Jo Walton’s Reading List: September 2021

September was another excellent month, spent in Florence writing and seeing friends. I read thirteen varied and interesting books, and here they are.

Wedding Night, Sophie Kinsella (2013)
While this is funny and clever and everything I have come to expect of Kinsella, I liked it less than any of the others so far because the behaviour of one of the POV characters was utterly creepy and too much, and it was impossible to remain sympathetic. I also felt the author cheated to make things come out right. Most of this book I was reading in a state of being appalled. Not recommended.

Letters to Atticus, M. Tullius Cicero (c.43 BC)
Re-read. I’ve been reading this for months—I’m always reading a bunch of things and I list them here when I finish them. This is a collection of Cicero’s letters to his best friend Atticus, sometimes when Atticus is in Greece and Cicero is in Rome, sometimes when Atticus is in Rome and Cicero is in one of his country houses. The letters are sometimes about political events, like the Catiline conspiracy or Caesar’s murder, and sometimes about things like statues that Cicero wants for his garden and asking Atticus to check the dates of people’s deaths for things Cicero is writing. When you read someone’s letters you see them quite clearly, and dear old Cicero was vain and silly and he could be petty, but he was also an excellent person and a good friend. I wish we had Atticus’s half of the correspondence too.

The Heart Principle, Helen Hoang (2021)
Brilliant romance novel with autistim spectrum protagonist, amazingly well written and just great—this is the third and most powerful in Hoang’s series that starts with The Kiss Quotient. Just terrific.

The House in the Cerulean Sea, T.J. Klune (2020)
Maybe my expectations were too high, but I found this a little disappointing—it’s a fantasy dystopia about a sad lonely inspector of magical schools who inspects one and falls in love. It’s sweet, but the worldbuilding didn’t hang together and the obstacles all went down a little too fast.

What He Did in Solitary, Amit Majmudar (2020)
Absolutely wonderful poetry collection, definitely Majmudar’s best yet—powerful, personal, and political in all the right ways. Also I love his imagery and his playful use of form. He’s become one of my favourite modern poets.

Street Life in Renaissance Rome, Rudolph M. Bell (2012)
This is a collection of primary sources, with introductions, and it’s essential reading for anyone who wants to write anything in Renaissance Rome, or get into the alien mindset of historical people. A fascinating set of documents, some of which I’d read before but which all help build up a picture of a place and time.

Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga, Hirohiko Araki (2015)
No, I don’t want to create manga, but Ada recommended this to me as interesting on how to shape and create stories generally, and I thought I’d read it and then later at some point we might do a podcast and talk about it. It’s interesting where it’s specifically talking about the specifics of manga, which I know nothing about; on the generally applicable parts I am in agreement on some, and violent disagreement on others. But if you want a different kind of “how to write” book with different cultural assumptions, this is well written, short, and pretty cool.

The Characters, Theophrastus (c.280 BC)
This is a classical Greek or Hellenistic (he was a pupil of Aristotle) collection of character studies, describing different sorts of annoying people—they’re all negative types—like the guy who orders extra wine and then doesn’t pay his share of the bill, or the guy who talks about famous people on first name terms to make himself seem important, or the guy who gives advice about things he knows nothing about. You know, just the kind of annoying people they had in ancient Greece. Fun fast read.

Sicily: Three Thousand Years of Human History, Sandra Benjamin (2006)
Lots of bits I didn’t know here, threaded through lots of bits I did. It really does cover three thousand years, in which the island has been ruled by a lot of different people and part of a lot of different empires.

Terra Ignota series, Ada Palmer: Too Like the Lightning (2016), Seven Surrenders (2017), The Will to Battle (2017), Perhaps the Stars (2021)
Did you ever read Keats’s sonnet On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer? It’s short, so you can read it quite quickly now if you want to avoid spoilers. It’s a poem about how Keats had read a lot of excellent things and had heard rumours of Homer, but until Chapman’s translation became available hadn’t been able to read it, and then when he did he felt as if he’d discovered a new planet through a telescope, or like the first Europeans to see the Pacific, awed and thrilled to see a whole new ocean spreading out. It starts, “Much have I travelled in the realms of gold.” And that’s what I want to say about these books, basically. Much have I travelled in the realms of gold—I have read a whole lot of stuff, and some of it was really great and blew my mind, but Terra Ignota, man, it’s a whole other level of paradigmatic shift.

It’s always the books I love the most that are the hardest to write about, because I start to sound ridiculously hyperbolic. Also Ada is my friend, and you might think that would influence what I think of the books—though in fact it wouldn’t. But… wow. These books are so many things! They’re a complex science fiction future with interesting social and political speculation—just the idea of people living in bash’es instead of families, or Hives instead of nations, would be enough for a lot of books. They’re also a fascinating and philosophically thought-through fantasy. It’s not often I read something that had both a good in-world answer for theodicy and for the Fermi Paradox. They’re a very interesting experiment in POV and narration. And when you have read all four of them, you can see the intricate planning that runs from the very beginning to set up all the wonders of the end. They’re very immersive. And they’re almost impossible to talk about without spoilers, especially the later ones, and *especially* Perhaps the Stars, which comes out in ebook and audiobook on October 19th, and in hardcover (paper delays in the Suez canal) on November 2nd. Preorder now, and meanwhile read or re-read the first three in preparation.

I really seriously think this series is an achievement to put with the very best our genre has accomplished. Or any other genre.

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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