“Early Riser” by Jasper Fforde (2018)

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“Mrs Tiffen could play the bouzouki.”

Jasper Fforde has – even by his own admission – been undergoing a creative hiatus these last few years. He doesn’t know what caused it anymore than his readers do, but suffice to say the literary landscape has been missing its shine peculiar to the man for the duration. As one of the finest and funniest writers we have, it was a huge relief that this month finally saw the release of his newest book, almost two years after it was originally announced.

Fforde takes us to a new world of his imagination in Early Riser as we enter a planet in the grip of an Ice Age, where the ice sheets reach down to the Midlands, and humans hibernate every winter. As the temperatures drop and blizzards set in, only a few people stay awake for the Winter to protect those that sleep. Charlie Worthing is a new recruit undergoing his first season with the Winter Consuls and he doesn’t really know what to expect. Things start bad enough when the nightwalker he’s been tasked with taking care of is lost and rumours begin to circulate about a viral dream that’s causing people to go mad. Things get worse when he accidentally falls asleep for four weeks and is now trapped in Sector Twelve, the most dangerous and insanity-inducing area of Wales known to mankind.

Caught now between two factions – one led by the pleasant and charming Aurora, and the other by the violent and permanently angry Toccata – Charlie finds that he’s now beginning to experience the viral dream too, and what’s more it seems to be bleeding into reality. As the waking world begins to merge with his dreams, he learns the hard way that it takes more to survive the Winter than a thick coat and a steady supply of Tunnock’s Teacakes.

From the opening paragraph, you can tell it’s Fforde. His style is so unique and warm, and his imagination is somewhere I could spend hours swimming around in. I long to be able to write as well as this. His world building is unmatched in its scope. This is now the fifth world he’s created for us, and it lacks nothing. The single difficulty is that because the narrators assume that you live in the world too, many aspects don’t get fully explained, so you have to pick it up as you go along and hope for the best. Fforde layers in so many jokes and ideas that it’s hard work to read him, but gets easier as time goes on and is absolutely always worth it. Here, for example, we not only have hibernating humans but also nuns who pledge their oath to be permanently pregnant to help population growth, mythical creatures that live out in the snow but are never witnessed, an economy based on Snickers bars and the owing of favours, and Carmen Miranda. As with Shades of Grey, his humans are not quite as we are, but this is never really shown explictly – you just suddenly realise that they’ve all grown thick coats of winter fur, some of them in intricate tortoiseshell or spotted patterns.

Fforde also plays with concepts in our world and turns them upside down. Here, weight loss diets don’t exist, as it’s better for you to enter hibernation fat and well fed. The Ice Age means that people are pumping masses of carbon dioxide into the air in an attempt to heat up the world. His fondness for Wales shines through too, as that’s where the novel is entirely set, and it’s only really halfway through when you meet some English villains that you learn all the characters up to that point are, and have been speaking, Welsh.

Despite the surrealism, the core is still utterly believable. It depicts a world that has evolved much like ours – Shakespeare, the Chuckle Brothers and Brief Encounter all still exist – but with the added issue of the encroaching ice sheets. As ever, the characters are real and complex, somehow attractive and very, very human. When it comes down to it, all of his books are pretty much about normal people trying to cope in worlds that seem bizarre to use but completely normal to them. No one has been this sharp on the topic since Douglas Adams, and I think it’ll be many years before we find anyone who can do it this well again.

We’re so glad to have you back, Jasper. Now about those sequels…

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“The Woman Who Died A Lot” by Jasper Fforde (2012)

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woman-who-died“Everything comes to an end.”

Despite this novel’s opening line, this isn’t quite the end. However, it feels like it some days. This is the seventh book in the Thursday Next series, and there hasn’t been a new one in four years now, although it ends on a cliffhanger and reports that she will return. All I say to you now though is, if you haven’t read the ones before, then this is going to make even less sense to you than if you had. On we go.

Thursday Next has been forced into semi-retirement. Now in her early fifties, she has survived the kidnapping attempt of the previous book, but now she walks with a stick, has double vision a lot of the time, and is addicted to painkiller patches. With the news that SpecOps is about to be reinstated in an effort to use up as much of the country’s excess money in stupid ways as possible, she is sure that she’s in line to be the new head of SO-27, the Literary Detectives. After all, having worked for them for a long time, as well as spending several years inside literature, surely she’s the ideal person for the job. That is, if it wasn’t for Phoebe Smalls, who is younger, fitter and perhaps even more tenacious than Thursday.

Thursday is instead offered the job of heading up Swindon Library, a task that is somewhat more relaxed but still doesn’t come without its problems, such as the impending budget cuts, the Blyton fundamentalists who want all the racism put back into their novels to better represent their “perfect England”, and the fact that Goliath, everyone’s least-favourite multinational are after some specific and unusual antique books.

But, being a Thursday Next book, that’s not all.

Thursday’s son Friday has lost the job he never had with the Chronoguard and has been told he’s going to commit a murder at the end of the week; an angry god is planning on smiting Swindon on the same day, unless Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday can find a way to prevent it; memories keep going astray and Thursday doesn’t understand the tattoo that’s appeared on her hand; there seems to be something going on within the Dark Reading Matter that contains all the stories that never got written; and Thursday herself keeps getting replaced by very lifelike synthetic versions of herself which is proving to be very annoying.

In the last book, we spent the vast majority of the time inside the BookWorld, emerging once to learn a little bit about what was going on in the Outland, and this time it’s the other way around. Because of Thursday’s injuries, she can no longer jump into fiction and instead must make do on this side of the page. This lets us explore more of the strange world of Fforde’s Swindon, bringing back Joffy Next, Jack Schitt and Daisy Mutlar, to name some of the characters. By this point in the series, you better have a firm grip on what’s come before as Fforde enjoys dropping in references to names and events from previous books without explanation.

He’s as funny as ever too, turning librarians into a task force of the military elite, who are regularly shot at by angry patrons and perform raids on private houses to get back the books that rightfully belong in their hallowed buildings. Despite writing off time travel as impossible two books ago, he’s obviously had a change of heart and it’s back and even stranger than ever, paradoxically working and not at the same time.

There are also some deeply dark moments in here, such as the Letters of Destiny which tell would-have-been members of the Chronoguard about the life they would have had and the one they now will. All the scenes involving Aornis Hades and her memory-altering powers are also incredibly powerful and actually quite terrifying. Thursday is an amazing protagonist, and seems almost unique in the canon of female heroes as being a mother, over fifty, highly intelligent, and still able to kick butt when necessary (or in a synthetic body).

I could languish in this world forever, if only for the puns, wordplay and beautifully constructed nonsensical sentences. Every scene is utter bliss, from Thursday’s father who until recently didn’t exist but now has memories of his family that they don’t share, to the Manchild, who has half of his body aging in reverse.

If you’re new to this world, get reading The Eyre Affair. You’ll thank me later.

“One Of Our Thursdays Is Missing” by Jasper Fforde (2011)

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thursdays-missing“Everyone remembers where they were when the BookWorld was remade.”

Where does one even begin on this week? Fearing, and later seeing, the worst news of 2016 so far – and it was up against some pretty stiff competition – meant that I had to take refuge inside fiction, and where better than back inside Jasper Fforde. Continuing on the Thursday Next series, this is the sixth installment, possibly my favourite one, so be prepared for spoilers out the wazoo and to not understand anything if you’ve not read the others in the series. Though, in fairness, even if you have read them this still might not make much sense.

First up, the BookWorld doesn’t look like it used to. In the previous novels it’s been just the Great Library and characters jump from book to book. Now it’s been remade, and Fiction Island is just one of hundreds. The island is divided up into genres with the Metaphoric River running through them all, from Dogma in the north to Adventure in the south. This alone makes the book far more enjoyable and funny, as the books are now neighbours and people get around by public transport. There are a lot more jokes and concepts to mine from this, and mine them Fforde does. Anyway, the plot.

This book isn’t narrated by the Thursday Next we’ve grown to love over the last five books, but instead by the written version. Although she failed her Jurisfiction entrance exam, when not being read in her own series and dealing with the troublesome cast there, she works for JAID, the Jurisfiction Accident Investigation Division under Commander James “Red” Herring. When a self-published book, The Murders on the Hareng Rouge, comes down over Thriller, Thursday discovers that all the ISBN numbers have been scrubbed from the remains. Realising though that she’s just there to declare the case closed, she does so. However, she discovers soon after that the real Thursday Next is missing, and suddenly the downed book seems a bit more suspicious.

Accompanied by her clockwork butler Sprockett, whom she has recently saved from inside Conspiracy, and somehow equipped with the real Thursday’s Jurisfiction badge, written Thursday sets about finding out what has happened to her real self. But this is a Fforde book so we also have to contend with a brewing war between the genres of Women’s Fiction and Racy Novel, a lack of raw metaphor, a brief jaunt into the real world to find out more about Thursday’s absence from her husband Landen and the never-ending party on Fanfiction Island.

The idea of a geographical BookWorld is perhaps my favourite idea in here, as it entirely alters the way things work and, as I said, allows for all new jokes. The book also now contains a map of the new island, which is itself crammed with jokes. The genres of Racy Novel and Comedy border one another with the sub-genre of Bawdy Romp as a buffer zone; the Streams of Consciousness are literal; and there’s even a tiny island dedicated to MPs Expenses, a fiction if ever there was one. Another excellent joke scene is a minor one but features a support group for literary siblings who can’t live up to the popularity of their more famous brothers and sisters. They include the Mediocre Gatsby, who makes a living driving taxis, Rupert Bond who remains a virgin, Sharon Eyre, Tracey Capulet and Nancy Potter. You can work them out for yourselves.

Fforde also seems oddly prescient here, as if he knew something we didn’t. A major plot point is that the Racy Novel genre, on the banks of the Innuendo River, is trying to make itself more respected and gain a bigger readership. The following year, Fifty Shades of Grey was published, followed by hundreds of copycats trying to ride the coattails of its success. Seems that he knew something was going on. Because the book, like First Among Sequels, is set considerably later than the earlier books, we also get many more Harry Potter jokes, as well as a dig at the popularity of sexy vampires.

It’s also great to see a fictional character drop into the RealWorld for the first time and have to deal with such troublesome things as breathing, gravity, and conversations that serve no purpose to the plot. It’s also a chance to meet Square from Flatland, and learn a bit of what’s going on out there, which continues some gags from the last books and sets up some more ideas that will return in the next. This book is mostly set in the BookWorld, as indeed the next will focus primarily on the RealWorld.

As ever, Fforde weaves magic and I can’t believe I’m nearly done with Thursday again. But it’s a wonderful reminder that even in times of utter turmoil and trouble, books will be there to see us through the worst of it. Have faith.

“First Among Sequels” by Jasper Fforde (2007)

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first_among_sequels“The dangerously high levels of the Stupidity Surplus was once again the lead story in The Owl that morning.

It’s been a while, for both myself and Thursday. I left her fifteen books ago and she returns here in the fifth book of the Thursday Next series, and things are a little different. As ever, there will be some spoilers in here for people who haven’t read the first four, though if you do feel like starting in the middle for absolutely no sensible reason, here would be the best place to start.

The book opens fourteen years after the end of the last one, and things are very different. Thursday Next is now 52 and still happily married to Landen, with three children, the perpetually lazy and smelly cliched teenager Friday, the phenomenally intelligent Tuesday, and the quiet, unsociable Jenny. SpecOps has been mostly disbanded, leading Thursday and her former colleagues without official work, so now they run a carpet fitting shop. Except this is just a cover – they’re still dealing with the “weird shit” that the regular police won’t touch. And this is a cover too – Thursday is still working for Jurisfiction, deep inside the BookWorld, where her own stories have now become books that she’d rather distance herself from. As ever in Fforde’s world, there are a lot of threads here.

Firstly, Thursday has to mentor her fictional selves, the hyper-aggressive and violent Thursday1-4, star of the first four Thursday Next books, and the hippie, museli-loving rewrite of the fifth, Thursday5. Secondly, she has to convince her son Friday to join the ChronoGuard where he is meant to become the most successful operative of all times, but he’d rather be playing in his band and sleeping in until midday. With the End of Time approaching, never has the phrase “running out of time” been more apt.

Thirdly, the government are introducing the idea of reality television into books, suggesting that they should be rewritten with people choosing how they want the story to run and which characters they want to kill off. With Pride and Prejudice up for first adjustment, there are a lot of worried people. It may be true that fewer people are reading than ever before, but surely this isn’t the way to get them back into literature? And then of course there’s the discovery that Sherlock Holmes has been killed, and there’s the possibility that a serial killer is running free through the pages of the BookWorld.

More than ever, the book is loaded with hilarious exposition, scenes that seem pointless and sometimes are just there for the humour, but other times load up some highly important information without you noticing. The book is notable for several reasons. One of these is for the greatest time travel twist I’ve ever seen in fiction. I won’t ruin it here, but it’s something that has to be seen to be believed and makes me laugh out loud. In fact, several concepts here are wonderful. Joining the time travel debacle is the idea that TK-Maxx isn’t a discount clothing store, but in fact a prison where criminals are kept in stable time loops, aging but unable to do anything more than live out the same few minutes for years on end.

Where was I? Notability, right. If it seemed unusual enough before that Thursday was a heroine in her mid-thirties, here she’s in her early fifties, and still kicking arse and taking names as much as she ever used to, even though her back is starting to hurt and she’s not quite as quick as she once was. An action heroine in her fifties? You don’t get that in Hollywood. Another reason why these books are sheer perfection. Fforde messes around with intertextuality, goes meta to greater extremes than displayed anywhere else, and yet all the nonsense still works with great humour and serious intelligence. There’s even a jaunt into an Agatha Christie novel in here, and because the books are now set in the early 2000s rather than the 1980s, there are references to more modern characters, including Temperance Brennan and Harry Potter (the latter being unable to attend a couple of scenes due to issues of copyright law).

I’m aware that my posts about Thursday Next and Jasper Fforde are little more than giddy fanboying, but frankly I don’t care. Read these books and join me in my madness – you won’t regret it.

“Something Rotten” by Jasper Fforde (2004)

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something“The Minotaur had been causing trouble far in excess of his literary importance.”

And I’m back to Fforde. This review will contain spoilers for those who haven’t read the earlier books, so make sure you’re up to date on The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots before checking this one out. This might just be the best of the bunch so far.

The fourth book in Thursday Next’s story picks up in 1988, two years after the events of the last one. She’s now heading up Jurisfiction and has spent most of the missing years within fiction, avoiding the real world where her husband no longer exists, having been eradicated when he was two-years-old. She is still a woman of action though, and hasn’t been held back by her infant son Friday. However, when an incident in the Western genre goes wrong, Thursday finds herself unwilling to stay on and so makes her way back into the real world, bringing Hamlet along with her as he’s under the impression that people in the Outland see him as something of a ditherer.

It couldn’t be a worse time to bring a Danish prince to England though, as the new Chanellor Yorrick Kaine – a fictional character who has escaped from who knows where – has all but declared war on Denmark and is setting about banning all Danish literature. Elsewhere, evil corporation Goliath has decided to apologise for all its past transgressions and is turning itself into a religion, the thirteenth-century seer St Zvlkx is due to make an appearance again, hopefully to discuss his Revealments, there’s an assassin after Thursday, in the absence of Hamlet, Ophelia has led a hostile takeover of the play and ruined it, and the fate of the world rests on Swindon winning the World Croquet League this coming weekend.

It’s just another normal day for Thursday Next.

As ever, there are a million different threads here but they all tie up wonderfully. Things from previous novels are brought back and explained, and we get a whole new list of things to enjoy. The star of the book though, other than Thursday, is Hamlet. He begins consuming the different versions of his play that we’ve produced, and finds that everyone seems to have their own take on who he is and how he feels. After all, he’s never had a clue himself. He’s portrayed as a worrier who is unable to make a snap decision, as well as being somewhat vain but very emotionally unstable. He’s a delight, and you can tell Fforde enjoyed playing with him, although at the end you do get the feeling it was all done just to have a single joke pay off brilliantly. But I’m not complaining.

Another great sequence involves Thursday and friends heading across the Welsh border to track down a cloned Shakespeare, playing on the notion of infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters. What if you had infinite Shakespeares? How much quicker would you find genius? The book is full of great scenes, and also becomes the first in the series to introduce illustrations, which bring to life the bizarre world even further.

There’s also the introduction of a few new characters, such as Cindy Stoker, the most dangerous assassin in England and wife of Thursday’s friend Spike, Millon de Floss, Thursday’s official stalker, and young Friday, who is it hinted at will become very important to the planet’s future survival. After spending the majority of the last book inside the Bookworld, it’s quite refreshing to now return to this bizarre, twisted version of England that Fforde has created. Any world that gives us dodos, croquet as a national sport, and George Formby as President is one that I want to spend more time in. Fforde continues to write with such intelligent humour that you laugh your way through a book that feels light as air and never bogs you down, despite occasionally dealing with some very dramatic and beautifully written scenes about love and loss.

The book feels like it’s wrapping up, and in some ways it is. This isn’t the last we’ve seen of Thursday, but it feels like an end of “part one”, as in the next book, we will have jumped ahead in time to the early 21st century. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…

“The Well Of Lost Plots” by Jasper Fforde (2003)

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wolp“Making one’s home in an unpublished novel wasn’t without its compensations.”

As I continue on with my reading of Jasper Fforde’s work, we come to the third installment of the Thursday Next series. As explained last time, continuity once again hits hard so there will be spoilers from the off. There are also spoilers for another of his books within, but we’ll deal with that further down the page. So, for now, settle in and let’s discuss the third book.

Thursday Next has decided that she needs a break. After all, being hunted down by a sinister corporation that controls everything, making an enemy of one of the UK’s most powerful politicians, and finding yourself pregnant by your husband who doesn’t exist is enough to make anyone a bit stressed. She takes up residence inside fiction. Quite literally, she moves into an unpublished (and terrible) novel called Caversham Heights, with the stipulations that she must take on the role of Mary Jones and play her part, as well as continue working for Jurisfiction, the organisation that polices books from the inside.

But it’s not exactly going to be restful. Down here there are issues with an escaped Minotaur and a horrible accident with a mispeling vyrus, two Generics who are struggling to develop personalities before assignment, an apparent plot to kill prominent members of Jurisfiction, and the 923rd Annual BookWorld Awards to attend. And every day the memories of her husband become fainter and fainter…

As usual, there’s a lot more to this plot, but I don’t want to overload it. More than others, it sometimes feels like a string of funny scenes that Jasper Fforde has thought up and wants to get in, but I’m not complaining. The plot runs along and never gets lost in the madness, and the madness all works so beautifully that more than anything I’m simply angry that I didn’t get there first. This book is the first to spend the majority of the time inside fiction instead of the real world (the Outland) and so we get to explore in more depth some of the earlier concepts. These include the use of footnotes by characters to communicate with one another, finally showing them at their most wonderful in the climax of the novel, an explanation of how spelling errors get into books, and how some people are employed full time to fix plot holes, as well as introducing us to the way that characters are born and get their roles.

While some characters appear and are fictional within this world too, others are known to us. We get to spend a lot of time inside Wuthering Heights and Shadow the Sheepdog, both to hilarious effect. We’re introduced to heroes of literature such as Mr Toad, Miss Tiggy-winkle, Quasimodo, Captain Nemo, and a whole host of nursery rhyme characters. The latter group here are currently campaigning for more rights, as it’s tough being a character from the Oral Tradition with no set book to call home. If only they could be granted a novel where they could life in safety and find literary success… Frankly, this is the most bonkers and wonderful subplot in the entire series. No, actually, second. The first is still two or three books away.

As usual, I have very little bad to say about Fforde. It’s slick, hilarious, fiercely intelligent and a real love letter to literature. Here we learn that books are constructed within the Well of Lost Plots, the words being beamed directly to the author’s pen or keyboard once the words have been dredged up from the LiteraSea. I can’t fault this series, it’s so wonderful and it’s impossible not to laugh, or feel a little tug on the heartstrings when you catch a mention of a book or character that you love.

If you love books and still haven’t got round to this series, for goodness sake why?

“Lost In A Good Book” by Jasper Fforde (2002)

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It's my favourite place to go missing.

It’s my favourite place to go missing.

“I didn’t ask to be a celebrity.”

I’m back to Jasper Fforde and I’m going to open immediately by saying that if you haven’t read The Eyre Affair and care about spoilers then stop reading now. This book opens pretty much where the last one left off, so I will have to talk about the ending of the first book as a matter of course. In some series, this probably doesn’t matter, but in Fforde’s world, while each book contains the important information from previous novels, you miss out on a lot of character work and nuanced details.

So, spoilers ahead, you have been warned.

It’s a month since Thursday Next had chased down dangerous criminal Acheron Hades into Jane Eyre and accidentally changed the ending of the novel, and now she’s struggling with the pressures of fame when she’d much rather be spending time with her new husband, Landen. However, most of the time she finds herself caught between her duties at SpecOps (a genuine copy of Cardenio has been discovered), the villains of Goliath (their operative Jack Schitt is still trapped in The Raven), and Cordelia Flakk who is insistent that she does more press and publicity. But things are about to get a whole lot worse.

When coincidences start happening around her, Thursday starts to worry that she’s going mad. She attacks a Neanderthal who she believes has a gun, she is nearly crushed by a car, and just when things couldn’t get any worse, her husband is eradicated from time and now died when he was two years old. Only she has any memory of the fact that she was ever married, and everyone else is concerned for her health. Just when things couldn’t get anymore troublesome, she makes contact with a lawyer who works for the Jurisfiction, the organisation that polices books from inside the books. Thursday is assigned to be trained up as their newest member under the watchful eye of Miss Havisham (yes, that one) and must learn the ropes of the book industry.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the world is due to end in just over a week, and someone is after Thursday who makes Acheron Hades look as nasty as a kitten. Life would be so much easier if she was just allowed to sit back and get lost in a good book.

OK, so trying to write a coherent (and short) plot synopsis for a Jasper Fforde book is nearly impossible, so that’s as good as you’re going to get. As usual, there are so many threads going on here, but they still all make sense and tie together in such wonderfully implausible ways that you almost can’t get over the sheer nerve of the man. Thursday remains one of the greatest characters in literature, and this is where the books really start to come into their own, as we spend some time in the Great Library and meet the fictional characters who run the Jurisfiction, most notably in this book, Miss Havisham, the Cheshire Cat, the Red Queen and Commander Bradshaw.

It also introduces us to one of the most terrifying villains in fiction. With the abilities to mess with people’s memories, as well as affect the laws of coincidence and probability, this is one of the most horrifying people you could imagine meeting. Maybe you already have…

It is the Bookworld, though, that really shines through. I forgot how far into the book you get before Thursday actually makes it into the Great Library, but once you’re there, it’s clear that Fforde has never had quite so much fun. He populates the fictional world with characters who we know from the classics, as well as more of his own devising, and has them all as real as anyone from the real world. A particularly funny example is with Mrs Dashwood from Sense & Sensibility, who worries what the readers think of her and her husband. Miss Havisham is awesome; we’re more used to thinking of her sat in her ballroom wasting away in her wedding dress, but here she’s full of life and has a strange passion for sports cars, or indeed anything with a big motor. It also introduces some of the concepts that will become important later like pagerunners (characters who escape from their books) and the Well of Lost Plots (where all unfinished stories reside).

It’s a book that is hilarious and smart, certainly, but it’s so full of warmth and love too, and it really feels like settling down with an old friend, albeit a well-read friend who in equal measure likes to make you laugh, cry and quake with fear. Fforde seems to understand literature in a way that few others do, and he really, really loves books. It would be so easy to mock literature from the inside, but he doesn’t. It’s all done with passion and joy.

This series is a must for anyone who loves literature, and if that’s you, then get on with it.

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