Thursday, August 23, 2007

First Among Sequels

I gave myself a breather between this one and Something Rotten, and a good thing I did. I found this one a lot more readable. Thursday is employed by Acme Carpets, which is a front for her Spec Ops group (Spike, Stig, et al), which is a front for her Jurisfiction activities. As Thursday tries to work with assorted versions of herself, she tackles issues of falling Outworld readership, Goliath Corporation's upcoming Austen Rover, and her dead Uncle Mycroft, who has been making ghostly appearances. Meanwhile, she tries to pretend she's laying carpet everyday to her husband, writer Landen, and her children--truculent Friday, who is resisting his Chronoguard future; brilliant Tuesday, who considers her seminars with the world's greatest mathematicians to be tedious tutoring sessions with slackers; and elusive Jenny, who never seems to make it to the dinner table.

Maybe you just have to be in the mindset. I found this a lot more readable than the last one. I'm not so thrilled about the ending. All but one storyline tied up nicely, but that last one--! "To be continued" is one of my least favorite endings. What if the intelligent Mr. Fforde dies in a car accident? How will we know what happens to--oh, never mind.

But I liked it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Something Rotten

Jasper Fforde launched a memorable and quirky series when he wrote The Eyre Affair, starring Thursday Next, a Literary Detective who saves Jane Eyre from a kidnapper, and introduces a peculiar world in which the lines between reality and fiction are blurred if not invisible. Thursday's adventures continued with Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, and most recently, First Among Sequels.

I was psyched to read the newest, but thought I'd better refresh my memory of where we last saw Our Heroine, so I reread Something Rotten, and it's a good thing I did. I had completely forgotten how it all went, so I'm reviewing this book instead of First Among Sequels.

In this, the fourth of the series, Thursday Next is coming out of the book world, where she has been in charge of Jurisfiction (the organization that polices fiction from within) to renew her search for her husband Landen Parke-Laine, who has been eradicated, and to make sure her son Friday, age 2, knows how to live in the real world. Her adventures feature an assassin called the Windowmaker, a disturbingly infallible monk named St. Zvlkx, and an apocalyptic professional croquet match, as well as coworkers such as Bowden Cable, Victor Analogy, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, and Emperor Zhark, and the enemy du jour Yorrick Kaine.

Good things: The plot advances more than I remember. Certain questions about Landen, Friday, and Granny Next are neatly resolved, and it becomes clear that, the Chronoguards being the time travelers that they are, just because a character dies doesn't mean they actually leave the series. Thursday's father died in an earlier book, but hey, that's in a far distant future, and he's free to keep wandering in and out of this timeline for the rest of our natural lives. Fforde's world has an endearing charm that has carried it this far, and his ingenious working of literary references into action/adventure can be beguiling.

Bad things: I would like to say that Fforde is in ffine fforme (there, I said it), but I don't really mean it. I loved the first book, but each subsequent book adds to the insanity. In Something Rotten, reality slips away completely from time to time, like Alice going Through The Looking Glass--from the starting point of Wonderland--after having had one too many tokes from the hookah--and it's hard to keep the story line(s) straight. Like, were the Neanderthals playing croquet just for Thursday, or did it have something to do with the Shakespeare clones in Area 21? In addition, Fforde's wry commentary on government and bureaucracy brings the story to a standstill at times. I thought for while that I would just have to close the book and walk away before my brain exploded, but I managed to hold things together until the end, at which I was relieved to find all the story lines tied up into a nice tidy package, without a loose end in sight. But I'm still going to wait a while, until my head recovers, before I read First Among Sequels.

So, my recommendation? If the idea intrigues you, read The Eyre Affair. With suitable intervals between, continue the series until you get tired of it.

Or until your head explodes.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Sunday Philosophy Club

Alexander McCall Smith is best known for his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, of which I am a fan. He has another series featuring Isabel Dalhousie, a cultured and wealthy Scottish lady (and I use the term advisedly), which sounds far more like my usual preference than a genial African woman. So I began the first book in the Dalhousie series, The Sunday Philosophy Club, with great anticipation.

Alas, my hopes foundered. It started off well enough; Isabel sees a man fall past her, from the top level of the concert hall to his death on the lowest level. Stricken, she cannot leave it alone, and soon discovered that he had an excellent head for heights, a happy and forward-looking disposition, and a reason to fear for his safety. Isabel reluctantly decides she has a moral obligation to solve the mystery of his death.

With such a promising start, it wasn't until about halfway through the book that I realized I was getting bored to death. Isabel's penchant for philosophy results in an unfortunate tendency to ramble on about all manner of moral dilemmas or other philosophical ephemera. Sometimes this actually propels her to action, but not enough action to justify following her constant existential posturing.

And another thing: there were far too many dead ends in the first half of the book. The police inspector, sporting a navy windbreaker and a forbidding expression, promised to be an excellent competitor or co-conspirator for the amateur Isabel, but his cameo was too brief. Likewise, the smarmy journalist threatened to create a world of trouble for our hapless heroine, but--he didn't. Instead, we become acquainted with Isabel's niece Cat, Cat's boyfriend Toby, Cat's ex Jamie, and Grace the maid. And Hen and Neil, who were the deceased's roommates. None of them are particularly interesting, and nothing much happened before I finally gave up and read the end. Which was quite a let-down, in keeping with the first half of the book.

So I give McCall Smith points for consistency, but that's it. I cannot recommend The Sunday Philosophy Club. Just writing about it makes me sleepy.

A Play of Dux Moraud AND A Play of Knaves

These are two books, part of a series by Margaret Frazer about the player Joliffe and the acting troupe to which he belongs, and how they go about solving murders in medieval England. (This troupe of players is introduced in Frazer's other series, the Dame Frevisse books) Dux Moraud is the second in the series, and Knaves the third, and I read them back-to-back. I quite liked the first book in the series, A Play of Isaac, so I was ready for more. And I like the series, on the whole, but with some few reservations.

Good things: the characterizations are good to a point, the milieu convincing, the stories interesting. Each story is based on a play performed by the troop, which seems to have some historical justification.

Not-as-good things: Dux Moraud turns out to have a lot of incestuous overtones, which I don't much care for. Sir Edmund and his family don't work for me. After laboriously pointing out that Sir Edmund's character will be reflected in the attitudes of his household and community, we find a normal community and household presided over by a cold man and his cold wife, a child that could be psychopathic and a child who is normal. Normal child seems to fit in with the gang, but Dad, Mom and Other Child definitely inhabit their own weird world. And Knaves has its own set of crazy people. How is it that all these mentally ill people are in positions of authority, meaning they're not outcasts or homeless or even unsuccessful?

Having said all this, I will probably read the next Joliffe book, which came out this week, entitled A Play of Lords. But if you're interested in medieval mysteries, I would recommend the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters.