November started off in Nantes for Utopiales, then I flew to New Orleans for World Fantasy, and from there I flew to Rome to meet up with Ada again, where I still am, in a little apartment in Trastevere. We also had a weekend in Florence. So another terrific month, with much seeing friends at World Fantasy and then more seeing friends and meeting new people in Rome and Florence. I read just twelve books.
One Thousand and One Nights, translated by Edward William Lane, revised by Stanley Lane-Poole (1909)
I read this in the translation in the Delphi Complete Harvard Classics edition. I had only read children’s versions before, and played the board game. This was much more interesting. I kept thinking about David Graeber’s observation that it has middle class and merchant heroes, where Western stories only have kings and peasants, and that does indeed seem to be the case. Anyway, a collection of interesting medieval Middle Eastern stories with a frame of a story being told every night to avoid execution, some of them great, some of them fine, one or two of them weak, none of them exactly the way I’d encountered them in children’s versions and popular culture. Well worth reading,
The Corner Shop, Elizabeth Cadell (1966)
Delightful book about a woman who runs a secretarial agency overcoming obstacles and finding love, with lots of very well done circumstantial detail. The plot, such as it is, is nonsense, but so funny it doesn’t matter. Definitely the best Cadell I have read.
Ten Way Street, Susan Scarlett (Noel Streatfeild) (1941)
Re-read, now there is an ebook. An orphan who has been trained as a governess gets a job with a theatrical family. You can see a lot of the things that Streatfeild had already begun to do with her children’s books here—excellent children, theatre detail, and characterisation. But choosing between man and job is a plot I don’t like much and one that rarely has any surprises (I actually cheered when a woman in a Kathleen Thompson Norris book chooses job) and certainly doesn’t here. It tends to have the effect of making the hero who insists on the choice unlikeable, and definitely does in this case. His objection to her “putting other people’s children before me” is horrible, those children really do need her, and are human beings as well as a job she has committed to, and she can’t just abandon them! And in case you were wondering, the title is an address, number 10 Way Street.
A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, translated by Arthur Waley (1918)
This translation is nothing like as good as Vikram Seth’s, but it was still worth reading. Did you know a theme of classical Chinese poetry is the sad fact that all your friends from administrator school are scattered far and wide across China being administrators and you hardly ever see them? It has some modern relevance. Some really excellent poems that made me happy to read.
Hunt the Stars, Jessie Mihalik (2022)
Romantic space opera, with both romance and space opera plot, and a pacing that works for both. There’s a lot that’s good about this first volume in a series and I mildly enjoyed it. It’s hard to put my finger on why I didn’t like it more. To start with the good stuff, it has spaceships and space stations and aliens. The aliens aren’t very alien, indeed they’re humans with funny eyes and psychic powers, but you can’t have everything. There’s a merchanter spaceship crew that are like a family, there’s a mystery on the alien home planet that could lead to another war, just when people are getting over the last war.
The worldbuilding isn’t innovative but it’s good enough—this isn’t just SF furniture to set a romance against. But as soon as I reach for something to compare it to, the comparison makes this feels paper-thin. I think my problem may be that the protagonist is too perfect, too nice, too willing to risk everything for a newly met companion, and it all pays off. Nothing is hard, especially not choices, and there aren’t any gritty or sharp edges. Problems are solved too easily. Even her old injuries are literally magicked away. It really has that feel where the universe is on the side of the good guys. I won’t be reading the sequels, and I won’t be reading Mihalik’s earlier books, but I may well check out anything she writes in a new universe. She made some very hard things work here. I expect lots of people would enjoy this way more than I did.
In Case You Missed It, Lindsey Kelk (2020)
Sadly disappointing romance novel from a writer I’d enjoyed before. Ros comes home from America to try to pick up where she left off when she left, and none of the pieces are in the same place. She comes over as shallow and entitled, and therefore unlikeable.
Emilie Du Châtelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment, Judith Zinsser (2006)
I kept thinking the subtitle of this book was “Darling genius of the Enlightenment” which is a pity, because that’s very much not the book Zinsser was trying to write. Unlike David Bodanis’ Passionate Minds, which refers to her as “Emilie,” Zinsser calls her “du Châtelet” every time, even when she was a child and didn’t have that name yet. This is an attempt to look at her, her world, her work, and her significance, in context but not through Voltaire’s lens. It’s a thorough book but not a very enjoyable one.
Meant to Be, Emily Giffin (2022)
For years I have been saying that I like Giffin except that she has this weird obsession with wealth and rich people, and in this book she goes completely over the top with the rich people thing and writes about a family like the Kennedys only better. Giffin is a good writer, and there’s more here than just fawning over rich people and how great they are, but there’s enough of that, and it’s sufficiently unexamined, to make this a very uncomfortable read.
The Complete Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino (translated by William Weaver, Martin L. McLaughlin, and Tim Parks), (1997)
These are amazing and not like anything else at all. Calvino takes some quote about the beginnings of the universe, some thing about physics or biology, or chemistry, and starts talking about what it felt like to a character who was there. Some of them are whimsical and odd. Some of them go on too long. Some of them are just surreal. And some of them are weirdly brilliant in a way that isn’t like anything else. My favourite was the one about dinosaurs, which I’ll be thinking about for a long time. My other favourite was the one about how matter accreted on the earth. (At first they tried to tidy it away, and then they started to like the patterns it was making and how one thing falling would unite a bunch of other things that had fallen before, and then he gives examples, and the examples are amazing.) I recommend reading this slowly, one piece at a time, and not gobbling it all down at once.
Expanded Universe, Robert A. Heinlein (1980)
I wanted to look up some things I remembered were in this, and ended up just reading it. It’s a collection of short stories with intros and afterwords, and it also has Heinlein’s 1950 predictions for the rest of the century, as updated in 1965 and 1980. It’s so interesting to see what he’s right and wrong about. There’s also a bunch of (1980) get-off-my-lawning which was worse than I’d remembered. Some of the stories are great. The ranting hasn’t aged as well.
The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection From Her Majesty’s Correspondence, Vol. I, 1837-1843 (ebook 2006 but this is a digitized early edition)
I always enjoy books of letters, and this was no exception. Unusually, this contains letters to Queen Victoria as well as from her. I kept having cognitive dissonance every time there was communication with Leopold of the Belgians, her dearest uncle, because, well, because I’ve read Everfair and I can’t forget what he was doing in the Congo. I can’t forget when Britain was doing in India either, but I’m not supposed to forget it, the book has despatches about it, whereas the letters from Leopold are about family matters, very European politics, or how to monarch when you’re not feeling great. Weirdly fascinating, and I’ll be reading the next volume.
Broken Homes, Ben Aaronovitch (2013)
Next volume of Rivers of London and this one has a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming, as well as nicely expanded worldbuilding and a developing antagonist. I am continuing to enjoy these books but don’t even think about starting anywhere other than the beginning.
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.