Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Release Date (Australia): 1 January 2010
Rating: 9/10

It’s Britain, but not as we know it. Democracy has been replaced by Colourtocracy. Visual colour dominates society – there is a social hierarchy based upon one’s limited colour vision. You are what you see.

Edward Russett has no ambition to be anything other than a loyal drone of the collective. With his better-than-average Red perception, he could marry an Oxblood, inherit the Stringworks, maybe even make Prefect. Life looks colourful. Life looks good. But then he meets a Grey named Jane who opens his eyes to the painful truth behind his seemingly perfect society.

I truly love dystopian fiction. I have a fondness for weird, frightening versions of the future written in stories. Books such as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1984 by George Orwell, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake/Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood are all among my favourite books primarily for this reason. However, I am not a huge fan of most extensive Lord of the Rings-style science fiction or fantasy; anything based too far from my reality is not to my liking most of the time. But if a world is based on ours, with supernatural or futuristic elements thrown in, I can fall in love with it.

I am also completely in love with Jasper Fforde’s stories. I had a friend speak of how great his books are and I kept planning to read them but not getting around to it for a long time. I finally gave in and borrowed my friend’s copy of The Eyre Affair and ten pages in, I knew. I knew these books, this writer, was going to be among my top five authors and I would read his books again and again.

The point of all this is that when I first heard that Jasper Fforde was writing a new book in what may become a new series about some kind of dystopian world based on colour, I was ecstatic to say the least. And I was not disappointed. Shades of Grey keeps Fforde’s clever ideas, perfect humour, and many of the other aspects I adore in the Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series’. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of colour within Chromatica, and yet their world is very much one of black and white. Rules are followed blindly and unquestioned, regardless of the sense they may or may not make. And, naturally, there is a character that stands up against those rules that I think is the heart of the story. As with many of these types of books, it takes a bit of getting into because numerous concepts need to be set up so the reader has a general idea of the rules, who is ‘above’ (the Purples at the top) and who is ‘below’ (the Greys at the bottom) within the hierarchy, and so on. But once you’re in, that’s when it starts showing its true brilliance.

I loved this book, but would still recommend a new Jasper Fforde reader to read The Eyre Affair or The Big Over Easy as their first taste. But if you’re already a fan, I fail to see how you could not love to hate this new world that Jasper has created for us and fall in love with these characters.

Why, when you begin to question the world around you, do black and white certainties reduce themselves to shades of grey?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

When Dogs Cry by Markus Zusak

Release Date (Australia):
1 November 2001; reprinted 1 May 2010.
Rating: 7.5/10

“You’re a bit of a lonely bastard, aren’t you?” said Rube.
“Yeah,” I answered, “I guess I am.”
But Cameron Wolfe is hungry.
He’s sick of being the filthy, torn, half-smiling, half-scowling underdog.
He’s finally met a girl.
He’s got words in his spirit.
And now he’s out to prove there’s nothing more beautiful than an underdog who’s willing to stand up.

I am a huge fan of The Book Thief and, especially, The Messenger by Markus Zusak. I haven’t read The Underdog or Fighting Ruben Wolfe, both of which feature the family of main characters in When Dogs Cry. However, I found it didn’t matter at all and it is very much a stand-alone novel.

I love the stories that Markus Zusak creates; I like to see the ‘underdog’ stand up and be counted as incredible, as so many of them are. Cameron’s story is one of bravery and family, love and acceptance, and the passage from youth to adulthood. Early in the book, Cameron is seen as the ‘loser’ of his family, but with some guidance from Octavia Ash, he begins to see himelf in a new way and accept that he can be ‘someone’, especially through his ability to write. Each chapter ends with a snippet of Cameron’s writing and the reader receives a chance to see his ‘words’.

The main thing I fall in love with in Markus Zusak’s stories is the poetic beauty of the language he uses to write them. I always admire writers that can use language in such a beautiful and stunning way, yet have it be so simple at the same time.

Silence bent down then, just for a moment, and whispered to each of us.

Although When Dogs Cry is a book intended for young adults, I would recommend it to anyone from age 14 to late 20s that appreciates a story of the underdog gaining the strength to rise up written through magnificent use of the English language.

I think now, of the edges of words, the loyalty of blood, the music of girls, the hands of brothers, and of hungry dogs that howl through the night.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Once, Then, and Now by Morris Gleitzman

Release Date (Australia):
1 August 2005; 2 June 2008; 3 May 2010.
Rating: 9.5/10

Once I escaped from an orphanage to find Mum and Dad.
Once I saved a girl called Zelda from a burning house.
Once I made a Nazi with a toothache laugh.
My name is Felix.
This is my story.

A couple of years ago, I read a book (at age 23) for children aged approximately 10+. It made me cry and laugh and was easily one of the best books I have ever read. Not one of the best kids' books; one of the best books. That book was Once, by Morris Gleitzman, the first in the trilogy of Once, Then, and Now.

Morris Gleitzman is an Australian author known for his funny, yet intelligently written, children's books. Once, Now, and Then all keep this humour in amongst the heartbreaking and beautiful story of Felix and his friend Zelda and their experiences in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. I won't give too much away about the events that occur in Once and Then, but I really came to love these characters more than almost any other characters I've ever encountered in fiction.

Having just recently finished reading Now, the third book in the series, it made me want to write about how beautiful these books are. Now is slightly different in that it is set in the present day and Felix is now a grandfather, but it is still a moving story of the strength of family and love in times of crisis.

At the end of each of these books, Morris Gleitzman encourages his readers to learn more about the events that occurred during the Holocaust and the voices of the survivors by providing a link on his website to other books on these matters.

I strongly recommend these stories to anyone, not just children, who is interested in reading a beautiful story and learning more about the history of the Holocaust.

I had a plan for me and Zelda.
Pretend to be someone else.
Find new parents.
Be safe forever.
Then the Nazis came.