Jo Walton’s Reading List: May 2022

…And then I caught Covid on May 1st, still in Chicago, still in the middle of the Papal Election of 1492, which we had to abruptly move online because Ada and Lauren caught it too. We’d caught it in class; it was the only place we’d been. We caught it despite masking, despite everyone being thoroughly vaccinated. We were sick for a couple of weeks and still positive for a week after that, having an isolation slumber party, but we are all fully recovered now. The weird effect of this is that the whole pandemic now has narrative closure for me. I came home by train late in May, straight into preparations for Scintillation, the small con in Montreal that I do programme for, which is happening in June. And I read twelve books, some great, some strange, and very, very different from each other.

Savages, K.J. Parker (2015)
Thank you, K.J. Parker, for being there for me when I first had Covid and we weren’t sure how to cope and I couldn’t concentrate on any of the things I was reading! Parker is consistently grabby, even when he’s being weird about stuff. This is a book about warfare and logistics, and people despised as savages bringing down what’s perceived as civilization. I realised about a third of the way in exactly what it was doing and watched it unwinding itself beautifully through the rest of the book, like watching a master gymnast go through a perfect routine of breathtaking difficulty and pull it all off to land on a predetermined mark. I continue to have issues with Parker’s use of love and gender, I continue to read him nonetheless, and I’m very glad now I didn’t discover him until 2020 because all of it was there when I needed it. This is as good a place to start as any, if you want to start.

Our Italian Summer, Jennifer Probst (2021)
A romance novel set in Italy, though sadly not a very good one. It seemed promising: a mother, grandmother, and granddaughter go for a holiday together in Italy to bring them together. But—as is for some reason common for American romance novels set in Italy—it regards it as a luxury experience and they make terrible (and expensive) choices that mean they spend more money to have less fun, which is painful to read about. They went on a guided tour that took them on a private bus instead of on trains, to fancy expensive fussy restaurants instead of random, normally great Italian food, and worst of all they chose the expensive Vatican tour that takes you straight to the Sistine and has you miss the Raphael rooms and all the other wonderful things. I read this book constantly tutting at their terrible choices (you know when people say to people in books, “Noooo! Don’t do that!”?). There was romance. There was Italy, but really, they were wasting it. They did figure out their personal issues. Not terrible. But not Nicky Pellegrino either.

Midnight Riot, Ben Aaronovitch (2011)
I don’t usually read urban fantasy, but lots of people have been recommending this series. Specifically, Jennifer Crusie has been talking about them on her blog, so when I saw this on sale I read the beginning, tentatively, and was hooked right away. It’s great. There was indeed too much blood for me, but the first person voice is wonderful, the metaphysics is well worked out, and I couldn’t put it down. It’s a police procedural where the mystery is supernatural. Both the solution and the supernatural stuff fit together in a way that feels right, where so often this kind of thing jangles on me. This is the start of a series, and I plan to read more if the level of horror isn’t any worse than this one.

The Time of Our Lives, Portia MacIntosh (2019)
Slightly less good feel-good romance than the others I have read from MacIntosh, it seemed to be treading much the same ground as No Ex Before Marriage and that one was better. I didn’t warm to Lucia or Tom, or want them to be together, or feel the reason why they weren’t was convincing. Disappointing.

Desire, Una Lucy Silberrad (1908)
This book was amazing. How has Silberrad been forgotten? I don’t understand it. This is a wonderful book about—and here I stopped typing and stared out of the window for a while with the plot and characters of Desire unspooling around me. It’s about life and how to live, and the place of art and love in life, and it’s about a woman called Desire Quebell and a man called Peter Grimstone who form a real and unlikely friendship. It’s about friendship, and making things, and doing things. It’s the kind of book you’d expect to be a classic that everyone has read or at least meant to read, not a book that sold well in 1908 and then fell down a hole. It’s really great, and I’d like everyone to read it and talk about it. Way better than The Good Comrade and I liked that a lot. There are a number of Silberrad’s books on Google Play, does anyone know how to make them into proper ebooks that I could read on my Kindle?

Paul: A Biography, N.T. Wright (2018)
A biography of the apostle Paul. I was not the expected reader for this book, which is always an interesting experience in itself. Unsurprisingly, it was more religious than I wanted, but it did answer some questions I had after reading the Bible. It was mostly interesting, though more so when focused on the details of Paul’s life and less so when talking about how amazing his theology seems to Wright. There’s so much we don’t know, and wish we did, so many unfillable lacunae. But I was hoping for something like the biography of Origen I read a few years ago which was great. Oh well.

Of Solids and Surds: Notes for Noël Sturgeon, Marilyn Hacker, Josh Lukin, Mia Wolff, Bill Stribling, and Bob White, Samuel R. Delany (2022)
A pile of notes by Delany circling and recircling the question of “Why I Write.” Absolutely fascinating, with more about his individual books than usual in explorations of this nature. I laughed aloud at the stuff about demographically diverse people coming up to him intermittently to tell him how much they love specific books, because that happens to me too. Lots of it was thought provoking, even when I didn’t agree, and much of it fascinating in its detail as that detail reflects on Delany and his life.

Princes of the Renaissance, Mary Hollingsworth (2021)
I have now read quite a few books by Hollingsworth, as she works on people and a period I’m interested in. I find all her books somehow unsatisfying; they’re never as deep or vivid as I’d like. But yet, who else is writing about these people and the cities that are not Rome, Florence, and Venice? So I keep on reading her, and keep on finding her books useful but wishing I liked them better. This one has the same organizational principle as The Family Medici where she tells you who appears in each chapter and their ages at the beginning, which doesn’t work quite as well here where it’s not a dynasty but is still handy. This is a survey of the principal patrons of Renaissance Italy, seen very much from a patronage perspective, but with information about marriage alliances and dowries and wars and power mixed in. More valuable in areas where I knew less, like the Farnese family.

A Single Swallow, Zhang Ling (2017)
I wasn’t expecting this book to be genre when I started reading it. I picked it up when the ebook was being given away free on “translation day” or somesuch, when some books in translation were being given away to celebrate translation. It said it was a novel about WWII China, which it was, but… not really a spoiler as it’s clear from chapter one, it’s narrated by ghosts, including the ghosts of dogs. It focuses on the life of a woman who was significant to all three ghosts, and to whom they are all significant, but who never gets her own point of view, though she develops surprising amounts of agency as the book goes on. It’s very good, and although it contains a lot of death and violence it’s overall positive. But it’s very strange indeed. I liked it, and I’m glad I’ve read it and have this different perspective.

Hindsight, Peter Dickinson (1983)
Re-read, bath book. I wonder how many times I’ve read this since first I took it out of the library in 1983? It’s a detective story in the form of a memoir of an evacuated boarding school written by a detective writer for a biographer. It’s a strange and powerful story with memorable characters, and what it’s really about is the reliability of memory and the power of imagination. If any of Dickinson’s mysteries have eluded you until now, do yourself the favour of reading them all, this one included. They’re very much worth it.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets, William Shakespeare (1609)
I had read some, know some by heart, and knew I had not read all of them. I was not expecting the collection to lead off with a number of sonnets in which Shakespeare powerfully urges someone to join a cloning project—that is, to marry for the sole purpose of making sure that a copy of your physical likeness will live on past your death. That’s so bizarre—it’s less bizarre when seen as a cloning project than what it really is. Very strange. I also hadn’t known Shakespeare was lame, which is mentioned a few times here in sonnets as an accepted thing but never has been in biographical material I’ve come across. Disability so often and so easily disappears from our historical memory of high-achieving people, but here it is again. These are very good sonnets, but I wouldn’t have minded a wider range of subject matter, for which I guess I should blame Petrarch but I don’t. It’s obvious to me that at the time Petrarch wrote his sonnets that he simply couldn’t think of anything except Laura, while this is not the impression I had reading these. No wonder people make up ridiculous theories about who Shakespeare was: There’s such a strange mix of candidness and guardedness there and you have to wonder why. Anyway, you don’t need me to tell you these are great. But my favourites are the ones where he writes about something that isn’t love love love all the time, and especially Sonnet 77, where he’s very comforting on the subject of writing.

The Tatami Galaxy, Tomihiko Morimi (2004, translated 2022 by Emily Balistrieri)
I was fortunate enough to be sent an advance reading copy of this fascinating Japanese iterative fantasy. It is well known in Japan, as both a book and a movie, and this is the translation of the original book. Despite high recommendations, I almost gave up in the first quarter of the novel—why was I reading this book about a discontented college kid who did weird things? The first quarter took me as long to read as all the rest, which I raced through delightedly, once it reached the point where his life begins going through different iterations. It’s beautiful and satisfying and coming at things from a different direction from Groundhog Day or Replay (or my own Lent) but still in dialogue with ways this has been done before in SF. Pick it up when you have the chance. It makes me so happy to see more genre novels from other cultures being translated so we can all be part of the same conversation.

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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