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 clichéd 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

All the Birds in the Sky

By Charlie Jane Anders

Rating: 3 stars

Patricia can (sometimes) talk to animals and (sometimes) leave her body. Lawrence has built a time machine that can jump you into the future by two seconds and an AI in his bedroom. These two outsiders become friends as much to protect them from loneliness and bullies at school, but life gets in the way. They encounter each other again as adults when Patricia is a powerful witch and Lawrence is a tech genius trying to live up to the role.

This is a story of love, betrayal and the apocalypse as we track Patricia and Lawrence through their journey as the world seems to be falling apart around them. It’s an odd one. You can tell that it’s a first novel, with the pacing and feel veering wildly. The first half or so is quiet and whimsical, even as it encompasses the helplessness and unfairness of childhood. I enjoyed that a lot. The second, as we catch up with our protagonists as adults, is less even. It will annoy some people, being set in the more hipster parts of San Francisco, with people going out for overpriced coffee and locally sourced, organic burritos and agonising over their lives. If that doesn’t bother you (and it doesn’t bother me that much), then trying to figure out the rules of Patricia’s magic, and trying to figure out Lawrence’s place in a larger masterplan to save the human race is enjoyable, with some good sex thrown in for good measure.

But (and you knew that was coming) the ending. The ending just sort of threw me. I suspect it’s the sort of thing some people will adore, but I must confess that it lost me. There’s a lot left unsaid and a lot left undone, and I found that unsatisfying. Most of the characters, other than the protagonists, seem to mostly exist for plot exposition too, they don’t get much in the way of development (and it felt like Lawrence’s girlfriend, Serafina, gets quite short-changed).

Anders obviously has a lot of potential. I’ve enjoyed some of her short fiction and this was a decent first novel. I’ll keep reading them, I suspect, as I’ll love to see what she’s like in full flow.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785650550
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2016

Pride and Prejudice

By Jane Austen

Rating: 5 stars

I first encountered Pride and Prejudice back in the mid-90s when the BBC produced a mini-series dramatisation that I really enjoyed. I immediately looked up the big fat volume of Austen sitting in my parents’ bookcase, devoured P&P (closely followed by the other novels) and fell in love with Eliza Bennet. Austen herself described Elizabeth Bennet: “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print”. I certainly can’t argue with that. I loved this book then, and I loved it again now, after my umpteenth reread of it since then.

Back then it was the sheer feistiness of Elizabeth and the overcoming of all the odds to beat pride and, indeed, prejudice and find love that moved me. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the marvellous writing but also the social mores of the day and if not sympathise with Lady Catherine’s view of the match between Eliza and Darcy, then at least understand it. In other contexts, such arguments as she makes to Elizabeth towards the end of the book are still made today.

Not only the protagonist, but all the cast of the book are lovingly drawn and so memorable. From the sublime – Jane and Bingley – to the ridiculous – Mrs Bennet and Mr Collins, every character springs to life in front of us.

Goodbye for now Lizzy, I’ll see you in a year or two.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140434262
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1813

Questionable Content, Vol. 5

By Jeph Jacques

Rating: 4 stars

And so the great Questionable Content binge comes to an end. The fifth volume of QC shows an artist who continues to mature in his storytelling as well as introducing some new characters (Cosette, although not by name, and Marigold). Sven gets an intern/conscience and Faye starts to open up some more. There are several laugh out loud moments, including the last comic in the collection, featuring Pintsize and Momo.

The themes that I know will be coming up are still being explored, including Marten and Dora’s relationship and Faye’s drinking. And here’s me thinking that webcomic writers just made stuff up on the day ;-). There are seeds being sown that will be reaped hundreds, if not thousands, of comics down the line. It’ll be a while before I get to binge on paper again since, as of the time of writing, volume 5 is the latest paper collection available (and also, I know what to expect at the end of volume 6, so I may well wait until the one after before buying more).

But for now, I was trying to persuade myself that I have many real books to read, but who am I kidding, I’m going to go online and pick up from where this leaves off.

Book details

ISBN: 9781936561315
Publisher: Topatoco
Year of publication: 2015

Questionable Content, Vol. 4

By Jeph Jacques

Rating: 4 stars

Volume 4 of the esteemed Questionable Content has an immediate difference over its predecessors: it’s a completely different format. Rather than a large square book, with two comics to a page, it’s a much smaller but thicker book, putting a single comic over each two-page spread. This undeniably makes it easier to read (with less squinting over the text), but it does mean that the books will look different on my shelves, something I detest (I’m looking at you, Laundry Files and SF Masterworks).

As for content, this volume collects comics #900-1200 and both the storytelling and art continue to mature. We see Hannelore’s mother for the first time, and while we don’t see her father, he’s definitely involved. Marten and Dora’s relationship matures, as do Dora’s insecurities. Speaking of insecurities, we also get to see a different side to Steve as he worries about his relationship with Meena. Faye’s drinking gets spotlighted as well, but it’s not all doom and gloom. There are a lot of laughs, especially where Pintsize and Wimslow are involved.

Some of the author commentary is quite interesting as well, especially where says that he wouldn’t do a joke like that again (often to do with trans issues) or where he disagrees with his characters. I’ve been binging on QC as I got the whole lot of paper collections in one go. So I’ve got one more paper collection to go, and then it’s back to just one strip a day :-/.

Book details

ISBN: 9781936561216
Publisher: TopatoCo Books
Year of publication: 2014

Questionable Content, Vol. 3

By Jeph Jacques

Rating: 4 stars

My Great Questionable Content Binge continues with the third collection of the slice-of-life webcomic. So Marten and Dora have become a couple, but it’s interesting to see just how early that Dora’s insecurity over the situation raised its head. I had forgotten about that, from when I was reading it online. I had to skip ahead on the webcomic to find out when they broke up, and it’s not until about #1800 or so, so there’s a good couple of more volumes of Marten/Dora coupledom to come, but if he sticks with the 300 or so comics to the collection, volume 6 will end on a downer :(. It’s also interesting to see how early the seeds of Faye’s hard-drinking and her friends’ worrying about it were sown. That’s something that will get reaped 2000 or so strip down the line. Blimey, that’s some forward planning, going on there!

The enlargement of the cast continues with Penelope (or is that Pizza Girl?) joining the Coffee of Doom crew as well as Tai and Angus making their débuts. QC has turned from a will they/won’t they romance into, effectively, a humorous soap opera, albeit a soap opera with murderous scooters, mischievous PCs and semi-feral roombas. It’s a lot of fun to read, and so much quicker on paper than on-screen (those waits between page loads cumulatively add up).

Book details

ISBN: 9781936561704
Publisher: TopataCo Books
Year of publication: 2012

Questionable Content, Vol. 2

By Jeph Jacques

Rating: 4 stars

The second three hundred strips of the excellent Questionable Content see the format shift. We finally get a resolution to the will they/won’t they thing between Faye and Marten and the introduction of the rather awesome Hannelore. The art starts to mature as well and by the end of this volume we start to see the characters as we know and love them today. The cast also starts to expand as not only Hannelore appears, but we start seeing the family of our already established cast, with Marten’s mum, Dora’s brother and Faye’s mum and sister. This starts to make our cast start to feel like rounded people with real lives that we care about (especially after we find out about Faye’s history) and this is something that Jacques has been very good at maintaining to this day. So still early days but evolving rapidly.

Book details

ISBN: 9781936561964
Publisher: TopatoCo Books
Year of publication: 2011

Questionable Content, Vol. 1

By Jeph Jacques

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve been reading Questionable Content for several years now and have read it start to end online a couple of times since then, but I’ve decided to splurge on paper copies. The book is physically attractive, being a good size, although I was disappointed by the size of the comics within, with the text sometimes making me squint a bit (especially in some of the wordier ones). But QC is a vertical strip, so having two strips side by side like that on a page seems like the best way to make it work. The art is a bit wobbly in this volume, a long way from Jacques’ later work (as seen on the cover and some of the early strips here, where the originals weren’t of good enough quality to print, so he redrew them) but something I always like about webcomics is the way that we can literally see the artist getting better in front of our eyes.

The plot concerns indie kid Marten and his pals (including sociopathic AI pal Pintsize) just trying to get on in life, find love, a job that they don’t hate and talk a load of crap about music. I’d forgotten just how much time the early comic spends talking about music and bands that I’ve never heard of. Thankfully, this fades away later on, but if that’s not your geekdom, those strips are skippable. I’d also forgotten just how small the cast is at this stage. QC’s cast grows arms and legs over the years, but here, it’s pretty much just entirely Marten, his flatmate Faye and her boss Dora forming the core love-triangle cast, with Marten’s friend Steve and Pintsize as the supporting cast.

The book is funny, interesting and shows flashes of the greatness to come, but it’s still definitely worth reading on its own merits.

Book details

ISBN: 9780982486252
Publisher: TopatoCo
Year of publication: 2010

The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins

Rating: 5 stars

Hartright is a drawing master who gets engaged to tutor two young ladies in an out of the way part of the country. Before long he is wrapped up in the mystery of the titular woman in white and must find out the secret of Sir Percival Glyde, the financeé of one of his charges, before it’s too late.

I loved this book. It’s a fast-paced thriller (despite being over 600 pages long, it never feels like it dawdles) with some lovely characterisation. I’ve been told by someone in the know that Wilkie Collins was parodying some of the more overwrought gothic romances of his time. I didn’t pick up on that, but even without having the additional layers of knowledge, there’s a lot to enjoy about this book.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Glyde, and his friend Count Fosco, are the villains of the piece. But while Glyde is merely an upper class English thug that you can can’t throw a stone in Victorian literature without hitting, Fosco is something else entirely. He’s a marvellous creation who exudes charm and quirkiness, with a dedication to his pets, whilst having a very intelligent, ruthless core. He’s also believably flawed, and his interactions with Marian Halcombe are both delightful and flesh-crawling. That’s the mark of a good writer right there!

I think that the aforementioned Miss Halcombe is probably my second-favourite character, after Count Fosco. She’s intelligent, witty and not the kind of woman to go around swooning at a moment’s notice (not something you can say about her half-sister, Laura, who is to be married to Sir Percival).

So a rocking thriller with some great characters and a mystery that extends throughout the book. The structure, with multiple narrators also feels very modern and I have no hesitation in recommending this to anyone who has a modicum of an attention span.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099511243
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Year of publication: 1859

Tooth and Claw

By Jo Walton

Rating: 4 stars

Bon Agornin is dying and his family have gathered for his end. The body is barely cool before it is torn apart and eaten, but then that’s what dragons do. In the aftermath of Bon’s death, his children are split from the family home and each must find their own path to love and happiness.

I had an odd start to this book. The idea of a Victorian romance with dragons is an awesome one, and the first chapter should have been a great introduction to it, with the tension between the style of writing and the subject of what happens to Bon’s remains. And yet, it took an effort of will to come back to the book. I don’t know why, it’s certainly not the book’s fault, but maybe more to do with my state of mind at the time. I’m very definitely glad that I did force myself back because I devoured (heh) the rest of the book in an afternoon.

On the cover, Jane Yolen calls it the “Pride and Prejudice of the dragon world”, and I can’t really disagree with much there. It’s got Jane Austen’s sharp eye for people (even if they are dragons) and satire and some very likeable characters. Walton does a great job of ‘show not tell’ regarding dragon society and the worldbuilding is excellent.

As a confirmed fan of the sorts of Victorian/Regency romances being mimicked, I can certainly see myself coming back to this and hopefully being able to savour the language and writing now that I’m not rushing headlong to discover what happens next.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472100863
Publisher: Corsair
Year of publication: 2003

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