Jo Walton’s Reading List: November 2020

November was another totally locked down month here, with Montreal in the red zone and no socialization allowed. I saw a total of three other human beings, four if you count the time I saw the UPS guy. I read twenty books, and some of them were great. Six re-reads, the rest new, one epic, one non-fiction, three short story collections, and the rest novels.

Cucina Tipica, Andrew Cotto (2018) A romance novel set in Italy, but written by a man with a male protagonist, and also American. In many ways it was very satisfying, but in others it was odd. It strangely kept writing about things I’m quite familiar with but recasting them as elite experiences. For instance, the characters go to Teatro del Sale, but instead of describing the typical experience, he has their experience be mediated and special. The whole point of Teatro del Sale is the democratization of excellent food, making it inexpensive and yet still great, and so this is especially weird. There were some more things like that too. The weirdest was where he tagged along with a tour in the Uffizi, which is the worst way to do the Uffizi, really! But basically, wish-fulfillment Italy romance novel that happens to be focused on a guy. Good gay best friend.

The Merchant of Prato, Iris Origo (1957) One of the very first micro-histories, focused on one person from his letters and diaries and account books, with him talking about the whole society of early Renaissance Tuscany. I’d been wanting to read this for ages and was delighted when it was recently reprinted as an ebook. Readable, excellent, fascinating, and Origo is another of these women who lived in Italy and did scholarship without counting as part of academia. I’ve also read and enjoyed her war journals.

A Matter of Oaths, Helen Wright (1987) Re-read, book club. This has also recently been republished as an ebook, yay. This is a space opera with protagonists that were ahead of their time for 1987, a female starship captain coming up on retirement and a gay starship pilot with amnesia. The plot is just a thread to take you through the universe, which is fascinating, and introduce you to the characters, who are great. I love this book, and it led to a lively book club discussion.

Piranha to Scurfy, Ruth Rendell (2000) Re-read, short story collection. I remembered the first story in the volume—the title story—really really well, but the others had faded since I read this from the library as a new book twenty years ago. Rendell really was incredibly good at building up atmosphere and drawing you in. Some of these are scarier than I really enjoy, but she’s very good.

From Italy With Love, Jules Wake (2015) In a ridiculous concocted plot, a quiet librarian and a car-loving playboy have to take a classic Ferrari across Europe, posting postcards from specific places along the way. They have to, OK? And of course they fall in love, and also eat things and see things across France and Italy. Of course she finds confidence and reconnects with all good things. This book is in many ways deeply silly, but it’s also deeply satisfying. I got out Google maps and checked their route. You know how people sometimes describe books as frothy? This is frothy, but in a good way. Well worth reading if you want this shape of comfort reading.

On Fragile Waves, E. Lily Yu (2021) Refugee fantasy, and now there are at least three of them does that make that a subgenre? Beautifully written, absorbing, powerful but harrowing story about a girl from Afghanistan and her relationship with the world, a ghost, her family and Australia. This should win awards when it comes out next year. I think Yu is doing some of the most exciting things in genre. But this is very definitely not a feel-good book. Read it. But be braced for it.

The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold (2001) Re-read. Gosh this is a good book. It made me happy to be reading it. And even though it opens a series it could perfectly well be a standalone book; it has excellent and very satisfying volume completion. I’ve written about it before, and in many ways it’s the perfect book to fall into right now. It’s not a book where no bad things happen, but everything works out right, and the gods and the magic system are extremely well done.

Da Vinci’s Tiger, L.M. Elliott (2015) YA book about Ginevra de’ Benci, a little unsubtle, and with a few irritating historical errors that could easily have been fixed, but generally pretty good. Quite good Leonardo and very good depiction of Verrocchio’s workshop and of Bernardo Bembo. Also an unusual appreciation of why a woman of the time might choose to go into a convent.

The Pride of Chanur, C.J. Cherryh (1981) The truth is I saw the word “adaptive” in a computer game and I instantly thought “Akkhtish life. Adaptive.” and then that it was ages since I read these books. Again, not restful books or books that are comfortable, but books that take you right away from home and on to docks of far away space stations where all the species of the Compact, including the strange, hard-to-understand methane breathers, have to deal with the one lost sapient who calls himself human.

The Olive Branch, Jo Thomas (2015) Romance novel set in Italy. Scraping the bottom of the barrel of this genre a bit, maybe? This wasn’t a good book, though it had a very good goat. The reasons for the misunderstandings and interruptions that kept hero and heroine apart until the end of the book were kind of silly, and not in a good way. I think my real gripe is that the heroine wasn’t happy and kept second-guessing her choices all through in a whiny way.

Chanur’s Venture, C.J. Cherryh (1984) Our protagonist, an aging female alien captain of a trading starship, has just had her license reinstated and is trying to tread very carefully when Tully, the human from the previous book, shows up again and everything goes down a slippery slope from one worse space station to the next, Kshshti, Mkks, Kefk. At this point you know the world from the first book, and Cherryh can run with it, and she does.

One Summer in Paris, Sarah Morgan (2019) Romance novel set in Paris. A middle-aged American woman and an eighteen-year-old British girl, both of whom have alcoholic mothers meet up in Paris and decide what love means—with men, not with each other. There’s a bookshop, and food, and Paris, and this is well-written and well-thought-through, and there is also a grandmother background romance which is always nice. I read this now because I wanted to check whether US romance novels of this kind were always about rich people, and indeed the US protagonist is much wealthier than the UK one, or the struggling UK heroines of most of the romance novels I’ve been reading, but it doesn’t do the whole elite experience thing Andrew Cotto does, even when it gives you concerts and fancy hotels. She hates the fancy hotel and gets out into an apartment above a bookshop. Hmm.

Dangerous Women, edited by George R.R. Martin (2013) Slightly disappointing anthology with a corking Nancy Kress story but nothing else that really excited me.

Delicious, Nicky Pellegrino (2005) Physical copy ordered from the UK, bath book, romance novel set in Italy. This one was lovely. There’s an Italian mother and the mystery of her daughter’s birth, and then her daughter going back to Italy to investigate her own origin. Incredible food, satisfying romances, (several) excellent friendships (Pellegrino always has great friendships), very good Italy. And now I really have read all of Pellegrino and will have to wait for her to write more.

Nothing to Report, Carola Oman (1940) Charming novel set in 1939/1940 and written in 1940, so the author knows what’s coming but only in the most limited way, and all the characters are trying to get ready for it by practicing with gas and masks and blackouts. No historical novel would be like this. It’s a little like Winnifred Peck’s Bewildering Cares but not much like anything else. Apart from wanting to tell the protagonist to buy a good warm coat and stock up on raisins and sugar and stay in her country house, I thoroughly enjoyed this—it was gentle and funny in a way that’s like people telling stories about their neighbours but exaggerated just a little for effect.

Gravity Is the Thing, Jacklyn Moriarty (2019) Read aloud book on Discord. Gosh this is a weird, weird book. I enjoyed the process of having it read to me and not having the slightest idea where it was going, but in the end it suffered from not being aware of ways that the tools of genre could potentially solve the problems it had as a book. It’s very well written, and very funny, and there was a bit where some of the characters came to Montreal and we wanted to make friends with them and also raise their consciousness a little, but in the end this is a book that poses questions and is only open to mundane answers, and it suffers from that. This is the same thing that’s wrong with John Fowles’s The Magus, incidentally, and it’s one reason why I prefer reading science fiction and fantasy really, because I want a wider answer space. “They’re crazy” or “They’re evil” is a very bad answer to “Why did X do a thing?”

The Kif Strike Back, C.J. Cherryh (1985) This is the middle book of the set of three that are really all one book, or the third book of five depending how you count. Again, we hurtle between space stations as alien politics goes to hell all around us and everyone gets more and more out of their depth. The main theme of these books is treachery to your own species in the name of something greater, against your instincts, against your programming, transcending and betraying your very species. Nobody does this like Cherryh.

Ramayana, Valmiki (translation by Ralph Thomas Hotchkin Griffith published 1870) I have been reading this for the last eighteen months, and I just finished it. I had previously read a much shorter version, and so I knew the plot, but I’m not counting this as a re-read. This is a verse translation, and contains the whole thing in short cantos. It’s long, and sometimes I wanted to hurry it up a bit, but it’s also really neat and also coming from a really unusual direction in terms of cultural expectations. There are also some lovely bits. It’s great. But it is very very long, and I don’t think I’ll go straight on to the Mahabharata.

Sunrise in Florence, Katherine Reid (2019) Romance novel set in Italy, and yes, I am scraping the bottom of the barrel because this book was so bad, my goodness, in its misunderstandings of the real world (honestly, while there’s no first amendment, nobody has been exiled from Britain for writing poetry against the government for centuries and this is merely one of many examples), in its excruciating erasure of Michelangelo’s sexuality, and in its horrible handling of religious themes.

I will forgive it the “American teacher buys apartment in Florence, finds precious drawing hidden in wall, can it be by a Renaissance master?” plot because, OK… but to have it be Michelangelo, and to have it be drawings of his illegitimate son by Contessina de’ Medici—look, we have these people’s letters. We know he was gay. There may be things we don’t know about their lives, but really, no. And if she did find a sketch for Michelangelo’s famous Sistine scene where God and Adam had their hands entwined, it wouldn’t cause a religious revival, and anyway it’s such a modern take, ugh. Also, I could predict every single beat. On the “American elite experience” question, yes, it was also doing that. It may be that Italy is further away and working-class British people can semi-plausibly go there and find love whereas it’s more expensive for Americans. But anyway, this was terrible.

The Old Nurse’s Stocking Basket, Eleanor Farjeon (1931) Terrific short story collection about an immortal nurse who tells stories to her charges as she mends their stockings, and the stories are about other children she has nursed over hundreds of years and many countries, and they’re also fairy tales with aspects of many mythologies. Surprisingly well done for 1931, and most of the stories are delightful, have no morals, and are just fun. Free on Gutenberg.

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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