June was another lockdown month in which I was home and barely left the house. I read only sixteen books. For the first half of the month I was also reading stories for the Decameron Project, which we completed, with a hundred stories, on June 23rd. If I’d read an anthology of 23 stories I’d probably count it as another book.
Rome Is Where the Heart Is, Tilly Tennant (2019)
Another 99-cent romance novel set in Italy. Not all that bad. Has a gay best friend. But not really a good time to be reading a book where the hero’s a cop.
Mum & Dad, Joanna Trollope (2020)
One of her best. Women’s fiction, a novel about an elderly married British couple who live in Spain, their three grown-up children who live in London, and the growing grandchildren. This is about all three generations, and earlier generations too, and the title calls back to Larkin’s poem “They fuck you up, your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do” and yet is in the end positive about life and possibility.
Fame Adjacent, Sarah Skilton (2019)
Romance novel about a girl who was on a TV show as a teen where everyone else became famous, now approaching thirty and ready to move on. Written in a style that felt very YA, but with the upsides to that of being fast and fun and on the bounce.
Paradise Lost, John Milton (1667)
Re-read. Epic poem about the fall of the rebel angels and the fall of man, so incredibly influential that many people who haven’t read it think this stuff is in the Bible, but no, a lot of it is Milton’s original worldbuilding. After spending four years trying hard not to think about it at all so I could write Lent as un-Miltonically as possible, I decided to re-read it now. The language is amazingly beautiful, but the long angel lectures grated on me this time through. Satan and Hell are really well done, but it’s a good example of the thing you often see in Last Judgement pictures where the bad side is more interesting than the good.
Metallic Love, Tanith Lee (2005)
After re-reading The Silver Metal Lover last month I thought I might want to finally get around to reading the sequel. Big mistake. It didn’t make sense in ways that broke huge cracks in the worldbuilding—in the first book they have robots, and these are a step beyond, but now they’re not robots, they’re gods. But you know if I’m nitpicking the science there’s something else wrong. I think what it is is that there are lots and lots of books on the theme of humans creating robots who get out of control, and comparatively few (and even fewer in the Eighties) about humans creating robots who want to be people. So I didn’t want a sequel that was going for the more ordinary and less interesting and low-hanging fruit. Also if you have shape-changing robots who can do literally anything, it’s hard to make me care what they do, and I didn’t.
After reading Fire Logic in May, I went on and read the other three of the set in June. As I read them all together, I’m going to consider them together.
These books are not like a usual fantasy series in most senses, because they’re about family and people being different, and about different ways of looking at the world. They’re also queer-positive to the point where I was joking that there was one straight guy and he got killed. They’re hard to describe because they’re not like anything, they’re mostly the kind of stories people don’t tell about the kinds of people who don’t get stories—and yet they’re high magic fantasy. They’re really good, but strange; the kind of books I’d really like to see having more recognition. I’m sorry I didn’t read them in time to nominate them as best series for this year’s Hugos.
Black Ships, Jo Graham (2008)
Sometimes when people say to me “You must read this book,” I don’t, and the repeated recommendation becomes off-putting. I’ve had this book hanging around for some time, since 2008 probably, but I never picked it up because too many people told me I’d like it and for some reason I didn’t believe them. However, they were all correct, I did like it. It’s a retelling of the Aeneid, and it’s sort of fantasy in a White Goddess way, but not really any more fantasy than Mary Renault’s The King Must Die. Anyway, I finally got to it and I’m sorry I waited, but glad it was here for me now.
Electing the Pope in Early Modern Italy, 1450-1700, Miles Pattenden (2018)
Terrific book about power, regulatory capture, how papal elections worked, what effect they had, nepotism, and the nature of monarchy. I can’t really recommend it unless you have an academic library nearby, as it’s an example of a ridiculously overpriced academic book that the publisher doesn’t really believe anyone wants to read. But it’s an excellent book, and would be really valuable to many fantasy writers.
Bread Into Roses, Kathleen Thompson Norris (1936)
Re-read, bath book. Even when I’ve read it before I can’t predict what Norris is going to do, except that I remember just before it happens so it’s like a foreboding. I find her writing absolutely compelling.
Mr. Finchley Discovers His England, Victor Canning (1934)
Charming novel about a respectable solicitor’s clerk who unexpectedly finds himself having adventures in the countryside. Coincidences, implausible encounters, and essentially nothing consequential happens in this whole book, but nevertheless it kept making me smile. Almost everyone is essentially benevolent. Good book for bad days. (Warning: one of his brief encounters is with what the book calls Romani or gypsies, not consciously anti-Roma but without much effort to understand their real culture. Also some period sexism.)
Poetry and the Police, Robert Darnton (2000)
Absolutely delightful non-fiction investigation of 14 people who were arrested in Paris in 1749 for passing around seditious poetry—who they were, what happened to them, what the poetry was, what it meant in the oral and written culture of the time, how it connected to court, current events, and the forming concept of “public opinion” that would loom so large a generation later. Well written, fascinating.
Summer on the Italian Lakes, Lucy Coleman (2019)
Another 99-cent romance novel set in Italy, though actually it has less Italy than one would ideally wish. Having said that, this is definitely the best of the ones I have read, the most rounded characters, most plausible romance, and good on body shaming, internet trolls, and friends and family.
Deep Waters: Murder on the Waves, Martin Edwards (2019)
Martin Edwards has been editing these theme anthologies of Golden Age crime stories for British Library Crime Classics for a while, and I have been buying every single one. There are few duds and a lot of great stories. I didn’t discover any new writers in this volume, but it’s a good solid lot of stories.
Heartwood Box, Ann Aguirre (2019)
YA novel about a biracial girl who has grown up all over the world and is now spending a year in a creepy racist town in New York State where something strange is going on. Learning what that strange thing is and how it all connects is what the book is about. Fast effective read. Aguirre is a very powerful writer.
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 fourteen novels, including the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Among Others. Her previous novel, Lent, was published by Tor in May 2019, and her fifteenth novel, Or What You Will, came out on July 7, 2020. 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.