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

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

By Karen Joy Fowler

Rating: 4 stars

We meet our (first person) protagonist Rosemary at multiple points in her life in this novel, but the primary ‘now’ point is when she’s at college, in the mid ’90s, remembering things about her past, in particular the brother and sister who vanished from her life at different points during her childhood.

Rosemary starts her story in the middle, and then jumps around in time in a way that should be disconcerting, but I found worked remarkably well. Possibly because she always flags where and when she is, and even flags up when she hasn’t been altogether honest in past chapters. This is, to my mind, the best kind of unreliable narrator!

I’m finding this a difficult book to write about – it’s so unlike my normal reading material. It was recommended by a friend, and I’m glad that she did as I enjoyed it, but it’s still difficult to talk about, particularly so because to do so meaningfully requires spoiling a twist. Let’s just say that it’s a book about memory, and how it can deceive you; about family, relationships and what they mean and the different ways that they can hurt you; about truth and lies, especially lies to yourself, lies you repeat so often that you don’t know what the truth is any more and how memory can turn into lies, or, at best, “reported” memories, where you only remember the account of something, not the memory itself.

That’s an altogether unhelpful description of the book, but it’s warm, funny, sad and heartbreaking in places. It left me with a sense somewhere between melancholy and hope for the future. Definitely a book worth reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9781846689666
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
Year of publication: 2013

The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1: Sex, the Future, & Chocolate Chip Cookies

By Karen Joy Fowler

Rating: 3 stars

This anthology brings together short fiction that was nominated for, and some that won, the James Tiptree Award for “science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender”. As well as that, there are a number of essays both relating to the award itself and the wider genre. There were a number of stories here that I enjoyed a lot, and some less so.

Looking Through Lace, by Ruth Nestvold, was probably my favourite story in the collection. This is about a young xenolinguist trying to understand the complexities of an alien language while also having to overcome the prejudices of her superior. This one reminded me of some of Ursula K. Le Guin’s anthropological stories and I liked the characterisation and deft worldbuilding.

I also enjoyed both the retellings of The Snow Queen (itself also included in the collection) preferring the modern Travels with the Snow Queen over the Japanese-set The Lady of the Ice Garden.

I was less keen on The Catgirl Manifesto: An Introduction by Richard Calder. This was written as an academic-style introduction to a fictional work that seemed to have a few layers of fiction to it. Perhaps I would get more out of it on a second reading, but as it stood I found it difficult to follow and somewhat incoherent.

So a good collection if you’re interested in exploring gender or just want some challenging SF.

Book details

ISBN: 9781892391193
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Year of publication: 2004

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