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on 7 January 2012
I finished reading this exquisite novel last night - and am exceedingly sad as a consequence. This book is one of a very rare breed; the kind of book you want to continue reading forever. The writing is perfectly polished whilst being extremely accessible. Reading it feels likes drinking cocoa and wearing comfy slippers - the prose flows through your ears and slips into your mind with the ease of a conversation with an old friend.. There is no effort required on the reader's part, which is an incredible feat considering the actual subject matter is of such a complex and considered nature.
I have read some of the one and two-star reviews on Amazon and am amazed to see people complain of a "lack of plot". If you want a simple book with a straightforward beginning, middle and end, perhaps you would do well to steer clear of this one. This novel is like a fine vintage win, full of delicate notes and sublte undertones - it does not have the immediate hit of a shot of vodka.
It is a book of tremendous wit and humour which is subtly nuanced not forced into your face. I found myself laughing aloud several times at the satirical observations on history and politics.
The characters possess real depth and their natures evolve realistically throughout the novel - by "realistically" I mean that they alter gradually and slightly. This is not a heavy-handed work of fiction where the bad guy renounces his sins at the end and becomes good.
I feel desperately sorry for anyone who read this book and didn't feel its full power. This is a book to luxuriate in and is the best novel I have read in many years - one for the real literature lovers who appreciate style AND substance equally.
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on 16 April 2010
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell doesn't begin with much of bang, but its is worth sticking with for it one of the best books I've ever read. It begins with the character of Mr Norrell, who is a boring and tiresome character, and hence the book's initial volume struggles to excite. Indeed, I almost gave up on it (first volume is 250 pages!)but am so glad that I didn't. The introduction of Jonathon Strange - Norrell's dynamic, amiable protege - gives the narrative a whole new dimension, with the plot cranking up in speed and before you know it you can't put this book down. The world the author creates becomes ever more fascinating, as Strange, unlike Norrell, seeks to explore his world further and what a wonderful world it is. The author mixes the factual world of 1800s Britain with sprinklings of fantasy as Strange and Norrell study magic as though it were a profession like any other, such as law or medicine or politics. Strange enters the war between Washington and Napoleon, the social scene of upper class London and the unexplored world of fairy, pulling Norrell unwittingly along with him and putting their lives, and that of Strange's wife, in jeopardy.

So with all that said, its a challenge to identify what type of book this is. It has the feel of a Victorian novel, yet also it is is also part of the fairy tale genre that the likes of Neil Gaiman have done so well with. It is about the conflict between two good men who come from two different extremes, and how they both deal with the success their profession brings to them. It's also about the telling of a classic fairy tale - not the modern fairy tales where everyone lives happily ever after, but the original ones where sometimes Red Riding Hood gets eaten up and Hansel and Gretel find themselves in hot water.

If you can keep an open mind and persevere through the opening volume, then there's a good chance you will love this book. However, if the idea of mixing fairies and magicians in with the realism of 1800s Britain doesn't sit well with you, or if you would struggle to find the patience to wait 250 pages for the book to get going, them maybe this isn't for you. But I've got to say that having started of hating the book, at the end I found myself loathing the idea of putting it down. It has a certain charm that gradually takes hold and then refuses to let go. The author has created an endearing, original and classic novel that is worth a look, and is easily in my top three books of all time.
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on 29 November 2006
An amazing book. How on earth the author managed to maintain so strongly the Dickensian/Jane Austenian(!) feel of the narrative I have no idea. It took me all of 3 months to read it - there was no possibility of "skipping" a passage because the whole book was so very readable and, may I say, even gripping in places - it would have been a pity to have missed any little bit of it! The principal characters are so real, despite many of them being obviously fictional and drawn from the realms of fantasy (difficult to understand, if you like), so that the reader is drawn into a web of fantasy woven into a story with some of the factual characters of history (Lord Byron, the Duke of Wellington, etc) as well as those which dwell only in the author's imagination. The footnotes are a joy - taking the story off at a tangent, but without losing the plot and returning it safely to the matter in hand. Not everyone's cup of tea, I have no doubt, but I and many of my friends thought it wonderful! A book which I will not send off to a charity shop, but which will live on my bookshelf for many years to come, to be re-read again and again, such is its charm and charisma. It will be interesting to see what the author comes up with next! Can't wait!
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I knew nothing of the background furore to this book: its rapturous reviews, its contention for the Booker prize, nor the heat of animosity it has aroused in a smaller but significant minority. It was given to me this year as a birthday present. It struck me quickly that it is likely to divide sharply its readers. In structure it is, or closely resembles, a Victorian novel, as it does in length. It is certainly not in the manner of Jane Austen, rather more akin to the likes of “Bleak House” in its many-threaded plot and its cast of fascinatingly diverse and eccentric characters.

The problems for many readers will be ones of style and the sheer challenge of close reading of some 1,000 pages. It does require some effort and it may seem tempting to skip the footnotes, but they offer a kind of sub-text that affords an additional layer of delight. Style and subject matter are hard to separate as Susanna Clarke’s imaginative invention is carried in a mode of writing that suits exactly its content. Subtlety, wit and whimsy are blended together to create a most satisfying whole. In the early stages I had real doubts as to whether there would be enough substance and variety to sustain a novel of this length. A pattern slowly emerged. Just as I was beginning to feel that perhaps things were going a little flat, a gem of description, a shaft of humour, a wonderful verbal exchange picked up the tempo and soon I was utterly held.

That the fantasy and the nature of the humour may not reach out to all seems fair enough. Some of the other criticisms seem to me strange and even unfair. The accusation of snobbery, if predictable, I find tiresome. Inverted snobbery must compete with flagellation as the English disease, and has much to answer for, not least the mediocrity of our state secondary education. But that is another subject not to be pursued here.

I would agree that the ending falls short of expectations. It lacks the conviction and vitality of the best of the novel. Nonetheless, I found this novel an entrancing read, absorbing and richly funny. It doesn’t strike me as being in quite the class of Donna Tartt’s work, but still thoroughly worth the effort. Original and rewarding.
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on 14 November 2011
I am amazed to read some of the customer reviews for this literary masterpiece!

Apparently for some readers it needs editing, it is dull, there are too many words ( whatever that means) and no-one seems certain how Kindle handles the footnotes!

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell doesn't need any alterations. It is an extraordinary achievement - a magical blending of literary tradition, somewhat in the style of Trollope - and the alternative history genre.

OK, it is a big book. I suppose the publishers could have divided into separate volumes, but really, why bother.

As for needing editing - I cannot find anything superfluous in the text. I am at a loss to understand this criticism. For anyone who's familiar with nineteenth century literature such a demand will, rightly, seem risible.

Anyway, just one of the many merits of Clarke's masterpiece is the contemporary critique of inequality that emerges throughout the narrative. This is done in a way that feels completely at ease within a fairly historicized literary form.

The plot weaves all over the place but never actually drifts off course. And there are heaps of footnotes that create a fascinating folk history. Basically this book is incredibly exciting, very funny, and not lacking in moral strength.

No doubt there was a crazy bidding war for the film rights. I imagine whoever found themselves tasked with turning this epic into a movie will be in total meltdown!

An essential read - highly recommended.
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on 1 November 2013
Susanna Clarke's `Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' is set in an alternate version of 19th Century England rife where magic is very much present. From the theoretical magicians that gather across the country to the hundred of people across the northern counties still waiting for their Raven King to come back and claim his throne, magic has an undeniable impact on everyone in the kingdom, rich or poor.

But while magical societies discuss the great feats of the past, in Yorkshire one man is determined to bring back practical magic. Surrounded by his precious books, the reclusive Mr Norrell heads to London to lend his help to the war effort and defeat Napoleon. Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange stumbles across magic as a profession almost by accident. Inventive, passionate and eccentric, his style and approach to the study and practice of magic is entirely different from Norrell's - leading to an inevitable clash of opinions.

England is split into `Strangites' and `Norrellites'. A war of words is played out through the magical journals. Increasingly great and ambitious magic is played out on the battlefields of Europe, the savage English coastline and the drawing rooms of the English aristocracy. People are raised from the dead, rain takes on solid forms, darkness falls for days on end and cities, roads and forests are moved to a magician's whim. But beyond all of this lurks shadowy figure of the Raven King and the malevolent world of faerie looking to reek havoc on those that dare to lay a claim on English magic - bringing dark and unforeseen consequences.

It is undoubtedly an amazing feat of world building. There's a whole bibliography of fictional titles mentioned throughout the book, each with a fictional author and subject matter, as well as a complete magical history stretching back for almost 1000 years. This history is recounted along with numerous stories, legends and folklore relevant in long explanatory footnotes that make the book seem almost like an academic work rather than a novel. This does help to give a great sense of context, but at some points it did get a little frustrating, especially when I was nearing the end of the novel and more interested in the actual characters than an exhaustive story that seems in no way connected to the story. At these points, it was probably a good job that I was listening to this as an audiobook - as I would have been sorely tempted to skip thorough these whole sections.

One up-side of the impressive length, however, is that each and every single character is completely and utterly brought to life. Everyone is given his or her own backstory and individual characteristics, again helping to totally immerse the reader in Clarke's world. The book is packed with black humour and subtle social commentary that continues to drive the story along even through the more intense sections dedicated to historical magical debates and incidents. Another thing I loved was the ending, which worked really well and made me smile. I actually enjoyed it so much that I haven't been able to get really interested in another book since - always the sign of a good read!
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on 29 August 2010
Jonathen Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. At page 200 I am still struggling to get into this! It is my Book Group book for summer 2010, and I am not alone in it not catching on. Many of the others are on the point of rebellion!

Some authors write very well but are too self indulgent. Susannah has long footnotes which give background. Probably it helps to read these, and as a historian I use them in non fiction, but I don't want to work so hard with my fiction.

I am continuing to read only because a good friend says it took time for her to get into it, and later she loved it. I have to confess I did not like Wolfhall either. Perhaps that will help you work out whether to read it or not. Wolfhall is like a richly jewelled Elizabethan gown, but lacks a story line to hold your interest. This book does a similar thing. Undoubtedly it paints a very believable picture of the period, and magic is a risky topic for adults, so the author is brave and competent, but I feel she is teasing, and immersing herself in her own world without caring whether we follow or not.
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on 29 October 2009
This is an excellent book. But when I am saying this, I have already finished reading it. In fact, I couldn't understand why the book received so high ratings until I reached the third part (the book is split into three parts, one for Mr Norrel, one for Jonathan Strange and one supposedly for the Raven King). There was nothing to keep me reading the book in the first and second parts. The only highlights of the first part were some ridiculously extensive footnotes, and the good concept of the book. The second part was spiced with British humor; it reminded me of a TV-series with every chapter being an episode.

The third part, however, was the part that made the book worth reading. And it certainly made up for the two other parts, in good measure. By then you have read enough of the two magicians to care about them and by then the book becomes exciting. I could have given it 5 stars just for the satisfaction of reading the last part, and only made it a 4 because I am writing about the negative sides. Because despite its flaws, I highly recommend this book.
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on 8 October 2004
This is truly a fantastic book. I can't praise it highly enough. The plot, characters, pacing and, above all, the back story, make this a brilliant novel and a fantastic début. And, being a Yorkshire lass myself, it was certainly gratifying to find a novel that doesn't rampantly stereotype all Northerners.
The story begins in 1806, when two theoretical magicians with the wonderfully Dickensian names of Segundus and Honeyfoot encounter the reclusive scholar, Mr Norrell. Their quest is to find out why magic, which was once so common in England, particularly in the North under the 300 year reign of the Raven King John Uskglass, is now a distant history to be studied by gentlemen like themselves. But they discover that, for all his bookish and condescending ways, Mr Norrell is in fact a practical magician, which he proves by bringing all the statues in York Minster/Cathedral to life. Having brought his powers to the attention of the public, he immediately sets of to London, where he plans to help in the war effort against Napoleon, and in the process resurrect English magic.
At first he is not taken seriously, and it soon becomes clear Norrell will go to any lengths to become the only magician in England. But when he encounters Jonathan Strange, another magician, he seems to wake up to new possibilities. He takes Strange on as a pupil. But the two men are too different for the partnership to last. Norrell is secretive and unfriendly, hoarding magical knowledge and desperately preserving his own prestige. Strange is charming and gregarious, and becomes a hero in the wars. What starts off as mild rivalry soon escalates into a feud, with far reaching consequences.
If you've see the size of this book, you'll understand it's a hard thing to summarize. At almost 800 pages it's not a coffee table book, it's a coffee table. But don't be put off. It's fast moving, brilliantly written, wryly amusing and full of nods to the ghosts of literature past. It's also quite beautiful, and I'm not just talking about the pretty cover. It's part Lord of the Rings, part Harry Potter, part The Crimson Petal And The White and part Jane Austen. I raced through it in 3 days, and am already halfway through my second reading. Apparently there's a sequel in the pipeline, and at the minute I'd gladly put back Harry Potter 6 by years to have that instead.
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on 9 May 2009
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a novel about the present's relationship to the past. Set during the Napoleonic Wars of the early Nineteenth Century, the book is the tale of two men - the eponymous characters - and how, in an alternate reality, they bring real magic back from the Renaissance period and attempt to utilise it ostensibly to improve their world.

Norrell, a fussy little man, has delusions of grandeur and sets his sights on using his magic to help England win the war. With this in mind he sets off for London along with his batman the faintly creepy John Childermass. Jonathan Strange, hearing of Norrell, is drawn to London to meet him, and the pair, despite almost immediately coming into conflict, eventually become master (Norrell) and pupil (Strange).

The novel is written in three parts, the first two sections focus on Strange and Norrell in turn, while the third revolves around the so-called `Raven King', a powerful magician from the old times. Whilst magic and the supernatural world are dominant themes, the book is also a study of `Englishness'. Susanna Clarke has produced a rich and diverse novel, so rich that it is often a little indigestible. However, this is not about producing a taut and lean thriller. But using the power of the pen to explore the varying aspects that make up a vibrant and ambivalent culture. Clarke uses copious footnotes which are like a story in themselves; not since Tolkein have I read a story that includes a world within a world that is so fascinating and so ripe for exploring further.
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