Books I rather enjoyed in February and March

With February being a short month, and having read fewer books than usual in March due to spending half the month on an AWESOME holiday in New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville (post on that to come!), I decided to roll the months together for my reading round-up. Here’s some of the books that have been keeping me quiet over the past two months…

Mind Afire book coverMind Afire: the Visions of Tesla, by Abigail Samoun and Elizabeth Haidle

A 64 page graphic novel for teens and adults exploring the wondrous life of Nikola Tesla: Inventor, visionary, and unsung scientific genius…His story is inspiring in that it suggests that the greatest scientific discoveries require bold visions, unfettered imagination, and an uncommon mind, but it also serves as a warning that vested capital can be the enemy of the visionary—that great advances rarely come from within the system.

This is a graphic novel that I backed on Kickstarter, many moons ago – I’d actually almost forgotten about it when it turned up in the post! That’s one of the things I like about Kickstarter – I know some people who dislike the lag between funding a project and actually seeing the outcome, but to me that makes it feel more like a surprise present when it actually turns up!

And what a lovely surprise it was. Tesla’s life story is fascinating, and it is beautifully told here, with plenty of reference to Tesla’s own writings and letters to illuminate the tale. It is gorgeously illustrated, as well as beautifully printed – that seems a nerdy observation to make I know, but it really is! I do appreciate good quality paper and binding, especially in a graphic novel – that’s one of the things that makes it worth buying a paper book over an ebook!

The Kinckstarter is long done, but the book is available to order online, either in beautiful print form or, if you just want to read it, as a PDF.

The Daylight Gate book coverThe Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson

Can a man be maimed by witchcraft?

Can a severed head speak?

Based on the most notorious of English witch-trials, this is a tale of magic, superstition, conscience and ruthless murder.

It is set in a time when politics and religion were closely intertwined; when, following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, every Catholic conspirator fled to a wild and untamed place far from the reach of London law.

This is Lancashire. This is Pendle. This is witch country.

I adore Jeanette Winterson, and The Daylight Gate had been on my wishlist for some time. Based on the true story of the Pendle witch trials in 1612, Winterson spins a dark, bloody tale of black magic, abuse, betrayal and revenge. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, as it’s masterfully done, so I won’t put any more details in than that! I will say that this is probably the most accessible of Jeanette Winterson’s books that I’ve read – I love her as a writer, but some of her books can be very heavily literary which, while not a bad thing (at least in my opinion) can mean that you don’t get really stuck into the story. This, on the other hand, was an absolute page turner – without losing any of Winterson’s beautiful, carefully crafted sentences in the process. Wonderful.

Runaway book coverRunaway, by Alice Munro

The matchless Munro makes art out of everyday lives in this exquisite collection. Here are men and women of wildly different times and circumstances, their lives made vividly palpable by the nuance and empathy of Munro’s writing. Runaway is about the power and betrayals of love, about lost children, lost chances. There is pain and desolation beneath the surface, like a needle in the heart, which makes these stories more powerful and compelling than anything she has written before.

I picked this up at the library on National Libraries Day. It caught my eye as I remember hearing loads about Alice Munro and what a wonderful short story writer she is, when she won the Nobel Prize for literature last year. I must admit, I hadn’t actually heard of her before this point! It seemed like something I should rectify – especially after reading the glowing, bordering on gushing, introduction to this collection by Jonathan Franzen (another writer I’ve never read, incidentally).

I’ve got very into short stories over the past couple of years. I never used to have the patience for them – I got irritated at being given a snippet of a story, only to have it snatched away and replaced with another just as I was getting into it. I don’t know if I’ve just read better short stories in recent years, or if I’ve developed more appreciation for the craftsmanship of a short story, but I’ve discovered that well-written short stories can capture my attention way beyond their brief length. And going by this collection, Munro more than deserves her reputation as a master of this form of storytelling. I found some one-line summaries of the stories in this collection on Wikipedia, which made me laugh because they all look so flimsy! Had I looked this up before I read the book I may well have decided against wasting my time with such dull stories.

However, the bare scenarios are misleading – Munro packs easily a novel’s worth of story, nuance, and above all character development into each short tale. Her writing is beautiful, and the stories never feel samey (occasionally a risk with short story collections by less talented authors). I was absorbed by each story to the point of being taken by surprise when it ended – but I never felt like I’d been cheated out of a “proper” story, the way I used to with short stories. Alice Munro has instantly gone onto my “favourite authors” list, and I can’t wait to get my hands on more of her books.

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