Tag Archives: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Four Book Reviews

When I opened up this page, I had no idea if I’d written anything this morning. I think I tackled my Zahnie story and managed about 50 words before I went to look up the birth date of a relative, and that got my focus out of hand. I did genealogy for the next 3 1/2 hours. I’m nothing if not distractable.

So now its 10:45 PM, a full 15 hours since I sat down to write, and I discovered I had very little to say. To get my 750 words captured, I decided to write down a few thoughts about the books I’d read recently.

Cassandra Clare. City of Bones. Mortal Instruments; Book 1. A teenage girl becomes embroiled with a group of Shadow Hunters, monster fighters. A truly uninspired plot. Predictable at every moment. The protagonist was uninspiring and bland. The protagonist’s love interest: well, let’s just say that the relationship turned very Luke-and-Leia at the end. How horrible was the plot? There was even a “Leia, I am your father. Search yourself–you know it to be true” moment between the main character and the antagonist. She was betrayed by her mentor/teacher. I saw all Clare’s plot twists several chapters before they happened. There was tons of humor about bad cooking and bad poetry and teenage angst. It all fell flat. She does manage to write LGBT couples with without batting an eye. She treats romantic relationships with an extremely heavy hand. I won’t be reading the second, or fifth, or even the 6th book in the series. I know this cast of characters have become extremely popular. I know of a person who actually changed their name (the protagonist is called Clary, short for Clarissa) because she loved the Mortal Instruments books so much. Maybe I’m being too harsh. But this book seems to be a creepy excited fangirl overreaction. Kick me if I ever change my name because I loved a book too much. 1 star of 5.

Susanna Clarke. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This book is all about English magic, which has disappeared and two magicians who are bringing the magic back. It reads like a period piece written by Jane Austen, but with extra snark. The book had a fun sardonic tone throughout. The primary characters are cool. Even the minor characters are interesting. She injects anecdotes and stories about magic users that are comical throughout the novel. There are also characters pulled through real history: Duke Wellington. Napoleon. Lord (prime minister) Liverpool. Crazy King George III. The system of magic is interesting. Faeries are not the fun, fluttery kind. They are mysterious and scary as hell. Clarke’s book is part alternate history, part drawing-room novel, and part faerie tale. Brilliant, funny, readable from beginning to end. You never know what the plot will bring from one moment to the next. Entirely original. 5 Stars of 5.

Victoria Aveyard. Red Queen. In this book’s world, there are two kinds of people: Reds and Silvers. The Reds live in perpetual slave status to the socially superior Silvers. Silvers have magic powers (and silver blood; thus their name). The story is about one Red girl who is thrust into the middle of Silver Court society. The book is very good. The climax was fantastic. I blasted through the final 2 hours. I was taken along for the ride, hating the bad guys, just like the author hoped. There was a betrayal at the end, which propelled us into the final third of the book. I saw it coming from early on, even though there was no mention of it. This made me simultaneously upset, because she should have given the reader an indication this would happen , or possibly because I saw it coming so far in advance. The characters are compelling, and Red Queen has possibly cleared the way for a romance in a sequel. I don’t know; maybe a sequel has been written already. 4 Stars of 5.

V.E. Schwab. A darker Shade of Magic. Schwab imagines a world where four versions of London are overlaid onto one another, in different realities. Only the protagonist, a magician called Kell, can travel between the four. This book is unexpectedly well done. The author is not afraid of beating up her characters; particularly Kell. It was refreshing to get a heroine out of Delilah who isn’t just a love interest. In my opinion, this should happen more often in both film and written fiction. Delilah holds her own throughout; and is quite frequently the more interesting of the two protagonists. And there are deaths in the book. Schwab is unafraid to kill people off. I had a few quibbles about her tendency jumping between narrative points of view. The Antagonists (the King and Queen of White London) are sufficiently evil to satisfy even the most evil of the evil-seeking folks. In fact, they may have been a bit too flat. If they had been given a bit more motivation than “I love power,” it may have Strengthened the story. Schwab has a beautiful narrative voice. In fact within 10 pages of starting the novel, I thought “It’s a book I’d like to say I’d written.” Apart from one or two quibbles about anachronisms (Gray London OUR 1816 London) and a truly evil Lord of the Rings-style ring of power artifact, I was very happy with the overall effect. I look forward to reading something else by her in the future. 4 Stars of 5.


Why Read a Bad Story?

I’m listening to an audio book I don’t like. I’ve listened for about 5 hours, but I’m not giving up. It bothers me that I can’t figure out why I don’t like it.  A writer I admire said, “Find the books that gives you feels, and then figure out why it is giving you feels. Then write books with scenes like that.”I just finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It was a fantastic book. And before that, I enjoyed the Raven King series by Maggie Stiefvater. I felt that, as a writer, I took away a lot from both titles. So now I’m reading a book that isn’t dreadful, so much as completely unremarkable. And that, to me, is probably a worse crime at this stage in my writing career.

So the opposite holds true. Find the books with “feels”? Find the ones that make your eyebrows arch. The ones that make you exclaim “No no no!” because every time I read a passage, it’s like the shaggy dialog gave my eyeballs carpet burn. Or when I see a scene is so clogged with crap, I want to call a septic tank guy.

I understand that it’s not because I’m necessarily a better writer than this author. At least I don’t think so. I don’t know how well I can sustain a scene, because I’ve never written more than 20 pages of the same thing, before I grow tired of what I am writing, and feel the urge to move on. It’s because, for me, at least, the cardinal sin of a writer is this: don’t write stuff that pulls the reader out of the world you’re trying to create.

But think of it this way. You want to immerse yourself in a story you can’t put down. Every time you binge-watch a series on Netflix, you are basically doing the same thing: you’re jumping into into a world. And you watch that second episode, that third episode, and the fourth, even though it’s after midnight, and the fifth (my lord, I have to be up at 6AM): every episode is all about putting your heart into the characters, or the plot; simply said, you’re in the “world” of that story.

That’s all easy to admit, but hard to define. What interests me to day is the things that rip your eyes away from a story? What makes a bad story bad? What makes you want to check your watch or think, halfway through a story, “I should really call my car insurance broker. It’s been awhile since we’ve had a really good chat”?

For this book1 the first thing I noticed were its cliche phrases. I am annoyed by characters who constantly “peer owlishly” or who “mutter peevishly.” People who “sit ramrod straight” or have a “furious scowl”.

There is a wonderful quote from the movie Dead Poet’s Society:

Avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys–to woo women–and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.

The character was teaching boys  in a 1950s preparatory academy, so the slight sexism can be forgiven, maybe? The point I’ve always taken away from this scene was this: language is powerful. And lazy language is the opposite. Choosing exactly the right word (if I can conjure it): that is one luxury I will always have as a writer. So why waste it with “sparkling eyes” and people who “flounce in?”

Another thing that bothers me about this book: characters are dressed like paper dolls. The goth, the jock, the nerd, the heroine, the cheerleader. You don’t know a person by how they dress, even though you can describe a pleated cotton miniskirt, or pom poms, or whatever. These characters move around mechanically, reacting exactly the same to whatever situation, whether they’re being attacked by monsters, or confronted by teachers, or greeting one another. They are, in a word, dull.

A few years ago, I played The Sims. Maybe you remember the game. The player would create a character, and then you would build them a house. The Sim would announce its basic needs, for example, its urge to pee, and as the creator, you would need to supply them with a bathroom. They could tell you about being hungry, but they wouldn’t cook or eat, without you. The sims were like little cornhusk dolls, and you created the story around them. They had form and substance, but you provided their soul. You could make them flirt with neighbors, or buy a pet, or remodel a house. You could choose their job. Each choice made your character who they were.

Without soul, we are ugly little cornhusks. And so, like them, are any flat characters writers create. It isn’t enough for a character to have a goal. You need a reason behind that goal, or else the character’s life isn’t really worth reading about.

With that thought, a final quote from the Dead Poets Society:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. So medicine, law, business, engineering… these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for.

I can only hope that the characters I write are never monotonous. I hope I can always learn when I read a story, even if it’s just a counterexample from a badly-written book.

1I’ll refrain from mentioning the author or the title of the book I’m not enjoying, because I don’t want anybody to rush out and buy it on my account.