(book review first published in today’s Manila Bulletin, Students and Campuses Section)

The latest installment of British author Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, “One of Our Thursdays is Missing,” hit bookstore shelves this month, four years after the last novel in the series was released.

Preceded by “The Eyre Affair,” “Lost in a Good Book,” “The Well of Lost Plots,” “Something Rotten,” and “The First Among Sequels,” “One of Our Thursdays is Missing” is the much-awaited follow-up in the comic fantasy series starring Thursday Next, a literary detective who has the rare ability to “jump” into the BookWorld.

“One of Our Thursdays is Missing” introduces a new perspective to the series: that of the “written” Thursday Next — that is, the character from the Thursday Next novels in the BookWorld. Apparently, the “real” Thursday Next has gone missing, and at the worst possible time, too, as she is set to appear in a peace talk in the BookWorld, where the Council of Genres is counting on her diplomatic skills to avert an imminent genre war. Eager to live up to her legendary namesake, the written Thursday takes on the task of tracking down the real Thursday, and stumbles upon a convoluted plot that threatens the very existence of the BookWorld.

Back in the BookWorld

First-time Thursday Next readers may have trouble following the complexity of Fforde’s richly-layered BookWorld, which has now transformed from a colossal library of every book ever made into an inside-out geographical sphere, dotted with islands representing the various genres of fiction and non-fiction.

The novel takes us deeper into the BookWorld, which essentially is the “behind the scenes” area of books: characters are bred and trained to portray the characters written in books, and the scenes are staged in a cluster of sets that represent the various settings in the book. Each book has a “Read-O-meter” that signals when a book is being read in the Real World, the cue for the characters to play their parts.

Readers of the series will recognize the written Thursday from “The First Among Sequels,” the placid Thursday brought in to replace the rogue Thursday who was wreaking havoc with the novel’s plot. It is three years hence, and the written Thursday has been efficiently running the series, although readership for the once popular Thursday Next novels has declined.

The written Thursday is programmed to be a much tamer version of her factual counterpart, but she soon has to toughen up as she finds herself assuming the role of the real Thursday.

The new support cast of other “written” characters adds much of the humor to the story: Mrs. Malaprop the housekeeper, the persistent Designated Love Interest Jeff Whitby, the Thursday Next understudy Carmine, a robotic butler named Sprockett, the mysterious Regional Commander “Red” Herring, the murderous Men in Plaid, as well as the written versions of beloved characters from the series – Thursday’s pet dodo Pickwick, her business partner Bowden Cable, and Thursday’s time-traveling father.

Fans will also welcome the return of Jurisfiction Commander Bradshaw and officers Emperor Zhark and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, real Thursday’s husband Landen Park-Laine, Real World baddies from the Goliath Corporation, and the cheese-smuggling ring, the Stiltonistas.

The great comeback

Jasper Fforde returns in a grand manner with “One of Our Thursdays is Missing,” after mixed reviews for his two most recent books, the sci-fi novel “Shades of Grey,” and the young adult novel “The Last Dragonslayer.”

Like the rest of the novels in the series, the plot of “One of Our Thursdays is Missing” is not quite straightforward, but nevertheless delightful, as written Thursday follows the trail of real Thursday with the looming possibility that real Thursday is actually written Thursday in a disguise so clever she fools even herself.

Easter eggs await readers who can make the connections: places named after famous writers (Hemingway Central, Gaiman Junction, Ludlum Freeway), allusions to famous novels (“Sense and Sensibility,” “Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”), famous lines adapted in the dialogue (“Oh, brave new world… that has such stories in’t!”) and characters crossing over from various literary genres (the Blue Fairy, Raskolnikov, the lady of Shalott, Professor Plum).

Also characteristic of the series, a tongue in cheek literary commentary runs throughout the novel. For instance, the Outland Read-Rate – the total number of readers at any one time — logged by the Read-O-Meters spike when a new blockbuster is published, or when an author die; urban vampires are heavily forecast in the reading trends reported by the BookWorld newspaper; and a long-running dispute between Racy Novel, Women’s Fiction and Dogma is threatening to erupt into a genre war, with Racy Novel threatening to unleash bombs of gratuitous  Even the geography of the BookWorld reflects the popularity of certain genres: “The Crime genre was always relatively large, as were Comedy, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. Horror had taken a boost recently with the burgeoning Urban Vampire sector, while some of the less well-known genres had shrunk to almost nothing. Squid Action/ Adventure was deleted quite recently, and Sci-Fi Horse detective looked sure to follow.”

Jasper Fforde is back doing what he does best, and “One of Our Thursdays is Missing” is definitely a welcome addition to the expanding Nextian Universe.

***

One of Our Thursdays is Missing, trade paperback (C-format),  5/5 stars

Book #24 for 2010

“One of Our Thursdays is Missing” is available at National Book Store.

Blooey Singson is a big Jasper Fforde fan and would gladly switch places with Thursday Next, real or written. She blogs about books at http://sumthinblue.com