August was a great month, exhausting, but really great. This is the kind of month I want in my life! I began it by winning the Mythopoeic Award in Mythcon in Albuquerque for my novel Or What You Will, where I had a great time. Then I took the train to Chicago, where I’ve been staying with Ada, first preparing for and then running another simulation of the papal election of 1492 with friends in town before Worldcon. I read ten books, and some of them were really great.
Out of Character, Annabeth Albert (2021)
Romance novel about two guys, one of whom is a nerd and the other a jock, finding true love while collecting four collectible cards, for reasons. Well written and fun, but all the emotions were just slightly too brightly coloured and exaggerated. It does the thing of alternating points of view, which sometimes makes everything too easy. I mildly enjoyed it.
Tales of Nevèrÿon, Samuel R. Delany (1979)
Re-read, and I’ve written a whole post about it. Excellent mosaic novel with the conceit of being expanded from a document that is the earliest fragment of human history, about slavery, gender relations, power, but not really fantasy whatever it says on the cover. It is always worth reading and thinking about as much Delany as you can.
Clothes-Pegs, Susan Scarlett (Noel Streatfeild) (1939)
Re-read. Romance novel about a girl who works in a dress shop in London who ends up marrying a lord. The thing that is great about this book is the family dynamics of the heroine’s family. There’s a villain—indeed two very unpleasant women who try to harm her—and there’s a truly nonsensical misunderstanding with the hero. And the whole dynamic of a lord falling in love with a shopgirl is about as pure aspirational wish fulfillment as you can get. But the depiction of the heroine’s hard-working working-class family—the “curtain money” the mother saves to buy curtains but borrows from to meet necessary expenses, and the way the family care about each other and connect to each other in a supportive and realistic way—feels very true to life. Recently re-released as an ebook. Content warning: 1939 understanding of cancer.
The Expensive Halo, Josephine Tey (1931)
Re-read. Reading Clothes-Pegs made me think of this, because it is also, amazingly, about a shopgirl in London who marries a lord! There must have been a lot of it going on, or maybe absolutely none of it? This is a more complex book. Both the shopgirl and the lord have siblings, the girl has a brother and the lord a sister, and they also have a romance, but one that ends unhappily. The expensive halo of the title is the halo purchased by the sister when she gives up the young man she loves, for his own good, while her brother marries the shopgirl, because the rule of romance in the 1930s (and far too often now also) is that women may marry up the class ladder, but never down. The other difference relates to family—both families in this book are totally dysfunctional. The heroine’s father is a religious zealot, and he tyrannises his family. The hero’s mother is a flake, though his father seems nice enough. There are also—this is Tey after all—horses.
These two books are in the same genre and have the same plot; they were written eight years apart but in the same world—the world where rich women spend more on a dress than the women who make the dress earn in a month, and both women exist and are of interest to the reader. In Emily Giffin the same is true, but the dress is made in China and the dressmaker doesn’t appear on the page or have a story arc and definitely doesn’t marry a lord; it’s a different level of abstraction. I suppose billionaire romances do this, but I don’t think I’ve read any except Courtney Milan’s Trade Me and I don’t think that counts. Anyway, they make an interesting pair, they’re both written by good writers whose best-known work is in other genres—children’s books for Streatfeild and mysteries for Tey—and they’re both short, fast reads. I’d much rather live in a Streatfeild family though!
Islands, Marta Randall (1975)
Randall’s first science fiction novel. In a world of immortals, the treatments don’t work on one person, who is an oddity because she is aging. I found myself oddly out of sympathy for her, only able to live a mere two hundred years, and I hated the attitude of the society to children and child abuse—it doesn’t seem to me how immortals would behave; I’d think they’d have stronger bonds and longer childhoods. And their attitude to disability is also horrible, and it’s funny, I’ve thought a lot about living forever with disability—it beats the alternative—and in conclusion, this is weird. Read other Randall before this one.
Monday the Rabbi Took Off, Harry Kemelman (1972)
Gosh, politics around Israel have changed since 1972. In this book David Small, the rabbi detective, goes to Israel. There are bombs, there is murder, there is a strange situation with a naive young American, and a crime the rabbi solves from a photograph of the dead body. I did not enjoy this as much as the earlier ones.
Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell (2020)
Re-read for book club, and yes, the first read was only last month. It’s such a lovely book, though, and I love how it shows the process of creativity in action, so we see the events that lead to the song that is written either before or through the song, and sometimes we have the whole song and sometimes we only have enough to know what it is. It’s a resonant book, and it resonates with a whole lot of things, some fantastical and some not. The novel contains spoilers for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, so read that first (but read it first anyway because it’s probably the best place to start Mitchell).
I love all the characters in this book and I like spending time in their heads, and it just gets better upon re-reading. There are a bunch of cameos by Sixties music people, and some people think it’s too much, but I think it’s a) respectful, and most importantly, b) doesn’t matter whether you know who they are, knowing in advance isn’t a load-bearing requirement. It’s really not that kind of book. Still no idea what Mitchell is metadoing, and I still think Cloud Atlas is a handful of shards, but I love this book and will read it again forever. Not every month, but every year or so.
Mythos, Stephen Fry (2017)
Long re-telling of a bunch of Greek myths in a kind of chronological order. Mildly funny in parts but not sufficiently different to make it stand out. Disappointing.
Ippolita Maria Sforza: The Renaissance Princess Who Linked Milan and Naples, Jeryldene M. Wood (2020)
Excellent biography of an interesting woman: A great detailed study of power and influence and their limits, in the context of a life lived in service of an alliance, while a lot of exciting things were happening in both places. Useful, but also good. She was a friend of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s and wrote to him with codewords that people are still arguing over. She’s an interesting, complex person and a good way in to the complexities of Naples and Milan. Really good book, enjoyable as well as informative. Incredibly useful.
Summer Dreams at Villa Limoncello, Daisy James (2019)
You thought this was going to be a romance novel set in Italy, didn’t you? Well, so did I, to be honest, but actually it’s sort of a detective story where the heroine of an earlier romance novel set in Italy, having established herself in the villa, is running a holiday course for tourists and one of them has a stomach upset which could close the place down for violating food regulations unless she finds the culprit… This is a really weird book with low stakes that doesn’t quite do what I wanted, and somewhat undercuts the ending of the first book. Sequels to romance are hard, but they work when they’re focused on other people—i.e., the “all the members of a football team find love one at a time” formula—but otherwise they are a problem. Because the end of genre romance promises Happy Ever After, and a sequel has to say “Oops, sorry, except for…” or play the “not really a commitment” card. Meh. Don’t bother.
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.