January started at home in Montreal, having a lovely time with friends visiting for New Year. Then there was a busy week in Chicago, and I flew from there to Florence on the tenth. So a truly excellent start to 2024, really. Everything I was reading this month was very long, which made me feel as if I’d been reading all the same things forever—normally I’ll be finishing something fairly regularly, but January I didn’t finish anything at all until the 22nd! I read only eight books, but some of them were enormous, and all of them were good.
Middlemarch, George Eliot (1871)
Re-read, for book club. It’s funny, really—this is a wonderful book, and a generous book, and one that is full of marvellous three-dimensional characters about whom I care a great deal, and yet all I want to do is take them out of their narrow world and give them another world where they can have more opportunities to be their best selves. And yet it is a book about how most of us do not do anything that visibly changes the world and yet we do have a powerful and lasting effect on it—that’s the theme, and no wonder I wrote a piece last time I read it pondering on how Eliot had a science-fictional sensibility. It’s clear-sighted and has a wide vision and it’s probably my favourite novel written in the nineteenth century. It’s a really fun read. And I want Dorothea to be a Steerswoman and Rosamund to live in the Culture.
Bartlett’s Poems for Occasions, edited by Geoffrey O’Brien (2007)
A large anthology of poetry organized by theme, containing a huge mix of poetry from all over the world and all through time, but with a concentration on things originally written in English in the last few centuries. I felt this mostly had good choices, and I loved the Chinese poems in almost every section. This is so long, and so full of poems, and I’ve been reading it for so long that it’s hard to assess. If you want a large comprehensive poetry anthology that will last you a while, then this is a pretty good one.
Furious Heaven, Kate Elliott (2023)
Sequel to Unconquerable Sun and it continues to be Alexander the Great in space. For me half the fun is seeing how she does the Alexander parallels and how she’s going to do different things, and the other half is liking the actual science-fictional worldbuilding. These things are not unrelated, as the worldbuilding is making the Alexander parallels work, but it’s interesting in its own right. This book is very long, and the prequel was not short, and I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time in this world recently. But now there’s rather a long wait until the third book, Lady Chaos, is going to answer my questions. The thing I most want to know is whether she’s going to go on into the Funeral Games period, because it could be really, really interesting if she does. But there’s a long way to go before we get there. Meanwhile this is excellent.
Margot at War: Love and Betrayal in Downing Street, 1912-1916, Anne de Courcy (2014)
I love Anne de Courcy, and she brings so much to biography. She was constantly quoting other people about the major world events happening around her protagonists and giving other angles on them, from letters and diaries of people you wouldn’t ordinarily hear from in a book like this, like a girl on holiday in Cowes the week WWI broke out, and the Fabian Beatrice Webb. Margot Asquith was married to the prime minister during the first half of World War I, and he was having a chaste but obsessive affair with his daughter’s friend Venetia Stanley, writing her multiple letters every day. De Courcy brings clear-eyed scrutiny to the whole situation and all the people involved, and a level of detail that almost feels like knowing them all personally. It’s a world that doesn’t exist anymore, and good riddance too, but it’s a fascinating place to visit like this.
I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), Alexander Manzoni(1827)
Hilarious historical romp originally written in Italian. I read it as part of the Harvard Shelf. This book has larger-than-life characters, evil villains, repentant villains, the Black Death, True Love, a saintly friar, a wicked nun, a saint, bread riots, narrow escapes, a virtuous maiden, a cowardly curate, a heroic weaver, beautiful descriptions of the Italian countryside, etc. You aren’t supposed to take it too seriously, and indeed it is delightful but not in the least deep. It’s long, but it keeps moving at a good clip, except on a couple of occasions where it literally stops to show you its research—the actual documents and proclamations of the day!
The Monkey and Other Stories, Miklos Banffy (1947, trans. 2021)
Excellent collection of short stories by Hungarian writer Banffy, translated by Thomas Sneddon. To my surprise some of them (and some of the best of them) were historical short fiction, while others were more like the novels of his I’ve read, set in Europe (mostly Hungary) in the first half of the twentieth century. Almost all of them are good stories and memorable. I just keep being more and more impressed with Banffy the more I read.
Demon Daughter, Lois McMaster Bujold (2024)
Another Penric and Desdemona novella! I can’t exactly say this is a story where nothing bad happens, but it’s close. You probably don’t want to read it without having read the other eleven Pen and Des stories, but it might stand alone reasonably well, Bujold is good at that. I can’t imagine anyone else taking something horrific like demonic possession and making it so domesticated. I don’t think I can say anything about it without spoilers. Well, I loved reading this, I’ll read any other ones as soon as they pop up. (It was also nice to read something short that I could get through fast, as I am still in the middle of some very long books.)
The Only Purple House in Town, Ann Aguirre (2023)
So, this is a feel-good romance set in a universe where witches came out a few years ago and shapeshifters and fae are also around, but it’s basically this world. I’m not usually keen on urban fantasy because I find the worldbuilding annoying, but this was sufficiently well done that it worked for me. It helped that the love interest is a were-hawk, and that was really well done in terms of who he is and how that works. Aguirre is one of those writers who writes sentences that make me want to read the next sentence and chapters that make me want to read the next chapter, so I gobbled this up.
This is almost a gothic, because a girl inherits a house, but it’s much heavier on the friend group than on the weird, which is odd when there are actual paranormal people around. There’s a woman called Iris whose family are psychic vampires but she doesn’t seem to have any abilities, and she inherits a house from her great aunt and lives there with a diverse and assorted group of people (lots of representation, none of it feeling token) who become found family, and of course her powers eventually develop too. It’s a very warm and cuddly book, in which there’s never a moment’s doubt as to what will happen but you can’t put it down anyway.