Jo Walton’s Reading List: September 2019

September was another travel month, not quite as intense as July and August. I went from London to Florence, and hung out in Florence until I came home on the 24th. It was all wonderful, and I read a reasonable 17 books.

The Toys of Peace and Other Papers, Saki, 1919.
Posthumous collection of Saki short stories, full of snark and wit and little pieces of hilariously apt description. (Free on Gutenberg.)

The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, Walter Pater, 1873.
This was the book that made a whole lot of late Victorians enthusiastic about the Renaissance, and it’s odd to read it now when much that was new and exciting about it seems like truisms although this was the first time they were expressed. It’s a bit like the front of Santa Maria Novella that way, where Alberti’s innovative architecture is hard to appreciate because it has been so much copied. Deeply sincere, full of enthusiasm, and it inspired a generation. (Free on Gutenberg.)

Sister Mine, Nalo Hopkinson, 2013.
Terrific magic realist fantasy set in Toronto. This is a wonderful book about family, magic, voodoo, good and bad relationships between people and the way the world works, told mostly in a powerful first person voice. Very real, even the magical bits. I enjoyed this a lot and I know I’ll keep coming back to it and finding more in it.

Life, Letters, and Epicurean Philosophy of Ninon de l’Enclos, Ninon de l’Enclos, 1700.
A French court lady writes letters to a French marquis about love and relations between the sexes, at great length, with some personal information but more coaching in affairs of the heart. Very strange indeed. (Free on Gutenberg.)

The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Townsend Warner, 1948.
A book about nuns, newly available as an ebook. This is great. It’s medieval England, the book covers generations of life in a convent, there’s a lot about the Black Death, there’s a lot about building a spire, there’s a lot about just life among the nuns. Warner is a terrific writer, I’ve loved everything of hers I’ve read, and I’d been looking forward to this for months. I read it all in one go without pausing and it was all brilliant. This is another one I’m going to read again and again.

The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street, Charles Nicoll, 2007.
Weirdly overdetailed but yet still engaging, this is a book about a court case that Shakespeare was peripherally involved in, and where in many ways Shakespeare is the least interesting element, even though nobody would read it without him. This is really an examination of the forgotten lives of some ordinary French immigrant hatmakers in London who had Shakespeare as a lodger for a couple of years, their neighbourhood, their context, and the shreds that survive of their lives.

Death in Captivity, Michael Gilbert, 1952.
Mash-up of a murder mystery and an escape from WWII prison camp story. British soldiers are imprisoned in a camp in Italy, towards the end of WWII. One day, the body of one of them is found at the end of an escape tunnel they’ve been working on. Who did it? Why? What do the Italian guards know about it? And will it get in the way of their escape plans? Well written, tense, and unexpected.

The Pier Glass, Robert Graves, 1921.
Poetry collection, full of vivid imagery but oddly less formed than his work earlier and later. (Free on Gutenberg.)

Carry On, Rainbow Rowell, 2017.
Re-read, because the sequel was out. Rowell’s Fangirl is perfect, and it contains a perfectly done created world with both “real” and fanfic works within it, while being a novel about a girl who writes fanfic. Carry On is a book set within the fictional world created for Fangirl, a book that would be book seven in a Harry Potter-like series, where the protagonists are both male, enemies, and secretly in love, as they defeat the evil dark thing and sort out their feelings. It’s surprisingly great, and part of that is the roots in Fangirl, part of it is the roots in the six books she didn’t make us read and which we can easily fill in for ourselves—it’s all climax. It’s like a good parts version.

Wayward Son, Rainbow Rowell, 2019.
Any sequel was bound to be disappointing, so even though this is good, it’s still disappointing. It’s aftermath, which is good, and I still care about the characters…I enjoyed it, but it would be hard to say it was for anything. Fangirl is about the value of subcreation and the way people get caught up in creating it, Carry On is about ends of stories, and destiny, and how people hide who they really are. This is about the characters from Carry On hitting America and America hitting back. It’s weirdly more like fanfic than Carry On, or maybe Carry On is like fanfic in an interesting way, whereas this just reads like more fanfic. Great moments though.

An Inheritance of Ashes, Leah Bobet, 2015.
This was great, but grim. A well-thought-out fantasy world/post-apocalyptic future, great characters, excellent writing, and well paced. But it’s not a cheerful little book, even though it comes up life-affirming at the end; the process of reading it takes you through some dark places. It’s full of that “I want to read it” thing, though, where you don’t want to put it down. It won three different Canadian YA awards, and it has a young female protagonist, but I guess I don’t know what YA is any more.

Harvard Classics: Areopagitica and On Education, John Milton, 1909.
In which we are against censorship, but only certain kinds, and in beautiful rolling prose. Very interesting how Milton (writing in 1644) assumes that there are some kinds of books one can’t tolerate, even in this paean for toleration, and how he approves of post-publication censorship but not of pre-publication, the way people do it on the continent. His views on education are less radical, but include having boys read the classics before being expected to produce compositions in classical languages. He thinks once they have Latin and Greek it’ll be easy for them to pick up Sanskrit.

Mrs Tim Carries On, D.E. Stevenson, 1941.
Sequel to a book I haven’t read called Mrs Tim of the Regiment but it doesn’t matter, this stands alone well enough. This is the fictional diary of a British women married to a serving soldier in 1940. As it was published in 1941, it’s quite extraordinary, and quite different from the way a book written now and set in 1940 would be. Whenever the characters went into a shop I wanted to shout at them to buy clothes, because material rationing is coming and they’ll all be getting shabby by and by. Also, we see very little of the Blitz (just starting to get bad at the end of the book), no evacuees, and it hasn’t yet become hard to get servants. By the end of the war, poor Mrs Tim is going to be peeling her own potatoes in worn-out clothes and absolutely unable to buy toys to put on the Christmas tree any more. Unless she’s in my Small Change universe, in which case she’ll be fine but the rest of us won’t. Which is what’s wrong really, charming and wholesome and full of period detail as the book is, with its funny comic relief servants and other ranks. It’s a wonderful portrait of a moment and a class from within. But they didn’t have the faintest idea what they were fighting for, or for that matter, against. I suppose it’s just as well they had this nice book to keep their spirits up while they got on with it. But reading it is like watching somebody serenely walking across a lawn the moment before they drop a tray and spill and break everything on it. The specific implied happy ending that will come after the war will never come, can never happen—not in this universe.

Gellhorn: A Twentieth Century Life, Caroline Moorehead, 2003.
Moorehead is a biographer I like, and Martha Gellhorn was a journalist and novelist who led an interesting life, so I snagged this when it was on sale. This is well written and interesting, just the kind of biography I like, and yet in the end it’s the story of a woman who didn’t quite make it. I mean she was a war correspondent. She was married to Ernest Hemingway. She wrote a bunch of books, and some of them are in print. But she never did anything big, and she was restless and unsatisfied always. It’s interesting to contrast this with the biographies I’ve recently read of two other near contempories, Rose MacAuley and Rebecca West, neither of whom were huge successes either, but both of whom had more directed focus. This was a very good biography but I found myself not liking Gellhorn very much. I especially didn’t like her relationship with her adopted son, and the way she bullied him about his weight.

Ghoulish Song, William Alexander, 2013.
Sequel to Goblin Secrets which I wrote about last time. It suffers a little from being a sequel; even though it deals with different characters, it’s less focused and narrower. It’s good, but it’s the least good of the four Alexander books I’ve zoomed through in the last little while.

Unforeseen: Stories, Molly Gloss, 2019.
Molly Gloss is a treasure, and indeed these stories are unforeseen and unforseeable, utterly sui generis, on the edges of genres and hard to pin down. She writes very precisely and powerfully and from unexpected and surprisingly satisfying angles. Some are SF, some fantasy, some westerns, some women’s fiction—they’re about peace and nature and animals and history and aliens and connections and aloneness. This is a so, so good, all of it, a terrific collection and I loved it.

Modern Broods, Charlotte M. Yonge, 1901.
This is a sequel to a whole pile of other books, don’t start here. Like all Yonge, this is an edifying Victorian novel about large families, class, Christianity, death of children and incidentally colonialism and poverty. This one contains more shipwrecks than normal—normal Yonge books have only one shipwreck, so I was surprised by the second. There’s one startlingly overt bit of period racism, no worse (indeed better) than normal for the time, but still unpleasant to choke on now. Other than that, some people learn better and repent and some go on in their shallow ways and have to make the best of it. Sometimes I am exactly in the mood for a book like this, and fortunately, there are still a bunch I haven’t got to yet. (Free on Gutenberg.)

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, was published by 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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