Friday, March 12, 2010

[Lisa’s Take] Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)

I first picked up this book about 5 years ago. I read the first 20 pages or so, decided it wasn’t for me, and put it down. This was before I started giving all books at least 100 pages to woo me. Past-Lisa was dumb. I’m GLAD Past-Lisa was deprived of this book – she didn’t deserve to read it. Present-Lisa is much cleverer, and realized after about 40 pages what a gem Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is.

This book is classed solidly in the historical/Victorian fantasy genre. Think of a similar setting to Naomi Novik’s “His Majesty’s Dragon” or Galen Beckett’s "The Magicians & Mrs. Quent", and you’ll have a good idea of what the world is like. The story starts of slowly, and moves at a sedate pace throughout many parts of the narrative, but Clarke’s language and subtle character building are engaging enough to get you through the slow parts. Her use of footnotes is especially interesting; while she does occasionally use them for comic relief, she more often uses them for careful world-building, fairytale tangents, foreshadowing, or clarification of past events. An interesting side-effect of the footnotes is that they makes you a very careful reader – you better damn well be paying attention if you want to get the full story!

I’ll be frank – I’ve had a very hard time writing “good” reviews lately. It’s simple for me to snidely pick at a book’s flaws when I don’t like it, or even when I do like it but the problems are glaring enough to be easy pickins’. But this year when a book has been truly good – solid throughout, plot-hole-free, unencumbered by trite characters or over-done fantasy tropes – I’ve had trouble coming up with a review that does that goodness justice. It seems like I’ve praised “good books” every way they can be praised, so when a truly exceptional gem appears I have no new descriptors to do it justice with.

I suppose I’ll have to fall once again to the hackneyed words of praise that I use so often. Strange & Norrell is an excellent book, and absolutely worth the patience required to get through the first 50 pages. It’s unique, intriguing, subtle, and vibrant. I count myself lucky – those who those who read this book when it came out have been waiting 5 years for more stories by Ms. Clarke; I’ve only been waiting a few months, but I’m already beside myself with anticipation.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

[Lisa’s Take] The Stepsister Scheme (Jim C. Hines)

The Stepsister Scheme is book number 12 for me this year, and has the dubious honor of being the first book I’m putting down without finishing. A couple of months back I picked up the second book in this series (The Mermaid’s Madness) without realizing it was a sequel. The description was intriguing; a continuation/retelling of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella, only with all the princesses being ass-kicking bad-asses. I started on The Mermaid’s Madness, quickly realized it was Book 2, and stopped to backtrack and pick up book 1. Don’t get me started ranting about how much it pisses me off when publishers don’t list on the cover or spine that a book is part of a series.

The only reason I gave The Stepsister Scheme 150 pages of my time is because I was stuck on a plane and had nothing else to read. The characters are stereotypical and hackneyed, the plot is incredibly pedestrian, and the jokes and attempts at humor made me roll my eyes every time. The book reads like something aimed at 13-year-old girls, except that from time to time it throws in some adult themes and dirty language. I dog-eared 10 pages out of the first 100 that had contradictions or repetitive language. I really have absolutely nothing positive to say. Oh – and the cover was embarrassing to be witnessed holding, just to add insult to injury.

I won’t wax poetic on this one – just skip it. If you’re looking for books that take a fairy tale or fantasy basis then twist it and add hilarity, pick up Company of Ogres or Too Many Curses by A. Lee Martinez.