October was a really excellent month, starting in Turin, then going west to Spain for Hispacon, where we met a lot of very enthusiastic Spanish fans, then a book tour through France, all on trains. We had a couple of lovely rest days in Narbonne, then Ada and I signed books and answered questions at a bunch of really different bookstores, big diverse Ombres Blanches in Toulouse, little specialist Imaginautes in Tours, huge branch of huge chain FNAC in Paris, plugged-in neighorhood bookstore Quatre Chemins in Lille, and GLBT bookstore Les Mots à la Bouche in Paris. At all these places we met people who loved books and reading. It was terrific. Then we ended the month at Utopiales in Nantes, one of France’s best conventions.
I read twelve books, mostly on trains.
Husband Material, Alexis Hall (2022)
Sequel to Boyfriend Material, gay romantic comedy with an excellent voice. Oliver continues to be a little too good to be true, and the ending was… odd. I keep saying it’s hard to write a sequel to a romance, because part of the author-reader contract in a romance is that the characters commit at the end, and when you write a sequel you have to undermine that—oh no, that wasn’t commitment, this is commitment. It works much better to write a book about their friends with the original couple happily going on in the background, or a story where the couple go off and fight crime or something. But this is romantic retread, and it almost works—parts are laugh-aloud funny, parts are very moving, Hall is a very good writer… I wanted to love it, I did enjoy reading it, but ultimately the romance sequel thing dragged it down.
Love and Sex in Time of Plague: A Decameron Renaissance, Guido Ruggiero (2021)
Gosh I loved this book. Loved it. This is a re-examination of Boccaccio’s Decameron (1350) examining attitudes to love and sex and plague, written during our own pandemic. Ruggiero is my favourite writer on the Renaissance who isn’t a personal friend; he’s insightful, he’s informative, and he has a truly great writing style that makes his work a joy to read. Don’t read this without reading Boccaccio first, he assumes you’re familiar with the Decameron—but the Decameron is delightful so you’d enjoy reading it anyway. There’s a free translation on Gutenberg (that’s what I read), and then you can really enjoy Ruggiero talking about it and noticing things about it and connecting it up with real history and changing trends and everything.
Letters From Amherst, Samuel R. Delany (2015)
This was also a joy to read. The book consists of five long narrative letters from Delany to friends about his life in Amherst with reflections on all kinds of things, as you’d expect from Delany, and a bunch of short letters to his daughter at camp. I’m writing a long piece on Delany, or rather I’m collecting together all the bits and pieces I’ve written here on Delany and filling in the gaps to make it one coherent long essay, so I thought I’d read the things I’d missed out on. I’m so glad I read this. It’s just a snapshot of part of his life, when his daughter was a teenager and he was first getting together with a partner who had been living on the street, and also teaching, and he talks about all this in his inimitable way, along with comments on writing and books and art generally. Delany observes and describes in a way that is like nobody else. These letters are dense and powerfully immersive. You probably don’t want to start here if you haven’t read Delany—I usually recommend his short stories, or Triton. But wow.
Dreamsongs: Volume 1, George R.R. Martin (2003)
Re-read. I re-read the second half of this collection a while ago, and just got around to the first half. Some of Martin’s very best work is here, but also some interestingly less good early work, and lots of discussion of his experience of comic books and fiction growing up. It’s an uneven reading experience, but a very rewarding one. My favourite thing here is “Bitterblooms,” which seems to me to be based in a weird sideways way on Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” If you’re interested in the evolution of a writer, if you want to read some very good stories in the genres of SF, fantasy, and horror, and sometimes crossing the boundaries, this is well worth it.
Beastly Tales From Here and There, Vikram Seth (1992)
Wryly funny poetry from Seth, animal fables with charming rhyming and scansion. This isn’t a very long book, but it’s delightful. One could read it aloud to a child, or one could read it in its entirety on a train journey from Madrid to Navarre, interspersed with looking out of the window at the changing landscape.
Charlotte Fairlie, D.E. Stevenson (1954)
Stevenson is uneven, and I’ve been reading her recommended books first. This one was great, the story of a headmistress at a girls’ school. Mostly it’s about the problems of being a working woman in the mid-twentieth century and the loneliness of responsibility. Then about two thirds of the way through it develops into genres—both romance and fantasy, or anyway the kind of fantasy you get in romance. There’s a magic Buddha statue, and not only that but a true prophecy. There’s also a late-appearing romantic hero, who is rather too good to be true, but that’s fine, there’s not that much of him, and her feelings are very well done. Lots to think about here—modern romance would probably lean more overtly into the paranormal, but in 1954 you could just have fantastic elements out there. They’re the kind of things people could half-believe in anyway—a Scottish prophecy, second sight—that don’t feel out of place. Not so sure about the magic Buddha statue, but I was charmed.
The Paid Bridesmaid, Sariah Wilson (2022)
Disappointing, with the obstacles thrust between the hero and the heroine never feeling sufficiently plausible or substantial. It seemed like a fun setup—the woman working as a paid bridesmaid and fake friend of the bride who falls for the real best man—but it didn’t work for me, even though I had just swallowed all the improbabilities Stevenson gave me. Obstacles are harder in modern romance, and things in this book just kept breaking my suspension of disbelief.
To Shape a Dragon’s Breath, Moniquill Blackgoose (2023)
Steampunk, alternate history, and also, in a way, an Indigenous utopia. This is beautifully written with great character voice, and it has both dragons and transmutation. I loved the magic system that is almost science, and the hints about the different history. But both the heroine and the Indigenous utopia she came from were just a little too perfect to be believable. This may well the kind of book we need right now: Indigenous girl goes to dragon academy and gets everything sorted. It’s definitely a fun read with intriguing worldbuilding—way more interesting than most steampunk, which is really an aesthetic rather than a subgenre. I will be watching for what Blackgoose writes in the future, and I hope it’s not a lot of sequels to this book but new visions and imaginings.
The Hammer, K.J. Parker (2011)
Another strange but strangely great Parker book about logistics and revenge. If I hadn’t just read the Blackgoose, I’d probably have been looking a lot less sideways at the colony and the savages. but I had and so I did. Not Parker’s best, not where I’d suggest starting with Parker, but if you are, like me, getting through his work and wanting more, then here it is. There’s no siege and refreshingly few women (I’ve discussed the way Parker writes women in previous columns); there’s one atrocity and it is really atrocious but it’s not gratuitous.
Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red, Harry Kemelman (1973)
In this volume of the rabbi detective series, Rabbi Small teaches part time in a college and gets caught up with the world of student protests… and of course, one little murder that he figures out and explains to the police. Unlike the others, the solution was given to the reader—we saw the murderer faking her alibi—which made all the convolutions seem longer than they needed to be.
Collected Stories, Marta Randall (2007)
Terrific collection of science fiction stories by Randall, thought-provoking and effective, though best read spaced out with other things. Randall really is an amazing writer, with the kind of skill and imagination you’d think would have made her better known. The only disappointment here was that the last chunk of the book is “Dangerous Games,” the start of the novel of the same name, which I’ve read.
A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, James Shapiro (2005)
What a strange book, at times fascinating and at times extremely tedious. When he’s talking about Shakespeare’s London, or politics, or the details of moving the physical timbers of the Globe to the Globe’s location, this is great. When he’s making judgements on Shakespeare’s work and talking about his creative process, it’s terrible. Worst was where Shapiro quoted Shakespeare saying he couldn’t go to the pub because he was in pain and stated that this was an excuse so he could write—this kind of disability erasure is really infuriating. I didn’t know Shakespeare was lame until reading his own words in his sonnets, because biographers do this kind of thing. Why assume he was lying?
But it’s also awful when it talks about how he thought when he was writing As You Like It and Hamlet—you don’t know, Mr Shapiro, and your guesses are annoying. Also very annoying was saying that Shakespeare wrote four plays in 1599 and then went into a period of burnout, but he knew the words would flow again. Look, writers never know that. It always feels like it will never work again. Maybe Shakespeare was different, I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. So, infuriating and informative, not recommended unless you’re super interested in 1599 for some reason.
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.