Category Archives: Books

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 10-12

Strange_BlackThese few chapters aren’t at all action-packed. Instead, they are heavy on character development. We learn that while Mr. Norrell is, ostensibly, a cautious man, he might better described as much given to ambivalence, procrastination, and general indecision in nearly all matters.

The Subject of Magic

Although Sir Walter Pole anticipates a battle in the cabinet, he finds that the other Ministers are eager to make use of Norrell in the war with France. Unfortunately, they just don’t quite know how, and Norrell himself isn’t particularly helpful in guiding them towards a solution. Instead, he seems far more adept at pointing out obstacles to the Ministers’ plans, and he refuses to raise anyone else from the dead. Fortunately, he is able to dissuade the Ministers from requesting further resurrections by pointing out that bodies who have been dead for some years would be very unpleasant company. This back and forth continues for some weeks in the fall of 1807.

7 Fleet of RainshipsShips of Rain

Finally, Norrell and the Ministers agree on a course of action. We learn this, however, not from the point of view of any of our English friends, but in a chapter told from the point of view of their French opponents. This is a very clever decision on the part of Susanna Clarke, and it’s a welcome diversion at this point in the book.

At the port of Brest in Brittany, a squadron of French ships is preparing to leave on a mission to harry the English when they find themselves trapped in the bay by a fleet of English ships that don’t seem to do any of the things that normal ships do. For eleven days, the French wait for the English to remove this blockade, only to see the ships melting as Norrell’s spell wears off.

The Hero of the French Blockade

After the success of his rain ships, Norrell finds himself in high demand, and he is able to summon visions of English ships in a basin of water–not to much real use, but much to the gratification of the military men he is now spending time with constantly. His next major feat of magic is to animate the mermaid figurehead on a captured French ship, and she is soon persuaded to give as much intelligence to the English as she is capable of. The story of the mermaid is funny, and I’m really hoping that it isn’t considered too insignificant to be included in the BBC adaption of the book. I will be very disappointed if I don’t get to see a very cantankerous, very French mermaid in the show.

Norrell’s Two Friends

As Norrell’s popularity increases, Drawlight and Lascelles take it upon themselves to manage his numerous engagements. With the intention of enhancing their own situations, they make themselves indispensable to Norrell, and they begin encouraging him to write for publication. Since Norrell is the only real magician in England, they reason, the public will be very eager to learn his opinions on all things magical.

Lord Portishead

Though Norrell finds himself unequal to the task of actually completing any piece of writing himself, he is soon introduced to one Lord Portishead, an ex-magician himself of the theoretical persuasion who has abandoned his own studies upon learning that Norrell disapproves of theoretical magicians. Under Norrell’s meticulous guidance and overseen by Lascelles, Lord Portishead publishes the periodical The Friends of English Magic, primarily filled with Norrell’s attacks upon, well, all magicians who are not Mr. Norrell.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 8-9

Strange_Red

These two chapters introduce a significant character and reintroduce us to one of my favorite characters in the book, Lady Pole (née Wintertowne). Norrell makes, well, not his first mistake, but perhaps his first truly disastrous one.

No One There

The association of a sort of mysterious absence with Miss Wintertowne continues when Mr. Norrell arrives at her deathbed, a motif that will continue throughout the book. I’m never quite certain if I find this motif to be more hilarious or more unsettling, but it certainly adds a Gothic flavor to all of our interactions with the young lady.

Poor Drawlight

Having finally persuaded Mr. Norrell to do some actual magic, Drawlight finds himself barred from the room where all the interesting things are happening. However, he and Lascelles both hang around insufferably (albeit humorously) awful. I always find myself reassured by their presence, much the way I feel about Mr. Collins when I reread Pride and Prejudice. Some characters just have an unholy knack for saying and doing absurdly terrible/stupid things, and I never get tired of reading about them.

The gentleman with thistle-down hair sees Miss Wintertowne.
The gentleman with thistle-down hair.

The Gentleman With Thistle-down Hair

To raise a person from the dead is not the sort of magic Norrell would like to do. Indeed, it is not a human sort of magic at all, so he, reluctantly, and with reservations, summons a fairy to do his bidding.

The gentleman that he summons wears a coat “of the brightest green imaginable,” an enormous amount of white hair, and a penchant for hard bargaining. This gentleman offers to help and aid Mr. Norrell in all things magical, but on the condition that Norrell credits him with the greater parts of all Norrell’s future achievements, and somehow I only just now realized that this stipulation is what Norrell finds off-putting enough to refuse the fairy’s offer. For all Mr. Norrell’s professed distaste for fairies and his tut-tutting about the dangers they present, I’m now quite certain that it’s not Norrell’s scruples, but his pride which makes a fairy servant so abhorrent to him.

The Other One

Thus refused, the gentleman asks Norrell where “the other one” is, meaning the other magician, Norrell’s “dearest friend,” with “red hair and a long nose” and “very conceited.” Norrell, of course, knows no other magician aside from himself, but this sets him to frantically considering all the men of his acquaintance who might fit this description. None do, so a bewildered Norrell instead turns back to bargaining with the fairy.

Half a Life

Reasoning that fairies are not to be trusted, and so he must be very careful in his negotiations, Norrell requests that Miss Wintertowne be given another seventy-five years to live, half of which to be spent with the gentleman–“half a life is better than none,” after all. To seal the deal, the gentleman requires a token of the lady’s, and so Miss Wintertowne is miraculously returned to life–less only the little finger of her left hand.

Miss Wintertowne’s Hand

With her daughter returned, Mrs. Wintertowne is keen that the marriage to Sir Walter Pole should continue as planned. Sir Walter, for his part, barely knows what to do with his young bride, who seems not only returned to life, but returned to a kind of vigorous health and brightness that she’s never experienced before. Fortunately for Sir Walter, Miss Wintertowne is still amenable to the marriage, and she very shortly becomes Lady Pole. On the wedding day, however, the person everyone most wants to see is Mr. Norrell.

Book Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Maas_A Court of Thorns and RosesI’ve really enjoyed Sarah Maas’s Throne of Glass series so far, but I know that series is a planned six books so I wasn’t expecting anything else new by her anytime soon. I’ve also been really cutting back on the amount of attention I pay to YA stuff this year in order to focus on some more literary genre work, so A Court of Thorns and Roses managed to slip under my radar until just a few weeks before it was published. Well, I sure am glad I didn’t miss it entirely, because it’s really excellent.

I am a huge fan of reimagined fairy tales and “Beauty and the Beast” is one of my favorites to see retold because it’s a great romantic story with some pretty high stakes that make for wonderful drama. Combining “Beauty and the Beast” with “Tam Lin” only raises the stakes higher, and it creates an opportunity for there to be a truly heroic heroine. It’s an awesome concept, and Sarah Maas does not disappoint.

I’ve really gone off of first person narratives recently, but Feyre is a delight. She’s not the normal bookish Beauty (as popularized by Disney) that seems to have made an appearance in every “Beauty and the Beast” retelling of the last twenty years. Maas’s rejection of this pretty much ubiquitous trope may strike some readers as a little too on the nose, but I found it refreshing. Feyre is tough, resourceful, and self-reliant, but Maas gives her realistic flaws and isn’t afraid to let her heroine make mistakes.

Feyre’s love interest, Tamlin, is much more two-dimensional, a little too perfect, but I think it works for this book. I found myself rolling my eyes occasionally as he and Feyre fell in love, but what their romance lacked in emotional depth it made up for in sexiness. I would classify this book more as new adult than YA, as it does have some actual sex, with orgasms and everything. There are only a couple–sex scenes that is (there are more than a couple of orgasms–go, Feyre!)–but I thought they were nicely done and well-integrated with the rest of the story.

The supporting characters mostly worked as well, although I do have some criticisms. I loved Feyre’s sisters, especially Nesta, and I loved the evolution of Feyre’s relationship with them. Tamlin’s friend Lucien was actually more interesting to me than Tamlin himself. I liked Alis until Maas used her to deliver an enormous chunk of exposition (exposition that is contrary to literally everything that we’ve learned in the book so far) to set up the last act. Rhysand is fascinating, although I am a little concerned that Maas might be telegraphing too much of the plot of the next book in the series through him. Amarantha was definitely villainous; I loved the sequence of tasks Feyre had to face and I enjoyed the final showdown. However, I’m still not entirely sure that I understand Amarantha’s motivation.

All in all, though, I thought A Court of Thorns and Roses was a smart, funny, sexy read. It can easily be read as a stand-alone piece, which is good since I think Maas ended Feyre and Tamlin’s story in a good place. I’m definitely looking forward to further books in the series, but I kind of hope that they will focus on other characters. Nesta in particular could easily carry her own book, and I would love to read that story.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 4-7

Strange_BlackWhat struck me most upon reading these few chapters for the first time in several years is that Susanna Clarke has a true gift for writing marvelously detailed and engrossing chapters that feel as if they are packed with story, even when only one thing happens in each chapter. It’s a style that may not appeal to everybody, but I find it compulsively readable.

I also continue to stand by my previous assertion that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’s closest literary relative is Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Clarke’s portraits of the people that Norrell meets in London are exactly the sort of delightful caricatures that one finds in that book. Like Vanity Fair, this is also an extremely funny novel, and I found myself laughing more than once in these chapters.

The footnotes in these chapters are also must-reads. In fact, the footnotes in this book are absolutely essential to a full understanding and appreciation of Susanna Clarke’s comedic genius.

The Friends of English Magic

As Mr. Norrell prepares for his move to London, John Segundus prepares London as well as he is able for the arrival of Mr. Norrell. Segundus’s “Appeal to the Friends of English Magic,” with his description of Norrell’s feat at the York Cathedral, is a sensation, but though Segundus attempts to manage expectations by including an account of Norrell’s character, expectations are high by the time Norrell makes his way to the city.

Not in Yorkshire Anymore

Childermass makes himself useful by encouraging Mr. Norrell to accept the first invitation he receives into London society, and Mrs. Godestone’s party is a delightful illustration of the absurdity of Norrell’s situation. He knows no one aside from Childermass, and he lacks the skills to recommend himself to others, thus passing the greater part of the event in obscurity before making his first acquaintance.

Drawlight

Christopher Drawlight is the worst sort of dandy, which makes him my favorite sort of dandy to read about, and he takes it upon himself to introduce Mr. Norrell further into society after first mistaking the much more interesting Childermass for Norrell. They attend parties and teas and dinners and drive in the park for months before Norrell finally becomes frustrated enough with his lack of progress in his goals to suggest to Drawlight that maybe he ought to be trying to make friends in government rather than in drawing rooms. In this, Drawlight is no help, but Norrell finally remembers that he does have some connections of his own.

Mr. Norrell visits with Sir Walter and the Wintertownes.
Mr. Norrell visits with Sir Walter and the Wintertownes.

Magic is Not Serious

And so Norrell arranges a meeting with the politician Sir Walter Pole in the hope of offering his magic in service against the French. The problem, of course, is that Sir Walter doesn’t believe him, and in fact doesn’t see what use magic could possibly be in the war. Sir Walter goes so far as to tell Norrell that magic is simply not respectable and that he would be laughed out of Parliament for even suggesting it.

At this meeting, Norrell also meets Sir Walter’s intended bride, Miss Wintertowne, and her mother. Miss Wintertowne is very ill, but her fortune is the solution to Sir Walter’s financial woes. Mrs. Wintertowne joins Sir Walter in his censure of magic, although Miss Wintertowne argues (feebly, as she is barely able to sit up on her couch) for the importance of magicians, at least as historians. Norrell will find no help for his cause here.

An Opportunity

After being rebuffed by Sir Walter, Norrell sinks into a deep depression that even Drawlight’s passive aggressive antics can’t pierce. A few days later, however, they get the news that Miss Wintertowne has died–and only two days before her impending marriage. This puts Mr. Norrell in the position of making his most momentous choice to date. He might have the knowledge to bring Miss Wintertowne back to life, putting Sir Walter Pole heavily in his debt and being a very public demonstration of his powers, but the manner of achieving this feat is dangerous and of a kind of magic that Mr. Norrell is loathe to use–namely, the summoning of a fairy servant to do the magical heavy lifting.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 1-3

Strange_RedI read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for the first time in 2004 and absolutely fell in love with it. Since then, I’ve probably read it over again half a dozen times more, but it’s been at least five years since I last opened my now rather shabby and dog-eared paperback. Now, though, as the air date for the BBC miniseries based on this most wonderful novel approaches, I feel compelled to reread it again. Over the next several weeks, I will be blogging my reread, with new posts Monday through Friday each week. I plan to cover three to five chapters each day and should be finished just in time for the US air date (June 13) of the miniseries’ first episode.

For those who haven’t read the book before, I think the first thing to know about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is that it’s not a book that is intended for e-readers. Almost from the first page, footnotes play an important role in the story, expanding upon the story mostly by expounding more upon the world that Susanna Clarke has created. These asides and stories simply must be read, and in my opinion they are best read in the places they appear. There aren’t many books that I think really need to be read on paper, but this is one of them. Indeed, I’d say that reading this novel on paper is an essential part of the reading experience. The only downside I’ve found to this so far is that (and perhaps I am just getting old) the type, at least in my 2004 paperback copy, is quite small and the footnotes are in even smaller print. I hope for the sake of new readers that newer print editions use a more reasonably sized font.

The Most Commonplace Question in the World

The book opens with neither of the two titular characters. Instead, we are introduced to the Learned Society of York Magicians, an organization of gentleman magicians who, we quickly learn, don’t actually do magic. Rather, they are simply scholars of magic, the last true English magicians having practiced some two or three centuries before the book’s setting in the early 1800s. I’ve seen Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell compared to any number of 19th century comedies and gothic romances, but these opening chapters, introducing a cast of characters that range from absurdly silly to absurdly wicked-seeming, remind me of nothing more than William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, itself a similarly voluminous work that examined the early 1800s with a satirical eye.

The central concern of these early pages is given voice by John Segundus, a sensible young man of slim means who is new to the venerable Society. Why, he asks, is there no more magic done in England?

Honeyfoot and Segundus

Our Mr. Segundus finds a new friend in one Mr. Honeyfoot, a kindly fellow who takes some pity on the younger man after the other members of the Society reject the idea that magicians must do magic at all, one even suggesting that to actually practice magic would be ungentlemanly. Segundus tells his new acquaintance of an encounter with a London street magician–of the sort widely regarded as charlatans at best–who prophesied that magic would be restored to England by two magicians. Mr. Honeyfoot is of the opinion that there ought to be someone they could consult about the whole matter, and they finally settle upon writing to one Mr. Norrell, a rather reclusive person rumored to have a fabulous library of magical books and quite conveniently located in York, as the winter weather is quite bad for travel.

I absolutely love these early scenes. They’re full of wordplay as clever as anything in Austen, amusing names that would be at home in a Dickens novel, and quick character sketches as incisive as anything in the aforementioned Vanity Fair.

Norrell_Portrait
Mr. Norrell

Rather Disagreeably Mysterious

Soon enough, Segundus and Honeyfoot make their way to Mr. Norrell’s home at Hurtfew Abbey. Mr. Norrell seems unassuming, “small, like his handwriting,” but it quickly becomes clear that he is no mean scholar. His library is even more magnificent than rumored, and he quickly disabuses Segundus and Honeyfoot of the notion that magic is no longer done. He, Mr. Norrell, is “quite a tolerable practical magician” himself. Segundus and Honeyfoot bring this knowledge to the next meeting of the Society of York Magicians, and together the group decides to put Mr. Norrell’s claim to the test.

Mr. Norrell’s Intentions

Mr. Norrell sends a solicitor, Mr. Robinson, to extract from the magicians of York a promise: if Norrell can provide them with proof of his claims, the Society must disband and cease all study of magic and its members must henceforth stop referring to themselves as magicians. All of the men agree to the terms except Mr. Segundus, and they soon gather at the York Cathedral for Norrell’s demonstration. Norrell himself doesn’t appear at the cathedral, sending instead his saturnine servant, Childermass. The demonstration goes off without a hitch, as Norrell casts a spell to awaken the statues of the old church, and the Society obeys their agreement, dissolving immediately and disposing of their shared library with a local bookseller from whom Norrell quickly buys all of the books, much to Segundus’s dismay.

The Last Magician in York

Childermass suggests to Segundus that he submit the story to newspapers in London, and the end of the third chapter sees Norrell himself on his way to London. Segundus is left in York, a magician in name only and unsettled by the recent events.

Final Thoughts on Chapters 1-3

I had forgotten just how much story Susanna Clarke manages to squeeze into each chapter of this book. For such a long novel (my copy is a full thousand pages), however, the prose feels remarkably economical. These opening chapters introduce several important characters (Segundus, Norrell, Childermass), set the stage for the return of magic to England, and immerse the reader in an alternate history that feels very real and lived-in. Rereading this book so far feels just as magical to me as it did over ten years ago when I read it for the first time.

Book Review: Born With Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

Mulgrew_Born With Teeth
Born With Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself developing a real fondness for memoirs, so when I found out that Kate Mulgrew, who I’ve admired since the first time I saw her enter the bridge on Star Trek: Voyager, was publishing one, I was thrilled. Born With Teeth is not a book about Star Trek, so fans of the series hoping for that may be disappointed, but Kate Mulgrew has lived a full and interesting life and has a lot to say about art, love, and finding happiness by being true to one’s self.

From the first pages of this book, as she writes about growing up as a precocious and much-loved child in Iowa, it’s very clear that Kate Mulgrew is not cut out to be a conventional woman. Leaving home for New York, she pursues her career as an actress with a deep and abiding passion for her craft that sustains her over the decades of her life.

Early on, we learn that Mulgrew gave birth early in her career to a daughter who she gave up for adoption, and Mulgrew’s regret over this decision and her desire to be reunited with the child she lost figures nearly as largely in the story as her passion for acting. Mulgrew’s feelings about the adoption consume many pages, and even as she later marries and has two more children by her first husband, she never stops wanting to know her daughter.

I finished this book in just one day, I found it so riveting. Kate Mulgrew is a passionate, intelligent, driven woman who isn’t afraid to talk about her mistakes. She’s also wry and funny, but never cynical, even about her often disappointing relationships with men. Mulgrew’s love for her children and her attempts to stay true to herself while also doing right by them are relatable and compelling.

Born With Teeth is an excellent, fast read about a woman who struggles with balancing her personal and professional lives. The book is light on practical advice, but I think it’s a wonderful story to show that a life doesn’t have to be objectively perfect in order to be rich and fulfilling.  I think one takeaway here is that mistakes shouldn’t define one’s life and that it’s never too late to make positive changes. The other takeaway is that it’s okay to not compromise when happiness is on the line, which is an excellent message, especially for young, creative women, to whom I would most recommend this book.