Myths of the Norsemen, A Cavalcade of Dragons, Thirteen Uncanny Tales, and more.

The Squire's Tale
by Gerald Morris
Recommended Age: 12+

As you open this first book in the series known, appropriately, as "The Squire's Tales," you immediately meet a woodsy lad named Terence. Raised by a blind hermit who remembers the future but forgets the past, Terence does not know who his parents are or what he is destined for. But then, in one day, he is visited by a mischievous sprite, witnesses a fatal duel, and becomes the squire to a certain Gawain who aspires to be a knight of King Arthur's Round Table. And that's only the beginning of the great happenings in which Terence plays a humble, but important, part.

Wisconsin-based author Gerald Morris set out to rehabilitate the memory of Sir Gawain, who used to be considered the greatest of King Arthur's knights, until that nickel-plated scrub Sir Lancelot stole the limelight from him. It's rather mysterious how the focus of the legends suddenly shifted round-about Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur. Go ahead and read Morris' "author's note" at the end of this book if you want to know more about what parts of this tale are original and what parts are only a slight re-imagining of very old tales.

Whether that information interests you or not, I think you will like Terence. You will be intrigued by his skills, the hint of fairy magic about him, and the good stuff he is made of. You will be thrilled, amused, and moved by his journey and the adventures of the knights he travels with. And you will understand why the word "romance" is so often linked with the tales of King Arthur and his knights. It isn't just because there are love stories woven in among the feats of derring-do. These are romances of an (all but) ideal age in which (nearly) ideal men accomplished great things that have resonated through history to this day. These are romances that reflect our dreams of what we want to be - ourselves and our world - and if reality never seems in step with fantasy, perhaps it is the fault of reality.

It is such a familiar tale, told in such a straightforward, appealing way, that I feel sure you will devour it and come back hungry for more. That's all right, for there are at least five more books in this series, and the next helping is titled The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady.

The Hundred Days
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+

Here is Book 19 of the 20-volume novel of warfare, wildlife, society, and culture in the era of Napoleon, featuring a brilliant British frigate captain named Jack Aubrey and his medical officer, intelligence agent, musical partner, and longtime friend Stephen Maturin. And if book 18 (The Yellow Admiral) was a book of tragic forebodings, The Hundred Days is one in which the forbodings come true.

Don't be shocked when a couple important, recurring characters' deaths seem to have fallen in the crack between these books; a little reflection will show that they were set up very nicely, and you might have expected them had you been paying closer attention. The real surprise is how quickly O'Brian moves on with his narrative, disposing of a likeable, long-running character late in this book without even pausing for breath. If you wanted a taste of the cold, numb shock of the human, and very personal, cost of warfare, you have come to the right shop.

The characters, for their part, do not move on so easily. Stephen's deep, spiritual pain is an undercurrent throughout this book; but there are also foreshadowings of a happiness to come, though one that remains unfulfilled at the end of this book. In the meantime, he and Jack are kept too busy to dwell on their losses, because Napoleon has escaped from Elba; the war is back on; and the H.M.S. Surprise is right in the thick of it.

Intelligence has it that the Turks want to help Napoleon beat the allies. To do this, he must keep the armies of Austria and Russia from coming together, and from meeting with the English and Prussian forces. It's countdown time - the countdown to Waterloo, when a slender difference of timing and the issue of whether or not two historic enemies can work together may decide the fate of all Europe. But all that's happening on land; what does a frigate in the Mediterranean have to do with it? Well, the Turks won't move until their mercenaries are paid. The gold to pay them is coming from Morocco, by way of Algiers. Unless Jack and Stephen can stop the gold by a combination of daring, strength, and cunning, the plan may succeed - and so may Napoleon.

Who knew that a lion-shooting safari into the Atlas mountains of north Africa played such a pivotal role in stopping Napoleon from taking over the world? Who knew that so much depended on Stephen spreading a few simoleons around, ensuring that several Adriatic shipyards would get the torch? Who knew that a long chase along the Spanish coast at the dark of a moon could decide so much? And even if they did know, would they have imagined such a rich backdrop of Algerian culture, wildlife and landscape; the chancy politics of a naval squadron; a surprising discovery in a moorish slave market; the intrigues and assassinations; the duel nearly fought over the stomach contents of a dog named Naseby; and the chilling rise and fall of a captain's steward in the social pecking-order of a deeply superstitious crew? Who would have expected a mere naval adventure to touch on such topics as marital love, jealousy, addiction, suicide, the hydrodynamics of a unicorn horn, and medical malpractice? Who, indeed, would have guessed that Stephen Maturin would possess a creepy talisman last seen in the hands of Draco Malfoy? Well, except for the last question, the answer is probably "anyone who has read books 1-18 of the Aubreyiad." If these questions intrigue you, you should join their number. You won't be disappointed.

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