Jo Walton’s Reading List: June 2022

June was a busy month, with many friends in town for Scintillation, the small convention in Montreal for which I do programme. It was great to see people again after having to cancel for the last two years! We discussed many great books, including John M. Ford’s Aspects (2022) which is out now, so wonderful to be able to recommend it at last. And I read fifteen books, and I have quite a lot to say about them.

Rosemary Kirstein The Steerswoman (1989)
Re-read for a Scintillation panel. The book remains a delight, as always, the panel was also a delight, with some people who had read the book long ago and others who had read it this year for the first time but were no less enthusiastic for that. The panel was on all four books in the series, and Rosemary sat in the audience occasionally making a note. These are such amazingly good books, such a rich world, such excellent characters. And it’s a good candidate for a series that gets better as it goes along and more is revealed about what’s really going on—some books have questions that are more interesting than the eventual answers, this is not at all the case here. I find new depth every time I re-read.

David Mitchell Cloud Atlas (2004)
I am not at all sure what I think of this book, or whether it is successful in what it is doing. Had anyone told me it had xperimental spelng I’m not sure I’d have read it, or at least not yet, but nobody did. The conceit of the book is that it consists of a series of split novellas, moving forward in time, so the book begins and ends with two halves of a novella from the eighteenth century, then there are two from 1919, the 1960s, the 1990s, the near future, and the middle future—this is the only one that is intact. Each new portion has a character read or encounter the material from the previous portion. But I don’t understand what’s supposed to be going on, or whether there is actually any thematic unity. And it’s very difficult to talk about, because the level of writing and engagement in all of it is incredible, but nevertheless the science fiction portions are pretty cliched imaginations of futures, and kind of embarrassing. Even apart from the misguided spelling issue, they are far and away the weakest parts of the book. There is nothing innovative or even particularly interesting about them as science fiction. Nor do they connect to what I have seen of his wider universe, at least not in any visible way—I’d decided it must be in a different universe until I encountered Luisa Rey again in the stunningly brilliant Utopia Avenue, for which see my forthcoming July post. The other parts of Cloud Atlas were great, but it didn’t necessarily feel thematically like a mosaic novel, or like a novel at all, just a set of nested stories. It was certainly a bold thing to do, and his characters in most of the sections were great, if always just slightly verging on satire, but on the whole I… don’t get it. I loved some parts of it, but other parts I slogged through to see get to where I could see what he was doing, which in the end I never figured out. I am very very glad I had read other Mitchell before reading this, because nothing would have persuaded me to read his other (excellent) books if I’d read this first. My advice would be not to start here, and maybe not to go here at all. But probably it’s me not it, and I’m just not old enough for it and I’ll get it on a future read.

Vikram Seth (trans) Three Chinese Poets (1992)
This was an absolute delight, Seth translated three classical Chinese poets, Wang Wei, Du Fu and Li Bai into beautiful English poetry that I loved. I actually read this twice through —it’s short—because I wanted to spend more time with it. All the individual poems are short, and the quality of both thought and translation is really high. I recommend this translation to anyone who likes poetry.

Jules Wake Escape to the Riviera (2016)
This is the second romance novel I’ve read about a woman seeking out her ex so they can get a divorce from the marriage that was never properly ended only to find… well, just what you’d expect, really, that they love each other after all. Excellent France, excellent teenage niece, excellent disabled sister, and Wake is very good at making even a very very implausible romance work. Almost as good as if it was set in Italy.

Claire Tomalin The Young H.G. Wells: Changing the World (2021)
A biography of H.G. Wells that stops before WWI, and looks in detail at his early life and how he made himself who he was. I had no idea he came from such a background of poverty—his mother was a servant—or how entirely self-educated he was. The details of how he came to claw an education out of a situation that would have given him nothing are fascinating, and highlight the “Eloi” and “Morlock” division in a different way. Tomalin is one of the best biographers writing, and in this book she is at the top of her powers. Read this if you’re interested in Wells, or in social conditions in late Victorian England, or in socialism, or in how people change the world.

Monisha Rajesh Around India in 80 Trains (2011)
Fascinating travel book about an English woman whose family originate in Chennai taking eighty trains around India. A travel book is always as good as the narrator, and Rajesh is honest and fun and has a very interesting angle on the country her parents left, but which is still full of her relatives. Lots of interesting India, lots of trains, lots of conversations with strangers and the real feel of a long trip.

Marge Piercy He, She, and It (1991); UK title Body of Glass
Re-read for a Scintillation panel. Neither title is very good for this book, which is science fiction set in a cyberpunk near future that feels very solid in some ways and very wobbly in others. But it has a robot and stories about the golem of Prague. The actual cyber uses the nonsensical “brain goes into computer, user can be killed in system” thing that Gibson came up with and is just as annoying to me now as it always was. The world ruined by climate change was more unusual when I first read it than it is now. The good thing about this book is the thoughtfulness about family and the great characters.

Jane Beaton Welcome to the School by the Sea (2008)
A school story for adults? With an introduction about how we used to have all these school stories and now we don’t have any except magic schools, and surely she’s not the only person who wants them? I’m so there—except sadly this was disappointing. You hear people use the term “headhopping” very loosely, and often when they just mean omni, but this book really had it, starting the paragraph in one character’s POV and ending in another leaving you unsure whose head you were in for the middle part. I read all of it anyway, because I really am a sucker for school stories.

Suzanne Marrs What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (2011)
Maxwell was an editor at the New Yorker, and I loved his correspondence with Sylvia Townsend Warner, and I quite enjoyed Welty’s correspondence with Ross MacDonald, but this book fizzled a little for me, I’m not sure why. Maybe because they weren’t really discussing writing at the level she did with MacDonald and he did with Warner? There’s a friendship here, but it’s surprisingly mundane. But did you know that he would sometimes send her a stamped addressed postcard with a question and YES/NO and she could just cross it off and drop it in the post? More writers and editors could do with excellent lines of communication like that!

Lindsey Kelk On a Night Like This (2021)
Chicklit, not really set in Italy but it was so good I didn’t mind much. This was delightful, it was genuinely funny and impressively original, while actually being Cinderella all the time. I kept smiling when I was reading this because it was so delightful, and the characters were so good. Doesn’t waste a lot of time on the romance, which is a plus.

Bee Wilson Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat (2012)
This was great, a history of kitchens, cooking, and kitchen implements, written by a British cook and food writer, but with a world-wide focus. There was a lot here I didn’t know and had never considered. Full of facts you’ll want to read aloud to your long suffering family. Really great read.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher Raw Material (1923)
Well, when she says it’s raw material for stories she’s not kidding. This is a series of vignettes and descriptions of people, few of them resolving into actual stories, and most of them unsatisfying in one way or another, but with enough of Canfield’s typical brilliant flashes to keep me reading. Don’t read this, read Hillsboro People if you want short stories, and read her novels. But it’s good to see more of her work becoming available.

Samuel R. Delany Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984)
Re-read. I was having a conversation about how interesting use of pronouns didn’t start with Leckie, and found myself mentioning this book. Then I was talking to someone else about re-reading, and found myself quoting a passage from near the beginning of it. Then someone was asking for worlds without nuclear families, and I explained about how that works in this, and then when I went to bed I felt as if I was already reading it and opened it up. It is full of pyrotechnics. One does not always want to read Delany, any more than one wants cheesecake for every meal, but my goodness he’s good and sometimes just what you were longing for. 1984. Fresh as ever.

Harry Kemelman Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home (1969)
Another enjoyable mystery where the community is more interesting than the mystery itself. Fun, fast paced, interesting, I continue to go through these quickly and enjoy the experience.

Georgette Heyer The Unknown Ajax (1959)
Re-read, bath book. Regency romance with smugglers, families, mistaken assumptions, a very plausible (for Heyer) romance but somehow I didn’t enjoy this as much at bath-reading speed of a chapter or so a day as I have on previous faster readings. Some of the minor characters are really unpleasant and unkind, and I really noticed that when given time to think. I’m downgrading this one.

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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