There was a time when I needed to read a) something simple that would be b) captivating enough even if I were in pain/bored/busy. Obviously, a tome with thirty different characters to keep track of by page five and changing milieus would not do.
I grabbed Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels through a happenstance: I went to work, and my colleague had something on his desk that said "Shades of Gray."
- You're not reading...?
- No. No no no. This is Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde.
As I had never heard of the guy, m'colleague filled me in. He provided the hook: "...and he has this series of Thursday Next books, where London is filled with literature detectives that hop into books to solve mysteries, and they have a lot of literary references." Sold!
The Eyre Affair
Thursday Next is a young woman who solves crimes related to works of literature in an alternate universe London. In the first installment of the series, Thursday needs to solve a crime involving Jane Eyre: a real baddie has been able to break into the world of a variety of classics, kidnapping or killing off characters to the horror of fan societies all over the country. It's basically like, "If you don't give me what I ask, Gandalf gets it next!" The horror is not about having the characters killed, but the idea of reading those books again without these characters in them. The stories would change completely!
Time bending, underground librarians, characters escaped into the real world, and... well, I'll get to the style later.
Baddies unfortunately get to her, and via time bending technology they remove a very dear person to her from her life completely--by intervening when he was rescued as a small boy from certain death. Thursday is suddenly living an alternate life and needs to find her way back in time to undo what the baddies did so that her normal life comes back to her. It's just too bad she has a hard time convincing others around her that they are all a part of an alternate reality.
So, what's up with these books?
I've read two and a half of them so far, and they've taken a firm place in my Enjoyable, Inoffensive Fluff" collection, along with Janet Evanovich. Sometimes I actually wondered whether Evanovich is Fforde's nom de plume for writing hard-boiled detective stories across the Atlantic--the writing styles and subject matter are surprisingly similar! Both write a series about a no-nonsense woman protagonist who solves crimes, and spends a good deal of time thinking about a male colleague. She gets into trouble and is rescued by said handsome colleague, or gets herself out of trouble thanks to her wits.
When I say it's enjoyable fluff, I hope it's not offensive to any of the fans of this series: the literary references in the novels are delightful for any literature nerds or lit. majors (when Thursday goes to Kafka's Trial and uses its logic against the judges... hilarious), but the stories themselves are still just fun little mysteries that get solved at the end, with one Big Bad looking in the background throughout the series. You won't be finding too much of social commentary or mind bending revelations here beyond the importance of knowing your novels.
The writing is absolutely silly--I guess you wouldn't expect anything less from a British author on a quest to write a slightly silly novel. There are a lot of puns, and I guarantee you they are all eye-roll worthy. I mean, one of the main characters is called Jack Schitt, and you bet it will be played out to its full potential. That is just juvenile, really.
Sometimes, the stories get even embarrassingly sweet and naive. Although the main protagonist is a grown, independent woman with a good job and she obviously has sex, the most Fforde ever describes is basically a peck on the cheek. And poof, now she is pregnant!
Even Young Adult novels get steamier than this (and this is supposedly not a YA title). He drops hints at Thursday and whatshisname spending nights together, but it's the equivalent of a daytime soap showing a couple staring at each other, then the camera panning away to show a sunset while the sax plays, to then cut back to the couple getting ready to go to work. Why even bother? He's not showing nor telling. I would be completely fine with Thursday being an asexual being in these novels, but the blushing wink-wink-nudge-nudge treatment of Thursday's sex life just seems kind of awkward.
Thursday is a kind of an everywoman--a bit quirky, with plausible problems--which is why I don't find her or the other characters terribly interesting. Still, I continue to read these books because they are funny, punny, the action scenes are written well, and each story is a little pub quiz for lit. nerds. Recognize this quote? Recognize this reference? Recognize, that we just totally created an alternate reality for your favorite book?
These stories are perfect reading for lying in the sun without any other cares in the world than keeping your drink filled to the brim and the whodunnit. Or in front of the fireplace on a disgustingly damp winter day. Nothing to worry anyone's pretty head about. They are perfect also for when you do have other cares in the world, but want to be taken somewhere silly for a moment.
I bought two of these for my Kindle, but the next ones I am going to check out from the library: I don't think I'll ever need to reread them, but I do want to read them all once!