The final post before Christmas itself, and technically posted a day early! Or two days late, depending on how you want to count it. In either situation, the last moments for everyone to get their shopping done is nigh. So in this holiday game where time is of the essence, what might you try to track down?
Day 21: The Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell miniseries
Based on the novel by Susanna Clarke, the Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell miniseries from the BBC was, for me, one of the top shows of the year. How it stands as an adaptation, I don’t know – I’ve put off reading the book because of its length and a reputation for tediousness despite being an excellent story. The 7-episode miniseries, however, is a delight throughout, full of enigmatic characters and desperate struggles. Bertie Carvel’s Jonathan Strange overflows with passion, a man of obsessions and wild swings of emotion that lead him into ever more dangerous territory. Eddie Marsan’s Norrell is painfully pompous and didactic, obsessed with books and propriety, though his portrayal is balanced by subtle nods to Norrell’s fears. Together, the Messrs. Strange and Norrell return “practical magic,” which is to say performative rather than theoretical magic, to England. Unfortunately, the machinations of a powerful fae (Marc Warren’s The Gentleman) and the prophesied return of the magician known as the Raven King (Niall Fulton) spread chaos and discord. Informing their actions are the characters of Lady Pole (Alice Englert), Arabella (Charlotte Riley), and Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare), all of whom are entrapped by the Gentleman in some form and offer powerful discussions concerning agency. Meanwhile, Vinculus (Paul Kaye) and Childermass (Enzo Cilenti) play around with perceptions of fate and morality, and are generally characters not taken anywhere near as seriously as they should. I love them all, and the series ends on a hook for a second season which might never come because there’s no sequel book. So if you know anyone who likes well-developed, emotionally driven characters, a layered plot, magic, and the tragedy of a taunted story that might never be, then buy them this beautiful series and watch them fall into obsession.
Day 22: Terry Pratchett’s “Tiffany Aching” series
Terry Pratchett’s final book, The Shepherd’s Crown, released this year, following his death in March. A master satirist, Pratchett was the creator of Discworld, a planetary disc balanced on the back of four elephants that stand on the shell of Great A’tuin, the world turtle. One of the sub-series in the Discworld narrative revolves around Tiffany Aching, a young girl who decides she is going to be a witch and proceeds to kick butt as one. She is assisted by the Nac Mac Feegle, little blue pixies obsessed with drinking and brawling, and other witches young and old. The Shepherd’s Crown is the final entry for both Tiffany Aching and the Disc as a whole. The series in general, I feel, skews towards a younger audience, but the storytelling is phenomenal regardless. From the creative use of magic to the intricate balancing of relationships, with commentary from Tiffany’s First, Second, and even Third thoughts and abundant humor from the Nac Mac Feegle, the series is an easy one to sink into. Throughout its run, the series tackles issues of power, identity, perception, the discovery of home, and the necessity for compassion. In part or in whole, Tiffany Aching’s story is a marvelous addition to anyone’s collection, and a strong introduction to the wider Discworld. The five books, in order: 1) The Wee Free Men; 2) A Hat Full of Sky; 3) Wintersmith; 4) I Shall Wear Midnight; and 5) The Shepherd’s Crown.
Day 23: Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
Fun fact: you can never have too much Gaiman in your life. The Ocean at the End of the Lane can show you why. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is surreal and dark; reading it is like wading through a dream, the world slows down and you are left soaking in the strangeness and beauty of it, but also the terror. It is about memories and magic and the world being so much bigger than anyone at first thinks. It is about death and living and the intersection of lives. It is a song of both innocence and experience. In terms of plot, Ocean is about a grown man returning to his childhood home and revisiting memories he was no longer aware existed. In terms of emotional resonance, it is an ode to both who we used to be and who we have the potential of becoming. In short, this book with a particularly wordy title is an inventive, artistic masterpiece and you should purchase it for everyone.
Day 24: Good Omens, combining the brilliance of Pratchett and Gaiman
Good Omens is the much-praised collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. To be honest, I saved this one for last for three distinct reasons: 1) it would allow me to sing praises to both Gaiman and Pratchett beforehand; 2) I don’t think I have ever visited a bookstore without a copy, thus making it perfect for last-minute purchasing; and 3) it is one of my default book references for every person on every occasion. Good Omens, in a fit of irony, is about the apocalypse. You know the deal. Divine providence, upcoming supernatural battle, angels and demons, the Anti-Christ and the four horsemen… All the fun stuff. Except Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demon, the agents of heaven and hell on earth since the very beginning, aren’t particularly keen on surrendering life among the mortals. And then there are some mortals who find out the situation, specifically a young witch hunter who gets involved with the descendant of Agnes Nutter, witch and prophetess. They are also not particularly fond of dying. Cue various shenanigans, a mix-up involving the displacement of the Anti-Christ, witty banter, and an overall rollicking good time, considering it’s the apocalypse.