January was a quiet snowy month when I was at home, and I read twenty-five books, and here they are.
A Discord of Trumpets, Claud Cockburn (1956)
The autobiography of journalist and communist Claud Cockburn, most famous for saying “Never trust anything until it’s been officially denied.” Very funny when talking about his ridiculous upper class English family, very interesting when talking about his slow awakening to politics, and how journalism worked in the period. His style is adorable—it’s the kind of book one constantly wants to read bits aloud from. Enjoyable and thought provoking, well worth reading. I wish the later volumes were available.
Tau Zero, Poul Anderson (1970)
Re-read, but so long since I first read it I’d pretty much forgotten everything but the premise of a spaceship that goes so fast it can’t slow down and has to keep going to the end of the universe. I found it weird and uncomfortable around sex and power, and it had unlikable and depressing characters. A bit of a downer.
The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie (2019)
This was great fun, an odd version of Hamlet in a fantasy world, narrated by a god in direct address. Very readable, and covering a huge span of geological, evolutionary, and then historical time in narrated backstory that was my favourite bit. Nifty worldbuilding. I hope Leckie writes more standalone things just like this only completely different, if you know what I mean.
The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories, Martin Edwards (Editor) (2019)
The latest of the British Library Crime Classics anthologies Edwards has put together, and like all of them a terrific combination of forgotten Golden Age of crime short stories loosely arranged around a theme. I will read as many of these as he cares to give me; he knows the field really well, and while some stories are certainly better than others there’s rarely even one dud.
Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, Gretchen McCulloch (2019)
Oh this was excellent. Did you know emoji sit in the same linguistic place as gestures? This is a descriptive linguistics and history of the social internet, compulsively readable and full of fascinating stuff. This is one of those books that you almost certainly want to read whether you know it or not, and even if all you want to do is argue with it. Well informed, erudite, funny and inclusive.
Resurgence, C.J. Cherryh (2020)
The latest in the Atevi series, which I’ve been reading literally for decades, and, sadly, I might be done with it even if she isn’t. It’s alien soap opera at this point. “Here’s some more” isn’t really enough. Disappointing, especially after last year’s terrific Alliance Rising. Read the first six and then probably stop unless you really love Atevi politics, in which case read I guess the first 17 and then stop? In any case, don’t start here.
Unto Us a Son is Given, Donna Leon (2019)
These, on the other hand, continue to do new things, and I think you probably could pick this volume up without having read any of the others and get a lot out of it. In any case, I am not even slightly tired of these mysteries set in Venice with their murky morality. There’s nothing like a murder until 60% of the way through this, but I didn’t mind a bit. Donna Leon is great. There’s a new volume due in March.
Too Like the Lightning (2016), Seven Surrenders (2017), The Will to Battle (2018), Perhaps the Stars (2021), Ada Palmer.
Re-read of all four books together to consider the first three in the light of the fourth, and also because since I read them in October I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them. Just wonderful, and as a complete set, even better. It’s odd, I find when I talk about these I keep reverting to my subjective immersive experience of reading them, or their place in the field—comparable to The Book of the New Sun or Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand—rather than talking about what they’re about. This is because there is so much and it’s impossible to do justice to it all so it’s difficult to know where to start. I wrote a whole piece for Crooked Timber just about the narrative style—and you might want to check out the whole Crooker Timber seminar. It’s too good and too powerful to see around or to attempt to sum up, so I keep being thrown back on “Wow” and “Yes, this is what science fiction is for.”
The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)
Re-read, for bookclub. It’s a very short book, and it’s really about the nature of reality and possibility, but I’ve read it a zillion times and I always find something new. It’s both very Taoist and much more human-centered than you’d expect.
Talleyrand, Duff Cooper (1932)
A biography of Talleyrand by diplomat and politician Duff Cooper, very much looking at Talleyrand as a diplomat. A little dated, but still readable. I’d like a modern biography of Talleyrand.
The Children of Hurin, J.R.R. Tolkien (2007)
The tale of Túrin Turambar, all as one coherent whole. I’m not sure whether to count this as a re-read or not, because I haven’t read this book before, but I’ve certainly read enough other versions of this story.
Money For Nothing, Donald Westlake (2003)
Re-read. This guy gets a check for $1000 from “United States Agent.” Then the next month he gets another. He puts them in the bank. Seventeen years later he gets activated, and shenanigans ensue. Breathless pace, I read it all in one afternoon, Westlake at his most unputdownable.
Would Like to Meet, Rachel Winters (2019)
A chick lit novel about an agent trying to help a star finish a script by actually performing “meet cutes.” It’s not the most plausible scenario, but it’s delightful actually, a fast fun read with a strong voice. Recommended by Claire of The Captive Reader.
Mothering Sunday, Noel Streatfeild (1950)
Re-read. This is one of Streatfeild’s adult novels, and one I was lucky enough to find in a thrift store for 10p years ago. Wonderful use of POV to tell the story of a family whose elderly mother is acting strangely so all the now adult children—except the one who was a deserter of course, but we don’t talk about him—get together to try to sort things out. This is a portrait of a family over time, and the different lives and points of view of all the adult children.
Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great, James R. Gaines (2005)
This is the story of how Bach’s Musical Offering was created, the whole context of it, but it’s also a biography of two very different men. I was surprised to find Frederick, about whom I knew essentially nothing, more interesting than Bach, whose music I listen to every day.
Dance of the Happy Shades and Other Stories, Alice Munro (1968)
There’s a special feel to Munro that isn’t really like anyone else. She’ll write these short little things that are about childhood embarrassment or not knowing what you want, and on the one hand there’s nothing there, and on the other it’s so rich and well observed and powerful. She really deserved that Nobel.
Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo (2019)
YA novel, edging on horror, about a girl who is given a scholarship to Yale because she can see ghosts. (What? They give people scholarships because they can play a particular sport.) I thought this was going to be a college novel, but it isn’t really, it doesn’t have the shape or the concerns of one, it’s exclusively about the secret societies and their magic. It’s good, very much the kind of thing you can’t put down once you get into it, which is good because the more I think about the worldbuilding the more uncomfortable I get. There’s a line about magic moving from Europe along with its practitioners in the nineteenth century which really doesn’t bear examination. Europe! It’s a real place and still there. America had people when Europeans arrived.
Talk Like a Man, Nisi Shawl (2019)
Short story collection, not as wide ranging as Filter House but much shorter. Excellent stories, a non-fiction piece, and an interview, as usual in these PM Press anthologies. Shawl is one of our finest writers and we should make more fuss about her. For a start, read this.
Magic in Western Culture: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment, Brian P. Copenhaver (2015)
Copenhaver put out two books at the same time with very similar titles, this one and a sourcebook of all the texts about magic, which is terrific. This one is about the way people thought magic worked at different times, about theories of magic, which you’d think would be interesting and useful, but a lot of it I knew already and a lot of the rest I kept getting bogged down. Still, I’m glad I’ve read it, and I wholeheartedly recommend his other one.
The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford (1945)
Re-read, bath book. Nancy Mitford takes the stuff of her life, and (less forgivably) the lives of her family, and makes them into this sharp, snobbish, yet sentimental novel of a young girl from a terrible upper class family who pursues love as one might a questing beast. It’s a very different book depending on what you know about the actual Mitford sisters, and yet the exaggerations for fiction here also colour what we think we know about the reality, so it’s not a book that can be read out of its context in any way.
If Venice Dies, Salvatore Settis (2014)
A book about what cities are, and the souls of cities, and why when we think diversity is a good thing for people we should want all our cities all over the world to be homogenous and identical. Lots of ideas, some of them not very firmly grounded, others provocative. He needs to read Jane Jacobs. But he’s right about a lot of things, and I have no answers to a lot of his questions.
Gourmet Rhapsody, Muriel Barbery (2000)
Almost like an outtake from The Elegance of the Hedgehog, this is a novella about the dying food critic mentioned in that book. Here, on his death bed he craves one last taste—but what taste is it? He ranges back through a life of eating delicious things trying to figure it out. This book may make you hungry.
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.