Sunday, February 1, 2009

My Latest Read

I've been pretty boring lately. I'm trying to convince myself it's because I'm still recovering from being sick this week, but I'm not sure. I do have a pretty strong lazy streak. You could ask my dog, but she doesn't know how to type. Anyway, the most interesting thing I've done in the past two days is finish reading my latest book.

I've been toying with the idea of starting a second blog, maybe called "What I'm Reading," but since the name was taken and I am, as previously stated, lazy, I'll just make it an irregular feature of this blog. I'll let you know when I start a book, and at least do some kind of review or summary when I finish. It would be fun if any readers shared their thoughts on any of these books they may have read, or decided to read along. Like an online book-club. I'm sure it's been done already, but this is mine. So there. On with my first "review."

Since I stayed home for two days alone, alternating between bed and couch, I was extremely grateful that I had just started quite a long book, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I had picked it up for about $4 from the clearance section at Books A Million, after conferring with Miss Chef. It seemed intriguing to us, as fans of both Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Plus, I had spent many an hour in grad school losing myself in modern romance novels set in the Regency, a dirty little literary secret of mine (until now, I guess).

Unfortunately, JS&MR is a bit dry. That's not to say it's dull, but when one is constantly evaluating whether or not to bother keeping one's eyes open, a riveting, action-packed page turner might be more suitable. I did, at one point, say to myself, "This is a nice book, but it's just too long." Like the famous "too many notes" critique of Mozart infamy. Far be it from me to improve on the work of a published author! But, still...there were many times I turned back to it simply because it was the only option.

It may surprise you then, to know that, overall, I enjoyed this book. It has been described as a blend of, variously, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien and a bunch of other authors I either can't remember or didn't recognize. The best one-sentence description I can come up with is "a Regency-period drama centering around magic as a practical science." If any of that immediately turns you off, well then maybe I wouldn't recommend it to you. I even suspect Miss Chef may find it too dry to read. It is indeed written in the style of Austen or Dickens, with perhaps less obscure vocabulary and more straightforward sentence structure. So it is definitely an easier read than either of those.

The characters aren't particularly warm, unlike the ones I loved in the the Harry Potter books, nor is the environment. As the author, Susanna Clarke, said in an interview, she realized after finishing it that she'd written a story that took place over ten years' time, but almost entirely in winter. That right there points to some interesting innate talent, if you ask me! She certainly got the mood she was after, all nothern British dark stone and cold grey afternoon light.

But there is definitely humor laced throughout, as subtle as it may be. In spite of their stiffness and propriety, the characters are amusing in their stubborness, fixations and blindnesses. It all fits in with the astonishingly accurate details, tone and social norms of the alternate-reality Regency England Clarke has created. I think that that depth, above all, is what kept me coming back (well, that, and unwillingness to get out from under the blankies). And there is considerable imagination in the blending of history, myth, inspiration from other fantasty stories and all-out fiction. The interweaving details are numerous; I may well pick it back up to re-read the first several chapters, just to remind myself of the origins of certain themes and characters.

I particularly want to go back and see if I dropped any information about the main Bad Guy, who has no name. Isn't that cool? He's generally referred to as "the gentleman with the thistle-down hair." The names are another fun touch; there are several oh-so-British descriptive monikers, Strange being the least of them. My particular favorite is Mr. Honeyfoot, though I don't know why. Then there is Miss Wintertowne, whom we first meet as a terminally ill woman, then secondly as a corpse and thirdly as living a half-dead life of enchantment; and Mr. Drawlight, who makes his living as a social butterfly.

I won't summarize the plot, as I think this is a book best discovered as you go along. I've learned the movie rights have already been sold, and if the development of character and background is done well, it could be a fantastic visual adaptation. I'm sure we'll have to wait a year or two to find out. And there's no way the inherent detail of the book can be captured in a 2-hour movie, so it's sure to be somewhat disappointing. could be fantastic.

One important point I've failed to mention is the footnotes. In keeping with the formal, 19th-century voice of the narrator, references to an imagined magical history and bibliography are footnoted on most of the pages. For the most part, these are well-placed, so that you may read the footnotes without losing the thread of the story. They offer more information on the backstory, a medieval England ruled in part through magic. It also helps create a more authentic depth to the culture of this alternate history, as if the people in the story were familiar enough with that magical past as to not need to explain it.

However, if footnotes drive you mad, you might find it irritating. And you do need to read them to fully follow the story. But, as I said, they're quite well done, even when they do run on for three or four pages. Oh yes...some of them are indeed that long.

I feel like the author's voice has leaked a bit into my own writing here. I bet I come back to this in two days' time to find it horribly pretentious. Hee hee...I absolutely know I will! But I'm going to publish it anyway.

I haven't gotten to the library for my next fix, so I can't tell you yet what I'll be diving into. I may well have to fall back on one of my old favorites, who knows? Whatever it is, I'll let you know when I begin.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the award, I really appreciate it. I read through some posts and I'm thinking Miss Chef is your daughter? If you are an avid reader and strongly support gay marriage, check out my cousin Kate's blog she's a professor at San Jose State, is gay and married, has published several books. I'm usually reading something she has recommended at GoodReads.


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