Lost in a Good Book (Thursday Next series #2)

 Lost In A Good Book by Jasper Fforde

This was fun! It's the second in the Thursday Next series, the first of which (The Eyre Affair) I enjoyed so much that I doubted the second could be as good - but it was. 

It's difficult to catagorize this series with a genre - it's mystery,  it's fantasy/science fiction, it's humour, and it's my favourite genre-without-a-name: 'books about books'.  

Thursday Next is a female detective who solves literary crimes by physically  entering books from which characters have been kidnapped, artifacts stolen, or lines rewritten. The plot whips you  into and out of the books on the shelves of the most amazing library you could ever imagine, a library with a talking cat who guards the books - and has an attitude.

To give you a better idea of what it's like, I'm going to quote a longer than normal passage and hope I don't get into trouble with copyright people. If I'm asked to take it down, I'll of course do so. 

"'What on earth is a grammasite?' I asked, looking nervously about in case the strange-looking creature should return.

'A parasitic life-form that lives inside books and feeds on grammar,' explained Havisham. 'I'm no expert, but that one looked suspiciously like an adjectivore. Can you see the gunport it was feeding on?'


'Describe it to me.'

I looked at the gunport and frowned. I had expected it to be old or or wooden or rotten or wet, but it wasn't. But then it wasn't sterile or blank or empty either - it was simply a gunport, nothing more nor less.

'The adjectivore feeds on the adjectives describing the noun,' explained Havisham, 'but it generally leaves the noun intact.'"

This conversation was held while Havisham and Thursday were inside Great Expectations trying to fix a plot hole. Miss Havisham, a character in the novel they're trying to fix, is also an agent for Jurisfiction, enforcing literary law   

And that should give you some idea how wacky the world of these books is. They are wildly imaginative and unlike anything I've read before. I'd like to dive right into the third one, but with only eight in the series I'll probably hoard them for a while. I want to make them last.

The House at the Edge of Night

 The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner

This story follows the lives of the Esposito family over four generations from 1914 to 2009. The setting is the tiny, fictional island of Castellamare, located somewhere off the east coast of Sicily across from the town of Syracuse.

Amedeo Esposito comes to the island to practice medicine, meets and marries his wife Pina and they take up residence in "casa al bordo del notte" - the house at the edge of night. It lies just outside the village, where the lights from the houses taper off and the darkness thickens, and it is this house that becomes the center of life on the island. First there's the story of Amedeo and Pina with their three sons and a daughter; then the next generation of the daughter, Maria-Grazia with her husband and two sons; and finally the story of one of Maria's sons and his daughter. The bar/cafe the family run on the main floor of their home is the scene of much of the village's drama and Maria becomes the keeper of many of the island's secrets.   

Castellamare is far enough away from the mainland to be untroubled by most of what goes on there. Steeped in their own ways of doing things they are not much bothered by how they are done anywhere else. But even isolated as they are, they cannot escape the effects of the two wars and the economic booms and failures that shake the rest of the world. These wider events together with the smaller and more immediate doings of the island's people, the rivalries, romances, scandals, joys and sorrows of life in a small community, tell a rich and satisfying story. The characters are relatable - some of them a little weird and perhaps the more relatable for that - and the island setting mesmerizing, the sound of the sea the background music to the entire novel.

It's a bit lengthy - 415 pages in my copy- but that allows the story to be told in depth and lets the reader really get to know the characters and the place. It's a great story, a well told, epic tale of island life.   

Amazing Grace

 Amazing Grace by Kathleen Norris 

I'm not sure how to articulate my thoughts, or even what they are really, about this book of essays chronicling the author's return to the Christian church and her struggles with the 'vocabulary of faith'.  

She attended church as a child but grew away from it in her teens. As an adult she began to feel drawn back to it but was hindered by the faith words she had always found difficult to understand - words like judgement, grace, sin, salvation, faith, dogma, sinner, and evangelism. In short chapters - I no longer have the book but there might have been 60-70 - titled with the troublesome words, she explains how she has come to terms with them. Throughout the book she refers to her involvement with a local monastery and all that she has learned there, and to her family influencing both her stepping away from and returning to the church. 

There's a lot of interesting reading here, though I admit to finding myself confused at times. Granted she knows far more church history than I do and is much better at putting her thoughts into words, so some of the difficulty is my own.  She writes a lot about her spiritual heritage and what it has taught her about living out her faith in modern world, a life that in some ways is an admirable example for the rest of us. Yet it isn't clear if she believes in an actual heaven or hell, something the Bible leaves no question about, and she seems quite set against "evangelicals" and the term "born again", though the Bible is clear that Jesus himself said "You must be born again." 

I appreciated her openness and her gifted writing, I just didn't find many answers here. And maybe that's the point after all, that we each need to find our own answers and our own path to "the Way, the Truth and the Life". I believe there is only one God and one way to Him, through faith in His son, Jesus Christ, but I also believe there are as many journeys to finding Jesus as there are people who do. The important thing is not how we come to faith in Christ, but that we do. This book may help some with the hurdles on their own particular journey. 

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

When Nicholas Nickleby's father dies, Nicholas is left to care for his mother and sister in drastically reduced circumstances. They lose their home and most of what it contained, and though their paternal uncle Ralph has the means to help, he does not have that inclination. In fact he sets himself against them and does all he can to ensure their lives are as difficult and unhappy as possible. 

Nicholas takes a job teaching in a boy's school run by the most obnoxious schoolmaster you'd ever want to meet. He and his family enjoy starving, beating and making the students miserable in as many ways as possible. Nicholas tries to help for a time, but when he can endure the injustices no longer, he leaves, unintentionally taking a student with him. Meanwhile, his sister, Kate, is forced into a thankless job and compromising situations by her cold-hearted Uncle, who begins to see his pretty neice as a possible advantage in his business interests.

Everyone is quite wretched for a time, but then, to the reader's reflief, Nicholas is hired by the Cheeryble brothers, who do much to help the family and bring justice to all the offenders. 

There is far more to the story than this brief description and there are many more characters fleshing out this lengthy novel, but I'll let you discover them for yourselves. Suffice it to say that it's Dickens, so there'll be some you love and some you hate and you'll probably be happy with the outcomes of all. 

The writing can get wordy and sometimes I wish he'd just get on with it, but then I come to lines like this and think again what a privilege it is to read his writing at all:

" The rules are a certain liberty adjoining the prison, and comprising some dozen streets in which debtors who can raise money to pay large fees, from which their creditors do NOT derive any benefit, are permitted to reside by the wise provision of the same enlightened laws which leave the debtor who can raise no money to starve in jail, without the food, clothing, lodging, or warmth, which are provided for felons convicted of the most atrocious crimes that can disgrace humanity. There are may pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humouous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.

Dickens is disgusted by the injustice he sees in his society and he uses his novels to say so, clearly and with emphasis. I appreciate that aspect of his books, and the slightly more subtle way he skewers vanity and foolishness in his characters - 

"Mrs. Squeers adjusted the bonnet and veil, which nothing but supernatural interference and an utter suspension of nature's laws could have reduced to any shape or form." 

Well, maybe not so subtle, but perfectly worded, as are the following:

"...where sparking jewellery, silks and velvets of the richest colours, the most inviting delicacies, and most sumptuous articles of luxurious ornament, succeeded each other in rich and glittering profusion."

"...addicted to every depravity for which society can find some genteel name."

Reading Dickens is always enjoyable. The writing, the plot, and the characters all make this one well worth your time.  

Friday Book Beginnings

Rose City Reader hosts Friday Book Beginnings each week. She asks that we "share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.” 

My book beginning:

One of the books I'm reading now is A House By The Shore by Alison Johnson. The first line doesn't tell you much so I'll include a bit more:

'"One stormy December evening when we were discussing alternative careers, Andrew decided it was time I wrote a book.
    "But how would I start?"
"I'll give you chapter headings," he volunteered, hopefully. "One: How I married Andrew and Had to Keep Him for the Rest of His Life. Two: Why We Came to Harris - why did we come to Harris?"
     "Not for the weather," I said, glumly..."'

The book chronicles the 12 years Alison Johnson and her husband spent on Harris, an island in the Outer Hebrides. They taught school there for a while then bought an abandoned manse, and after much hard work and endless difficulties, turned it into a successful inn. At only a few pages in I'm finding it fascinating, but for an ocean-obsessed island-addict that was pretty much inevitable.

Be sure to visit Rose City Reader to check out some of the other Book Beginnings posted there.

The Prince and the Pauper

 The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

Two boys, one a prince and one a pauper, discover they look alike, almost identical in fact, and so, wouldn't it be fun to change places for awhile? The prince exchanges his rich clothing for the rags of the pauper and heads out into the the streets of London; the pauper dresses himself in the prince's finery and heads into the palace. 

The prince is soon discovered by the pauper's abusive father who mistakes him for  his own son and treats him accordingly. He runs away, is caught again, then is rescued by a kind man who plays along with his claiming to be a prince but in truth thinks he's lost his mind. Again he falls into the hands of his father and his cohorts, is roughly handled, half-starved and tormented, not at all the fun adventure he'd expected when switching identities with the pauper. 

The pauper, who palace officials suspect has lost his mind, doesn't know how to behave, where to go or what to say and doesn't recognize any of the prince's closest advisors and attendants. No one questions him in spite of his strange behaviour because he is, after all, the prince and could order their heads removed at any time. He quickly adapts to living like a prince, enjoying the luxury, the obedience of others whenever he speaks, and the public adulation, even doing some good in the making of more merciful laws for the people. As the time for his coronation as king approaches, his mother recognizes and approaches her missing and much grieved son, but he casts her off. Then, haunted by the pain and sadness in her eyes, he is filled with grief and shame at what he has become. 

In the end the real prince, now the king, is restored to his exalted position, and the pauper is honored and rewarded for the good things he did while the throne was his. Relationships are restored, the good are happy and the bad are miserable -  the right and proper conclusion for any fairytale.