The Jane Austen Book Club

By Karen Joy Fowler

Rating: 2 stars

Six people meet, once a month, to discuss the books of Jane Austen. Life, love and relationships form and break in that time. I only noticed this book because I’d read Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves earlier this year and enjoyed it. But then I’m also a fan of Austen’s marvellous Pride and Prejudice and have read the rest of her work, so this did appeal to me.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it much. I found the characters stereotyped and clich├ęd and difficult to relate to. I found the device of an apparent first person narrator that isn’t an individual but is possibly the whole group to be unhelpful, and needlessly showy. I didn’t think it helped the book at all.

The female members of the group really didn’t endear themselves to me in their snobbishness in choice of reading and their disdain of science fiction (my preferred genre!) even if Jocelyn did overcome this in the end, it was only as a means of connecting with her lover-to-be.. And how stereotypical to have the male character be the only one who does enjoy SF.

I was also disappointed that also most of the Austen books got some actual discussion, Pride and Prejudice, the only one I’m familiar with to any degree, got barely a couple of sentences. Still, given that the characters seemed to have awfully pretentious views about the other books, maybe that’s for the best!

It’s very possible that I’m just Not Getting the joke, and that it’s actually a book about those kinds of West Coast, well-off American women and their lives, but if it was, then it sailed right over my head and I was left with a book where I mostly didn’t like the characters and didn’t care an awful lot about what happened to them.

I’ll give it points though for the very Austen-ian ending.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141020266
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2004

The Adventures of Alyx

By Joanna Russ

Rating: 3 stars

This is a slightly odd book. It’s composed of four loosely linked short stories and a novella (Picnic on Paradise) mostly with the same protagonist (the titular Alyx, although the last story, The Second Inquisition does away even with this). The first two stories are entirely set in the past with no SFnal element to them, and reminded me of some of the Conan stories that I’ve read. The third introduces a ‘sorcerer’ while the novella relocates Alyx to the far future as she’s accidentally lifted from her own timeline and she’s recruited to help a group of trapped civilians cross a planet to safety in the midst of a war. This is the contribution that gives Alyx the most depth as she has to shepherd her group and inevitably gets involved with their lives. The final story is set in 1925 and only obliquely references the rest.

The slim volume is dense in multiple senses of the word. The print is small and closely packed but the imagery and metaphor are also sometimes dense, requiring close reading to process and unpack. Not exactly the light lunchtime reading that I was expecting, but mostly worth it.

Russ is, of course, known for her feminist work and this woman who starts as a cipher, a female Conan, develops into something much more complex, having an inner life of her own. She is always an actor, always driving the story, never being a passive character to whom events happen, which is something that I always enjoy in a protagonist.

So an odd set of stories, but enjoyable both in themselves, and for their place in the greater history of the genre.

Book details

ISBN: 9780704339729
Publisher: The Women's Press
Year of publication: 1968


By Salman Rushdie

Rating: 2 stars

This was Rushdie’s first novel and it’s very much a journeyman work. He does use the magical realism vehicle that he uses much better effect in later novels (such as the excellent Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses). It’s difficult to identify themes that that he would come back to so it’s best to just look at this as it comes.

Flapping Eagle takes the elixir of immortal life, after his sister is first given it and spends the next several hundred years wandering the world, after her disappearance. Eventually he finds his way to Calf Island, which exists somewhere between dimensions and eventually to a confrontation with the eponymous Grimus.

The characters that Flapping Eagle encounters on his journey are mostly just caricatures, without much in the way of depth, although Flapping Eagle’s companion and guide Virgil Jones does get more development.

I think that Rushdie may have been going for somewhere between gothic and grand guignol in this novel, and to some degree he’s managed it, but at the expense of any warmth or engaging characters. Flapping Eagle is a difficult character to warm to, as his motivations and thoughts mostly go unreported, and his actions are often less than endearing. Rushdie’s writing here is workmanlike but he’s still developing a craft. It’s not yet the polished and poetic style that it would develop into.

So mostly worth reading if you’re a fan of Rushdie to see how his writing developed, but it doesn’t really stand up to his later work either in plot or in the writing.

Book details

Publisher: Vintage
Year of publication: 1975

When to Rob a Bank: A Rogue Economist’s Guide to the World

By Steven D. Levitt

Rating: 2 stars

As with any anthology book, this was a bit of a curate’s egg. This is Levitt and Dubner raiding the archives of their Freakonomics blog, picking what they consider to be the choicest morsels and compiling them for our reading pleasure. Unfortunately, one man’s morsel is another man’s pebble. Reading the essays, the main problem that I had was that many of them were too short. They were preliminary ideas that hadn’t been thought out properly yet and developed into a decent argument for the reader (something that the longer segments of Freakonomics did well. I also had a personal problem with many of the pieces that Levitt wrote (the authors identify who wrote each entry, as, unlike the books, they don’t write the blog posts together), as his politics is very far removed from mine.

And I guess that’s where a lot of my issues with the book came in. Some of the ideas being espoused seem ill thought out, plain stupid or dangerous. These include getting rid of tenure, abolishing the NHS (a particular favourite!) and letting people pay for additional votes in elections. I appreciate that some of these were designed to promote debate, but stripped of the comments that may have gone along with the blog they often sound like a slightly crazed man shouting at the world. These were mostly clustered around the first section (“We Were Only Trying to Help”), to which my response might be, “just don’t”.

Dubner seems more measured in many of his posts and sometimes it has interesting things to say. But overall, I’d say stick with the more deeply thought out books and just browse the blog online.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141980966
Publisher: Allen Lane
Year of publication: 2015

Dungeon Fun

By Colin Bell

Rating: 5 stars

Fun Mudlifter lives a quiet life in a moat with her adoptive parents after falling out of sky one day as a baby. Many years later, a sword falls out of the sky and so begins the story of one girl and her sword as she decides to begin a quest to teach the bridge trolls to stop throwing stuff down into Deepmoat.

I wasn’t expecting to adore this as much as I did. I picked it up as I’m a fan of artist Neil Slorence and he had a sale on at his online store. I was sort of expecting it to be quite light and fluffy, which it is, but it also has an immense amount of heart. Ms Mudlifter and her sidekick, Sir Barnabus Games (the ghost of a knight who falls from sky and who is bound to the sword), are a delightful duo and it’s lovely to see them bond over the course of the story.

It’s obvious that the writer has a love of old-fashioned dungeon-crawling RPGs in the Dungeons and Dragons ilk, as references to all sorts are strewn liberally across the comic, from the dungeon master apprentice to cursed items and references to levelling up, but you’ll enjoy it just as much even if you’re unfamiliar with the oeuvre.

The characters are pleasantly not two dimensional either, including the villains of the piece, which is always nice to see, and I hate that it’s still something that’s noteworthy, but it is always nice to see so many female characters in important roles.

The volume ends satisfactorily, but with hooks very much present for a sequel, which I am very definitely looking forward to.

Book details

ISBN: 9781944241698
Publisher: Dogooder Comics
Year of publication: 2015

A Canticle for Leibowitz

By Walter M. Miller Jr.

Rating: 3 stars

Structured in three distinct parts, this book tackles the slow reconstruction of society after the “flame deluge”, when nuclear warheads fall across the world like rain. Knowledge and science are blamed for the deluge, and those burning the books and bearers of knowledge proudly proclaiming themselves “simpletons”. In amongst this, an engineer by the name of Leibowitz starts an underground network for the preservation of books and knowledge. Six hundred years later, America has retreated to a new dark age, and the Church once again finds itself with the responsibility for preserving the knowledge of the past, specifically through the Blessed Order of Leibowitz. Another six hundred years after that, an Enlightenment is happening, with secular scholars rediscovering the knowledge that had been lost, and the Order of St Leibowitz gaze upon the first electric light for over a thousand years. But with the coming of the Enlightenment, once again there comes strife between the ancient Church and the emerging state. And finally another six hundred years pass and the heavens are once again opened to mankind, as colonies spread amongst the stars. But back on earth, global tensions are high and rumours are rife of construction of forbidden nuclear weapons…

This is a difficult book to discuss. Miller was a convert to Catholicism and the Catholic church is portrayed very sympathetically, as the preservers of knowledge that the secular world would otherwise have completely burned. For the first section of the book, you’re unequivocally on their side. The second section reintroduces the tensions between emerging nation states and the Church, and the age old question of whether knowledge should just be preserved for the sake of it or whether it should be brought into the light and used. The final section is more difficult, as the abbot of the abbey of St Leibowitz of that time takes a very hard line stance on euthanasia even in the face of the immense suffering through radiation poisoning that he sees around him: crystallised in one woman and her child who are dying anyway and want to go to the state-sponsored clinics.

The abbot espouses the age-old doctrines of the church, but in the face of immense suffering, I saw it as nothing more than the ancient fact of a bully trying to hold power over the powerless. But then you’ve got the final few chapters which may be just the ravings of a dying man, or may be something else entirely.

The themes of the book seem to be about the inevitability of the cycle of history; about how man will raise himself up to be like a god, but can never sustain himself and lose his feet of clay. It’s quite a depressing message: after the first two sections in which (despite the inevitable death and destruction at the human level) civilisation is on an upwards trajectory, the final one seems to suggest that we’ll never be able to overcome our animal natures, and may even spread the cycle to other worlds.

There is a seam of mysticism that runs throughout the book that I’m not entirely sure what to make of, with Rachel in the last section, and the old hermit (or something like him) showing up in all three. Miller does seem to be clearly hinting towards a conclusion that God definitely exists and is an interventionist God.

Finally, for those, like me, whose Latin is restricted to the odd phrase here and there, the wonderful Wikipedia has a handy translation of each Latin phrase in the novel.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552094740
Publisher: Corgi Books
Year of publication: 1959

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