Jo Walton’s Reading List: May 2019

Most of May I was home writing, with Lent coming out on the 28th providing a little excitement. I read 29 books, and here they are.

Past Imperfect Julian Fellowes, 2008.
Fellowes wrote the script for Gosford Park and I’ve very much enjoyed his historical novel Belgravia and his other contemporary novel Snobs. This is another oblique look at class clashes in Britain, this time looking back from 2008 to the Sixties, framed around a self-made billionaire asking a friend to locate a child conceived in 1967. This is a book that deals with love, friendship, time, class, old money, new money, fame and celebrity—and not shallowly, either. Fellowes has moved into the category of “I will read whatever he writes,” and I hope he writes lots.

The Chronicles of Clovis Saki, 1911.
My continuing read through Saki’s short stories, which are often delightfully, startlingly funny, and occasionally just for a moment horribly racist, or cruel. I mostly enjoy the process of reading them, but can’t wholeheartedly recommend them, but they’re certainly not like anything else.

Last Chance to See Douglas Adams, 1990.
An odd book, in which Adams, accompanied by a biologist, goes around the world to see animals that are in danger of extinction, and talks about them in a way that is both concerned and funny. A sad and elegaic book, even when it is making jokes. I’ve not read it before, but I’ve been in the room when other people have been reading it and read bits aloud to me—a process that can put me off a book for decades.

Doubt’s Boundless Sea Don Cameron Allen, 1964.
Borrowed from Ada Palmer. This is a book about the history of atheism, but it is a warm, delightful, well-informed book that tries to see everyone’s point of view. It’s interesting: there’s an ironic angle from which one would expect a book like this to be written, but this doesn’t go anywhere near there. It has no hectoring tone, no winners and losers; it’s an examination of the thought of a bunch of people over several centuries, almost as if Allen knew them personally and liked them. This is an academic book, it’s older than I am, and it’s still great.

A Burlesque Translation of Homer Thomas Bridges, 1762.
This is a fascinatingly weird parody of the Iliad, written in impeccable eighteenth-century rhyme reminiscent of Alexander Pope. Sadly, this Gutenberg edition is only Volume 1, and stops dead at the end of Book 12. I’d happily read the rest if somebody were to scan it. Several things stand out. One is the slippery nature of time—this is still the fall of Troy, but Aeneas fought with Cromwell, and there are frequent derogatory references to contemporary politics. Another is the way the fighting is considered to be boxing and general bashing about, rather than the use of edged weapons. Since people still die, I don’t get it. Then my favourite thing—rhyme words that are dashed out, so we get references to politicians and dirty words where it is utterly clear what is meant because it rhymes and scans, and yet the word isn’t there. This allows it to be incredibly scurrilous and filthy. My other favourite thing is the Greek gods swearing “By Our Lady” and so on. The book also gave me one of the best laughs I’ve ever had. I mentioned it to friends at a Shakespeare reading, and I had forgotten the modern meaning of “burlesque” while they had never known the older meaning as “parody”. The idea of Homer’s heroes in corsets convulsed us all.

Siege of Stars Henry Gee, 2012.
Gee was the editor of Nature who introduced the “Nature Futures” feature of having a very short SF short story in each issue. I thought I’d try his own SF when I ran across it. It’s…weird. Firstly, it’s the first book in a trilogy without any volume completion at all, so don’t expect any resolution. The story is about very alien aliens in the deep past, and a complex Earth-but-not-human intelligent alien civilization on Gondwanaland, and human people in the present investigating a stone age civilization in England and France. There’s only one female character, though she appears in all the time sections, and she’s not only something of a manic pixie dream girl—she’s literally an alien. The archaeology is interesting, and indeed all of it is well enough written to hold my attention, but not to have me grabbing for the sequels.

Astounding Alex Nevala-Lee, 2018.
A non-fiction study of John W. Campbell and his relationship with L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, between 1937 and 1971, but concentrating on WWII. Probably best thought of as a group biography mostly centered around Campbell. I got the feeling Nevala-Lee didn’t like any of them very much, and certainly there are things about all these flawed people that are dislikeable. It’s very good, but not so much “warts and all” as “primarily warts”. There’s a focus here on Campbell’s nutty obsessions, Dianetics, the Dean Drive, and also his idea that he could mold science fiction writers and readers into a utopian future building project, just by having people write about different futures and make the readers want to get there. Well, that last is the project I’ve been signed on for since I was twelve, and a lot of other people too. If Campbell didn’t do that, or if it isn’t valuable why are we still interested in him and reading books about him? And one thing this book does demonstrate very clearly is the level of interest there still is in all these people and their work.

The Best of Poetry: A Young Person’s Guide to Evergreen Verse Elsinore Books, 2018.
An excellent and eclectic compilation of poetry that I thoroughly enjoyed. Long, with a great mix of familiar and unfamiliar, and all of it sorted interestingly into sections so it has interesting juxtapositions. Poetry collections like this are one of my favourite things people are doing with e-books.

Maddy Alone Pamela Brown, 1945.
The second book in the Blue Door series, which I had never even seen before, had pre-ordered, and read in its entirety on the day it came out. So in the first book, some children find a theatre and found a theatre company. In this book they’re all, except Maddy, the youngest, in a theatre school in London, and Maddy is alone at home. She finds a film to star in, as you’d expect, and makes friends with a reclusive but theatre-loving local Lord. This book hits every beat you’d expect, and I am a complete sucker for books like this even at my advanced age. The sooner the rest of this series comes out the sooner I will read it. Since they’re clearly republishing these books just for me, I guess they’ve staggered the release dates because they believe I have no self-control. Hmmmm.

The Persistence of Vision John Varley, 1977.
Reread. It’s impossible to overstate how innovative and exciting Varley was when he exploded out of nowhere with these stories. Some of them are still that good today. Others are a little dated. But I loved reading this, and I’d recommend it highly. This contains the stunning Air Raid and a bunch of great stories in the Eight Worlds series.

The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis, 1942.
Reread. These are stories written as letters from a senior demon to a junior demon, about the work of tempting humans to sin and ultimately go to Hell. They’re funny and thought-provoking, and a fascinating angle on the whole thing. Lewis always had a very good way of putting things. Delightful.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach Kelly Robson, 2018.
Read for book club. This is a novella about time travel and project management, and from what I gathered at book club, how much you like it depends on how interesting you find project management. It’s a solidly realised future with a climactically ruined Earth and lots of social consequences, including late state capitalism refusing to give up despite anything and everything. Interesting body tweaking, interesting disability issues, very abrupt end.

Myra Carroll Noel Streatfeild, 1943.
The last but one of Streatfeild’s adult novels that I hadn’t read before. This is a very weird book. It’s about a woman who has been beautiful from babyhood and from babyhood has used it to get her own way. It’s now the middle of the second World War and she’s getting older and it isn’t working anymore. This is the life story of a selfish woman, and our sympathies are in an odd place, or at least mine are. Couldn’t put it down, but didn’t like it all that much.

The Return of Martin Guerre Natalie Zemon Davis, 1983.
This is an examination of a real historical case of imposture, but not of a lord or a king, just of a farmer in a village in the south of France in the sixteenth century. Martin Guerre went away, leaving his wife and son, and then came back—except that he wasn’t the real Martin. Then the real Martin did come back. Details from the judge’s memoir and another memoir written at the time, and other comtemporary documents and information, but of course a lot is still unknown, especially about the wife who must have known it was a different man, mustn’t she? Fascinating.

The Sand-Reckoner Gillian Bradshaw, 2000.
Reread. Historical novel about Archimedes being a geek and inventing things in Syracuse while the city is under attack by the Romans. Delightful, and very much like science fiction considering the tech level.

All We Ever Wanted Emily Giffin, 2018.
This is a contemporary novel about parents and children and class and money in the present-day US. Compulsively readable like most Giffin, but fairly facile really and much less fun than her best work, which is chick lit. Interesting dynamic of who is telling the truth, but very low stakes. This would be a good example to try if you only read SF and F and you want to see how mainstream books manage to keep the covers apart without having invasions of evil wizards to provide plot.

The Golden Sayings Epictetus, 135.
I’m slowly reading the Delphi edition of the Harvard Classics “Five Foot Shelf” of classic books that, as of 1911, were considered by Charles Eliot to constitute an education. I’m going to be reading it essentially forever as I started reading it in January and am only 2% of the way through. This is book 6, after Franklin’s Autobiography (great, but I’d read it before), John Woolman’s Autobiography (amazing story of a Quaker who decided slavery was wrong and went around telling other Quakers so and how they believed him and stopped keeping slaves, I am not kidding, it actually worked, do try this at home), William Penn’s incredibly boring Fruits of Solitude, and three volumes of Plato that I know really well and skipped. Epictetus is a Stoic, and these maxims were written down by his students after his death. His life story is more interesting to me than his maxims. But it was short, and really when somebody who was a crippled slave in the time of Nero becomes a philosopher and tells you to ignore pain and suffering and think about eternal things if you want to be happy, you have to give it some consideration.

Lafayette Olivier Bernier, 1983.
Biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, the hero of two worlds, and therefore a timeline that runs from the Ancien Regime through the American Revolution, the French Revolution, Napoleon and all the way up to the revolution of 1830 and past it. Not a gripping or especially well-written book, but I do love the way biographies cut through normal periodization this way. Biographers typically either love their subjects or come to dislike them. My ideal biographer loves their subject but sees them clearly nevertheless. Bernier clearly came to dislike Lafayette and had to struggle to be fair to him, which he is, but all along you can see him making the effort.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 261 and 262, 2018.
A bunch of short stories from last year. The standout stories for me here were by Aliette de Bodard and Grace Seybold.

The Golden Ass Apuleius, 158, trans. Robert Graves.
I’d never read this before, and it was fun—fairly slight adventures of a man turned into an ass, with lots of interpolated stories he witnesses or overhears. As it was translated with Graves’s wit and fluid style I raced through it. This has a good claim to be the first fantasy novel, not because it’s the first fantasy (far from it), but because it’s actually both fantasy and a novel; not an epic poem or a philosophical thought experiment, but an actual novel.

The Strange Case of Harriet Hall Moray Dalton, 1936.
A lost and forgotten Golden Age crime writer whose work was just rediscovered behind a sofa or something and all republished as e-books—what a wonderful modern world we live in! This is an excellent classic crime in the best tradition—a young woman meets a previously unknown aunt who invites her to stay, but when she turns up of course the aunt has been murdered. It starts with the niece looking for jobs and wishing she’d be trained, and it was written so well and so charmingly and in such a very 1936 way that I promptly bought all Dalton’s books on impulse. And I’m not sorry. If you like books about mysterious and implausible murders in the English countryside in the 1930s, where only the unpleasant people get bumped off and the detective always figures it all out in the end, here is a terrific example. I find them very soothing myself. That’s why I wrote Farthing. No, really…when you think about it, why should reading about violent death be soothing?

Nets to Catch the Wind Elinor Wylie, 1921.
Fantasy poetry that would feel right at home in today’s SF and F poetry renaissance. Any of these could be published in Goblin Fruit or Uncanny. Very good, but kind of strange, when nobody else was writing like this—unless they were and nobody told me, which is perfectly possible. One of the people who does these new e-anthologies of poetry should do an anthology of out-of-copyright fantasy poetry. I’m almost tempted to do it myself. There’s excellent stuff here; if you like Theodora Goss or Sonya Taafe, go get this from Gutenburg and enjoy.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen? Donald E. Westlake, 1996.
Reread, my bath book. My favourite of the Dortmunder books, the one that gets everything right. Dortmunder is a small-time crook and he goes to do a small burglary and the householder steals his ring. The rest of the book consists of him trying to get it back from the householder, who is an evil billionaire who owns hotels and towers and entertainment companies. Terrific stuff. Funny, clever, fast-moving, actually too good to read in the bath because even when you’re really familiar with it the temptation is to read just one more short chapter while the water goes cold. It’s odd reading it now though, because it makes me wonder whether Westlake was skirting along just this side of libel using 1996 Trump as a villain. That was perfectly reasonable for 1996, but considering subsequent events that would mean that now we’re living in the jumped-the-shark sixth sequel where he kept writing the same book with the same villain but the stakes had to be increased way beyond plausibility…

The Fountain Overflows Rebecca West, 1956.
I could claim this is fantasy because it has a real poltergeist and ghost horses, but in fact it’s a mainstream novel about childhood, very closely observed. The thing about West is that she writes in both her fiction and her non-fiction at a layered level of sensory and emotional detail and honesty that you seldom see. Reading her work is a very intense experience—this is the first in a trilogy, and I will certainly read the others but I really didn’t want to plunge in to more of it immediately on finishing. Now, this book has no plot. There are very intensely observed people, and they move from Scotland to a London suburb and the beloved but feckless father abandons them and the mother copes and the children grow up a bit. But you couldn’t use it as an example of how books can have no plot, because it’s a character study of a kind most writers could not dream of attempting and it wouldn’t work if they did. There’s nothing facile about West, and she isn’t always easy to read, but it has an extraordinary power and pull. In so far as she is like any SF writer, it’s C.S. Friedman, in the almost claustrophobic larger than life people and the thingness of things. Also noteworthy—no romance whatsoever.

Spoon River Anthology Edgar Lee Masters, 1914.
This is a novel written in the form of poems that are the voices of people in the graveyard of the imaginary US town of Spoon River, building up a picture of the town and its history. It’s a wonderful conceit, which I borrowed for a thing of my own, but the book as a whole feels unfocused. However, it ends with an extract from “The Spooniad”—an epic poem just like Homer, written but not finished by the town’s poet laureate, and that is so wonderful I forgave it everything.

Conversations on Writing Ursula K. Le Guin and David Naimon, 2018.
Three fascinating interviews about fiction, poetry, and non fiction. Very thought provoking, and gentle, and inspiring, and just great. I loved it, read it straight through, and this will definitely be getting my top vote in the Best Related Work category in this year’s Hugos.

The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History Robert Darnton, 1984.
Oh this book was so good. It’s a series of essays, beginning with the idea of using anthropological techniques on history to get at the alien mindsets of the past. Everything here was just terrific, thought-provoking, idea-inspiring, detailed, well-written—there’s an investigation of fairy tales, and of the specific way one man read, and of some apprentices in a printing house killing some neighbourhood cats, and what that means. This is the kind of book almost everyone will enjoy, because it opens windows on different specific and weird places. I loved it. There’s a reason Darnton is my most exciting discovery of 2019 so far. Highly recommended.

We Rule the Night Claire Eliza Bartlett, 2019.
Fantasy first novel based on the experiences of Soviet women fliers in WWII. There’s a lot of great stuff here, but the book feels weirdly unbalanced because we see how awful the Union is, but nothing at all really about the Elda, the enemy. Fighting for the grey against the black is all very well, and so is fighting for the bad against the good that you’ve been told is bad, but there’s no resolution of this, no way to judge whether the Union are right in the sacrifices they are demanding. It’s both too close and too far from the history it is modelling, and so it falls somewhat between the stools of being its own thing or being the original. But at the human and fantastic level it’s excellent: good female fighters, good interpersonal dynamics, nifty living metal as a real magical thing, and excellent disability representation.

FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, Year Two.
A bunch of short stories and excellent poems from last year. The poems were almost all great, the stories varied a lot, with the standout for me being “Saudade” by Nelson Rolon. First publication too, so he goes on my list of writers to watch out for.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two collections of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections, a short story collection and thirteen novels, including the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Among Others. Her fourteenth novel, Lent, is newly out from Tor on May 28th 2019. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal. She plans to live to be 99 and write a book every year.

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