I was home all January, and locked down again, with a curfew, restaurants and gyms closed, and only allowed to see one person from outside the household. (Canada’s been a lot more worried about Omicron than the US.) Also it’s been really cold, though that is normal for Montreal in January. Anyway, I did get quite a bit of reading done, I read twenty-four typically assorted books this month.
So Disdained, Nevil Shute (1928)
Re-read, but I’d totally forgotten it. I own a paper copy of this book, and I’m sure I have read it but it might as well have been new; the story didn’t come back to me when I was reading it. This is an early work, and before Shute really knew what he was doing—there’s far too much excitement and far too little of anything else. I mildly enjoyed reading it and seeing the beginning of themes that Shute would develop later: aeroplanes, of course, and a very strong sense of specific place, and patriotism as a conscious rather than automatic thing. I was extremely surprised, however, to find thinly sketched Italian fascists brought in as good guys towards the end of the book. The bad guys are thinly sketched Russian communists allied with organized crime, but it still surprised me, even in 1928, even in a shallow thriller. Not recommended except for total Shute completists.
My Not So Perfect Life, Sophie Kinsella (2017)
Chicklit, by my definition that the career is as important as the romance. Also a comedy, and parts of it are very funny. What it’s about is what it means to be a successful woman and why we judge successful women so harshly; it would make a good pairing with The Devil Wears Prada. Lots of rural/urban contrast in a context much more sympathetic to both than you usually see—the protagonist wants to live and work in London, is forced to work marketing her family farm as a holiday destination, and both things are viewed positively. Excellent voice, and very neatly plotted. Funny and accomplished, and I certainly wanted to know what happened. I’m still enjoying making my way through Kinsella’s backlist.
Sport, Louise Fitzhugh (1980)
Did you know Fitzhugh wrote this sequel to Harriet the Spy? You probably did, but nobody told me. There was a regrettable tendency in Britain to republish award-winning children’s books while ignoring the rest of the series, thus we had Wrinkle in Time but none of the sequels, and so on. I’d read Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret, but never this. Sport is about Sport, Harriet’s friend who is a boy and whose father is a writer, and it’s nice to see him developed, and having other close friends who are Jewish and Black, and having adventures of his own. You probably read this book when you were ten.
Harriet Spies Again, Helen Ericson (2002)
This is a sequel to Harriet the Spy written by Ericson after Fitzhugh’s death, and after reading Sport I wanted to read it, but this may have been a mistake. It messes up the chronology with Sport, and sort of resets him to the HtS version, which is annoying. The real thing that’s wrong with this is that Ericson doesn’t understand Ole Golly. Bringing back Ole Golly for nothing but plot annoyed me, having her there but not having her be herself, gah. Ole Golly has her own plot arc and this is wrong. The book is generally adequate for a sequel by another hand, I suppose, but there were several things that felt a little off. Also I guessed what was going on instantly, maybe because I’m not ten, but also because it was telegraphed too much. I feel on the whole this book probably doesn’t need to exist.
Time and Time Again: Sixteen Trips in Time, Robert Silverberg (2018)
Exactly what it says. I like Silverberg, I like time travel, I’d read most of these stories before though not in this collection, and I don’t understand why it was missing “House of Bones.” Apart from this utterly inexplicable choice, it’s a great collection of Silverberg time travel stories, and fascinating to see how it has been a subject he’s come back to over and over throughout his career in so many variations. There’s no repetition here, the stories are all doing different and interesting things. Time travel is a wide and complex subject and Silverberg has thought about it a lot, and these are fun stories.
The Florians, Brian Stableford (1976)
Read for book club. Very traditional, old fashioned colonial SF, in which spaceships have gone out to colonize planets and now our benevolent Earth team is recontacting them to solve all their problems, whether they want them solved or not. The problem on Floria is a kind of obese giantism. The science is a bit dodgy, the characters are not very developed, and this is the first of a series so the book is doing a lot of setup for payoff in later volumes which I won’t be reading. There’s some slight examination of colonialism, but a strong plot element is being able to have a new wave of spaceships go out from Earth to their destiny in the stars if this mission is successful. There are a lot of better books of this kind, before and since, and in addition to everything else, this is lacking in sparkle.
Just a Name, Becky Monson (2018)
Romance novel. This is a strange book. The premise is that our heroine, Holly, has been dumped by her fiancé, her boss is pressuring her to take a vacation because she’s overworking, and she can use her honeymoon tickets if she finds someone else with the same name as her ex. But, spoiler, the guy with the same name doesn’t turn out to be the love interest! It’s quite a good contemporary romance, I enjoyed it, but it isn’t the book it advertises itself as being. Romance has a lot of standard things it does variants on, and usually it’s very clear which it’s doing, and this one doesn’t. Fun read though.
Sylvester, Georgette Heyer (1957)
Re-read, bath book. Regency romance in which a duke who is perfectly behaved but knows what is due to him grows up and falls in love. Delightful, funny, and charming with lots of repartee and a relatively plausible plot. I do not believe the squabbling protagonists will cease squabbling, but I also know people who’ve had long happy marriages full of squabbling in real life, so it’ll probably be OK. Fun read.
Love in the Blitz, Eileen Alexander (2020)
This is a collection of real letters from a young woman who has just graduated from Cambridge in 1939 to her fiancé, through WWII. They’re rich, Jewish, and English, they were both at Cambridge, he’s in the forces and overseas for most of the time while she’s doing secretarial war work. Letters are a very intimate thing, and this is a long book. I found Eileen much less sympathetic than I was expecting, because of her own very limited sphere of sympathy. There was much that was fascinating, and also with any day-to-day account like this you want to know how they get through the wider events, but Eileen’s constant inability to see anyone else’s point of view and insistence on her own suffering being the worst thing imaginable often felt like whining and made me dislike her. She didn’t write these letters for me but for Gershon, who knew and loved her; we don’t have his letters, unfortunately, but he’s often obviously telling her to pull herself together. You need to love her to appreciate this book, and I didn’t.
They Were Counted, Miklós Bánffy (1934)
Banffy is a Hungarian winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and this is the (long) first volume of a trilogy. This was in my “classic work translated from a language that isn’t Greek or Latin” slot. It took me a while to get into it, but once I was into it I loved it. It’s set in Transylvania, in the part of Hungary that’s going to be cut off from Hungary and made part of Romania after WWI; that hasn’t happened yet in the book, but is hanging in the air ahead of the reader, and for Bánffy, writing looking back from 1934.
The novel is set before WWI and in the period leading up to it, the characters are young Hungarian aristocrats: they fall in love, they gamble and lose money, they try to reform their ancestral domains, life is complex, counts with good intentions can’t really help the peasants even when trying. It’s a little like reading Tolstoy, and much more like a nineteenth-century novel than a modern one. Hungary is a very unknown and unusual setting for me, and Transylvania even more so, but that was part of what was great about this. Bánffy is also much more sympathetic to women than average for this kind of book—he can mostly see the awfulness of their situations even when his other characters can’t. Interesting and cool.
She Who Became the Sun, Shelley Parker-Chan (2021)
Gosh this was great. Fantasy China, with a strong feminist focus on fate and choice, by a Chinese-Australian writer. I loved this and couldn’t put it down. Wonderful characters, very real world, very well-integrated magic and ghosts. It’s utterly immersive, and though it’s a long book it flies by. It’s a first novel; there will be a sequel. Expect to see this on lots of award lists. Highly recommended.
All the Sad Young Men, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926)
Another free short story collection from Gutenberg full of Fitzgerald’s 1920s people. I like his short pieces, they have great story shape and character introductions, but goodness I wish he knew some people who did things so he could have written about them instead of people who sit around in the shade drinking and complaining about how hot it was. He should have written science fiction. Well, all right, but he should have tried.
Slow Train to Switzerland, Diccon Bewes (2013)
Travel memoir about a guy and his mother recreating the very first Thomas Cook tour to Switzerland that pretty much shaped modern tourism. This is a history of Switzerland, tourism, tourism in Switzerland, and the influence of Switzerland on tourism, as well as the story of anecdotes of two trips that are the same trip, a hundred and fifty years apart. Thoroughly enjoyable, made me want to be on trains in Switzerland.
Your Perfect Year, Charlotte Lucas (2016)
Translated from German by Alison Layland. So this was a romance novel, but not a usual one. A man finds a diary on January 1st that is full of suggestions for things to do every day, and he tries to find the owner but ends up doing the things and changing his life. Meanwhile we cut back to the woman who wrote the diary and why. The two stories, and the two protagonists, do eventually catch up to each other. It’s a little simplistic, but also charming. Set in Hamburg.
Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, K.J. Parker (2019)
Re-read. This was the first Parker I read, in 2020, and it held up to re-reading and I still loved it. It is a fantasy of logistics where an engineering officer ends up defending the capital city in a siege against a huge enemy army using… cunning. Ingenuity. Improvised engineering. Very good place to start with Parker. Not even too terrible about love and women because there isn’t much of either.
A Practical Guide to Conquering the World, K.J. Parker (2022)
Third in the Siege trilogy, also very good, and full of clever plans and logistics and following on from the events of the two earlier books. But it did make me wonder about whether all Parker’s books are set in the same universe, because if so it’s not in any usual way books are—you couldn’t make a chronology and technology doesn’t change. But maybe they are all set in the same universe and it’s a universe where tech doesn’t change and people fight sieges and there are all these places and names are the same and… if so that could be an interesting thing to do, but despite the fact people quote Salonius in all his books and he has stories about Salonius that doesn’t seem to be what he’s actually doing. I’m not sure if he’s actually writing in genre at all or just playing with toy soldiers. Is this a world with a history? Or is he reusing names to save time? What’s going on? Has anyone thought about this, and if so, could you please clarify?
The Italian Escape, Catherine Mangan (2021)
Romance novel set in Italy, written by an Irish writer and about an Irish heroine, Niamh or Nina, who goes to Italy and falls in love. Well written, with friendship more important than romance and plausible Italy. I hate to say this, but the main difference between this and most books in this genre is the quantity of alcohol consumed and the utter lack of textual questioning of this. The heroine wakes up with a hangover and takes painkillers and then drinks again on multiple occasions in this book, maybe more days than she wakes up without one. And she ends up running a wine bar… I can’t help being aware that real-life Italy has problems with alcohol for the first time in history over the last decade because of people like her. So that made me less sympathetic than I should have been to this escapist book.
Underfoot in Show Business, Helene Hanff (1962)
This is a fascinating and unusual memoir of how Helene Hanff did not make it as a Broadway playwright. It’s very unusual to read a memoir of how someone didn’t succeed, because why would you even be reading it? Hanff later became successful as a writer of non-fiction, and indeed I found this while wondering if there was an ebook (there isn’t) of 84 Charing Cross Road. I loved this, it was funny, honest, full of interesting details, and very interesting to read about someone who was consistently almost good enough without ever getting good enough. Also she worked as a press agent for Oklahoma! and had to draw in all the exclamation points by hand when they changed the title at the last minute.
Dante’s Bones, Guy P. Raffa (2020)
This is a book about Dante, but it’s mostly a book about how Dante and especially his dead body came to represent Italy and Italianness in the centuries after his death. Italy wasn’t a country when Dante was alive and writing, it was a set of independent city states. He was from Florence, but died in exile in Ravenna, and when Florence asked for his body back Ravenna said no. Repeatedly. Including when there was a Florentine pope and he sent people to get the body and the monks of Ravenna dug it up and hid it. But because he was the first poet to write in Italian (rather than Latin) and to write about the geographical expression of Italy, when Italian nationalism became a thing in the nineteenth century Dante became a symbol of it, and has remained one. Absolutely fascinating.
Black Swan Green, David Mitchell (2006)
Brilliant novel about a teenager in a small village in England in the Eighties who writes poetry, and may have seen a ghost, and stammers. The voice in this is amazing, a first person thirteen-year-old boy that’s just perfect, and the terrors of being that age and the persecution of other kids, and the joy of climbing a tree, and the woods that do and don’t go on forever. There are standard ways people write this kind of book, and this isn’t written in one of those standard ways; this is great.
Mapping Winter, Marta Randall (2019)
The rerelease is 2019, but this is a rewrite of an older book I haven’t read called Sword of Winter. It’s great, full of politics and compromise and honour and a woman who just wants to go out of the edges of civilization and push the maps out further, but is embroiled in a lot of stuff. This is fantasy, except there’s no magic, so it’s more like a historical novel set in a different history. We have enough of these we could do with a term for them. This is set at a very interesting tech level with semaphores for long distance communication just coming into use, making the Riders Guild obsolete relics. I liked a whole lot of things about this book that would require spoilers to go into. Well worth reading and thinking about.
Good Behaviour, Molly Keane (1981)
Re-read, bath book. If you wanted a book to demonstrate the term “unreliable narrator” this would do very well. This is the story of Aroon, who lives in a castle in Ireland but whose family have less money every year but who believe in their class and their status, as Aroon does. It’s Aroon telling her own story, the terrible story of her governess, Miss Brock, and of her brother and his friend Richard, and her failure to understand what is clear to the reader about what is going on. It’s also the story of how she becomes a monster, and it’s sad but very real, and I can’t think of anything that does this quite this well. It’s a book about a place and time and class that doesn’t exist any more, thank goodness. Extremely powerful.
The Devil Comes Courting, Courtney Milan (2021)
Historical romance about people building a telegraph line from Asia to the US and encoding Chinese in telegraphic code, arguably alternate history but not really. Very good book about a man and a woman with issues finding each other and working out their issues. This is part of a series but you don’t need to have read the others.
Lyric Poetry by Women of the Italian Renaissance, Virginia Cox (2013)
After a slow start (very conventional love poetry) this book becomes excellent with response sonnets and then political poetry and then poetry about interesting subjects like death and friendship. The book has the poems in the original, in literal translation, and then footnotes. I made poetic translations of three of the poems on my Patreon if you’re interested. The book concludes with brief biographies of the poets, many of whom don’t have Wikipedia pages. Terrific.
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.