Posts Tagged ‘Jasper Fforde’

The parent of a member of Teen the Younger’s FIRST Robotics team showed me the first page of Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel, The Rook at a competition: Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine. The scar on the inner left thigh is there because I fell out of a tree and impaled my leg at the age of nine. The filling in the far left tooth on the top is the result of my avoiding the dentist for four years. But you probably care little about this body’s past. After all, I am writing this letter for you to read in the future. Perhaps you are wondering why anyone would do such a thing. The answer is both simple and complicated. The simple answer is because I knew it would be necessary.”

I was hooked after reading just that much. Rook Myfanwy Thomas is a young woman whose brilliant administrative skills have landed her in position of considerable power and influence in the Court, which functions as a sort of cabinet, in very hierarchical secretive British agency called the Chequy. The cover of the book says “On her majesty’s supernatural secret service,” which sums up the Chequy nicely.

O’Malley has a smart, dry sense of humor in the same vein as Douglas Adams and Tom Holt. Myfanwy Thomas reminds me of another brilliant heroine of genre-bending crime/humor/fantasy literature, Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next. The Rook is deliciously funny but it’s also a spy thriller with cunning villains, power-hungry plotters, and international subterfuge. And it’s a fantasy, with characters whose powers include visiting people’s dreams, making and emitting chemicals through the pores, or turning one’s body into metal.

Mfanwy is endearing because she’s both a modern career woman, angsting about her wardrobe, what people think of her, and whether she’ll ever have a normal life, and a high powered agent fighting paranormal wrongdoing and protecting the world as we know it from the world as she knows it. Oh, and hunting hunting the mole who wants her dead and stripped her memories right out of her brain.

A rollicking, intriguing read full of fascinating characters, a witty and page-turning plot, and plenty of supernatural elements existing in our own world. This is the kind of book perfect for the hammock or lounge chair. The lawn can wait until you find out whether the Grafters are invading or not!


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Longtime bookconscious readers know my grandmother was a big influence in my life. She was a voracious reader, with very strong preferences and opinions about what she read. She was a big fan of the famous Strunk and White edict: “Omit needless words,” and was sure authors of long books had been paid by the word. Some of her highest praise for anything she enjoyed reading: “There was not one extra word. Every one belonged.”

She introduced me to many wonderful books, from A.A. Milne‘s poetry (she could recite “Disobedience,” as well as many other poems for children and adults, into her 90’s), to Vera Brittain‘s Chronicles of Youth and favorite biographies of political leaders (in particular John Adams and Winston Churchill) or heroic women (notably the only book that has ever made me absolutely sob, Eleni by Nicholas Gage). When my children were small and we moved to New England she sent me Shirley Jackson‘s Life Among the Savages.

Grandmother always had a book to recommend. And one piece of her advice I’ve followed more and more as I’ve entered middle age is that when life hands you lemons, you should slice them up to put in your tea and curl up with a good mystery or spy novel. She loved Agatha Christie, believed the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy books by John Le Carre are the epitome of good writing, and introduced me to one of our favorite heroines of all time, Dorothy Gilman‘s Mrs. Pollifax. I told her about Jasper Fforde‘s wonderful Thursday Next; she didn’t quite embrace Thursday’s snarkiness or odd time-warped world, but she tried it.

I think she would have loved Maisie Dobbs, who is a strong, independent woman whose fictional life experiences mirror some of Vera Brittain’s. I’m not sure if she ever tried Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I’m turning to both these days. Government shutdowns, overheated and misleading political rhetoric, shootings, and all kinds of other things I don’t understand have me turning to mysteries, even craving them.

Of course there is order to a mystery, which is comforting. There’s a definite sense of right and wrong, even when there are gray areas. There’s a clear villain most of the time, or at least a perpetrator whose circumstances or nature generally explain his or her crimes. There are clues that lead detective and reader alike to a conclusion, and there are mostly clean resolutions, where victims may have suffered but justice is served and all’s right again with the world. A series is also very comforting because the characters’ actions may be fresh but they are still familiar.

I have only two books left in the Maisie Dobbs series. If you love a gentle mystery author who writes without graphic violence nor ripped-from-the-headlines shock value and favors strong female characters, leave a comment so I’ll know what to read next.

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Turns out I have had a bit of time for reading, so here’s my take on two quick reads: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde.

Both of these books met my reading needs this week: they’re easy, entertaining books I could read between cooking, hanging out with my family, and catching up with friends and family by phone. That said, both were less appealing than the hype I’d heard.

I think The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry would have been a good novella, or even a long short story. At 336 pages, it plodded at times and there were too many passages that were similar to something I’d read a few pages earlier. If it hadn’t been a quick read, I may have put it down.

That said, I liked the story, which is about a recently retired brewery salesman in southwestern England who gets a letter from an old friend and colleague, Queenie, who is in hospice. The letter triggers all sorts of memories and Harold writes back. On his way to post the letter, an unlikely encounter leads to an even unlikelier decision: Harold will walk all the way to where his friend is, in northeast England. The audacity of this plot twist is enough to make it work.

Harold has experienced a psychological shock and it worked for me that he would do something so unusual and even a little nutty. He’s had enough of regrets and pain. He’s going to do something worthwhile.

As the rest of the book unfolds, I liked the way his wife, Maureen, begins to face the ways she and Harold have grown apart. I liked the revelations about their marriage, their only son, and the backstory about Queenie. I enjoyed how their neighbor, Rex, helps Maureen make her way back to Harold emotionally.

And the stages of Harold’s pilgrimage made sense as well, his doubts and low points, a few helpful people he meets, some skeptics, and the inevitable publicity and people trying to cash in.  I just felt the whole thing went on too long and could have been done more effectively in a shorter, tighter book.

I love Jasper Fforde. I’m a big fan of the Thursday Next books (especially the early ones) and Shades of Grey (no, not Fifty, just Shades of Grey), his Nursery Crime books. The Last Dragonslayer is a YA book, and it’s not as complex as some of Fforde’s other work, which is a shame. It’s still fairly imaginative in the trademark Fforde way — he is masterful at making magic seem a normal part of the familiar world. And he nails human nature in very clever, very funny ways in all of his books.

But for some reason this book didn’t really wow me. The villains seemed a little predictable, or at least a little too much like the villains in Thursday Next books. A promising character, Tiger Prawns, never really gets to shine. Jennifer Strange, the heroine, was uneven. The finale seemed a bit rushed. Again, the story was good, but the execution just didn’t do it for me.

So in both cases, I didn’t hate the book nor did I love it. Am I too full of turkey to have properly appreciated these books? Is it autumn ennui? I’m not sure.

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