Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel by Susanna Clarke
Possibly going for the title of "Most English Book Ever Written", Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell tells the unlikely story of two magicians in the early 1800s, a time when magic is all-but forgotten. The two title characters have very different approaches to magic and life in general, and it their alliance/rivalry that drives the story.
As historical fantasy goes, this is pretty good stuff. It is written in a pastiche of Dickens and Austen, and draws a lot from the English folk-tales that I read a lot of as a kid, with fairies and witches behind every tree. The only criticism I can think of is that it is quite long and does go on a bit. But if you can stand the deliberately baroque style then you will enjoy reading this.
Highly recommended if you like this sort of thing
The Complete Chronicles of Conan By Robert E. Howard
I am not sure how, but up until now I have managed to avoid reading any of the thirty thousand Conan stories Howard wrote during his short lifetime. Set during a vanished age of savage heroics and ancient cities reclaimed by vast deserts, Conan wanders around getting involved in various plots. Almost all of these stories contain two or more of the following elements: an ancient cult, a god-like being from another world, a princess whose clothes fall off, pirates, and giant snakes. Also, Conan beats up an awful lot of random people he happens to meet.
Despite the fact that all the stories are very similar, I enjoyed reading this collection (actually I am not sure that this is the same book, but they are essentially interchangeable). Howard, the original fantasy dweeb, had a straightforward way of telling a story that makes for easy, undemanding reading, and who doesn't enjoy a musclebound barbarian slicing up a huge bat to rescue a naked chick? The casual racism is less easy to overlook, but this is not uncommon in books this old.
Recommended only if you like this sort of thing
Measuring The World By Daniel Kehlmann
More historical fiction stuff, this time featuring the real historic figures of Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt in early 1800s Germany. Both men are obsessed with measurements. Gauss, a super-genius, needs only has flashes of insight to encompass in his mind a world he does not feel a part of. von Humboldt is an explorer who becomes legendary for his globe trotting exploits and careful observations. The book contrasts their different approaches in the face of the difficulties of the time.
I am in two minds about this book, it is written in a very conversational style that perhaps does not do the story justice. It may have lost something from being translated from German, but it just didn't grab me. The story is fascinating though, especially von Humboldt's part. I hadn't heard of him before but he certainly lived a rich life.
I think what really lets the book down is that just about everyone mentioned comes across as extremely unlikable, as if 19th century Germany was filled with complete bastards. This may or may not have been true but it makes for hard reading.
Interesting but not really recommended