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Jo Walton’s Reading List: July 2023


Jo Walton’s Reading List: July 2023

Home / Jo Walton’s Reading List: July 2023
Books Jo Walton Reads

Jo Walton’s Reading List: July 2023


Published on August 4, 2023


July was an excellent month. I started off at home in Montreal, flew to Florence, was here for a week then took a train to northern Spain for the Celsius 232 festival where I had a great time, then took the train back again to Florence. I’ve been here on my own writing and reading, which is pretty great. I read nineteen books in July, which I’m excited to share with you.

Home Grown Talent, Sally Malcolm and Joanna Chambers (2022)
Male/male genre romance. Not quite as perfect as Total Creative Control, the first in this series, but still delightful. Malcolm and Chambers are very good at three-dimensional people with problems, prickly people who definitely wouldn’t be perfect for everyone but who turn out to be perfect for each other, which is a nice way of doing romance.

Coot ClubArthur Ransome (1934)
Re-read. Dick and Dorothea from Winter Holiday go to the Norfolk Broads where they meet a group of children who have run into trouble through protecting the eggs of a nesting coot. This is right at the beginning of the ecology movement where keeping a lifelog of birds seen is just taking over from looting eggs from nests.

As a child I didn’t like this book as much because it was missing most of the familiar characters and also set in a strange flat watery landscape that I couldn’t imagine and found less appealing than the Lake District. Reading it now (with almost no memory of the story) I enjoyed it a lot, the gentle competence and passing on of skills, the well-observed countryside, the genuine love of wildlife, and the changing moment of technology it is set in.

Around the World in Eighty Books, David Damrosch (2021)
Non-fiction book, written during the pandemic, about books set in and from different parts of the world, looking in some detail at eighty books from different countries and cultures, framed as a voyage. It cheated a bit with the “islands” section. On the whole this was a well-thought-out selection of literature from many languages and cultures that added several things to my TBR list, and was interesting when discussing books I’d read, even if I didn’t always agree.

The Mountain in the Sea, Ray Nayler (2022)
This is a brilliant book, but it’s very hard to talk about what’s good about it without venturing into spoilers, but let’s try. It’s a near-future SF novel set on the whole planet, by someone who knows the whole planet well, but which also, claustrophobically, zooms in on one small island off the coast of Vietnam. It’s about encountering homegrown aliens, the alien intelligence of the octopus and the AI, and the human characters whose viewpoints we share are themselves alienated and often in terrible situations.

This is an excellent and powerful book, full of real science smoothly conveyed and effective extrapolation of current trends. This is exactly the kind of SF we should be reading and talking about, but I did feel a sense of dread every time I started reading it. A hard book but a very good one.

Sally-Ann, Susan Scarlett (1939)
Re-read. Ridiculous wish fulfillment romance novel in which a girl sent to do makeup for a society wedding steps in at the last minute as a bridesmaid and the best man falls in love with her. Of course, she has inadvertently deceived him about her class status and even her name, but in this kind of book you can count on it that everything will turn out for the best in the end, and even that the heroine will be able to reward her family with a house on her new husband’s estate. You can’t beat this kind of book for detailed observations about how people actually lived, the “transfers” of birds the heroine buys for her disabled brother, the clothes, the soapflakes, the very idea that makeup professionals also did head massages on their clients. But in the end, enjoyable tosh.

The Meet Cute Method, Portia MacIntosh (2022)
The modern equivalent romance novel with a lot more sex and a surprising amount of the same axioms about work and life. Here we have a journalist trying to save her job writing about modern romance by trying to meet men through traditional movie-style “meet cute” methods instead of dating apps, while not noticing the one that’s been happening all along. If I hadn’t read it right after Sally-Ann I might not have noticed quite how much it was doing the same “working-but-rich man and the working-class girl who has to straighten out lies” pattern. These days heroines can be older, and they share flats with friends instead of living with their families, but it’s the same dream of a love that comes with a new, better, life.

The Collected Enchantments, Theodora Goss (2023)
Theodora Goss is one of our most important writers, doing truly innovative thought-provoking things in beautiful vital language, and she never seems to get any recognition because most of her work is in the fairytale space that is, even when sharp and feminist and powerful, somehow dismissed as childish. There’s nothing childish about this huge collection, and nothing wispy and ethereal either, despite the kind of cover art Goss often gets. These stories and poems are real fairytales, vivid, solid, primal, authentic. Buy this, read it, take these stories seriously.

The Return of Fitzroy Angursell, Victoria Goddard (2020)
This is a fun romp in the same universe as the Lay of the Hearthfire books. It takes place during the beginning of At the Feet of the Sun, you can read them in either order. This is a much slighter book, though still long, and while it’s fun and an enjoyable read I wouldn’t recommend starting here if you’re not already invested in the world and the characters.

Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, Hans Christian Andersen (1835)
Re-read. This was in the Harvard Shelf, following the Brothers Grimm, and while I definitely had this collection as a child, and probably in this old translation too, there were a lot here I didn’t remember. Andersen was an odd duck, some of these are from the folk tradition but some are made up, and the tendency is towards the melancholy and profoundly sad, which is strange in such popular stories written for children.

Black Swan Green, David Mitchell (2006)
Re-read. Absolutely terrific novel about a teenage boy with a stammer who lives in an English village in the 1980s surrounded by other children and adults while he tries to understand what’s going on with his life and the world. This book is wonderful about disability and problems of communication, the viciousness of adolescence, and the way young people figure out the world from first principles while in an agony of terror and embarrassment.

There are subtle genre elements to this book, as with all of Mitchell’s work. At Celsius he said that he had always wanted to write a great epic like LOTR or Foundation, but also wanted to zoom in close up on real world details, and these connections are the way he does both. The connections are invisible from within any one book—there’s a character here who is in Cloud Atlas and another who is in Bone Clocks, which I didn’t know because I hadn’t read those books yet when I first read this, and it didn’t matter at all. I didn’t feel as if I was missing anything in either direction. Of course, it makes re-reading a treat. If you haven’t read any Mitchell this might be a good place to start, it’s not too long and it’s very good.

Shopaholic to the Stars, Sophie Kinsella (2014)
At the end of the previous volume the Braddon family move to L.A., where Becky tries to break in to clothes sourcing for movies, with very mixed results. Although these books are a series, and events in previous volumes have effects in later ones, they’ve all been self-contained up to this point, so I was surprised when this one ended without wrapping up the plot. Some of it was resolved, but large chunks of it were not, leaving me feeling as if I am still half-way through the book and a little concerned for some of the characters.

The Letters of Queen Victoria, Volume 2, 1844-1853
Surprisingly addictive following the day-to-day vicissitudes of someone trying to do their best and doing some awful things by mistake or because of prejudice and expectations. She went through a number of pregnancies in these years which are just mentioned glancingly in terms of the happy arrivals, and how well her dear Albert dealt with crises while she was indisposed. I hadn’t realised Lord Palmerston was such a piece of work or how near he came to embroiling Europe in war multiple times. Interesting angle on 1848 too. Fascinating on the incredible stresses of changing governments, and she gets very peremptory when she feels she’s being left out of international decision making—but she only cares about it when it comes to other royal families of Europe, who are people to her; not, for instance, when it comes to conquering big chunks of India.

The Blue Hawk, Peter Dickinson (1976)
Re-read, book club. I literally cannot tell you how many times I’ve read this book, because it has been a favourite since childhood and I still really like it and think it’s doing something powerful and unusual. It makes an interesting pairing with The Tombs of Atuan because they’re both about young people being priests of odd religions in the desert, but they’re also very different.

The Blue Hawk is a fantasy novel in a secondary world. As with Tombs, the religion is both real and fake—the gods are real, and really acting in the world, but most of what the priests are doing is manipulative and for their own power. One thing that makes this unusual is how it is a story about opening out and letting go, when so many stories are about clutching tightly. It made a great book club book, with lots to discuss.

Miss Buncle’s Book, D.E. Stevenson (1934) This was delightful. A woman in a country village writes a book about her friends and neighbours under slightly changed names, without thinking about what will happen when it’s published and they read it. What does happen is much less predictable than you might think. Charming, gentle, fun, the good end happily and the bad learn better.

The Deuterocanonical Books of the Bible, from the King James Version (1611)
What a mixed bunch, even more so than the canonical books. The Maccabee books are actual history—they start out talking about Alexander the Great, and I had an odd moment of “wait, that’s real.” The Books of Tobit, Judith, and Susanna have stories I have long seen illustrated in Renaissance art and it’s good to have the details. (I knew the dog in those Tobias paintings was significant!) The Books of Wisdom are incredibly, stunningly boring, notably so, worse than the worst bits of anything else in the Bible. There’s an extra bit to the Book of Esther, and some extra prophetic lamentations, very similar to the earlier ones. Glad to have read it, glad to have finished reading it.

Shelter, Susan Palwick (2007)
Re-read, book club. The near-future of 2007 seems surprisingly retro, despite the pandemic that is in Shelter and the rising floodwaters and the AIs. This is a hard book to read, and I had forgotten quite how hard—my memory had expanded the parts from the point of view of the AI House and shrunk the parts from the point of view of damaged and selfish Meredith.

When this book came out I thought everyone would be discussing it and talking about it and that didn’t happen, so it was really excellent to have a really robust discussion of the book, and to have so many other people’s excellent points about it. The two comments from other people that really expanded my understanding of the book were calling out the clichés about adoption the text embraces, and similarly the lack of examination of the structural and societal problems in favour of the personal. Nevertheless, a very good book.

Lavender’s Blue, Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer (2023)
First in a projected series of three, with maybe more coming later, this is a romance and a mystery set in the imaginary Ohio town of Burney. Liz left home fifteen years ago, now she’s back, briefly, she hopes… but of course, things and people conspire to keep her in town as she discovers secrets about herself and about Burney.

This is fast and fun, with Crusie’s usual snappy dialogue and a plot that never stops. The protagonists have good reasons to like each other, and they’re equal in a way that’s very nice to see. One of the themes of the book is rescuing and accepting being rescued—in both directions. There are a lot of revelations, and some very nice solid friendships, including the hero having a female best friend. The story definitely isn’t over at the end of the volume, but the immediate questions are resolved, for both the mystery and the romantic plot. I’ve already pre-ordered the sequels. Lovely to have a new Crusie.

Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020)
Re-read, book club. (Yes, I’m in more than one book club, what of it?) Piranesi is a wonderful book that almost shouldn’t work, but does anyway. It is written in the form of a journal, and the writer is such a wonderful and different voice that he completely carries the book. It’s beautiful, it’s mythic, it’s bicameral, and in a month where I read Shelter and The Mountain in the Sea I paused to think about how this is so readable and happy, despite everything, and I think it comes back to the voice. The voice is so assured and so centered and loves the world (the strange and wonderful world he lives in) so much that it’s a joy to read the sentences.

This is my third reading of Piranesi and I remembered it well enough that I could have done book club without reading it again, but reading it again felt like a treat. It feels whole and perfect and centered and wonderful. I am a total sucker for a powerful and effective voice every time, it’s why I love the Terra Ignota books, and for that matter Black Swan Green, so it’s not surprising that I love it.

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 Lentwas 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.

About the Author

Jo Walton


Jo Walton is the author of fifteen novels, including the Hugo and Nebula award winning Among Others two essay collections, a collection of short stories, and several poetry collections. She has a new essay collection Trace Elements, with Ada Palmer, coming soon. She has a Patreon ( for her poetry, and the fact that people support it constantly restores her faith in human nature. She lives in Montreal, Canada, and Florence, Italy, reads a lot, and blogs about it here. It sometimes worries her that this is so exactly what she wanted to do when she grew up.
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