Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Monday, August 31, 2020

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Susanna Clarke, 2004

Hugo Winner - 2005

Premise: In the early 1800s, Englishmen study magic, but don’t have any practical abilities, until Mr. Norrell. He and Mr. Strange seek to bring magic back to England, but they will contend with mundane politicians, fairy lords, and their own rivalry. 

I read this book back when it was new, and I remember liking it, but I remembered nothing about the characters or plot when I picked it up to reread it.

It’s been a couple weeks since that reread as I sit down to write this, and I’m already forgetting it again. 

The style is striking and strong - I like the dry humor of the footnotes and the surreal way that the magic is described. The multiple plots weave delicately in and out of each other.

But the many characters are mostly ciphers, and the major plot element of the two women trapped or tormented by the fairy always feels strangely distant. The situation with Stephen Black is more central, but I wish it had gotten even more focus.

I guess it comes down to the fact that neither Norrell nor Strange are particularly compelling to me, so while I still like the book, it’s just not something that leaves an impression. 

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Pride and Prejudice

Monday, August 24, 2020

Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen, 1813

I first read Pride and Prejudice back in high school, and I remember enjoying it very much. I thought about rereading it a few years ago when I tried reading and was utterly bored by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

A few months ago, I was reminded of my plan to reread it by a bunch of memes about life in lockdown being like living in an Austen novel (limited contact with those outside the household, courting through letters, etc.) 

Seeking something engaging but light, I picked this book up again. And it was... fine, I guess.

I was still largely charmed by the style of the prose, but I had forgotten the entire plot. I can't recall what I thought of it back in high school, but on this read-through, I couldn't get past how petty the characters are. I'm not talking about the initial misunderstandings between Elizabeth and Darcy, I'm talking about the "funny" way Elizabeth and her father look down on everyone, especially her mother and younger sisters.

Not to mention the whole plot around Lydia. The narrative does eventually take pains to make it seem like she is obnoxious enough to deserve her fate, but I can not accept a strained, loveless marriage as just punishment for being an impulsive, boy-crazy teenager. 

This last critique is probably due to being used to more modern, or at least more overt, portrayals of emotion, but I found it downright bizarre that the actual love confession scene between Darcy and Elizabeth was barely on the page. Instead, it is led up to and then described somewhat obliquely. 

Overall I found this reread somewhat disappointing.

2 Stars, an Okay Book.

Tipping the Velvet

Monday, August 3, 2020

Tipping the Velvet
Sarah Waters, 1998

Nan works in her family’s restaurant and assumes she’ll have an average small-town life until her crush on another girl eventually brings her into an entirely new world.

Even though I loved Fingersmith, it took me a while to track down this, possibly the author’s most well-known work.

The story follows the romantic and sexual misadventures of a young Englishwoman in the 1890s. Nan first falls in love with Kitty, a male impersonator, and due to that relationship moves to the city to pursue a glamorous and dangerous life in the performing arts. Once in London, her later escapades push her physical and mental limits until she finally figures out what she wants from life and love.

For some reason, I thought this would be a romance, but while it’s romantic in sections (and full of sex scenes), I definitely classify this as a melodrama. Nan’s story is full of dramatic turns and heightened emotion, explicit sexual situations as well as sweet friendships. Even though it has a happy ending, it’s not really about Nan getting together with the right person; it’s about her finding herself. Without that, she can’t build a solid relationship.

The many LGBT characters deal with a lot of prejudice and hatred, but they continue to build communities and relationships anyway. The characters are complex and compelling, and the style is fantastically readable while evoking novels written in the 1800s.

It is a bit long, but an entertaining read throughout.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book