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Some of the books I've lately read were particularly good.

A couple of them were on magic. Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane is probably the best work of his that I've read to date (granted, I haven't read that many). It is a book about childhood and loss, full of things that cannot possibly happen; very dark, sometimes desperately so, yet shining through all the darkness is the light (an electric light, no less) in the kitchen of an old farmhouse. Just behind the farmhouse is a pond.

This is how the story begins:

It was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm. It wasn't very big.

    Lettie Hempstock said it was an ocean, but I knew that was silly. She said they'd come here across the ocean from the old country.
    Her mother said that Lettie didn't remember properly, and it was a long time ago, and anyway, the old country had sunk.
    Old Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie's grandmother, said they were both wrong, and that the place that had sunk wasn't the really old country. She said she could remember the really old country.
    She said the really old country had blown up.

Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is quite another thing. Here, it is just the beginning of the nineteenth century. Magic has been gone from England for hundreds of years. The stories of the Raven King are as alive as ever, but it seems that, magic having faded, the only occupation for the modern gentleman-magicians is to study what has once been. The magical society of York meets upon the third Wednesday of every month, its members reading each other "long, dull papers upon the history of English magic".

One winter, however, something unexpected happens. It appears that, despite nobody having seen a practical magician for centuries, one can be found -- and in England, too! In the face of obvious skepticism, this magician is going to prove his claim to be able to do magic. He is also going to try and make sure that he is and will remain the only practicing magician in England. His name is Mr. Norrell. Given that the title lists his name second (oh, how vehemently he would object), you can guess that he isn't going to be the only one after all.

This is a quirky story, with characters at times almost Dickensian, and it is dark (tinged with bitterness, I would say), but not too much so. It tells of madness and fairy roads and of the (sometimes questionable) use a magician could be in a war with Napoleon. There is in it that time when "all hours become midnight" and there is also all the time spent in libraries, reading books on and of magic (a world of difference between the two).

I cannot say it has the strongest of plots, but its plot is not simple or plain or filled with platitudes. It has footnotes, though, and those make it particularly quaint. They reference dozens of books on magic (as well as periodicals and folktales) that do not in fact exist, and through these notes, one can learn quite a lot about the history of English magic and the personages who have been involved in it over the years.

I should warn you that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is almost 800 pages long, vs. under 200 for The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both, however, are well, well worth your time, if you happen to like books that are dark, yet oddly heartwarming, quaint, and magical cover to cover.


I also read Jasper Fforde's The Last Dragonslayer, a young adult novel which is, if I had to describe it in a word, "cute". It amounted to a well-spent evening after a difficult day, but it appears to have a significant plot flaw that made the ending less than satisfying. It is possible that this plot flaw is explained in later books of the series, but I am now rather wary.