Jo Walton’s Reading List: October 2020

As October began we went back into condition red lockdown, not allowed to see anyone outside the household and not allowed to go anywhere except the grocery store. I’ve hardly been out of the apartment this month. But I have been able to read, thank goodness, and I have read twenty-one books.

A Dream of Italy, Nicky Pellegrino (2020) This is the one where a number of people get the chance to buy houses in a dying town in Italy for one euro each. This was almost too much wish fulfillment even for me, but no, I ate it up with a spoon. There’s a gay Australian couple, and an older woman artist, and a younger woman who has an unfulilling job and an unfulfilling partner, and they all go to Italy and then everything is OK. These books are published as genre romance, but they’re not quite; what Pellegrino is all about is loving descriptions of Italy. You either want it or you don’t, but comfort reading is comforting.

A Florence Diary, Diana Athill (2016) In 1949, right after WWII, Diana Athill and her cousin went to Florence. It was her first trip abroad, and this is her diary. Recommended to me by a librarian friend when I said all I wanted to read was books where people went to Italy and it was all right—this was sparser than I’d been hoping, but I did enjoy it.

Exhalation: Stories, Ted Chiang (2019) What a terrific powerful collection of stories. I’d read almost all of them before, but they were great to read again. If you want to know where SF is right now, look no further. Chiang has everything, good stories, good characters, and thought-provoking philosophical ideas. Seems like his plan is to keep on writing some of the best, most thought-provoking short stuff in the genre. Just terrific.

The Correspondence of Madame, Princess Palatine, and Marie-Adelaide of Savoy edited by Elizabeth Charlotte von Pfalz (Victorian edition and translation of early eighteenth-century letters) It’s interesting what a long shadow the guillotine casts backwards, because reading these letters from around 1700, I kept longing for somebody to come and cut these terrible people’s heads off. It’s impossible to read about the French aristocracy being awful without having this anachronistic desire— they were going to keep it up for the whole century before anyone did anything about it. The wonder is not that they got guillotined, it’s that they managed to keep their heads on for so long. Madame, Princess Palatine, was a German princess married to Louis XIV’s brother (I think) who wrote incessant letters to her family back in Germany full of vitriol and gossip.

Poisoned Blade, Kate Elliott(2016) Sequel to Court of Fives, so do not start here. Normally when people say something is a middle book they mean not much happened. This had the opposite issue; almost too much happened, at an almost too breakneck pace. The first book sets up the world and the culture and the history and the characters, and this book pulls it all apart and increases the stakes massively, with hints of something wider. Very good on the numinous, and also real solid characters. But read the first one first.

Three’s Company, Alfred Duggan (1958) Re-read, bath book. This is a historical novel about Lepidus, the lacklustre third member of Rome’s Second Triumvirate, and how he stumbles through his life and Rome’s cut-throat politics trying to do the right thing and keep to the proper Roman traditions, even though it’s very hard.

The Pillars of the House, Charlotte M. Yonge (1873) Charlotte M. Yonge wrote many many books that were immensely popular in her own day and are almost forgotten now. This one is immensely long. It’s about a family of 13 children whose parents die and the 17-year-old twin daughters and 16-year-old son bring up all the rest. There are many adventures of the relatively plausible kind, many friends whose stories weave in and out, many romances, marriages (happy and unhappy), many more children born, one explosion on a train, one case of sunstroke, a boating accident—it doesn’t matter. I love this book and won’t hear a word against it.

It covers decades of in-book time and weeks of actual reading time, and I came to really care about these characters and what happens to them. It’s glancingly racist (better than its own time, much worse than ours) with one n-word used by a bad character to an admirable half-Mexican character. It’s—I could write a whole book on Yonge’s feminism and how weird it is. It’s actually truly excellent on disability—more than one disabled character, different disabilities, dealt with as real and part of the normal world. I’m not sure her medical descriptions hold up at all, but she’s great on disability inclusion. What I’d give an actual content warning for is imperialism; we have entirely unexamined missionaries and the Indian army.

It is set, like all Yonge, in a universe in which not just Christianity but the specific beliefs of the Anglican church are rules of the universe, and where dying well can be a happy ending. The thing that makes it work is that Yonge is unflinching about the fail condition, and she really does treat it as the way the world works. It’s Moral Fiction, but not in the way so much of it is awful, because everything really is the consequence of the actions of the characters and the characters are complex. If you want something really long and immersive, not comforting—anyone can die at any time—and utterly alien in its sensibilities, I recommend this. So glad I hadn’t read this one before so it was there for me when I needed it.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson (2011) This is a memoir which somebody recommended to me ages ago saying it was in some way like Among Others. It was going cheap on the Kindle and I bought it. It was excellent, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so alarming—I had to increase the speed I was reading it to have it finished and not fall asleep reading it and have nightmares. Very honest, open, real, memoir of growing up as an adopted child with a very strange mother. It is like AO in one way, in that it’s about digging your way out with a spoon and the spoon is books.

Feeling Sorry For Celia, Jaclyn Moriarty (2000) I listened to this read aloud in our daily Discord regular reading. It was new to me, though not to others. It’s YA, and quirky in that it’s epistolary and in addition to letters to and from real people the protagonist gets letters from, for example, The Young Romance Organization and they’re imaginary letters. Fun, especially with Gretchen doing the voices.

The Duke Who Didn’t, Courtney Milan (2020) A feel-good romance about a Chinese girl making sauce and finding true love in Victorian England. You know that t-shirt that says “Your existence isn’t impossible, it’s merely very unlikely?” Milan’s characters are like that, and since characters of colour get totally absolutely and utterly left out of most modern books set in nineteenth-century England (though you do see them glancingly racistly on the edges of actual Victorian novels), it’s just fine for Milan to pack them all in and redress the balance a bit. This book is a delight, readable, fun, unexpected, empowering and smart in ways that are rare in any genre. Not my favourite Milan, that’s still Trade Me, but excellent.

The Dazzle of Day, Molly Gloss (1997) Re-read. I’d forgotten the plague and the suicide and the general melancholic mood of this and only remembered the new family structures and the method of telling the story by cycling through the points of view. This is a generation starship book with solid characters and worldbuilding. It’s doing Quakers in Space in a totally plausible way, and it’s really about how things go on, imperfectly, and not how you expected, but they go on and get somewhere. Really excellent book, but not as upbeat as I want right now.

Love & Gelato, Jenna Evans Welch (2016) YA romance about a girl going to Italy after her mother dies and finding out her family secrets while falling in love. Set in Florence. Has people using Vespas and cars to get around in the historic centre where you actually have to walk, but other details are right, including the secret bakery. Meh.

Savages, Romans, and Despots: Thinking About Others from Montaigne to Herder, Robert Launay (2019) Fascinating non-fiction book about how Europeans looked at what was not Europe between the late sixteenth century and the late eighteenth. Very interesting, full of detail, and so very not at all what one would expect from a superficial view. So much of what we know of history is blurred by the huge weight of the nineteenth century both as “default history,” as if how they did it is how things always were, and as the gatekeepers to what came before. This book is an excellent corrective. Also readable and accessible. Great book for worldbuilding.

When in Rome, Nicky Pellegrino (2012) Bath book. Lovely novel about a family whose mother is a prostitute in Rome and how they grow up, focusing on the oldest sister who manages to make her crush on movie idol Mario Lanza into a job in which she grows away from her family. There is a romance, and also this is a book looking back from the end of life to a long life well lived, but the romance isn’t the focus. Lovely Rome, lovely food, and also a very enjoyable book. Also, I started off buying Pellegrino in 99-cent ebooks, moved up to full price ebooks, and bought this one as a paperback because there wasn’t an ebook.

Divergence, C.J. Cherryh (2020) Volume 21 of the Atevi books, do NOT start here. I know I said I was going to quit with volume 20, but I…bought this as soon as it came out and read it pretty soon too. Nothing happens, really, but there’s Cajeiri and Ilisidi and Jago and a train, and if you’ve already read the previous 20 volumes you might as well keep on hanging out with your friends on a train in the Marid.

One Summer in Positano/It Was Always You, Georgie Capron (2017) Chick Lit novel set in Ital, though there’s a large chunk of it set in London in the middle. Fairly good, though incredibly predictable. The alternate title gives it all away.

Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe, Nicholas Jubber (2019) This is a weird kind of travel book, in which Jubber visits the scenes of The Odyssey, the Kosovo Epic, The Song of Roland, the Völsunga saga, Beowulf, and Burnt Njál’s saga, talking to people about the stories, visiting sites, meeting people, seeing how the stories relate to the places now, and what European culture is. It’s a better idea than it is a book, and I had times of thinking, “This is not how I would write this book!” but it’s an interesting journey.

As always in a travel book the narrator is a protagonist, and there’s a lot of Jubber here. He’s cautiously open, he’s very concerned about Brexit and about the plight of refugees, who he wants really hard to identify in positive ways. Not a great book, but I’m not sorry I read it. It might be better for someone less familiar with the books? I’m all in favour of this in theory, but the practice was slightly disappointing.

Beach Read, Emily Henry (2020) Recommended by friends, this is an actually good romance novel about a woman who writes romance and a guy who writes gloomy hip fiction and how they try to write each other’s kind of book and fall in love. I raced through this, even though it is set on Lake Michigan and not in Italy and doesn’t even have any food in it. Shallow but fun.

Living in a Foreign Language: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Love in Italy, Michael Tucker (2007) Amazon suggested I might like this one, and it was half right. Tucker’s some kind of minor movie actor who bought a house in Umbria and ate a lot of food. That’s this book. He thinks he’s cuter than he is, but it was entertaining enough and he’s certainly positive about Italy and food.

The Question of Hu, Jonathan D. Spence (2011) Fascinating non-fiction account of a Chinese guy called Hu who travelled to France with a Jesuit in the mid-eighteenth century and then returned to China. Real microhistory, very well done, excellent detail, solid research and extremely readable narrative.

A Night in the Lonesome October, Roger Zelazny (1993) Re-read. The Scintillation Discord group read this aloud all month, with seven of us taking turns to read one daily diary entry per day at 10pm every night throughout the month, with about another ten people listening, some of whom had read the book before and some who had not. This is the perfect way to experience this book, which otherwise goes by too fast. As always, Zelazny is clever—sometimes a little too clever—and poetic, and this is one of the few books with a dog POV that works. Sherlock Holmes! Cthulhu! Frankenstein! I recommend doing this with your own group of friends next October, preferably in a cafe or bar.

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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