life after jane…


Author: Rachel Hartman
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Date: July 10, 2012
Pages: 467
Genre: YA- Fantasy
Source: Book Fairy


From Goodreads: Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

I’ve been stewing over writing this for days. I honestly didn’t know where to begin because it can be hard to write what’s in your heart when what you feel is just a big ball of love and light with no words. There have been many enjoyable books in my reading life, but very few that stay with me past the initial honeymoon phase after reading them. But this book, this little book…well it’s one of those books that move in. A small earthquake happened in my house, which is odd considering I don’t live some place where those things happen. Upon closer investigation, the rumbling was discovered not to be an earthquake but was instead coming from the locked book cabinet that is the top half of my antique secretary desk. It was the Favorites cabinet, and it was clearly shaking. The books were afraid. They felt it. They knew. They knew that one of them would most likely be leaving the over-full case because upon closing the book after the final word, we both knew that Seraphina had claimed a spot.

This book has dragons in it. Who amongst you can deny that when you hear tale of a story about dragons, your inner child’s little face doesn’t still light up with that dreamy glow of wonder? It’s about dragons and there’s a lot of magic in that alone. I could spend hours chattering on about the many, fantastic, little idiosyncrasies that add up to make the marvelous whole that is Hartman’s idea of a dragon. I forever picture them, studying mankind with their own, fake humanoid heads cocked slightly to the side in awe and bewilderment at how we are ruled by our emotions when to them the deciding factor should only ever boil down to what is logical.

      “Do your people pass emotions through your blood, mother to child, the way we dragons pass memories? Do you inherit your fears? I do not comprehend how this persists in the population- or why you will not crush it,” said Eskar.
      We prefer not to crush our own. Call it one of our irrationalities,” said Prince Lucian, smiling grimly. “Maybe we can’t reason our way out of our feelings the way you can; maybe it takes several generations to calm our fears. Then again, I’m not the one judging an entire species by the actions of a few.”

Seraphina was a marvel of a main character. Flawed from start to finish and hampered by society’s idea that she shouldn’t even exist, she doesn’t just overcome nearly impossible obstacles (like a trumped up female superhero), she does the bravest thing anyone with nearly insurmountable odds against them can do and that is to get on with her everyday life. Tied to both the dragon and human worlds, in ways she dare not speak aloud, Seraphina finds herself in a position to exert considerable influence upon some of the celebration’s key players. Her love of music, inherited from a mother she never knew, has led her to the royal court where, as music mistress, she keeps close company with the royal family. On the other hand, she coexists easily with the city’s dragon population, thanks in part to a loved one who saw to the more secretive aspects of her education. But even with the key role she ends up playing, Seraphina’s actions were never once focused on bettering her situation or easing her struggles. She was entirely selfless…save for that one kiss.

A beautiful fantasy, set in a rich world, teeming with extraordinary creatures, and a heartrending and heartwarming tale of self-acceptance.

“The world inside myself is vaster and richer than this paltry plane, peopled with mere galaxies and gods.”

I want that tattooed on my body.

A bit of a spoiler- highlight to spoil: Reading Seraphina’s thoughts and feelings on her well guarded secrets and struggles, I couldn’t help but to relate it to one I carry, and perhaps to one any of us carry. Maybe we’re not flawed. Maybe we’re not imperfect….maybe we’re just dragons. And I can live with that.

_

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie @ Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.

The Wee Free Men

Author: Terry Pratchett
Publisher: HarperCollins
Date: April 29, 2003
Pages: 263
Genre: Fantasy
Source: The locked cabinet- for only the most special books.

They say that the Chalk is too soft to grow a witch. Witches flourish best on land made of the tougher elements and where a good hard earth has been known to produce a good hard witch, no one has ever heard tale of one being born of Chalk. The Chalk is made of millions of seashells, of the bones of tiny creatures that lived when the land was under the waves. It is softer than clay, covered with a fine green down of grass and has been the home of the shepherding family, The Achings, for as far back as anyone would care to remember.

An Aching has always watched over the hills, guarded the sheep and in their own quite mundane way, kept safe their world, from any other wandering worlds that might threaten to collide with it. It’s a simple matter of doing what needs to be done, and being the one willing to do it. It may be nothing more than finding a lost sheep, curing an ailment, showing someone a different way to do things- whatever it takes, to finish the job.


“It doesn’t stop being magick just because you know how it works.”

Tiffany wouldn’t call herself a witch. Well, she’d like to, if such a thing were allowed, but the folk of The Chalk do not take kindly to witches. Oh they like the results and rewards of one well enough, but they, like most ignorant people, don’t like the idea that there’s someone out there with more know-how than themselves. Tiffany is plagued with uncommonly level-headed sensibility and reason, and she often finds herself thoroughly overcome with logic. And when she sees a strange green creature lurking in her river and threatening to eat her little brother, it’s that very same clear-headedness that makes her whack it a good one, with the frying pan.

Now Tiffany is seeing a variety of creatures that she’s not suppose to see. She’s being watched..er..stalked…no wait helped, strike that- plagued by strange little blue men, with filthy mouths and even dirtier feet.


“They’re not like brownies. If you get Nac Mac Feegle in the house, it’s usually best to move away.”

When the onslaught of magical creatures results in the kidnapping of her brother by their meddlesome Queen, Tiffany, being the one that does the things that no one wants to do (because someone has to), backed by an army of crazed blue warriors and armed with a frying pan, ventures into the world of fairy to take back what’s hers.


“Them as can do has to do for them as can’t. And someone has to speak up for them as has no voices.”


 

Here I go again, singing Pratchett’s praises and proclaiming my adoration for his stories to anyone who will listen, even if it’s only my inner dreamer, that part of me that still holds hopes that one day, magic will prevail and I’ll find myself becoming the very best witch. When Pratchett decided to venture into the the world of Middle Grade/Young Adult literature, he began with a little book called The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. It was a cute little spin on the whole Pied-Piper legend, and was written with his usual dry, good-natured, wit. And while it still took place in his imaginary Discworld, I wasn’t as enamored of it as I am his adult books. So when he pinned The Wee Free Men, a book about a young witch with Pratchett’s own very special brand of magic (good sense, paying attention and learning to read people, places and situations, doing what needs to be done and keeping in mind that there are quite possibly unseen forces at work so don’t piss them off. Oh and Headology), I was just a bit overjoyed. I want everyone to experience his world and writing- these marvelous books that subtly poke fun at our society and very quietly urge us to THINK and QUESTION and BELIEVE IN SOMETHING, anything at all! And bringing his wisdom to those untainted enough to benefit from it (youngins), well, I just love it.

This first book in the Tiffany Aching series, introduces us to a very young witch as she comes into her “powers” and realizes just how important being the-person-who-does-the-hard-things is. Pratchett likens his witches to teachers, nurses, paranormal policeman and and other professions that our more delicate sensibilities don’t like to think about needing to be done. They are, in the Discworld, those people who are reliable and trustworthy, and Tiffany’s desire to become one is quite an honorable thing.

The series follows her development and growth as a witch, deals very much in right and wrong (and right again), and holds some of the most powerful book-magic I’ve ever read. This is a good place to start if you’re ready to learn some. And it won’t even cost you an egg.

_

“Here is a story to believe,” she said. “Once we were blobs in the sea, and then fishes, and then lizards and rats, and then monkeys, and hundreds of things in between. This hand was once a fin, this hand once had claws! In my human mouth I have the pointy teeth of a wolf and the chisel teeth of a rabbit and the grinding teeth of a cow! Our blood is as salty as the sea we used to live in! When we’re frightened, the hair on our skin stands up, just like it did when we had fur. We ARE history! Everything we’ve ever been on the way to becoming us, we still are. Would you like the rest of the story?”
“I’m made up of the memories of my parents and my grandparents, all my ancestors. They’re in the way I look, in the color of my hair. And I’m made up of everyone I’ve ever met who’s changed the way I think. ”

_

It’s May 25th and it’s a very special day. Why? Well for one, today is Towel Day, the day in which any hitchhiker worth his (or her) mettle, proudly displays his preparedness with a towel! It’s from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the galaxy by Douglas Adams.

From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Douglas Adams left Earth to start out on his own tour of the galaxy on May 11, 2001. His leaving was the first time that I ever realized that my heart could break from the lose of someone I never even knew. This book was my first introduction to that dry, sarcastic English wit that I so love today. Honestly, I don’t think I would love books nearly as much as I do now if it weren’t for him. There are several books in his famous “trilogy” as well as others penned by him, and you need to read them all. So be sure to remember him today by locating and loving your trusty towel.

“Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably-Priced Love and a Hard-Boiled Egg!”

And while you’re sporting your towel, don’t forget to Wear the Lilac today. We wear the lilac in remembrance of those brave members of the Night Watch and The People’s Republic of Treacle Mine Road.

If you’re a fan of the Discworld series by Sir Terry Pratchett, you’ll understand the importance of the revolution in the books. But in the real world, for those of you not in the know, Pratchett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007, and we wear the lilac on May 25th in tribute to Terry and to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s.

I can’t say much here that I haven’t already said about Pratchett in the past. He is my favorite author. I have learned more about life (how to live it better, how to see it from different angles and how to accept the fact that I do not believe in certain things the same way the people around me do) from his books than I could ever have learned on my own. They are that important to me. He spends a great deal of time on belief, the power of words and the undeniable ability a story has to change the past, present and future of just about anything. I get a little choked up when I think that one day he will leave us for that marvelous flat world that rides through space on the back of a great turtle and deny me any more of his life lessons. In him I have a god anchor.

So do it. Grab your towel, wear the lilac and celebrate. If not for Adams and Pratchett, than for the fact that there are dedicated silly days for the things readers love most of all- books.

_

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie @ Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.

smallgodsSmall Gods

Author: Terry Pratchett
Publisher: HarperPrism
Date: 1992
Pages: 344
Genre: Fantasy
Source: A much loved, battered paperback that I keep with me always.

Dear Reader,
There are some books that are nearly impossible to talk about. The silence that follows the reading of such books isn’t because they are bad books, or even worse, books that you feel nothing for, so in turn you have nothing to say. It’s quite the opposite in fact. There are books, that once read, are no longer just paper between, er- thicker paper. They become something else entirely. These books seek out the little empty places in your soul, places you don’t even know exist because they’ve never had anything fill them that you would miss if they were to up and leave it vacant. These books slide right into those little empty soul pockets, settle and suddenly, just like that, there’s a little more you. They become…books that move in. It makes them difficult books to talk about because, well, not many of us can accurately and eloquently express who we are. There in lies the problem. You can no longer make a distinction between yourself and the book.
Small Gods is one of those books, so please forgive me as I fumble inexpertly through this post.

– Laura

______________________________________________________

It is once again time for an Omnian Prophet to appear. A prophet that will impart to the people the will and commandments of the Great God Om. There’s been a whole slew of prophets and they all amble up to the pulpit, like their prophetic predecessors, and decree a new set of rules that they swear were handed down to them by the Great God “Holy Horns” Om. It’s rather difficult to refute the prophet’s claim when the church fully backs the prophet and his commandments- most often at knife point. The Omnian church prides itself on the efficiency of The Quisition, a division of the church whose responsibility and privilege is to uphold enforce the will of God.

“…they were engaged in religion. You could tell by the knives (it’s not murder if you do it for a god).”

So the Omnians believe. They believe like their lives depend on it. Belief gives Om strength. The more belief, the stronger the God. So it comes as a great surprise to the Great God Om when he wakes up in the body of a mere turtle, with powers equal in size and strength of any small, shelled reptile. This shouldn’t be! He has many believers! Or he did. In his absence, the people haven’t stopped believing, oh no, the Church would never allow that. They believe. They believe in fear.

“Fear is a strange soil. It grows obedience like corn, which grow in straight lines to make weeding easier. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground.”

I know I’ve talked about this before, but let’s just rehash. Pratchett writes what on the surface appear to be fantasy novels, stories about his made up Discworld and the people in them. And while they have a nice neat fantasy setting, each book is in fact, a very clever little satire on something the human race holds dear or more often than not, something we take for granted. They are a gentle little nudge, an OK of sorts, to question what we are told to believe. This little number does of course, poke fun at religion, one in particular but essentially all of them, and if you aren’t too tightly wound on the subject (and more so if you are) it contains a great deal of wisdom that outlines centuries worth of “what the fuck?” You’ll follow Brutha, Om’s chosen prophet as he faces the harsh realization that simply believing in something doesn’t make it truth and expecting the world to only see things as you and yours do, isn’t going to do much more than get more knives pointed at you. And I liked the little poke at Om, in which he is basically told that if he’s going to be God, and all these people are going to go to the trouble of believing in him (he gets something out of the deal too- he gets to exist) then he has a bit of a responsibility to his people, to uphold his end of the deal.

“It’s hard to explain,” said Brutha. “But I think it’s got something to do with how people should behave… you should do things because they’re right. Not because gods say so. They might say something different another time.”

But anyway. This is one of those books that move in for me. It’s with me always, shapes how I think and feel which in turn affects how I live. This isn’t exactly rare. After all, so many of us have our thoughts and feelings shaped by a book, and the book affects how we live. Just remember, there are lots of different books.

_


Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
Published:Published September 1st 2008 by HarperTeen (first published September 1st 2006)

From Goodreads:
What do you want from me?” he asks. What I want from every person in my life, I want to tell him. More.

Abandoned by her mother on Jellicoe Road when she was eleven, Taylor Markham, now seventeen, is finally being confronted with her past. But as the reluctant leader of her boarding school dorm, there isn’t a lot of time for introspection. And while Hannah, the closest adult Taylor has to family, has disappeared, Jonah Griggs is back in town, moody stares and all.

In this absorbing story by Melina Marchetta, nothing is as it seems and every clue leads to more questions as Taylor tries to work out the connection between her mother dumping her, Hannah finding her then and her sudden departure now, a mysterious stranger who once whispered something in her ear, a boy in her dreams, five kids who lived on Jellicoe Road eighteen years ago, and the maddening and magnetic Jonah Griggs, who knows her better than she thinks he does. If Taylor can put together the pieces of her past, she might just be able to change her future.

Last week I touched on the fact that I’d finally gotten around to reading some of the books that everyone has sworn to me are must reads, and while so many books don’t live up to the hype, I don’t think anyone can deny the perfection of this book. I don’t think most people even know what to say or remember how to speak after reading it. So you were all right. It is that good.

The story starts out with an accident that happened years ago. It’s part of an unfinished book that Taylor Markham is reading. Taylor is an orphaned, permanent resident of a boarding school on the Jellicoe Road and the book is a work in progress of Hannah’s, the woman who has helped raise her. As Taylor’s story is being told, Taylor herself is reading a story set in her own school over eighteen years ago.

“My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die.

I counted.

It happened on the Jellicoe Road. The prettiest road I’d ever seen, where trees made breezy canopies like a tunnel to Shangri-La. We were going to the ocean, hundreds of miles away, because I wanted to see the ocean and my father said that it was about time the four of us made that journey. I remember asking, ‘What’s the difference between a trip and a journey?’ and my father said, ‘Narnie, my love, when we get there, you’ll understand,’ and that was the last thing he ever said.”

The Jellicoe boarding school residents, the local kids (Townies) and the boys of a neighboring military school (Cadets) are engaged in a mock war against each other. The surrounding territory is divided up into zones and for years the three factions have been fueding over territory. Though it’s all basically just a game, it is a long standing tradition and everyone must play it. Taylor is the school’s newest leader, and it is her job to help organize acts of subterfuge against the opposition to gain “territory” and strength. As she is playing the game, she is also reading about the game as it was played eighteen years ago by the children in Hannah’s story.

Taylor doesn’t remember much before she was taken in by Hannah and the school. With a vague recollection of her past, a present tangled in the make believe of a mock war and a future that is still undecided, Hannah is the only permanent, real thing in Taylor’s life. But she leaves unexpectedly, leaving Taylor and the story behind. As the game goes on, more of Taylor’s past is revealed, and the people in Hannah’s story prove to be more than fiction.

With so many stories being told, I can admit that I was a bit confused at first but I had to keep reading. I had to know what happened! The mystery and suspense was killing me but I didn’t get to learn anything until Taylor herself learned it. It’s such a marvelous puzzle. I was forced to take my time and be patient since I wouldn’t be allowed to see the big picture until Taylor saw it herself. It completely binds the reader to the story, and you can’t not read it. I felt that as Taylor’s story grew, I was growing along with it. Very rarely do I finish a book and immediately want to reread it. Most of the time I need a break from the story when it’s over but I didn’t want to give this one up. I suspect that each reread (and there will be many) will reveal something new.

While it wasn’t a sad story, some of the things that happened were. You’re involved with not only Taylor but with the five children who survived the accident in Hannah’s story which gets a little heavy. It wasn’t until the very end that I fully understood what had happened. That epilogue just about killed me and I bawled like a baby.

The writing was outstanding and I loved that the characters were real. They didn’t feel contrived or written as one would think a teenager would act or speak. She didn’t try to stereotype them; she just let them be. I don’t want my YA stories to read like they were written by adults trying to see things from a younger person’s perspective, nor do I want to feel like I’m reading a kid’s story. I want them to simply read and tell the story. Marchetta’s writing makes sure that nothing stands in the way of that. If it’s good, you shouldn’t be able to make any distinction as to what genre it fits in. A good book is a good book.

I can easily dub this book as the best one I’ve read this year and the book I’ve had the hardest time breaking away from. If you haven’t read it, well, you just have to.

_


     Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
     Published September 5th 2005 by Bloomsbury
     (first published September 2004)

     More at:
     Goodreads
     Website
     The Library at Hurtfew

Dear Reader,

     I have no wish to share this book with you. In a great fit of jealousy and selfishness I vowed I wouldn’t talk about it here, deliberately depriving you of the experience of hearing about this most amazing book. It is only out of a sense of duty and obligation as a book lover, and because I dearly love my blog that I’m going to gift you with a brief insight into this wonder. Make no mistake though- this book, is mine. I give you leave to read it, enjoy it even, but you are not allowed any additional rights to it as I have claimed all others. 1

     There has always been magic in England. 2 The history and study of English magic was once a profession held in high esteem. To say that one was a magician was comparable to saying that one was a great gentleman, a scholar, a patron of the arts, more reputable than the practice of medicine, nearly as decorous as royalty and almost as venerable as the clergy (but not quite since that would be considered presumptuous). To spend one’s days laboring over texts and accounts of English magic was a perfectly respectable occupation for a gentleman, who wasn’t expected to have one. A gentleman could study magic, but to practice it, would have been commonplace.

     Practical magicians, those vagabonds and swindlers who for pennies tell futures and sell love spells on street corners, are not respectable. Boasting that one can perform magic is the height of vulgarity. No gentleman would associate himself with charlatans. With the decline of English magic in more recent years, and fewer and fewer gentleman engaging in the study of magic, these unstudied miscreants have come to be associated with the title magician. The Learned Society of York Magicians, a group of aged magical scholars, in keeping with long standing tradition, prefer to keep the study of magic an occupation for gentleman and spurn any man who claims to practice magic. It comes to their attention that the majority of magical texts that still exist in England are being bought up in great numbers by a solitary scholar by the name of Mr. Norrell, who makes the abominable claim of being both a theoretical and a practical magician. This claim by a gentleman is unheard of and when the York Society calls for a display of magic by Mr. Norrell to substantiate this preposterous declaration, the price for the performance is for each member of the society to forever give up the study of magic and relinquish the title magician. When the society witnesses Mr. Norrell’s most extraordinary talent, they have no choice but to keep their word and cease their studies. In this way, and with his acquisition of most of the magical text in England, Mr. Norrell distinguishes himself as the only remaining magician in England.

     Mr. Norrell, who wants the practice of English magic to once again be held in the highest esteem, while at the same time campaigning to be the only one who practices it, offers his services to aid the English in their war with France, performing great feats of magic that amazes the nation. The solitary, reserved Norrell, doles out his spells sparingly, not wanting his craft to be misused, his tight hold on the whole of English magic making it nearly inaccessible to anyone but himself.

     But one man cannot hold the whole of English magic solely. England is destined to have another magician, the young novice, Jonathan Strange, who takes up magic on a mere whim, at the prompting of a street sorcerer, who claims it is prophesied that Strange will be a great magician.

     “My name is Vinculous,” he declared. Considering that he had just spent a night under a hedge his voice was remarkably loud and clear. “For ten days I have been walking westwards in search of a man who is destined to be a great magician. Then days ago I was shewn a picture of this man and now by certain mystic signs I see that it is you!”
     Everyone looked around to see who he meant.
     The man in the shepard’s smock and the knitted shawls came up to Strange and plucked at his coat. “It is you, sir” he said.
     “Me?” said Strange.
     Vinculus approached Strange.
     ”Two magicians shall appear in England,” he said.
     ”The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
     The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
     The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel it’s ache;
     The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand…”

     “I see,” interrupted Strange. “And which am I, the first or the second? No, do not tell me. It does not matter. Both sound entirely dreadful. For someone who is anxious that I should become a magician, I must say you do not make the life sound very appealing. I hope to be married soon and a life spent in dark woods surrounded by thieves and murders would be inconvenient to say the least. I suggest you chuse someone else.”
     “I did not chuse you, Magician! You were chosen long ago.”
     “Well, whoever it was they will be disappointed.”
     Vinculous ignored this remark and took a firm grasp on the bridle of Strange’s horse as a precaution against his riding off. He then proceeded to recite in its entirety the prophecy which he had already performed for the benefit of Mr. Norrell in the library at Hanover-square.
     Strange received it with a similar degree of enthusiasm and when it was done, he leant down from his horse and said very slowly and distinctly, “I do not know any magic!”
     Vinculus paused. He looked as if he was prepared to concede that this might be a legitimate obstacle to strange’s becoming a great magician. Happily the solution occurred to him immediately; he stuck his hand into the breast of his coat and pulled out some sheets of paper with bits of straw sticking to them. “Now,” he said, looking even more mysterious and impressive than before, “I have here some spells which…No, no! I cannot give them to you!” (Strange had reached out to take them.) “They are precious objects. I endured years of torment and suffered great ordeals in order to possess them.”
     “How much?” said Strange.
     “Seven shilling and sixpence,” said Vinculous.
     “Very well.”

     Strange becomes a very great magician indeed. After the momentary pause in his career that is his brief apprenticeship to Mr. Norrell, Strange goes on to serve the English government in their campaign against the French, performing great, history changing feats of magic that the overly cautious Mr. Norrell would never dare to engage in- daring, unimaginable, masterpieces of magic that change the course of a war. Strange’s blatant disregard for the current school of thought on the proper practice of magic, Mr. Norrell’s own views, drives a wedge between the two magicians, creating a magical rivalry that threatens the revival of English magic.

     Fairy summoning, the raising of the dead, the movement of the very mountains, maidens abducted into other worlds and horrifying instances of darker, fairy magic make for a thrilling, entertaining, and almost believable, historical fantasy that is truly unforgettable.

     I didn’t just fall in love with this book- I fell into it. It’s one of those stories that blurs the line between what is real and what is fantasy. In this story, it is entirely believable that magic really does exist. In fact, because of the story, even now that I’m outside of it, I can’t help but still believe. It’s a rather interesting mix of genres; both history and fantasy, combining both real historical events and real instances of English life in the 19th century with some vivid fantastical embellishments that make Clarke’s history much more entertaining than the real thing. Who’s to say that the battles between England and France during the Napoleonic wars were not altered by magic? Had that been taught in the history books we might have all paid more attention.

     Jonathan Strange, with the fervor and foolish fearlessness in which he practices magic, and his steadfast dedication to his profession (once he discovered what it was) completely stole my heart. He is perhaps the biggest book crush I’ve ever had. I have a high respect for a man who would only ever forsake the love of his life for a book and in fact, I understand. He was smart, witty, daring, and always civil and gentlemanly. As an Englishman, he would retain proper decorum even when battling evil fairy forces and I just love him.

     Mr. Norrell, who I couldn’t help but picture as a wizened, tiny, scrooge of a man made me so angry at times. He is one of the only two great magical minds that have existed in England for centuries and he is so conceited about his own powers that he nearly refuses to have them. He wants magic to return to England, but only if it returns to him alone, thereby depriving the people of the wonders of magic, or worse, giving them only the glimpses of it that he wants them to see.

     The book, written as a I have said, as a history, is full of footnotes detailing the history of English magic as it was known in England. Every magical text and person mentioned is referenced and their involvement in magic is retold in footnotes, giving the reader not only a wonderful story experience, but an fictional education as well. You could learn many great and wonderful things from this book if you were of the mind to believe in an alternate reality- which I am.

     This giant, brick of a book (1006 pages) will introduce you to some of the most extraordinary characters you’ve never imagined. An evil fairy spirit, and the magician’s foremost nemesis (besides each other), known only as The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, is by far the best villain I’ve ever met in a book. He is a fairy in every respect, mischievous, arrogant, thoughtless and unkind, all the while working on the pretense that he is the height of civility and chivalry. You will meet Stephen Black, a most pitiful servant who finds himself the unwilling companion to the Gentleman with the Thistledown hair, hopelessly trapped between his own England and the Gentleman’s fairy realms.

“It would need someone very remarkable to recover your name, Stephen, someone of rare perspicacity, with extraordinary talents and incomparable nobility of character. Me, in fact.”

     In it you will meet John Uskglass, the Raven King, the greatest of English magicians and whose teaching Mr. Norrell struggles so hard to suppress and whose magic Mr. Strange endeavors to master. It is his magic, and the accounts of his adventures that have shaped English magic.

“I reached out my hand; thought and memory flew out of my enemies’ heads like a flock of starlings;
My enemies crumpled like empty sacks.
I came to them out of mists and rain;
I came to them in dreams at midnight;
I came to them in a flock of ravens that filled a northern sky at dawn;
When they thought themselves safe I came to them in a cry that broke the silence of a winter wood…”

     I’ve dogeared so many quotes and passages in this book that I’ve almost got it memorized. There are just too many instances of wonderful in this book to let them be forgotten. It’s the best book I’ve read this year, and one of my favorite stories of all time, if not my most favorite.

     Susanna Clarke has written a book of short stories that take place in the fairy world introduced in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, entitled The Ladies of Grace Adieu and she is working (hard at it I hope) on her next book about English magic.

Footnote 1: In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Mr. Norrell attempts to buy up all the magical texts in England and keep them locked away in his library solely for his own use. Whether it is greed or a desire to keep books on magic from those who would interpret their contents in a way that differs from his own, Mr. Norrell takes a very possessive, selfish view of books and considers all books on English magic, his. Here, in reference to the book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I take a very Norrellite belief that this book, is mine.

Footnote 2: If that were written the way I feel it, the print would be in thick, glossy gold, and the letters would press deep into the page to convey the finality of the sentiment. If I’ve learned anything from stories and books, it’s that what magic there is in our world, exists, quite fixedly, in England.

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I know you just saw that title and said, most likely out loud, “Not that. Not yet. Please. Not yet.” and normally I don’t jump on the Day After Thanksgiving=Christmas bandwagon but it’s been quite a year (and by quite I mean full to bursting and not all good) and I need Christmas. Now. After all the Thanksgiving going going and one last horrid night of surgery call, I indulged in my favorite holiday tradition and put up my Christmas tree while listening to Patrick Stewart’s performance of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

This has been a must in my family for many years. The holidays can not begin without it. The tree cannot go up, no ornaments can be hung and not one fairy light or bit of tinsel can twinkle until we hear the sound of cold wind blowing and that famous first line:

“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

Now. Now we can have Christmas. I was raised with a glorious wonder of a Christmas tree. It takes my mother days to get it right. Gold, silver, green, white- but never any blue, ornaments, soft hand-crocheted garland and lights so numerous it could probably be seen from space. It leaned slightly to one side with the unbalanced weight of all its finery and there was many a year when we just knew that this would be the one that it finally caught on fire. And in the background of all this fuss was Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise telling us the story of ol’ Ebenezer Scrooge.

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

It made the room cold. It makes me crave hot chocolate and sweaters when I hear this story- quite a feat in south Mississippi where you could still technically wear shorts at Christmas (but you don’t, you bundle up and pretend it’s winter). When the tree first goes up, it’s dark and ominous, a daunting task, a tangle of unlit bulbs and last year’s ornament hooks. It might not happen. We might have to wait until *gasp* tomorrow to brave the Christmas section at Walmart and settle on new lights that will never be quite as good as the ones that we had last year. This is the worst part.

“Man of the worldly mind! Do you believe in me or not?”

“I do.” said Scrooge. “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”

“It is required of every man, that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you? Or would you know, the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”

And the dark, cold nature of this part of the story made the tree, when the lights were finally up and lit, feel that much warmer. I swear there is nothing so wonderful as the glow of a Christmas tree. Until the day after Christmas it was always our primary light source in the living room. A Christmas lamp if you will- and not the tacky giant leg kind.

Now for the ornaments. There were about 20 bulging Rubbermaid containers, there contents held in by the shear strength of the duct tape holding tight the lids. I told you, this is south Mississippi. We duct tape our ornament boxes with pride. We never sat down and counted them, it would have been pointless. Each new year brought the retirement of old, chipped ornaments and the introduction of glossy new ones in a never ending ornament exchange that left it impossible to remember what we actually owned. The placement had to be just so. A red couldn’t be next to another red and so forth, small ornaments at the top, medium in the middle and the big bulbs filling in the thick bottom section of the tree.

“It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see: who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.
“Come in!” exclaimed the Ghost. “Come in. and know me better, man!”

It took hours. Sometimes it took days. Sometimes we had to listen to A Christmas Carol over and over again because we forgot to listen to it when dealing with particularly difficult sections of the tree. Sometimes we had to pause mid story and call it a night because it was just too late, and just too frustrating to keep going. Sometimes it was up weeks before Christmas, sometimes days, but it was always up. Though the tree, the lights, the ornaments may have differed from year to year, it was always a glorious tree and I couldn’t wait for it to be up.

“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.

“To-day?” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”

“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow!”

As I am now an elderly lady of thirty-two years, I have my own tree, in my own house. Granted, it’s not quite the same. For one thing, I put it up on my own and I rather missed fighting with my mother over ornament placement. It’s a much smaller, sparser tree and unfortunately, hidden away in the spare bedroom to protect it from Threesie who broke a record twenty-two ornaments last year. And it’s tailored to my own tastes- aqua and silver and glass and perhaps, looking at it now, a bit too contemporary- but it’s still warm, and inviting, with soft lights that set the perfect scene for listening to A Christmas Carol over and over again.

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

You’re welcome Mississippi Power. God bless us. Every one.

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84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Published by Penguin, 1990. Originally published: New York, Grossman, 1970

More at: Goodreads

“I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I’m never going to read again like I throw out clothes I’m never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put in on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.”

I am ill equipped to accurately convey my love for this slim volume, which is pretty much just a regrettably few handfuls of letters between the writer Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, an employee at Marks and Co., a bookshop in England. These letters tell of a wholly different sort of love affair, one about the love of books.

Let me first say that I’ve seen the movie 84, Charing Cross Road with Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff countless times, and a long time before I ever read this book. But I loved the story then, and I love it even more so now- if that’s even possible. Now, I can say that it is one of the very, very few movies that truly does a story justice.

Helene Hanff stumbled across an add for Marks & Co., a used book store in London and begins what will be a twenty year correspondence with the people in the shop, primarily Frank Doel. Her letters are her charismatic, funny requests for rare obscure English (and such) titles that she can’t find locally or refuses to buy new. Her two decades of exchanges with Frank builds a unique friendship from across an ocean and portrays a love of books that anyone who loves literature can certain identify with. Helene understands the extreme emotions that a good, or awful book can elicit and how remarkably wonderful a life filled with them can be. Helene and Frank never meet.

It’s a title that I sigh when I think about. Read it. You’ll live with it forever.

“You’ll be fascinated to learn (from me that hates novels) that I finally got round to Jane Austen and went out of my mind for Pride and Prejudice which I can’t bring myself to take back to the library till you find me a copy of my own.”

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Genre:: Romance
Pages: 397 pages
Publisher: April 1st 2010 by Avon (first published March 13th 2010)

Lady Calpurnia Hartwell feels a bit ridiculous. A self-proclaimed, plain Jane, with a rather silly name, and more figure and curves than are fashionable, she even looks ridiculous in the horror of a dress her mother insisted she wear to her debut ball. Adding to the ridicule of being plain and looking horrid, Callie hasn’t danced with one eligible or desirable man all evening and has been reduced to a wallflower at her own coming out ball. Feeling rather sorry for herself, and loathing all the rules of society that claim a well-born lady must make nice with everyone, even undesirable oaths, she escapes to the garden where she can feel sorry for herself and dwell on the shame of being such a disaster at her own ball. Ladies are not suppose to hide unattended in the garden, at night, and they aren’t suppose to engage in conversation and flirtation with a well known rake, like the Marquess of Ralston even if he is devastatingly handsome. His kind are not intended for girls like Callie.

Ten years later, Lady Calpurnia Hartwell has been relegated to permanent spinster with no hopes of a match and she hasn’t danced at a ball in years. With her lace cap, and still ridiculous dresses chosen by her mother, she seems much older than she is. Sitting on the side lines with the other unfortunates of her class, she watches as life and love happen around her. When her younger sister lands not only a duke, but a duke that loves her, Callie can’t help but feel that her last ten years have been wasted and she longs for a love of her own- and an adventure. Problem is, for the last ten years her fantasy hero has had only one face, that of the irreputable Marquess of Ralston. She decides then and there that she is quite fed up with her role in life and pens a scandalous list of nine, forbidden adventures she would like to have and she’s going to accomplish at least one of them tonight-

Kiss someone- passionately.

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It’s ok to stop at this point and squeal. I am. I’m also sleep deprived because I read this book in one sitting because it’s impossible to put down. This story is so much fun! Callie is such a refreshing character, an ahem, older heroine in search of adventure and freedom from her everyday life and the unspoken rules and regulations of a society that has kept her trapped, even from herself, for ten years. By day she is the picture of decorum and manners as she councils a young lady about to enter society and by night she is daring and rash, shocking even herself as she breaks every rule she’s ever adhered to. She engages the Marquess as her partner in crime and the ill reputed playboy quickly has to take on the roll of protector as this well-born lady goes down her list, astounding even the Marquess.

I just adore Callie and envy her lack of restraint, especially in a time when a lady was only ever allowed to be a lady. Her adventures may not be shocking by our standards but for 1823 England her actions were unheard of and her single-minded determination is admirable in any age.

MacLean has made an instant fan. Her writing is clean and precise making for a seamless story that tells without so much as a hiccup from start to finish. There’s nothing silly about her characters, they are well defined and immediately lovable- even our bad boy, and her love story never comes across as sappy.

Be advised that the Ralston’s dialogue is best read with a fan handy.

Visit Sarah’s -website-. She has another romance novel coming out in October of this year and she has also written one YA novel, The Season.

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