August was a wonderful but very busy month. I was in Florence the whole time, mostly having an excellent time dashing around with friends looking at beautiful art and eating great food. I read only seven books.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club, Malinda Lo (2021)
Everyone told me this was great, and you were all absolutely right. Terrific story of a girl growing up in 1950s San Francisco that really makes you feel her intersectional identity as she herself is feeling out who she is and which aspects of her identity matter more to her—as Chinese American, as lesbian, as daughter, niece, friend, science nerd… this is full of detail that feels right on both the emotional and real-world levels. Whether it’s the thrill of the forbidden nightclub or helping to organize the school dance, it all feels solid.
There’s nothing fantastical or science fictional here (and this time I knew that from the start) but I think Lo’s background as a genre writer made her aware of things—like having Lily reading about future Mars colonies and her Aunt Judy working as a computer for JPL—that a less genre-savvy author would have missed or not thought to include. For me this makes it take place in a much more three-dimensional universe than most such books. Highly recommended.
Collected Letters, Gregory of Nyssa (395, translation 1969)
I have a minor project to collect and read all the books that were in the Laurentian library when it was built, so I’ve been slowly reading the works of the Church Fathers as I get hold of them. I’d read some of Gregory of Nyssa’s work when I was writing Lent, but not his letters, where he engages in theological arguments, describes late Roman gardens, gently chides people for yelling at other people about the Trinity, and recommends people for jobs. It’s always a joy to see the ways in which people in distant historical periods are both the same and different from us. Gregory isn’t as abrasive as Basil or Jerome, and he seems like someone I’d like as a person. This is a short collection and I enjoyed it.
Poppies for England, Susan Scarlett (Noel Streatfeild) (1947)
Re-read. Fascinating novel that’s not quite in the romance format but isn’t quite anything else, either. This is a feel-good novel about a family whose father has come back from years in a WWII prison camp who then brings his family and his best friend’s family together by making them into a concert party at a holiday camp. This must have been written in 1946 and it is certainly set immediately after WWII.
What we have here is a slight love story about a girl who barely has a point of view, a thwarted love story and settling for another chap centered on a girl who very definitely does have a point of view and is almost a villain, and a story about a married couple coming back together after an enforced separation, all bundled up into a narrative about families, theatrical success, and ordinary people trying to put their lives back together after the upheavals of war— though war, victory, politics, etc., are barely mentioned. This is far more successful than most of Streatfeild’s romance novels, and far more interesting, but it isn’t satisfying as a romance novel. I wonder if it isn’t best seen as a Streatfeild children’s book where most of the characters happen to be grown-up.
Liberty’s Daughter, Naomi Kritzer (2023)
This book is coming out in November, the author is a friend and she gave me a preview copy. I’d previously read parts of it in magazine form. It’s a YA novel about a girl growing up on a seastead in the future, making friends, having adventures, and dealing with a disease outbreak that reads rather differently post-Covid. Interestingly, while the details of this are all science fictional, what it’s really about is belonging and being connected. It’s the kind of book you want to keep on reading and not put down, and it suffered a little from me not having enough time to devour it in one gulp. Great characters, well-thought-through near-future setting, very good point of view. If you liked the CatNet books you’ll like this too; if you haven’t read Kritzer, get this when you have the chance.
The Cult of the Saints, Peter Brown (1981)
Fascinating book about how the cult of saints functioned socially and religiously in Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period, what it was doing for people, and how it was borrowing from and extinguishing the last scraps of pre-Roman organized paganism in the countryside of the Western Roman Empire. It looks at how healing at shrines competed with doctors, how it channelled devotion to specific places, and how it took ancestor worship traditions and attached them to saints who were public, everybody’s friend, not just for one family. Lucidly written and interesting.
Shopaholic to the Rescue, Sophie Kinsella (2015)
Really the second half of Shopaholic to the Stars, and the choices made so it can stand alone do not help. This one felt a little bit as if she was going through the motions, and as she was writing really great non-series books at the same time, perhaps getting a little tired of writing about Becky and finding new things to do with her. “American road trip” is clearly a thing people do in a series, and there we are, but I didn’t find it especially charming or funny, and the resolution of the mystery as to why all the men on the long-ago road trip named their daughters Rebecca was a disappointment.
She Who Became the Sun, Shelley Parker-Chan (2021)
Re-read ahead of the sequel coming out. What a great book, even better this second time through when I knew what was going to happen! This is a magical version of Chinese history, and really it’s about different forms of relationship with destiny. Everything I try to say about it makes it seem more ordinary than it is—this is an exceptionally powerful and excellent book and I can’t say anything more without spoilers. Watch this space for a report on the sequel next month!
Finally, Jon Evans’s fast-paced, inventive, and all around terrific SF novel Exadelic, which I was lucky enough to read back in December, is being published on September 5th. You want to read this book.
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.