Five books I enjoyed - Winter/Spring 2023


After several months of abortive fiddling with my page’s CSS in an attempt to make things look nicer, I think I’m finally getting somewhere. Because I never practice what I preach, all my cosmetic changes have been sitting on my main branch, so I’ve been prevented from publishing anything until the website looks nicer. We lie in the beds we make I guess.

The last six months have been characterised by a set of disappointing DNFs1, alongside a bunch of re-reading old favourites. At the time of writing - in the period between Christmas and New Year’s referred to by a friend or two of mine as Liminal Spacemass, I’ve been getting stuck into Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, although I’m nowhere near far enouigh through to add it to this list.

Even with rereads and DNFs, I’m pleased to say I have enough for five entries in my regular installment.

Translation State - Ann Leckie. Leckie is noted for writing the Imperial Radch trilogy, which got a bunch of nominations and awards. Since publishing these three books she’s also written another two set in the same universe - Provenance and this book, Translation State. I didn’t mind Provenance but it didn’t quite have the hit of the Imperial Radch books. I’m not sure why - was it a lack of scope or ambition, perhaps? I might need to reread it to get a better handle. Either way, Translation State doesn’t lack that scale that I think I was maybe missing.

This is a story told from a number of different points of view, and also explores the culture and lives of the myserious Presger, strange aliens whose inhumanity is a core driver for some of the events of the original trilogy. While the story itself is captivating, I feel the greatest achievement of the book is managing to shed light of the motivations of the Presger and their actions in the original trilogy.

The Good Enough Job - Simone Stolzoff. Is this the only non-fiction book on this list? I think it is.

This is a book about workism - that always-on, job-as-identity mindset which pervades capitalism and especially white-collar work. It’s a nice combo of “how did we get here” and “what can we do about it”. And, really, there’s always something cathartic about being preached to when you’re part of the choir.

Tehanu - Ursula Le Guin. The Earthsea series (quintet?) is a staple of post-Tolkein fantasy and fantasy in general, but it’s also a great showcase of Le Guin’s career, spanning as it does around three decades of her life. Tehanu is a definite turning point, as the focus of the series shifts from adventure and discovery to introspection, contemplation, and self-discovery.

Le Guin never leaves behind the fact that Earthsea is a fantasy world, but she also clearly demonstrates how fantasy doesn’t have to be world-altering, nor do the stakes have to be apocalyptic in scale to be clearly meaningful to the book’s protagonists. The first three books in this series are about a wizard of great power sailing to the ends of the earth to prevent magic draining out of reality. This book is about an old woman and her daughter dealing with death and growing up and growing old. In some places it feels distinctly, deliberately - almost radically? - mundane, but in some places it drips with magic, perhaps all the more frightning for those who witness it if only because of the contrast between these two poles.

Babel - R. F. Kuang. I’ve worked out over the past few years that I love a Bildungsroman, even more so if it’s in the mold of “child goes to magic school”. Well, Babel has that in spades.

The book follows a group of gifted kids from the edges of colonial Britain during the Victorian era as they attend Oxford University’s Royal Institute of Translation, learning how to harness the magic of meanings shed when words are translated from one language to another. Even if the book stopped there it’d be checking a number of boxes for me. But that gets us about halfway through - in fact, it’s basically a set up for the second half, where we take flight into a roller coaster ride through the excesses of colonialism, capitalism, and the entrenched racism and classism of British society.

This is an excellent book, one of the best books I read all year. I want to re-read it at some point, but it’s an intense ride. Perhaps in a year or so.

The Magician’s Land - Lev Grossman. I’ve read Grossman’s first novel in this trilogy about four times now. See above about how much I love a Bildungsroman about a kid going to magical school. The last few times I re-read it I remember not particularly enjoying the following books of the series - I think it’s something about how when - if - you plan on writing beyond everyone graduating2, you need to pivot at some point to whatever story this is about once everyone is ejected into the crucible of real life, and at the last time of reading, I’m not sure I was ready for that pivot.

Perhaps this time I was: the two following books felt much stronger than they’d ever done before.

  1. ie “Did Not Finish”. Life is too short to finish reading books you don’t enjoy. 

  2. And everyone will graduate. I suspect that any book or series like this which keeps its characters in a limbo of school attendance for too long will quickly become stale, and also that the novelty and half of the drama - especially for this series - is in what happens after