“The Reader On The 6.27” by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (2015)

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“Some people are born deaf, mute or blind.”

The creation of books is, to my mind, a symbol of humanity’s hope for the future. It’s a sign that we think it’s important to put down all we’ve learnt and think we’ve learnt for other people to read. The act of destroying books, therefore, is horrendous to me. A task we had to complete during my university degree involved ripping up a book to reconstruct the text in a new order, and that was hard enough. The idea of destroying books en masse … I can’t bear it.

Guylain Vignolles, the hero of this tale, shares my view. He adores books and hates the idea of destroying them – which is unfortunate, as his job is to run the book pulping machine at a factory in France. Every day, lorry-loads of remaindered books turn up and are shovelled into the machine’s maw and reduced to sludge, which is then taken off to be recycled into new books. Perhaps that’s admirable, but Guylian takes no pleasure from it, especially when everyone around him seems to enjoy their work. Guylian’s single joy is, once a day, when the machine is turned off, he climbs into its inner workings and rescues the handful of pages that has survived. He takes them home, dries them off, and reads them to his fellow commuters on the morning train, regardless of what they say or where they came from.

Guylian’s life takes on a new layer of excitement, however, when first he is invited by two elderly passengers to read at their nursing home, and then when he finds a memory stick on his usual train seat which contains the diary of an enigmatic and engaging lavatory attendant from somewhere in Paris. He begins to see that there may be more to life than he’d allowed there to be, and soon things begin to change.

The book’s own blurb describes the finding of the diary as a pivotal plot point, and while it is, it doesn’t actually occur until over halfway through the novel. The rest is equally compelling, though. Guylian is surrounded by a number of eccentric figures, including the plant’s security guard who speaks only in alexandrines and spends his time reading poetry aloud to an invisible audience in his little hut, and Guiseppe, a former colleague who is on a hunt for his legs after having them torn off in an industrial accident involving the book pulping machine. His story, particularly, is a beautiful one which I’m not going to go into here because I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s a great example of how white lies can be beneficial.

To return to where I began, the book is dripping with hope. The love of books and the written word is hopeful. Guylian manages to give Guiseppe a shot of hope just whenever he is most in need of it. Julie, the author of the diary, is hopeful for something that’s missing in her life. As always with translated books, you can never be quite sure how it would have read in the original language (unless you happen to speak both, and my French is practically non-existent). Kudos must go to Ros Schwartz who translated this one, which must have been especially difficult given the large amount of rhyming poetry present. Some things don’t translate, though. Guylian’s full name is a spoonerism pun that only works in French and while it’s explained here, the impact is less striking to an English reader.

It’s a quick, gorgeous read and one for anyone who needs a bit of hope in their lives.

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“Dead Writers In Rehab” by Paul Bassett Davies (2017)

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“I know why the caged bird sings. But that pigeon outside my room at four in the morning? What the fuck is his problem?”

It’s well documented that a lot of creative people seem to develop a fondness for, and perhaps a reliance on, drugs or alcohol. Indeed, I wrote an article for a spirits website about the favourite drinks of several authors. I suppose there’s no real way of knowing if the addictions caused the creativity, or the stress of creating let to the addiction. Who knows? All we do know is that Fitzgerald, Byron, Hemingway, Thompson and the rest all created great works while “under the influence”. Now imagine if you put all those people into the same building and watched the fireworks fly. That’s Dead Writers in Rehab.

Foster James is a literary star who seems to spend much of his time between writing novels in rehab. Once again, he wakes up to find himself in an institution with no memory of how he got there. The doctors are cagey and remote, and he can’t find the front door. It’s only when, during a group therapy session, he’s punched in the face by Ernest Hemingway that he realises that this isn’t a regular rehabilitation centre.

Now surrounded by literature’s greatest reprobates, James must try and come to terms with where he is. In between navigating the comedowns of William Burroughs, Colette and Hunter S. Thompson, he sleeps with Dorothy Parker, and they all learn that the centre is under threat as the two doctors assigned to their care are being torn apart by a failed love affair. Deciding that some things are bigger even than their egos, the writers pool their resources and set about bringing the doctors back together. But there’s something lurking on the edge of the grounds, seen from the corner of the eye, watching and waiting…

Despite not being massively well-versed in the classical canon, I know enough about the figures presented here to enjoy the story hugely. Foster James isn’t especially likeable, but then again very few of the characters are. Dorothy Parker is portrayed as willing to sleep with anyone who asks; Hemingway is violent and aggressive, and Hunter S. Thompson is a cheating sleazeball. They are also all shown at the age they were at the height of their prowess – Hemingway is in his fifties, representing the time he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, while Thompson is young, at his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas peak. It’s a great cast, even including Mary Seacole, who wrote some excellent memoirs about her time in the Crimea, warranting her a place among the patients. I longed for Agatha Christie to appear, of course, but she neither smoked nor drank, and would not be seen in a place like this.

The story is told via the recovery diaries of all the patients, mostly Foster himself, but with excepts from others who all write in the same style that we would expect of them. It’s Foster, though, who provided me with the lines that I particularly loved. When thinking of how his marriage went sour, he says poignantly:

It was like a relationship between pen pals in reverse: we began in the same place, knowing everything about each other, and by the end we were in different wolds with nothing in common but an imperfect grasp of the other’s language.

Or he can be funny, such as when discussing the meaning behind a famous M People song:

I’m all in favour of searching for the hero inside yourself. And if you can’t find him, try luring the bastard out with alcohol and the prospect of a fight; that usually does the trick.

There are a few great twists and surprises which I won’t mention here because the impact is better if you don’t know what’s coming, and while the novel does well for mostly leaving you wondering exactly what’s going on, the end was a little disappointing. It works, sure, but I don’t think we needed an explanation. Or if we did, we needed one different to the one we got.

A very smart, funny and unique book that anyone with even a passing interest in literature should gobble up with great haste.

“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.

“Lost For Words” by Edward St Aubyn (2014)

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lost-for-words“When that Cold War relic Sir David Hampshire had approached him about becoming Chair of the Elysian Prize committee, Malcolm Craig asked for twenty-four hours to consider the offer.”

I’ve always been skeptical about literary prizes. As one of the characters in this very book says;

Personally I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent.

I’m inclined to agree. I’ve read some phenomenal books that seem never to have been given a moment’s attention by those who worship Literature with a capital L, and also slogged my way (often only ever part-way) through novels that have been honoured with massive awards – I’m looking at you, The God of Small Things. Anyway, Lost for Words is a satire on the world of literary prizes and seems to enjoy showing how ludicrous the whole thing is.

The book leaps around to see the world through various characters including the judges for the coveted Elysian Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in the world, some of the writers, and others in their orbits. What we see is a nest of interlocking, often tense, relationships, as everyone has a goal besides ensuring the book they want is the winner. Characters include Katherine Burns, a writer who breaks hearts habitually and is always courting at least three partners; Sam Black, an author who is in love with Katherine; Vanessa, an academic who is not convinced by the literary merit of all but one of the nominees; John Elton, an agent who may just have thrown away the biggest book in history; and Indian author Sonny who is convinced that his novel The Mulberry Elephant will take the world by storm, if only he could get someone to take a look at it.

Lost for Words parodies the fact that some people seem to think that anything is art, and that if you get people to analyse anything enough, they will find all sorts of hidden meanings in it that probably reveals more about themselves than the artist. The book that wins the Prize (a decision that isn’t reached until two minutes before the announcement) is obvious from quite early on, but it’s still a good ending and you find that in this context you don’t mind, although had such a book won the Booker Prize in our world, you’d be miffed.

It’s a quick read, and quite biting towards the industry, but it makes some fair comments about the nature of art, criticism, fame, celebrity, and post-modernism. It’s not the sort of book that will spark many memories for me even a year or so down the line, but it’s not bad.

“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.

“Jude In London” by Julian Gough (2011)

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jude“I left the iceberg behind me and swam toward England.”

My knowledge of Irish literature is scant. When I visited the Writer’s Museum in Dublin last year, I found myself facing the facts that I haven’t read much that’s come out of the country, mostly because I immediately think of James Joyce and the bits of Ulysses I read at university, which sends that part of my brain scurrying away beneath a desk and hoping no one mentions Finnegan’s Wake. I’ll probably get around to some of the less terrifying ones in time. I bring this up because the hero of today’s novel, Jude, is an Irishman, and there’s some suggestion that this book is an updated version of Tristram Shandy, but I’ll have to take the word of other reviewers for that.

The book opens with Jude clinging to an iceberg in the Irish Sea, floating towards Great Britain where he hopes to find the woman he thinks he’s fallen in love with, Angela. It’s worth noting this early on that this book is actually a sequel, so I assume the first book gives detail as to how he’s got into this situation. However, the book does nicely open with a recap on what we’ve missed, including the details that after an accident, Jude has had reconstructive surgery so that he looks exactly like Leonardo DiCaprio, except he has a fully functioning penis as a nose. Oh yes, it’s that sort of book.

Anyway, Jude washes up on the shores of England (or Wales) and then begins his journey to London to find Angela. But things aren’t as simple as just tracking down the love of his life. Along the way he saves the universe, stars in a porn film, chases a monkey, gets mistaken for an artist, kills the Poet Laureate, and comes close to finding out who abandoned him in an Orphanage eighteen years ago. He also finds himself in conversations about Irish literature, comparing them to famous superheroes, and a lengthy but brilliant explanation of the credit crunch using goats.

The plot itself is thin, but that’s not why anyone’s here. We’re here for the sheer strangeness of the novel. It’s well written, and you find yourself pressing on because you can’t imagine where on earth it’s going to go next. I don’t think Gough himself knows. While Jude’s situations are, frankly, unbelievable, you can’t really stop yourself from reading them. It’s sharply satirical – there’s probably a lot about Irish culture that I don’t get – and delights in messing around with surreal jokes, curious construction, and general piss-taking. I particularly enjoyed seeing him arrive early at the Tate Modern and decide to tidy up, which includes making a messy, unmade bed, and cleaning out an enormous fish tank with a dead shark in it, with a long piss in a handy urinal afterwards.

If you like a book you can understand, give this one a miss. If you like something rambling, funny and strange, then there are few books that fit the bill better. Odd, but satisfying.

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