The Eyre Affair: Looking at literature from the inside out

The Eyre Affair by Jasper FfordeJasper Fforde (with two F’s, really) is a superstar in the world of contemporary literature. The Eyre Affair (2003) is the first in Fforde’s series of Thursday Next novels which, with the release of Thursday Next: First Among Sequels last year, recently came back from a publishing hiatus. My general opinion is that anyone who reads books in English should pick up a copy. The book’s refusal to fit neatly into one genre (I’ve seen it catalogued as sci-fi, mystery, general fiction, and young adult fiction) supports my feeling that The Eyre Affair has something for everyone. (Find it on Bookshop.)

The novel is narrated by a woman named Thursday Next who lives in England. The year is 1985. But Thursday’s England is not one that many readers will recognize. To name but a few differences: Cloning has been viable since the 1970s when home cloning kits for Dodo’s were released, cheese is illegal, and Wales is still an independent republic.

Law enforcement in Fforde’s novel also takes a unique turn with the Special Operations Network that was created to “handle policing duties considered either too unusual or too specialized to be tackled by the regular force.” There are thirty departments in the network ranging from SO-12—a unit called the ChronoGuard that polices time travel and “chronuption” while trying to maintain the Standard History Eventline—to SO-27: the Literary Detectives who have to deal with problems like Baconians who preach that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays along with more mundane problems like “illegal traders, copyright infringements and fraud.”

Thursday Next is a Literary Detective.

The real problems for our intrepid heroine start when Archeron Hades (the third most wanted criminal in the world) begins kidnapping characters from great literary works. When Jane Eyre disappears from the pages of her novel, thereby leaving it unreadable, the pressure is on to rescue her before one of England’s greatest novels is destroyed forever.

As that summary might suggest, Fforde packs a lot into this tome (the hardcover runs 374 pages). The beauty of all of The Eyre Affair is that he makes it look so easy. The Thursday Next novels work together with a dynamic almost unheard of in other contemporary series as Fforde seamlessly connects plot points and refers back to past events between novels to create a tight, engaging narrative that remains entertaining long after the first read.

Furthermore, Fforde isn’t afraid to have a little fun. Everything is up for grabs in this novel where vampires, time travel, and literature all play their part in the narrative. Fforde also takes known historical and literary facts and turns them upside down (as with Wales not being a part of the United Kingdom). It sounds like this tinkering would make the book confusing for readers without the proper background, but it really doesn’t. Some of the story’s subtleties might be lost but the main story doesn’t suffer in the least.

Part of the allure of The Eyre Affair and the rest of the series is that Fforde asks the hard questions about literature. Later novels look at the writing and reading process in such an inventive way that the adjective “mind-blowing” is a justified description. At the same time, Fforde looks at plot points in classic novels like Jane Eyre and tries to explain the reason behind the strange bits such as Jane and Rochester’s fortuitous reunion at the end of the story—often with the help of the characters in question. (Jane Eyre and Rochester both make appearances here.)

In the world of novels, this one is something completely new combining satire, sci-fi, mystery, and a touch of pop culture to create a book like no other. Fforde uses clear, succinct language to create an utterly convincing alternate England that readers will want to visit again and again (don’t worry, the series has five more novels with the promise of more to come).

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Geek Fantasy Novel by E. Archer, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, Ibid: A Life by Mark Dunn, Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon Hale, My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows; Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Or What You Will by Jo Walton, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Alice, I Think: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Alice, I Think by Susan JubyAlice, I Think (2003) is Susan Juby’s first novel. It is also the start of her Alice series (not to be confused with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice series). Before going into the details of plot and why I love this book, I want to address some of the issues I saw in negative reviews by saying this: The book is fiction and it is in the vein of satire. Juby uses hyperbole, sarcasm, and caustic wit to create this story. That doesn’t always create realistic situations or accurate portrayals of “real” people. But it does create a good novel. As long as readers go into this novel with what the film industry would call a willing suspension of disbelief, I genuinely believe most of them will be able to find something to like about this book. So, why am I saying all of that? Because Alice is awesome of course.

Alice MacLeod, our intrepid Canadian hero, read The Hobbit when she was very young. This led to a strong desire to attend her first day of school as a hobbit which is well and good creatively, but doesn’t work out so well in actuality. In fact it works out so badly, that Alice’s non-conformist parents decide to pull her out of school and teach her themselves at home.

Flash forward to the present. Alice is fifteen and talking her new therapist Death Lord Bob at the Teens in Transition (not trouble) center in town. In a misguided attempt to cheer Bob up, Alice finds herself agreeing to return to “normal” school among but one of many items placed on a “Life Goals List.”

As Alice leaves the shelter of her home, she embarks on a search for a new haircut, new clothes, a boyfriend and lots of other things. These hunts lead to hilarity of a high degree along with not a little bit of mayhem. In the end, Alice comes out maybe a little worse for wear but no less enthusiastic about checking items off of her list in the future. As Susan Juby suggests on her newly designed website, Alice shows that sometimes oddballs make the best characters.

As I started reading, I was surprised that I liked Alice, I Think as much as I did. (Although I am not alone in my enthusiasm. The book inspired a Canadian TV series as well as the entire trilogy receiving heaps of praise and award nominations.) The novel is written in a diary style, which usually doesn’t appeal. But Juby handles the style creatively, not letting it limit Alice’s narration or how events are conveyed to the reader and, most importantly, Juby still includes lots of hilarious dialogue.

Juby’s characters are also amazingly handled. Yes, a lot of them might sound more like cartoons than true-to-life people. But that’s okay. In a novel this funny, a lot of things have a cartoonish exuberance to them. Aside from that, the characters are endearing no matter how silly they might be.

As Alice works through the issues inherent to starting at a new school and tries to find new friends, readers watch her simultaneously learn how better to engage with the world at large (a revolution that continues in this novel’s two sequels Miss Smithers and Alice MacLeod: Realist at Last). Then there’s the fact that it’s literally a laugh out loud funny book. Definitely worth a look for anyone who wants a good, funny, entertaining novel.

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow, Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe, Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson, Don’t Expect Magic by Kathy McCullough,  I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, Define “Normal” by Julie Anne Peters, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee