Book review: The Woman Who Died a Lot, Jasper Fforde

The Woman Who Died a Lot, Jasper FfordeI’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again, and only partly because I’m a lazy hack: Jasper Fforde is one of my all-time favourite writers of all time. In my fantasy he wakes up in the morning and spends his sun-dappled days filling a tattered notebook with weird and brilliant ideas, which he’s comes up with because of possible mild insanity.

Fforde’s newest weird and brilliant and mildly insane outing is The Woman Who Died a Lot, which picks up the story of Thursday Next. It’s been a while since Fforde ffans saw his kicking-ass-and-taking-names heroine (she was MIA in the previous instalment. Which was narrated instead by her “fictional” counterpart. Which makes perfect sense if you’ve read the whole series. Honest), but she’s back, badly injured by past misadventures – hobbling around on a walking stick, addicted to painkillers, and forced into semiretirement.

Some of Fforde’s mad-scientist inventions for this book: God is real, and determined to wipe out Thursday’s hometown Swindon by the end of the week unless her genius daughter Tuesday perfects an Anti-Smote Shield; Thursday’s son Friday is destined to commit a murder that will earn him a lifetime prison sentence, unless Thursday can find a way to avert the future; the all-powerful, all-jerks Goliath Corporation is attempting to switch out the real Thursday with synthetic robot clones. Oh, and one of Thursday’s powerful former nemeses (there’s a lot of them) has seemingly returned.

Fforde’s endings are sometimes hastily, unsatisfyingly tied together. But that’s not a problem here! Despite all of Died a Lot‘s spinning storylines the climax is beautifully balanced – especially the resolution of the troubling mindworm Thursday’s been carrying around for the last couple books, which makes her believe she has a third child who doesn’t really exist. (Again: makes perfect sense if you’ve read the whole series.)

Thursday is a great leading lady. Tough and smart and loving and awesome. And the set-up for her next adventure smells terrific. Hurry up and write that, Fforde.

Previously: Book review: One of Our Thursdays is Missing, Jasper Fforde


Movie review: Looper


Time travel as a premise is so inherently rife with plot holes and paradoxes that the trick, I think, is building a story that keeps our attention focused away from them till after the credits roll. Looper, for the most part, pulls off the trick. This is a dense, dirty, smartly realised time-travel film.

It slots into the “Know as little about this movie as possible before you watch it” category (whose king, sidenote, is The Cabin in the Woods – if you haven’t seen that one, you should definitely see it, and you should definitely avoid reading anything about it before you start). So here’s the barebones: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Joe, a hard-mouthed, playboy “looper” – the name for the assassins tasked with disposing of men who are sent back in time by criminal overlords of the future. Bruce Willis is also Joe – the 30-years-older version, who’s sent back in time to be disposed of by younger Joe. Older Joe escapes; cue cat-and-mouse chase.

From there Looper jumps in unexpected directions, presenting a distinctive and not gratuitously convoluted take on the rules of time travel (particularly in a memorable early scene involving Paul Dano‘s character) – which is one of the reasons it’s best not to know much about the plot. One other thing worth giving away, though: Emily Blunt is in it. Emily Blunt is pretty great.

Gordon-Levitt is, no surprise, also pretty great, nailing Willis’s affectations with eerie precision – especially the twist of the mouth. I feel like Gordon-Levitt is this powerful actor you watch without getting a sense he’s acting; contrast him to Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s also a powerful actor, but also an Actor. If you’re coming to Looper for Joseph Gordon-Levitt eye candy, though, you’ll leave disappointed: he’s made up to resemble Willis, but the make-up job on his nose and his brow is distractingly strange. I kind of wish the film had gone with an attitude more like, “Hey, we know Gordon-Levitt and Willis don’t look that much alike, but they’re meant to be the same guy so you’re going to just have to suspend disbelief and deal with it, okay?”, rather than put the former in some weird uncanny valley.

Looper posterWriter/director Rian Johnson (who also worked with Gordon-Levitt on 2006’s Brick, which I remember enjoying a lot) prods about the implications and ethics of time travel without imbuing them with that forced grandness all too common in sci-fi (cough Prometheus cough boy that was a shitty movie cough touch touch touch cough). Credit to him for (I assume deliberately) not giving away too much about the rules of this messy, grim future he’s working in. There’s a big exposition dump in the first third of Looper, but once that’s out of the way Johnson more or less just runs with it.

That lack of details is sure to spark Inception-level analysis about what’s going on behind the story – at least, after I left the cinema my friends and I spent the entire ride home spinning increasingly far-fetched theories about the implications of the time travel.

(Quit reading now if you don’t want to read something that could be construed as mildly spoilery, but, up there in the first paragraph when I said Looper avoids plot holes “for the most part”? Here’s the only biggie I noticed: Eventually, young loopers all end up having to dispatch the older versions of themselves, known as “closing the loop”.  It’s implied that it’s not that uncommon for the ritual to go awry, when the youngsters can’t bring themselves to kill their older selves. So why not just to get another looper to kill and older looper? Wouldn’t that solve a lot of time and trouble. Anyway. Just go see it.)