Jo Walton’s Reading List: October 2023

I was in Chicago for the first few weeks of October and then home in Montreal for the last week. I read eighteen books. I’m sorry this is late, but some of these were surprisingly difficult to talk about.

Murder While You WorkSusan Scarlett (Noel Streatfeild) (1944)
Re-read. Very slight romance, set during the end of WWII, essentially when it was published. A woman trained as a nurse goes to work in a factory, and gets billeted in a place of mysterious murders, which her boyfriend solves. None of the characters are memorable and the whole thing feels uninspired—I think Streatfeild was writing a lot at this time, and some of what she was doing was great but this one was sadly lacklustre. I’d read it before and remembered it being disappointing but nothing else about it really. I am now at the point where I have only one unread Streatfeild.

Some Desperate Glory, Emily Tesh (2023)
This is very nearly a brilliant book. Yay, I thought, Tesh is not writing more urban fantasy, but instead a space opera, wonderful! It’s very well written. It has great characters and a very powerful and grabby voice. The world has a lot of interesting things about it. The book totally psyched me out with what it did halfway through, and this filled me with delight. But the more I think about it since I finished it, the more I wish it had a wider scope—it’s very focused on the individual rather than the systemic. The personal questions are resolved, where I wanted the focus to be more on the political.

This really is a book where the problem is that one person is evil, and on reflection that’s unsatisfying and unrealistic. I was riveted while I was reading, I loved it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I’m very sad to have wound up disappointed in this particular way. A lot of books don’t even consider the questions this book raises, but raising a very high stakes multi-universe trolley problem and deciding the answer is to admit you love who you love just feels empty to me.

I’ll Meet You in Florence, Angela Pearse (2023)
Dreadful romance novel set in Italy, with very bad Italy. People see a bridge for the first time that it’s totally impractical they wouldn’t have crossed already, take taxis distances it would be massively quicker to walk (and where you can’t easily find taxis), find a jug of iced water in a restaurant—which is normal in the US but impossible (to the point of miraculous) in Italy where you pay for water and ice is extremely rare. The romance itself isn’t any more likely really. Eminently skippable.

The Italian Wars 1494-1599, Christine Shaw and Michael Mallett (2018)
Extremely useful detailed account of the Italian Wars, but probably not exactly what you want unless you’re already well up on the period. However it was very valuable for me, and relatively readable too.

Saevus Corax Deals With the Dead, K.J. Parker (2023)
First in a new trilogy, preordered, and started the day it arrived. The second volume comes out in November and that’s preordered too, expect a report next month. I know what I’m getting with Parker now: It’s a snarky first person voice, lots of logistics, lots of twists, lots of made up history, the same place names referring to different places from his other work, and an exceedingly odd view of women. This was great, vintage Parker, absorbing, funny, terrible, surprising, inevitable defeats, last minute escapes, tons of logistics. If you want to read one Parker to find out if you like him, start with Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City. But if you already like him, here’s another very Parker book that was just what I wanted.

Inferno, Dante Alighieri (1320) New (2013) poetic translation by Clive James. So re-read but a different translation. This is a great, readable translation but lacks the contextual footnotes that are so useful in Ciardi. Dante literally goes through hell—and what an interesting, petty, period hell it is, what a weird mix of Christianity and Virgil. Of course Virgil is literally a character. One thing this translation does well is linger on the physicality of the journey, the specific time and place and shortage of breath and difficulty of climbing up and down. This isn’t a tour, it’s a trek. And he meets people he knows, and some he cares about, but they’re in Hell, being punished in horrible ways forever. This was a surprise bestseller; back in the fourteenth century, even people who couldn’t read read it, it influenced the way people think about hell and contains many things people assume are in the Bible. It really is very good. On to Purgatorio.

Portrait of a Wide Seas Islander, Victoria Goddard (2022)
Novella about an incident that happens in In the Hands of the Emperor from a different point of view. It definitely doesn’t really stand alone, but fun as extending background. Goddard is very good at journeys and travel.

T.H. White: A Biography, Sylvia Townsend Warner (1967)
One of the best biographies I’ve ever read, with everything I like, extensive use of letters, clear explanations, sympathy without worship, criticism without dislike. Warner sees White clearly and makes me see him too. And for 1967 she was remarkably open about his sexuality, which is one about which we’re still uncomfortable today. White was a very strange man who lived a strange unhappy life, but he wrote some wonderful books. This book makes me feel I knew him, and saw how he produced his books, but also what a difficult friend he was to his friends. I wish Warner had written more biographies, because this one is absolutely splendid. I thoroughly recommend it if you have any interest in White at all.

The Remarkable Mrs Anderson, Miklós Bánffy (1946)
Translated by Thomas Sneddon. Delightful novel about a Leonardo stolen from Budapest in the 1930s and two Hungarian tourists who manage to get it back, and when they have it, take a road trip escaping back through Italy with it. While pursued by both the Italian fascist police and the original thieves, they pause briefly in Florence and take a couple of hours to go to the Uffizi and regret that they don’t have time for the Pitti Palace. This is very much my kind of book, and gets Italy very right.

I had previously read Banffy’s wonderful but slow Transylvanian trilogy; this is quite different, fast and fun and light. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the note about the author’s tragic life at the end I’d have come away from this with a big grin. I’m sorry his life was blighted by so many of the evils of the twentieth century, I’m very glad his books are being translated and made available in English now. I have a couple of collections of his short stories on my list and look forward to them. Meanwhile, this romp is a ton of fun.

Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood (2016)
This is a strange and wonderful novel about a production of The Tempest in a prison. It is also a meta-retelling of The Tempest. It works remarkably well on all levels. I always forget how good Atwood is when she isn’t trying to write SF. This was powerful, absorbing, and very clever. There are lots of books that are straight retellings of myth or Shakespeare, but very few that are informed by the original in this kind of way. I was reminded of the Denys Arcand movie Jesus de Montreal and of Ada Palmer’s use of Homer in Terra Ignota. I also loved the details about putting on the play in the prison, like the prisoner/actors only being allowed to swear in Shakespearean insults, and how into that they get. Excellent.

The Burnout, Sophie Kinsella (2023)
Kinsella in top form, funny, warm novel about a woman who is burned out at work, who goes back to a childhood holiday spot, out of season. This is very much a romance, and done very well. Thoroughly enjoyable, and with the career wish-fulfillment arc as strong as the romance one, making this chick-lit by my definition. Fun read.

The Fortunate Fall, Cameron Reed (writing as Raphael Carter) (1996)
Re-read in order to write a new intro. I am so excited about this book coming back into print so I can recommend it to people without the caveat that they’ll have to find a copy from 1996. What a great book. SF doing what it does best. I’ve written about it here before.

Best Supporting Actor, Joanne Chambers and Sally Malcolm (2023) 
Third in the Creative Types series, and really the perfect way to do sequels to romance novels where you have sequential relationships. The couple from volume 1 are now in a steady relationship, this begins simultaneously with volume two and takes place in the interstices. It’s about actors putting on a play about Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Excellent stuff on class, excellent minor characters, warm and funny. Well written, delightful, great characters.

The Night of Fear, Moray Dalton (1931)
Golden Age detective story about a country house murder with lies and alibis and a wrongful accusation and the final revelations made in the courtroom, More subsidiary murders than you can shake a stick at, and yet all very much that “afternoon tea in the library” feeling.

The Perfect Prince: The Mystery of Perkin Warbeck and His Quest for the Throne of England, Anne Wroe (2003)
Perkin Warbeck was either the younger of the two Princes in the Tower or he wasn’t. He certainly persuaded a lot of people that he was, and led an unsuccessful rebellion to try to regain “his” throne against Henry VII Tudor. He may not have been Prince Richard. But on the other hand… This is an excellent book about Warbeck that doesn’t make any assumptions and gives masses of information about everything we do know. Well written, fascinating, but very very long, you’ve got to really commit to reading a book like this.

The October Man, Ben Aaronovitch (2019)
Novella in the Rivers of London series about river goddesses in Germany. Definitely not essential to the series continuity, but pleasant enough.

The Bright Side of Going Dark, Kelly Harms (2020)
Surprisingly dark novel about suicide, mental illness, denial, and modern life. An influencer gets dumped right before her very-Insta wedding, and a woman who deals with flagged posts on I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Facebook starts making posts to the influencer’s account after the flagger’s sister tries to commit suicide. It’s completely wrong about people dealing with the flags being highly paid—I mean it’s a made up company, but even so. Well written and memorable, but I don’t know what they were thinking putting a chirpy romance cover on it.

A Farmhouse in Tuscany, Victoria Springfield (2021)
Romance novel set in Italy, pretty good Italy, or maybe I just know nothing about agriturismo holidays with horses so I’m less critical. It had a great family, though, and almost plausible misunderstandings. I liked that the central romance here was a married couple getting back together, and that it wasn’t easy.

Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov (1966)
Genuinely great, but every so often in this autobiography Nabokov addresses the reader as the very specific “you” of his wife Vera, and every time I felt myself not only distanced from the text but deeply relieved I was not married to Nabokov! He was a very weird man. He wrote with an incredible specificity, he observed and remembered everything in almost hallucinatory detail. This is his memoir of growing up in pre-revolutionary Russia, and the knowledge of the coming revolution hangs over everything like the sword of Damocles. This is very vivid, very intense, and I kept feeling I wanted to take it in very small bites. Powerful to the point of being overpowering.

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 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.

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