What Makes this Book so Great, Jo Walton

Tor, 2014, 448 pages, $C31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0765331939

What Makes this Book so Great, by Jo Walton, isn’t much more than a collection of short pieces first published on tor.com. The common unifying theme to the series is that Walton isn’t trying to review new material as much as she’s re-reading books, forgoing an initial assessment to delve a bit more deeply into the qualities of the book being discussed. It’s a selection of pieces, with minimal visible editing—meaning that, unlike some other blog-to-book efforts offering selection, editing and contextualization, it doesn’t offer much more than what’s online (and arguably less, as you miss out on the blog comments, many of whom are mentioned in latter comments). It does, however, come with a new introduction, which explains why it’s worth re-reading books and is convincing enough to make you reconsider any previous stance of reading versus rereading.

What makes this book so great is, indeed, the passion for reading that Walton brings to her subject. While she approaches the book she rereads with initial sympathy, this doesn’t mean that she will let anything pass: She effortlessly logs significant complaints against major books, highlight flaws that may go unnoticed and grudgingly recognizes when he earlier self may have erred upon first read. Conversely, her enthusiasm about some books is contagious, and may populate your list of books to add to your reading list.

What Makes this Book so Great has a few highlights to offer. I was impressed by the book-by-book reread of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series (with which I’m familiar and could nod along) and Stephen Brust’s Vlad Taltos series (with which I wasn’t, and was almost convinced to pick up later). Individual essays worth reading include a discussion on the suck fairy, and so on. Throughout, Walton displays the omnivorous energy of a reader steeped deep into genre fiction, casually tossing off references that a small but dedicated number of readers will best appreciate. This isn’t a book for the casual crowd: it’s a book for those who have read SF since their teenage years and can talk knowledgeably about its various facets.

What makes this book so great is, in large part, because it (generally) replicates the typical convention experience of chatting with a highly knowledgeable genre reader or (specifically) hanging out with Jo Walton. As readers of these reviews know, I’m lucky to call Jo an acquaintance, and this book is what I mean when I say that Jo is usually the most interesting person in the room. Read it, and you’ll understand what great fun it is to discuss genre fiction with her. As much as I like Jo’s fiction, this is probably the book that best exemplifies who she is, with her quirks and passions and irrational dislikes and formidable insight. You can’t always go to a convention with Jo, but you can always grab this book and read it, which is good enough by itself.

What Makes this Book so Great may not be perfect: it’s often scattershot, idiosyncratic and makes reference to online material that requires readers to have internet access. Its pieces will obviously be of varying interest, depending on what books you have already read. But it’s a heck of a present for genre readers who are reasonably familiar with genre fiction from the 1950s to the early twenty-first century: It’s a portrait of a dedicated reason, a keen analyst and a generous fan. While I’m not convinced it has a readership outside the core SF&F genre crowd, it is (much like her Hugo-Award-winning novel Among Other) keenly targeted at this group. Well worth picking up, even if the material is already online.

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