Book Review: ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ by Suzanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


In the dark, cold winters of the dawn of the nineteenth century, a mysterious visitor arrives at the venerable ‘Society of Magicians’, expressing a desire to ‘restore magic to England’.

The Society of Magicians – argumentative but mostly harmless elderly gentlemen who would no more practice any magic than they would ‘expect astronomers to re-arrange the Cosmos’ – are of course for the most part outraged at the very notion.

And so we meet Mr Norrell, his formidable book-hoarding habit, and his exploitation as a sort of travelling show by the dreadful Drawlight, who’s only in it for the money.

We do not meet the first titular character until ‘Volume 2’, with a portrayal of events in his family background reminiscent of Gormenghast. This episode appealed to me the most in the entire book, because it was among the few in which any character evoked any sympathy, or displayed anything but superficial motivation.

We constantly hear of the desire to ‘restore Magic to England’ – usually as a simple, bald statement – but nothing in any of the characters involved ever seems to bring out any deep reason for wanting to do so. Some of their actions, including one central to the plot in which Norrell suddenly decides, after all his disparaging comments about him and about the futility of the exercise, to take Strange on as a pupil, appear arbitrary and contrived.

I have to admit that with the exception of Lady Pole and slave/King Stephen, I found it difficult to care enough about any of the characters to read on through a thousand pages and find out what became of them. I couldn’t even get excited about ‘restoring magic to England’ in the end because nobody seemed to have any deep reason for wanting to do so, nor much of a personal stake in the outcome.

Indeed, too many of the characters seemed purely to be playing tricks on each other for no deeper reason than ‘because they could.’ Partly for that reason, the plot read more like a series of episodes than a rounded ‘story’. Even the end was inconclusive.

If you love the idea of getting lost in a book with prose as evocative as Dickens’, with landscape and buildings almost more real than the characters who move through them, and you don’t mind that the tale meanders along where it might ‘chuse’ to do, than Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is for you. If on the other hand you want characters who are more than just quirky, and you’re the sort who likes to follow people whose fate you care about, then there are better books to spend your time on.






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Book Review: ‘The Ghost Map’ by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


How grim was life in London, with the Industrial Revolution (and for that matter the British Empire) in full swing? Behind the bright, prosperous façade of Regent Street, who were the mudlarks, toshers and the original Dustmen, and how did they live? What kind of landscape did they move through: its sights, its sounds; its smells? The opening scenes of Steven Johnson’s ‘The Ghost Map’ plunge us right in. They could be straight from Dickens. We even get to meet Karl Marx – or at least, his filthy, squalid rented room.

And what happened when, in the torrid late summer of 1854, cholera struck?

You could almost paraphrase this story as ‘A Vicar, a Yorkshireman, and a bureaucrat walk into a pub’ – because had the rapid growth of London never happened – the very growth that put urban lives in peril – then Henry Whitehead, John Snow, and William Farr would never have met, and the problem of how to stop Cholera in its tracks not have been solved. Or at least, not before tens of thousands in another generation had suffered.

We follow these characters both in their daily rounds of work and in their pursuit of answers – and then irrefutable proof – of Cholera’s mechanism, as they go door-to-door for detailed information in the stricken and incongruously named Golden Square and its surrounding sewage-ridden, impoverished streets.

We find out why the detailed work and irrefutable proof was needed, as we meet the characters of the medical establishment: from a small local committee, through the newly-formed public health apparatus, all the way up to ‘The Lancet’. Why did they doubt this straightforward and obvious explanation which we, nowadays, take for granted: that Cholera is water-borne? What was the fault at the medical establishment’s heart, and how was it eventually overcome? Steven Johnson takes us effortlessly from microscopic, to urban, and worldwide, scale.

Within walking distance of where I live, near his birthplace in North Street, York, is a monument to John Snow – a replica water-pump, complete with removed handle. I picked up ‘The Ghost Map’ through wanting to know the story behind it. It is beautifully and thoroughly told, complete with references and index.

My only tiny gripe would be that it was never ‘translated from the American’ – references to ‘sidewalks’, ‘diapers’ (yes they play a crucial role!) and ‘stories’ (as in, floors of buildings), when talking about Victorian London, can jar a little.

I’d recommend ‘The Ghost Map’ to anyone who enjoys a look into history, a classic detective story and, although it was written in 2006 (making some of its descriptions of contemporary epidemiology and mapping a little dated), a thought-provoking and prescient take on where we are now.

Oh – and the pub? It’s still there. It’s now called ‘The John Snow’.




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Book Review: ‘Follow Him’ by Craig Stewart

Follow Him by Craig Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A haunting hallucination, a disturbing power relationship, and the sense of impending doom pull the reader into the very first page of Follow Him.

Much of Part 1 is too ‘male gaze’ for my tastes, including the sex scene and the supposition that the woman involved – but not the man – ends up ‘sacrificed’. Too obvious, guys – in fact the trope is nicely twisted as she returns later as a vital part of the narrative, and he ends up paying a price too.

The characters begin to show their true depths as the plot progresses. Their backstories, their emotional ‘pressure points’ so ably abused by the cult, and how they came to join it, ring realistic to a worrying degree.

The second part reads like a taut, psychological thriller. Nina’s inner dialogue initially comes across as a little too sentimental and verbose, and her Catholicism could be a little more three-dimensional, but she toughens-up, and becomes more self-consistent, as her journey to rescue her man plunges her deeper into the darkness that is the Shared Heart.

Will he love her again? Will she get over-run by the part of her that wants to punish him? Will he stop blaming her for the blood-stained incident in their past that wasn’t her fault (in fact, if they are being held up as an embodiment of Love, should he have been blaming her – before he joined the cult – at all? This rather jarred – again, male viewpoint.) Will the nosy neighbour accidentally betray her as she hides the man she loves in the only place that offers space enough for her to begin the process of reconstructing his mind? Will the cult find them and reclaim him? And if they do, what might they do to her?

And finally: where do the collective nightmares of this Crowley-like cult come from? Will they, in fact, be revealed not to be nightmares at all..?

Like a Horror version of Ken Follet’s ‘The Hammer of Eden’, but one in which the cult is darker and the Demons are real, this tale is literally not for the faint-hearted!




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The old days, when the news was full of Brexit

Five Escape Brexit Island (Enid Blyton for Grown Ups)Five Escape Brexit Island by Bruno Vincent

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Want a spiffing adventure in which 5 plucky Brits come up against a dastardly villain? Complete with phrases like “They moved some the rubble aside as quietly as they could, and discovered…” or “‘Gosh. This is exciting,’ said Anne”?
Will they, their plight apparently hopeless, finally get the better of Evil Cousin Rupert? Or will they be stranded in the Brexit Camp forever..?
Classic old-school adventure with proper 1960s stodgy prose but a wicked topical twist.

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Book Review – ‘The Guilt of Innocents’

The Guilt of Innocents (Owen Archer, #9)The Guilt of Innocents by Candace Robb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love to read these adventures set in York as it was back in the day – and as large chunks of it stil are! This one full of lively characters, many by now a little older and wiser than in the first one I read.

What particularly appeals to me are the Author’s Notes after the tale – the searches in our city’s archives where she got the information and inspiration; the way a tale comes together in an author’s mind.

Why not 5 stars this time? Only that I found some of the prose a little more pedestrian than in the 1st tale. Sentences like “Owen was concerned about…” when it could have been put in a more interesting way.

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Very short book review – ‘Sapiens’, by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A broad sweep through the prehistory and history of humankind with a fascinating thesis about ‘what makes us different’ – even from the other human species like the Neanderthals (I shan’t spoil it for you). Never a dull moment among our ancestors’ twists and turns.

Why did I not give 5 stars? Only because some of the final chapters’ speculation about the future seemed, to me, a little dated and let the rest of the ‘story’ down. But perhaps that’s just me.

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