Category archives: Fiction

First Line: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

by Feb. 4, 2010 in Books, First Line, Fiction, Recommended

I think that far too often the first line of a book gets wasted on the reader (myself included). How often do we, when first cracking open a brand new book, stop to appreciate everything the author is trying to tell us right at the very beginning? Sure there are times when we are immediately captivated by some good writing, or by a novel that jumps right into the action, but do we really give enough time to what is literally setting the stage for everything to come?

With that in mind, I'd like to start a reoccurring feature on the blog: First Line. In these posts I will provide the first line of a book I have read (and hopefully many of you have as well) and discuss what it does right and wrong in context of the book as whole.  Don't worry, I won't be spoiling anything specific.  Instead, I'll be focusing on the tone, themes, etc. of the novel.  It's not exactly a review, either, because as we all know a book can start great and end terribly or start terribly and end great.  This is still in its infancy, so I'm open to suggestions as well.

For our first First I've chosen Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.  This novel introduces itself to us with the following:

"Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians."

There is so much contained within this little sentence, it's unbelievable.  The first thing that stands out to me is the straightforwardness of the claim that there were magicians.  There's no attempt to justify the claim or to convince the reader with flowery language.  It is merely a statement of fact that there was a society of magicians in York some years ago.

This may seem insignificant at first considering many books assume the lore they are based on, but it is a cornerstone for this book.  Strange is written as though it were a history book - a "true" account of the Napoleonic wars where magicians played a critical role.  We can see immediately that this book takes the idea of magicians, and their place in history, seriously.

In many ways it is what is left out of this first sentence that makes it so interesting.  It does not start with "Once upon a time in York there was a society of magicians."  No, this is no fairy tale, and we as the reader now know that we should not treat it as such.

There is a certain dryness of voice that is evident in this first sentence as well.  No embellishment is necessary when the facts themselves are interesting, an idea clear in this opener, and one which continues throughout the book.  Furthermore, it is this same dry tone that will be responsible for so much of the humor in the book.  History it may be, but that doesn't mean that it will be any less entertaining.

Ultimately, without even moving beyond the first sentence, Clarke has set us up for a book that, while humorous and entertaining, is meant to be taken seriously.  The footnotes, characters, and plot are only interesting if we allow ourselves to read them as though they are real.  If we look at this book and think "fantasy" it's merely a clever diversion.  If it's seen as "history", then it becomes a near masterpiece of writing.  Clarke obviously knew this, and she was preparing us as best she could from the very beginning.

So there you have it.  Let me know what you think - both about the first line of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and of the First Line concept as a whole.


by Jan. 29, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

An introduction to a book can be a double-edged sword.  Sometimes it can be extremely useful and informative - as is the case with Botchan.  Here we have an introduction that reveals some of the subtleties of the translation that would not have been evident from the text itself.  For example the word Botchan, which is the nickname of the main character and narrator, can mean any of the following:  "a younger son; inexperienced or naïve; easygoing in a way that can either be mildly endearing or distressingly irresponsible" (5).

Clearly this is important information that is necessary to approach the ...

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Half Moon Investigations (Audio)

by Jan. 22, 2010 in Audio Books, Books, Fiction, Recommended

Before we headed to Pennsylvania for Christmas vacation, Vanessa and I picked up the audio book versions of the first Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows from our local library.  These were meant to be safe, guaranteed good listens for the many hours of driving we were going to have to do up north.  Unfortunately, I left them at home and when we arrived in PA, with a four hour drive looming on the horizon, we were feeling a little nervous.

Vanessa's mom, and her trusty library card, came ...

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2009 Reading Year in Review

by Jan. 13, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended, Science Fiction

I'm posting this later than I originally hoped, but oh well.  You'll forgive me, won't you internet?

I think it's safe to say that I read more in 2009 than any year before.  It was both fulfilling and motivating to record my thoughts on books after I finished them, and so I don't have any intention of stopping in the future.  To recap the year, though, I'd like to provide you with my top books of the year, and leverage the database to provide you with some fun stats!

This "Best books list" is ...

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by Jan. 4, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Not Recommended

I remember when the movie Blindness came out a few years ago, I thought "what a fascinating idea - everyone in the world suddenly goes blind except for a single woman!"  Once I learned it was originally a book, I decided to forego watching the movie, and decided to just read the book it was based on.  It turns out I was right - it is a fascinating idea, if not repulsive.  Jose Saramago's vision of a society stricken blind is quite disturbing.

Unfortunately, while Blindness is a well-written, fascinating, disturbing book, it's simply annoying and unpleasant to read.  Saramago ...

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Olive Kitteridge

by Dec. 3, 2009 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

I knew nothing about Olive Kitteridge before reading it except that it was a Pulitzer Prize winner and that my sister-in-law enjoyed it when she read it for her book club.  I enjoy going into books blind this way, and try to do it whenever possible.  That's part of the reason many of my descriptions and posts here will be pretty vague.  I don't want to give away anymore than is absolutely necessary to get you interested in the book.

With that said, I'm not going to tell you anything about Olive Kitteridge except that it is ...

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I Am a Cat

by Dec. 1, 2009 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

Before I started reading I Am a Cat, I was afraid that I would not be able to relate to it. After all, commentary and parody of the social upheaval in Meiji era Japan is not something that strikes me as approachable. It was immediately clear, though, that I had nothing to worry about. The cat himself was endearing and believable. Furthermore, the observations he made and the comments in general about humanity were not limited to Meiji era Japan, but rather things we could all relate to.

In terms of structure, I Am a Cat is actually a collection ...

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East of Eden

by Dec. 1, 2009 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

I borrowed this copy of East of Eden from my grandfather about ten years ago. I had just finished reading, and enjoying, Grapes of Wrath and so I figured this was an obvious next choice. Ten years later it turns out I was absolutely correct.

East of Eden tells the story of two families, Hamilton and Trask, as they live in Salinas Valley, California. It is both epic, and intimate. It does so many thing right, that it’s hard to speak generically about it without giving away parts of the book that are better experienced first hand.

So, if ...

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