Jo Walton’s Reading List: March 2021

Another lockdown month, at home, lots of reading, not a lot of anything else. But thank goodness for books, there were a lot of great ones in March. I read twenty books in a wide variety of genres and modes, with a high concentration of things that made me feel free and among friends, at least while I was reading them.

Love and Ruin, Paula McLain (2018)
Sequel to The Paris Wife, a novel about and from the first person POV of Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s second wife. I didn’t like it as much as the first book, perhaps because I fairly recently read a biography of Gellhorn so it was more familiar. However, McLain is a terrific writer and I read this avidly. It began an interesting theme that ran through my March books of early-twentieth-century men and women trying to find new ways of being partners—here mostly very unsuccessfully, though there were moments when the two of them were writing in different rooms at the same time and meeting up at meals to compare progress.

Academic Exercises, K.J. Parker (2014)
All right, yes, this was absolutely top notch, thank you to those who recommended it last time. “Purple and Black” is indeed exactly the kind of Parker I like and probably the best thing here, but in general I went through this whole collection with glee. I’d recommend this to anyone who likes logistics and clever fantasy. More Parker like this, please.

Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)
“He’s better at the spider-aliens than he is at humans,” I said to Emmet when I was about halfway through. “Oh, are there humans? There aren’t in his ten-volume fantasy series,” he replied. This is a very long science fiction novel about evolution and spider-aliens over generations, with two significant human characters. It’s good, and interesting, though a little baroque, and perhaps a little longer than would have been ideal for me. But it’s an unusual POV and at an unusual scale. It’s an odd mix of hard SF where the science is evolution, and wide-screen space opera—with some remarkably nifty ideas. I really liked what he did with the ants.

Love From Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother, edited by Donald Sturrock (2016)
A collection of Roald Dahl’s letters to his mother, from school up to her death, but many of them from his time in Africa and the US immediately before and during WWII. When you read somebody’s letters you get to know them, and Dahl was a very strange and not very likeable man, from the evidence of these.

Pretty Things, Sarra Manning (2005)
Bath book. YA romance novel about some teenagers putting on The Taming of the Shrew and struggling with their sexual identities. Funny and clever, and very good at entering into all four points of view, but slight, not as good as Manning’s later work.

A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle (1972)
This is the first volume of L’Engle’s Crosswick Journals, an account of a summer spent with her family, reflecting on ontology, writing, what success means, her life, her family, and the world around her. It’s the Sixties, and she’s a grandmother, and trying to catch up with the world. I hate her husband and I can’t understand why she can’t see what a jerk he is. I thought there would be more about writing, but what there is is very interesting and the kind of thing I can productively disagree with. I got much more caught up in the day-to-day details than I expected to. I’ve been warned that the next volume is sad, but I’m reading it anyway.

Confessions of a Shopaholic, Sophie Kinsella (2000)
Not as good as the other two Kinsella I read, but it is her first book, and it was still good, just a little shallower and less original. She’s very good at writing about friendship, and very good at setting up situations so that they unfold into being funny because you know the people—this is not what people usually mean about comedy being timing, but her timing here is very good.

Full Share, Nathan Lowell (2008)
Third book in this series, in which nothing continues to happen in a mildly entertaining fashion, with some space stations and trade and a very odd wish-fulfillment angle. This one came to a solid conclusion, and I could happily stop here; I’m only mildly engaged. Has anyone read the sequels and do you recommend them?

The Flame, Leonard Cohen (2018)
Poetry, lyrics, and unfinished poetry in notebooks posthumously collected. When Leonard Cohen says “you” in a poem, he either means 1) the woman called Jane in Famous Blue Raincoat, 2) the guy with the famous blue raincoat, or 3) God. Those are the only characters in his poems apart from him. This makes a whole book of them kind of odd, especially as they almost all fit to melodies of his songs. I did not enjoy this as much as his earlier actual poetry collections that he organised himself.

The Foolish Gentlewoman, Margery Sharp (1948)
Oh this is Sharp at her Sharpest, wow, a story of people who made it through WWII and want everything to go back to complacent normal but it isn’t going to, with brilliantly drawn characters. Well observed, slightly cruel, funny but also not funny at all.

Just Like That, Gary D. Schmidt (2021)
This is the sequel to The Wednesday Wars and (to a lesser extent) Okay For Now and I bought it as soon as I saw it was out and read it instantly, and… what? What even is this book? Parts of it are very good, and parts of it don’t seem to be taking place at the same level of realism (I liked Matt but I don’t believe his Fagin backstory) and while I guess Schmidt gets points for trying, both books about boys are about artistic attainment and appreciation, whereas this one about a girl is, in the end, about how girls are so good at social stuff. So on the one hand I couldn’t put it down, and on the other hand it’s a mess. And I haven’t even talked about the huge spoiler thing on page 1 which is dealt with brilliantly—probably the best thing in the book overall—but which I find very hard to forgive. Difficult to recommend. But do read the others if you have somehow missed them because they’re mainstream and middle grade.

The Spark, Jules Wake (2020)
Romance novel by an author some of whose other books are set in Italy, about people who meet and know they’re right for each other but it isn’t as easy as that. Readable, fun, surprisingly plausible, undemanding.

P.S. From Paris, Marc Levy (2018)
Levy is a bestselling writer in French, and this is a translation. It’s about an American writer and a film star and their online date and… actually it’s really about translation, but in a very weird way. I felt it didn’t quite know how seriously to take itself and that made it feel clumsy when it was trying to bring in serious issues.

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars, Francesca Wade (2020)
Terrific non-fiction book about five women writers who all lived in the same square in London in different times in the ’20s and ’30s, looking at women’s lives, loves, and careers in the time and context. Eileen Power was the one I knew least and so was most delighted by, but seeing Sayers and Woolf in this context (and the context of Gaudy Night and A Room of One’s Own) was illuminating. HD and Jane Harrison were also fascinating, and the five of them as a set were more than the sum of the parts. I was worried the Bloomsbury square might be a gimmick, and in other hands it might have been, but Wade deftly uses it as a lens for examining lives. Just terrific, highly recommended to anyone interested in any of the women (or Hope Mirlees) or in the space even quite privileged women could find for a life of the mind in that time and place.

The Eleventh Gate, Nancy Kress (2020)
Kress is one of our major writers, and this is almost brilliant and I almost love it. This is set in a future where Earth has been ruined and there are two opposing groups of planets and one neutral planet—which is very Cold War-in-space, one group is libertarian and the other has a planned economy, but they’re both run by families where the older generation is losing control. There are lots of characters and some mystical stuff with the gates, and maybe I was just in the wrong mood because I didn’t feel it ever quite warmed up.

One Summer in Italy, Sue Moorcroft (2020)
Romance novel set in Italy, with very good Italy and pretty good romance as well, very comforting comfort read.

Carry On, Rainbow Rowell (2015)
Re-read. After reading Fangirl last month I re-read Carry On this one. I love this book. It’s a meta-commentary on both Harry Potter and Harry Potter fanfic, but it is also itself, and has a well-thought-through world and magic system and great fun characters. Very cheering re-read.

The Hard SF Renaissance, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (2002)
This is a huge volume of stories, which I enjoyed a lot. I have read a reasonable chunk of this before, but I was happy to re-read those stories, there were some authors and stories I knew I didn’t like, which I skipped, and there were a few new-to-me things that were great. A very good feel for where hard SF was twenty years ago, even if I wouldn’t call some of it hard SF at all. But a huge and very readable collection whatever you call it.

Transient Desires, Donna Leon (2021)
The latest Brunetti mystery, which came out this month. Since it came out this month, I think it was probably written more than a year ago and then revised, weirdly, during the first lockdown last year, with a few tiny bits of Covid stuff shoehorned in. This means that is is set in an alternate world, a world which had a Covid epidemic but where cruise ships and tourism were back in Venice by October 2020 and there are no masks or anything. She’d have done better to have just set it vaguely in 2019, because it reads very oddly now and will only read more oddly with time, and also it will get in the way of her writing a novel in which Brunetti solves a mystery during lockdown which I’d have enjoyed. Last year I was on the CBC, Canadian radio, talking about pandemics in science fiction, and one of the questions they asked me was whether I thought the pandemic would appear in future SF. Yes, I said, and it will also appear in future romance novels and mysteries and lit novels. They were very struck by this obvious prediction, but how right I was. Very odd reading experience, very good book apart from the weirdness, but don’t start here.

Dark Water, Robert Clark (2008)
This is a book about the Florence flood of 1966, but it’s also a book about the Arno and every recorded time it flooded, and about the Renaissance and art, and what we consider art and how we value it, and how we value people’s lives. Almost half of this book is about things that happened years before the flood, and that is OK; that is good, in fact. It’s a book about people, not about infrastructure and details—it has some details, but mostly it’s about the people, all the people, and the city. Cimabue’s Crucifix, and its destruction and restoration in the flood of 1966 is the thread that ties it all together. I was perfectly happy, though, reading about the life of the director of the Uffizi and what he did during Hitler’s visit to Florence. Very enjoyable read, and very thought provoking on the way we value art quite separately from our enjoyment of it. It’s also a book written from passionate engagement rather than serene detachment, and I like that, I like a writer who cares and takes sides. Pretending to be unbiased is only another kind of bias, and pretending to be dispassionate is often a way of supporting the status quo. I value Clark putting himself on the page here.

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 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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