at Foyles Charing Cross Road was fantastic. As always, Jasper Fforde is a wonderful and engaging speaker, full of jokes, self-deprecating and hysterical. Me and Claire aka Paperback Reader had a very enjoyable evening laughing out loud. The event was packed out and very cosy with a real mixture of readers who are clearly huge fans of Fforde’s amazingly inventive novels. I actually got there half an hour early and still had to queue.

Asked about his writing method and whether he outlines, Fforde nodded and said he outlines meticulously and that the finished product, his novel, is in fact the outline (i.e. no he doesn’t). His method is to use narrative dares, where, for example he will pose an intricate problem and would spend the rest of the time trying to work it out and hopefully produce a novel at the end. With his latest in the Thursday Next series, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, his narrative dare was the title itself. Then he starts some narrative gymnastics to try and make things work and sound like a proper novel.

For me, Fforde is one of those impressive novelists who, even though he produces one, or even two, books a year, doesn’t sacrifice quality. I mean, look at Shades of Grey. It’s innovative, complicated and works brilliantly. His novels are extremely detailed and often complex and packed with jokes which, you can tell, he relishes that I always get the feeling he is actually the one having the most fun writing his books. How amazing is that for a writer? Seriously, I can’t wait to read this book!

If you ever get a chance to go to a Jasper Fforde event, I heartily recommend it. Check out Annabel aka Gaskella’s experience at a Fforde signing in Abingdon.

I’m such a huge fan of Jasper Fforde‘s Thursday Next series so I wasn’t sure about his newest venture, Shades of Grey. Naturally, I had nothing to be worried about. His Nursery Crimes series is superb and his Shades of Grey series is as well, albeit with a little more brain-work involved.

I have to hand it to Fforde that he is probably one of the most creative writers I have come across. Everything he touches is completely new, the concept, the world he creates, like gold dust.

I have to admit that it took me awhile to get into Shades of Grey. The world he’s created is so different and complex and you’re not entirely sure whether it’s a parallel world or something that will reveal itself to be something totally different from what you were thinking. Of course the mystery deepens as you get more used to Fforde’s chromatic world.

In Shades of Grey, Fforde has created a world set in a future that has experienced some kind of epiphany/apocalypse where the rules of society have been completely recalibrated by a figure named Munsell to follow the rules of colour and optics. People are divided into different shades of colour inherited through their genealogical lines. This is determined by how much of one colour they are capable of picking out, purple marking the highest going down to grey (or no colour. This is really clever as you mix all colours they tend to mix into a dirty grey.) Thus Purples and its shades occupy the highest class in the tightly controlled society and Greys the most menial. Yellows are in charge of controlling the society followed by Blues and Reds. Marriages are strictly controlled depending on the mixing of colours and any opposing colours are not qualified to marry (eg. Yellow and Purple). All the characters have surnames relating to which colour they belong to and our protagonist, Eddie Russet belongs to the family of Reds. Readers familiar with Fforde’s fiction will be tickled to see him work out the details and having fun with all the rules of colour familiar to artists. Interesting, no?

Eddie Russet is on a mission of repentance for causing a ruckus and together with his father is on a journey to make good. They stumble upon an injured Purple man and Eddie’s father, a Swatchman (colour corrector/medic) is on hand to help. They discover that the Purple man is in fact a Grey, an offence that will certainly get the man rebooted/exiled. However the man dies and the Russets are sent to East Carmine, a boarder town where normal city rules don’t seem to apply. Eddie is only a few days away from his Ishihara test (which will set his colour observation ability and signify his introduction to adult society) and pining for his love Constance Garnett, from a higher-hued family, whom he hopes to marry. In East Carmine, Eddie meets a variety of eccentric characters, especially their maid Jane, a Grey with a retroussé nose and a tendency to violence, Tommo Cinnabar, a young man always looking for a deal and Courtland Gamboge, cruel and power hungry son of the Yellow Prefect. And let’s not forget the Apocryphal man who doesn’t fit anywhere on the chromatic scale and is therefore an aberration and does not exist, and thus he walks around naked. Hysterical.

Eddie quickly gets embroiled in the politics of the small and claustrophobic town, making an enemy of Courtland, falling in love with Jane and trying to solve the mystery of the Grey who faked Purple. As he refuses to tow the expected line, Eddie begins to question the rules of his chromatic society, slowly seeing the cracks within his carefully constructed world, he finds himself slowly treading into dangerous territory. Will he find out exactly what’s going on in East Carmine? And will he get his girl before he meets a violent end?

As you can probably tell, this is a hard book to summarise. But I really enjoyed it. It’s not the easiest to get into but you will be rewarded if you persist. And it’s the first in a series. Shades of Grey has been longlisted for the 2011 Warwick Prize for Writing, and I can see why. I’m not sure whether this is a good introduction to Fforde’s fiction if you’ve never read any of his books before. I would probably start with the Thursday Next series or the Nursery Crimes series before attempting this one. It’s just so your mind wouldn’t be too boggled and you’d get a taste of why Ffrorde is so brilliant.

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

One of my favourite books is the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. Narnia and Nancy Drew were the staples of my childhood reading. And ever since then I have been fascinated by stories set in other worlds. And that probably also fed my fascination of other physical worlds and led me to get a degree in astrophysics. Funny how one thing leads to another.

At school I read The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Wizard of Oz (every book I could find in the series and there were a lot) and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern series recommended by one of my friends. I also loved reading mythology and remember being wowed by the story of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung during my music classes when I was nine. The Norse gods, the Roman gods, the Greek gods, the Egyptian gods all enthralled me. And as I’ve said in previous posts, I looooove vampires and werewolves and went through a phase where I only read them, which really worried my sister. I’ll post about them later as I think they deserve a post of their own.

Here are some of the writers and books that I think are incredible:

Science fiction and fantasy
Terry Pratchett (Discworld novels)
Scott Lynch (The Gentleman Bastards series)
Steven Erickson (Malazan Book of the Fallen series)
Steven Donaldson (Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series, The Gap series)
Jasper Fforde (Thursday Next series)
Neil Gaiman (Sandman graphic novels, American Gods)
Iain M. Banks (The Culture series)
Anne Rice (The Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned, The Witching Hour)
Katherine Kerr (Deverry series)
Janny Wurts (The Wars of Light and Shadow series)

I’m sure I’ve missed out loads of my favourite books, but the writers I’ve listed above I’ll buy without even having to think twice. Try them if you haven’t, you’ll be impressed with the quality of writing.

There’s so much written about how sff books aren’t taken seriouly by the literati and major awards panels and I have to agree. There’s so many really well written books, a lot which are better written and more substantial than some of the literary novels out there, and I do feel that sff writers get a bum deal. Just because a story isn’t set in the real world doesn’t mean the story has no substance. Fiction is fiction after all. Realist novels are also figments of the writers’ imagination. So what’s the difference? It’s just something that annoys me whenever I start reading about it in the papers. Look at Ian Banks, he can write both literary and science fiction. And both are brilliant. Here’s a recent article about this in the Guardian.

What do you think?

Agatha Christie

As you all know, Agatha Christie is one of my favourite writers and is probably solely responsible for my addiction to crime and mystery novels. No one forgets their first Christie, and the panel of writers at the Agatha Christie Night at the Southbank Centre were no different. And what a panel. Let me list them for you: Val McDermid, Jasper Fforde, Kate Mosse and chaired by Simon Brett. Out of the three, I haven’t read any books by Simon Brett, but I plan to remedy that as soon as I’ve made a dent in my TBR pile because he was an excellent chair. I jumped at the chance of going because of Jasper Fforde. His surreal crime novels (in Simon Brett’s words) featuring Thursday Next and the Nursery Crime Division (two separate series) are fantastically clever, funny and very thrilling. And his website is amazing. And have I mentioned how handsome he is?

All seats were taken and the audience was a very mixed bunch. What was clear was that everyone in the panel and audience loved Agatha Christie and was extremely knowledgeable about her books and her life. Val McDermid recently recorded a BBC Radio 4 Archive programme about newly discovered audio tapes of Christie speaking about her life for her autobiography. There’s only three days left to listen to it, so hurry! McDermid is a clear and brilliant expositor and I enjoyed listening to her comments. She is a charming, funny and erudite speaker.

We all laughed and nodded when each panelist spoke about their first Christie: McDermid’s was Murder at the Vicarage at age nine, Jasper Fforde’s was The ABC Murders at age twelve and Kate Mosse’s The Body in the Library at age fourteen. And like everyone, they spoke about how it was their first adult book, and how they were stunned by the red herrings and the dénouement. And what they were all adamant about was how good a writer she was. Christie has had her fair share of detractors but the panelists fiercely defended her work mirroring her popularity across the globe today. She even appears in a Dr. Who episode!

I haven’t read her novels for many, many years and after attending this talk I feel like going out and buying a handful just so I can reacquaint myself with her.

My first Christie was Murder on the Links at age nine and is still probably my favourite. What’s yours?