Young bookseller Cathy Finn is having a bad day. First, there's the assassin's bullet. Then comes the realisation that she's been living in a work of fiction. Worse, she wasn't even the main character.
Cathy's quiet, bit-part life may be over, but her troubles are only beginning. Her last day on Earth is also her first as a citizen of New Tybet. For over four hundred years, its people have been rescuing those destined to die in other narratives, but now the system is faltering. A saboteur is at work and Cathy will have to stop him if she’s ever going to find a way home. Failure could maroon her forever and spark a revolution that sets all the worlds of literature ablaze.
Rob Gregson spent much of his youth reading fantasy novels, immersing himself in role playing games and generally doing everything possible to avoid life in the real world. In his defence, we're talking about the late 1980s - a time when ridiculous hair, hateful pop music and soaring unemployment were all very popular - so it wasn't altogether a bad decision. However, had he abandoned the realms of elves and wizardry at an earlier age, he might have developed one or two useful life skills and he would almost certainly have found it easier to get a girlfriend.
Since that time, he and reality have developed a grudging tolerance of one another although their relationship still goes through the occasional bad patch and his first two novels - Unreliable Histories and The Endless Land - are evidence of that.
Rob lives in Lancashire, although he has absolutely no idea why anyone should find that interesting.
“This is what it means to be the protagonist; the worlds filled themselves in around you as you moved.”
'Shelf Life's beginning was easy but predictable. We know Finn, quiet shadow to her heroic sister, would outsmart the assassin. She’ll find the inner strength to be the heroine. Oops, no she dies. And no, that’s not a spoiler. Welcome to the ride.
Have you ever pitied the fictional cast-of-thousands at the siege? Identified with the lonely detective’s girlfriend, the cop on his last day before retirement, the hordes stomped by the Tokyo monster-of-the day, the bored guards standing in the torch light outside the king’s door? No? You should. If everyone is the hero of their own story, then YOU are the protagonist in exactly one narrative. And a spear-carrier in seven billion other stories. Do the math. We are all primarily secondary characters. So what happens when we cast-of-thousands bite it for the character development of the chosen one?
Spoiler: that famous light at the end of the tunnel? It’s office lighting, shining on afterlife paperwork. The inky gates of literary heaven are a bureaucracy. Sorry. Still, it isn’t Hell. New Tybet is a cool place, in theory. Everyone from a million stories living together, starting anew. Except the ones who brought their issues from the past with them. The love of bloody revolution, for example.
This is a book about books. I fell for the story when our heroine Finn realizes she is standing on the moors of Wuthering Heights. A quick scene, with a beauty and poignancy that brought a love of stories and character into the chase. We are in a story in a story, and our heroine Finn appreciates it.
“Shelf Life” is a comic fantasy quest about books, and souls, and what amazing world-changing things a character would do if they were their own narrator. Sounds like a superpower, till you do a double take and recall that we are all our own narrators. Just, you know, for most of us it’s a narrative of being part of a besieging horde or the crowd running from Godzilla’s feet.
Enjoy the clever literary framework. But don’t let it get in the way of the story. The real plot here is Cathy Finn, a quiet woman forced to take chances, to dare be the heroine. With the help of friends, of course. Because a hero can’t do it without the help of her spear-carriers. As she says: “I think people put too much emphasis on protagonists. It’s people that make a world, not heroes.”
Shelf Life is a classic of literary adventure. Fit to be on the shelf with 'Silverlock' and 'The Neverending Story'. The characters Finn, Hitch, Lock and Max must be real people, someplace in the core of the story of things. I suppose I’m in there too. As are you. Excellent place to be.
Back in 2002, I picked up a novel by an author unknown to me based solely on the fact that four very different publications (Time, The Atlantic, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and F&SF) all gave it rave reviews; that book was Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair and it was one of the most astonishing books I’ve ever read. Nobody can have that reaction to that book now, as his type of absurdist yet hyper-realistic style is everywhere, but at that time it was a revelation. So when Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program described Shelf Life, a book by Rob Gregson, as involving a character who turns out to be a character in a book, I thought, I have to see what this author’s take on that idea will be. Cathy Finn thinks she is leading an ordinary life running a bookstore and trying not to be envious of her glamorous sister, but when she is suddenly shot by a stranger, she finds herself in a whole other world, one where characters who have been “extracted” from books are taught about their situation and then, presumably, move on. Finn is told that not only is she a character in a book, but she’s just a minor character in that book! Well, she doesn’t believe it; instead, she’s sure she’s in a medically-induced coma or something similar, and that it’s her unconscious mind that is making all of this up. She is determined to get back “home,” if only she can figure out how to do that - and where “home” is…. For those who have read Mr. Fforde’s book, you can see that Mr. Gregson’s take is quite different, but it’s quite funny, has a lot of action and has some, well, quirky characters. At times I felt a bit rushed, as Finn is hopping from one narrative to another, but overall the story held together and the ending was as satisfying for the reader as for Finn. I’m not sure when this is due to be published (soon, I think), but it’s definitely an amusing read, especially when the reader figures out which “narrative” Finn is inhabiting at a given time; recommended.
One of the favourite pieces of advice to writers about creating tension is : - ‘Torment your protagonist’. And, of course, the said writers often don’t stop there. Sometimes, they kill them off. This is to say nothing of the minor characters. How many of those get bumped off in the average writer’s career? Rob Gregson’s ‘Shelf Life’ is a highly original and gripping piece of black comedy about the world of narratives, and of what happens to prematurely killed and murdered characters of all sorts, from protagonists down to those with the most insignificant roles. Cathy Finn leads an uneventful life running a bookshop. She is the less exciting and ornamental of a pair of sisters, and fully satisfied with that. Unfortunately, one day, she is an unwilling witness to a crime. A ‘personal injury consultant’ is sent to eliminate her. Just as he shoots her dead, she is taken to another reality: that is, New Tibet. Here she learns that she was only a minor character in the mystery novel in which her sister was the female lead. This is because all realities are narratives, and in the mysterious Dome at New Tibet, they all converge. Now Cathy Finn is free to lead any sort of life that takes her fancy. But the redoubtable Cathy Finn only wants to lead one – her old one. She is determined to escape back to her old reality and reunite with her mother and sister; this despite the fact that everyone assures her that she will never be able to return. Here, Cathy Finn shows that she is more courageous and resourceful than either she, or anyone else, could ever have suspected… Through her attempts to get back, she becomes involved with a world hopping , nut chewing slob and petty smuggler known as ‘Hitch the Postman’, who has been made the unlikely candidate to deal with the threat to the integrity of the Dome and the consequent safety of New Tibet. There follows an hilarious, and strangely believable, race through a series of all sorts of narratives, a chase across worlds with Hitch, the loutish security man Duggan, and the larger than life Professor Locke which makes for delightfully dark comedy. They race through bad dystopias, tales of zombie apocalypses, mediocre sci-fi’s, fan fiction, hackneyed westerns, re-writes of classical novels, Blyton-esque children’s stories and just about every other sort of tale. With an hilarious and all-too-believable cast of characters – from the seedy, self serving Hitch to the cold and calculating Max Roberts – this book is a for all those who like me, revel in dark comedy. Here are some of my favourite quotes: - ‘The watchman snorted. "Yeah. Right. D'you want the truth, Miss Finn? They told him only to work with his closest friends; people he could really trust." He flashed his charge a disdainful grin. "You don't have any friends, do you, Hitch? You've p*****d on so many people's chips, you've got nobody left."’ ‘ 'Hitch's face turned a colour most commonly associated with kitchen appliances.' '"We've been lured into a work in progress; a tale left deliberately unfinished, designed to swallow us up like an insect in amber."’ ‘“Stay your hands," said Silas, his voice still strangely amplified. "End this motiveless malignity. You fret and squabble over meagre nothings." "Motives and what?" said Jones. "What's 'e goin' on about?" Two figures now stood in the doorway: one thin and pale, one fat and flushed - both looking as though they'd been selected from opposite ends of some peculiar line-up of the aesthetically-challenged.’
I was drawn by the synopsis of Shelf Life. A person living life in their own reality only to find out they are actually a secondary character in an author's novel? Yes, please!
Poor Cathy aka "Finn" - you can't help but feel for her character. Her life is in danger and when she meets that danger head on, she's pulled out of her life and into another world. She finds out that in her other life she dies even though she's alive wherever her extractors just took her. Finn needs to find a way to get back to her reality because now her mother and sister are in danger.
As Finn tries creative measures to escape her current fate, the emergence of a threat to the extractors becomes top priority. If the threat isn't neutralized, she may be stuck in her current reality and chaos will erupt through the literary world. In an effort to prevent her inability to find a way home and to prevent an uprising, Finn joins a motley group of characters to find the threat and take it out before irreparable, irreversible damage is done.
Shelf Life is a descriptive, well-written novel. Full of twists and turns, the reader is taken on a wild adventure through the life of characters living within various novels. Fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure are masterfully blended to create a novel that is exciting, engaging, and interesting. The characters and plot are unique and I found myself immersed in the world created by Rob Gregson. I enjoyed the writing style of the author and look forward to reading more books by him. I highly recommend the book to anyone looking for something different. You can't go wrong with Shelf Life.
Possibly the slyest sequel ever written. You could be perfectly happy reading Shelf Life without any knowledge of his earlier books (Unreliable Histories and The Endless Land), but extra treats are in store for those who have. If you’ve read the blurb you’ll know the premise. Beyond this, it’s a story about taking control of your own narrative combined with a romp through the many worlds of literature. Finn balances her initially unwilling suspension of disbelief against a delight in the idea of, in effect, being given a backstage pass to stories she has loved, all the while harbouring a plan to return somehow to her ‘real’ life where unfinished business awaits. It’s when all of this collides with rebellion and upheaval in her new world that the fun really gets started. And ‘fun’ is very much the word – it is a lighthearted and good-natured story where much of the entertainment comes from the interactions between the characters, with events unravelling at a rapid pace taking advantage of the numerous riffs and quirks available from such a fertile premise (not least the aforementioned connection to his previous books).
Highly recommended to book lovers who enjoy this style of smart and character-driven humour.
Having read Mr Gregson's other two books, I expected weird! And it was weird, but in a fascinating way. The imagination of this man always turns to the unusual and I'm always willing to be surprised and amazed by him. A very different sort of story; I liked the characters which were portrayed so well that one could 'see' them easily and know exactly what sort of people they were. Some of the setting was reminiscent of sci-fi but the characters wandered into places that those who are well-read would know. I giggled at a lot of his clever turns of phrase. One I particularly liked was a character was described as being 'a frown in a jacket' which amused me a lot. I wish I could think of clever things like that! Great story, Mr Gregson!
Shelf Life was not what I expected, but it was not an unpleasant surprise. I was expecting something along the lines of a cozy but it was an adventure. It turned out to be a book in which the characters of a book are being extracted out of their own, original narrative and installed in a greater, overarching world where they continue to live on in a whole new life. In this particular case Cathy Finn is extracted from her world of family, literature, and running her bookstore into a SciFi/Fantasy adventure to thwart a megalomaniac and save the world. As the story unfolds, the characters backstory and original world are uncovered and the skills and knowledge from that time are called into action. I found I had a hard time getting into the book and understanding what was happening (due to wrong preconceptions, maybe) but after a few chapters everything started to make sense and the plot hang together. The characters were well developed and continued to develop over the course of the book. Locations were well described only when it was necessary to move the plot along. Pacing was good and I wanted to find out what happened next. It was well written and the story came to a climax at just the right time with a nice resolution and a hint of what might happen next. Overall an enjoyable book.
I was provided this novel by the publisher for review.
Shelf Life is certainly a unique novel, and whilst I ordinarily am not a big science fiction/fantasy reader I found the idea of a story set around a protagonist who's not a real person but rather finds out they're merely a character within another book themselves to be a quirky and interesting idea.
Maybe it's due to the fact this isn't a genre I'd typically read, yet I found the beginning to be quite slow and not at all enthralling. Things improved as the story unfolded but largely I can say at no point did I particularly care about any of the characters nor feel particularly compelled to return to the story beyond the desire to complete it so I could move on to the next book.
If you're after a unique story in a unique setting, are in to science fiction/fantasy and the blurb piques your interest then this may very well be a book you enjoy, however for me personally it missed the mark.
I got this book for free from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers.
The concept was very interesting, but it wasn't executed in a way that made it particularly interesting to me. The idea of death being the beginning and most interesting part of someone's existence is a cool concept and since the main character runs a book store, it seemed perfect for someone who loves books, but it just wasn't really for me.
Parts of the book are definitely interesting and it's a quick read, so think of checking it out. I'm sure there will be many who will enjoy it more than I did - the concept is very cool.
Shelf Life is a highly original humorous fantasy novel. The story is full of witty moments and tension which really dials up the closer it gets to the suitably unpredictable ending. Highly recommended for fans of fantasy comedy.
Shelf Life is a genuinely original story which has us all acting out roles in novels written by higher level authors - something I've long suspected! When we die the narrative is paused and we are removed to New Tybet - the hub of everything and the home of a fantastic machine that generates gateways between every work of fiction ever written.
When ordinary bookshop owner Cathy Finn’s life comes to a dramatic end she is ‘taken’ to New Tybet where dark forces are at work. Someone is sabotaging the narrative system that has been operating for 400 years. As the story develops we find out that Cathy is not as ordinary as we were led to believe. She teams up with Hitch (an inter-story biscuit smuggler) and Lock (a professorial character and veteran of a thousand stories) and together they race from narrative to narrative, pursued by the saboteur, as they attempt to evade capture and find out the truth.
This is a brilliantly written book with humour that leaps off every thrilling page. I really enjoyed it and thoroughly recommend it to anyone that likes Fantasy, Humour, SF and Thrillers.
I have read a couple of Rob's books now and am deeply impressed!
The writing style makes this a very 'easy' book to read - it comes across in colour is the best way I can describe it. To me, some books are like Maths and Physics were at school. But 'Shelf Life' is most definitely PE (especially football and cross country) English and Geography.
The premise of the story is very clever, and indeed a really interesting and novel concept. (You'll appreciate that comment more when you read the book.) ;)
Rob's humour is dry, wry and subtle, which is just perfect for me, and there are plenty of terrific lines that did actually make me laugh out loud.
I'd never heard of this author before, but we have mutual friends who've recommended this book, so I thought I'd check it out. Glad I did. It poses the question of what if writers really were gods and the worlds they create in their books became real. I love books about books, and this one engaged me until the end. I highly recommend it. It was very well written, and I plan to check out the other works by this author. ( ˆ◡ˆ)۶ ٩(˘◡˘ )