Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Number of pages: 846
My copy: paperback, Christmas gift from Aaron

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England’s history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England—until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.

Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.

* * *

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is one of those books that passed by my radar, and I briefly considered reading it because I knew some people liked it…until I saw its length. Then I walked away, thinking that this is probably one of those books that I will not read anytime soon, and I would be quite content not to read it within my lifetime since it’s too thick, and I’m not exactly a huge fantasy reader anyway.

But you know what’s the most effective way for me to read a book that I never thought I’d be reading ever? Peer pressure. Or, give it to me as a gift. That is exactly what my friend Aaron did last Christmas, and I always make it a point to read the books gifted to me. The good thing is, he also gave a copy of this book to other friends in the book club, so we formed a little reading group for this last April to get us through this chunkster together.

It’s not that I was really intimidated by it. After all, I finished the tome that is Les Misérables. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is like, 700 pages less than Victor Hugo’s book. This should be easy.

It’s the 19th century, and magic has been long dead in England. Or so people thought, until an English gentleman named Gilbert Norrell showed everyone that magic is not dead. He becomes the only magician in England for a moment, helping the English government win in the Napoleonic wars, and maybe raising a certain dead woman on the side, too. Then another magician comes – young Jonathan Strange, who becomes Mr. Norrell’s apprentice. But the two of them are as different as night and day: while Norrell relies on books and follows magic to the letter, Strange likes to play with it, try new things and maybe even find a way to summon the Raven King just to learn more about magic. Clashing personalities, fairies, prophecies, war and a ton of footnotes follow these two magicians,

I finished reading this book in 34 days, 4 days late than the supposed reading schedule. I figure I would have finished this earlier if my April wasn’t so busy, because Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is quite engaging. The old English language wasn’t so hard to understand, and we get treated to interesting characters and situations from the start. I honestly had no idea what the book was about when I started reading it except that it was about these two people on the title, and for a moment I thought Strange was Mr. Norrell’s biographer. Heh. The book isn’t just about magic, though, or just the two gentlemen. If it was, then it would’ve been far shorter, yes? This is part historical (or alternate history, rather), so I found myself in a lot of war scenes in the book that were far more interesting than the ones I read in Les Misérables. Case in point: I slogged through the Waterloo part of Les Mis but breezed through the one here, because of Jonathan Strange. It is true: magic makes things more interesting. ;)

Another thing that I can’t not mention about this book is the footnotes, and the sheer amount of them. I don’t mind footnotes — in fact, I find them quite fun when I encounter them in books. Granted, they were distracting, especially when they span pages and pages in the book, just like how it was in this book. Theyr’e not really important, but as some of my buddies said, it provided a richer reading experience of Strange and Norrell’s story.

I enjoyed reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I really did. Perhaps my only gripe in this book is how it really dragged at some point. It wasn’t exactly boring — not as boring as say, that chapter on Parisian slang in Les Mis, or the part about the sewer — but man did they drag. The second volume was interesting, but it took a really long time before some things really started happening. I suppose, like Les Mis, it adds more texture to the story, but it can get pretty tiresome after some time. Let’s get moving, please.

I have to hand it to the author, though, because when things started happening, they really started happening. Then I find that I can hardly put it down. While I wouldn’t exactly describe the last part unputdownable, the action made me want to just keep reading because I need to know how it ends. I liked how the ending wrapped up a lot of the loose ends in the first parts, but not without leaving a few more to leave the readers longing a little. Getting to the end was slightly bittersweet because I spent a lot of time in their world, and also just because of that ending.

So while there were some dragging parts, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was quite enjoyable, even for someone who was peer pressured to read it. ;) It’s a happy kind of peer pressure, though! And yeah, add me to the list of people who’s excited to see its BBC adaptation. I’m quite excited to see how they’d show the magic on the screen…and that man with thistle-down hair. :)

Rating:

Required Reading: April

Other reviews:
marginalia

 

Required Reading 2013: April

Well, March was a pretty fantastic month, if I do say so myself. (But I am biased because it’s my birthday month. Still, I can definitely say: Best. Birthday. Month. Ever.

I read a lot of good books for March, too, and I actually finished all my Required Reading books!

  • Iscariot by Tosca Lee (5/5) – Intense, and perfect for Holy Week.
  • The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen (4/5) – I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I think I like this as much as I liked The Sugar Queen. :)
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (4/5) – Ah. So many words, so many feels. I really liked this one, and we had a pretty great discussion over this book, too. :)

I read a lot of other good books, too, but of course, I didn’t have much time to review them. I’m thinking of upping my books to read this year, because I’m a little almost halfway to 52. But maybe after I finish my April books.

Speaking of.

Required Reading: April

Now that my favorite month has come and gone…I see I will have a busy April ahead! There’s the usual work, among other things, and the book club’s anniversary events — so yeah, my April is packed. :) This would explain why my reading list this month is just this:

Required Reading books for April

Required Reading books for April

  1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – my second chunkster for the year + buddy reads with several friends in the book club. It’s still 500+ pages less thick than Les Miserables, so I am pretty sure I can do this. :D
  2. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – Our book club’s book of the month. I’ve been meaning to read this, and I’m glad it was chosen (although my original vote for our list was The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). I think this will balance JS&MN well.

I am also currently in the middle (or at least, in the first fourth) of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which I am taking my sweet time to read. I am also reading through Kristan Higgins’ back list because she’s such a fun read, and I am reading it for research for my romance writing class. :D

What are you planning to read this month? :)

Check out my friends’ reading lists for April, too!

Les Misérables

Les Misérables Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Publisher: Signet Classics
Number of pages: 1463 (!!!)
My copy: paperback, gift from Angus

Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean – the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread – Les Misérables (1862) ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them onto the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose. Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait which resulted is larger than life, epic in scope – an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart. This Signet Classic edition is a new version translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, based on the classic nineteenth-century Charles E. Wilbour translation.

* * *

Just so you know, I never had any intention of reading Les Misérables. I have a friend who talked about rereading this book last year for research before NaNoWriMo season came around, and I remember vaguely wondering how can one reread such a thick book. I had no intention of reading this, thinking that my life can remain untouched by this tome, until some friends from the book club started a reading support group for the unabridged book. I still didn’t join them, but I applauded them for their efforts. Until…one day, I wandered around the thread, and saw their discussion. And then the briefest of brief thoughts came into my mind: Maybe it won’t be so bad reading such a thick book if you have friends reading with you.

And then, Maybe it’s not so bad. You’ve read A Game of Thrones and The Historian and what’s a few hundred pages more?

Then my friends started inviting me to join them, and I felt like giving in. It could be an interesting challenge, right?

So finally, by end of 2012, I said yes. Angus gave me a copy of the unabridged version and I started reading it by January 1. If you’re like me who has no idea what Les Misérables by Victor Hugo was (I know, I know — I was living under a rock all my life), this is the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who was shown mercy when he least expect it, but is chased by his past even if he tries to change his present. There’s a lot more to the story than that, of course, but that was the main story arc. I never watched any of the musicals, or the first movie with Liam Neeson. I have zero expectations and I knew very little in the story — only fragments of a discussion in a college Theology class, and the knowledge of the song On My Own, because who doesn’t know that song?

The goal was to read as much as I can in the book until we had watch the movie. I wasn’t dreaming of finishing the book before the movie because that gave me about 16 days to just read, but I wanted to reach at least halfway. I didn’t. I watched the movie, got spoiled and tried to read again. My reading progress was slower, because I knew what was going to happen (and this is going to be another post in itself!), but I was in too far into the book to drop it. A half-read book is a half-finished love affair, right?

Until finally, exactly 45 days since I started reading Les Misérables, I finished it.

Les Misérables is long. And sometimes tiresome. And sometimes I wonder what Hugo’s point was in several chapters/books. But besides those things, I must admit: Les Misérables is a beautiful book. There’s so many layers and complexities in this book that’s kind of hard to remember when you’re deep into some of its very boring and tedious chapters, but when you step back and think about what you’ve read with the other parts that that boring part came with, you see that the boring parts sets the stage so the interesting parts become colorful and detailed. For example: I probably could’ve lived without knowing about Paris’ sewer system back then, but I wouldn’t have appreciated Valjean’s attempts to get out of it, just how dire his situation was when he was there. Hugo is talkative, but it ties well together — you just need to have a little more perseverance and slog through the slightly boring parts. (Y’know, just like life. Heh. :P)

If you think watching the movie is enough for you to know what Les Misérables is all about…well, no. There’s so much in the book that wasn’t in the movie and it makes several characters stand out on their own a bit more. For example: Marius in the movie was shown as a revolutionary, but in the book, he wasn’t. Not as much as Enjolras was, anyway. Marius just wanted to show his grandfather that he can make it on his own, and then he falls in love. Which is also another thing — in the movie, Marius and Cosette just made eyes at each other, but in the book, there was a longer and slightly more interesting “courtship” between the two of them. And there were the other characters that we hardly got to know, as well as Jean Valjean’s whole thought process throughout the novel. The book gives the characters and the story so much more depth, making the sad scenes a bit more heartbreaking and the victorious scenes mean so much more.

Les Misérables is long, and arduous at times, but I am so glad I powered through it. It’s totally worth all the lugging around and the times I spent trying to stay focused on the story. It’s a story of forgiveness, mercy and love in all forms – and I personally think we need more stories like this. :)

This is officially the thickest book I’ve read in my life time, and now I feel like I can read any door-stopper now without getting intimidated…

…but maybe not anytime soon. ^^;

Rating:

rr2013-01

Other reviews:
Code Name: Blue

The Historian

The Historian by Elizabeth KostovaThe Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Publisher: Little Brown
Number of pages: 909 pages
My copy: mass market paperback, bought from Fully Booked

Breathtakingly suspenseful and beautifully written, The Historian is the story of a young woman plunged into a labyrinth where the secrets of her family’s past connect to an inconceivable evil: the dark fifteenth-century reign of Vlad the Impaler and a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive through the ages. The search for the truth becomes an adventure of monumental proportions, taking us from monasteries and dusty libraries to the capitals of Eastern Europe – in a feat of storytelling so rich, so hypnotic, so exciting that it has enthralled readers around the world.

* * *

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is our book for our November discussion for the book club. It was my only choice among the three books that we voted for last July because our theme for November was horror and I’m not a horror fan, so I go for the least horrific. :P I’ve heard good things about this book from some blogger friends, plus our moderator, Monique, liked this one too, so I figured I will probably like it too.

The Historian is the story of an unnamed narrator and her family’s past. What starts as a simple book and some letters found in her father’s study turned out to contain a story bigger than she expected, even bigger than her father and her dead mother that spans across the centuries. The book is more of a collection of her recollection of her own research and her father’s research and travels about Vlad the Impaler and the danger that they encountered as they pried deeper into the life of the fifteenth century Wallachian ruler.

I started this book a little apprehensive, because like I said, I’m not a horror person. I don’t like scaring myself, so I was kind of careful when I started reading it. My friends assured me that it wasn’t that scary, but there were several times when I felt jumpy while I was reading this, especially when it was raining and when I was alone at home. I found the first part of the book quite engaging, where I was passed from the main narrator’s point of view to her father’s and back. I liked how the mystery presented itself, and how I got invested in the main characters in this first part. I liked the dangerous — and a little scary — tone around the first part, where they just don’t know what’s going on and how they do not know just how big the thing they’re poking is.

That was the first part. The second part was still quite interesting, but then somewhere in the middle, it started to lag. I don’t read much historical fiction, or anything that had too many historical documents for that matter. Somewhere in the second part, I was amazed at the setting but everything else was bogged down by the fact that the characters kept stumbling upon different documents, countless books and letters about Vlad the Impaler. I get it, okay. They are historians, yes, so these documents were a necessary part of the story, but man, they were tedious. I didn’t want to skim through it because I might miss something else, but I admit that I slowed down my reading at this part.

Come part three. Part 3 was a little bit more exciting, especially since it felt like they were getting closer and closer to uncovering the mystery. I got a little bit annoyed when they opened yet another book and read yet another letter, but when you’re that close to the end of a book, giving up is not an option. At least, not for me. And when the final reveal comes…I was all…huh.

I won’t spoil it for you, but at the end of the book, I had to clarify with some friends if I understood what I read, and they said I got it right. And after 900 pages, all I could think of was: That’s it?

Overall, I have a bit of mixed feelings with The Historian. Perhaps I was expecting more, and I was shelving it together with some of the adventure/mystery/horror books that I have read before and forgot that the book is really more of a travelogue and historical account more than it was supposed to be horror. I liked the writing and the level of detail that this book possessed, and it made me want to go backpacking around Eastern Europe (and generally all over Europe again — I totally drooled at the part where they were in France with the descriptions of food) to see the places the characters went to in the book. As far as the story goes, however, I thought the big reveal fell a little flat, and I was really expecting a big one after all the things the characters went / read through.

I didn’t really dislike The Historian, but I didn’t like it too much, either. It was a little bit more than just okay, though, because like I said, I enjoyed the travel part and the writing and maybe just a little bit of the research, until I felt like starting a drinking game for every document / letter / book that they read. I don’t regret that I read it, but I don’t think I’ll find it particularly memorable later on, either. Maybe I’m just not much of a history buff to be really in love with this, and I think my aversion to vampire stories made me a bit more disinterested after some point. The only real memorable part of The Historian as far as I’m concerned was the book club discussion, which was a fun time to discuss with good friends what we think of this chunkster. :)

Rating:

Required Reading: November

Other reviews:
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Bookmarked!

A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. MartinA Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
A Song of Ice and Fire #1
Publisher: Bantam
Number of pages: 835
My copy: Mass market paperback, bought from National Bookstore

In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes of the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

* * *

First off – I don’t think I’d go through the trouble of summarizing A Game of Thrones because I’m pretty sure practically everyone knows what this is about. In case you don’t …well, it’s about several families living in a land called Westeros, all of whom seem to be at war (or at least, are set to manipulating and wiping off other family lines) with each other to claim the power among the land. There are several story lines explored in the book that if I try to explain will either take too long, or spoil you, so let’s not get to that. But in case you’re not interested in reading the book (it is a doorstopper), there’s always the HBO TV series based on the book which will probably tell you everything you need to know.

So. I really had no plans of reading this, until I got this crazy idea last year to get a copy of the boxed set because…well, it looks cool. I don’t watch the TV series, though, so the interest in this was purely from a reading standpoint. I figured that I will probably watch the TV series at some point, but before that, I will read the book first. I am a purist, I told myself. Books before TV shows, or movies, yes?

But I was entirely unprepared at the length of these books. When I saw that the second book in the series was a 1000+ pages, I decided not to get the entire set. Too much investment, I thought. So I got the first book instead, thinking that if I end up liking it, I will probably get the next ones. Never mind if the boxed set is pretty.

Months passed, and I still haven’t cracked the book open. It stared at me from my shelf, daring me to read it. The only reason I was hesitant to read this was because it was so thick. YA books tend to be 400 pages max, and anything longer than that, I felt like it was already too long, and would require too much investment, especially with all the other books in my TBR. 800+ pages in just one book? How long will I finish that? But I was determined, and I picked it up several times only to get distracted by something else. Finally, some friends from the book club joined me in a Buddy Read for this book…and I was in it for real. Can I make it? Especially in the same month that our book club has Fellowship of the Ring as its book of the month?

Well friends, I made it. Without throwing the book away, or screaming in frustration. I shook my fist several times, I cringed, but I made it to the end and let out a loud whoop when I was done. To be perfectly honest, I feel like this was such a huge reading accomplishment that I can’t help but be proud of myself. (Also a confession: every time I bring the book outside to read it — on the gym, or while commuting — I can’t help but feel so cool. Like I have this cool, intellectual and geeky vibe because I’m reading this book. Is it just me? :P) And have you noticed how I haven’t really written anything about the book yet in this review?

But what else is there to say about this that hasn’t been said? A Game of Thrones is a very, very engaging book. The sheer number of characters and names can be intimidating and it can be hard to keep them straight sometimes, but honestly? You can dismiss some of the character names because they’re not so important. The real problem is how not to get attached to anyone because what other fans of the series said is true: characters die in this book. Wait, let me correct that: characters you don’t want to die will die in this book. By that I leave you to wonder, but really, get your heart ready  because if you’re the type who gets attached to characters easily, then you would probably throw A Game of Thrones away from you several times while reading this.

That being said, though, I enjoyed the two weeks or so I spent reading this book, so much that it almost didn’t feel like it was two weeks. I was fascinated with the world of Westeros and the Wall and the Starks and Lannisters and the other Houses. It’s not just court politics or people killing each other for a throne or a crown. There’s family, there’s loyalty, and personal revelations about the characters’ identities as they go through their own challenges. Of course, there were those other things that my friends warned me about too, such as incest and rape and all that, but they weren’t really as graphic as I expected in this book. Mind you — I’m not comfortable about it so I tend to skim, but they’re not really as explicit as I thought they were. Wait, I think my friends were warning me about the TV series, not the book.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading A Game of Thrones. Honestly, I was kind of surprised that I did — not that I was expecting not to like it, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I understand why so many people are hooked on this series. Will I read the next book? Yes, most probably. Not anytime soon, though, because I’m still taking a breather with this. But maybe I’ll watch the second season of the TV series first before reading  A Clash of Kings, just to change things a bit. :)

Also, I totally want my own direwolf.

Nymeria

Nymeria – Arya’s direwolf. Image from fanpop.com

Rating:

Required Reading - June

Other reviews:
It’s a Wonderful Book World
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