July was spent at home reading and working on the new essay collection, and at the very end flying to Albuquerque for Mythcon, where very excitingly my novel Or What You Will won the Mythopoeic Award! (I never expect to win awards, I’m so thrilled to be nominated for them and on the ballot next to such great books, so it’s always an exciting surprise on the occasions when I do win.) I had a great time at Mythcon, seeing people, through masks, but seeing people, and having conversations. Before that, I read 21 books, and some of them were great and some of them were not. The good ones make up for all the others, and I’m glad I get to burble to you about the excellent ones and warn you off the terrible ones!
The Plus One Pact, Portia MacIntosh (2020)
Funny romance novel in which two people meet, become friends and then roommates while pretending to be dating to provide plus ones for awkward family events, and then… inevitably… end up realising they are perfect for each other. Fun, funny, cheering, but perhaps a little predictable.
The Grand Turk, John Freely (2007)
Biography of Mehmet II, by the same man who wrote the biography of Mehmet’s son Cem that I read in April. Mehmet II was the Ottoman sultan who conquered Constantinople, he was a complex, interesting man who had himself painted by Venetian Renaissance painters and who was interested in Greek and Roman antiquity as well as Islam. The book is solid, good on facts and places and times, but not lively. I have yet to find a lively book about the Ottomans.
Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, C.S. Lewis (1955)
He was an odd duck, Lewis, and this is a deeply odd book. It had a strangely compelling quality; once I started it I raced through. Lewis writes about his childhood and early manhood with deep observation and sympathy, but from the perspective of an intellectual history—no, that’s not fair. A spiritual history? He’s focusing on the moments when he experienced what he calls joy, the rush that went through him when he read the words “Baldur the beautiful is dead” and which he found elusive and hard to recapture. He had a very strange childhood, and a terrible school experience, and he was in fact a very peculiar person. It may be because I read the Narnia books early and often, but I feel there are some ways I resonate to him very deeply, and others where he seems completely alien. He’s never less than interesting, and he’s honest and coy in weird and unexpected ways. I really like the parts of this where he’s trying to dissect what “joy” is and how it isn’t lust and how he figured out the difference. It’s fascinating that he hated the trenches of WWI less than boarding school because at least he wasn’t supposed to pretend to like it. Glad I’ve read it.
Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell (2020)
This is a story about an imaginary band in the sixties, and it’s perfect. It is structured in the form of albums, with side one and side two, and the point-of-view character as the person who wrote the “track” that is the chapter. It is a direct sequel to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It’s got this thing going on where the three main characters are all quirky strongly drawn people, and it’s doing a great thing with pacing. I’m not especially interested in the sixties or rock music (though I was charmed to meet Leonard Cohen in the lift of the Chelsea Hotel), but I loved this book for its sharpness, its observation, the things it’s thinking about and connecting up delightfully. Writing this now and thinking of the moments of this book, I want to read it again straight away. This is as good as the best of the other Mitchell I have read, absolutely compelling. Forget Cloud Atlas. Read The Thousand Autumns and then read this.
Mappings, Vikram Seth (1980)
Delightful early poetry collection from Seth as he was finding his voice, lovely poems about trying to work out who he is and where he wants to be, unsure of everything but his powerful scansion. I loved this, and was sorry it was so short.
The Company, K.J. Parker (2008)
This was Parker’s first book as Parker rather than Holt. The events of this book add up to more futility than most of his later ones, but there’s plenty of the fantasy of logistics that I want. Sadly there are some women, who behave very strangely. Mr Holt is alive, and it’s possible that at some point I could meet him and say, look, really, women, we’re people, we do things for the same reasons men do, not for the kinds of mysterious reasons you think, really. But I suspect he wouldn’t be able to hear me, that perhaps the pitch of my voice would be inaudible to him. Some of his men are pretty peculiar too, especially in this book. Don’t start here, even though he did. But having said that, technical details of gold panning, farming disasters… there’s a lot going for it.
Something Fabulous, Alexis Hall (2022)
A gay regency romance with twins, by an author whose contemporary romances I enjoyed, how could I not love this? Good question, and one that’s hard to answer. I didn’t love it, it failed to convince me. Unlike K. J. Charles Society of Gentlemen books, this wasn’t a version of the Regency that I could suspend my disbelief in. At best I was smiling where I was supposed to be laughing, and often I was rolling my eyes. Disappointing.
Elizabeth of the German Garden: A Literary Journey, Jennifer Walker (2013)
This is a biography of Elizabeth von Arnim—whose actual name was Mary Beauchamp, who married Count von Arnim and who used both Elizabeth and von Arnim as names but never together. Walker talks about Elizabeth the author persona as Mary’s creation and mask. She had a very interesting life, at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, and wrote a number of books I esteem highly. This is a good biography, well written and thoughtful. It seems to be Walker’s first book. I’ll watch out for more by her.
Love the One You’re With, Emily Giffin (2008)
I have enjoyed a lot of Giffin but I hated this one. The thing that sometimes annoys me about her work is the slavering love of wealth—American unexamined brand-name suburban wealth. This is a book about settling, and it’s in favour. Skip it.
Miss Angel: The Art and World of Angelica Kauffman, Eighteenth Century Icon, Angelica Goodden (2005)
Interesting contrast with the von Arnim bio, because I already knew von Arnim’s books well but picked this up after seeing one self-portrait of Kauffman’s in an exhibition at the Uffizi last year. So when Walker delved into the books alongside the life, that was really interesting, but when Goodden did the same with art history detail I was tempted to skim. Kauffman was absolutely dedicated to her art, despite doing a self-portrait where she depicts herself choosing between art and music. Her father was a painter, she got the best art education she could (though people claimed she suffered from not having done anatomy and life drawing), and successfully managed her work and image to support herself entirely by her own production in several different countries, all of which considered and still consider her a local, or adoptive local, artist.
The Blue Sapphire, D.E. Stevenson (1963)
I think this is the only book I’ve ever read where speculation in shares goes well. Charming romance that feels as if it’s set much earlier than the publication date. It begins in London and continues in Scotland. It has good found family and growing up—but a young woman not knowing what she wants to do and getting a job in a hat shop seems more 1933 than 1963. Still, I suppose there are still hat shops today, and certainly uncles, and maybe even sapphire prospectors, who knows?
Enough Rope, Dorothy Parker (1926)
Delightful well-turned collection of Dorothy Parker’s poetry, free from Project Gutenberg, containing all the poems of hers I already knew and many I did not. Very much one note, that note being “And I am Marie of Romania,” but as it’s a note otherwise utterly missing from English poetry I’ll take it and giggle.
The School at the Chalet, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer (1925)
Re-read. After reading that disappointing modern school story last month, it occurred to me to look at what might be available as ebooks and this was. This is in the special category of re-reads that are things I read as a kid and haven’t revisited. There are lots of Chalet School books, this is the first. Madge and her close female friend Mademoiselle set up a school in a chalet in Austria so that Madge’s invalid but madcap sister Jo and Mademoiselle’s niece Simone can live healthily while being educated in English, French, and German, and other pupils will pay for rent and food. They acquire other pupils with ease, and proceed to have school adventures in the Austrian Tyrol. In 1925. I remember impending war forcing them out of Austria and then Italy in later volumes.
There’s a thing about a book like this where it’s gripping even though there’s no actual suspense. There was one moment where I was reading fervently with tears in my eyes when something interrupted me and as I picked the book up again I thought a) I have read this before, b) it’s a kid’s book, the character will survive, c) the peril is entirely implausible, and d) I really, really cared nevertheless and wanted to get back to it and let all the things I was supposed to be doing go hang. I’d happily re-read all the other volumes if they were available.
Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch (2011)
Second in the Rivers of London series, just as gripping as the first which I read in April, and dealing well with both having a new adventure and the consequences of the first book. Great voice. Great worldbuilding, consistent with first book and widening implications and scope. Good characters. Slightly too much blood and horror, just about where it’s worth it, but I can already see how much more I will enjoy re-reading braced. I’ll definitely keep reading this series. Start at the beginning, though.
Guilty Creatures: A Menagerie of Mysteries, Martin Edwards (2021)
I’ve read a bunch of these British Library Crime Classics themed Golden Age of Mystery short story collections, and I always enjoy them. They often, as here, have one Sherlock Holmes story and a bunch of things by other writers. It was fun seeing what animals Edwards managed to find—just one nobbled racehorse! My favourite was a jackdaw. It’s also a good way of finding new-to-me mystery writers. This isn’t the best in the series, but I enjoyed it anyway.
London With Love, Sarra Manning (2022)
I love Manning, everything except last year’s lacklustre book about the dog. This one was excellent—a romance that begins in 1987 with sixteen-year-olds and comes forward in time to the day last year that Britain allowed people out of their bubbles to meet up with people again. Most of the chapters take place a couple of years apart. All of them feature stations on the London Underground or New York subway. All of them feature our protagonist Jenny/Jen/Jennifer as she reinvents herself and grows up, and her friend Nick as he finally also grows up. This is such a great lifetime book, and such a great London book, and the history of the time as it affects the people living through it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s also the first time I’ve seen the pandemic in a romance novel, though I doubt it will be the last. (Manning was writing this in lockdown. I am in awe.) This is the kind of romance that many people would enjoy and deserves to be more widely read.
The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco (1980)
Re-read. I read it when I was in university, and it’s funny, I no longer think it’s weird to have a book set in a monastery, or about the questions of knowledge and pride and heresy. I didn’t understand this book properly when I was eighteen. I still found parts of it slow and hard going, and it certainly is very peculiar. It has the form of a mystery, but that’s just the thread to open it up to the wider questions Eco is interested in examining. Weird, fascinating novel.
Wedding Bells At Villa Limoncello, Daisy James (2019)
Do you want a romance novel set in Italy? Did you actually want the forty-eight romance novels set in Italy I’ve read since March 2020? (I just counted.) Maybe you didn’t. You’ve been very patient. I didn’t know I did. This is not a good book. It’s not terrible. I’ll be reading the sequels, indeed I’ve already bought them. But this one is absolutely classic—there’s an unhappy person, and she goes to Italy, and everything gets fixed, just because it’s beautiful and there is good food and Italian people and therefore suddenly everything is therefore fine. However, I didn’t read this book in 2020 because it contains a dead sister, and that’s a hard subject for me. But now I did read it, and it was fun.
The Memory Theater, Karin Tidbeck (2021)
Brilliant novel that takes ideas about fairyland and ideas about other worlds and pulls off a terrific fantasy. Tidbeck is a Swedish writer who writes in both Swedish and English; this is an English original, with very delicate, precise use of language that reminded me of Angela Carter. There’s fairyland, there’s Sweden, there’s a theatre troupe, there’s a girl whose mother is a mountain and a truly conscienceless villain. Unforgettable. This is the kind of European fantasy we need more of.
Saplings, Noel Streatfeild (1945)
Re-read. Streatfeild is known for her children’s books. This is not one. This is a book where she takes her ability to write brilliantly from children’s POV and also from the POV of adults and gives us a book about how WWII destroyed a family even though only one person in it is killed. It’s really good, and absolutely compelling, but also a tragedy. But it’s written just like her children’s books, which makes reading it an experience more comparable to L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside than anything else I can think of.
The Bookseller of Florence, Ross King (2021)
Delightful, readable biography of Vespasiano da Bisticci, bookseller and producer of manuscripts. If you are interested in the history of books, in the Renaissance classical revival, in Florence in the fifteenth century, in Marsilio Ficino, you want to read this. King’s best book since Brunelleschi’s Dome and full of useful fascinating information. Absolutely splendid, loved it to bits, and I think almost anyone would, because he assumes an intelligent reader without much background knowledge.
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.