Early Riser – Jasper Fforde

I’m a big fan of Jasper Fforde’s particular brand of imagination. I like puns (the worse the better), footnotes and over-the-top weirdness and his books certainly fit the bill for me (although Rob tried them and couldn’t ‘get it’). Like most people I started with the Thursday Next books – a series about a woman who can jump between the real world (or rather, real-ish – this is Jasper Fforde after all…) and the world of fiction – and then moved on to the Nursery Crimes series. Set wholly in the world of fiction these books answers burning questions: who killed Humpty Dumpty? was Goldilocks guilty? was the Gingerbread Man a cake or a biscuit…? I haven’t yet read his children’s series, the Last Dragonslayer, but I also really enjoyed a book he wrote in a completely different world, one where Something Happened and people now see colour in a totally different way. These books were all great and, like many people, I have been eagerly awaiting Thursday Next book 8, Shades of Grey 2 or even a new Nursery Crime (I definitely have questions about Incy-Wincy Spider…) but, it seems, the wait continues. Until that happy day, however, we do have a new Fforde to keep us amused.

9781473650220Early Riser is set in Wales, but not Wales as we know it. For a start Fforde has a thing about Wales – he obviously loves it , I believe he lives there, but he loves to mess with it. In the Thursday Next series Wales is a Socialist Republic; in this book it is a wild country, possibly filled with creatures from myth and folklore, but is part of a world where the vast majority of mankind hibernates through long and brutal winters. The main character is Charlie Worthing, an orphan who decides that taking a job as a Winter Consul – one of the few who don’t hibernate but protect the sleepers from Villains, Nightwalkers and WinterVolk – is better than continuing to live as an Assistant House Manager in St Granata’s Pooled Parentage Station. Of course, he was expecting to spend his first winter awake safely behind a desk, learning the role, rather than being trapped in the notorious Sector Twelve. Any amount of paperwork is better than having to deal with Aurora, the head of security at the HiberTech research facility, or her twin sister Toccata, marauding Villains (Upper-Class English, using theft and pillage to maintain their traditional lifestyle – always on the lookout for stamp collections and potential ‘servants’) and deadly viral dreams…

This may not be TN8 or SoG2 but it is still a wild and wonderful ride through Jasper Fforde’s fertile imagination. I once saw him speak about his work and he said that all his books start with a ‘what if….’ question popping into his brain – his books seem to prove that his brain produces some very entertaining (if slightly odd) ‘what ifs’. Tonight I’m off to see him again – maybe we’ll find out when the books we are waiting for coming – but I hope the audience also joins me in congratulating him on another entertaining story.

Jane

 

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The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes – Ruth Hogan

It is always a happy day when you can add to your list of favourite authors – someone whose books you look out for and who you can generally rely on to provide you with whatever it is you get from that writer (laughter, tears, esoteric knowledge or combinations of all the above). Even though this is only Ruth Hogan’s second book I’m fairly certain she has made my own, personal list. She has even made the list of authors who make you feel as if you are reading the words of a friend – who you feel really understands you and your life*. Bliss.

39860004Masha has been many things in her life: a free spirit, a lover, and a mother. But right now she is none of those things – since her beloved little boy disappeared thirteen years ago she has become obsessed with drowning. Although she decided that she wanted to go on living she spent years visiting her local lido practicing how long she can hold her breath underwater – reliving her son’s final moments. She can’t speak to her friends or parents about how she feels, she can barely admit it to herself, she is just drifting. The only things that keep her afloat are her good friends Edward and Epiphany and her wolfhound Haizum but she only really begins to live again through her friendship with two older women – the magnificent Kitty Muriel, a force of nature in leopard-print and heels, and Sally who roams the local park, feeding crows and, sometimes, mistaking profanities for everyday conversation. In a separate strand of the novel another woman, single mum Alice, loves her fourteen year old son Mattie with a passion which threatens to smother him until her own health begins to fail. At this point the two stories start to move closer together and secrets are, finally, revealed.

The plot here is actually secondary to the wonderful, wonderful characters in some ways. There is a story (and it all hangs together perfectly well) but the really important thing is who is being affected by the events described. Masha is, at the beginning of the book, almost totally defined by her sorrow but, as she begins to rebuild her life, we see the vibrant woman she should have been all along. Alice is, initially, a deeply irritating character – giving her teenage son no freedom or trust, a total ditherer – but as we learn more of her life her actions become much more understandable. Kitty Muriel is never anything but the kind of woman I want to be when I’m in my 70s but Sally Red Shoes (Masha’s name for her) is my favourite character in the book. We find out about her earlier life – which seems it should have left her colourless and withdrawn but just plain hasn’t – but only in hindsight. Throughout the novel itself we just get to see her in her unrestrained, crow-feeding, tourettish glory: she teaches us, as she does Masha, that we don’t have to be the sum of the awful things life throws at us. If we are lucky we can learn how to be the best ‘us’ possible even when it seems too difficult.

Jane

*Oddly, I hadn’t read Hogan’s biography on Goodreads when I read her first book. It seems we share a few experiences in life including our love of reading, sweetness preferences regarding tea and brushes with cancer. I think she really, really does understand my life 🙂

Trick to Time – Kit de Waal

I think I have discovered the reason why I always have so many problems doing annual round-ups of my favourite books. Sneaky publishers keep bringing out so many wonderful titles in the first half of the year – oh, sure, they are publishing to be considered for literary and popular prizes and to have books to offer at major literature festivals up and down the country but they could spare a thought for book bloggers! Or maybe I should just declare my own timetable and do my ‘best books of the year’ to coincide with the tax year rather than the calendar one? I need to consider this – if I can find time while catching up with all my potential new favourite books: a list in which I am definitely including Kit de Waal’s wonderful new novel.

trick to timeThe Trick to Time is the story of Mona, a dollmaker from Ireland living in an English seaside town. As she approaches her 60th birthday she looks back over her life – a childhood in Ireland, the loss of her mother and her closeness to her father, her escape from small town life and move to Birmingham, where she meets her husband William. There they experience joy, when Mona becomes pregnant, and the horrors of being Irish after the 1972 IRA bomb attack. Mona then has a stillbirth – made worse by the fact that, in the early 70s, it was assumed that the best way to help families cope with this loss was to virtually pretend the child had never existed. Mona now seems to lead a solitary and lonely life but we find that when she does connect with others her aim is to help them – in the way that she was helped at the hardest time of her life.

I’m not sure if I can quite describe what it is that Kit de Waal does in her books which make them so wonderful. Part of it is the characters: they are very ordinary people who are put into, in some ways, everyday situations but the way that they deal with them transcends the ordinary. I think what I love most is the fact that she sees the extraordinary in everyone. I laughed with these people, basked in their love and wept with them. While you read their lives they are as real to you as your own family. It is a deeply emotional experience but it is one I can never regret – I feel the weight of these people’s lives in every page.

Jane

It’s so hard to choose…

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the last twenty years and, naturally, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the books I’ve read in that time. I can’t remember them all – I do spend a lot of time reading – but I did start to wonder if I could try to pick a favourite out of the books I’ve read which were published since 1996. When it comes down to it it’s a lot harder than it looks so I decided to ask around and see if I could get some inspiration.

I started at home. Yes, pity poor Rob as I demanded he review his past two decades of reading…Luckily, after a quick trawl through the bookshelves he came up with a few suggestions. They range over the genres – travel writing, fiction, environmentalism, science writing and science fiction – but the one that stood out for me from his list (like I said, it’s hard to choose one) was one we both loved. Nick Harkaway’s Gone-Away World is a remarkable book with a crazy plot which has more to it with every re-reading and some memorable characters. To be honest I don’t think either Rob or I will ever forget Ronnie Cheung.

Next I asked around my colleagues at work. Starting with Bex herself. Impressively she found it rather easy to choose the book that meant most to her (and I quote) ‘Harry Potter – I’m a first generation reader…I was the same age as Harry when Philosopher’s Stone was published’ . Although is it cheating to pick an entire series? Who cares! It is such a great series to choose… And I even got a bonus choice from Bex’s daughter who, at 18 months old, just can’t get enough of Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler’s Tales from Acorn Wood which she described as essential pre-Gruffalo reading. (That’s Bex, not her daughter, obviously…). Ian the manager (who has recently moved to our Leeds store) also found it simple to narrow down his favourite – I reckon he had to move to Leeds since he has already recommended Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend to the whole of Bradford. I also cornered Jamie (our new manager) who named Kill Your Friends by John Niven as his favourite. Up in the coffee shop Luke (lead barista and store hipster-in-chief) was quick to name Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Megan (our newest staff member – she makes a mean bacon buttie…), when pushed, plumped for Khalid Hosseini’s  A Thousand Splendid Suns. Although she did say this was subject to change – there are so many great books out there!

I decided not to stop there and have been bothering lots of other people – some who have worked in the store in the past 20 years and, of course, some of our customers. Sarah, who supports us in choosing and ordering stock for the shop, chose a graphic novel, Blankets by Craig Thompson. She described it as her favourite graphic novel of all time and one that redefined the genre. Charlotte, a customer, author and occasional contributor to this blog showed her penchant for horror and fantasy by being undecided between Dan Simmons’ The Terror and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. And we both agreed that her daughter Sophie was still a huge fan of You Choose (we’ve both read it with her for entire afternoons…). And Kay, one of regular customers and member of our monthly book group, tells me that the book she regularly recommends or gifts to family and friends (always a sign of a true fave)  is Bella Bathurst’s The Lighthouse Stevensons.

So, has all this made it any easier for me to choose my own favourite? Of course not…The best I can hope for is a short list of books which have left a lasting impression on me (and which I would happily reread – always a sign of a great book for me). Hugh Howey’s Wool makes the cut, as do all Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books and Justin Cronin’s The Passage (or Connie Willis’ book of the same name…). And then, of course, there’s always the fabulous Rosie Project or a dozen other books which I’ve been pressing into people’s hands for the last two decades. I don’t think I can pick just one (and the way things are going my own personal shortlist is just going to keep on getting longer).

Jane

 

 

Crosstalk – Connie Willis

We all have favourite authors: writers whose books we eagerly await and then devour as if we were never going to see another book ever again. Sometimes we are part of a huge group of fans – this is pretty much the reaction of every admirer of George R R Martin or Sylvia Day – sometimes we feel like lone voices in a wilderness. I spent many years sad that I couldn’t recommend one of favourite authors because there were no UK editions of her books in print – but luckily publishers saw the light and Connie Willis (winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards among many other honours) is now on my ‘push books into customer’s hands’ list again. Be warned, I will suggest you read Domesday Book and/or To Say Nothing of the Dog if you hang around the sci-fi section…

9781473200937_crosstalk_tpbWillis’ latest book is full of the stuff that makes me love her work so much. Fast-paced, almost slapstick, action with lots of confusion and a dollop of romance. Her books have been compared to the kind of comedic films that used to star Rock Hudson and Doris Day and, considering how much I enjoy those kind of films, I’m inclined to agree. They also have their sad moments and can make you spend time thinking about the ideas they raise. In Crosstalk these ideas are about privacy, connectivity and whether our smartphones are a wholly good thing.

Briddey is a young woman with a great job in a smallish telecoms company, with an attentive boyfriend and a large, interfering Irish-American family. The story opens with her engagement to the eminently eligible Trent and their decision to undergo a procedure which will enable them to bond to the extent that they will ‘feel’ each others emotions. Although Trent seems rather more concerned about beating Apple to new developments in mobile phone technology and her family would rather she settled down with a good Irish lad. Into this throw C.B., a reclusive geek who would rather develop technology to limit our connectivity than increase it, and Briddey’s sudden and unexpected ability to hear what everybody is thinking (and not just Trent) and the way is prepared for the comedy to begin. The darker side is not neglected as we also explore how hearing voices has been seen as a symptom of mental ill-health for centuries.

Sci-fi always seems a hard thing to make funny – as if the future were no laughing matter*. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen (I laughed like a drain at parts of The Martian and Douglas Adams is a genius) but it rarely turns out as well as it does in the hands of Connie Willis.

Jane

*Fantasy on the other hand is full of giggles. See the entire works of Sir Terry for a start…