The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables
A new Mick Herron is always a treat, and the latest, Slough House (John Murray), absolutely does not disappoint. The 'slow horses' - rejects from Britain's Secret Service - appear to be under threat, possibly from a Russian hit squad. Jackson Lamb, the omnipotent gargoyle who, despite all appearances to the contrary, intends to look after his joes, is on the trail of those who have put them at risk. Murderous mayhem, laced with a lot of black humour, ensues. Complete with a Johnson-like chancer pulling strings in the background and a new media king-maker financing the deals, this not only feels like an inside story but is a sly commentary on present day Britain. If you don't already know the series, discover it now.
I absolutely love sprawling historical novels, so I knew I'd enjoy The Guest Book by Sarah Blake (Penguin) the moment I read its blurb. It follows the upper-class WASP Milton family, taking them through the 1930s, and then the 1950s, and then the present day. In the 1930s, Ogden Milton buys his wife Kitty an island after a terrible tragedy; in the 1950s, their daughter Joan falls in love with Leonard Levy, one of Milton's employees and - more controversially - Jewish; and in the present day, Evie unravels the secrets behind her family's past and wealth after her mother's death. There were times when I felt as though the author was using her characters to make sweeping statements on the nature of history, racism, etc, but it was also an incredibly enjoyable read, moving between the decades seamlessly, cleverly demonstrating the quiet, polite racism of the upper classes and delivering an extraordinarily satisfying sweeping romance - and, more heartbreakingly, an almost-romance that crackles with chemistry.
Dan Rhodes has been around for a while as an author and has been hailed for his talent over the years as much as for writing on subjects that sail close to the wind. His latest book, Sour Grapes (Lightning Books), features literary and publishing types, and authors in general, who attend a book festival devised to put a small town on the map. Fans of Dan Rhodes may not be surprised that many of the characters featured do not come off particularly well, and some are less disguised than others. There is a festival organiser called Florence Peters and an author whose raison d'etre is to use the longest, most complicated words possible - his name is Wilberforce Selfram. Dan Rhodes appears himself in the book writing Sour Grapes and while it is often funny and the targets probably deserving, the whole conceit seems somewhat stretched in this format.
The subtitle Never a Dull Moment - a quote from a royal adviser - may seem to be a hostage to fortune when applied to Jane Ridley's latest subject, George V (Chatto). George is by reputation so much less promising for the biographer than his father, Edward VII, to whose colourful life Ridley did full justice in her acclaimed Bertie: George was unimaginative, endowed with limited intellectual faculties, and the possessor of absolutely no cultural understanding. Yet he and his formidable wife, May (later Mary) of Teck were what the monarchy, and perhaps Britain, needed at the time, and they certainly lived through an interesting era: the end of Victoria's reign, Edward's succession, the First World War, crises in Ireland, and the general strike, while the behaviour of a wayward and self-indulgent son warned of trouble to come. But it's Ridley's writing that justifies the adviser's words: she has an unerring eye for the telling detail, the lively anecdote, the sharp apercu. Even on the subject of George's stamp collecting, this book is never dull.