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After I finished my Thief series re-read, the month was dominated by Jasper Fforde, pausing only for some undone Victorians and an angry chef"

The Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner (concluding my re-read of this series)
The King of Attolia
A Conspiracy of Kings
Thick as Thieves (just a quick skimming re-read, since I'd read it for the first time only a week before.)

I wrote about this series last month. Not that I can say very much, or indeed, really, anything at all. Do not THINK of reading this series out of order. Do not THINK of even glancing at the blurb of a later book before reading an earlier one. The King of Attolia is my absolute favourite – perhaps my single favourite book in ANY series – but I can't tell you why, because Spoilers.

An awful lot of Jasper Fforde

The Thursday Next series
The Eyre Affair
Lost in a Good Book
The Well of Lost Plots
Something Rotten
First Amongst Sequels
One of our Thursdays is Missing
The Woman Who Died A Lot

Nursery Crimes
The Big Over Easy
The Fourth Bear

Several people have suggested that I read Jasper Fforde – or, more accurately, have read various humorous pieces I've written and compared it to his work – but I'd never read anything by him until this month. I didn't even intend to read him this time, but The Eyre Affair happened to pop up in a box of reallocated stock. I glanced at the blurb, read the first few pages, and decided to give it a go.

The Thursday Next series is set in Swindon in an alternative 1985 in which re-engineered dodos are kept as pets and croquet is a massively popular – and violent – spectator sport. The ChronoGuard travel through time to protect the time-line, Neanderthals are employed in menial jobs, and classic literature enjoys massive and passionately partisan popular support. Thursday Next is a Literary Detective, and until now, her work has mostly involved stolen manuscripts and forgeries. But now an arch-villain has managed to find a way to get into the stories themselves, and is threatening to kill beloved characters unless his demands are met. Thursday must find a way into the books in order to stop him and save the plots of classic books.

That's the first book, anyway. The theme of travelling into books is considerably expanded in some of the later books, with the revelation of Bookworld, where all plots, characters, words and ideas reside. Some books are almost entirely set in Bookworld, while some stay in AU Swindon, and some whizz wildly between the two. They defy description, really, but are bizarre, surreal, Fourth Wall breaking, funny, literate, twisty and turny and really rather clever.

I often struggle with humorous novels. No matter how funny I find a single page, I need more than humour to keep my attention for hundreds of pages. But with this series, I not only remained interested for 350+ pages, I remained interested throughout 7 books of 350+ pages. That says it all, really.

The genesis of the Nursery Crimes series is set up in one of Thursday Next series, but no knowledge of the Thursday Next series is required to read them. In some ways, these are closer to being conventional novels. Plot-wise, they're classic police procedurals (while simultaneously being satires of police procedures), and the characters approach the mystery with seriousness, even when the situations they're in are – to the eyes of the reader – surreal or hilarious. Because although the series is set in present day Reading, this is a Reading in which nursery rhyme characters live alongside humans, entirely unremarked. Although they're perhaps less showy in their humour and surrealness than the Thursday Next series, I enjoyed them just as much.


The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth about Healthy Eating by Anthony Warner

Does what it says in the sub-title, really, with the author railing against photogenic self-styled "experts" who use pseudo-science to make people give up "bad" foods that aren't bad at all, or eat only certain "good" foods that aren't actually particularly good. As well as using science to demolish the claims of various trendy diets, the author also examines why people are so quick to believe such claims. He's angry, and he's sometimes funny, and he has a common-sense approach to nutrition based on science and the enjoyment of food. However, the book went into a bit more detail than I wanted, so I mostly just skimmed it.

Victorians Undone: Tales of Flesh in the Age of Decorum by Kathryn Hughes

This book makes bold claims. According to the author, biographical writing always neglects the physical body and says nothing about how their people thought about their bodies in the past. This book claims to rectify this, although I'm not convinced. It wasn't what I was expecting. I was expecting a more general study about Victorian attitudes to the body, but instead I got a series of unrelated biographical studies, each one focusing on different person and body part. So there was:
- An account of the Flora Hastings affair, by which the young Queen Victoria was very probably the instigator the rumour that a disliked lady in waiting was pregnant, when actually she was dying.
- Charles Darwin and his decision to grow a beard
- George Eliot, focusing on the contentious claim – printed after her death – that she was very proud of the fact that one hand was bigger than the other, thanks to years spent labouring in a dairy.
- Fanny Cornforth, a long-term mistress of Rossetti's, whose influence on his life was downplayed by his early biographers, perhaps because she was "common."
- An account of the gruesome murder of young Fanny Adams, and the trial that followed.

With some of these, the "body" emphasis seemed quite tenuous. One of Rossetti's early pictures of Fanny Cornforth emphasised her lips, but – apart from a few pages on the Victorian narrative of the "fallen woman" – most her chapter was a straight biographical account, with special focus on the agendas of early biographers – something it had in common with the George Eliot chapter. I found the book most interesting when it stepped away from the specific person into the realms of the more general, such as the pages devoted to the heated Victorian debate on beards, good or bad?

In the first chapter, in particular, the author used over-dramatic, value-laden vocabulary which annoyed me, but this tendency was toned down in the other chapters. Overall, I found it fairly readable, with quite a lot of snippets of interest, although I don't think it really did what the author claimed it would.


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September 2017

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