"No mas, no mas. . ."

Such were the words of the celebrated boxing legend Roberto Duran when he was forced to quit against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980.
He was given a boxing lesson that night, and Leonard reclaimed the welterweight title he had lost to Duran 5 months before. Much in the same way, after Susanna Clarke battered me to the point of unconsciousness so many times in the last couple of weeks, after knocking me down countless times, cutting me open, and basically killing me on my feet, my corner decided to throw in the towel.

When I reached the end of chapter 57 last evening, after 830 pages I decided that I had seen enough. I firmly believed that I could be a trooper and tough it up, but in the end I closed down Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell before going to dinner and knew that there was no way I could ever pick it up again. I have never -- ever -- been this underwhelmed by such a renowned work of speculative fiction.

Looking back, I can't quite believe how many chances I gave this novel. A lot more than it deserved, that's for damn sure! I meant to write a post full of sarcastic bits and pieces, but I went to Auschwitz and Birkenau extermination camps today and I don't have it in me to do so. Books that you read while on vacation sometimes become associated with those travels. I feel so sorry that my adventure in beautiful Poland will henceforth forever be tainted by the memory of such a disappointing book like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

I agree wholeheartedly that the novel is well-written. I really enjoyed Clarke's witty writing style, though the prose is at times a bit too flowery. That this work has been thoroughly researched is evident, and the author's grasp of the countless 19th-century details is nothing short of astonishing. And yet, incorporated together to form a novel created what is possibly one of the most boring works I have ever read. We're talking all filler and no killer here, all in the name of mannerism. . .

Pointless chapters succeed one another, adding more padding to a book that's already vast enough. Cut to about 400 pages, I reckon I would have enjoyed it quite a bit. Sadly, having to read through a panoply of chapters that go nowhere and add nothing whatsoever to the storylines just about did it for me. I mean, there is basically no plotlines, and those that comprise the novel are decidedly on the thin side. I mean, give me a reason to read this!

The characterization, much like the plot, leave a lot to be desired. Jonathan Strange is the only well-drawn character in the entire book, and even he is not anything special. The supporting cast is more or less on the lame side, which doesn't help at all.

Having said all that, it's the pace that killed me. I mean, when the story moves at a speed that makes a Polish train feel like you're riding the TGV, is it any wonder I lost interest. Keep in mind that the better part of that book was read aboard trains, while I had absolutely nothing else to do. The Polish countryside isn't exactly the rolling hills of Tuscany, so it's not as though the scenery was enchanting enough to keep me away from reading. And the only people in my compartments turned out to be old Polish folks who didn't speak a lick of French or English. Technically, I should have finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell ages ago. But the damned thing bored me to tears to such an extent that I could never read more than 50-75 pages in one sitting. I've spent the last week or so traveling with an Aussie girl from Melbourne, and she fell asleep on the train to Krakow. Naturally, I decided to read a little and never knew she was observing me until I heard her laugh. She claimed I had such a look of disdain and hopelessness on my face that I should just quit reading the stupid thing.

But I was so close to my objective. I wanted to soldier on, to reach the book's ending so I could review it. Alas, I relish the thought of finishing the novel as much as I want to get an anal search at the Warsaw airport when I fly to Helsinki in a couple of days. Truth to tell, I'd rather read Terry Goodkind's The Sword of Truth. And coming from me, that's saying something!

Hence, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell will become a wandering book. I will leave it here at the book exchange of Krakow's Greg and Tom Hostel, hoping that it will travel around the world in the hands of readers who will enjoy it more than I did. . .

I know that many people liked the book. But I believe it's fair to say that it did absolutely nothing for me. And I gave it more chances than I have ever given any single book I can remember. Oh well, to each his own. . .

I wanted to tell you guys more about Wroclaw and Krakow, but it's been a long day and I need a drink. Hmmm, I think I need more than a few drinks!;-) Just know that I'm still having a ball, though the girls in Krakow are nowhere near as stunning as the ones in Wroclaw! Needless to say, I'm loving my stay in Poland and I wish I could spend more time in this very nice country. So I'll give you the lowdown some other time.

Meanwhile, there's bound to be a cold Zywiec or Tyskie beer with my name on it nearby. . .:-)

Again, don't spellcheck me! And please, consider visiting Poland!:p For the gorgeous girls, if nothing else!!!

37 commentaires:

Colinhead said...

You know what? I wholeheartedly agree with you. I sat through the first quarter of the book hoping against hope that the pace would pick up and a story would begin to emerge, but it wouldn't! It just would not turn into something resembling a story. I only got a quarter of the way through it before I quit unintentionally (the book was shelved and I could never summon the enthusiasm to open it again). I intend to give it another stab because the premise is very interesting to me and it is so acclaimed, but I can't see that happening for a good long while yet.

Robert Walker said...

Here's the general rule I follow: If, after around 50 pages (give or take), a book is still not doing it for me, I'll stop reading it. My philosophy is simple: there are too many great books out there for me to waste time on a bad one (or, one I don't like).

Now, I can imagine the retort that some books take time to get going, or that kind of thing, but if you can't grab me in the first 10-20 pages, let alone the first 50, well, I refer you to the above philosophy.

Rose said...

I, too, only made it through about 100 pages. I can't believe you toughed it out like that! I, too, was very disappointed after reading so many good reviews of this book.

polishgenius said...

If you're still in Krakow on Monday I can hand over the Jim Butcher antidote to slow pace- Storm Front...

>_>


I have to say, I like it. But I have a curious fascination with the idea of Faerie as very alien as it's presented in the book, which is probably what drew me into it along with the writing style.

Got to agree that characterisation wasn't the strong point, though I did like Strange and I was very impressed in how the Raven King was presented as the hidden mover.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely right on. I was stunned this book received the good press it did. A triumph of marketing over writing. And I think I commented when it was on your must-read list for the trip: no no.

Larry said...

I don't know if you've read Austen or Trollope yet, but if you haven't, you probably would find much of their acclaimed points to be of little use to you, as those were the two 19th century authors that I thought of first while reading Clarke's book.

It's not for you then, since it seems you prefer a more plot-driven novel and it is a more of a mannered meander than a boom-boom blast to the end. Too bad you didn't like it, but tastes vary, no? :D

Anonymous said...

My mind boggles at the so varied reactions to JS&MN. Personally, its my favorite novel ever. I was spellbound from the first page and finished it a few days later, becoming lost in Clarke's world for many hours at a time. But most people I see talking about it online just couldn't get into it, couldn't handle the slow pace, etc. Well, all I can say is, the slow pace and flourishing details really are what give the book its charm. I guess everyone is just too used to the gory and expedient fantasies that dominate today's market.

Strange and Norrell is a novel of antiquity, like Palliser's The Quincunx and other victorian recreations. It certainly isn't for everyone, and apparently not for the majority of modern spec fic readers. I read it after randomly grabbing it off a bookshelf last year without seeing any of the reviews and loved it. Maybe it was the expectations built up by reviewers like Gaiman that made people think it was going to be something it wasn't.

I say give it a chance, but don't expect it to be like anything that gets praised on here. Its got plenty of awesome stuff, like the reanimated statues, the legion of rain-ships, the souls of dead soldiers torn from hell and thrust into their old bodies to give witness at the whim of a magician, the prison of darkness, everything with the Man With Thistle-Down Hair... You just have to drift through lots of English manners and mannerisms to get there.

Anonymous said...

Yup theres Pat, never able to pass up a snide remark about terry goodkind.
8/
what a whiner

Shawn C. Speakman said...

Yup, and there's another Terry Goodkind supporter, posting "anonymous." haha

Cheers!

dragonb said...

Thank You!
I think I feel the exact same way as you about the book. Plodding is exactly the word for it. It's nice to see people that don't just drink the cool-aid of the publishing establishment or wherever the cool-aid is coming from.
I did actually finish it, but mostly out of an insane desire to read all Hugos. (which for a few have paid off, I've had a few where I hated the first 50 pages, but ended up liking the book overall)

Also of note, I'm a non-anonymous Terry Goodkind fan. I think I'm just a little better at filtering out the "preaching".

Anyway, keep up the good work and enjoy your trip. I didn't look at your whole itinerary, but I lived in Dresden(former E Germany) for a while Definitely worth a visit. Even more beautiful now with the reconstruction.

Aidan Moher said...

Pat,

You're not the only one who feels that way about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel. I put it down about 1/3 of the way through for almost the same reasons.

Certainly didn't enjoy it as I thought I was going to based on the almost universal acclaim.

~Aidan
A Dribble of Ink

Sini said...

Pat, don't know if you got my email about Helsinki, but if you're in town on 5th at noon, come meet the people from the www.risingshadow.net at the main railway station, by the statue of Aleksis Kivi. We will meet there and then continue to Suomenlinna. In Suomenlinna there will be a big picnic with Finnish sf-fandom. And beer. There won't be a sf-gathering without beer!

Ellestra said...

So where are you leaving exactly? I could come and wave to you :)

Liam said...

I guess I'm not that surprised by your reaction, all said and done. That said, I still loved that book.

Patrick said...

Sini: I'll be in Helsinki from Monday to Wednesday, so that won't work.

Ellestra: I'm catching a train to Warsaw tomorrow morning (don't know at which time yet, as I have to get my ass to Orbis to check the timetable), and I'll be running to the Warsaw Uprising Museum as soon as I've checked in. Other than that, I'll watch the Euro 2008 finals (Go Espania!) and not much else. I have an early flight to Helsinki on Monday morning, so I'll be catching Bus 175 to the airport earlier than I'd like. But thems the breaks!

Ellestra said...

The Warsaw Uprising Museum is depresing but certainly worth seeing.

If you want to we can meet somewhen in between your visit to the Uprising Museum and the finals. Every one is for Spain it makes me want Germans to win (Hey they have 20% Poles quotient :P).

The 175 bus is very useful but it also has unfortunate pickpockets infestation.

ThRiNiDiR said...

But you wrote the review after all, didn't you Pat?:p (Although under the disguise of "traveler's journal") :). About the book, I agree whole-heartedly, it's a stinker.

Roland said...

I can't help but feel a little offended by this post. Not personally of course, but in a way that's cheating. You actually DID review the book, even though you didn't finish it. And even though you talk about your own perceptions, the post is filled with "objective" labels like "disappointing book", "one of the most boring works I have ever read", "all filler and no killer", "Pointless chapters" and so forth.

I couldn't tell you what to write in your blog, but as a reader of the Hotlist, I'd very much prefer not to read this kind of indefensible labeling. I know we're all (or some of us are) grown-ups here and we don't need the constant "in my view", "I think that" and "for me", but hey - that's a book with a WFA and a Hugo, a book that Neil Gaiman and a hell of a lot of other people praised.

Dunno about you, but in situations such as this I tend to think the problem's in me and not in the book ;)

Cecrow said...

For me it was middle of the road; liked the style, didn't like the pacing, liked the ending, can't think of anyone I'd recommend it to, but glad I read it. I guess that adds up to "meh" and *shrug*.

lxz said...

It's strange how perceptions differ so vastly. I love this book. I've read it twice now, the second time out loud. It's a wonderful book for reading aloud. I'm certain I'll embark on a third reading and a fourth and a fifth ...
The language is utterly beautiful. I think it's a book one savours for the language and the writing. This is the only book I've ever read in which I've savoured every word and sentence and I would not omit a single bit of it. Every incident and piece of description is like a mini-story in itself. And I thought the characterisation was very well done. It's subtle not blatant, and yet I have a distinct feeling for and impression of many of the characters.

This is not intended to denigrate any of the contrary opinions expressed here. But I felt I had to defend a book I enjoyed immensely and think superb. BTW, I did not read any reviews of the book before reading it.

Patrick said...

Ellestra: Email me at the giveaway address, and we'll see if we can make it happen. It will all depend when I get in town and at which time I'm done with the museum.

Where do you live in Warsaw? I'm near the Centrum stop, close to the big shopping mall...

Anonymous said...

"Well, all I can say is, the slow pace and flourishing details really are what give the book its charm. I guess everyone is just too used to the gory and expedient fantasies that dominate today's market."

Ah, yes, it's too bad we're all not as intellectual as you.

Revie said...

I read it last year and I had a hard time getting through it. The pacing of the story does pick up at the end, but I was left wondering if all that Jane Austen-ish detail and footnoting was worthwhile or if the author could have cut it down to oh, 600 pages or so. I think she could have done more with the character development of Jonathan Strange and a little less with her descriptions of the Napoleonic Wars. The forays into Faerie, and the dabbling with madness were fascinating, but I like that kind of stuff (such as G. MacDonald's Phantastes) so I am glad I read it after all. I didn't realize how heavily it had been hyped when it first came out.

Gabriele C. said...

I picked up the book in Haltwhistle and left it behind in York. Couldn't get into it, either, and I do enjoy a lot of 19th century fiction.

I always bring more than one book for traveling in case I caught a sucker, and I sometimes pick up books on the way.

Anonymous said...

When I can't get into a book, I put it back on the shelf for a few months and then try again. Sometimes I'm not in the mood for a slow-paced book and need to wait until I'm very calm and relaxed, then find I can enjoy it.

Having said that, I tried several times to read this book over several months before I gave up!

Anonymous said...

to each his own. I think Strange and Norrell is simply a classic. This is on a very short list of books I will reread. I thought the book was rushed at the end and could have been even longer. I thought the hype was correct about this book.

Anonymous said...

I'm still going to give his book a shot, but I'm a little worried now.

Rich said...

I have a virtually untroubled copy on my shelf as Amazon did a misprice, and the day I bought it in a local bookstore, they had the audiobook (26 CD's) for less than £8.00.

As an audiobook I adored it and will probably listen to it again and again, my lovely big white hardback copy I'm giving to the local library.

The writing is beautiful when read to you but far too indulgent when read. When you're listening in a car trapped in traffic it's probably the finest read you'll ever listen to!

Larry said...

Rich,

I wouldn't give away the white hardcover edition, as that was an alternate print during the first print run and apparently it'll have some value in the coming years.

Anonymous said...

Whats the girl from Melbourne's name?

RobB said...

Gotta love all the anonymous posters who fling the monkey poo without actually naming themselves.

Pat, finally a book we agreed upon after a patch of of just the opposite. Not that we need to have the same tastes, but this book didn't work for me, either - and I soldiered on.

Roland, its a fine line to tow when a book disagrees with oneself so much. The reader (or reviewer or what have you) should be able to say (even if not a specific book review) why the book didn't work, or at least the portion that was read didn't work.

ben said...

I'm with you, although I did stick it through and read the whole thing. There are some positive qualities, but the whole thing is like a huge prologue--it teases but never delivers. I was hugely disappointed, especially considering the ringing endorsements from writers like Neil Gaiman and a myriad of reviewers. If you can't deliver action, thats fine; but you better then be able to deliver on character and/or plot. Clarke did neither.

Anonymous said...

I had to listen to the audiobook to get through it. The guy who read the book was enjoyable, but it was a threadbare plot that took too many detours. I agree with polishgenius...Pick up Storm Front!

NeoConstant said...

I loved this book! It was one of the most mesmerizing books I've ever read. The man with the thistle down hair was a brilliant, haunting figure, and the elements of mystery were incredible. I'm the sort who usually can't stand the old Victorian novels, too. This one sucked me in almost instantly, with the very unusual magic Norrell practices in the Abbey.

Oh well. To each their own. I've read this twice, and loved it each time. So much is left unknown. It takes moxie to write like Clarke, to leave so much unsaid...

Christopher said...

I am quite surprised at the negative reactions this book has received here. While I will admit that it took some effort to push through the first couple of chapters, by the time I finished the book I knew I had read one of the best spec-fiction books of the last ten years. I read it two years ago and I am still in awe of it.

However, while we may disagree on this particular title, I will still rely on the Hotlist when I'm looking for something new and interesting. I never would have found "The Name of the Wind" if it weren't for this site.

Farseer said...

Although it's certainly not for everybody, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a stunningly good novel, a classic, which will be remembered and reedited long after 99.9% of the books praised in this blog have been forgotten. It's just not the action/adventure kind of novel we are used to in the (epic) fantasy genre. It's an old-fashined well-written story, for readers willing to accept its pace and enjoy and submerge themselves within its magic. I won't go on, because others, like thornofcamorr, have expressed it perfectly well in their comments.

It's not for everybody, as I said. Many readers will be expecting more rhythm and that's perfectly fine, it says nothing bad about those readers.

However, I find it a bit disturbing that so many people here, including some who call themselves critics, are unable to distinguish between a book that is not for them and "a stinker of a book".

Anonymous said...

Interesting how people can react so differently to books - despite it's flaws I still enjoyed Jonathan Strange, but gave up on Shadow of the Wind after 100 pages because I was bored and hated the main character!