What We're Reading - 22 May 2020

Opinion - Books Friday, 22 May 2020

The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables


Neill Denny
I have an irrational aversion to time-slip novels, so one with three different narratives spanning a period of 250 years should represent some sort of personal nadir, but I am thoroughly enjoying The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld (Cape). I'm about half-way through, and still trying to make sense of how all the characters fit together, but the dialogue is great - particularly the Fleabag-like Viv - and there is a haunted house, a simmering sense of violence and the promise of some sort of Wicker Man-style denouement. Most importantly, Wyld's writing has the smack of instant, but indefinable, class.

David Roche
I have been recommended the 'Max Heller series' of books by Frank Goldammer, and The Air Raid Killer (Amazon Crossing) is the first. Translated from the original German by Steve Anderson, the story is set in Dresden during the height of the bombing in WWII, when there is also a killer on the loose who preys on young women and eviscerates his victims before stringing them up in gory, 'artistic' poses - think the Hannibal Lector escapes scene in Silence of the Lambs. This seems an over-trodden path and I am not gripped by either the writing or the characters. I can't help feeling there are many better options out there for someone like me who is looking for intelligent thrillers and a new protagonist to follow. Ideas welcome to @davidlrroche.

Lucy Nathan
I'm about halfway through American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (Transworld) and it is just so good. It's a fictionalised account of Laura Bush's life, from her childhood right through to George W Bush's presidency. There are things that feel strange about that - sex scenes involving a man whose time as president was drenched with innocent blood are not really my cup of tea - but there are enough distinctions from their actual lives that it's still a really enjoyable read. I love an epic of a book that takes in a person's whole life - Behind The Scenes At The Museum, Any Human Heart, The Heart's Invisible Furies, etc - and Alice Blackwell would be a quietly fascinating character even if her real life counterpart had never existed. I feel so incredibly attached to her that I'm happy to spend 600 pages in her company.

Julie Vuong
After enjoying My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, I thought it was high time I joined the rest of planet Earth and read The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (Penguin). It's hard to judge a book honestly when it comes with so much baggage, and it's impossible to remove this classic from its dark associations. I've never felt compelled to pick it up because I assumed it was full of nihilist teenage angst and violence, but instead - and surprisingly - I got a rather sad and tender tale. What I'll remember most are the passages of Holden Caulfield with his younger sister who, despite being younger, is a more mature soul, unwilling to give up on her wayward brother. There's a lot Salinger is saying in this novel about growing up as an outsider, but being devoid of human emotion and empathy is, I'm glad to say, not one of them.

Jo Henry
I was aware of experiments to rewild parts of Britain, but it was only on hearing the news this week that white storks had hatched in Britain for the first time since 1416, on the Knepp Estate, did I seek out Isabella Tree's 2018 book, Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm (Picador). She, along with her husband Charlie Burrell, are the owners of Knepp, once an intensively farmed landscape in Sussex but since the beginning of this century the site of a pioneering experiment to return the land to nature, with the Birds introducing free-roaming grazing animals that are descendants of those herds that would have grazed the land millennia ago. They - and the environmental world - have been astounded by the results. Knepp now provides a home for some extremely rare species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, purple emperor butterflies - and the newsworthy white storks, and she tells the story with great clarity and insight. With the current slower pace of the world, and the stories of nature reasserting itself all round the globe, it can only be hoped that post pandemic governments will pay greater attention to what can be done when there is the will.

Nicholas Clee
A fatal lack of preparedness; strategic misjudgements and tactical cock-ups; a Prime Minister accused of blustering in an attempt to disguise his lack of competence. I am referring to Britain in 1942, as portrayed in Daniel Todman's Britain's War: A New World, 1942-47 (Allen Lane). This book may now be the principal recommendation in its field, because of its revelatory merger of military, political and social history (some of the military details being quite dense for the lay reader). It is a huge work, and in order to avoid getting jaded I am reading it in two halves. I'm at the point in the conflict that Churchill called - again, there is contemporary resonance - the end of the beginning; but there's still a lot of pain ahead.

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