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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004) 1006 p.

I’m going to start this review with a terrible analogy and say that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a successful version of Temeraire. Temeraire, as you will recall, was a book I read last year that created an alternate-history Napoleonic era with a fantasy twist, and was an abysmal failure. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell shares many of Temeraire‘s characteristics – Napoleonic fantasy, semi-satirical Austenian writing style, fundamental Englishness – but, unlike Temeraire, it employs them far more skillfully and is a resounding success.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is based in an alternate timeline in which magic did once exist, but petered out in the early 1600s. Now, in 1806, it is a purely theoretical subject, pursued by old men as not much more than a hobby. This is until the discovery of Gilbert Norrell, a reclusive Yorkshire man who claims to be a practical magician, and who impresses disbelievers by making the statues in the Cathedral of York to come to life and speak for a single day. He is soon rushed off to London to use his magic to assist in the struggle against Napoleon.

Norrell reigns as the only main character for a few hundred pages before being sidelined by Jonathan Strange, the hip young magician who is cooler than him in every way; the Riggs to his Murtaugh, if you will. While much of the novel is dedicated to the Napoleonic Wars – Strange fights in the Peninsula and is present at Waterloo – the larger scope is dedicated to the rivalry between the two men, and the consequences of their meddling with forces they do not understand. Norrell makes a grievous error early in the book which has extensive repercussions and lends an air of horror to the entire narrative, in a way that reminded me very much of Ged’s arrogant mistake in A Wizard of Earthsea.

The fictional world of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a fascinating one, and easily the novel’s greatest strength. England exists alongside a fairy realm, and fairies are an integral part of magic and greatly featured throughout the book. Forget gossamer wings and the colour pink; these fairies live in ruined castles and realms of perpetual night, and are renowned for their cruelty. Clarke’s explanation is that while humans are weak in magic and strong in reason, fairies are strong in magic but weak in reason – by human standards, they are barely sane. They reminded me very heavily of the elves in Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies; mythological creatures harking back to Celtic mythology and the Grimm fairytales, a time when everything that shifted in the darkness beyond your campfire was terrifying, before contemporary culture re-imagined them as sweet, benevolent creatures of kindness.

Clarke has developed this world with the use of over 200 footnotes that provide background details on the world’s magical history, details on the contents of fictional books, or anecdotes about historical magicians. Often these footnotes are longer than the main text on the page and sometimes tell entirely self-contained stories. One, for example, relates the tale of the foolish John Bloodworth, a magician who naively accepted the services of a fairy called “Buckler,” without bothering to question why they were offered. One day while Bloodworth is away on business, a tall cupboard appears in the kitchen, and Buckler tells Bloodworth’s family members that it is a portal to a place in Faerie where they can learn spells to make their lives easier, and that they can go through and be back “in time for Mass.” Seventeen people enter the cupboard and are never seen again. The footnote ends with this:

Two hundred years later Dr. Martin Pale was journeying through Faerie. At the castle of John Hollyshoes (a very ancient and powerful fairy-prince) he discovered a human child, about seven or eight years old, very pale and starved-looking. She said her name was Anne Bloodworth and she had been in Faerie, she thought, about two weeks. She had been given work to do washing a great pile of dirty pots. She said she had been washing them steadily since she arrived and when she was finished she would go home to see her parents and sisters. She thought she would be finished in a day or two.

While an eerie tale in itself, this footnote provides an example of the fairies’ penchant for kidnapping humans into their realm, which is quite signifcant later in the book; a small example of the masterful foreshadowing Clarke employs throughout. Another part of the backstory I found fascinating was the Raven King, the mysterious and dreaded magician who ruled northern England for three hundred years before disappearing; footnotes speculate on unknown parts of his life, detail sightings of him across the years, and reveal that, constitutionally, the English monarch is merely the regent of northern England, awaiting the Raven King’s return.

At 1006 pages, this is an intimidating tome, and certainly not the kind of novel I would recommend to just anybody. If you have an interest in fantasy and can tolerate (or enjoy, as I do) long-winded writing styles and a slow pace, you should like it. If you dislike the idea of a huge amount of footnotes describing the tiny details of a fictional world (personally, I think it’s heaven) then you should steer clear.

So while this book isn’t for everyone, it is objectively excellent and a staggering achievement for a first-time writer. I look forward to seeing what Clarke comes up with next.



1. Still adjusting to the new format of the show. Even after the flashforwards in Season 4 it’s incredibly weird to see the characters walking around the streets of LA instead of traipsing through the jungle.

2. Neil looks like a cross between Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi… man, Reservoir Dogs was a great movie. Also, Neil getting killed was funny.

3. I know that at this stage Jack has probably accepted that Ben will never, ever tell him anything – but Juliet is a different story. Now would really be a great time for Sawyer to sit her down and say, “Look, you say you’re on our side, and now we’re stuck together in a whole new bag of snakes, so would you mind telling me WHAT THE FUCK IS UP WITH THIS ISLAND?!”

4. By far the most interesting thing that happened this episode was the fire-arrow attack (which presumably came from the Hostiles) and the British soldiers. I like the idea of Sawyer & co jumping back and forth to different periods of the island’s history and learning about it.

5. Speaking of which, it still feels like the character balance is a little off. There are too many people off-island, and all we have left on-island are Sawyer, Locke, Juliet (a fish firmly out of Season 3’s water), some extras and the Johnny come-latelies from the freighter, of whom Daniel is the only interesting one. Locke reuniting with the group at the end was a step in the right direction, but it still feels like they should have left one more main cast member behind on the island.

6. Didn’t Jack used to drive a much newer jeep?

7. “And we found some hatches and there was a button you had to push every 108 minutes or… well… I was never really clear on that…”

8. Hurley fleeing Ben and turning himself over to the cops was great, as was Ben standing in the doorway watching him get arrested. Had one of the police glanced over and pointed a flashlight at him, I’m sure he would have hissed like a cat and vanished into the darkness.

9. I only just realised that the old lady at the end was Desmond’s time-travel mentor, not the Others’ “judge” from Season 3 who told Jack about his tattoos. That’s odd.

…here are some photos of Collie ’09!

There aren’t many because we lost Dad’s camera quite early and Phoebe only took a bunch of photos of herself disking and everybody else is tardy with uploading things to Facebook. But it wasn’t a particularly good Collie for a variety of reasons so I suppose it’s appropriate!

Here is Chris walking across the campsite holding orange juice and giving me a stern glare.

Here is me setting a new trend. Watch out ladies!

Here is Chris and Lindsay and Dennis setting off on an expedition to scuba dive the lake. Not pictured: me off sulking because I can’t dive.

Here is me and m’bro Mike, who returned from an eight month trip working at a summer camp in New York and a ski resort in Canada. He brought back a bottle of tequila duty free and for the first time we were treated to the spectacle of Michael Hill drunk. It was more or less the same as the regular Michael Hill (flamboyant, exuberant, dancy) except he spent a lot of time falling over and vomited all over the Gullotti’s annex.

Here is Chris sitting in the naughty chair.

This is a photo of all the families, to send to my cousin Georgie who is currently working as a London-based QANTAS flight attendant. We also sent her a care package with little message cards in it from each of us. Mine contained a sketch of the Twin Towers burning and advice on how to avoid sharks if the plane ditches into the ocean (swim away from the wreckage because they’re attracted to curious noises. You’re basically fucked anyway though because oceanic whitetips are more likely to attack humans than any other shark, and you’re probably bleeding a lot).

That’s it for Collie photos, but I went and bought a camera of my own for Japan today (a Nikon Coolpix), so prepare to be treated to a lot of test images taken around my house!

I basically just walked into CameraHouse and let the salesman tell me what to buy. It’s certainly not a bad camera, but it suffers from the same problem as my Dad’s, which is that when I try to take a photo my hands shake imperceptibly and blur the image (this is a design flaw).

This is a picture of me in front of the bathroom mirror.

This is some of the assorted clothing I have bought for Japan on the living room floor. The flash is turned on to try and combat the blur issue but it still leaves it looking kind of… odd.

This is a photo of me that my sister’s friend took. Note the graininess.

This is my bedroom – again, note the graininess. I can’t recall how much of this is due to squeezing it down to fit inside my WordPress template, though.

This is my Asus eee netbook compared against some common household items for scale. It’s slightly larger than a paperback book, which I’m sure will be good for travelling, but which is a bitch to type on.

And this is a photo of my bookshelf, which I think is the grainiest/blurriest of the lot. I guess I’m going to have to fiddle around with the settings and such and see if I can fix that, or hire a guy with surgeon’s hands and have him follow me around at all times. I’m definitely not taking it back. The only reason I went and bought a new camera was because the one I ordered from Dad’s work had the glaring problem of being powered by replaceable AA batteries. Since this is not 1998 I do expect that my camera be rechargeable, rather than having to buy a pack of batteries every 200 photos. So the moral is don’t buy a Canon Powershot A1000 IS.

Less than a week until Japan, and I’m tackling the problems of finding winter clothing in midsummer in a city with a Mediterranean climate where the temperature rarely drops below 10 degrees Celsius. I went to Harbourtown with Chris yesterday and managed to find a decent jacket, and bought some new shoes and jeans, but stuff like gloves and thermal underwear are a lot more difficult. This stupid city. A trench coat would be awesome – I remember wearing one of those in Canberra and reading TIME Magazine at an RSL club, and feeling like I was in the 1940s – but there’s no chance of that.

Also today is Australia Day, a holiday I dislike for a number of reasons, primarily the fact that I get heartily sick of seeing our shitty flag slathered across everything (and yes, it is a shitty flag, because 25% of it is taken up by another country’s flag). I’m pretty sure I wasn’t meant to be born here. I should live in Ireland or the U.K. or somewhere a little more cold and overcast. In any case, happy 220th birthday, permanent European presence in Australia!

Thanks to my brand new high-speed wireless connection – which, because it’s Australian, is still irritatingly slow compared to what Americans and Japanese and Swiss no doubt enjoy – I can thumb my nose at Channel 7’s decision to delay the screening of foreign TV shows for several weeks (which is still an improvement on what it used to be, which was roughly six months) and simply download episodes of Lost in the blink of an eye! God bless the 21st century, where a man is entitled to pluck whatever he pleases from the glittering flow of traffic on the media superhighway.  I really should download the first few episodes of 24, since 7 has no plans whatsover to screen the next season at this stage, and I’ve been told it’s back on form. Although the first four episodes of Season 6 were brilliant, and we all know what a fuck-up that turned out to be.

Anyway – here begins the penultimate season of LOST, and my first batch of notes and thoughts.



1. Marvin Candle’s “God help us all” at the beginning was hilariously cheesy.

2. Ben getting all eager and ready to cart Locke’s corpse out of the funeral parlour into “the van out the back” cracked me up.

3. The whole combat session at the motel was awesome – Sayid’s fight scenes are starting to rival Jack Bauer’s. When he threw the dude down onto the open dishwasher with the knives pointing up ABC may as well have flashed a huge OWNED sign across the screen. (Although it’s still not as good as Bauer’s coolest kills – when Sayid murders a dude by running up a wall, throwing his body down and snapping his neck, then we’ll see.)

4. Sawyer, if it comes to a choice between you and the noodle-armed geek walking around without a shirt, I think we all know what the answer is.

5. I’m straight. I will reiterate my worship of the female form as many times as you like. (Hottest new actress of 2008 – Rebecca Hall.) But after three seasons, I have decided that if I absolutely had to have sex with a man, it would be Henry Ian Cusick. When he walks out of the cabin pulling a knit sweater on over that shaggy hair – brrrough!

6. Daniel appears to completely contradict his own theory about the past being impossible to change, since Desmond wakes up with a new memory. I don’t know if that’s intentional or not but I’m starting to realise that the introduction of time travel is only going to grow more and more confusing as the season goes on.

Speaking of large changes, I think that in retrospect Lost will be clearly divided into two halves: Seasons 1-3 and 4-6. For all the wacky shit it involves, all the polars bears and smoke monsters and button pushing, the show was held together by a fairly simple premise right up until the end of season 3: ESCAPE. It was about a bunch of people who were just trying to get home. The infamous disinterest of the characters in solving the mysteries of the island is more than just a plot device to maintain the suspense – it’s arguably appropriate to the theme. The survivors don’t care about the island. They just want to get the fuck off it. The reason this was so frustrating to the viewers was because we knew it wasn’t possible. They weren’t on an ordinary island. The Natural Order of Things had been upset. They couldn’t just return to civilisation and somehow explain away all the crazy things that happened to them. There was no way the island could suddenly be filled with ICAO investigators and US Navy helicopters. It just wasn’t possible. That was, in fact, why the finale of Season 3 was so excellent – it was staggering to believe that they had actually made it.

And that was really the climax of the ESCAPE theme. It continued throughout Season 4, but in a different form, mingled with flashforwards and further exploration of the island’s mysteries, and stories (such as “The Constant”) that were almsot self-contained. Now the theme has become far more complex, and the show will change accordingly. If you could go back in time to 2005 and show “Because You Left” to a fan of the first season of Lost, they wouldn’t even recognise it as the same show. It would feel like a show with the same actors and locations, but a completely different story.

Lost is changing. There won’t be any more flashbacks or flashforwards, expeditions into the jungle, tense encounters with the Others,  triumphant string music pieces heralding to safe return of somebody to the beach camp. It’s still going to be a great show. But it’s going to be a very, very different show – and I’m looking forward to seeing how that will be handled.

Bears Discover Fire by Terry Bisson (1993) 254 p.

no consequences whatsoever!

I bought this book based solely on the title. “Bears Discover Fire.” The implications of that are horrifying. A second sapient species on the planet? Man reigns supreme only because of his oversized brain; on a level playing field, the bears would wipe the floor with us every time.

The book is actually a collection of short stories, and unfortunately none of them, including the titular ursine escapade that was brimming with promise, are particularly good. Terry Bisson is one of those classic science fiction writers who has a brilliant imagination, and some amazing ideas, but lacks the writing ability to really bring them to their full potential (the terminal point along that spectrum being the filthy, wretched hovel of Philip Jose Farmer). Some of the stories are quite bad; most are merely not good. They’re readable, certainly, but Bisson just makes so many mistakes. He drops foreshadowing too early, leaves blatant hints that the reader could easily guess for themselves, and his stories just seem to lack some vital spark. A good effort, but give this one a miss.

Bears Discover Fire at The Book Depository

In a few days I’m going here to do this. After that I’m going here to do this. And then, hopefully, I’m going here to do this.

one of those amazing strokes of creative brilliance you have when you get home drunk

Happy New Year’s, everyone!

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January 2009