Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton

cover art for What Makes This Book So Great, featuring the title superimposed over a stack of yellowed paperbacks
Earlier this year, spurred on by both Kelly’s enthusiasm and my own longstanding appreciation for both Jo Walton’s fiction and her online presence, I asked my library to buy WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT.

They must've thought I was asking a question, not suggesting a purchase, because they didn't.

This was a disappointment (and a surprise; I would’ve thought a book about books was right up the library’s alley), but not the Absolute End of Everything. Once I realized it was never gonna happen, I bought the British e-book 1 and dove straight it.

What a great decision.

WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT is a collection of many, though not all (or even most), of Jo Walton’s posts for Tor.com. A voracious reader, Walton frequently revisits old favourites and writes about them from a fan’s perspective rather than a critic’s. I love her posts, but I’ve always limited myself to the ones that cover books I've already read. Since she’s far better read than I am, I’d only dipped a toe into Walton's oeuvre before I picked this up.

I now want to go back and read the lot (with plenty of attention paid to spoiler warnings, of course), because this collection is fabulous.

Walton makes so many interesting observations about these titles that I finished each essay well-nigh desperate to read the book in question. My already unwieldy list of Books I Want To Read Someday is now frickin’ huge--something I've decided to be okay, with, since the alternative is probably a nervous breakdown. Even more importantly, though, Walton's passion for rereading made me want to reread everything I've ever loved, then gush about it to all and sundry. She sparks the reader's enthusiasm not just for the particular books she discusses but for all books, everywhere. Especially the books one already knows well and wants to revisit.

The essays are all short enough to make for quick reading--and for addictive reading, come to that. When I first purchased the book, I imagined I’d read it on the side. An essay here, an essay there; standard nonfiction procedure, so far as I'm concerned. This soon proved impossible as I found myself in "just one more chapter" mode. I wanted to know what else Walton had to say about this lengthy series, or how she’d felt about that book I’ve heard mentioned a million times, or which insights she’d bring to something I'd also read and enjoyed.

I wallowed in WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT, plain and simple. And it was awesome.

As an added bonus, I recognized many of Walton's readerly attitudes. Time and again, I found myself nodding and grinning at some observation that mirrored my own, or that I wanted to adopt and nurture as I go about my own reading. I made such liberal use of the highlighter option on my e-reader that I couldn’t even hope to share every quote with you. It’s easier to just suggest you get the book for yourself and do the same on your own time.

I do want to mention a couple of bits that stuck with me, though. First and most importantly, Walton writes about rereading as an opportunity to hang out with characters. This is exactly why I do it. Plots and settings are great and all, but I fall in love with books for the fictional people at the story’s heart. I had a wonderful time watching Walton get excited about her favourite characters, many of whom I’m sure I’ll come to love myself as soon as I get around to meeting them.

Walton also writes about how sometimes her least favourite books in a longer series become her favourites simply because they’re the ones she hasn’t memorized yet. I nodded so hard at this, y’all. I’m less of a series rereader now than I once was, but when I do return to series I often find myself anticipating the books I didn’t like as much the first time through. They’re the ones I’ve spent the least time thinking about and, thus, the ones I don’t know as well. They're brimming with potential in a way that my best beloveds can't really match.

I was taken, too, with Walton's discussion of inclueing, which is what she calls the process by which writers communicate, and readers absorb, the details of any SFnal or fantastical world. I'd never particularly thought about how I do this, or how essential it is to SFF, but it makes a ton of sense. In my writerly experience, readers who consume a lot of genre fiction are fine with a variety of small hints and offhand details that come together to tell us everything we need to know about the world in question; with inclueing, basically. Those who cleave mainly to general fiction find this sort of worldbuilding frustrating and would prefer to be told how everything works straight out. It's a fairly simple distinction, but one I'd never picked up on before and which has now put many puzzling past conversations into perspective.

Basically, WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT made me reflect on my own habits as a reader and as a writer--and on the zillions of books I want to read in the nearish future. In particular, Walton’s comments on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga hardened my resolve to at least start the series this year. She also made me unexpectedly excited about Steven Brust, whose Vlad Taltos books sound like the sort of thing I eat straight from the jar. I had to skip portions of some of the essays because of spoiler warnings, but I still emerged with a strong desire to read Brust in the next, um, two or three years.

Damn my glacial reading pace2!

Slow reader or no, WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT left me with a strong desire to ignore my TBR for a while and revisit a few old favourites; something I wanted to spend all of 2014 doing, really, but had to put on hold after I failed to destroy la TBR last December. (Seriously, the fast readers among you should be really fucking grateful.) I’ve already begun wallowing in Robin Hobb and intend to gush about her books at regular intervals over the next few months. I’m also determined to revisit Sarah Monette this year, and to finish rereading Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and maybe to read Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B. books again, with perhaps a sidetrip (ha! As if I could restrain myself to a sidetrip!) into Mercedes Lackey, and I should at least try to reread the Wheel of Time for the Hugos, and then it's on to--

You get the picture. Walton gave me both an exciting new list of authors to try and a renewed enthusiasm for rereading, and I couldn't be happier.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. (Witness my own library's delay in purchasing this one.) If you're in search of another way to read WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT, you can try:

  • Koboicon (e-book; for purchase; coupons don't work)
  • The Book Depository (paperback; for purchase; free shipping worldwide)
  • Amazon (paperback & Kindle; for purchase)

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through one of the above links.

  1. Tor, Walton’s North American publisher, doesn’t allow buyers to use coupons on any of their Kobo e-books. Constable & Robinson, her UK publisher, does--and they sell a few titles through Kobo Canada. I snagged a 75% off coupon during a recent trivia contest and immediately knew what I was going to buy.

  2. Even still, I cross referenced the last book market with the library's catalogue and bought one Brust novel--DRAGON--that isn't in the collection. One must be prepared.


  1. I hadn't heard of this one but my library has it (I <3 my library. And Jo Walton) so I'll have to check it out.

    (TBRs stress me out. I keep more like a list of books I might like to read maybe if I feel like it. Then sometimes I stress anyway because I haven't read enough of them.)

    1. My ultimate goal is to destroy my TBR stack and live from book to book. Unfortunately, that won't happen any time soon. Sigh.

  2. If your library ignores a purchase request, can you try again? I'm curious because I've never done purchase requests until recently -- I asked my library to get Mr. Loverman after reading Vasilly's review of it -- and I don't know the rules yet.

    Either way, I'm looking forward to reading this one. Jo Walton writes so eloquently about her favorite books AND I crazy loved Among Others AND she is a Mary Renault fan.

    1. My library doesn't like you to try again, but that might vary from place to place. They also limit you to five purchase suggestions for month and ask that you don't request preorders or older books. As far as I can recall, though, this worked a bit differently at Auckland Libraries, who were happy to buy SKY COYOTE for me ages and ages after its release.

  3. I totally get what you (and Jo Walton) mean about re-reading a series. I recently re-read J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series. I love it even more after the complete re-read. By the last, and newest book I finally got what my husband meant when he kept asking if that was another junior book (JR-junior).

  4. I've been avoiding buying this one so far because I know that it's going to be mindblowingly amazing and will make me want to read every book she talks about.

  5. Your review looks a lot like mine. This book was amazing. And I also want to do a bunch of reading and then go back and read more of her posts.

  6. That sounds like an excellent plan. I need to remember to check Tor.com whenever I finish something to see if she's written about it.