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‘What’s it like?’ I asked.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Being fictional.’

‘Ah!’ replied Snell slowly. ‘Yes – fictional.’

I realized too late that I had gone too far – it was how I imagined a dog would feel if you brought up the question of distemper in polite conversation.

I have a curious relationship with the writing of Jasper Fforde. So far I have read three of his Thursday Next books and all three of them on planes. Why these books about books, a universe of books navigable by humans, a wonderful mixture of Doctor Who, John Kendrick Bangs‘s A House-Boat on the River Styxx and Douglas Adams – why choose this series in particular to help battle the longeurs and boredom of plane travel?

I have no idea, but it works a treat.

On the run from the monolithic Goliath Corpoation in the real world, Thursday Next has accepted an offer of taking refuge in a terrible novel, all part of the ‘Character Exchange Programme’ requiring only that she fulfil the role of the character she is replacing. The book, Caversham Heights, is an awful crime thriller riddled with clichés and famously unreadable. A perfect hiding place for Thursday, secreted away in the Well of Lost Plots, where fiction itself is alive.

It affords her the chance to recover from the tragedy of losing her husband Landen, wiped from existence by a diabolical fictional loose in the real world, as well as protect her pregnancy (courtesy of aforementioned non-existent partner). She is also studying under her mentor Miss Haversham to become an agent of Jurisfiction, dedicated to maintaining the integrity of book plots. There is also the small matter of two Russian gossips spoiling the plot of Anna Karenina through intrusive footnotes and the strange disappearance of punctuation from Ulysses.

A number of fictional characters are dying in mysterious circumstances. Next is convinced that a murderous conspiracy, somehow relating to the launch of UltraWord™, is responsible. There is also the matter of a mnemomorph, an infection of the mind, eroding her memories of Landen.

The Thursday Next series has a great sense of fun about it, as well as a great sweep of literary references. The footnoterphone takes the ball dropped by Flann O’Brien and Terry Pratchett and runs with it. Fforde is not above parodying the cantina scene from Star Wars, or introducing the cast of Wuthering Heights all taking part in an anger management course. The preening prima donna Heathcliff is a highlight of the novel.

I must confess that for the early half of The Well of Lost Plots Fforde seemed to be overindulging his love of this literary in-jokes and bookworld metaphysics. However, once the actual plot kicks in the meta-critique takes a backseat to the business of advancing the narrative of Next’s adventures. The book is also extremely funny. Below is my favourite exchange of the book, occuring during a deadly trip into an out of print Enid Blyton novel:

‘If you’re exchanging golliwogs for monkeys, you’re in the wrong book,’ he said.

Compulsive reading, with a welcome sense of fun and literary references.

This is not a review. This is a short account of my failure to review a book. Yes, I have been defeated. Mister Charles Yu, I take my hat off to you. I cannot present a review, because I have not finished this book.

In fact I do not intend to ever finish it. Not because it is a bad book. On the contrary, the concept behind it is fascinating. The author’s approach to time travel fiction seems initially reminiscent of a previous book I have reviewed by K.A. Bedford, but the contrast between them could not be greater.

Yu is not employing time travel as a storytelling device. Instead the book itself becomes a time machine and as the reader, you become a function of the book’s existence itself. The adventures of Yu’s protagonist, named Charles Yu, are all bound up with attempting to explain the logic of time travel, even a grammar of time travel, rather than introduce any plot as such.

Which is what defeated me. As a conceptual work this book is quite impressive, but I did not feel there was anything for me to hook on to.

So I gave up. Apologies all round.

I switched to a Jasper Fford novel for the plane home instead. Much less perplexing.

Mat looked each of the five men in the eyes, nodded, and started toward the tent flap, but paused beside Talmanes’s chair. Mat cleared his throat, then half mumbled, “You secretly harbor a love of painting, and you wish you could escape this life of death you’ve committed yourself to. You came through Trustair on your way south, rather than taking a more direct route, because you love the mountains. You’re hoping to hear word of your younger brother, whom you haven’t seen in years, and who disappeared on a hunting trip in southern Andor. You have a very tortured past. Read page four.”

Mat hurried on, pushing his way out into the shaded noon, though he did catch a glimpse of Talmanes rolling his eyes. Burn the man! There was good drama in those pages!

Generally speaking I select a quote from the early section of a book, illustrating  a particularly descriptive event that captures the overall style of the book. For this latest entry in Robert Jordan‘s long-running The Wheel of Time saga I made an exception. Having passed away after a long illness in 2007 many fans assumed the series itself would remain unfinished. Then word was received that Brandon Sanderson had been chosen to complete the books. I will explain below why I chose the quote, but let me add, as I mentioned in my review of Sanderson’s Mistborn series linked to above, that I began reading Robert Jordan a long time ago.

In fact it occurs to me that I only continue to read this series because I need to know how it ends, after spending most of my early adolescence pouring over the series.

As such, a quick note on The Wheel of Time itself. Initially starting out as a fantasy novel in the Tolkien-mode, with three young men from a village being hunted by the evil forces of a satanic presence known as The Dark One, the series developed by giving greater focus to court intrigue and war. Rand al’Thor, Perrin Aybara and Mat Cauthon are all ta’veren, which relates to the mystical underpinning of the books, each of them capable of influencing what is referred to as The Pattern, the fabric of creation itself. Not only is Rand the most powerful of the three ta’veren, he is also the reincarnation of an enemy of The Dark One named The Dragon. Certain men and women in Jordan’s fantasy universe, like Rand, have magical powers, relating to two counterbalancing sources known as saidin and saidar.

As he has accepted the role of Dragon Reborn, Rand has been declared a messiah by some and a force of chaos by others. For the majority of the series he has been attempting to unite the various kingdoms to fight against The Dark One, who is destined to be freed in an event known as Tarmon Gai’don, the Last Battle.  Enemy agents, referred to as Darkfriends, monsters and religious bigots have hunted and harried Rand throughout, as well as conspiring to prevent the kingdoms from joining forces.

Sanderson ably maintains the tone of Jordan’s previous novels and concludes a number of subplots that had been dangling for some time. Rand’s grasp on sanity is becoming increasingly perilous, which he has been forced to acknowledge to some of his allies. Perrin and Mat are finding themselves pulled by the Pattern against their will to join their childhood friend as the date of the Last Battle approaches. The Aes Sedai, an order of women who practice saidar, are forced to defend their base of Tar Valon from a foreign invasion. The speed of events has certainly picked up considerably in this book.

However, I chose the above quote because that is one of the few moments when I feel Sanderson’s voice entering the writing. For the most part he imitates Jordan, who sadly had increasingly begun to rely on tiresome clichés and stock situations. There is a very slight critical tone to the proceedings, as Sanderson clears out the accumulated plot-dross of nineteen years.

The Wheel of Time has been mocked for its depiction of the battle between the sexes, its repetitive prose and inflationary cast, but I am going to finish this series despite my embarrassment at having read it for so long! The devoted fanbase has waited a long time and while the occasional rock album raised a chuckle - take a bow Blind Guardian – the Last Battle is long overdue.

Wait,  today is the Rapture? Dammit!!

The vampire recovered his equanimity quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Physical contact broken, his fangs reappeared. Clearly not the sharpest of prongs, he then darted forward from the neck like a serpent, driving in for another chomp.

‘I say!’ said Alexia to the vampire. ‘We have not even been introduced!’

Certain books tell you all you need to know about them very quickly. The above exchange occurs on the second page of Soulless: An Alexia Tarabotti Novel.  Immediately I knew what to expect from this novel. Quite reassuring really.

Alexia Tarabotti suffers from an indelicate social standing. She is both twenty-five years old and unmarried. What is more, to add to her near-outcast status, she is half-Italian and considered far too bookish for a lady hoping to wed in late-nineteenth century London. What is less well known about Alexia though is that she also lacks a soul, a quality which defines her in the files of Queen Victoria’s Bureau of Unnatural Registry as a preternatural, an extremely rare condition that allows her to literally ‘defang’ vampires and werewolves at a touch.

For her though this is simply yet another questionable trait inherited from her deceased father. Her mother, Mrs. Loontwill, has since made a more respectable match and guided two further daughters into society, whose pale skin and chatter contrasting sharply with their half-sister.

Then Alexia is forced to dispatch a vampire attacker at a ball! The indignity of it all. BUR agents and werewolves Lord Maccon and his beta Professor Lyall interview Alexia at the scene. She reveals that she noticed the vampire was unaware of any of the proper social conventions for a member of the undead class to observe, plus his fashion sense was dreadful, indicating that someone is transforming humans outside of the London vampire set, known as hives. Maccon and Alexia exchange barbed comments, both having reached a highly negative opinion of the other. However, over the next few days as our parasol-sporting heroine discovers more about the conspiracy behind her attack, it is Lord Maccon who continues to come to her aid, even rescuing her from a monstrous figure with wax-like skin and an eerie grin. Could the Lord Earl of Woolsey’s feelings for her extend beyond his outward shows of irritation? Has she finally made a suitable match for a husband? And where are all these uncouth vampires coming from?

This book is an absolute delight. Mixing Wodehousian banter and innuendo with the social climbing drama of a Jane Austen novel and then serving up a heady melange that includes many different varieties of supernatural beastie, Gail Carriger has produced a masterful debut. In a sense this book is a natural successor to the mash-up phase of the past few years, which has begun to endure something of a backlash.

Here the paranormal romance features a courtship that raises a hearty chuckle, the monsters of the gothic novel restrained by societal convention to hilarious effect. Lord Maccon is not only an alpha male, he is an alpha werewolf male and Scottish to boot, which leads to no end of mockery by Alexia, herself considered too headstrong and fixed in her ideas by her contemporaries. The banter between them is sustained beautifully, with the rueful Professor Lyall acting as an occasional agent of Cupid.

Of course any work of escapism deserves a worthy central plot and Carriger fashions up a terrific yarn involving religious intolerance of the undead and twisted science. Overall this is a great package, with lots of clever little touches accessorising the main story in a fitting manner.

I am happily converted and am eager to gobble down the rest of the series. Madame Carriger, I doff my hat to you.

I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a house-wife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab. I’d never seen, or else had never acknowledged, that regard of his before, the sheer carnal avarice of it; and it was strangely magnified by the monocle lodged in his left eye. When I saw him look at me with lust, I dropped my eyes but, glancing away from him, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.

The next day, we were married.

I found myself in the unusual position of being scolded by this book’s introduction, written by Helen Simpson. “The Bloody Chamber is often wrongly described as a group of traditional fairy tales given a subversive feminist twist. In fact, these are new stories, not re-tellings.” Well shut my mouth! I have been going around for years saying, oh, I really want to read this book by Angela Carter. It’s like a feminist retelling of fairy tales. Sounds amazing.

Apparently I was wrong.

Well I am happy to take those lumps, but I might argue that bringing to the fore the sexuality of these heroines in Carter’s fairy tales is feminist insofar as it presents their sexuality as relevant to the text.

Consider the title story, which opens with a young woman travelling to meet her fiancé, with due attention paid to the ‘pounding’ of her heart and the ‘thrusting’ pistons of the train bearing her ‘away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.’ The story continues in this elegiac style, risking accusations of being overwritten, but Carter is obviously having wicked fun with this tale of a woman who discovers her new husband carries a dark secret. The Bloody Chamber flirts with the divide between sex and death, the marital consummation equated with ritual murder, the narrator unquestioningly pulled this way and that as if by tidal forces between her mother and her husband.

The following stories, The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride both address the same source material, a recurring technique within this collection, namely Beauty and the Beast. The first story appeals to the high romance of the tale, especially in its numeroues retellings. The second riffs on a cruder sense of humour and explores the venality of ‘Belle’s’ father in losing his daughter to the Beast, not to mention her own knowing mockery of his intentions towards her.

The Company of Wolves, most famously adapted by Neil Jordan, The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice, the last story in this collection, are all riffs on different aspects of the Little Red Riding Hood story. A similar separation, as with the previous stories depicting different aspects of Belle, is attempted here. The young heroine appears either as an innocent, a woman who uses the desire of the wolf to survive, or a more lupine creature herself.

Puss-in-Boots is transformed into a bawdy farce about a young lover and his feline valet. ‘So all went right as ninepence and you never saw such boon companions as Puss and his master; until the man must needs go fall in love.’ A rich vein of cynicism is explored in this story, with romance simply another scam, another challenge for the wicked pair.

My favourite of the bunch has to be The Lady of the House of Love. This is an extremely funny take on the traditional vampire myth, with a lonely undead Countess feeding on young men who pass through the abandoned village beneath her castle. Until one day, a cyclist on leave from the war arrives to drink from the fountain and is directed by the castle’s maid to visit. Instead of being seduced by the grandeur and ostentation of the abode, he sees nothing but mould and decaying furniture. Completely devoid of imagination he is immune to the charms of the vampire. I learned on the weekend that this young hero was apparently based on an artist neighbour of Carter’s. Quite the poison pen she had.

Deliciously wicked and very funny.



The crowds in St. Peter’s Square parted as the Prod Bigot Incompetents rushed the IRA Jesuit.

Father Ryan O’Brian was almost taken by surprise as the howling bluenoses came charging through the crowd, decked in Rangers strips and King Billy tattoos. Not a sight you saw every day in Vatican City.

“Aw, not youse lot again,” he sighed, producing a heat-seeking surface to surface missile launcher and a Stanley knife from under his cassock.

BAM!

Stephanie, early on in my blog-writing career, tried to convince me not to use any swear-words in these reviews. I have a foul mouth sometimes, so it was tough. This book, however, this book almost defeated me. It has more cursing per square inch than a pub showing Monday night football.

The plot, such as it is, is concerned with the millennia long history of conflict between the Church and the State. We meet Jesus and his disciples in a scene reminiscent of Cyrus addressing the gangs in Walter Hill’s The Warriors. The Apostles are in fact a revolutionary brotherhood of peace and love and Jesus has returned to them to rap about eternal life. Of course then Saul shows up and ruins everything, deciding following the massacre to follow the letter of Christ’s teachings if not the spirit and found the monolithic Holy Roman Empire. We then cut to Henry VIII, speaking along with his courtiers in a thick Glasgow accent, breaking from Rome and sparking the present-day conflict.

Father Ryan O’Brian is at the centre of the conflict, a wiley assassin who specialises in playing one side against the other. The Pope presides over a corrupt cabal of deviants who are attempting to undermine the Queen of England. She, in turn, is a foul-mouthed monster, whose three sons are plotting to murder her in order to acquire the throne.  O’Brian is not able playing his cards close to his chest in these colossal conflict, he appears to be unkillable. God literally loves him too much.

Scatology rules the day in this book, building to an appropriately literal apocalypse, but the moment I decided I was actually having fun was when the author inserted an ad for defunct publisher Attack! Books into the book itself! I found an interview with editor Steven Wells outlining the approach behind these hyper-pulp novels. The scene with the unnamed Queen, face smeared in baked beans (….I guess it’s a fetish) laughing herself into hysterics while reading various titles from the imprint such as Tits-Out Teenage Totty, Satan! Satan! Satan! and Ebola 3000, followed by a postal address for any prospective new readers to order their own copies.

Now that’s funny.

Yes the language is rotten to the core. I am sure your average person on the street will be offended by Udo’s descriptions of venal priests, idiot princes and a psychotic Queen. He intersperses chapters with a series of extracts from conspiracy theories regarding the death of the Princess of Wales, the ties between the Royal Family and Nazism and in turn Hitler taking inspiration from the structure of the Jesuit order. The overt message of the book is that these two institutions cannot be trusted, built as they are on a history of conquest and war.

Oh and Jesus was a socialist.

“Do you feel absolutely no concern for your future, boy?”

“Oh, I feel some concern for my future, all right. Sure. Sure, I do.” I thought about it for a minute. “But not too much, I guess. Not too much, I guess.”

“You will,” old Spencer sad. “You will, boy. You will when it’s too late.”

I didn’t like hearing him say that. It made me sound dead or something. It was very depressing. “I guess I will,” I said.

Hello folks. I am still in Ireland, not long before my return flight to Oz. You may recall I attempted yet another unwise challenge during my flight here during which I read three books on the plane. Not the most conducive of reading experiences it must be said.

Which is why I have taken so long to write this review. Were my impressions on returning to this book, which I enjoyed so much as a teenager, affected by the long-distance flight? Or is it the case that I now view the book with new eyes, as a consequence of how I have changed since I first read it?

Holden Caufield’s adventures begin with yet another expulsion from a well-known boarding school in Pennsylvania. Rather then suffer further embarrassment he travels to New York, deciding to enjoy a short break before returning home to his family. He gets drunk, tries to look up old girlfriends and behaves in a manner befitting a wealthy twenty-something New York socialite as opposed to a fifteen year old who refuses to grow up.

Yes he cherry-picks the behaviours of adult hood that he enjoys, but most of all he clings to a sense of innocence that he feels the world is robbing him of and indeed everyone else. Part of this stems from the death of his brother Allie, whom Holden regards as superior to him in almost every way. Partly he is also concerned for what will happen to his younger sister, Phoebe, who worships him. Most others, including his talented older brother D.B. who departed for Hollywood to work as a writer, he regards as phonys.

I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.

Holden is frequently criticised by fellow students and teachers for his seeming immaturity. He deliberately speaks in an exaggerated teenage manner and oftentimes Salinger presents him as thinking in this way too. But his spoken words and thoughts belie the thoughtfulness of Holden, desperately trying to understand a world he does not believe himself fit to live in. Yes the world is full of phonys, but they seem to know what to do with their lives. Why did he survive into adolescence and Allie not?

I used to think she was quite intelligent, in my stupidity. The reason I did was because she knew quite a lot about the theater and plays and literature and all that stuff. If somebody knows quite a lot about those things, it takes you quite a while to find out whether they’re really stupid or not.

Crap, he’s on to me!

I opened this review with a certain tired reluctance and unfortunately for all the great craft and sincerity on show here – Salinger is too clever to allow his archetypal rebel to succeed – I have fallen out of love with Holden. I think this is mainly because the trickle down effect of this novel’s incredible success has quite diluted its impact. There are hundreds of Holdens out there. In fact watch an episode of Gossip Girl some time. Go on, I dare you. Notice how clever they all seem to think they are? Maybe a hipster reference every ten minutes or so? Yeah. That’s what they did to Holden, turned him into a neo-dandy.

Whereas I saw him as Peter Pan who failed to find NeverLand. Stuck in the grimness of New York, unable to rescue all the lost boys and girls. A few years ago I read Franny and Zooey which I enjoyed immensely. I notice that has not attracted the slavish worship of The Cather in the Rye. For the best I feel.

An undoubted classic, but weakened by the repetition of the decades since.

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