February was another long cold snowy month in which I was at home writing and also read a fair bit—25 books, and they’re a mixed bag, as usual. I have a category of “irrelevant non-fiction” which is just non-fiction I’m reading that’s not specifically research for anything, and I read a bunch of that this month.
Sister Queens: Isabella and Catherine de Valois, Mary McGrigor (2016)
It’s weird when you read history and it feels like secret history, but that’s because I mostly know this period from Shakespeare, and I read this specifically to fill in backstory. If you didn’t know that the unnamed queen in Shakespeare’s Richard II was the older sister of Kate in Henry V and if that fact fills you with an urge for more, then you probably want to read this. I should warn you, though, that it isn’t a very good book. McGrigor is a romantic. She truly believes and tries to make the reader believe that every marriage is a love match, even the most political, and even when all the evidence is against her. Beyond that, the book is very shallow—I’m in favour of popular history, but I like a little more depth. However, I now know more of the genealogy of the minor characters in Shakespeare’s Henry VI so I’m happy.
Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, Don Kulik (2019)
This was brilliant, wonderfully written, open, real, fascinating. This is what nonfiction for non-specialists ought to be like, not assuming the reader knows anything, but treating them like people who want to learn and don’t mind going into some depth—after all, if we weren’t interested we wouldn’t have picked up the book. Kulik is an anthropologist who spent some time in a remote village in New Guinea where a language was dying, studying the language and the people, over forty years. This is a book that has him in it as a human being, as well as the human beings he was studying. Perfect. Highest recommendation.
The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois (2007)
There are some terrific stories in this one, especially the Robert Silverberg, Nancy Kress, Ken MacLeod, Walter Jon Williams, James Patrick Kelly—there are a lot of good ones. There were also some boring ones, unfortunately, so even though looking over the table of contents I’m reminded how great some of them were, my general feeling in looking back on the collection is slightly disappointed.
Florence in the Forgotten Centuries, 1527-1800, a History of Florence and the Florentines in the Age of the Grand Dukes, Eric W. Cochrane (1973)
Just reissued as an ebook after having been unavailable for ages, I was thrilled to get hold of it and raced through it. History does periodization in an annoying way, and before this I had read almost nothing in any detail even about Duke Cosimo I, let alone any further. This is a lively book that picks out individuals at specific times and structures the history around them, which for the most part works very well. There was a lot here that was utterly new to me, and I now understand all this much better.
The Love Letters of Dorothy Osborne 1652-54, Dorothy Osborne (1888)
Delightful collection of letters from the Interregnum between a young lady and her future husband, both of them fairly obscure, but real people with lives and a love of books and each other. Also contains a charming Victorian introduction by an editor clearly in love with Dorothy himself.
World’s Fair, E.L. Doctorow (1985)
People don’t talk enough about the worldbuilding in mainstream novels. This is a brilliantly written story of a young Jewish boy in New York in the 1930s: moving, solid, excellent. The historical period is evoked deftly and effectively. It is set in a universe in which the concerns of men are universal, obviously significant, important, and the concerns of women are trivial, shallow, and inherently insignificant. These axioms are so obvious they don’t need stating or considering in any way. Great book otherwise. Shaped some of the rest of my fiction reading this month as a conscious attempt to get the taste out of my brain.
Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford (1949)
Re-read, bath book. (I have this and The Pursuit of Love in one volume, so it was still on the side of the bath so I read it.) It’s a very odd book. Aside from the general Mitford oddness, this is a book where an older man’s kink for pubescent girls is treated as a subject for comedy. But yet, there is not only one way to respond to abuse, and I have seen both adolescent giggling prurience and adolescent romantic adoration, both depicted here, just as much as the personality breaking that is the modern way of writing about this. But it’s weird all the same.
To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture, Eleonory Gilburd (2018)
Fascinating book about reception of Western books, cinema, and art, in the Soviet Union. You wouldn’t believe how they read Salinger as a stinging critic of capitalism, of Hemingway as a working class hero. Really thought-provoking as information, but this is a very academic book and the prose can be a bit of a slog.
The New Moon’s Arms, Nalo Hopkinson (2007)
Magic realist novel set in the Caribbean with a powerful first person voice of a woman whose magic power is coming back to her with menopause. I was uncomfortable with the protagonist’s discomfort with homosexuality—it was realistic and well done, but it made me squirm anyway. The merpeople were wonderful.
Where We Belong, Emily Giffin (2012)
Things I like about Giffin—strong female relationships, strong friendships, family. Things I don’t like—too much shopping, too many rich people. This isn’t her best book (that would be the Something Borrowed, Something Blue diptych). This is the story of a woman who got pregnant when she was eighteen, and what happens when the daughter she gave up for adoption shows up in her life when she’s thirty-six and the daughter is exactly the age she was when she last saw her. It’s interesting to see the romance tropes of perfect-partner subverted the way Giffin does here.
Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny, Daisy Dunn (2005)
A biography of Pliny the Younger, with some stuff about his uncle and the eruption of Vesuvius. A mildly enjoyable read, but I’ve read all her sources, so not much new. Lovely illustrations that reproduce well in the ebook.
The City and the City, China Miéville (2009)
I hadn’t read it before. (I didn’t go to Worldcon that year, it was in Australia.) Two cities on top of each other, in overlapping physical spaces, where the inhabitants stay in one or the other and unsee the one they’re not in, and the mysterious Breach to keep them from cheating. In this weird world, a hard-boiled police procedural. I almost liked this a lot, because it was in many ways great, very solid world, nifty literalisation of a real thing, but the end disappointed me. Was that where it was all going? Really? Ninety percent of a masterpiece, with an end that made me want to kick it as it dribbles into insignificance? Oh well. Must read more Miéville. What has he written that has a satisfying end?
Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters, Amy Binns (2020)
A biography of John Wyndham, terrific, compelling, very well done, flawed only in that it starts with a stupid “fictionalised” scene. I looked at this book when it came out and did not buy it because it begins so badly, and I thought it was going to be one of those naff biographies that purports to tell you the subject’s thoughts. Fortunately, the Locus review told me it was just that starting vignette and then it was a proper biography, and indeed, once past that it’s great. If you are interested in Wyndham’s work, or in gender and feminism in the first half of the twentieth century, definitely read this book. Highly recommended.
The Book of Swords, edited by Gardner Dozois (2017)
So you’d think, wouldn’t you, that I’d enjoy a book of space operas more than a book of sword and sorcery, but in this case you’d be wrong. This was terrific, hardly a dud, wonderful Daniel Abraham, K.J. Parker (must read more Parker), a delightful C.J. Cherryh Beowulf story—it’s all thoroughly enjoyable. Loved it to bits.
Wintering: A Season With Geese, Stephen Rutt (2019)
A book about geese, and winter, and it’s beautifully written and not very long. I wanted to read his other book, The Seafarers, but there doesn’t seem to be an ebook in North America, so I read this one instead. I now know a lot more about geese than I did, but it’s his description of winter sunrise that will stick with me.
Small Changes, Marge Piercy (1972)
Re-read. I haven’t re-read this one in a long time. It’s a book from the very beginning of second-wave feminism, and it’s the story of two women—well, a whole bunch of women, but with a focus on two of them, Miriam and Beth, who are young, and it’s 1968, and they have to figure out what they want in a world that wants to force them into very specific woman-shaped moulds. The tech is interesting, and very specific to its time, and it’s interesting to see computers and startups and research existing at this time and in a mainstream book where that isn’t the focus. The characters are great, and it’s a book about exploration, not plot.
Meanwhile There Are Letters, Suzanne Marrs (2015)
The letters of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (Ken Millar). The letters are interesting, but the intertextual notes and explanations are almost at Pale Fire levels of trying to shape the story. Welty and Millar were writers who met and became friends and wrote letters about writing and support and their lives. It is really clear from the letters that there was no romance involved. But the editor is sure that secretly, between the lines, there was, there must have been. So weird! Friendship is important too! Even between adults of different genders. Goodness knows what she’d have made of George Sand and Flaubert if she’d been let loose on their letters where Flaubert calls Sand “cher maitre.”
Finder, Suzanne Palmer (2019)
Aliens and spacestations and lots of mayhem, and yet somehow this wasn’t quite to my taste. Probably because it’s a caper, and there’s something about capers and science fiction that doesn’t mix, for me.
The Measure of Man: Liberty, Virtue, and Beauty in the Florentine Renaissance, Lawrence Rothfield (2020)
I was sent this to blurb, which is wonderful, as I’d certainly have bought it, and I loved it. This is the book I wanted when I first went to Florence with Ada and I wanted more detail about the history she had shared with me. It’s a starter book for Renaissance Florence, for students, or visitors, or people who have read some historical fiction and want the real solid history. It covers the period 1300-1530, and while I disagree with Rothfield about some things (Primavera! Savonarola!) it’s generally a terrific book, very well written and full of colour and detail. It’s due out in December.
Thornyhold, Mary Stewart (1988)
Re-read. One of Stewart’s weaker gothics, with a girl and a house and lovely description, but with a plot that is just a gesture in the direction of antagonism that comes to nothing. But it could have been so great if she’d done the witchcraft properly—it could have been like Lolly Willowes! Re-read because I wanted a comfort read and because this is a weaker one I haven’t read it as much. Lovely house, I could draw you a plan of it. Almost the only thing I remembered about it is that she inherits a house and there’s a stillroom in the attic.
Beren and Lúthien, J.R.R. Tolkien (2017)
A collection of pieces of the Luthien story, put together to try to make a whole, not terribly successfully. Some of the poetry is lovely, some of it needed work, as of course he knew when choosing to keep revising it and not publish it.
The Longings of Women, Marge Piercy (1994)
Re-read. It’s funny how long ago 1994 feels, you wouldn’t think the internet, 9/11, and cellphones have changed so much about the way people live. It’s odd seeing this as almost historical fiction when I read it first when it came out. This is the story of three women: Leila, an academic writing a book about Becky, who murdered her husband for the insurance, and also Leila’s cleaning woman, Mary, who is homeless. Mary is the most interesting character in the book, but they’re all great—this is a much more assured novel about feminism and the importance of women’s lives and concerns. Piercy is great. I could happily just re-read all her work one after the other.
Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, H. Beam Piper (1965) (But magazine publication was earlier; he died in 1964.)
Re-read. Calvin Morrison of the Pennsylvania State Police is caught up in a paratime machine and taken from his own time to one where the geography is familiar but everything else is different—it’s not the past, it’s not the future, it’s another history altogether. You know that moment in the movie Apollo 13 where they empty the bag of stuff on the table and say that this is what they’ve got, improvise a rescue? I have a huge weakness for books that do that thing, and this is one of those. Morrison/Kalvan has some knowledge of the history of tech and he can use it to upend everything, and he does, while the paratime police are trying to sort out the potential paradox. Passes the Bechdel test, just barely, and in fact has pretty good female characters for it being 1965.
The Invisible Emperor: Napoleon on Elba, Mark Braude (2018)
Perfectly OK book about Napoleon on Elba, with lots of excellent quotation from letters and diaries. Contains one very interesting remark on why people rallied to him on his escape: Napoleon made the ordinary French people and especially his soldiers feel that they were participants with him in the national story, whereas the Bourbon restoration and the Congress of Vienna, etc., made them feel passive, that things were happening to them, and they were no longer actors who could shape events.
The Bookshop of the World: Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age, Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen (2019)
Long, thorough, comprehensive look at every aspect of the Dutch book trade, fascinating in its details and with enough general information for me to be comfortable without much prior knowledge of the place and time. I’d enjoyed Pettegree’s earlier book on the invention of news from earliest times to the present, and I enjoyed this one too.
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.