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Jo Walton’s Reading List: May 2023

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Jo Walton’s Reading List: May 2023

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Published on June 8, 2023

May was a month when I was at home, with lots of pain and not doing much except reading a lot of the time. Fortunately there were lots of good books waiting to be read, so this was one of those months when I read a whole bunch of books, 35 in all, which is a lot even for me. Some of them I have lots to say about, so this post may be a little long.

Peter Duck, Arthur Ransome (1932)
Re-read. Third in the Swallows and Amazons series. When I was a child, and even more when I was a teenager comfort reading these books, this was one of my favourites. Re-reading it now in the cold light of adulthood, I liked it less than the two earlier volumes. The conceit of Peter Duck is that the Swallows, the Amazons, and Captain Flint go with an old man called Peter Duck on a long voyage to the Caribbean in search of pirate treasure, which they find. The time it happens is a bit vague, and it’s stated in Swallowdale that it isn’t real—it’s a story that’s made up over the Christmas holidays.

There’s something off in the plausibility, although the actual sailing stuff is realistic and good, and what I mainly remembered—John and Nancy taking night watches, seeing lighthouses as seamarks like landmarks. But there are villains in this book, and there is actual racism towards the villains, with racist words and racist assumptions, quite different from any of the other books, and this sucks and the book really suffers for it.

Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination, Paul Freedman (2008)
This is an excellent, detailed and interesting book about Europe’s desire for spices and how this desire and imagination changed the world. The real difference between a herb and a spice is that nobody would be impressed with you using herbs to flavour your food. It’s not just that herbs grow in Europe, it’s that they were cheap. Saffron grows in Europe but it’s expensive so it counted as a spice. Spices were impressive, and their presence was the sign of sophistication and elegance, from the Roman Empire onwards.

Spices were imported in vast quantities to medieval and Renaissance Europe, including spices not found in European cooking today, like galangal. They were not used to cover up the taste of bad meat (this is a modern myth); they were used as conspicuous consumption. They were also expensive but not that expensive, so there was always a big market for them, and both the route to India around Africa and the “New World” were found in quest of the easy profits they represented. So, the market for spices was driven by profit and the desire to show off. Freedman looks at all the uses of spices over a long time. Very interesting and well-documented book.

So Shall You Reap, Donna Leon (2023)
The latest in the Brunetti series of mysteries about a detective in Venice. These books are not very long, and the mysteries are not very difficult to guess, but the characters are so great and the ethical questions she examines are so interesting that it doesn’t matter. A murder meant as a cover-up in fact opens up a whole complicated tangle. Excellent, and I loved it, like all the Brunetti books.

Summer Pudding, Susan Scarlett (Noel Streatfeild) (1943)
Re-read. This is the story of two adult sisters and their mother who move from London to a village during WWII. One of the sisters is pretty and selfish, and the other is plain and kind. Reading these Scarlett books close together makes me realise that many of them have very bad implausible villainesses who want the hero for silly reasons and who drive the plot. Anyway, this is a slight, silly love story, but everything else about it is great, all the detail of daily life. There’s also a perfectly convincing sweet side romance between two older people. But this book is fairly forgettable.

The Iron Princess, Barbara Hambly (2023) T
his was exactly like the fantasy novels Hambly wrote in the Eighties and which I lapped up then, except new. A secondary world, well-worked-out, a magic system, well-worked-out, a heroine who’s trying to save the world, and the interesting question of a man who has spent seventy-five years being pecked by eagles trying to catch up with life. I did enjoy it, but somehow it lacked sparkle, so I felt like I was plodding through it rather than ever getting caught up in it. Maybe I was just having an off day.

Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship, Anthony Grafton (1990)
This was great. It’s largely about how the techniques of forging and detecting forging of texts have kept pace with each other in Europe from antiquity onwards. There’s a great deal about Annius of Viterbo and his forged history of the Etruscans—he claimed to be able to read Etruscan and to have access to books in that language. He couldn’t and didn’t. Lively and interesting, I raced through this and was sorry to come to the end of it.

Bad Bridesmaid, Portia MacIntosh (2004)
There’s one thing that’s very difficult to pull off in a romance novel, and that’s an unlikeable protagonist. The reader pretty much has to be on the side of the protragonists and want them to get together in a romance. Sometimes when it’s a story of learning better it can work, sort of, but it’s a hard sell. I did not like Mia. I didn’t like her family and how they treated her, but I also didn’t like her and how she treated them. I didn’t think her showing Pulp Fiction to kids she was babysitting was cute. This book was supposed to be funny and I only half-laughed once. Generally I enjoy MacIntosh, but skip this one.

Never Have I Ever, Isabel Yap (2021)
Short story collection, absolutely brilliant. Yap is one of those writers who can write the fantastic in the everyday and make it all work perfectly. Some of these stories come too close to horror for me, but most of them are on the side of the line I’m comfortable with. Beautifully written, imaginative, really great. Read this. And watch out for whatever else Yap writes and read that too; she’s going to be one of those people like Nisi Shawl and Kelly Link who’s defining the edges of what we can do with genre.

In a Summer Season, Elizabeth Taylor (1961)
What a strange book. A widow has remarried a younger man, and her children don’t like it, and we see all of their points of view very close up and in detail. Beautifully written—indeed, a perfect example of how mainstream writers get readers to keep turning the page without invasions of evil wizards or dragons or plot or anything. Very little happens, but the description is incredibly vivid.

Under My Skin, K.J. Parker (2023)
Really hefty collection of short work, where Parker always excels. There wasn’t a single dud in this, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading all of them. But it’s interesting to compare to the Yap collection, which seemed innovative and exciting, and as if she might do anything and flower into something marvellous and unexpected. This is, in contrast, clever and fun but very much the same thing Parker always does, fantasies of logistics, fantasies of competence, heists that only sort of work, cruelty, weird ideas about how love works, and characters and worlds and magic systems I had come across before in other stories.

The first Parker I ever read was here, the novella that led me into reading pretty much everything he’s written by now. When I first read it, it seemed fresh and different and powerful, and now it definitely reads like Parker doing his thing. But I like his thing a lot and will continue to read it whenever it pleases him to do it for me. I have no idea what to expect from Yap, and that’s great, and I know exactly what Parker will give me, and that’s great too.

The Flyaway Bride, Langley Grey (2021)
Chick lit novel set in Italy. Very short, and kind of inadequate Italy. The romance arc was pretty good, the career arc was pretty good. The friends were very much in the background, and while the gay guy who helps her escape was my favourite part, there wasn’t enough of him either. On the whole, this felt skimpy.

Chanel’s Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War 1930-1944, Anne de Courcy (2019)
This was an odd book. In de Courcy’s usual style of lots of interviews and first-person reports, she uses Coco Chanel’s relationship with the French Riviera to focus in on a place and time. But 1930-1944 is an odd time, or rather it’s two or three distinct times, and the focus is therefore very different as we go from peace and glamour to war and survival, making the book as a whole feel uneven. It’s still very good at the disparate things it’s doing, it just changes focus in a way that is, I’m sure, very true to a lot of people’s experience.

It’s hard to know how to recommend this, though. If you’re interested in writers and fashion and the way the Riviera changed to become a tourist destination, or if you’re interested in the Occupation, then you’ll find a lot here. I read it because I like de Courcy and because her book 1939: The Last Season was absolutely vital for me when I was writing Half a Crown so I keep buying whatever she writes.

They Were Divided, Miklos Banffy (1940)
Last volume of Banffy’s terrific Transylvanian Trilogy, don’t start here. It’s not that these books get better as they go, it’s more that it takes a long time to become familiar with all the characters, and by book three I already knew them all and was invested in them, so it feels as if it’s a better book. If I went back and read the first book again I’m sure I’d like it much better. This book ends in 1914 with the blithering stupidity of the Great War lying ahead in full sight, and we’ve been through all the short-sighted politics that led to it. What’s going to happen to Transylvania afterwards is also all too clear. It reminds me of Tolkien’s “come to naught in the end but might-have-beens,” so much promise and all come to so little. This is an excellent example of the value seeking out books in translation that are classics in their own language. I highly recommend reading the whole trilogy.

The Likeness, Tara French (2008)
I found this on a list of “double identity” books of which I’d read all the others, then I put it on my list and forgot why, and eventually bought it and started reading it only to be surprised by the double identity plot. Double identity is one of my favourite things—it’s when a character looks exactly like another character and takes their place in their life without other people knowing. Examples would be Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar and Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. In this case it’s an undercover police officer whose old undercover identity has been taken up by someone who looks like her, and then murdered. She takes the murdered woman’s place to find out what happened.

This is a very good book, riveting, but it’s in the suspense genre, which is scary and unhealthy for me to read. The fact that it was really well written and a subject I like didn’t help; the book gave me nightmares and unsettled me for days. If you do like suspense and don’t have this problem then I recommend this book a lot—the characters were very solid, and the whole thing was unputdownable. But I won’t be reading any more of the series, I just can’t cope.

The Medici Balls: Seven Little Journeys in Tuscany, Anna Sheldon (1904)
It was in some ways actually easier to get around in Tuscany in 1904 when there were more trams and you could hire carriages. A period travel book, slightly disappointing in that I never got a good feel for the writer or her companion or cared about what she was doing.

Poems Every Child Should Know, Mary Elizabeth Burt (1904)
My grandmother was born in 1905 and also believed that every child should know a lot of poetry, which is why I do, but not quite this much. An interesting if old-fashioned and unashamedly colonialist collection, with some things that are really much too long to expect any reasonable child to learn, even in 1904.

Swimming Pool Sunday, Madeleine Wickham (Sophie Kinsella) (1997)
Kinsella had a writing career as Wickham before reinventing herself with the Shopaholic books. I like her more recent work and thought I’d try this, but found it lacking in the sparkle I have come to expect from her. It was also more distressing than I expected, as it featured severe injury to a child. It’s also a wish-fulfillment book in a very odd way, the wish of a married woman with small kids and a narrow horizon to have a romance and friendship with someone new and exciting who sees her for who she is, while also being very fond of her longtime partner and not really want to lose him. This was not subtext. Has anyone read the other Wickham books who can let me know if I should bother, considering that I like the light touch of the Kinsella books and didn’t enjoy this?

Stateless, Elizabeth Wein (2023)
YA novel about aeroplanes and the 1930s. As I have said about everything Wein has written since Code Name Verity, very good, but not Code Name Verity. It’s interesting comparing this to something written closer to the time and seeing today’s sensibilities coming through even though this is so accurate and well researched. The smoking, while period accurate, felt oddly emphasised and not taken for granted enough. Different things are foregrounded. Anyway, an exciting, fun story with great characters and lots of planes and period flying detail. Made me want to read Nevil Shute.

Common Bonds, edited by Claudie Arseneault (2021)
I backed a Kickstarter for this but only just got around to reading it. It’s an anthology of SF and fantasy stories about asexual and aromantic people. Like any anthology it’s mixed, some selections are very good, some less so. Some of the stories, and the representation, would have been better in other contexts, which is again a problem with having an anthology. If it’s a collection of X stories then you cannot expect X to be a surprise to the reader! In some of them, the ace stuff didn’t matter or felt tacked on, or as if the story would have been exactly the same without it; in others it was integral and neat.

Meru, S.B. Divya (2023)
In a future where humans are kept on Earth and dominated by alloys, can one girl prove herself and humanity fit to live on another planet? Of course she can, but books like this are all about the details and the journey. The worldbuilding is great, the alloys well-thought-through, the alloy POV excellent, and a lot of what happens is genuinely surprising and suspenseful. There’s also a lot of texture here, the kind of second- and third-order consequences of events and technology that make a future world feel solid. This is a very long book, and complete in itself, though I believe it is meant to begin a series.

Men and Women Making Friends in Early Modern France, edited by Lewis C. Seifert and Rebecca M. Wilkin (2015)
An edited academic volume of essays about changing definitions of friends and friendship, especially in the context of Plato and Montaigne. There was a huge range of stuff here, of varying levels of interest. The changing context of “Platonic” friendship and the whole question of whether men and women could be friends, rather than romantic partners, is fascinating, and this is just when it was emerging in all these different contexts. Really interesting, if you’re interested in learning more about that.

The Forgotten Sense: Meditations on Touch, Pablo Maurette (2015)
In the Renaissance they ranked touch last among the senses, and there’s a way we still do, even though there’s another way it is first and most significant. Lots of interesting ideas and things pulled together from different places.

Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman, Alice Steinbach (2004)
This is a memoir of courses Alice Steinbach took in various different things she’s interested in, all around the world, and her experiences in the cities and places the courses are in. She’s interested in everything, from geisha training in Kyoto to sheepdog training in Scotland, and this book was delightful, because Steinbach is delightful and she writes in a way that is both entertaining and sincere. You feel like she’s a friend, and you care.

In Steinbach’s earlier travel memoir Without Reservations, she met a Japanese man called Naohiro and started a long distance relationship with him, and in this book she sometimes writes letters to him, and I was curious about what happened with that later and also what she’d written since, and was devastated to learn on Goodreads that she died in 2012. I never met her, I never will meet her, but gosh I enjoyed every word of those two books.

The Borgias: Power and Fortune, Paul Strathern (2019)
I sometimes divide non-fiction into academic books and gossip books, and Strathern definitely writes gossip books. He never found a piece of gossip he didn’t think worth passing on—even if it has been discredited, he still puts it in and tells you it’s discredited but sometimes keeps considering it true as he carries on writing. With the Borgias where there has been mythmaking to the point of opera, this isn’t always useful. I wish he had better footnotes for keeping track of where he got things from. However, he’s an entertaining writer, and I did learn some things from this book.

Poster Girl, Veronica Roth (2022)
YA dystopia that doesn’t quite make sense when you stop to think about it but very much does all the YA dystopia things. I hadn’t read Roth before (not really my genre) but I knew she was very popular and wasn’t surprised to find the writing engrossing and the first-person POV very good. I’d have loved it if it had existed when I was the right age for it.

Tales From the Folly, Ben Aaronovitch (2020)
Short story collection in the Rivers of London series, ranging from slight to wish-that-was-longer. Kind of fun all the same. I do like the universe, but the storytelling works better with a bit more room to unroll. Also, there was a convenient list of reading order.

South Riding, Winifred Holtby (1936)
This is a book about an imaginary extra bit of Yorkshire, and while there are a lot of men in this book it’s largely about the women who live there: the one woman councillor, the new headmistress at the girls’ grammar school, the working-class girl who has a scholarship to the school, and the girl who is cruelly caught between classes. There are a lot of people in this book, it encompasses a lot, and it succeeds at what it is doing which is evoking a place and a time and ways of living and coping. It’s full of the joy and complication of life. This had always looked kind of boring, but it isn’t at all; it’s moving and funny and real. Lots of different people, one braided story of a fairly short time, lots of acute observation, and it all feels as real as if I’d been there for a month instead of just reading a novel. And you can’t predict what’s going to happen—it isn’t following a template at all.

Finding Love in Florence, Shanna Delaney (2019)
So, the thing people always get wrong about Florence, when they’re just phoning it in and haven’t been there, is imagining traffic on the streets, or imagining that any traffic there is would be moving faster than a crawl. In Florence, the streets belong to people. In Rome you have to leap away from traffic, but Florence is essentially a traffic island. Apart from that, this is a book about a young woman who made a very bad decision about where to stay in Florence, and didn’t stay in Florence at all but in a castle off in the hills roughly 45 minutes from the city, which would be both more expensive (and she was on a budget) and much less sensible for what she’s actually there for.

Yes, it lets her meet the brooding son of the family who has to take over running the place, and therefore fall in love and get to stay in Italy, but it was still the wrong call. And anyway, his favourite gelato is a commercial mass-produced kind, so what kind of hero is he? Remember what I was saying earlier about needing to feel sympathetic to Romance protagonists? Yeah. Also, if she loved sculpture she should have gone to the Bargello, and Delaney could have found that out by Googling. And you can’t get into the Boboli Gardens the way they get in, and when you do go in you can see the view immediately and… niggle, niggle, niggle, I know.

Shards of Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Re-read, bath book. This is such a good book, and I love it so much, and reading it slowly a chapter a day in the bath let me think some things about it I don’t normally think when I’m reading flat out. One was noticing details like Vorrutyer’s knife, but mostly it was just slowly enjoying the characters and the moments. There’s more flat-out action in Shards than the rest of the series put together, and the things that happen in Shards are still casting long shadows after a whole generation. Bujold is already doing things with politics and feudalism that won’t develop fully for books and books, but the seeds are being planted this early. Considered on its own, it’s a fun milSF romance with interesting worldbuilding. Considered as the start of the series, incomparable.

Total Creative Control, Joanna Chambers and Sally Malcolm (2021)
Romance novel about two guys working on a TV show, and they’re great characters and I liked both of them and I found the situations they were in plausible and delightful. The obstacles they face are partly work ethics but mostly their own psychology, and because the characters were so good that worked really well. For a romance novel, this was extremely unpredictable—I mean yes, it keeps the romance contract, the protagonists get together at the end, but there are lots of unexpected moments and pieces of unexpected agency that are great. Very satisfying, lots of fun. There is a sequel about some of the minor characters and I am looking forward to it.

The Body in the Road, Moray Dalton (1930)
Golden Age mystery by a lesser-known writer. I guessed who the murderer was while the victim was still alive, but there’s a lord who used to work for Scotland Yard, and an aunt, and a femme fatale inviting herself to a weekend houseparty, which is the kind of thing one reads this for, after all. If you want a context for Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, this is it. Not exactly good, but sometimes I like this kind of thing.

Poems, Elizabeth Bishop (1980)
Bishop was not a prolific poet, but sometimes she was very good. This is a career retrospective collection; I’d hardly read any of them before. Some I liked very much, others were hard to see the point of. There was very little of the whimsical imagination I’d found in her letters. These are mostly very much the kind of poetry that was valued in the mid-twentieth century and which doesn’t do much for me. But the gems really are gems, so I’m glad I read this. They decided to include her translations from Portuguese, from when she lived in Brazil and had poet friends, and those I found really interesting. Poetry isn’t often translated as poetry.

Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes (1996)
Classic memoir of buying a run-down house in Tuscany and doing it up, with recipes, lush descriptions, and sincere reflections. If you only read one book like this, Marlena De Blasi’s “Thousand Days…” books are better. But this one is in fact pretty good. Avoid the movie, which is a travesty and put me off reading this for ages. I would like recommendations for good travel memoirs written by likeable people.

An Introduction to Fantasy, Matthew Sangster (2023)
I was sent an advance copy of this by Cambridge University Press to blurb, which I haven’t done. It’s very broadly focused, looking at fantasy in film, TV, and games, as well as fiction, and I suppose it might make a good introduction for academics who want to know what fantasy is about. I fundamentally disagree with some of Sangster’s argument where he talks about the value for fantasy in repetition and reimagining. I think he’s trying very hard to make those sound like good things, but personally I see fantasy doing really interesting innovative things all the time. Look at the Isabel Yap collection! Fantasy is a broad church with room for lots of different traditions and also people running off and doing different things in the corners. I read this wanting to argue with it all the way through. I even wanted to argue with him about computer games, and I hardly play any computer games! Maybe you should read it and argue with it too—he’s certainly engaging with the genre.

Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out, Harry Kemelman (1978)
David Small does not get thrown out of his rabbi job in the small town of Barnard’s Crossing, and he does solve a murder. It’s interesting to see the real world impinging, this time second-wave feminism. We’re also now at a historical moment I remember, and I remember people saying things about Israel like the things people say here, but politics and world events have changed so much that it feels very weird to be reading them now. Anyway, murder of a thoroughly obnoxious man who many people had a motive for killing, all cleared up by the rabbi as usual.

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.

About the Author

About Author Mobile

Jo Walton

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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 (patreon.com/bluejo) 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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