March was a month where I started off at home and came to Chicago halfway through. So I am with friends, getting to hang out and have conversations and play board games, and also starting to do preparation for the papal election.
March also had an odd and distressing thing happen where Amazon updated my Kindle and totally changed the way it works, upsetting my reading experience and forcing me to rely on a kludge suggested to me on Twitter to get anything like functionality back. (Thank you Stephanie Gibson, you absolutely saved me.) Amazon’s own “help” consisted of telling me that they’d let the developers know I hated it.
Briefly, the problem is that in the new version, “list view” (the way I’ve been using the Kindle since 2012) now shows everything you’ve opened recently all jumbled up together, the books you’re in the middle of, and also the books you finished, and the books you opened to check something. You can no longer put things neatly away in directories (“collections”) and just have the books you’re reading at the top in sequence. The workaround suggested by Stephanie, which I repeat for the benefit of anyone else kneecapped by this, is to make a collection called “currently reading” and put what you’re reading in that.
People say bad things about Amazon, but for many of us the choice is not between Amazon and some ideal perfect bookshop but between Amazon and nothing, or between Amazon and some other monopoly. People talk of the ebooks not being owned, which is a very different problem from choosing to use something based on the way it works and then having the way it works irretrievably changed without consultation. I spend hundreds of dollars a month on books, as any regular reader of these posts knows. I’ve sometimes wondered if Amazon understand what people actually do with books, but never more than this month when they reached into my beloved Kindle and broke its functionality. Nevertheless, I read a total of sixteen books, and many of them were excellent and some were outstanding.
Constitution, Nick Webb (2015) Military SF novel that pushes all the military SF buttons and hits all the expected beats, with a mildly interesting universe and aliens. I may read more in this series at some point—I’m glad it’s there if I need something to scratch this particular itch, but it’s not over the threshold where I’d seek it out.
Shopaholic Takes Manhattan, Sophie Kinsella (2001) Second book in the Shopoholic series. I don’t like this as much as Kinsella’s standalone books, but I’m all out of her standalone books until she writes some more. I don’t find debt and financial chaos funny, that’s the problem: it’s all too real. It does really well with the problems of being the sequel to a romance though, and on the happy ending not being the end at all but the beginning of new problems. Don’t start with this one, though.
Under a Tuscan Sky, Karen Aldous (2017) Romance novel set in Italy, and I’m sorry to say not a good one. Full of implausibilities and with a surprisingly unlikeable heroine. Everything was also very telegraphed—it’s not that I can’t normally work out the plot of these things, but I’d rather have it slightly less obvious than this. Oh well. It occurs to me that I may shortly be at a point where I will have read all the romance novels set in Italy. Hope the pandemic is over by then.
Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure From Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age, Duncan Dennis (2022) This is brilliant. It’s exactly what it says, a history of indexes, full of information, conveyed in a lively and sometimes amusing way. Just great. I read this at the speed I read fiction and was sorry when it was over. Generally if you’re interested in book history at all you probably reached out to order it as soon as you saw the title. Absolutely excellent book, just how popular nonfiction should be. Read it, you’ll love it.
One Way Street, Marian Engel (1974) Re-read, bath book. This is a novel by a Canadian writer about a Canadian woman visiting her gay ex-husband on an island much like Cyprus and spending almost a year there, making friends with people, exploring, working, trying to figure out life. I first read this when I was in Greece in the early Eighties and found it very easy to identify with the things many readers would find exotic. I still find it beautiful and powerful. It’s an unusual book. It’s about how we all have personal history, and places have history, and these things are intertwined in interesting and sometimes painful ways. A lot of it is about grief and art.
I was surprised on this reading—I have reread it since 1983, but not for some time—at how much sexual harassment and even assault is taken for granted. It was how things were, and it was in the time when it could be written about, and Engel sees it and writes about it, but not in the way we would now. We have in fact come a long way on this, and that’s good, and reading this is both enlightening and uncomfortable.
The Good Comrade, Una Silberrad (1907) Gosh this was delightful. Recommended to me by friends, and free on Gutenburg, this is the beautiful and satisfying story of a young woman who escapes her rackety and pretentious family through her own competence and resourcefulness. Well written, fun, and unexpected in detail. Contains blue daffodils, secret formulas, honour, respectability, and rascals. But better than that, it has very real affection. An absolute delight, I am smiling to myself now thinking about it.
I liked it a lot, and I am sorry Silberrad’s other forty-nine novels are not available—they’re deeply out of print, and out of copyright. If anyone could get hold of them and make them into ebooks I’d be very grateful. It’s interesting to think about a lovely book like this from a century ago and a writer’s whole successful career that’s just vanished, returned to the sands.
Will They, Won’t They? Portia MacIntosh (2021) An actress in a series like Game of Thrones is killed off from the show at the same time her beloved grandfather dies, so she goes home and rethinks her life; hilarity ensues. This book has great family dynamics, saving a theatre, a very funny panto of Cinderella, and of course true love. Right on the edge of whether it’s chick lit or romance, but I’d come down on the side of chick lit because it starts with the career. Lots of fun.
1000+ Greatest Poems Of All Time, edited by George Chityil (2013) This is actually an ebook of Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1918 (1900) in the revised 1939 edition, and it’s way more than a thousand poems and it took me over a year to read all of it. It is a great, indeed classic, collection, containing many wonderful poems from all ages.
I noticed a very odd thing as it was getting nearer to the present of when it was compiled, which is that the women hadn’t fallen out of the canon yet. For the older periods, from 1250 up to the mid-Victorians, if there were poems by women I knew them. There’s this thing in all times where women will be writing, and they’ll be acknowledged as significant by their contemporaries, and then when it comes time for canon forming and making collections of the best of the time, the women will be left out except for truly incredible exceptions.
You can see this happening right now before your eyes in SF, where Le Guin is still hailed as important but Russ and Macintyre and Sargent and Randall aren’t. Men get forgotten too, certainly, but C.J. Cherryh and William Gibson emerged at the same time, and they’re both alive and still writing, and Gibson still gets attention and Cherryh doesn’t, so that a major book like Alliance Rising (2019) may have sold copies but didn’t get talked about. Anyway, from the decades before Q made this anthology I recognised most if not all of the male poets, but only Willa Cather and Edna St. Vincent Millay among the female ones, who were considered worthy then but have fallen out since. Generally, if you want a super long book of poetry in English arranged chronologically, either to read slowly in order, to open at random, or to look things up in, this one is pretty good.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, David Mitchell (2010) Re-read, book club. As I said when I read it the first time last autumn, this is wonderful. This is the kind of historical novel genre readers will enjoy, and also I know now that it is in fact fantasy. Japan, 1799: Dutch merchants penned in one small town, closed Japan all around, the whole planet all around that, amazing characters, ramifications, metaphysics. There’s a line in Delany’s Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand where he talks about re-reading and says that this time the gleam of torchlight reflected in the water was a different gold. That about sums it up. I love the first re-read of a book, when I know what is coming and am not anxious either about what will happen or whether it will continue to be good, but it isn’t yet as familiar as an old slipper.
Spam Tomorrow, Verily Anderson (1956) World War II memoir, full of incident and anecdote, all very specific and yet all very typical. Also full of things you wouldn’t think of, like worrying about an asthmatic in the Blitz. It’s also the kind of book where you want to read bits out loud to people. But overall, it’s the story of coping.
Give Unto Others, Donna Leon (2022) New Brunetti mystery. Brunetti is a police detective in Venice and this is maybe the thirtieth book in the series; she’s been writing one a year for some considerable time. They’re all set in the year in which they’re published which made last year’s odd and this one even odder, because of the pandemic. She’s trying to predict where we’ll be with things, and it makes it almost science fictional. I was in Italy, indeed in Venice, last autumn, and this isn’t that, and if it’s this coming autumn, well… it adds an extra layer of interesting. Seen just as a mystery, this one is excellent, surprising, clever, and with the usual excellent characterisation of new and series characters. Don’t start here, though.
Piety and Pythagoras in Renaissance Florence, Christopher S. Celenza (2001) What it says in the title, really: a book about how Ficino and others in Renaissance Florence thought about and used the Pythagorean fragments they had. If this doesn’t instantly sound fascinating, you should skip it. Celenza has written several books of more general interest. This one was just for me.
Death of a Unicorn, Peter Dickinson (1984) Re-read, bath book. One of my favourite Dickinsons, and such a perfect use of voice and time. If you wanted to think about how voice and time and revelation work, you could do a lot worse than just read this and think a lot. There’s so much unstated but clear. It’s a mystery, and it’s set in the early Fifties and the early Eighties, and it’s about a debutante, a magazine, a stately home, economics, love, profiteering, and trust.
Baudolino, Umberto Eco (2000) I don’t even know what genre this is. Fantasy, sort of? It has the Holy Grail, sort of, so… Teresa Nielsen Hayden once said that if a story has space ships it’s science fiction unless it also has the Holy Grail which makes it fantasy. This led to someone at a con asking a question of me on a panel where he said he didn’t know what genre the book he was writing was in. “Does it have spaceships?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied confidently. “Does it have the Holy Grail?” I asked. His mouth dropped open and he stared at me. “How… how did you know?”
Baudolino does not have spaceships, and it would be a historical novel except for the fantastical parts. It’s about an Italian man with a gift for languages who becomes the adoptive son of Frederick Barbarossa and goes to find the kingdom of Prester John and the holy grail. It’s long and complicated and beautifully written, and it’s set in a world where the further you go from Europe the more you are in the lands of myth, so there are people with no heads and people with one big foot and satyrs and so on. It’s very strange, and it’s odd about women, and indeed, it’s just odd.
Journey, Marta Randall (1978) This is the book I’ve been looking for, the mythical book that is like The Crow Road on another planet. Why didn’t anyone tell me? This is the story of a family, parents, siblings, love, romance, children—but on another planet and with aliens, humans rescued from another failing colony planet, spaceships, economics, threats of war, all the things you have in science fiction but focused on the Kennerin family and their planet Aerie.
This is a terrific book, if a little oddly structured, and I don’t understand why it didn’t get more attention. Was it before its time? Am I the only person who wants there to be books like this? Buy this as fast as you can and read it so we can have the conversation about whether this is a thing we can do in genre. There’s a sequel called Dangerous Games which I’m reading right now and which will therefore appear in next month’s post.
I was also fortunate enough this month to read a long novel by a friend in manuscript, which I’m noting but not describing, as title and contents may change before you get the chance to see it.
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.