Jo Walton’s Reading List: February 2024


February was slightly longer than last year, but I didn’t read more. I was in Florence all month, reading and writing, eating gelato and looking at art. I read twelve books, the vast majority of them were excellent and I’m excited to share them with you. (I’d share the gelato too, if you were here.)

Derring-Do For Beginners, Victoria Goddard (2023)
Gosh this was such fun. It’s fantasy, set in the same universe as her Hands of the Emperor series. I think you perfectly well could start here, though there was a special delight in the intersection of these people and this adventure with a person whose later adventures I already knew about. (I actually laughed aloud when he suddenly appeared.) I don’t think that’s necessary, though—I think it would be fine to approach the world with this end up. This one is wonderful, anyway. It’s the story of a girl going off to college, only things are more complicated than that, and she ends up going (one reasonable step at a time) farther and farther off from home and preconceptions, and into an adventure and way of living very different from her expectations. There are very few bad people here, and lots of culture and magic and people and nature and a really excellent city, and a path between worlds. This is not an especially deep book, and sometimes the answers are a little too easy, but it feels churlish to complain because the experience of reading it is so delightful and full of sparkles. There’ll be a sequel, I’ll be buying it. Goddard is an unusual writer doing a lot of really interesting things.

Jewel Box: Stories, E. Lily Yu (2023)
Great title, because every story here is a gem. E. Lily Yu writes these dazzling prismatic short pieces and they’re full of originality. She’s not afraid to tackle hard subjects, and she deals with them well. There’s science fiction here, and fantasy, and realism, and a lot of things that blur the lines. The heart of SF has always been at short length, and Yu is one of the people doing the exciting work that redefines where the genre is going. Yu has a gift for making me care about what’s going to happen to even the unlikeliest characters—the monster, the bee, the flying prayer mat. Don’t miss this collection.

We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, Arthur Ransome (1937)
Re-read, one of the Swallows and Amazons sequence. Before I say anything else, let’s admire that title for a bit. It puts the whole of the first part of the book into a situation of expectation—you, the reader, know from the title that they’re going to go to sea, even though they have no intention of doing so. How is this going to happen? Will it be now? How about now? What I remembered best from reading this book as a child was not the terrifying moment reefing in the storm (when, reading it now, I was holding my breath), but the moment when John is quietly aware his father is proud of him. That’s what stuck with me for decades. They didn’t mean to go to sea, they did go to sea, everyone is fine in the end, I love this book.

What Happens Now?, Sophia Money-Coutts (2019)
Extremely enjoyable novel about a woman who gets pregnant on a one-night stand and then has to figure everything out from there. Genuinely funny, with many memorable moments and excellent family and friends, and a surprisingly plausible romance despite everything that makes it seem nonsensical when you think about it.

Spear, Nicola Griffith (2022)
Re-read, book club. It seems weird to say this is an anti-monarchical Arthurian fantasy, but that’s what it is. Beautifully written, with absolutely masterful handling of magic and mythology. It’s lovely to see the feminism and the power of taking a character from the mythos who is usually perceived as a villain and doing something complex instead. Griffith always writes well about the thingness of things (is there a word for that?), the solid reality of a pot over the fire, a sword with a chipped end, wood snags in a flowing river. This is a very interesting comparison with She Who Became the Sun where we also have a traditional story and a woman disguised as a man in a man’s role, because it’s so similar and so different, as lived experience, in both cases. Spear is great, and short, and forceful, and you should read it. It was pointed out in book club that Griffith chose to do the opposite of what I did with the same material, which I think is interesting—there’s still a lot of power in the Matter of Britain, and it’s still alive and effective and there are still lots of different interesting things people can do with it.

Isabella d’Este: A Renaissance Princess, Christine Shaw (2019)
Thorough biography of Isabella d’Este organized thematically rather than chronologically, which is an odd choice that doesn’t quite work. That said, there was information here I didn’t have, the book was well written and interesting, and I commend it to anyone interested in Isabella d’Este, in the Gonzaga court at Mantua, or in the complexities of politics in Italy in the 1490s and 1500’s.

The Fledgling, Elizabeth Cadell (1975)
This book was so great. Wonderful child’s point-of-view, and wonderful child agency. I’m not sure that this is any 1975 anyone could recognise, but there is a milk bar as a gesture at a modern world, even if most people believe Anthony Burgess made them up. There’s a child with an English father who has grown up in odd circumstances in Portugal and is being sent home to England to go to school, shenanigans ensue, the child manages everything, and they all live happily ever after.

Scorpio, Marko Kloos (2024)
In the universe of Frontlines with Lankies, etc, but from a completely different POV. Kloos has an incredible ability to write action sequences that keep me on the edge of my seat. I remain really impressed at how he does this. This book also contains a dog, and quite a few human characters. I’m slightly unhappy with the same aspect of worldbuilding I’ve complained about before, but I like this book well enough that I don’t want you to read it with spoilers, so never mind. Not perfect, but if you’re ever going to read any contemporary military SF, read Kloos.

The Stand-In, Lily Chu (2021)
Romance novel about a Chinese-Canadian woman who is mistaken for a Chinese film star and then offered a job standing in for her for life-changing amounts of money. All the characters are well drawn, the situation is preposterous but done well, I figured out everything that was going on but I was glad to be right. Well written and well characterised. This is totally wish fulfillment romance, and all the better for that.

Troubled Waters, Sharon Shinn (2010)
This is the first of Shinn’s Elemental Blessings series, and I haven’t read any of them before. There’s a thing you do when you’re doing worldbuilding that people don’t talk about much, and it has to do with theodicy—why is there evil, and how much evil exists, and how evil are people? If you’re writing in this world, you have to by default go with the way you perceive these things in this world; if you’re making up a world from scratch then you get to choose. Here everyone gets three blessings from the gods when they’re born and everyone’s personalities are formed by Blood/Water, Air/Intellect, Fire/Emotion, Bone/Horn, and Stone/Earth. Shinn’s answer, in this world she’s creating, is “not very much evil at all.” This is a mostly nice world, where most people are horrified when bad things happen and do their best to set things right, where a girl rough sleeping alone among other homeless people in a big city wakes up to find a stranger has left her breakfast. Readable, as always with Shinn, quite a fun world, quite sympathetic characters, and when you look back at it not much of a plot really. Really interesting reading the details of working in a shoe shop in a world like this.

The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf (2015)
This is a biography of Alexander von Humboldt and an examination of how his unique and holistic way of seeing the natural world revolutionized the way everyone has seen the world since. He was a weird guy, and I wish he’d had the opportunity to make more expeditions, as his expeditions were both my favourite parts of the book and his favourite parts of his life. He influenced Lyell and Darwin and wrote about the interconnected nature of climates and biomes and the whole planet. He was probably asexual and had passionate friendships with other male scientists. Large parts of his life were difficult for Wulf to make interesting as they consisted of him being in various cities writing long scientific books and quarrelling with people, but on the whole this is a nifty book about how ideas change and are changed.

Skin Folk, Nalo Hopkinson (2001)
A great collection of Hopkinson’s early short stories, showing a lot of her range and promise of the work she was going to do later. Some of the very early stories show a little sprawl, but most of them are marvellous and inventive in her characteristic way. There’s a wonderful selkie story that resonated oddly with both Troubled Waters and The Stand-In because it’s about a young woman immigrant in Toronto who is claiming water powers, and it really felt like these three things written over twenty years were in a very interesting conversation that was in fact only in my head, which is an experience you have sometimes when you read a bunch of things at the same time. Hopkinson has written better things since these stories, but they’re still very much worth reading. icon-paragraph-end



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