Review: What Makes This Book So Great? by Jo Walton

448 Pages
$26.99 (hardback;  ebook available)

A good question.  Fortunately it is one that is easy to answer.  Not only is Jo Walton a Hugo and Nebula award winning author of (Among Others), and not only is she an articulate woman blessed with an amazing Welsh accent, Jo is also a fan.

Fortunately for us, Jo has found a way to transmit the emotional, indescribable joy of reading and more – ways to describe and share the very special joy of reading SF, fantasy and horror – in an entirely comfortable, accessible and personal manner that others pass by with straight call-outs to phrases like sensuwunda and willing-suspension of disbelief.

Discovery, excitement, thrills, surprise, these are all words we use when trying to let someone know just how much we are loving a particular story.  Jo Walton manages to take it one step further by showing, rather than telling, just how much reading has affected her life, her work and her being.  Anyone who reads genre will see themselves reflected in her essays.

Those of us who share that joy with Jo immediately recognize a kindred spirit; an author who gets it.  Someone who can fall into a book, recognize the flaws or problems and yet not allow those acknowledgements to interfere with the sheer love of the story and the people and places that story transports us to.

What Makes This Book So Great? is a compilation of weekly essays Jo has written for the website, some 130 looks at various authors and stories, with occasional forays into the personal, fandom, the writing process, the personalities behind the works.

These are very personal essays and not, as Jo goes to some length to point out, reviews or critiques.  Rather than deconstructing a story and attempting to find its place in the context of all great works of SF/F/H, Jo treats us to her very personal, unacademic reactions to each of the chosen stories she covers.  Life always interferes and definitely impacts how we react to a given work and Jo does not shy away from discussing the non-literary influences that impacted her read, or re-read, of a given work.

It’s quite fetching as we go along on purchasing trips, or read along with her as she rides a train, learn about childhood influences, hints of the inner-workings of the book-biz, personal foibles and affections.

I’ve corresponded with Jo on several occasions (she’s been kind enough to link to things I’ve written a few times) so it was not a surprise to find out how much our tastes in literature coincide.  What was surprising to me was to discover how similar our fan experiences have been and just how deeply her tastes are reflected in my own.  It will not be difficult at all for me to find some new authors to read as all I really have to do now is find the books she’s written about and liked that I’ve not read yet.  It’s rare to find someone writing about books who has such similar tastes, but I suspect that the breadth of Jo’s reading and her ability to find something worthy in just about everything read will engender a similar recognition in most readers of this collection.

I am particularly fond of her essays that touch on re-reading – a habit I also share and one that I’ve been questioned about frequently, just as Jo apparently has been.  It’s nice to find confirmation – among others.

About the only critical thing I can say about the book is that I wish it had an index of all of the works and authors mentioned throughout.  Perhaps future editions or an website archive may provide one in the future.

While extremely personal, I heartily recommend this book for most fans of the genre(s); it’s part historical, part insight into the writing process, part autobiography of an acclaimed author, part reflecting pool:  if you are a fan, you’ll see yourself in there and you’ll like what you see.

Jo Walton continues to write essays for the TOR.Com website.  You can find her latest here

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