Jo Walton’s Reading List: August 2020

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I continue not to be resigned to the fact of pandemic, but this was nevertheless yet another month I spent at home and mostly not going out. I did see friends on the balcony a few times, thank goodness, and I went to my son’s apartment once, so my socializing was not entirely mediated via the internet, but this is really hard and I’m not coping as well as I might wish. Lots of comfort reading this month, but no difficulty in reading. I read 15 books.

Summer at the Villa Rosa, Nicky Pellegrino (2007)
Pellegrino is my new go-to comfort read. She’s writing romance novels set in Italy, but she’s more interested in the Italy than in the romance, and I think that’s great. This one is about an Italian girl called Raphaella who is widowed young and has to find a new shape to her life while a controversial giant statue of Christ is being built on the hilltop above the village. Contains Italy, friends, food, good writing, so just exactly what I wanted. Also, I already cared about Raphaella because she appears as an old woman in Under Italian Skies.

The Library of Lost Things, Laura Taylor Namey (2019)
YA novel about a girl whose mother is a hoarder finding love, confidence, a sense of self, and a way to deal with her mother and her life. For some reason I thought this was going to be fantasy, it wasn’t.

The Villa Girls, Nicky Pellegrino (2011)
This one says it’s about four girls who go on Mediterranean holidays together and find love, but actually it’s about Rosie who lost her parents and has to learn to trust life again and does so through food, Italy, friendship, and the art of photography. There’s also Enzo, whose family own olive groves and press down the weight of their expectations on him as they press out the oil from the olives.

Other Worlds Than These, edited by John Joseph Adams (2012)
An anthology of stories about parallel worlds and other dimensions. There were some great stories in here, the problem was I’d read them all before, and what was new wasn’t very exciting, so I ended up feeling a little disappointed.

The Italian Wedding, Nicky Pellegrino (2008)
Featuring an Italian family in London who also appear in The Villa Girls and it was at this point that I decided I should probably try to read Pellegrino in chronological order, not that I mind. There’s a romance here that happened in the past between the family’s English mother and Italian father, when she hitchhiked to Rome and got a job there, back in the Eighties, and then there’s been their whole marriage and career and children since, and there’s another romance involving their grown-up daughter. Not a conventional romance novel in any way, but all the better for it.

Three Hearts and Three Lions, Poul Anderson (1955)
Re-read. A fun fantasy novel about a Dane in WWII who suddenly finds himself in a fantasy alternate Dark Age Europe where all the women fall in love with him and he has a quest but he doesn’t know what it is. This is one of the first books of this kind, and it holds up remarkably well, even succeeding in still being funny, having at least one female character who’s great, and having fun “scientific” explanations of the magic. As a teenager I didn’t like it because it wasn’t like The Broken Sword, but now I appreciate it much more.

The Beacon at Alexandria, Gillian Bradshaw (1986)
Re-read. I listened to rather than read this, not as an audiobook but as part of our Scintillation Discord regular reading aloud. I read this book when it was new, and I’ve re-read it multiple times. It’s probably my favourite of Bradshaw’s historicals and I like them all. It’s about a girl in the late Roman Empire who wants to be a doctor and succeeds in becoming one. The history is well researched, the story is riveting, even the romance is good. I really enjoyed revisiting this one.

Recipe For Life, Nicky Pellegrino (2010)
This was the one about the woman who worked in a restaurant and went to Italy and got involved with the two sons of Raphaella from Summer at Villa Rosa and it has a lot of great food in it.

The Gallic Wars, C. Julius Caesar (50 BC)
The original colonialism in the original province, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, his invasion of Britain, the revolts of the Gauls, a war with the Germans, lots of logistics and fortifying places, lots of rivers and putting the legions into winter quarters, whereupon things always go wrong. I cannot really recommend this to most normal readers, but I realised a while ago I’d read chunks of it in Latin but I’d never read all of it in English and that I should.

One Summer in Venice, Nicky Pellegrino (2015)
One of the sisters from the family in The Italian Wedding who is also a character in The Villa Girls spends a summer in Venice as she takes time away from her marriage and family and also her restaurant, and makes friends with some Venetians and gets into tango. Excellent older characters. I don’t know who the audience for these is apart from me, but I am deeply grateful for them right now.

The Belly of the Bow, K.J. Parker (1999)
The second in the Fencer trilogy. Less focused than the first volume and I didn’t like it as much, especially as one of the main characters does a terrible thing for insufficient reasons. Maybe this is what people meant when they said Parker was dark. It wasn’t so much that I minded the terrible thing, though I’d have liked the book better without it—it’s that it felt gratuitous and out of character.

Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke (1955)
Re-read, book club, and what a great book club book it is, sparking much discussion. It’s certainly an old book, and it might have been nice if Clarke had noticed that women are people, but the “Wait, what? Wow!” aspect of the story is still very much there—where Clarke pulls the rug out from under you, whatever kind of book you think it’s settling down to become.

A Year at Hotel Gondola, Nicky Pellegrino (2018)
Featuring some of the same Venice characters as One Summer in Venice and much great Venice and food.

Possession, A.S. Byatt (1990)
Re-read. I love this book so much. It all fits together so perfectly. It’s about history and people and what we know and cannot know. It’s about modern day (1987) academics researching events of the lives of Victorian poets, and there are two stories and much poetry and it all fits together in ways that are both poetic and precise. It also has some of the best description of any book I have ever read, again, precise and poetic. I like all of Byatt, but this book really is a masterpiece.

The Shortest Way to Hades, Sarah Caudwell (1984)
Re-read, bath book. The second of the Hilary Tamar mysteries, in which a group of barristers are involved in a complex murder investigation, very arch and funny, with the best single paragraph of any of the books, but not as narratively satisfying as the first one. Delightful to read in the bath, but tempting to stay in too long to read just a little more.

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 fourteen novels, including the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Among Others. Her previous novel, Lent, was published by Tor in May 2019, and her fifteenth novel, Or What You Will, came out on July 7, 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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