Idaho Arts Quarterly » Feature

Lost in A Good Book

Three new and noteworthy reads

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Well over 100,000 books are published in the United States each year, enough to flummox the most intrepid bibliophile. There's no way to cover any significant bit of that deluge, so here, instead, find a brief discussion of a few follow-up efforts from some of our favorite authors. And take special note: We don't recommend just these works, but these authors' entire oeuvres.

The Fourth Bear, Jasper Fforde

Penguin, August 2006

If you don't know the work of British author Jasper Fforde, you're missing out. Big time. Back in 2002, Fforde's first novel, The Eyre Affair was published in the United States. Set in an alternate 1985 England, where the Crimean war went on for over 100 years and literary characters routinely cause trouble in the real world, The Eyre Affair stars Thursday Next, an agent with the Literary Detective Division of the secretive Special Operations Network, who is put on the case of a diabolical literary crime vis-à-vis a missing Martin Chuzzlewit. The story didn't get any more normal over the next three novels that completed the Thursday Next series.

When Thursday Next's job ended, Fforde didn't abandon either writing or his love of puns, low-brow/high-brow jokes or the literary realm. He covers slightly different territory with his new Nursery Crime series, beginning with the July 2005 publication of The Big Over Easy--a hilariously absurd story concerning Jack Spratt and his partner Mary Mary of the beleaguered Nursery Crime Division and their investigation into the possible murder of Humperdinck Jehosaphat Aloysius Stuyvesant van Dumpty. Just this August, the second installment in the series arrived with The Fourth Bear. Spratt and Mary are back, facing obsolescence and this time working at two tough cases: tracking down Gingerbreadman, a deranged killer, freshly escaped from a mental hospital, and finding missing reporter Henrietta "Goldilocks" Hatchett, who was last seen by a family of bears.

You can read Fforde's books and feel smart--for getting the myriad and varied references and inside jokes--and idiotic at the same time--for laughing at the scatological humor and groan-worthy punning; it's fiction that lit buffs and Monty Python-style dorks might both appreciate.

Check out Fforde's Web site, www.jasperfforde.com, for hours and hours' worth of ways to waste your time. The fact that Next, Spratt and their worlds are presented as if real is a nice touch.

Lisey's Story, Stephen King

Simon & Schuster, October 2006

Stephen King haters, let it go already. Readers love the King and millions of us can't wait for Lisey's Story to hit the shelves. In recent years, the bulk of King's publication was preoccupied with finishing out the Dark Tower series--did I say "series"? I meant something more along the lines of "magnum opus"--and while we're not complaining, it was a measure of nostalgia that greeted last January's release of Cell, King's first full-length novel (The Colorado Kid doesn't count) since laying to rest the Dark Tower. Cell seemed like a return to classic King form--immediate, violent and unsettling.

It looks as if Lisey's Story may continue in that (old) vein, albeit with a more emotional depth (as befits a man who has been married as long as King and who almost died in a tragic and random accident a few years back). The book follows Lisey Debusher Landon, a widow of two years, after losing her husband of 25 years, Scott (a novelist ... hmm). Scott Landon had some scary demons, but it's Lisey who has to face them after his death, and not in a merely metaphoric fashion. This is one to curl up with under a blanket pulled tight, and your pressed back against a comfortingly solid wall.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury, October 2006

In September of 2004, Susanna Clarke didn't so much publish as give birth to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an 800-page novel 10 years in the making. When reading it, you can feel the time, care, research and rumination involved in the book's crafting. This is a book that people either loved because it was careful, dense and multi-layered, or hated because it was stodgy and boring (this last group can go join the Stephen King-haters in the naughty corner, and face the wall).

It wouldn't be strictly accurate to describe the turn-of-the-19th-century England of Jonathan Strange as an "alternate history" (as in The Eyre Affair). It's the same England that was home to Mad King George and Bonaparte-defeating Wellington, both of whom play slightly skewed parts. But Clarke's is also an England where magicians practice like a mix of philosophers and doctors, and the fairy realm isn't too far away. Even so, she didn't create a whimsical fairytale. Jonathan Strange is as reminiscent of Dickens as Barrie, and it's tense work, written in a formal, 19th century style, complete with footnotes from fictional academic works that make up a great bulk of the book and help bring England's two most famous magicians (at least, in this telling) to life.

This new work, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, is a collection of 10 stories set in the same world as Jonathan Strange, and features appearances from some of the same characters. As with Jonathan Strange, The Ladies of Grace Adieu features real-life historical figures like Mary, Queen of Scots, and like with Jonathan Strange, Clarke takes a fresh and unusual look at these historical figures. Some of the stories have been published in magazines or anthologies, and some have never been released. If you missed the world of Jonathan Strange after finishing the book, The Ladies of Grace Adieu is like coming home.

It has been recently reported that Clarke is suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, and as a result, her book tour has been cancelled and progress on her next novel seriously delayed. If she is ever well enough to complete it, the next book will continue in the same vein as Jonathan Strange and The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Yet even if she never publishes again, Clarke's place in the canon deserves to be assured, on the strength of what she's already accomplished.