The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables
Getting in the mood for a trip to Brighton racecourse, I reread Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock. Greene puzzlingly categorised it as an "entertainment", though it contains at least as much anguished theology as, say, the "novels" The End of the Affair and The Heart of the Matter. Similarly puzzling are Greene's sympathies: he clearly finds the avenging and supposedly good Ida somewhat repulsive, both morally and physically; the supposedly damned gangster Pinkie and his pathetic girlfriend Rose are much more to their author's taste. One is reminded that Greene reported that in his youth he had played Russian Roulette, flirting with mortal sin. Believing in damnation, he thrills in inhabiting the characters of those who accept damnation as their fate.
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason (W&N) has been described a lot as 'summer's hottest book!' but don't let that distract you from the fact that it is actually really, really good. It hits that perfect balance between humour and pain - not surprising, from the title - and it is also incredibly tender. It follows Martha as she separates from her husband Patrick following years of mental illness, which sounds bleak but somehow is not. The relationships between Martha and her family are beautifully drawn - their love for her, through everything - and it's fascinating to see how the plot slowly unravels, but most of all, it's the voice that makes this novel really great: that cynicism hiding a deep well of hurt and uncertainty. It's the kind of book where you need to read every line to make sure you haven't missed a gem. Mason somehow succeeds in putting into words the most shadowy and uncertain of feelings.
Techno-billionaires and one-percenters hiding out in New Zealand, waiting for the apocalypse in enormous mansions with safe rooms, mega-yachts bobbing in the harbour. Our hero is there to relieve them of some of their ill-gotten gains, his family was bankrupted in the crash of 2008 and now it's payback time... until they make him an offer he can't refuse. Andy McNab's Whatever It Takes (Random House; Corgi) is not one of his Nick Stone thrillers, and feels like an ill-judged move away from the inside-track SAS heroics that made him Ant Middleton before Ant Middleton was Ant Middleton. The writing is technically better than some of his earlier fare, but the plot is sluggish and the hero, fatally, a quantity surveyor and former captain in the Royal Engineers - not what his audience wants at all. One interesting detail: published in the autumn of 2019, it mentions a 'synthetic virus breakout' as one of the potential causes of the coming-soon apocalypse. Now that might make a book...
No idea really why I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri's latest novel Whereabouts (Bloomsbury) - I guess that's the secret sauce that we'd all like to be able to identify. Perhaps because I remember her name from the Booker shortlist in recent years, perhaps because this Pulitzer winning author decided to write this novel in Italian. It's a novel not built on plot but a depiction of solitude through various chapters set in everyday situations in, one assumes, a generic Italian town. It is based on the narrator's observations and musings with little of note happening but it is not surprising to learn of the string of awards that Lahiri has picked up along the way for her writing. I've immediately dived into another collection of her short stories, and that's a pretty good recommendation after one’s first experience of an author's work.
I've been rather struggling with my latest book club choice, The Mandlebaum Gate by Muriel Spark (Penguin). I usually love Spark's iconoclastic view of the world, and it's set in an interesting period and place (a 1950s Jerusalem divided between Israel and Jordan), a source of high tension for all the inhabitants, not least diplomat, poet and aesthete Freddy Hamilton. Barbara Vaughan, a tourist he meets, is half Jewish, half Anglican - and now converted to Catholicism, which is causing problems for her proposed marriage to a divorced archaeologist working in Jordan. Obviously all this religious stuff still matters to many people, but there is so much will she/won't she, will he/won't he, and dodgy dealings in grimy back streets that I don't really get the point of, that I can't really find my way into the narrative flow.