Review: “What Makes This Book So Great” by Jo Walton

what makes greatWhat Makes This Book So Great
Jo Walton
Tor, 2014.

Jo Walton loves reading sci-fi. Really, really loves it.

That should be evident from her Hugo winning novel, Among Others, a paean to growing up an outsider, immersed in the fantastical worlds of sci-fi novels.

But she also loves to re-read her favorite books.

“When I re-read, I know what I’m getting. It’s like revisiting an old friend. An unread book holds wonderful unknown promise, but also threatens disappointment. A re-read is a known quantity. A new book that’s been sitting there for a little while waiting to be read, already not making the cut from being “book on shelf” to “book in hand” for some time, for some reason, often can’t compete with going back to something I know is good, somewhere I want to revisit.”

What Makes this Book So Great is an incredible documentation of her re-reading habits. 

And frankly, it’s a shame that it was Puppied out of a Hugo nomination this year. Especially since it pays tribute to the sort of stories that the Puppies claim to love. Oh well, maybe she’ll get nominated next year

Written for the sci-fi site from 2008-2011 (before the release of Among Others), What Makes This Book So Great finds her rummaging through her library and sharing her thoughts as she re-reads some of her favorite books in a plethora of short essays, 129 in all. They are the perfect introduction to some of the strangest, most obscure and all around wonderful science fiction and fantasy novels.

Some authors get extended examinations – she works her way through C.J. Cherryh’s “Union-Alliance” series, as well as Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Vorkosigan Saga”. While others get touched in passing, like Tanith Lee or Samuel Delany. Heinlein is a favorite, she gives attention to his juveniles, the books like Citizen of the Galaxy
and Have Spacesuit Will Travel, the books that introduced generations of young readers (including yours truly) to science fiction. And she examines such groundbreaking works in gender and race as Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness
and Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

She doesn’t limit herself to older works, either, gushing over Daniel Abraham’s “Long Price Quartet”. And having read the first two novels in that series, I can say her analysis is spot on.

I only recently discovered Walton, through her epic re-read of Patrick Rothfuss’s “Kingkiller Chronicles” (if you want to pass time waiting for Doors of Stone, these are wonderful, detailed and insightful examinations of the books). But her love of reading and her congenial way of sharing that love is an inspiration. What Makes This Book So Great has piled a ton more books onto my hopelessly long reading list, but as she says:

“There are so many books…and so little time. If I live to be a mere Methuselah of 800, and read a book a week for 800 years, I will only have the chance to read 40,000 books, and my readpile is already 90,000 and starting to topple!”

That doesn’t stop her from returning to her favorites, so I’m not going to feel intimidated, or feel guilty for returning regularly to my beloved classics either.

A ginormous reading list gives me something to always look forward to.

—Michael Senft

Buy What Makes This Book So Great

About Michael Senft

I am a freelance writer and critic from Phoenix Arizona. I spent 10 years covering music, the arts and pop culture for the “Arizona Republic” before life circumstances took me away from newspaper. But I never lost my joy at writing. Or reading.
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4 Responses to Review: “What Makes This Book So Great” by Jo Walton

  1. Tammy says:

    How cool! This is going on my next book order for sure. Thanks so much for highlighting it:-D


  2. Jeanne says:

    This book is so great. It introduced me to some wonderful works of SFF that I’d missed. The original reviews on are still up, so if a person leaves a comment, Walton still might answer.


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