Monday, January 19, 2015

What Makes This Book so Great

Title: What Makes This Book so Great
Author: Jo Walton
Genre: Essays
Published: 2014
Rating: 7.5/10

Review: What Makes This Book so Great is a collection of book-review-like essays written by Jo Walton about various books she enjoys re-reading. All the essays were originally published on, so if you have sufficient patience for website interface, you can in theory just skip reading the book and read the website instead (but I am rather glad I didn't because their website lives on the border of clunky and awful).

I discovered Jo Walton a couple of years ago when I read Among Others. I enjoyed it immensely. One particular aspect that was great is the main character's running commentary on the variety of classic science fiction and fantasy novels. What Makes This Book so Great is basically a longer form of the commentary in the novel and written from the first POV of the author rather than the character.

I started this book almost three months ago. It went really quickly at first and I enjoyed reading all the different reviews. But then at some point I just got distracted by another novel I picked up and forgot all about WMTBSG. Since each essay/review is pretty much stand alone, it's easy to read in short bursts. Once I remembered about this book early this year, I finished reading it, though sometimes it was hard to stick to it instead of going off to pick up whatever book the last review was praising.

I consider myself reasonably well-versed in the science fiction and fantasy genre, so I found it really surprising that Jo Walton reviews so many books that I have never even heard of. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. Most of the books she reviews in this volume are published last century (especially in 70's and 80's) at the time when I wasn't reading this genre yet.

From the books I did have exposure to before, I tried to figure out whether her taste matches mine. As one might expect, this varies. We disagree on Tolkien (I am not a big fan), but completely agree on Luis McMaster Bujold (Walton makes fifteen separate entries on the Vorkosigan saga in this collection). Generally, my to read list is now much longer both from reading this book and all the year-end lists.

Overall, I also enjoyed Jo Walton's writing style and her book commentary. It's embarrassingly fun to read a book about books. One of the things I didn't feel worked as well in the book were the series reviews. It was fun for Vorkosigan where I've already read the series, but for series I haven't read, e.g. Steven Brust's Vlad series, I really didn't want to read about each book in the series individually. I think the details Walton goes into on a per-volume basis are only interesting to those who have already read something in the series.

The nice consequence of reading this book is that now I know about Jo Walton's column on (which she continues to update) and now I can read her ongoing posts there, though I am still looking for an RSS feed as to avoid visiting the website. I am in progress of going through a group of 15 posts on The Name of the Wind re-read which discusses the finer points of the book's world and I am pretty excited about it (squee!). 

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