Jo Walton’s Reading List: July 2020

Yet another at home mostly isolated month, but at least I could read. I read 22 books, a reasonable number for the first time in months. And some of them were great.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, K.J. Parker (2019)
This was the book I was looking for, this was the book that I read properly, all in one go, couldn’t put it down, loved it to bits. It’s weird though. I had not read any other full-length Parker before this (though see below), but I’d really enjoyed a short piece of his in the Swords anthology. I picked this up because it was his latest, and had it for a while before starting it because—gestures at 2020. So I was talking about “grabby” books? This was amazingly grabby. It’s the first-person story of a man who was himself born a barbarian defending an empire from barbarians.

It’s deeply Roman/Byzantine, but it’s another world and differently shaped except where it’s exactly the same. This book is great if you want history of tech details, and military history details, and engineering, and a siege, and I ate it up like chocolate. The first-person narrator voice is excellent. I adored the end in which we learn the circumstances of the book’s composition. It has good volume completion, but I’m delighted to see there’s a sequel coming in mid-August. (I had previously read 3 books by Parker under the name of Holt, one of which was ho-hum and two of which were worth reading and quite good but definitely not gripping, definitely not this.)

Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes, Through Darkness and Light, Caroline Eden (2018)
This is both a travel book and a food book, about the Black Sea, and I should have enjoyed it but in fact it was a bit of a drag. The thing about this sort of book is that it has to be sincere, the author has to put themselves in there, and Eden is only half committed, she tells you about the early morning arrival and the guy selling spoons, but not how she really feels. She tells you she cooks this at home, but not who she cooks it for. She isn’t really there, on the page, and so neither are you; she’s detached. The incidental regional history is fascinating, some of the recipes look great, but as a reading experience it lacked lustre.

The Family Man, Elinor Lipman (2009)
Horribly shallow book about a gay stepfather reconnecting with his stepdaughter and incidentally both of them finding romantic partners. It was like all the bad things about Emily Giffin without any of the good things.

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
If you’ve read my past couple of months reading lists you’ll have noticed my strong desire during this pandemic to read feel-good romance novels set in Italy. It occurred to me that perhaps an actually good book set in Italy and written by an Italian would scratch the same itch. Unfortunately this was not the case. This is a brilliant novel, very well written, it deserves every bit of praise the series has had, it’s wonderful, it is like Proust, and one day I will read the other three volumes, but not soon. Like Proust it is very focused on close-up descriptions and emotional examination and especially jealousy, and reading it is like looking through an emotional microscope for a long time and left me wrung out. I’d like to invent a subgenre of “high close-focus literature” that had this and E.L. Doctorow and Proust in it and then ask people what else was in it so I could know if that was what I was up for at any given time. Brilliant but exhausting.

Ashlin & Olivia, Aster Glenn Gray (2019)
Romance novel set in Italy, this one with both protagonists female (gender of protagonists is irrelevant to me) and extremely well written except for a ridiculous historical error on page one, which would have prevented me continuing had it not been recommended to me by Naomi Libicki. Naomi was right, this is genuinely good, in addition to being set in Florence.

Mr Finchley Goes to Paris, Victor Canning (1938)
Not as delightful as Mr Finchley Discovers His England but still a lot of gentle fun. Mr Finchley has to go to Paris for work and befriends a half-English boy. Contains many 1938 stereotypes and implausibilities, but I expected that.

Sisters of the Vast Black, Lina Rather (2019)
Nuns in space! Well written and fun but a little disappointing, in that it seemed to always take the easy obvious choices, so it was never even slightly surprising. Excellent alien spaceship biology, really well thought through, I loved that. Well-meaning but failed throwaway ecumenical reference. But if you want nuns in space, this is your book, and furthermore, their spaceship/convent wants to mate and they’re anguished about it.

Last of the Summer Vines, Romy Sommer (2018)
Genre romance novel set in Italy. Reading a lot of these, it’s interesting how the authors have to make it in some way economically plausible that their heroine could make a living in Italy. In this one the stressed-out financial consultant can actually bake at professional quality—good enough to make daily desserts for a restaurant and a wedding cake at the drop of a hat, even with a wood-fired stove—but she hasn’t baked anything in years back home because stress, work, London. In one of the ones I read last month it was a love of wine that led to a job leading wine tours. It’s just plausible enough that you can go with it if you don’t stop to examine it; it’s daydream but with just enough underpinning. This book wasn’t exactly good, but it wasn’t terrible. Good enough Italy, annoyingly contrived obstacles.

Colours In the Steel, K.J. Parker (1998)
Another Byzantine history variant fantasy city with a siege, this time with multiple points of view and quite an interesting magic system! I loved this slightly less than Sixteen Ways but it was still compelling and excellent and full of those military/tech details. Is this what he’s been doing as a whole career since 1998? OK then! Clearly Parker has been writing books I would have enjoyed and which I’ve been ignoring for no good reason. Did somebody tell me they were dark, or compare them to something I don’t like? Sometimes I’m just silly. But the good news is, I can read them all now, and this is the first of a trilogy!

House of Secrets: The Many Lives of a Florentine Palazzo, Allison Levy (2019)
This is an odd book, a combination of a history and a memoir. It’s about the Palazzo Ruccellai, and about Levy’s year living in it, including her romantic entanglements and her trespasses in the building. Both parts of it are interesting: Levy’s stay and the history of the Rucellai family from the Renaissance building of the palazzo through the intervening centuries through the 1930s right up to a recent unsolved murder in the building. I did feel everything except Levy’s experiences and the first generation of the house were shallowly pencilled in. History with the historian on the page hasn’t been popular recently, so it’s interesting to read another example of it.

Of Cats and Elfins, Sylvia Townsend Warner (2020)
Two sets of short stories brought together for this volume, all of it delightful and excellent. She’s just amazing, one of the best writers of the twentieth century, I can’t understand why she is so little known. These are all genre; her mainstream stories are just as good. She’s biting and incisive and wise, and I especially loved the introduction to the cat stories where she explains how these are stories from cat culture without ever being twee or precious or other than solidly grounded. This book is a real treat.

The Lies That Bind, Emily Giffin (2020)
Giffin’s new novel, immensely readable and, interestingly, set in 2001. Like all Giffin, too many smart restaurants and fashion references. Does she not know any people who aren’t rich Manhattanites? And reading this after the Lipman I did start noticing how self-absorbed everyone in genre chick lit is. But beyond that this is a solid story about connection and deception and I’ll take designer wedding dresses in the circumstances of this story, which is actually great. I read it all in one day and resented putting it down. I really don’t want to spoil it. Good and also very grabby.

The Lesson, Cadwell Turnbull (2019)
Book club book. An oddly mainstream novel about an alien invasion that takes place in the Virgin Islands. Everything I liked about this book was the solid, rooted, real Virgin Islands culture and characters, which were just great. All the virtues of this book are mainstream virtues—I liked the choice to give single long points of view to different characters so we build up a mosaic feel of the story and the angles of what’s going on. The science fiction end of it though—it’s got that reset button thing, where the aliens arrive and then go away again without really changing the world much, and they’re a metaphor for colonialism and their behaviour is just an extreme edge of human behaviour and we don’t see enough of their culture for them to really feel distinct and interesting. The scale and balance of this book is weird. It’s a first novel though, and it’ll be interesting to see what direction he moves in next.

False Colours, Georgette Heyer (1963)
Re-read, bath book. Oh this is a silly book, but oh it is fun. There are twins, and one of Heyer’s very best snarky old ladies, and an unexpected secondary romance, and repartee. A very Heyer Heyer.

The Middle-Aged Virgin, Olivia Spring (2018)
Horrible chick lit romance supposedly set in Italy about a horrible shallow woman who believes she’s seen Florence after walking around shopping for one afternoon. I don’t know why I kept on reading this, and I find both the romance and the end utterly implausible. It also has overcoming mental health issues easily by willpower, bleah. Also, the title is deceptive, she isn’t a virgin, it’s just been a while since she had sex. Pah. Even though the sequel is called “The Middle-Aged Virgin in Italy,” I won’t be reading it.

The Great Passage, Shion Miura (2011)
Lovely novel translated from Japanese about people working to make a dictionary. Splendidly three-dimensional characters, fascinating glimpse of a different culture, and obsessive nerds making a dictionary, what’s not to love? Genuinely moving, and often funny, I am so glad Ada Palmer recommended this book.

Cold Tuscan Stone, David P. Wagner (2013)
So I thought that perhaps a mystery set in Italy might work, but I was totally wrong. This is about forgers of Etruscan art and a murder, and the forgery details were interesting, but really nothing else was, especially not the protagonist.

Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman, Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926)
Re-read. Lila Garrott mentioned that this book is The Blue Castle except instead of romance it is witchcraft, and that made me want to read it again. The first time I read it I liked it less than most STW because it is actually fantastical in a way I wasn’t expecting. A lot of the time in genre we have realist magicism, and I was expecting that, or else magical realism. Knowing this was a book where the protagonist chose between being an aunt and a witch, I expected it to work in one of those ways. And it began by making me think it was going to be realist magicism, with experiments with herbs and so on. But she does not become a witch like you might expect, both Lolly’s soul and the devil are more numinous and much less mundane than I had expected, and it isn’t like magical realism either, and so on my first read I was startled and hence disappointed and didn’t know what to make of it. This time I knew it was a Greer Gilman kind of a witch and not a Sharon Shinn one, and also that it was like The Blue Castle (which was the clue I needed) and so I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is a sharp little needle of a book—you can read it in an afternoon but you’ll keep thinking about it for a long time. Excellent.

Grass in Piccadilly, Noel Streatfeild (1952)
Re-read. When many of Streatfeild’s early novels were released as ebooks last year I bought all of them, but I only read the ones I hadn’t read before. I’d read this one, the Grande Bibliotheque have a copy, and I remembered it well enough not to re-read it until now. This book has the most bizarre anti-Semtism of any book I have ever read. I think some of it comes from trying to write a positive Jewish refugee character, Paula, but without knowing anything whatsoever about Jews, Judaism, or Jewish culture, except for general anti-Semitic jokes and prejudices that were lying around. I mean, in this book when Paula’s horrible husband is buying black market food, you really wouldn’t expect it to be ham. It’s almost sufficiently bizarre as to not be offensive, but really it is also offensive.

Apart from that, the plot is ridiculous, just nonsensical. But leaving aside those two huge stomping elephants, there’s a lot to like in the descriptions of the square and the house made into flats, of London just coming out of the war, still in the austerity years, of the different characters of different classes trying to figure out a modus vivendi on the brink of a new world. There’s classism too, but she does understand how classism works. For completists? Or maybe not?

Dream Work, Mary Oliver (1986)
Poetry collection, very very good and powerful work from a contemporaty US poet I hadn’t previously discovered. This was refreshing whether it was nature poetry, personal, or political, and especially when it was all three. Highly recommended.

Under Italian Skies, Nicky Pellegrino (2017)
This was perfect, a well-written genre romance novel set in Italy which was almost entirely about an older woman protagonist going to live in Italy and make friends with people, and only peripherally about the romance. Many excellent friendships here, and between characters of all ages. Also our heroine is divorced because she couldn’t have kids, and the book takes that as established and goes on to there being other things that make life fulfilling. Just great. Exactly what I wanted. And I discovered when I had finished that Pellegrino has written a ton of books, some of them centering on the minor characters in this one and in whom I am already invested. If you happen to want romance novels set in Italy—because 2020, that’s why—Pellegrino is perfect.

Who Owns the News? A History of Copyright, Will Slauter (2019)
Fascinating book about the history of news, news organizations, and their interaction with copyright and copying. This was focused on the UK and US, which made it a good complement to the Petegree book about this in the Dutch context I read last year. The answer to the title question has never really been answered, and is as vexed a question now as it has ever been. The book goes right up to the moment it was written, though it has a primarily historical focus. Very interesting and full of information.

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.

 

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