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.


Books I read and rather enjoyed in January

I’ve decided to do a monthly round-up of my favourites from the books I read in the previous month. For what’s been keeping me quiet in January, read on…

11 Doctors, 11 stories11 Doctors, 11 stories, by various authors

This short story collection was published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. As the title suggests, each story concerns a different incarnation of the Doctor. I was really excited to read this – both as a lifelong Doctor Who fan, and as a massive fan of several of the authors in the collection – including Patrick Ness, Eoin Colfer, Malorie Blackman, and the ever-marvellous Neil Gaiman.

I was not disappointed – I can’t imagine any Whovian would be! It’s a lovely collection, and the stories are all written with such glee – you can really tell how much fun all the contributing authors had in writing their stories. They’ve all captured their individual Doctors delightfully well. The stories are all excellent, but the ones that stood out for me were Philip Reeve’s 4th Doctor story, ‘The Roots of Evil’, featuring a sort of space station made from a living tree; Patrick Ness’ 5th Doctor story ‘The Tip of the Tongue’, featuring odd little parasites that make everyone tell the truth; and Neil Gaiman’s intensely unnerving 11th Doctor tale, ‘Nothing O’Clock’.

My only small complaint about this book is that of 11 contributing authors, only two are women. Given the wealth of great female sci-fi writers out there, and how many undoubtedly grew up, like me, hiding behind the sofa from Doctor Who baddies (even in the Classic Who era when they were clearly made out of tin foil and bubble wrap – in fact, especially then! Amiright??), I’m disappointed that they couldn’t find a more even balance of writers for this collection.

This is how you lose herThis Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz

This was given to me by my SantaThing – that’s Secret Santa for LibraryThing members, which was tremendous fun! This Is How You Lose Her is a collection of short stories (some loosely linked around the same character)  all featuring working-class, Latino (predominantly Dominican) Americans. All the stories centre around relationships and infidelity, usually from the man’s point of view. It’s the sort of matter I usually find pretty tedious – if you’ve read one account of a male protagonist basically whining about how women are bitches and monogamy sucks, you’ve read them all – but Diaz’s flawless prose and pitch-perfect characterisation lifts these stories above what could just be tired cliche. I was warned by my SantaThing to keep a Spanish dictionary handy while reading it (I actually used Google Translate, but hey!) and that was good advice – Spanish phrases and slang terms are liberally scattered throughout. Some I could work out in context, but some I did have to do some Googling to work out what was being said or implied.

This wasn’t the sort of thing I’d normally have picked up, but I’m delighted to have done so. I’m hugely impressed by Diaz’s writing, and although his female characters left a little to be desired I will be seeking out more of his work.

The Crooked SpireThe Crooked Spire, by Chris Nickson

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a bit of a fan of Chris Nickson’s series of historical crime novels set in Leeds. The Crooked Spire is a bit of a departure from this – set in 14th century Chesterfield, rather than a historical almost-police procedural like the Richard Nottingham series, The Crooked Spire put me in mind most of all of a sort of dark-ages noir. It follows the story of a wandering carpenter, John, orphaned by the Black Death that has so recently ravaged the country, and seeking work on the ambitious new spire on the church in Chesterfield. The title is a reference both to the (now) famously wonky spire in Chesterfield, and to the web of corruption John stumbles into. It’s a vivid picture of greed, murder and the worthlessness of human life to those in power – at least, of a certain class of human life.

As always with Chris Nickson’s books, he has evoked a vibrant sense of place. I’ve often wondered if I’d enjoy the Richard Nottingham series so much if I didn’t know Leeds so well. I think The Crooked Spire has answered my question: I have only visited Chesterfield once (it was for a funeral, so I wasn’t really in the mood for sightseeing!) and don’t know it at all, but the evocative descriptions made me feel like I was wandering the streets myself.

Fun HomeFun Home: a family tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel

Ok, technically I read this one back in December, but I read it in that dead period between Christmas and New Year, which as far as I’m concerned exists outside of time itself, so I’ve made a decision to count it as a January read. Because I can, and this is my blog, so there! Ahem.

And yes, I know I’m about a million years behind the entire world in finally reading this. I have no idea what took me so long to get around to it, but I’m glad I finally did! It’s wonderful. Just flat-out wonderful. For those not in the know, Fun Home is Alison Bechdel’s (she of the Bechdel test) graphic novel memoir of growing up in a funeral home (the ‘Fun Home’ of the title) and her complicated relationship with her emotionally distant, closeted father. Intertwined with this narrative is her own coming of age and discovery of her sexuality.

It’s a really beautiful read, honest and unsentimental without being cynical. The artwork is gorgeous – the final panel, showing Alison as a little girl diving into her father’s arms at the swimming pool, had me in tears. I really can’t recommend this highly enough, and will be seeking out a copy of the sequel, Are you my mother?, as soon as possible!

Book review: Black Vodka

Black Vodka is my first book-on-subscription from awesome independent publisher And Other Stories. I was so excited to read this: first of all because there was something genuinely, kid-at-Christmas exciting about getting a random new book in the post! And such a beautiful book too: in the era of the ebook, I believe that the main thing that will save print books from extinction is if they are beautiful objects. And this book certainly is: distinctive jacket design, good quality paper, lovely binding, and (I know this is a nerdy thing to say, but…) a rather beautiful typeface too. The beauty of the object is not something that I often comment on in book reviews – I’m inclined to believe the contents are more important than the container – but in this case it felt worth mentioning.

As well as the excitement of my first subscription book (with my name in it!), I was really looking forward to reading something else by Deborah Levy. I read her Booker-nominated Swimming Home last year, and loved it. Although I did also love Bring up the Bodies, I still think Swimming Home should have won.

How does love change us? And how do we change ourselves for love – or for lack of it? Ten stories by acclaimed author Deborah Levy explore these delicate, impossible questions. In Vienna, an icy woman seduces a broken man; in London gardens, birds sing in computer start-up sounds; in ad-land, a sleek copywriter becomes a kind of shaman. These are twenty-first century lives dissected with razor-sharp humour and curiosity, stories about what it means to live and love, together and alone.

I’ve always had something of a love-hate relationship with short stories. A well-crafted short story can be wonderful to read, but I’ve read too many collections where the stories either left me frustrated that they didn’t go anywhere, or just with an overwhelming feeling of “meh…”. As a wannabe (but very bad!) writer, I’m also well aware of just how difficult they are to write! I’ve never managed to write any successful short fiction: I’ve never got the hang of telling a story in such a short space of time.

However, with the deceptively slim Swimming Home Levy proved she can pack a lot of story into very few words, so I had high hopes for this collection. And I was not disappointed! The stories in Black Vodka are marvellous creations: perfect shining little jewels of story, carefully sculpted with not a word wasted. They’re all very short – the perfect length to read a couple each way on my work commute, actually! – but benefit from careful reading and re-reading.

I don’t really want to talk about any of the actual stories: mainly because they’re all so wonderfully constructed, I’d a) feel like I was spoiling them, and b) wouldn’t really know how to sum them up without making them sound trite! I will mention a couple of my favourites: Cave Girl, an exploration of constructed femininity in which a boy’s sister suddenly reappears as a “pretend woman” (no, I can’t explain it any better than that – read it!); and the final story, A Better Way to Live, which is simply one of the most moving love stories I’ve ever read.

I’m completely in love with this book, and with Deborah Levy as a writer. Will have to end this review now, as I’m off to track down everything else she’s ever written 😉

Verdict: 5/5

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