Jim Grimsley, Dorothy L. Sayers, Susanna Clarke

The following books were read from late January to March of this year.

Comfort and Joy, by Jim Grimsley: My friend lent me this sequel to Winter Birds after I finished the first two Grimsley books, and despite the lack of novel narrative devices, I think I preferred this novel to its prequel. That being said, I felt the story was a little incoherent—it’s about coming-out experiences and receiving acceptance from one family and rejection from another—but I suppose the background was necessary even if it was a bit choppily presented. Danny’s hemophilia makes sense now (I appreciated the scene when he tells Ford he’s HIV-positive), and there’s a quiet dignity that Grimsley allows his characters in this book that they didn’t quite manage before, although their situation continues to be tragic.

Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy L. Sayers: I enjoyed Clouds of Witness almost as much as I enjoyed Whose Body?. Lord Peter comes to his brother’s rescue when the Duke of Denver is accused of murdering his sister’s fiancĂ© and has to disentangle an unfortunate combination of secrets. I don’t know how clever it is as a mystery, but it does accomplish what a mystery does best to begin with: the examination of human personalities. I especially enjoyed the gradual process by which Sayers painted the portraits of such vivid (although far from exemplary) characters—Mary Wimsey, Cathcart, the French mistress whose name I can’t recall—and I appreciated Lord Peter’s intuitive approach to solving crimes. He is as scientific as Holmes in his investigations, armed with cameras and all, but less strictly deductive in his reasoning. One of my favorite parts was his examination of Cathcart’s bookshelf as a reflection of the man’s character; what a sensible idea.

Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, by Dorothy L. Sayers: Not quite as interesting as the first two mysteries, I have to admit, mostly because the final solution was so unsatisfying. To put it shortly, old General Fendman is found dead, and Lord Peter must ascertain the time of his death, in the process of which he discovers foul play. An excess of suspects, but none of them quite as interesting as before. I was however pleased by the medical details that Sayers included in the examination of the corpse: the description of rigor mortis was rather nice, I thought.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke: Well, one would think that all the hype would spoil the book, but on the contrary, it exceeded my expectations. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell will forever hold a place on my favorites list. Truly, truly amazing. (I’ve just discovered that the paperback is coming out soon, and I plan to purchase it as soon as possible.) It’s written rather like a history, with footnotes referencing “primary sources” (the academic in me delights at these sorts of details), but the impression is much more of some great epic novel, in the truest sense of the word. I was reminded of War and Peace at times, particularly during Strange’s experiences in battle with Wellington. Every word was written with such care, and while the result seems effortless (really as if the author had lived in this alternate timeline), the planning, the craftsmanship of the work is clear. And oh, all the people that one meets in this novel! Mad King George III, Wellington, Lord Byron, to name the real personages that make their appearance, not to mention the title characters themselves: Strange and Norrell. I was surprised to discover the surprising lack of antagonism between the two—the summaries had led me to believe that they would end up bitter rivals—but even at the height of their disagreement, they depend on each other and cannot quite bring themselves to hate each other. After all, who understands Norrell as well as Strange?—and vice versa, of course. By the way, I rather like Norrell, even if he is unsociable, tactless and neurotic. It’s a testament to Clarke’s genius as a writer that she makes each character a complete person, so complete that one can’t bring oneself to unconditionally hate or despise anyone, or for that matter, adore them either. No, instead, we see the characters honestly, more honestly than one might in real life, and I think this indeed is the art and craft of the novel-of-manners genre she adopts for most of her narration. I can’t really describe the effect of the novel, but it is truly remarkable—not only the characterization that I’ve remarked upon, but the story as well, which is intricate and fascinating. Clarke’s scope is broad, which may be why some readers complained of the slow pace in the middle, but one realizes towards the end that the pace was perfect after all. The image is of someone spinning thread: the wheel may pause, the strand may fall a little slack, but by no means is it ever dropped. Never does Clarke lose control of her story, a fact which awes me to no end.

(As a side note, I’ve been anticipating this book ever since I read Clarke’s short story in a Sandman anthology. In the brief biography given at the end of the book, there was an oblique mention of the novel she was writing and intending to publish. I had admired the short story tremendously—I considered it the best in the collection—and I had been looking for her novel ever since. The wait was worth it, and I’m already impatient for the sequel.)