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Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels was the last of the Thursday Next books sitting on my to-read shelf. I was a little excited about it, mainly because I’ve had a nonfiction reading jag, and I was ready to return to something I’d find more relaxing and less taxing. What I got was a purely delightful book that stands with its head just a little taller than most of the other Thursday Next books.

One of the best things about this book is that it starts off with Thursday as a middle-aged woman. She has her children and her husband, whom she has told she has given up her work with all enforcement agencies she was previously associated with. Instead, she owns a flooring business.

This is, of course, a lie.

Next works undercover, with the carpet-laying job being a ruse so that she can justify to Landen all the time she spends away from home. Life seems to be going along as smoothly as it can when one’s lying to one’s husband, and then there’s a surprise. Thursday’s son, Friday, who is a typical lazy teenager, is revealed to be the future head of the ChronoGuard — except that he should have started training a long time ago. The fate of the world hangs on his career choice; it appears the universe will end in a couple of days.

Thursday is also training herself from her fifth book, Thursday5, to become a Jurisfiction agent. Sadly, she also gets saddled with Thursday1-4, who turns out not to be cut from the correct cloth for this type of work.

I loved the fact that every plot part was easy to track. Fforde did a much better job of juggling the various aspects of the story within the reader’s mind; some of his other Next books have left me a little confused at points when I had to struggle to remember something that was mentioned quite a bit earlier in the book. This time, it was put together so well that I didn’t have to put forth the effort to find what he’s referencing, which is perfect. I read Thursday Next: First Among Sequels for fun and as a break from nonfiction.

Another great thing about this book is that there is a lot less jumping around between books and time. I prefer it when there’s a cleaner flow, and Fforde provided that wonderfully here. I also liked the fewer references — sometimes the earlier books fell into the fault of stretching for a pun or literary mention. There’s less of that here.

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels left me excitedly anticipating my chance to read the next book in the series. That’s the mark of an awesome book.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton

Evangeline Walton’s books about the Isle of the Mighty are a magical read.  She based her stories on the Mabinogi, a set of myths and legends written sometime in the twelfth century, and her language use fits with the timing of the original.  She has a gift for word usage that makes her stories seem otherworldly — as, indeed, several of them are.  I liked some better than others, but they are, in all, a good set of fantastical literature.

Prince of Annwn

Prince of Annwn is probably my favorite of the four books included in the tetralogy.  In it, Pwyll, a rather boastful prince in the land of Dyved, sets out early for a hunt.  He gets separated from his companions in a wood that seems to become thicker and thicker.  All of a sudden, there’s a clearing, and Pwyll encourages his hounds to take some of the kill another man’s dogs are feeding on.  They shy away from doing so, and here’s where Pwyll should have finally realized that maybe the clearing was more than just a normal clearing.  But no.  He forces his dogs to take some of the kill, and then death shows up.

Death, whose name is Arawn, calls Pwyll out on his bad behavior.  He then admits that he set up Pwyll to arrive in the clearing without his companions, for only Pwyll can defeat Havgan, the death of the east.  Pwyll and Arawn become as brothers, and Pwyll takes on the other’s likeness in order to hide and trick Havgan and his army.  On his way he faces great obstacles, which make this story.  Some of the things Pwyll experiences in the land of the dead seem like they could come out of Stephen King, and that’s great.  There’s lots of gore and suspense, which I was surprised to find in a book with a rather flowery language.  It’s just fantastic.

The Children of Llyr

The Children of Llyr, more than the other books, is a tale of warning about change from one culture to another.  This really does weave amongst all four books, but it seems most prominent in this one.  Llyr’s children number four sons: Bran, Manawyddan, Evnissyen, and Nissyen.  He also had one daughter, Branwen.  After Llyr’s death, Bran, well-known for his strength and wisdom, receives a request from the King of Ireland — the hand of his sister as his wife.

Bran’s people didn’t do the wife thing, and so this had to be mulled over.  Unfortunately, Bran forgot to ask his brother Evnissyen to the council.  Evnissyen spends the rest of the book trying to cause problems for everyone.  For Branwen, however, her main problem was caused by her brother’s decision to let her go to Ireland.  She was abandoned by her husband and mistreated as a slave; when she managed to get word back to her brother, it sparked war.

The main moral of this story is that marriage is dangerous.  It puts women in a subordinate position to men and leaves them to their whims.  I thought the story was interesting, but not as good as the first.

The Song of Rhiannon

Here, we meet up with Pryderi, the son of Pwyll.  His true paternity is actually hidden from him, for it was Manawyddan who fathered him with Rhiannon, who was considered a hard-won consort for Pwyll.  After the war in the second book, Manawyddan went with Pryderi to his home of Dyved and, with Pryderi and his wife Kigva, made a new life.

Unfortunately, some holy stones were taken out of the land of Dyved by a rival of Pryderi’s, which caused everyone save those four to disappear from the land.  They had to leave Dyved and work to earn their keep.  Also to their bad luck, they did finer work than the other craftsmen in town, and they were constantly being forced to leave a location.  Through all this, Pryderi and Rhiannon disappear, leaving Manawyddan to wander and set up house with Kigva.  Eventually, though, the story ends happily.  I liked The Song of Rhiannon for its fairy tale leanings.  I thought it very much in the style of Grimm’s fairy tales, and that pleased me.

The Island of the Mighty

This is truly the masterpiece of the four books.  It centers upon Gwydion, the nephew of Mâth, the wisest of all druids.  He causes some mischief when he steals pigs from Pryderi, eventually killing him for them.  Mâth punishes him for it, forcing him to live as various beasts for three years.  We then get to follow Gwydion in his struggles against his sister, Arianrrhod.  He tricks her into proclaiming her virginity — which she lacks, and Mâth punishes her by causing the premature birth of two children from the seed of the man she had lain with.

While the story follows Gwydion and his rearing of his resulting nephew, Llew, it is really Arianrrhod who drives the story.  She loathes the existence of her child and places serious obstacles in his way, which Gwydion gets around using guile.  I think the moral here is that she’s a miserable woman because she took on the morals of the new way, and then when she was found out became bitter.

Overall, I really enjoyed all the books, but probably the first one the best.  If you’re in the mood for some well-written, well-researched folklore, I highly recommend The Mabinogion Tetralogy.

Rating: 4/5.

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Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde

After reading The Well of Lost Plots, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Something Rotten.  It surprisingly picks up two years after the previous book, with Thursday having given birth to her son, Friday, and returning to the real world.  It gets back to the main story of Thursday’s life, which, I think, is preferable to the fantastical world of unpublished books.  Something Rotten is superior, and I enjoyed it even more than The Well of Lost Plots.

Thursday returns with a guest — Hamlet, who needs some time away from his play.  Accompanied also by her son and dodos, Thursday comes back to stay with her mother.  She also finds Goliath Corporation trying to make itself a religion, a prophesy that states that if the Swindon Mallets, the local croquet team, doesn’t win its game against the Reading Whackers, the world just might end.  Thursday ends up as manager, since Goliath hires away most of the talent from the team.

Thursday takes advantage of Goliath’s religious aims, asking for an apology and the return of her husband, Landen.  They hold to their word, but he flickers in and out for a while, causing some issues with showing up at his home only to find his parents there instead, who don’t remember their son ever becoming an adult.

With all this going on, Thursday is also chasing down the minotaur that escaped from captivity in the previous book and is chasing down Yorrick Kaine, who has come to significant political power and has started a crusade against the Danes and all things Danish.  She is also being chased down by an assassin called the Windowmaker, who has close ties to one of her good friends.  A loaded plate, to say the least.

I think the best thing about this book is the balance between the crises.  I didn’t have as much of a problem following exactly what was going on in Something Rotten.  That might have something to do with the fact that I’ve actually read more of the books and plays mentioned in this volume than the others, but I also think Fforde has created a more polished book.  Friday’s escapades make more sense and the prose flows more easily.

One thing that confused me a bit was the inclusion of illustrations in the book, which seemed more heavy in the front of the book than in the back.  I suspect these might have been a holdover from the hardcover edition, but, seeing as they weren’t in the other books in the series, it made me a little perplexed.  I would have preferred them be left out; I think that, unless it’s a children’s book or a nonfiction book that needs figures, illustrations aren’t really necessary.

Overall, I really enjoyed Something Rotten.  I found it more clever than The Well of Lost Plots, which is a pretty difficult feat, and I was completely engaged in the narrative.  I can’t wait to get into the next book in the series, to find out what next happens to Ms. Thursday Next.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde

I have to admit, I’m a little rusty on my Thursday Next.  The last time I read one of the books, it was in 2006, and The Well of Lost Plots was just coming out as a hardcover.  Now, here I am, five years later, and I’m having to do some catching up.  It’s well worth it, though, for the world of Thursday Next is one richly filled with all sorts of literary delights.

We start off pretty close to where Lost in a Good Book leaves off.  Thursday is hiding within the Well of Lost Plots to protect her unborn child, the product of a marriage to a man who never existed.  She finds a place to stay within an unpublished mystery novel, taking the place of one of the secondary characters.  The book is not doing well, and Thursday tries to provide a little help before it gets pulled apart for its words.

Thursday is also being trained, by Miss Havisham, to become a literary enforcement agent.  She goes through some pretty grueling training, which can also be amusing — Miss Havisham leads a group therapy session for the characters from Wuthering Heights, which Thursday tags along to.  We then get to see what happens in between the pages, which, for Wuthering Heights, basically means that everyone spends their time hating Heathcliff.

Here is one of the great things about the Thursday Next series:  it’s for people who love to read.  Not just love to read, but love to read novels.  Not just love to read novels, but love to read those books that are considered great literature.  Fforde takes the characters from big books, like Great Expectations or Jane Eyre, and puts his own take on what their personalities are into his versions of them.  It’s really nice … for those of us who have read the books he’s referencing.

This is, thus, one of the biggest downfalls of Fforde’s books, too — you have to be a complete book nerd to get every little thing he puts in.  Otherwise, the only things you’re going to understand are the puns, and that’s no way to go through a book.  A person’s literary well-being can’t be sustained on puns alone.

Fforde does have a very lovable writing style.  His inner circle of characters are pretty well-rounded, and I enjoy the world he has created where foundering books are in a well far below the library of all fiction created (at least, in English).  I think that many well-exposed readers would really enjoy the Thursday Next series; if one doesn’t, I think The Well of Lost Plots has very limited appeal.  Maybe, though, it’s an incentive to read books that are over ten years old — I know I haven’t read Wuthering Heights, and I think maybe it’s about time I do.

Rating: 4/5.

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The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

I rarely read one book after another in a series; I like to have other books interspersed in between to allow me some time to process the events and to put them in perspective.  I just couldn’t do that with the His Dark Materials series.  The first one was too good.  This time, Pullman provides us with a strong hero to go along with the strong heroine he gave us in The Golden Compass, and the result is another wonderful book.

The Subtle Knife starts off with a bang.  Will Parry, a young man with an absent father and a mentally ill mother, is forced to leave his mother with a neighbor while he tries to track down his father.  On his way out of town, he kills a man who is trying to steal from him and runs from the man’s partner.  Seeking a place to hide, he finds a small slit in space and walks through it into another world.

It’s in that other world where he meets up with Lyra.  The two band together, moving back and forth between Will’s universe and the crossroads universe known as Cittàgazze.  Will’s world matches closely with ours (I suspect it’s supposed to be our world), and Lyra visits a scientist at Oxford to ask about Dust.  Her inquiries, combined with Will’s crime, make life a little sketchy for the two of them there.

Things aren’t much better in Cittàgazze.  There is an abundance of children, but few cognizant adults.  Specters, invisible and harmless to children, seek out adults and seem to feed on their consciousness.  Life isn’t easier for Lyra and Will in this child-only place; events occur that make it just as uncomfortable and dangerous as Will’s world.

Part of the danger comes from Lyra ignoring the alethiometer.  It tells her that her task is to assist Will in his quest to find his father, and she seeks out information on Dust instead, which tips off the people looking for Will.  One ignores an oracle at one’s peril, it would appear.

Throughout the book, Pullman gives us more information about the larger story behind the smaller events of Lyra and Will’s lives.  The Oxford scientist, Mary Malone, is researching dark matter (what she terms “Shadows”), and also used to be a nun.  On Lyra’s first visit, she asks about Dust, and the connection is made that dark matter and Dust are most likely the same thing — which helps them to some extent, but leaves them still not knowing exactly what it is.

We also get more theology mixed in here.  There are angels traveling through the universes to join with Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father.  Lyra herself is talked about in some religiously-interesting ways.  We still have witches — Serafina Pekkala is still with us — but we also gain a shaman.

And, of course, there’s the knife itself.  Will becomes the bearer of the subtle knife at a high price and knows of its powers to keep away specters.  What he doesn’t know is that it has some other interesting lore attached to it, and that lore may have a great deal to say about what Will’s destiny is.

The most interesting thing to me about The Subtle Knife is the mythology Pullman is building.  I really want to know what’s going on, and can’t wait to get into the third book to see how he wraps everything up.  I’m at a complete loss for how this is going to play out, and it makes me really happy to find a book series that keeps me guessing.  Maybe it’ll be fantastic, maybe it’ll fall apart at the end; the fun is in the anticipation of how great it can be, which makes this book pretty great in and of itself.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Back in 2009, I vaguely remember watching the first half-hour of the movie version of The Golden Compass.  I obviously wasn’t all that impressed, since I didn’t keep watching it.  I’m very glad that the movie didn’t turn me off the book, because the world Philip Pullman crafted is both familiar and strange in ways that are simply wonderful.

There’s something very interesting about the world in which Lyra Belacqua lives.  She’s an orphan living with the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford, running amok in the streets and rarely seeing her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel.  Everyone has a dæmon — a creature they are born with and stays with them throughout life.  Children’s dæmons shift shapes at will.  Lyra’s Pantalaimon is her constant companion, shifting to a shape that’s most useful to her at the time.

Science and religion in the His Dark Materials series are inextricably entwined.  Church officials have their hands in almost everything at the frontiers of science, and scientific theories often contain theological ideas, concepts, and implications.  I enjoyed the part of the book about Dust — some sort of elementary particle that is attracted to adults but not children — and how the idea of its existence at first made the Church persecute the man who discovered it.  Once its existence was impossible to deny, however, they made their best attempt to fold it into their theology.  Pullman does a good job of magnifying what actually goes on with religion and science today — science discovers and creates, religion denies and condemns, and then the two eventually come together.  I thought it was an excellent concept to fold into a book whose target audience is children, since it’s a push and pull that shapes our current political, moral, and educational worlds.

The Golden Compass is well-paced and plotted.  Pullman is able to manipulate the reader into seeing things from a more child-like perspective, creating an extra layer of surprise within Lyra and the reader’s shared dismay over events.  The best of literature aims for a connection to the reader on an emotional level, and Pullman manages to do this extraordinarily well.

But the best part of The Golden Compass is Lyra herself.  She’s the epitome of pluck — through changes in living arrangements, kidnappings, travel with an armored bear, and the appearance of a mysterious magical device, Lyra knows exactly what to do.  She’s resourceful, strong, and (it’s going to sound weird to say this) an excellent liar.  Her prevarications are almost always a better idea than telling the truth.  More importantly, her less-than-honest ways are more believable than a perfect child.  Lyra is not that, and will never be that.  She is, however, a remarkable child.  Remarkable is vastly superior to perfect, because perfect is boring.  Lyra makes for an interesting read and an exciting story.

Pullman’s His Dark Materials series has two more books in it, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.  They’re sitting on my shelf, and I’m thinking that I’ll be getting to them sooner rather than later.  After all, there’s a scientific mystery to solve, theological questions to answer, and one girl’s story to follow up on.

Rating: 5/5.

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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants sat on my reading list for a while.  I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to read a book about a circus.  They aren’t my favorite setting, and the fact that my mother was taking forever with her copy helped cement my decision to wait on reading it for a more suitable time.  What a shame I waited.  Water for Elephants is unexpectedly complex, proving to be a more compelling story than what I originally expected.

Gruen structured Water for Elephants in an interesting way.  The book starts off with the protagonist, Jacob, in a nursing home in ; he is in his nineties.  Then she pulls us through several chapters that take place in the early 1930s, followed by another chapter with Jacob as an old man.  In the copy that I read, the chapters involving young Jacob have a picture of circus life in the thirties before it — some were from the Ringling Brothers museum in Florida, and others were from the circus museum in Wisconsin.  I liked this touch; it gave me a good clue as to when the following chapter occurred, plus I got to see some pretty cool photographs.

Jacob is not a perfect man, which is another thing I like about Water for Elephants.  He is frequently cowardly, even though he knows what the correct action is, and I think this is an accurate portrayal of a young, college-age man.  He doesn’t know how to assert himself to protect those he cares about effectively.  He needs the help of others in order to have the courage to do the right thing.  Even as an old man, he’s prone to saying things that hurt others and being reactionary, which prevents him from forming lasting relationships with the other people in his retirement facility.

Jacob has two most obvious failings.  The first is falling in love with another man’s wife.  Marlena is a performer in the circus, controlling horses and, eventually, Rosie the elephant.  Her husband, August, is the manager of the menagerie.  He makes a case for hiring Jacob, who almost finished training as a veterinarian.  The man is his boss and seems to genuinely like him.  Unfortunately, Jacob becomes infatuated with Marlena, and it’s a mutual feeling.  Rather than finding ways to distance himself from her, he pursues a rather odd courtship with her.  This is not the way to treat a man who has taken you under his wing.

Jacob’s second failing is his inability to protect those he loves.  He doesn’t stand up for Rosie when she is abused by August.  After sustaining a concussion, he was rescued and nursed by his roommate, Walter.  Jacob then, knowing that Walter is in danger, still chooses to pursue a revenge plot, leaving Walter alone and vulnerable.  He is only partially successful in keeping Marlena safe while she is married to August.

For some reason, Jacob’s failings, rather than being overwhelmingly annoying, convince me that he is a real person.  My experiences as a college-age adult are similar.  I’m more assertive now, and I imagine I’ll become even more-so in the future.  I’m also less indecisive.  Jacob mirrors my own feelings and fears while I was that age, and thus he feels authentic to me.

The one thing I thought was not so great was the depiction of August.  Toward the end of the book, we are told by Uncle Al, the amoral owner of the circus, that he is a paranoid schizophrenic.  They put up with it, he says, because August is so brilliant.  I have a hard time with this, mainly because the description of August’s behavior are more those of a person with bipolar disorder.  Yes, he’s paranoid, but he in no way is depicted as hearing voices or having serious delusions.  He doesn’t make many irrational decisions or actions.  I dislike this confusion; people with schizophrenia behave in a different way than how August behaves.  The two mental disorders are not interchangeable.

Water for Elephants is an excellent book with a unique setting and a compelling story.  Gruen has a gentle writing voice that is very pleasant to read.  I’d definitely read something else written by her.  Her adept exploration of how a young adult approaches life makes me eager to see how she will treat other stages of life.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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