Jo Walton’s Reading List: October 2019

I was at home all of October; it included Scintillation which meant lots of friends were here for a few days, but also there was a week of being laid up doing nothing but reading, and at the very end I headed to Nantes for Utopiales. I read 27 books, or I guess 28 because I read one of them twice.

Death in the Cup, Moray Dalton, 1932.
Poisoning! Disguise! Country cottages! What more do you need? Well, maybe a bit of depth of character? But that would be asking too much. Fast read, golden age cosy mystery.

The Orphans of Raspay, Lois McMaster Bujold, 2019.
The latest Penric and Desdemona novella takes them to sea and to a pirate island. Bujold is always worth reading, but some of these Penric books are brilliant and some of them, like this one, are just fun.

Tolkien and the Great War, John Garth, 2003.
Absolutely terrific book about Tolkien’s early life before WWI, and the effect WWI had on him and on the direction of his work. It’s so interesting to think that Tolkien wanted to make a new mythology and he wanted some answers to put into the problem of theodicy and to be bright against despair, and then he did. I was reading this and thinking how very much my own thinking about this comes from Tolkien specifically. And he could so easily have died at any moment. There’s a drabble where Herod’s men catch up with the holy family on the way to Egypt and kill them and don’t massacre the innocents, and the innocents grow up and they’re all like that. Thinking about how nearly humanity lost Tolkien, and how all his close friends were being killed around him, along with so many other people, makes me wonder what work they might have produced. Excellent book, highly recommended.

Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer, 2016.
Re-read, in preparation for Perhaps the Stars. This is a wonderful book to re-read, because it’s full of things that unfold later, and seeing them again and knowing how they will expand is delightful. This is a huge detailed complex future world, with flying cars, and bashes instead of families, and hives instead of nation states, and there’s so much thought in it, and it in turn is so thought provoking that on first reading it can be a little overwhelming, especially with the wonderful intimate first person voice of Mycroft Canner, our narrator, who is not so much unreliable as that he has his own agenda. But on subsequent readings, revisiting the way it all unscrolls, when the revelations are familiar and not jolting, it’s just an absolute delight.

Seven Surrenders, Ada Palmer, 2017.
Re-read. The first book is all set up, the second is all payoff. The first book starts close in and very carefully opens out, like a bud unfurling; the second book is like being handed a bouquet, now that you understand what a flower is. Again, the experience of re-reading, while utterly immersive to the point I forgot lunch and barely stopped myself using “thou” in an email, is more even fun and powerful than the first read. The end of this one is incredible. It also, unlike TLTL, which stops on something of a cliffhanger, actually has a satisfying end. So if you read TLTL, have this close by.

The Will to Battle, Ada Palmer, 2017.
Re-read. This was the first time I’d read this volume in published form. My review here of TLTL was entitled “a future worth having,” and this is a world that feels that way to me, actually better than the present in a bunch of ways without being perfect, and having a complexity and uneven distribution that’s like history. And she makes you love this world before it’s threatened, so you (I) really care about the possible loss. Wow. This is a series that brings something to SF—that is growing out of SF but also doing something new in the field. I could compare it to Cherryh, or Wolfe, Le Guin, and it definitely owes something to Bester’s The Stars My Destination and to various Japanese influences, especially Tezuka, but it’s also coming out of Diderot and Machiavelli, out of history and philosophy and not in a shallow way, in a really deep-rooted way. And what it’s doing with the metaphysics is amazing.

Wife By Wednesday, Catherine Bybee, 2011.
Genre romance, in which a woman offering a dating service is proposed to by one of her clients who needs to marry to secure his inheritance. Very formulaic and very silly.

The Letters of Cassiodorus, Cassiodorus, 560.
An interesting set of letters from Late Antiquity written by a Roman on behalf of Gothic kings, and on his own behalf, as the world went on after it had ended. Full of details of daily life along with pleading letters to Justinian during the invasion, and attempts to find ways to deal with famine. Lots of things in the category of “you couldn’t make it up,” as always when reading letters. (Free on Gutenberg.)

Alice, Elizabeth Eliot, 1950.
A rather tiresome novel about a woman who wants security and can’t find it in the modern world. Oddly, it appears to actually be set in the Farthing universe, the one where the 1930s just went on, because WWII clearly hasn’t happened here or in the imagination of the author. It’s very well written, and it has a compelling first person voice, which was enough to make me try it, but that’s it. Don’t bother.

The Greengage Summer, Rumer Godden, 1958.
Re-read, bath book. Godden is wonderful, and massively underrated. A thirteen-year-old English girl writes about a summer in France, and a jewel theft is going on in the background, and it’s mostly just about being on the cusp of understanding the adult world and not wanting to, and everything happening at once, and amazing descriptions of France and greengages and champagne and the perceptions of childhood.

Stories of the Apocalypse, Martin H. Greenberg, 2010.
A very mixed collection with very high highs and low lows. About half a re-read, because I’d read a lot of it before. Some excellent new things here though. A good but not outstanding collection, but it deserves points for sticking to its theme without being at all repetitive.

The Nature of the Book, Adrian Johns, 1998.
Print is authoritative and mass produced, but this wasn’t always the case. This book looks in detail at the early days of print, piracy, stationers, the Royal Society, astronomers, Newton, and the culture surrounding print in Early Modern England. Fascinating, but not as good a read as his book on piracy.

Earthly Remains, Donna Leon, 2017.
Another Brunetti mystery set in Venice and its laguna, this one about the death of bees. There’s a murder too, but that’s not what it’s about. I love these, and am forcing myself to read them slowly.

The Wimsey Papers, Dorothy L. Sayers, 1940.
Published during the Phony War to keep people’s spirits up, these purport to be letters to and from various members of the cast of Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels. There is no plot, there is just a bunch of bits of voice, and despite this, and the politics having been sufficiently overtaken by events as to not even be visible in the rear-view mirror, they are delightful. I’d never come across these before.

Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen, Richard M. Wunderli, 1992.
A close-up on a forgotten piece of history. In 1472 in Germany, a shepherd and drummer had a vision of the Virgin Mary and proclaimed a great pilgrimmage, in which tens of thousands of peasants took part, disturbing the social order until it was suppressed. Wunderli does the best he can to get close to the events and participants, to what they thought and believed, and to how they lived. Very interesting book, full of detail. I especially liked when he tried to recreate one of the drummer’s speeches from the notes made on what was heretical in it.

Perhaps the Stars, Ada Palmer, 2021.
Finally! It’s done, people, and it’s a masterpiece. Worth waiting for. I was fortunate enough to be the first person to read this all through, as opposed to reading chapters as they were written. This is because Ada is my friend. Which doesn’t diminish in any way what I say about her work, because while being friends with people does prevent me from excoriating their work in public, it wouldn’t make me say something good. So when I say that this volume makes this series one of the best things ever written in the history of ever, that it turns me into a pool of incoherent wow, that I cried more times than I can remember doing with any book, both in joy and in sadness, that everything pays off in the most satisfying imaginable way, you can trust me that I’m telling the truth.

Perhaps the Stars, Ada Palmer, 2021.
Re-read. I read it again right away, so I could read it without the anxiety of not knowing what was going to happen, and also because I wasn’t ready to be done reading it yet. Seriously considered re-reading all four again, right away, but decided to hold off on that a little. Boy it’s good!

The Rescuers, Margery Sharp, 1959.
Not as good as her adult books, but pretty good all the same. A society of mice rescue prisoners. That’s it. I’d have loved it when I was about five.

The Thorn and the Blossom, Theodora Goss, 2012.
Two scholars, Cornwall, a myth, a love story, the edge where madness bleeds into myth. Goss has been consistently writing terrific things using fairytale and the deep levels of the psyche. This one is slighter than a lot of hers because of the conceit of telling the same events from two points of view sequentially.

The Day of the Storm, Rosamunde Pilcher, 1975.
It’s only in trying to think how to describe this book that I realise that it’s a gothic. There’s a girl and a house and a hero and a villain and it’s hard to tell which is which, but it doesn’t feel like a gothic even so, because it’s very clearly 1975 with 1975’s mores, and the house isn’t a trap. Interesting. Everything does end up exactly as one would expect, and Pilcher is very good, as always, at details and scenery.

Magic Below Stairs, Caroline Stevermer, 2010.
A boy, an orphanage, a brownie, a wizard, a curse, and this is a charming children’s book in the universe of Sorcery and Cecelia. It’s good that Americans don’t understand class, really it is, but it is a disadvantage when writing things set in the UK, and especially period pieces. So this suffers a little from that, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

Away From Her, Alice Munro, 1999.
This was actually a novella I’d already read in a collection, not a new story, so re-read. Munro is such a good writer, she writes and constructs her stories perfectly, and when she’s slightly further from her well-trodden comfort zone, as here, she can be amazing. This is a story about love, memory, and marriage, it includes Alzheimer’s and it’s very powerful.

Ruined City, Nevil Shute, 1938.
Re-read. This is really about a town that’s dying because of the Great Depression, and an attempt by one man to bring it back to life. It’s full of specifics of economics of shipbuilding, and unemployment, and it contains a typically perfunctory romance, but it’s really about what it takes to have civilization and hope. Every novel on this theme but this and Shute’s Town Like Alice is SF.

The Unbearable Bassington, Saki, 1913.
So this is funny and arch but then it stops being funny. You could quote any few lines of this and make almost anyone smile, but taken as a whole it leaves a bad taste. Very strange book. Saki is best at short lengths. (Free at Gutenberg.)

Sense & Sensibility, Joanna Trollope, 2013.
A cover version. When you do a cover version, it’s very important to understand the things that don’t work any more and find something in the new society that works instead. You want the emotional equivalents. For instance, in the movie Clueless, which is a cover version of Austen’s Emma, a character is made gay as an explanation that works in the same space as the explanation of his behaviour in the original. Weirdly, Joanna Trollope, most of whose contemporary novels are directly about class in modern England, screws this up badly here. I wasn’t expecting that. She keeps on having everything exactly the same and saying, outright saying on the page, that certain attitudes and people are “old fashioned.” Well, yes. Maybe I’m unduly critical because I’ve done it myself, but I kept asking myself why I wasn’t just re-reading Austen, which is better, if Trollope wasn’t going to do anything interesting with the differences. Mobile phones do not the present day make. She chose to use people at the exact same social level as Austen did, which flat out doesn’t work because people have incomes now, and it’s hard to have sympathy for the helpless rich. Thinking about this, I am now suppressing a desire to write S&S on a housing estate in Wales, where possession of the rights to a council house on the death of your father could indeed have the same kind of weight.

Ice and Other Stories, Candas Jane Dorsey, 2018.
Dorsey is at her best at longer lengths where she gets the chance to develop things, but there are some absolute gems in this collection all the same—perhaps my favourite is the one where Mother Teresa shows up at the home of the narrator’s demanding retired mother and starts moving in orphans and refugees.

Against Purity, Living Ethically In Compromised Times, Alexis Shotwell, 2018.
Gift from the author, who is a fan of mine and who I’ve met a couple of times. Very interesting book about how many modern issues demand impossible perfection of individuals where they’d be better addressed in other ways. Looks at environmental, indigenous, trans and disability issues, among other things. Cool stuff about remembering for the future and using SF as a way forward. Unfortunately written in very academic prose that makes it more of a slog than it needs to be.

A Train in Winter, Caroline Moorehead, 2011.
First of four books about resistance to fascism in WWII. This one is about women in the French Resistance, underground newspapers, smuggling people across the border, all fun and games until suddenly these women we’ve been following are all on a train to Auschwitz and the whole tone of the book becomes unbearably grim. And terrible as what happened to them was, as political prisoners it was less awful than what happened to the Jews. However, a ray of light and a thing that will stay with me—news was sent back to the parents of one young woman who was killed, telling them that she was dead. The parents made a fuss, wrote to papers, visited the mayor, demonstrated, and the result was that the surviving French women were moved to Ravensbrück. Not that Ravensbrück was a picnic, but there was a tap for each barracks, not one tap per 5000 people as at Auschwitz. The fact that any of them survived is because of this. And this was a protest by ordinary people to the Nazis in Occupied France in 1943. Protest, stand up and be counted—you never know what lever will move the world, or if not move the world then at least make a tiny difference that is the whole world for others you may never meet or know about. This is a vivid, well-written book, but you should be braced for it.

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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