Books : reviews

Jasper Fforde.
Early Riser.
Hodder & Stoughton. 2018

Every winter, the human population hibernates.

During those four months, the nation is a snow-draped landscape devoid of human activity,

Well, not quite.

Your name is Charlie Worthing and it’s your first season with the Winter Consuls, the mildly unhinged misfits who ensure the safe passage of the sleeping masses. You are investigating an outbreak of viral dreams which you dismiss as a quirky artefact borne of the sleeping mind,

And then the dreams start killing people…

Teasing truth from Winter is never easy. You have to avoid the Villains’ penchant for murder, kidnapping and stamp collecting, and ensure you aren't eaten by Nightwalkers.

But so long as you remember to wrap up warmly, you'll be fine.

Jasper Fforde.
The Last Dragonslayer.
Hodder & Stoughton. 2010

rating : 5 : waste of time
review : 20 November 2016

In the good old days, magic was powerful, unregulated by government, and even the largest spell could be woven without filling in magic release form B1-7G.

Then the magic started fading away.

Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange runs Kazam, an employment agency for soothsayers and sorcerers. But work is drying up. Drain cleaner is cheaper than a spell, and even magic carpets are reduced to pizza delivery.

So it’s a surprise when the visions start. Not only do they predict the death of the Last Dragon at the hands of a dragonslayer, they also point to Jennifer, and say something is coming.

Big magic…

Magic is gradually fading away in the Ununited Kingdom. And the number of dragons is decreasing. Jennifer Strange, a foundling sold into indentured servitude to a wizarding agency, finds herself in charge when its owner disappears, and is having trouble keeping the wizards employed. When a wizard has a vision that the Last Dragon will be killed by the Last Dragonslayer next week, her troubles are just beginning.

I came to this with high expectations, given how much I have enjoyed the clever craziness of Fforde’s other two series: Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes. I was sadly disappointed. Those other two series have a solid underpinning theme (books, and nursery rhymes, respectively) and the overlaying surreality feeds off these, rocketing off in marvellously unexpected directions. The Last Dragonslayer is all surreality, but with nothing underlying it. That removes nearly all the opportunities for cleverness, replacing it mostly with silliness.

A shame. I’ll leave this series, and wait for the next Thursday Next.

Jasper Fforde.
The Song of the Quarkbeast.
Hodder & Stoughton. 2011

A long time ago Magic faded away, leaving behind only yo-yos, the extremely useful compass-pointing-to-North enchantment and the spell that keeps bicycles from falling over.

Things are about to change. Magical power is on the rise and King Snodd IV of Hereford has realised that he who controls Magic controls almost anything. Only one person stands between Snodd and his plans for unimaginable power and riches.

Meet Jennifer Strange, sixteen-year-old acting manager of Kazam, the employment agency for sorcerers and soothsayers. She may only have one functioning Wizard and her faithful assistant ‘Tiger’ Prawns to help her. But one thing is certain: she will not relinquish the noble powers of Magic to big business and commerce without a fight.

Jasper Fforde.
The Eye of Zoltar.
Hodder & Stoughton. 2014

The Mighty Shandar, the most powerful wizard the world has ever seen, returns to the Ununited Kingdoms. Clearly, he didn’t solve the Dragon Problem, and must return his fee: eighteen dray-weights of gold.

But the Mighty Shandar doesn’t do refunds, and vows to eliminate the dragons once and for all – unless sixteen-year-old Jennifer Strange and her sidekicks from the Kazam house of enchantment can bring him the legendary jewel, The Eye of Zoltar.

The only thing that stands in their way is a perilous journey with a 50% Fatality Index. It’s a quest like never before, and Jennifer soon finds herself fighting not just for her life, but for everything she knows and loves…

Jasper Fforde.
The Big Over Easy.
Hodder & Stoughton. 2005

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 28 July 2005

Detective Inspector Jack Spratt, Nursery Crimes Division, Reading, is having a bad day. The Three Pigs have just been acquited of murdering Mr "Big Bad" Wolff after a long and expensive trial, and his superiors are blaming him. His new case, investigating the death of Humperdinck Jehosaphat Aloysius Stuyvesant van Dumpty, found broken at the bottom of a high wall, isn't going well. The media's darling, DI Friedland Chymes, wants to take the case from him, he's not sure about the loyalty of his new Sergeant, DS Mary Mary, and he might have made a mistake in accepting too low a price of a few beans for his mother's Stubbs' cow painting. But at least he has a happy home life, with his new wife (his first having sadly died from an exceptionally unhealthy diet) and five children, even if his grown up quantum physicist daughter is dating a 4000 year of Greek Titan.

Yes, Jasper Fforde has done it again. We have moved from the surreal world of Spec ops Detective Thursday Next where literary characters pop up in reality, to the surreal world of the NCD, where nursery rhyme characters pop up in reality. The fun, of course, lies in trying to spot all the references, and marvelling at how seamlessly they are woven into the story. Nevertheless, this is a real detective story, full of subtle clues and red herrings, but with the added Fforde touch of cliches as hilarious plot devices.

The background world isn't quite as surreal as the Spec Ops one, because here the only (only?!) weirdness is the dead-pan existence of the nursery characters in reality -- nothing like the hundred year Crimean war, audience participation Richard III, or the cordon bleu transport caff -- except for the boring blue aliens, footcare products, and the Greek gods, of course. Hopefully there more is to come. I'm looking forward to the next installment! I may need to brush up on my nursery stories a bit though.

Jasper Fforde.
The Fourth Bear.
Hodder & Stoughton. 2006

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 2 August 2006

The psychopathic Gingerbreadman has escaped. This sounds like a job for Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and Sergeant Mary Mary of the Nursery Crimes Division. But due to the debacle over the Red Riding Hood affair, they are off the case. So instead, they investigate the disappearance of Goldilocks, a reporter investigating strange explosions who had visited a champion cucumber grower just before he was blown up. That all seems very straightforward, so why are National Security involved? And who's selling banned porridge to the bears? And why does Spratt keep running into the Gingerbreadman when no-one else can find him? And why is it vitally important whether he's a cake or a biscuit?

More wonderful lunacy, and a compelling page-turner. All the disparate plot threads are woven together in astonishing ways. Again, there is a real murder mystery to solve, although it's not as "straightforward" as the previous Humpty case. And it's all mixed up with the most delicious jokes, puns, and downright sheer cleverness. Marvellous.

Jasper Fforde.
Shades of Grey: the Road to High Saffron.
Hodder & Stoughton. 2010

Jasper Fforde.
The Eyre Affair.
NEL. 2001

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 17 June 2002

Detective Thursday Next is in SpecOps-27: Literary Detectives. She spends most of her days tracking down forged literary works with high street values, and playing with her pet dodo, Pickwick, hindered only by her rogue time-travelling father and his dislike of mauve. But there's a big case waiting for her. Minor characters from Dickens are disappearing from the novels and being found murdered. Then Jane Eyre is kidnapped, and the influential Brontë Federation are demanding action, wanting her return, despite the admittedly unsatisfactory ending of the book. Thursday knows who the kidnapper is, but the sinister Goliath Corporation, intent on prolonging the 130-year-long Crimean War, wants her off the case.

Then things start to get weird.

This glorious clever tale works on just about every level. The plot is (most definitely) novel, and intriguing. (It does help if you've read Jane Eyre, or are at least familiar with the main plot points. I'm sure there are lots of other references I didn't get, even so.) The characters are interesting and fun. (And the fact that the protagonist's name struck a faint resonance with John Verney's February and Friday Callendar books, only added to the levels for me, since I read and enjoyed those as a child decades ago.) It is laugh-out-loud funny in several places, like the surrealist riots, the menu at the grotty transport caff, and the staging of the Richard III play. And there are loads of wonderful running gags, like the dodos, and the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, and loads of superb one-liners, like the Henry Fielding fanatics swapping their collectors cards. There is a totally satisfactory conclusion of both the main plot, and of the Jane Eyre novel, with just the one tantilising time-jumping hook into a sequel.

If you're weird enough to be in SpecOps, this book is for you. Highly recommended.

Jasper Fforde.
Lost in a Good Book.
NEL. 2002

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 8 September 2002

The weird adventures of Detective Thursday Next continue. After dispatching the Super Villain Acheron Hades, foiling the sinister Goliath Corporation, and ending the Crimean War, Thursday is now enjoying her newly married life. But Goliath are not completely beaten, and they arrange to have her husband deleted from the time-stream, leaving her as the only one with any memory of his existence. Goliath inform her she must find a way to re-enter The Raven, without use of the Book Portal, to save him. Oh, and incidentally, the ChronoGuard have noticed that the planet will be turned into pink goo next week, but can't do anything about it because of industrial action. Fortunately, Great Expectation's Miss Havisham is on hand to help.

This is possibly even more brilliantly batty than the first book. The title alone is superb. The plot takes a couple of chapters to get going, and is rather more fragmented and complex than before (if that's possible), but all the wonderfully bizarre details are here, including the Croquet, the Book Sale Riots, the Cheese Tax, the Neanderthals, and the Mammoths. And what sometimes appear to be mere throwaway lines are occasionally linked together in the most surprising ways. A total joy to read.

There is some degree of closure by the end of the book, but a whopping great loose end leads in to the Next installment.

Jasper Fforde.
The Well of Lost Plots.
NEL. 2003

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 31 July 2003

Thursday Next, SpecOps agent extraordinaire, pursued by the relentless Goliath Corporation, has taken refuge in Caversham Heights, an unpublished third-rate detective novel, so that she can have her baby in peace, before she attempts to be reunited with her non-existent husband. But, naturally, things don't go smoothly, and she soon finds herself battling a fictional conspiracy, whilst fighting a mindworm for her memories.

This third installment in the Thursday Next series I don't feel is as good as the previous two -- but that doesn't mean it's not very good! Part of the problem, I think, is that most of the action takes place in various fictional books, or the Well of Lost Plots itself, where really anything can happen (and does, frequently!), whereas the previous works took place in what must presumably be described as "the real world", so they had to be taken somewhat more seriously, adding to the overall weirdness of the effect.

Never mind. After a slightly slow start, the pace steps up, and Thursday Next is off on yet another bizarre adventure to save the world (this time of fiction) from a dreadful and unrecognised foe. The story is liberally sprinkled with the usual wittily hilarious scenes (probably the best of which the Wuthering Heights anger management therapy session), seemingly irrelevant at the time, but many of which turn out to be deadly important later. Not only are there the usual sly references to the classics, but this time I caught several SFnal references too.

A good conclusion to the "local plot", but none at all to the overall arc, leaving me again wanting more.

Jasper Fforde.
Something Rotten.
Hodder & Stoughton. 2004

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 7 August 2004

Thursday Next, head of Jurisfiction, is tired of the pressures of her job. She wants to go back to the real world, where things are more real, and campaign for the uneradication of her husband from the timeline. So she take indefinite leave, goes home with her son Friday, accompanied by Hamlet, who wants to see why he's thought to be a ditherer, and with a mandate to arrest and imprison the escaped fictional character Yorrick Kaine. There she discovers that Yorrick has become head of the Government and is trying to declare war on Denmark, Goliath are up to their old tricks, there's a surfeit of illegal Shakespeare clones, someone is trying to assassinate her, and if the hapless Swindon Mallets don't win the Croquet Superhoop next week, in less than three months the world will become a radioactive cinder.

So, just as she wanted, everything more real.

All the usual hilariously good stuff is here, from the artificially distressed dust-jacket to the end-plate adverts for toast and the Socialist Republic of Wales. Evading the Question Time is wonderful, as is Hamlet's constant dithering and introspection, President George Formby at the motorway service station gate to the underworld, lorem ipsum, the stalker's stalker, the Danish book burnings, Emperor Zhark's contractual appearances, and more. But as for the references to Swindon's bizarre magic roundabout -- well, that is actually real! I've driven round/over/through it myself.

Distressingly, there don't seem to be that many loose ends left. I sincerely hope that doesn't mean the end of the adventures of Thursday Next. But maybe Fforde is just messing with our minds yet more.

Jasper Fforde.
First Among Sequels.
Hodder & Stoughton. 2007

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 28 July 2007

She's baaack!

After a short hiatus, we return to the world of Thursday Next, Spec Ops operative (retired), Jurisfiction operative (retired). Or maybe not.

As is usual, nothing is as it seems, and Thursday must battle the usual suspects: the sinister Goliath corporation, strange things happening in, with, and to fiction (including the loss of all the humour from the previously hilarious Thomas Hardy, and the premature death of Sherlock Holmes), the Stiltonista, two very different fictional versions of herself, and the imminent end of the world unless her layabout teenage son Friday can be persuaded to join the Chronoguard in order to save it.

As usual, things take a while to get going, as a bunch of seemingly random incidents gradually take on a grim importance. Things are still hysterically funny in places (as in the Bennets' reactions to Pride and Prejudice being turned into a reality game show, the Welsh cheese smugglers, the logistics of pianos in fiction, ...). But there are also some grim parts, such as Thursday's experiences as captain of the Moral Dilemma, and especially her new mindworm. All in all, this is another great instalment in the series -- with a whopping cliffhanger (and dreadful pun!) leading to a further adventure.

And all this in a copy of the book with an accidentally silent footnoterphone. (There is an upgrade available.) Additionally, the speling virus (or possibly the homonym bug) allowed "tow the line" and "a flare for [something or other]" to get through (although the latter manages to give a faint 1970s resonance to the phrase).

Jasper Fforde.
One of Our Thursdays is Missing.
Hodder & Stoughton. 2011

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 18 April 2011

If you haven't read any of the earlier Thursday Next books, don't start with this one: you won't have a clue what's going on. I have read the earlier ones, and I still don't know what's going on! First Among Sequels ended with a whopping cliffhanger -- I can only suppose that it was resolved in the sadly now deleted Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco. Either that, or I've missed something completely.

Anyway, the Thursday Next in this book isn't the one in the previous books: it's the fictional written one, living in BookWorld. (The other one is of course not fictional, living in the real world, and only entering BookWorld to solve cases, chase baddies, hide from baddies, etc.) After the previous psychotic written Thursday was removed, the fictional books were toned down, at real Thursday's request, to remove all the sex and violence, and to feature a nicer, gentler version of herself. So the new written Thursday Next isn't nearly as interesting as the real one, and consequently the books aren't being read much. This is fortunate, as it gives her time to start investigating when a mysterious man on a bus tells her that the real Thursday is missing. And just when she was needed to stop a war on the borders of RacyNovel!

Typical mayhem ensues. It is peculiar, because at the beginning, the written Thursday really isn't as interesting as the real one, so finds it harder to carry the plot. However, she is ably helped by a cast of bizarre characters, including the written Pickwick, and the introduction of Sprockett the butler. But the pace soon picks up, and includes all those barmy details we know and love. Written Tuesday's jaunt to the real world is fun, as now we see "ourselves" from the PoV of a fictional character, who finds it hard to believe we have such little narrative thread in our lives.

Great stuff. But I would also like more of the real (IYSWIM) Thursday.

Jasper Fforde.
The Woman Who Died a Lot.
Hodder & Stoughton. 2012

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 22 November 2012

Thursday Next is back. But she was badly injured in her last outing, and so doesn't get the job she's after --- SpecOps --- but instead is made Chief Librarian of Wessex All You Can Eat at Fatso's Drink Not Included Library Services. That might not sound like much, but this is a world where books are important: she has a £156M annual budget, and the library operatives have a shoot to kill policy. Moreover, Goliath are up to their old tricks with Thursday clones, she still has the Mindworm, her daughter is behind on the Smiting Shield development, leaving Swindon helpless before the wrath of the almighty at the end of the week, and her son Friday has discovered that he will no longer be head of the Chronoguard, but instead will kill someone called Gavin Watkins, also at the end of the week.

This is the usual wonderful lunacy we have come to expect and love. Everything is tied up together --- the imaginary friends, the dodos, the toast, the car, the tattoo, and Thursday's multiple deaths --- in a big temporal paradox bow. What I love is how everyone treats the bizarre events as down to earth normality --- because for them it is all normal. Barmy, and brilliant.