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As the book opens, we find that at the beginning of the 19th century, English magic has been reduced to theoretical scholarship. Magicians aren't practicing magicians but ones absorbed in the history of magic in England. Then, as the Napoleonic wars begin, the first practical magician in 300 years lets himself be known. Mr Norrell is dedicated to his craft and has collected and studied magical texts for years. In order to restore the prominence of English magic, Mr Norrell moves to London where he works closely with the government on the French problem abroad. In London he meets the only other practicing magician in England, the young and brazen Jonathan Strange.

While Clarke's story focuses on the development and bickering personalities of these two characters, she is prone to many, many digressions. These divergences usually come in the form of footnotes and historical background which, in turn, add to the mystique of the book, giving it a biographical feel. Even at 800 pages, it seems a little too short.

Rebel Without a Walkman

Joe Meno's third novel "Hairstyles of the Damned" (Punk Planet Books, $13.95) is the story of Brian Oswald, who has the typical troubles of youth: He's unpopular, he's lonely, and he's in love with his best friend, Gretchen. You've probably read Brian's story, or a variation thereof, a dozen times since you read "Catcher in the Rye." Still, the punk-rock twist Meno adds to his story, the way in which Brian deals with both teen violence and love, makes the story highly readable.

Meno's voice throughout the book is both sad and insightful, making both the hilarity and shining brilliance of disillusioned youth come alive. Set in the early '90s, the book chronicles 17-year-old Brian's junior year in a Chicago high school. As Meno shows us Brian's evolution from a complaining, lovesick malcontent to a thinking adult, we also see the writer's ability to breathe new life into the coming-of-age story.— Francis W. Decker

Heads Up: Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Stacy Hawkins Adams carried her career to the next level this October with her debut novel, "Speak to My Heart." Adams addresses poverty and violence in this inspirational story of faith lost and found. Named the 2000 Journalist of the Year by the Richmond Association of Black Journalists and the 2003 recipient of the American Business Women's Association community service award for media excellence, Adams has hands-on experience that lends credibility to her narrative voice. Adams will sign her book at Barnes & Noble at Libbie Place on Dec. 1 from 6 to 8 p.m. and other locations throughout the month. To learn more, go to www.stacyhawkinsadams.com.


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