Archive for Ann Radcliffe

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2016 by xi'an

I do not remember precisely for which reason I bought this book but it is most likely because the book popped up in a list of suggested books on a Amazon page. And I certainly feel grateful for the suggestion as this is one of the best books I read in the past years. And not just the best fantasy or the best Gothic book, clearly.

Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was published in 2004 and it soon got high-ranked in most best-seller lists, winning the same year both the Hugo and the Locus prizes. But, once again, while it caters to my tastes in fantasy literature, I find the book spans much more, recreating an alternative 19th Century literature where fairies and magic plays a role in the Napoleonic Wars, including Waterloo. The tone and style are reminders of Dickens, the Brontës, and Austen, but also Gothic 19th Century masters, like Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Even the grammar is modified into archaic or pseudo-archaic versions. But more importantly and enticingly the beautiful style reproduces some of the light irony of Dickens about the author and the characters themselves. Utterly enjoyable!

The story itself is about a new era of English magic launched by the two characters on the cover, after centuries of musty study of magic without the power or the will of practising any form of magic. (The book enjoys close to 200 footnotes documenting the history of magic in the past centuries, in a pastiche of scholarly works of older days.) While those two characters can manage incredible feats, they seem to have a rather empirical knowledge of the nature of magic and of what they can do about the ancient magicians of the fairy kingdoms that border Northern England. There is no indication in the book that magical abilities are found in other nations, which is most advantageous when fighting the French! A central axis of the plot is the opposition between Norrell and Strange, the former hoping to take complete control of English magic (and buying any book related to the topic to secure them in a private library), the later freely dispensing his art and taking students in. They also clash about the position to take about the fairy or Raven King, John Uskglass, from excluding him from the modern era to acknowledging his essential role in the existence of English magic. They separate and start fighting one another through books and newspaper articles, Strange leaving for Venezia after loosing his wife. Eventually, they have to reunite to fight the Raven King together and save Strange’s wife, even though the final outcome is somewhat and pleasantly unexpected. (Mind this is a crude summary for a novel of more than 1,000 pages!)

While it seems the author is preparing a sequel, the book stands quite well by itself and I feel another book is somewhat unnecessary: Dickens did not write a sequel to David Copperfield or another perspective on (the Gothic) Great Expectations. But in any case Susanna Clarke wrote there a masterpiece a feat that I hope she can repeat in the future with an altogether book. (And while I liked very much the Quincunx for similar reasons, I deem Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to be far far superior in its recreation of Victorian Gothic!)

hospital reads

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2013 by xi'an

While stuck under a heating lamp for about two weeks, I read a series of books, for various reasons. Here are a few comments on this haphazard collection.

I bought the Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe in 2001 in Roma and never managed to move into the novel. This time I did finish the book, thanks to those extreme conditions. I remember picking the book for it being a reference in gothic novels (after enjoying much a book like Uncle Silas). However, I find the book caricaturesque to the extreme and without much to commend it, neither for its style nor for its plot. For one thing, it took me quite a while to realise the time of the nnovel was in the 1500’s, so replete is the book with anachronisms. If you excuse me the spoiler, everything supernatural is eventually explained by natural reasons, often ludicrous. Important family connections are omitted till the final pages to allow for suspense to build, rescues of the main heroin come in rather unbelievable circumstances, &tc. This is an interesting entry into the excesses of the genre, nothing more. (The attached cover of my Penguin edition reminds much more of the Marseille calanques than of the scenes depicted by Radcliffe.)

A second book that was brought to me by a friend here is a Lee Child’s novel called Worth dying for, that I read within a few hours. The book is extremely efficient and gripping even though the plot is a bit predictable (with some links to Reamde!), the characters often roughly defined and the overall ethics of cold blooded elimination (versus delivery to justice/police) of all the bad guys difficult to agree with. There are also weaknesses in the plot, e.g. when the superhero lets himself be captured by the dumb college footballers… It made me pass a quick afternoon though, away from my sickbed. I might even read another one in the Jack Reacher series next time I am hospitalised!

Another chance read is Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper: a doctor at the hospital noticed I was reading books in English and brought me this one the very next day. Again a book I read within the day. Overall, the book is a sequel to the Liveship Traders trilogy and, as such, it is recycling the same universe, rules and issues. An interesting extension but with clear weaknesses. For one thing, the #2 heroin, Alise, is not very credible in this first volume (and very dumb for missing the homosexual relation between her husband and his secretary). The #1 heroin, Thymara, is not much more complex. Now, I may read both next volumes if the doctor brings them to me before I leave the hospital in a few thousand days (!), but this certainly stands below Hobb’s masterpiece of The Farseer Trilogy.

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