David Sedaris’ newest book is a wee bit strange. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary is a small collection of short stories in which all of the characters are nameless anthropomorphic animals. That sounds simple enough, but most of these stories are kind of twisted and hilarious. When I read them, I could not help but hear his voice in my head, as I first heard about the book on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. This book just reinforces my conviction that Sedaris (along with his sister Amy) is in my top five dream dinner companions – beyond the obvious booze and hilarity, there would be no risk of offending anyone with the strange and inappropriate, as how could one offend a man who writes about singing leeches living in a hippopotamus anus?
Sedaris was inspired by an audiobook of South African stories about anthropomorphic animals, and decided to write some of his own over a period of years. They are generally very short, with a minimum of description (strategic on the author’s part) but with easily understood characters and a complete narrative. They are funny little modern morality tales, with some stories being better than others, and all of them with at least a touch of cruelty to them. I don’t recall most of Sedaris’ other books having quite so much of that, but maybe it is because these stories are just so short, a sharp distillation of his view of society and its absurdities.
The book is illustrated by Ian Falconer, best known to most of the world as the author and illustrator of the Olivia the Pig stories. The illustrations are marvelous, done in his characteristic black and white with red highlights. The animals are expressive and charming, but found it a bit disconcerting to look at a drawing of an owl listening intently to an Olivia-esque hippopotamus anus – I read a lot of children’s books, and that image is going to be hard to get out of my head while reading Olivia and the Missing Toy to my kids.
This book was fun to read, and was perfect for reading over my short lunch break, but I am not sure it is one I would be inclined to reread regularly, as I do with other Sedaris books.
Set approximately 100 years prior to the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the Hedge Knight series is a set of novellas and subsequent graphic novels. I have not read the three novellas yet, but have read the two graphic novels adapted thus far from the series.
The novels feature two main characters, Dunk (later known as Duncan the Tall of the Kingsguard) and Egg (Aegon Targaryen, later King of Westeros). Aegon is mentioned in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, but I can’t recall Duncan being mentioned in the series. Nevertheless, the world presented in the novels feels very familiar to a reader of the larger series, with the ancestors of characters such as Robert Baratheon, the Lannister siblings and Dany Targaryen playing generally supporting roles. The story itself is fairly straightforward and well written – Dunk is a squire who becomes a knight when his mentor dies, and follows him as he pursues his dream of becoming a knight and exploring the realm. Despite his royal blood, Egg becomes his squire and accompanies Dunk on his adventures. In addition to the battle scenes and political intrigue common to Martin’s books, The Sworn Sword shows a bit of how a feudal system would really work, and The Hedge Knight depicts a tournament and a bit of the legal system of the realm. The series is interesting, as much of the A Song of Ice and Fire series focuses on the activities of the nobility, while Dunk is lowborn and dealing the world in an entirely different way as a result of his status. It gives some interesting backstory to the main series, particularly in further humanizing the Targaryen family. Mike Miller’s art is very well done, with beautiful colouring that changes to reflect scene and atmosphere.
The story does not rely overmuch on the story developed in the main series, but it does seem to foreshadow some of the events – I am not sure if people not already familiar with Martin’s work would be able to invest much into the graphic novels. I really enjoyed them, however, and look forward to reading the third graphic novel and the source novellas.
The Eyre Affair is the debut novel by Jasper Fforde, a mystery/fantasy/literary humour rich book set in England in an alternative version of the 1980s. England is virtually run by a megacorporation called Goliath, at war with Russia over the Crimea, at odds with a separate and socialist Wales, and has a Special Operations Network with Divisions that are in charge of regulating time, literature and supernatural being. It is a very different England, but classic English literature is the same but taken very, very seriously.
The lead character is Thursday Next, a clever LiteraTec who is pursuing the third most wanted man in England, Acheron Hades. He seems to have supernatural powers, a boundless intellect, and a gleeful lack of morals. As the barrier between literature and real life is very thin in Fforde’s novel, Hades is able to take Jane Eyre hostage, changing the story and demanding a ransom for her safe return to the novel. Next is a bit distracted by an old love affair, as well as some family complications.
The plot is complicated, but moves ahead briskly, with most of the characters generally kind of cartoonish and cliche. Thursday Next is a charming character, however, and is tough, fun, smart and ambitious. Some of the supporting characters seem to drift in and out of the story, and it is obvious that Fforde was intending this to be the first in a series. The book is commonly compared to some of Douglas Adams’ work, but I felt the sense of humour was similar in spots to that found in Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series. I found it to be witty and compelling, if a bit dense with quite a few of the plot lines left dangling. I am looking forward to reading the remainder of the series.
I picked this collection up to break up my reading list, which has been heavily weighted to George R.R. Martin of late. I will read anything by Neil Gaiman as well, so this graphic novel seemed a good bet. It was certainly fun, and very well written and beautifully illustrated, but I think that I have been ruined by the Sandman series.
For those unfamiliar with the series (of which this is first, and I think the only one Gaiman wrote), it has some of the most famous Marvel characters, including the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Spiderman, etc living in 1602 and playing some key roles in important historical events. In this story, the mutant characters are reviled as “witchbreed,” and are the catalyst for some political machinations at the level of Queen Elizabeth and King James. There is a further plot about meddling with space and time and involved an intergalactic Watcher, not entirely unlike the Observers in Fringe.
The story is nicely plotted and interesting, but the book is not compelling or dense like the Sandman series. Also, I was a bit disappointed in the space/time anomaly storyline. I am not sure it was necessary, if the idea was that the reader could seen versions of well known characters in a different setting and time. I do not read very many superhero graphic novels, but I am under the impression that stories are often written in alternate realities without resorting to explaining why. The art is beautiful, and one of the most interesting parts of the book was seeing how characters with such distinctive physical characteristics are converted into a 1602 era look, notably Beast and The Thing, and how the reaction to their physical appearance by the public is generally the same in the novels set in modern day.
Overall, the book was enjoyable and the art was lovely, but I don’t think I will seek out the other books in the series, unless someone recommends otherwise.