Sunday, June 14th, 2009

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Too Many Words

Cover of Jonathan Strange & Mr. NorellA review of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke for my Fill in the Gaps: Project 100 list.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is an alternate-history (or fantasy) that’s set in 19th-century England during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s based on the idea that magic once existed in England and that it will be brought back with the help of two practicing magicians: Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange. The story centers on their relationship (or lack there of) as they make England into a land where anyone  can perform magic.

I looked forward to reading this book, particularly because it is a Hugo winner. In the end, I was disappointed. I could not finish the book fast enough. I found it completely intolerable.

Ms. Clarke writes in (my opinion) an archaic style akin to Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, and, in fact has been criticized for writing a pastiche of them (and others). While I agree that her style mimics many of the old classics, I think I’d draw the line prior to pastiche. Although, like many of the classics, I feel that the book sufferers from extreme wordiness and could have benefited from some judicious trimming….probably 300-500 of the nearly 800 pages comprising this tome could have been deleted.

A good editor could have made this an outstanding read. I felt that there were so many words–such a lack of focus–that as I read, I continued to ask myself…so? So? SO!? Had I not committed to reading this for the Project 100, I’d have quit reading very early on. Very little held my attention. This is sad, because the story is such an interesting one.

Still, the book is not without its merits. There were occasions when Ms. Clarke created the perfect turn of phrase and wonderful lyrical description. Her world-building is superb. If only one didn’t have to plod slowly through the muck to get to the beauty.

As I complained while I read, one friend told me that the last 100 pages makes the entire book worthwhile. I disagree. The pacing did pick up toward the end, almost feeling as though the book raced to its conclusion. It did become more focused–loose strings were tied up–but it failed to provide me with the satisfying conclusion I’d longed for after investing so much time. I found it lacking.

If you like Dickins and Austin, you might like Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. For me, I won’t be picking up the sequel.

Post Script: I failed to mention one of the most annoying things about this book: fictitious  footnotes. There were hundreds, printed in minute type at the bottom of the page, often spanning two or more pages.  The most annoying of the annoying were the footnotes which referred to other footnotes in different chapters  of the book.

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

Woe Unto Me

When I was a sophomore in college, my best friend Amy and I ate a lot of Chinese food. Amy would take the fortunes from her fortune cookie and tape them to the back of a spiral notepad. By the end of the semester, the reverse cover of her notebook would be plastered with little white slips in neat rows from top to bottom.

I was fascinated by the practice, and started doing the same. (Disclaimer: as much as I enjoyed Chinese food (and still do), my notebooks never achieved the same coverage Amy’s did.)

To this day, I retain my fortunes (often lamenting that fortune cookies have stopped dispensing predictions and starting meting out platitudes). But every once in while, one comes along that is particularly fitting to my writing life.

My favorite, taped to my computer monitor:

All your hard work will soon be paid off. 🙂

Yes, it even contains the smiley, albeit in black and white. Now, as far as I’m concerned, this prediction hasn’t come true yet – no novel published so far, right?  “Soon” is definitely a time span defined by the writer-gods. Or, on the other hand, fortunes could be a lot of bunk…which is what I’m hoping because…

Woe unto me, here is my latest:

You never suffer from a money problem, you always suffer from an idea problem.

Folks, for a writer, it doesn’t get any worse than this.

Or does it? I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s been cookie-cursed! Please share in the comments.

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

Do You Like Tales of the Sea?

Steven R. Southard’s “Sea-Wagon of Yantai ” debuts tomorrow.

“The Sea-Wagon of Yantai” is a well-researched tale, set in ancient China, of what might have been. A very good read.

Here’s the publisher promo:

In ancient China, a young man of war and an old man of peace clash over the use and future of the world’s first submarine.

In 206 B.C., China is torn by warring dynasties. A young warrior, Lau, receives orders to verify the legend of a magic wagon that can cross rivers unseen. He encounters Ning, the wagon-maker in the seaside village of Yantai. Ning has constructed an unusual wagon that can submerge, travel along the bottom of the Bay of Bohai, and surface in safety—the world’s first practical submarine.

Ning enjoys the peace and beauty of his undersea excursions and will not allow the military to seize his wagon or learn its secrets. Lau must bring the valuable weapon back to his superior. In the hands of these two men rest the future of the submarine, as an instrument of war or exploration.

I had an opportunity to ask Steve a few questions:

Sea Wagon Of Yantai- Cover

Why did you write Sea Wagon?

Steve:    I study submarine history and am writing a series of historical short stories involving man’s attempt to conquer the depths. While doing research, I came across references that suggested somebody had constructed a submarine in China at about 200 B.C. That seemed interesting, but the references were vague, with no specifics about the inventor, the sub, the location, etc. That freed me to write the story any way I wanted!”

Have you written any other sea/submarine stories?

Steve:    I’ve written a number of stories that fictionalize the history of submarine development. One of those, “Alexander’s Odyssey,” appears in the [Ricasso Press] anthology Magic & Mechanica. I’m also writing another series of stories about the future of man’s colonization of the sea.

I envision the establishment of ‘aquanations’ with people living in ‘seasteads.’ I’ve written other stories that don’t fit these series, but mostly involve the sea in some way. My sole horror story, “Blood in the River,” has been selected to appear in the upcoming anthology Dead Bait. My story “Target Practice” is in the anthology Lower than the Angels.

Where does your interest in submarines come from?

Steve:    From reading Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and from reading the Tom Swift series of books as a boy. I grew up in the Midwest, and the ocean seemed distant and exotic, full of adventure.

What is the likely audience for your stories?

Steve:    I suppose my writing would appeal most to readers who enjoy either historical fiction or science fiction, and who are looking for a setting not often written about these days — the sea. My Sea-Wagon story, in particular, might attract those who are interested in ancient China, and who might wonder whether somebody could have solved the problems of traveling underwater way back then. Actually my stories could attract anybody who likes to read about intriguing characters having to contend with vexing technical problems, an unforgiving environment, and the ugliness of war.

Steve’s a very interesting guy. I wish I’d had time to chat with him. I do encourage you to pick up “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai,” available June 7, from Eternal Press.

Find out more about Steven R. Southard’s work and read free stories at his Web site.

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

David Eddings, RIP

I just learned that David Eddings died today.

I’m stunned and saddened.

I won’t get maudlin. I didn’t know the man…but I loved his books. The Belgariad holds a special place in my heart.


Monday, June 1st, 2009

Slush Pile Blues ala The New Yorker

For my writer friends, courtesy of Moonrat ala the New Yorker Magazine:

Slush Pile Blues