Books I Read: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2004
Content Rating: PG (there are a couple mildly freakish bits, like a woman's finger in a box, or dead men brought back to life, but nothing I wouldn't let my (older) kids read)

In early 19th-century England, the great magic of Merlin and the Raven King has disappeared. The only magicians left are merely theoretical -- men who call themselves magicians, but are more akin to historians than anything -- until Mr. Norrell. He's a stuffy, controlling, arrogant little man, but also a practical magician. And he desperately wants to restore magic to England. He is moderately successful when Jonathan Strange applies to be his pupil. Where Norrell is academic, Strange is showy and charismatic, and where Norrell fears the most powerful kinds of magic -- that of the faeries -- Strange believes that is who they should learn from most.

My friend who gave this to me characterized it as "Sense and Sensibility and Sorcery". What shines about this book are the two main characters and their relationship, both as friends and enemies. The story is as funny and charming as Strange, and as stuffy and academic as Norrell. By the latter, I mean that the story frequently tangents into vignettes of English magical history. For example, Norrell and Strange will be arguing about whether the Raven King is really gone forever, and Strange will say something like, "There are stories of people having seen him. What about the conquistador, the farmer in Yorkshire, or the girl in Manchester," and each of those will have a (sometimes very long) footnote relating the story he refers to.

These infodumps are very much part of the style of the book. They are very enjoyable, and they made the alternate history that much more believable, but there were times when I was tempted to skip them and continue with the story. (Oh, but you can't skip them. That's the secret.) This is not a thriller or a fast read (though it has a few exciting and frightening bits). This is a book to live in for a while, and to believe sometimes that maybe magic is real.

Good Cause Giveaway and Last Minute Questions

First, the questions. Then the giveaway. Asea asks: What's something you really love about living in Thailand?

A lot, actually. Except for the polluted hot season, it's beautiful. I love the rain, so the hundred million inches we get in the rainy season are actually pretty cool. The food is good. Everything is cheap. And there's not this underlying cultural pressure to PRODUCE, PRODUCE, PRODUCE! (That last one probably contributes to Thailand's weaker economy, but whatever).

Is reverse culture shock hard? (I struggle with it a lot.) 

Sometimes it's hard, though it's probably made easier by the fact that I know I (most likely) won't be living there again. I don't know how to be more specific without sounding like I'm complaining about America. I like America, but sometimes it can be a bit overbearing about safety or how kids are raised, while at the same time not caring so much about what gets shown on TV (though that last one's not very fair; TV drives me batty in general).


Our friends, Aaron and Carrien Blue, are helping an orphanage near the Burmese border. The kids there are refugee orphans, whose parents have been lost or killed as a result of the genocide and fighting that has been going on in Burma for decades.

They have about 40 kids, but no truck. The kids have to walk to school everyday, about 3-4 miles on a fairly large street. If someone gets sick or hurt, they have to hire a truck to take them to the hospital, spending money which could be better spent on things like food, water, or medical bills.

So the Blues are trying to raise $6000 by the end of this week, so that when Aaron comes to visit he can buy them a truck as well. To that end, Carrien is giving away a bunch of cool stuff on her blog to anyone who donates or spreads the word.

Last I heard, they were at $3,280, which is AWESOME, but they still have a long way to go. This is a really great cause, guys. These kids are at risk in all kinds of ways, but giving them a home and education reduces that risk significantly. And a truck is a big help to that end.

So get over there. Any donation, any word spreading, will help these kids.

UPDATE: They're up to $4,519 now, and Carrien has added additional prizes to the giveaway. If you've already entered, you're eligible for these new prizes as well. If not, what the heck are you doing, get over there!

Why You Don't Write (and What To Do About It)

Carrie* says: I'm relatively new to your website. I'm curious to hear on what are your thoughts in regards to writer's block.

* Who, I'm obligated to point out, is not Carrie Kei Heim Binas.

I hate it. But I think I know how to deal with it.

For the purposes of this post, writer's block is any time you should be writing, but aren't (i.e. you set aside the time, opened your Word Doc, sent out an #amwriting tweet... but zero words are coming out). Take, for example, my word count spreadsheet from a month ago:

It says I was "planning" chapter 7, but that was not my intention. Even when I do plan a chapter, it's rare I don't write anything. So what happened? In this case, I was trying to get from Plot Point A to Plot Point B, but every method I thought of was weak, lame, or contrived. I couldn't find anything worth writing.

If I may generalize millions of writers into tiny boxes, I think there are two kinds of writer's block. The first is where you don't know what to write. Common causes are plot holes, poor planning, weak character development, characters stuck in impossible situations, or just a plain lack of ideas.

Everyone's different, but the way I deal with this is to GET OUT. I might talk to someone about the story, but usually I just need to do something different. Something non-creative. Walking, swimming, cleaning, yard work...whatever works (of course my wife is wondering why she doesn't see me "getting over writer's block" more often, but we won't talk about that here).

It might help to even take some time off writing, but don't do it for more than a week or two. Maybe a month in extreme cases. If you need more than that, you might have a different problem. Or you might have the second kind of writer's block: you don't really want to write.

Maybe it's laziness, lack of self-discipline, poor time management... Don't feel bad. Every writer struggles with this stuff.** Writing is a lot like exercise--it's hard to do, but you feel great once it's done. The solution to this type of block is the opposite of the first: SIT DOWN AND WRITE. Even if it's full of plot holes, contrived situations, and weak characters, getting it written down is better than not.

What about you? Do you ever get blocked? How do you get over it?

** In the 3 weeks I had in the States--a lot of which came with free babysitting--I only squeezed out 8 hours of writing. Few of them productive.

More Answers, in Which Ancient Histories are Revealed

L. T. Host asks: What the deuce IS a jelly baby?

Like little, chewy babies, but you eat them!

I'm curious which PART of the CA coast-- if you're in the middle-ish, here's hoping it warms up before Fiance and I take a trip up there mid-July. If you're down south, you picked a good time to come. This is the NICE weather everyone talks about when they talk about CA. :)

We were in Southern California (Orange County and, briefly, San Diego). So yeah, pretty much the definition of Perfect Weather.

I'm also curious why you picked Thailand?

The simple answer is because my wife Cindy is Thai. The complex answer involves mission trips, a little mysticism, and a DTR (not in that order). We could talk about it over coffee, except I don't drink coffee. (Seriously though, you can e-mail me or something if you want the longer story).

C. Michael Fontes asks: What prompted you to become foster parents in Thailand?

The short answer to this one is the mysticism: God called us. The less short answer: Cindy's had a heart for orphans since she was young. When we decided to be overseas missionaries, we had a vague idea of running an orphanage/planting a church in whatever country we ended up in. But after we got here, that all kind of changed.

Emmet asks: In a no-holds-barred fight who would you rather be, the Emperor or the Lord Marshal (obviously the answer is Riddick, but other than that)?

Let's take a look:

The Emperor's prescience pretty much cancels out the Lord Marshal's coolest abilities. Plus, you know, it's not like he has a pretty face to protect. As long as Darth Vader's not around, I gotta go with Palpatine.

Anica is a great name, but if there had been no vetoing process (Cindy), what would have been on her birth certificate?

The only girl names I tried to push were Anica and Serenity (the latter being your suggestion, as I recall). But if I'd had a boy, and no wife to stop me, he'd be either Morpheus or Optimus Prime.

Would you rather write an amazing book (LOTR caliber) that doesn't get published until after your death, or a shite book that gets made into a bunch of movies (Twilight), and all your friends pat you on the back and say "great job" but then ridicule you on message boards around the internet, and you will have no other books to redeem yourself? 

So either way my career is depressing and full of rejection? In that case, give me the movies.

Would you rather give up cheese for the rest of your life, or be a vegan for a year? 

Definitely vegan. Uh... vegans can still eat bacon, right?

Bane of Anubis asks: How could you choose Aliens over Dragons? :P 

[Bane is referring to being a finalist in Nathan's contest, wherein I was a total jerk and voted Josin over him.]

See, Bane, like any good American I assumed my vote didn't really matter. How was I to know you'd tie? As soon as I get my time machine working, the first thing I'm going to change is my vote, I swear.

jjdebenedictus asks: Do these jeans make my butt look big? 

I can honestly say, from my point of view, they do not.

Myrna Foster asks: Do you have any other family over in Thailand?

Me? No. But Cindy's dad lives in Bangkok. She also has approximately one thousand aunts, uncles, and cousins scattered throughout the kingdom. One of them drew me a family tree once trying to explain it all. It took him like half an hour. I don't remember any of it.

What do you have in your writer's "drawer?"

You mean the stuff you'll never, ever read? Folks who've been around here a while will remember my first novel, Travelers, which got trunked after 60 straight rejections. Also before Pawn's Gambit, I wrote and submitted another Air Pirates short story to BCS, trunking it because it just wasn't working. And before that there was a short story that would eventually evolve into my current WIP, Cunning Folk. That not very good at all.

Do you really own an umbrella chair?

And lastly, Carrie says: I'm relatively new to your website. I'm curious to hear on what are your thoughts in regards to writer's block.

Which I'll answer on Friday. Thank you, everyone, for your questions! I enjoyed answering them. Hopefully you enjoyed it too.

Answers, in Which I Reveal My Secret (and Not So Secret) Loves

We're back home now, and all is as it should be. Basically. Jet lag is about a quarter the misery it was going east. Our house is in fine shape, and our kids are all super-happy to have the family back together again.

As to your questions just...well done. I'm so proud to have such curious and imaginative readers. I'll answer some today, some Wednesday, and one of them (that would be yours, Carrie) gets its own post on Friday.

Matt Delman asks: Would you like a jelly baby?

Heck. Yes. If it's gummy/chewy/not black licorice, I want it.

If the square of the hypotenuse is the same as the square of the other two sides, then what is a mouse when it splints?

Actually it's the square of the sum of the other two sides. Unless you're asking if hypothetically it weren't... In that case all 3 sides would be the same, which would mean right angles would always be 60 degrees, which would make my house only slightly less square than it already is, which of course means a mouse when it splints is slightly better than a cricket when it smokes.

Why do we drive on a parkway but park on a driveway? 

Actually I drive on freeways (which are usually free) and highways (which are never high, except in Bangkok but then they are no longer free). And I have to drive on my driveway. How else am I supposed to get the car up there?

Amie McCracken asks: Besides writing and drawing what's your favorite thing to do?

Hang out with my kids. I love to talk with them, play games with them, watch movies with them, and mostly to see them grow and learn. It's aMAZing.

And, where else in the world have you been? 

Not many. Evidence to the contrary, I'm not much of a world traveler. I have been to Guadalajara to visit my retired parents. And I spent a month in Kunming, China for a cultural exchange program. That trip to China was kind of where I fell in love with Asia in general.

India Drummond asks: If you had a day to yourself, and the assurance you would never get caught for anything you did, have to justify yourself, and if you wanted, no one would even know... so what would you do for those 24 hours? 

I'm so boring. You've given me free reign to drive a Ferrari in the Indy 500, steal the Tower of Pisa to put in my backyard, or take a joy ride on a stealth bomber. But all I can think about is watching both seasons of Full Metal Alchemist while pigging out on various Western foods delivered to my lap.

Ricardo Bare asks: Hey Adam--have you ever read "The Edge Chronicles"?

No, but a bit of research brought up terms like steampunk, sky pirates, and sky galleons, which is no end of interesting. Let me know how they are!

Susan Kaye Quinn asks: What's the children's book that you read to your little ones so frequently that you've memorized it?

Isaac (my three year old) is the one who memorizes the books. Once he starts quoting a book over and over, I start to memorize it too. Usually the Dr. Seuss books are the culprits, being the easiest to memorize, but there's one book in particular Isaac likes: Disney's Mother Goose. I didn't take this book to the US with me, but Isaac really wanted to read it on one of his bad days. So he and I started saying as many rhymes as we could remember from it. Considering I don't even like the book, I remember a surprising amount of it.

When did you know you were an artist?

You're going to think I'm silly, but I never really thought of myself as an artist. Not until I drew this fan art for Natalie Whipple and she called me one. My little brother was always the artist, not me (he loves to say I taught him how to draw, referring to our doodles in the margins of the church bulletins on Sunday, but I never taught him this).

What's your favorite non-kid, non-writing activity? 

So aside from kids (and the more predictable answers of movies, games, and anime), my favorite activity is music. Not listening, but playing. (Ironically, my brother far exceeds my skill in this too. Isn't he supposed to be in my shadow?).

The only instruments I'll claim any skill to are acoustic guitar, bass guitar, and voice. And of those, bass is my very, very favorite. Unfortunately, it's the most boring instrument in the world to play by yourself, but I get my fix at church twice a month.

Okay, I'm cutting off the answers there. I'll get to the rest of these on Wednesday.

Question Time

This is my last post before I return from the cold wastelands of America. Okay, so the California coast isn't a wasteland, but it is cold. 70-degree highs and no humidity? That's scarf and gloves weather, folks! (No seriously. In Thailand it is).

In preparation for my return, I'm opening the floor up to questions. You may ask me any questions at all, serious or not, professional or totally inappropriate. I'll answer all of them when I come back, and I'll probably even be honest!

Now, last time I asked for questions, I got none. Zero. Other bloggers might consider that an insult, but I found it merely inconvenient. You forced me to come up with new content on my own! How dare you? If that happens again... you're all taking twenty laps around the blog, while I sit in my umbrella chair sipping lemonade.

I mean it!

Jonathan Coulton, Chiron Beta Prime

Christmas in June? Why not? When you're imprisoned on a mining asteroid, does it really matter what month it is?