Thursday, February 06, 2014

Book Review: What Makes This Book so Great by Jo Walton

What Makes This Book so Great by Jo Walton

Completed: February 2, 2014
Length: 448 Pages

Synopsis from
As any reader of Jo Walton's Among Others might guess, Walton is both an inveterate reader of SF and fantasy, and a chronic re-reader of books. In 2008, then-new science-fiction mega-site asked Walton to blog regularly about her re-reading—about all kinds of older fantasy and SF, ranging from acknowledged classics, to guilty pleasures, to forgotten oddities and gems. These posts have consistently been among the most popular features of Now this volumes presents a selection of the best of them, ranging from short essays to long reassessments of some of the field's most ambitious series.
Among Walton's many subjects here are the Zones of Thought novels of Vernor Vinge; the question of what genre readers mean by "mainstream"; the underappreciated SF adventures of C. J. Cherryh; the field's many approaches to time travel; the masterful science fiction of Samuel R. Delany; Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children; the early Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin; and a Robert A. Heinlein novel you have most certainly never read.
Over 130 essays in all, What Makes This Book So Great is an immensely readable, engaging collection of provocative, opinionated thoughts about past and present-day fantasy and science fiction, from one of our best writers.
I all ready mentioned this book in some rambling. You can find my post here. Instead of my usual post on the book, I am going to talk about some of the general stuff that Walton wrote essays on in the book. I am hoping others will add their two cents.

Essay 2: 'Why I Re-read'.

My response: First of all, with all the ridiculous words in the dictionary... Reread should be correct. I never hyphenate it. My computer never tells me it is wrong; but that might be because I use it so much the computer gave up! I wish I reread more. I actually did a bit better with that last year because I started listening to books I had read before on audio. I have a few more plans to do that this year. When it comes to rereading, though, I do terrible. So far this month I did reread the first Volume of Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Boxers by Gene Luen Yang. And, I am slowly rereading Fables. Otherwise, I tell myself to reread and then new books call to me instead. I just feel guilty because my reading died, for me, the second half of 2012 and my TBR is probably the most unmanageable it has ever been. I need to get over the guilt because I keep books to reread them and then it takes me forever to do so.

What are your thoughts on rereading?

Essay 8: 'Re-reading long series'. 

My response: Jo Walton is one of those rereaders (I guess that is not a word, oh, well!) that rereads all the previous books before a new book comes out. This is something else I would love to do and don't. Face it, the world is consumed by series. I start new ones regularly just because standalone books are getting so rare. Especially in fantasy and science-fiction where my reading normally focuses. And there are series that I have all the books, but haven't finished because I have to back and reread the books I have read. As a result they just sit on my shelves because I am atrocious at just reading one series or one author one right after another. So, last year I reread The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley to finish this the series... I still haven't finished the series. Or Jim Butcher? I have read book 1 twice and still never read on in the series. Not to mention, I have never read beyond Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and I have read Outlander at least twice.

Am I alone on this problem? Are most people more like Walton?

Essay 33: 'Better to have loved and lost? Series that go downhill'

My response: First of all, the person that Walton is responding to is evil. The series he used as examples are some I am in the midst of, so that will really help me get through them quicker! What are some series that you feel this has happened with? I mostly just find 'bad books' in series. For example, I love Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series, but I didn't love all of the books. (*cough* Dime Store Magic *cough*). I find that even when there are bad books I still keep trying to give the series a chance. The only series I can think of giving up on entirely after reading a bunch of the books was The Morganville Vampires by Rachel Caine. And, personally, I don't think that was her fault. I think I just outgrew the story.

Any series you have read that have gone downhill?

Essay 119: Gulp or sip: How do you read?

My response: Both. I think my reading suffered last year because I forgot to sip and never had time to gulp. I kept waiting for dedicated time to read that never seemed to happen and my books sat around waiting for me. In the past, I just read whenever the chance presented itself. If I read a paragraph, that was still one step further in the book. You know what, though? You have to retrain yourself to do that. I started last week reminding myself that while I wait for such and such a thing, I should read. It's like a lost skill! I am doing better with it, though.

Do you gulp or sip? (If you are wondering, gulp means sit and read for extended periods of time and sip basically means sneak a page while waiting for the light to change, for example.)

Essay 121: Do you skim?

My response: Nope! Actually, I did once with this chunkster of a book because I wasn't liking it and I had to read it. I can't remember the book at all any more... I just remember that I skimmed! I agree with Walton that even if the part of the book isn't interesting me that much, there might be something important in there that I will need to know later in the book. So, I read the book in its entirety. Just like even though Walton talks about books I have never read in this book, I still read all of them and the entire things. When I finish a book, I want to actually finish a book.

So, do you skim?

Essay 124: The Suck Fairy

My response: You can read the essay for a more detailed explanation, but basically this is about how you go back to read a book that you loved and now you can't remember why. She is essentially saying a fairy made it suck, only she doesn't make it so simplistic. Anyway, as soon as I looked at this essay I thought about Madeleine L'Engle. I loved her when I was younger, but now some of her books don't seem to work for me any more. It is devastating. And you know why? Probably for the same reason The Chronicles of Narnia don't work for me any more... There is stuff in those books I missed entirely when I was younger. Now that I know the truth of what things mean, it loses the attraction. I do still really like A Wrinkle in Time, though. I just used to reread the whole series every couple years and now I wait longer because I don't want to destroy my happy memories of the series.

Anything stand out for you that you feel a 'Suck Fairy' invaded?

So, hopefully you enjoy this different sort of 'review'. I really enjoyed this book and hope that more of you will get a chance to read it. I am reading a book right now that I had never heard of before I read Walton's book. It might have came up somewhere else down the line, but I am excited to explore the books in this collection. They might not all work for me, but it will be fun to see.

Strongly recommended! (Although, with the warning that you should probably have a slight interest in fantasy and science-fiction first!)


  1. This sounds interesting. I love reading books about reading. I like the whole suck fairy too. When I reread the Chronicles of Narnia I loved books that I hadn't like before and vice versa. Haven't reread Wrinkle in Time because I loved it so much as a kid I'm afraid to mess up the memory.

  2. I'm am so enjoying this book (thanks to you and others for recommending it)! I am actually trying to sip, rather than gulp; to read the essays and then give each one a little thought. I love Walton's comments about re-reading in the first essay. I used to re-read regularly, but over the last few years, only a few books call me to read them again. At least in fiction. I'm reading some of my yoga books again, and I've read all of my favorites at least twice. I also re-read gardening books and other nonfiction fairly regularly. When I do read fiction favorites again, I am so happy if they have lived up to my initial opinions, but not all of them do.

  3. Definitely going to get this book. Enjoyed reading all your answers. I too read 'everything' in a book, I can't skim for the life of me. LOL! I love the idea of rereading and do occasionally but not nearly as often as I should. I don't go back and reread the rest of the series when a new book is out either. I may have done it once, but not a regular thing with me.

  4. Loved your review! I want to read this and I think I want to own it too! I reread a lot, mostly books I read as a kid but now that I'm getting cough older cough, I'm turning to books I read as an adult as rereads too.

  5. I've got to read this! I love Walton quite a bit for always supporting Mary Renault (an author I don't truly feel gets enough attention these days), and I'm always interested to see what she has to say about other books.

  6. Wow, a lot to think about here. I think it's hard to write a series in which every. single. book. is excellent. So I don't give up if I hit an installment I don't love. On the other hand, if two or three in a row are less than wonderful, I get reluctant to return to the series.

    I don't usually skim, but I do if I don't like the book but am curious about what happens. I'm not trying to savor the story or writing in that situation, so I don't care what I miss.

  7. I cannot imagine going back to reread a series from the start. I may go back and read a couple of paragraphs here and there but like you, I have too many series going on to make this work. And, you bet some of the series I read have gone downhill and I've stopped reading them. One I always think of is the Stephanie Plum series. I don't mind a less than stellar entry in a series but the characters have to grow and there has to be some progression in a series.

  8. This sounds so interesting - essays on topics I would actually be keen to read about! And I like the way you've reacted to the essays instead of the whole book. Re-reading is a big one for me - I loved re-reading when younger but I just don't do it now. Sounds like you're more ahead on that front than me. And the essay about series - I love reading them and I hate giving up, but sometimes it happens ...

  9. Anonymous5:29 PM

    I did enjoy this different sort of review. I'm so overwhelmed by how everything is turning into series that it makes me want to avoid any and all. partly because I don't reread before the next comes out (mostly due to time). I am starting to consider doing to book series what I do w/ tv series. wait for them to be collected or mostly collected.

    I tend to gulp, and when I skim it is to get through a book for class (which isn't actually all that wise but seriously, the digressions in 18th century literature...), but SF can sometimes be pretty tedious, so I will skim or hear humming during a particularly detailed explanation in the world-building.

    Can't think of an example for the suck fairy, but I've experienced a book/author being better and worse in the reread now that I am older.

    L (omphaloskepsis)

  10. Love that you shared your responses Kailana, thank you. I don't re read, never have, I feel like I'd lose something if I did... And that suck fairy would get me!

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

  11. Sounds like a rather thought-provoking collection of essays! I really like her posts on - she highlighted a lot of the more obscure (to me, anyway!) SF/F books.

    I used to be a big re-reader (ha - I automatically included the hyphen!), but not so much nowadays...

  12. I am so glad that I put in a library request on this one (after hearing about it from you when you started) because I finished it last night and loved every minute of reading it. I HAVE to get to Jo Walton's books this summer, don't I? I just like the way she thinks. There are just so many new books and, like she says, so many to re-read regularly too. I wish I could get through as many as she does but, alas, my kid is much younger and more demanding than hers!

    I do like re-reading entire series when a new book comes out, mostly because I have a terrible memory and always assume that I won't remember a super pertinent plot line or person if I don't have everything fresh in my mind again.

    Anyway, this was such a fantastic book! As busy as I am with DWJ March, I took the time today to schedule a post for April about this book before I lost any of my thoughts -- and it was the longest and most thoughtful post I've written in a while. This book definitely makes you think and decide and vow and all sorts of fun things!

  13. I'm still enjoying all the books I sought out after reading this book!


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