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A couple of titles

Goodness, I haven't posted since the 3rd. This is all down to reading the longest book in the history of publishing... well... not quite... but it felt like it at times... and also being a bit busy with the garden at the moment. So, slightly shorter book reviews are the order of the day and this'll be a two in one post. First up is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

It's the early 1800s and magic is something which has been lost to England... there are still theoretical magicians but no one has practiced it for hundreds of years. In York some local theoretical magicians decide to visit a Mr. Gilbert Norrell who, it's said, knows more about magic than anyone in England and has the most magnificent library on the subject. The visit is not a success and he decides to teach them a practical lesson. One night he makes the statues and grotesques in York Minster come alive and talk. It naturally causes a sensation and Mr. Norrell decides to move to London and be the one responsible for bringing magic back to England. It proves to be a difficult task but eventually a couple of hangers-on manage to bring him to the notice of the powers that be. Norrell's idea is to be the 'only' magician in England and takes steps to stop others taking it up. He's unable to stop Jonathan Strange though and eventually the two men come together to be England's only practicing magicians. One of Mr. Norrell's first acts of magic was to raise the wife of a politican from the dead and it's the repercussions of this which will shape the future of the two men and those of their loved ones and followers.

It took me about two weeks to read this mammoth book (it's just over 1,000 pages long). I wanted to read it because the BBC's dramatisation of it starts on Sunday night and I wanted to have read the book before I saw it. I find this helps with understanding what's going on as these film makers tend to cut so much. Anyway, this alternate reality fantasty/history tale is a remarkable piece of work and an astonishing achievement on the author's part. Really amazing. So why do I feel a bit ambivilent about it? I'm not sure. On the one hand I found the idea of magic being a reality in Regency times totally beguiling, some of the ideas are intriguing and mind-boggling. BUT I know that quite a few people have given up on the book about 200 pages in. And, weirdly, for one who did make it to the end, I completely understand why. It rambles. And it rambles. And then it rambles some more. Scores of long footnotes in tiny, tiny writing try your patience when you have 62 year old eyes and are struggling to read them. The author has no notion of conciseness and I'm afraid I thought more than once, 'Oh, please get on with it!' And yet... I wonder if it would be quite as remarkable a book with a couple of hundred pages edited out. Part of me says 'Yes!' Part of me is not so sure. For many, its length is actually part of its appeal and I do understand that. Anyway, regardless of all this indecisiveness, I am glad I read it and if, as I hear rumoured, there's a sequel on the way I shall read it. I gather it will be about two of the minor characters in JS&MrN... Childermass - Norrell's assistant - and Vinculus, a 'maybe' magician. I would love to read more about Childermass as I thought he was one of the most interesting characters in the book and not made enough of. I'll just add that I did enjoy the historical elements of the book. There's a lot about the Peninsula War, Waterloo, King George III and how his illness was treated and so on. All fascinating stuff.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is my book 5 for Carl's Once Upon a Time IX and my book 12 for Bev's Mount TBR 2015 challenge.

Next, The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie.

Old Mrs. Cavendish has recently married again and her new husband is a younger man, Alfred Inglethorp. Her two adult sons and various others who live with her in her large house, Styles, are horrified and all hate the new husband, considering him to be a gold digger. When the old lady dies with his name on her lips the family assume that he has poisoned her but has he? Most of the people who live at Styles turn out to have a reason to want her dead and a method of doing it. Captain Hastings was present when she died and suggests calling in a friend of his, an ex Belgian detective and refugee from the war (WW1) who is staying in the village, one Hercule Poirot. Together, Hastings and Poirot investigate this very complicated 'locked room' case although Hastings starts to wonder if his friend has lost some of his brilliant deducting ability with age...

This was Agatha Christie's very first book and also Hercule Poirot's first appearance. I was keen to read it as she talks quite a bit about how it came to be written in her autobiography: it was as a result of a bet with her older sister. Her main regret about Poirot was that she felt she'd made him too old in his first outing as he would have been well over a hundred in the last book! As a first book I found it to be surprisingly readable. You tend to give a bit of leeway with first books, especially given that Christie was only in her early twenties when she wrote it, but it's not necessary with this. It's good. Hastings is the first person narrator and his character really leaps off the page. I love his delusions of cleverness when it comes to detective work and his weakness for women which he doesn't seem to be aware of. I think Agatha Christie knew men well as none of hers are perfect, all have weaknesses and failings. Same for women... she knew how to portray all human failings with deadly, pin-point accuracy. She threw no punches! Anyway, enjoyable and fun to link it with Christie's real life as a despenser in WWI. It's clear she knew all about poisons. There will be more books by Agatha Christie as this year progresses.


"...It rambles. And it rambles. And then it rambles some more."

This is exactly why I probably would not enjoy Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. That same quality almost completely derailed my enjoyment of the book version of Wicked — the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Rambling, unfocussed and seemingly pointless narratives drive me to irritated, wholly impatient distraction. I never once even considered trying to read any of the Wicked sequels for just that reason.

I admire your patience, though, and I'm glad it was rewarded enough for you to want to read the sequels to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell., but I'm sure I would close it and put it aside after 200 pages, as you say some readers have done.

Now, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is much more to my liking. I read this just a few years ago, and loved it. I'm so glad Agatha Christie took that bet or challenge or whatever it was. The results are very satisfactory, and her astute observations of human nature make her stories very satisfying ... and they do not ramble. =D
Yes, the book really is not for everyone and I think I know more people who abandoned it than who got to the end. The drama started tonight though and that was really not bad at all. Very atmospheric... keep an eye out for it on your side of the pond.

I'm really very happy that I have so many Agatha Christie books that I can sample and enjoy. And having read her autobiography seems to be adding to the pleasure. I can't remember whether you said you'd read that or not... but if not I can't recommend it highly enough.
I'm one of those that gave up reading "Jonathan Strange ... ". I was disappointed I couldn't get into it, because so many people seemed to have loved it. You get bonus points for getting through all the rambling. ;)

I'm in an Agatha Christie reading mode at the moment. I've read most of her books before, but I'm enjoying them again. It surprises me that even the ones written in the 30's have themes that are current today. "Peril at End House" (written in 1932) has cocaine users and people sleeping together who aren't married; no-one seems to be particularly bothered at all.

Edited at 2015-05-17 02:25 am (UTC)
Yep, I know *loads* of people who have abandoned it. I think I sort of had to get into a special mindset to read the thing to be honest.

You're so right about the issues AC wrote about being current today. I've been really surprised at times. I'm really pleased there are so many books of hers I haven't read - I have a treat in store.
You know, you almost had me picking up the first book, but then...

Well, I'm totally not into rambling. Nothing will kill my interest in a book faster. But I'm glad you were able to finish, and even enjoy, it. It's quite fascinating, how differently each of us comes to a book, and where we go with it.
I sort of had to adopt a certain kind of mindset when I decided to read the first book. I can't really describe it but it was a kind of grim determination. LOL!

Oh, interesting... this is one of the books I keep gazing at, and I've assumed that I'll like it if I ever get around to reading it, but now it sounds a bit unlikely... I'm going to miss the first ep of the series too (and they're playing it against something else I've just got into too, Home Fires - *headdesk*)... maybe this means the series will actually be better...?
I don't know... I think you actually might manage to get through it you know. Not sure why I think that. Just a feeling. Part one of the series was pretty good. Hugely more concise of course and very atmospheric. Wonderful period libraries in the background and so forth. Enough to make you drool...