Jo Walton’s Reading List: October 2021

October was another month in Italy, so wonderful after being stuck at home for so long. I went to Assisi, Orvieto, Rimini, Florence and Rome on my own, then met up with my son and together we went to Naples, Ischia, Rome again, Venice, and back to Florence. I did a lot of great reading on slow trains, and in cafes where every time I looked up I saw beautiful things. I read seventeen books this month, and here they are.

The Magus, John Fowles (1965)
Re-read. This is a very weird book. It’s about a self-centred, aimless young man who goes to Greece to teach at a school and gets involved with a peculiar old millionaire who tells him his life story and tries to recreate some of it in a way that’s fascinating to read but makes no sense at all when you think about it. It has become more misogynistic since the last time I read it, and I had problems with that then. I was distressed this time by the fact that Nicholas physically strikes Alison in the happy ending and I am supposed to be OK with that, and I was extra distressed at the fact that I’d forgotten it was there. There’s also some minor racism. Beautifully written, with amazing descriptions, and absorbing to read, but I can’t really recommend it.

Friday The Rabbi Slept Late, Harry Kemelman (1964)
A slight but charming period mystery about a rabbi who solves a murder, more interesting for the community and culture than the actual mystery. Fun.

Frostflower and Windbourne, Phyllis Ann Karr (1982)
We really need a word for this genre of secondary world fantasy with an interesting world where the events of the plot are important for the characters but not world-rocking. This is another small-scale story, sequel to Frostflower and Thorn, about a sorcerer and her warrior friend, and their very odd and original universe. It’s a charming picaresque with a well-thought-through magic system. This is a really readable and delightful book. Karr is a writer who should be better known, and I’m really grateful she’s released these inexpensive ebooks of her back catalogue so I can enjoy the ones I missed at the time.

The Book of Dragons, Jonathan Strahan (2020)
I have a poem in this that just won the Aurora Award, which may prejudice me in its favour, but this really does seem like a very solid new anthology of stories and poems from some of the best people working in the field right now. There’s a terrific work from Kate Elliott, Michael Swanwick, C.S.E. Cooney, Ken Liu—and lots more. I hardly skipped any. It also covers far more of the world than you’d perhaps expect.

Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov (1980)
These are lectures Nabokov wrote to give his classes, not a polished book, but they’re very interesting long considerations of Austen, Dickens, Flaubert, Proust, Joyce, etc. Much much more interesting if you’ve read the books he’s discussing, and sometimes I want to argue with him, but mostly some cool thoughts on some classic books. Like reading a series of very intense lit blog posts.

I’ve Got Your Number, Sophie Kinsella (2011)
This one was Kinsella in top form again, funny, clever, and effective, if not 100% realistic. Split about evenly between work and romance, thoroughly enjoyable. There’s a phone, and shenanigans, and it moves along at a very fast clip.

The View From Castle Rock, Alice Munro (2006)
A collection of linked stories building on Munro’s family history, from the Scottish emigrants to the Ontario fox farmers. The thing that’s so amazing about Munro’s writing is her ability to capture character so well in such brief strokes. Two paragraphs of any of these stories and I really cared about the people and couldn’t put it down. Wonderful. I fear I may now have read all of Munro.

Anne and Charles: Passion and Politics in Late Medieval France, Rozsa Gaston (2018)
Historical novel about Anne of Brittany and Charles VIII of France, which I only recommend if you’re particularly invested in those people. Well researched, but with a historical sensibility that would be simplistic even for a children’s book.

Interference, Sue Burke (2019)
Sequel to Semiosis and also excellent. Generations after the first, already multi-generational book, more humans show up from Earth and have trouble understanding and dealing with the complex and diverse society that has evolved on the planet of Pax. These books are excellent, with wonderful alien POV, fascinating worldbuilding, and interesting stories. I’m still kicking myself for not reading them when they came out because the covers looked like horror, when in fact they’re exactly the kind of Cherryh-influenced anthropological SF I like. I’ll be watching for whatever Burke writes next. If you’ve also somehow missed these, read them now.

The Love Study, Kris Ripper (2020)
I really don’t care what gender the characters are in a romance novel, which is good because this book is about a bi guy and his non-binary partner. It’s great. They do a podcast about the protagonist’s dating life, and of course they fall in love with each other instead, and it’s really well done and sweet and surprisingly solid.

The Father of Lies, K.J. Parker (2018)
Another huge and excellent story collection from Parker, containing novellas as well as shorter work. I think Parker is at his best at this kind of length, and I certainly enjoy it more than his trilogies. Some stories here are genuinely thought-provoking, as well as other fine stories about fantasy tech and siege warfare that he does so well. If you haven’t read Parker and want to, one of his collections would be a good place to start.

Flappers and Philosophers, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)
Considerably more racist than other Fitzgerald I have read—eye-poppingly racist—but containing some very powerful early stories. He was also doing fairly effective female POV. You can see why he became a superstar. But be braced.

Beyond the Hallowed Sky, Ken MacLeod (2021)
Ken MacLeod does things nobody else does, and this is a terrific book, but he also has some odd obsessions which show up when you’ve read a lot of his work. On a future earth split into three political blocs—Russia, US/UK, and the Union, which includes Scotland and is communist (first obsession)—only the latter has a space program, which includes a city floating in the clouds of Venus. Turns out that this is because the former two blocs are in cahoots and have secret FTL submarines. Yes, submarines. They’re busy doing some very odd things on a far off world they’ve called Apis because it has bees. They’ve had FTL for fifty years of secret history (second obsession) and now things are getting exciting with sinister AI aliens (third obsession) who call themselves Fermi.

The book is set on Earth, Venus, and Apis, there’s an interesting experiment in having a character who isn’t self-aware, and there’s a lot more going on than I’ve mentioned. Also, this is the first book of a series, so while it has good volume completion with an exciting end, it does leave many open cans of worms squirming all over the place. They’re fascinating cans of worms, and this is a very readable book, that manages to be both near and farther future at the same time. Definitely one of this year’s significant books.

Set in Silver, C.N. and A.M. Williamson (1909)
A delightful epistolary novel in which some people go for a road trip around England and Wales about five minutes after the invention of the car, and some people scheme, and other people are not what they seem, and some people fall in love, and there’s a guy called Sir Lionel Pendragon, and there is also way, way too much description of the beauties of Devon. I’ve been in Devon, I’ve even been in Devon in a car. All you can see is hedges. Not a lost classic or anything, but it makes good use of the letter form and was a surprisingly enjoyable read, and it’s free on Gutenberg.

The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Artistic Duel That Defined the Renaissance, Jonathan Jones (2010)
This is a very annoying book about the paintings Leonardo and Michelangelo were going to do in Florence on opposite walls of the same room, which didn’t get done for complicated reasons. Jones makes out that they were great rivals, and also that the paintings, despite not existing, were hugely influential. He had a potentially interesting story, but he was more interested in making it into something it isn’t. I kept on being about to abandon this book, and then there would be some actual information, and then he’d diverge into his agenda again. Also, he’s really unfair to Raphael. I wish someone else had written it. Don’t bother reading this unless you have nothing else.

The Flatshare, Beth O’Leary (2019)
Romance novel in which two people time share an apartment for sensible economic reasons and fall in love via post-it notes. Sweet and fun if not especially plausible. I very much enjoyed the subplots about the brother in jail and the characters in the hospice—this was a book with a great supporting cast.

Knot of Shadows, Lois McMaster Bujold (2021)
Another Penric novella, yay. Thoroughly enjoyable. At some point I should re-read all of them and see how they work together, meanwhile I grab each one as soon as it comes out. This one had ghosts and death magic, as well as the usual stuff, and takes place in the continuing continuity, not in a gap. Anything else would be a spoiler.

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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