Jo Walton’s Reading List: June 2019

June started off with a book promotion trip for Lent to Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario, which was pretty reading intensive: long train rides, early nights in hotel rooms. Then I was home mostly revising for the rest of the month. There were also a lot of pain days where I did nothing but read. So I read 33 books in June, some of them not very long—there are a number of children’s books and magazines in here. July’s going to have a lot of travel and August even more so, so I’ll probably read less.

Falling in Love, Donna Leon, 2015.
I didn’t read a Brunetti book in May, partly because I only have four left and I want to make them last. Another detective story with Brunetti in Venice, this one about stalking. Lots of recurring series characters, and some terrific moments, but don’t start here.

Moab is My Washpot, Stephen Fry, 1997.
Picked this up on Amazon for $1.99 and immediately became obsessed and bought the two other volumes of Fry’s autobiographical writings at full price. (This is, of course, why they do that, and lo, sometimes it works.) This book is brilliant. It’s about Fry’s childhood and school days and what a terrible thing romantic love is. It’s closely observed, funny, and honest in the exact way so many people and memoirs are not. I’ve enjoyed some of Fry’s novels and I believe I have seen him in a couple of movies, but I do not watch TV and have therefore no experience with the work he’s most famous for. I’m not a huge fan, or I wasn’t before I read this. There’s a level of honesty and self-examination and self observation and detail here that is like catnip.

Judith, Noel Streatfeild, 1956.
The last of the recently reissued Streatfeild adult novels that I had not previously read. This one, like Saplings, is kind of like a horror version of her children’s books. Judith is a child of divorce who lives with her mother and her governess in various places abroad. Her father and grandmother get her to go on a visit to England, and she starts to stand on her own feet, but then gets swept back into a life of childishness and dependency. Judith expects to be looked after, to be helpless, and it takes her a long, long time to grow up. She does, eventually, but it’s a long pull.

War in Vall d’Orcia, Iris Origo, 1947.
This is the diary of Iris Origo, an English writer and historian married to an Italian count. She spent WWII in Italy, day by day. It’s so interesting reading a diary, daily entries that do not contain foreshadowing because they are written headlong. It’s interesting because people put things in you wouldn’t expect, things you won’t find in a history. Origo had 42 refugee children from Genoa and Milan staying with her on her farm because the Allies were bombing the cities. She heard and believed the German propaganda that the V1s were destroying England, and lay awake worrying about it. There’s one point where they’re in hiding waiting for the Allied armies to get there, and the Germans are there and everyone is shelling each other, and she thinks that if it’s over in a week or ten days then they’ll be all right, because every available hand can get the harvest in, but if it takes longer than that they’ll all starve next winter whatever else happens. Very interesting.

Proper English, K.J. Charles, 2019.
Unlike all the other K.J. Charles I have read, not a gay romance novel, a lesbian romance novel! Surprise! I don’t actually mind very much what gender people in romance novels are, so that’s all right. Set in 1902. A sweet romance, and also a country house mystery in which a blackmailer is murdered and everyone has a motive. Fun, and as always very well done characters.

The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry, 2010.
Continuation of autobiography, in which Fry goes to Cambridge and begins acting and has success fall into his lap. Still written with the blend of closely observed honesty and humour that had me riveted to the first one. Every chapter title begins with C. OK then.

One By One They Disappeared, Moray Dalton, 1928.
Another long lost Dalton mystery, this one even more contrived and implausible than the one I read in May. A millionaire and eight other men were rescued from a shipwreck in a lifeboat. The millionaire has promised to leave his money between the others, and now they’re being killed one by one in ways that look like accidents but… of course they’re not. Who is doing it?

Brain Wave, Poul Anderson, 1954.
Re-read, but I hadn’t read it for a long long time. There’s a way in which all of SF can be seen as variations on themes of Poul Anderson’s; he really is a much more important writer for the field than people often give him credit for. One day in the 1950s, Earth suddenly comes out of a cosmic cloud of gas that inhibits intelligence, and all animals and people level up. The beginning of this book is great, and the concept of it is great, and it inspired the idea of the Zones of Thought in Vinge. The first chapter, in which a rabbit, an intellectually challenged farm worker, and a bright boy all suddenly become more intelligent, more capable of thinking, from within, is brilliantly done. Unfortunately, it’s less good as it goes on. First, I hate the whole plot with Sheila. Second, and much worse, intelligence isn’t as genetic as Anderson believes it is here. There’s this weird thing you sometimes get in old American SF—it’s in Piper too—where if you take the bright creative enterprising people away from a population, that population will never recover. If it were true, once the people they think of that way left for the U.S., Europe would never have produced Einstein or Hawking or Tolkien. And similarly, some of the babies born to the normal human intelligence people they leave on Earth at the end of this book will be superintelligent just like the people leaving, even though their parents are not. However, it’s a genre-important and deeply readable book even if I want to argue with it.

More Fool Me, Stephen Fry, 2014.
Third volume of Fry’s memoirs. Less good than the first two, partly because it’s about addiction and success, and partly because a large section of it is journal rather than the incisive self-examination of the other two volumes. Great title though. I will buy any other memoirs he writes without hesitation.

Lady Fortescue Steps Out, M.C. Beaton, 1992.
Another bargain ebook, this one disappointing. Supposedly about some poor relations setting up a hotel and restaurant in Victorian London, as a thin wrapper on a badly done romance. There’s a thing with romance plots where you have a couple of people of genders and sexualities such that they are attracted to each other, and then obstacles will keep them apart until the end of the book. And to work, to be worth reading, the whole thing has to be emotionally satisfying; the obstacles can’t just be stupid misunderstandings. This was stupid misunderstanding after stupid misunderstanding. It was short, though, thank goodness. Do not bother. If you’re pining for a book about ladies setting up a restaurant, Elizabeth von Arnim’s Christopher and Columbus and Ada Cambridge’s A Humble Enterprise will do you much better.

All the Dogs of My Life, Elizabeth von Arnim, 1936.
And thinking of von Arnim I remembered that I’d bought this some time ago and not read it. This is a memoir of what it says on the tin. For fans of von Arnim or obsessive dog lovers only. I enjoyed it, but it’s very slight. Might re-read some of her novels soon though.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Carol Richards, 2011.
A disappointing biography of Rochester, mostly interested in politics.

A Man Against The Sky, Edwin Arlington Robinson, 1916.
Another Robinson poetry collection, more mystical than the last one, but with the same amazing scansion.

The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence, Brian Jeffrey Maxon, 2013.
A study of social humanists, and especially of humanists used as diplomats in the 1400s, looking at who they were specifically. I don’t know why this, and Lauro Martines’ earlier work on the same subject, shouldn’t be interesting, but they’re not. Hard work. I learned some things, but not a fun read. (St. Antoninus, before he was a saint, got sent on a number of diplomatic missions where he made humanist speeches, yay; I wonder why this isn’t in the fresco cycle of his life in San Marco?)

This Real Night, Rebecca West, 1984.
… which I kept calling When True Night Falls, which is actually the title of a C.S. Friedman novel that’s also the middle volume of a trilogy. This is the sequel to The Fountain Overflows and while it isn’t as good, it’s still excellent and I enjoyed it. Contains WWI. Sad, funny, observed in detail, full of West’s amazing ability to write sentences and describe things and people and situations. I’m sorry the third one was unfinished, but I have it and I will probably read it at some point.

Epicureans and Atheists in France 1650-1729, Alan Charles Kors, 2018.
Excellent book, thoroughly researched but also well written and lively. I don’t recommend it unless you are interested in the subject, but if you are you’ll really enjoy reading it.

Best of Uncanny, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, 2019.
Uncanny have had another stunningly good year. This was their Hugo Packet offering. Excellent work here from lots of people, including Naomi Kritzer, Marissa Lingen, and William Alexander, whose story is so good it made me rush out and buy all his novels. The story, “The House on the Moon,” reads like a Heinlein juvenile only with today’s sensibility and it’s just exactly on all fronts what I want. More more more.

Sway, Adriana Locke, 2016.
This is a romance novel that gets the balance of characters and obstacles and plot right. There’s a single mom who was betrayed in a glare of publicity and is now focused on earning money and completing her education without any more attention. And then there’s the mayor, who’s running for governor. These are real obstacles to all the “this is the right one” romantic energy, and they work them out gracefully and with some real tension.

Ambassador, William Alexander, 2014.
Kids make the best ambassadors and representatives of Earth to aliens; it stands to reason, they just do. Given that, Gabriel Fuentes, who is eleven and legal in the U.S., though his parents and older sisters are not, accepts this as easily as any kid would, and we’re off on a surprisingly solid middle grade SF adventure with aliens, immigration issues, family, and threats on all scales. This is great. Buy it for a kid you know and read it yourself first. The Heinlein juvenile I’d compare it to is Have Space Suit—Will Travel, but with today’s sensibilities. What a find! There’s a sequel called Nomad which I have bought and am saving for a treat when I finish revising my own book.

Strange Horizons Hugo Packet 2019.
This felt thin compared to the Uncanny one, but I suppose Uncanny threw everything in, while SH just selected what they thought was the best. I read some great things in Strange Horizons this year that weren’t in here, so I’m not sure that was a good choice.

The Corinthian, Georgette Heyer, 1940.
Re-read, bath book. The story of a Regency Corinthian (meaning an athlete and an aesthete) and a girl disguised as a boy and their delightful adventures with a jewel thief, a stage coach, the awful Brandon family, and the expectations of society, along with witty banter, more thieves cant than a gentry mort could wind up in the nubbin cheat, and detailed descriptions of period men’s clothing. If that doesn’t make you want to re-read this in the bath, then don’t. But I enjoyed it.

Letters From High Latitudes, Lord Dufferin, 1856.
Lord Dufferin took his yacht to Iceland and then to various barely visited places in the high Arctic in 1855, and wrote letters home about it which were collected into this volume. A travel book. They have built roads in Iceland since; when I was there last year I had very little trouble getting to Thingvellir or Geysir. Very interesting to compare. Free on Project Gutenberg.

The Seedling Stars, James Blish, 1956.
Read for book club. I couldn’t remember whether I’d read it before or not, but I had, so I’ll call it a re-read. Very old fashioned, and with one examined assumption and one very unexamined one. The book is about panforming, genetically engineering “Man” for other planets, instead of terraforming the planets for humanity. The examined assumption is the racism of unchanged humanity towards their changed cousins, which Blish uses to consider racism in a way that definitely deserves kudos for 1956. The unexamined one is Man’s Manifest Destiny to conquer and colonize the whole galaxy, even the bits that have intelligent life of their own. (Also horribly sexist throughout, but hey.) It’s a fixup, and some parts are much better than others. The best part is the story “Surface Tension,” with which many people in book club had scientific issues, but which I think is extremely nifty. With all its flaws, a good book club book with much about it to discuss.

The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1951.
I thoroughly enjoyed these and would recommend them. A range of short stories written in the ’20s and ’30s about young upper class Americans sometimes in the US and sometimes in Europe, sometimes in love and often taking trains. He’s great at delineating character in a short space, and great at writing satisfying ends to short things. Wish I could do that.

Ivory Apples, Lisa Goldstein, 2019.
It’s not out until the autumn, but I got an advance reading copy from Tachyon because they like me. Goldstein is a writer I’ve been reading and admiring for decades, but she never seems to have the breakout success that she deserves. She’s doing some of the most exciting and creative things in fantasy, and has been ever since The Dream Years and The Red Magician back in the Eighties. Ivory Apples is a contemporary fantasy about family, a book, muses, creativity and destruction and where they meet. It’s great, I loved it, you will also love it and you should pre-order it now.

The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Vol II, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1890.
More long plays and some translations, much harder to read than the first volume. But it remains a tragedy that she is remembered for one love sonnet only when all her work was so good.

Dragonsong, Anne McCaffrey, 1976.
Re-read. This first Menolly book is not as self indulgent or Mary Sue-ish as the later ones. The pseudo-medieval world is very solid and well imagined, and feels satisfyingly real. “Girl whose family don’t understand her goes to live on her own in a cave” is a genre that wears well. This book contains none of the problematic elements that trouble me in some other Pern books, and I can still enjoy it as I always have. Also fire lizards! I think it stands alone reasonably well.

Golden Pavements, Pamela Brown, 1947.
Third of the Blue Door series of children’s books, being re-released monthly by Tantalus. This is the one which I have read most frequently, because the place we used to go on holiday for two weeks every year when I was a kid had two shelves of books, and I’d read them all every year and this was there. I read it before I read any of the others, and I remember the plot in all its details. So you’d think maybe I wouldn’t gulp it down in two hours the day it arrived, but in fact I did anyway. It has made me extremely impatient for the fourth one, coming next month, which I have never even seen. This volume is about seven young people from Fenchester going to a dramatic school in London. They learn to act, have triumphs and disasters, and have to decide whether to go home to set up their own theatre or to succeed in the theatre world of London.

The Man With Two Left Feet and Other Stories, P.G. Wodehouse, 1917.
Many people think highly of Wodehouse, and I never seem to get on with him. I thought I’d try this, and as usual I found it okay and can’t see what all the fuss is about. As this keeps on being my reaction to things from any part of his career, I think we’re just not made for each other and I’ll stop trying.

Shimmer Magazine, Issue 46, Hugo Packet.
Terrific stories from Sarah Gailey and Mary Robinette Kowal, also some other very good stories from other people.

The Door Into Summer, Robert Heinlein, 1957.
Re-read. Bath book. Gosh I love this book so much. There are three times: real 1957 when he wrote it, imaginary 1970 where it starts, and imaginary 2000 where the hero gets with cold sleep. In between real 1957 and imaginary 1970 World War III has happened and been won by soldiers in top secret cold sleep where they couldn’t be detected, and Washington, D.C. and New York have been destroyed but the U.S. is booming with its capital in Denver. Daniel Boone Davis, inventor of robots, and his cat, Petronius Arbiter, or Pete for short, go through a first person narration of a beautiful time travel story. I seem to be bothered by the Ricky romance on every alternate read, and it got me last time, so I didn’t mind it much this time. We still don’t have those gadgets Dan invents, like the robot that can scrape and wash dishes and put them away, though computers do away with the need for some of them, and we do have the Roomba. It’s very interesting looking at a future like this one from this angle, and the story works out so neatly, and with that irresistible Heinlein confidential tone.

Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, Ben Goldfarb, 2018.
Recommended by Marissa Lingen. This is an excellent popular science book about beavers, water, engineering, climate, biodiversity, and why we need beavers. Fascinating, nifty, easy to understand. Recommended. I have a category of books known as “irrelevant non-fiction” by which I only mean than I’m not reading them for specific research for a novel, but somehow this seems to fit the category more than most things I read.

The Riviera Set: Glitz, Glamour, and the Hidden World of High Society, Mary S. Lovell, 2016.
This book ranged far in time and place, and took ages to get to the Riviera. Nevertheless, fascinating as a set of biographies of unusual people who all knew and indulged Winston Churchill. The most interesting person in it was Aly Khan, son of the Aga Khan. Readable, enjoyable, very much a gossip book rather than a serious history but none the worse for that.

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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