Jo Walton’s Reading List: February 2021 |

Jo Walton’s Reading List: February 2021

February was another locked down month with a curfew in Quebec, and I was at home going nowhere. It snowed a lot. I saw a total of three other human beings in the whole month. The prevailing mood of this pandemic for many of us is “other people have it worse, but this sure sucks.” I read a perfectly reasonable seventeen books, and many of them were really excellent, which is always cheering.

Fanfare for Tin Trumpets, Margery Sharp (1932)
This is the story of a young man with enough money to live on in London for a year and try to write, who entirely fails to achieve anything. It’s a comedy, though it is very sad, and you can see here the beginnings of the class consciousness which will make so much of Sharp’s later work so excellent. I enjoyed reading it, though I wouldn’t call it good, exactly. It also surprised me that it was 1932; it’s much more a book of the 1920s in feel. For Sharp completists, I suppose. Don’t start here. But I am excited to have so much new to me Sharp available as ebooks.

The Element of Lavishness, Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell (2000)
Bath book. Letters between Warner and Maxwell when he was editing her work for The New Yorker and after, so we have here the record of a whole friendship from 1938-78. I adore Sylvia Townsend Warner as a person, and I became increasingly fond of William Maxwell as this book went on. We have letters about her work, about his work, about writing, about their lives, their vacations, the birth of Maxwell’s daughters, the death of Warner’s partner, about world events… reading this collection feels like living with the two of them, across decades, or eavesdropping on delightful writer conversations. Highly recommended, just wonderful, wish there was an ebook.

Love Your Life, Sophie Kinsella (2020)
Two people meet at a writing retreat in Italy and fall in love, then they go back to London and discover that they don’t know anything about each other’s real and complicated quotidian lives. This book is very funny, and also touching, and the characters—including the memorable friends and minor characters—are all really well drawn. Despite the publishers trying hard to put me off for years with utterly unappealing covers, I am completely converted to Kinsella and have now bought all her books.

Ballistic, Marko Kloos (2020)
The second Palladium Wars book, just as good as the first one, and now I will have to wait until August for the next one. So far these two books have been very enjoyable set up, and while I think he’s really upped his game from the Lanky books (which I also enjoyed) I hope the payoff is going to be worth it when we find out what is actually going on.

Half Share, Nathan Lowell (2007)
Sequel to Quarter Share. Not enough trading and too much—I don’t even know what to call it. Female gaze? Our first person hero being the focus of female desire. Reads kind of weirdly—and the whole fantasy shopping sequence doesn’t quite make logical sense. Oh well. There’s a spaceship, and space stations, and the first book was a lot better. Nevertheless, having bought the next book I’ll read it and see if it’s going anywhere more interesting.

The King Must Die, Mary Renault (1958)
Re-read, read aloud by a friend in a group of friends. It’s great listening to a book I know as well as this one, and it was also great sharing this with other friends who had not read it before and did not know what to expect. I’ve written about this book before, a very formative and early read for me, arguably fantasy, the first-person account of the life of Theseus, of minotaur fame, who truly believes himself to be son of the god Poseidon. One of the first books to deal with myth this way.

An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro (1986)
Early Ishiguro, beautiful example of how to convey a story in negative space. This is a story of post-war Japan, and an artist who was associated with imperialism and is in a weird and fascinating kind of denial, as unreliable as narrators get. Really well written, really powerful, a little bleak.

Brunetti’s Cookbook, Roberta Pianaro (2009)
Don’t bother. This is a very odd book, excerpts of many food bits from many of Donna Leon’s Brunetti books, with some unexciting Italian recipes which have nothing to do with them really. However, it made me really want to read Donna Leon. One of my few disappointments this month.

The Enigma Game, Elizabeth Wein (2020)
Best new Wein since Codename Verity. I couldn’t put it down. WWII, Scotland, a great cast of diverse characters, an enigma machine, no romance, and very, very readable. If you haven’t read any of Wein’s recent YA WWII novels, start with Code Name Verity which is amazing, but they’re all very good, and I enjoyed this one no end. I thought from the title this was going to be about Bletchley, which I’ve read a lot about, but not a bit of it. The bulk of the book is set in Scotland and one of the major characters is a West Indian girl.

Provenance, Ann Leckie (2017)
An odd coming-of-age story on the edge of the Ancilliary universe. There was a lot that was great about this book, notably the worldbuilding and the cultures, but I could not warm to the protagonist, which made it less fun than it otherwise would have been. I liked the other characters, but that only goes so far. Great aliens.

The Devil You Know, K.J. Parker (2016)
Brilliant, clever, sly novella about an alchemist signing a contract with a devil, from the devil’s point of view. Loved it. So if I loved this and I loved Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City but I found the second Bardas Loredan book too strong for my stomach, what Parker should I read next?

Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin (1985)
Re-read, but I hadn’t read it for a long time, and I read the new Library of America edition with extra material. I have never liked this book, because it isn’t a novel and it doesn’t have a story—the whole point of it is that they are a culture without a story, and that’s interesting, but… also boring. It’s a great culture. I’ve joked that it should be a roleplaying sourcebook, but it wouldn’t actually be a good one, because there are no stories and so nowhere to go with it. It’s beautifully written, it has flashes of being wonderful, but it isn’t a whole thing.

I was deeply disappointed with this book in 1986 (it was published in the UK the week I graduated from university) and I have been puzzled by it ever since. Is it me, wanting it to be something it isn’t and not being able to appreciate what it is? Is it Le Guin being tired of adventure plots and experimenting with what you can do without one? If so I think it’s a valiant but unsuccessful effort, at a time when nobody else was thinking about this at all within genre. I don’t know. I like bits of it, but I am still unsatisfied with it as a whole thing.

The Music at Long Verney, Sylvia Townsend Warner (2001)
Bath book. Twenty short stories that are absolutely dazzlingly brilliant, all of them, and neither confined to the mundane nor attempting to have adventure plots. I just want to read all of Warner and see her work whole, because she wasn’t like anyone else, and these glimpses are wonderful. I wish there were more ebooks, and in the absence of them I have ordered some more paperbacks to read in the bath until my toes wrinkle up, the way I did with this one.

Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell (2013)
Re-read. This is a very clever book, in which Rowell gives us the story of a fanfic writer going to college, interspersed with excerpts from the original books whose universe she is writing in, and her own fics, and all of it held perfectly in tension. There are some serious mental health and abandonment issues, treated very well, and dyslexia, treated very well; this isn’t a lightweight book, but it is excellent, and compellingly readable, and really a lot of fun.

Four Princes, John Julius Norwich (2017)
A multiple biography of Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, and Suleiman the Magnificent, who were all contemporaries. So it’s a book about a time and a place, or a set of places, but focused on the lives of the kings. It’s written for the general reader.

I have a bit of an odd relationship with John Julius Norwich. I was taken to a lecture of his when I was in school, and it was the first thing that ever made me excited about history. Also, I know his parents intimately in a literary way, I’ve read so much by and about Duff and Diana Cooper you wouldn’t believe. I’ve even read Diana’s letters to John Julius. But while I want to like his history books I often find them a little facile, just skimming the surface, and this is no different. I kept finding myself thinking “oh yes, this is because of…” something I knew more about, which meant that with the sections on Suleiman, who I knew least about, I felt I didn’t know what was being left out or simplified.

On The Way Out, Turn Out The Light: Poems, Marge Piercy (2020)
A new book of poetry by Piercy, one of my favourite writers. The poems are in sections about nature, old age, love, politics, family, etc. They are very good, biting, and well observed, and the ones about old age very hard. There’s a line in one of the more political poems, “we rejoice in who we are and how we have survived,” and I think that’s the overall note of this collection. I hope there will be more.

The Jewels of Paradise, Donna Leon (2012)
I’d been saving this book. It’s not in her Brunetti series, it’s a standalone. It’s about a music historian from Venice going back to Venice to investigate two trunks of papers belonging to a seventeenth-century Venetian composer. So the book is about her being in Venice investigating a historical and contemporary mystery, reconnecting with family and the city. It lacks the biting wider social consciousness of some of Leon’s work, but right now I didn’t mind the smaller scope here.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two collections of pieces, three poetry collections, a short story collection and fifteen novels, including the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Among Others. Her novel Lent was published by Tor in May 2019, and her most recent novel, Or What You Will, was released in July 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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