The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables
In keeping with the vogue, Margarette Lincoln's London and the 17th Century (Yale) is as much about ordinary lives as it is about great events. Yes, of course we get the execution of the King, the Civil War, the Restoration, the Great Plague and the Great Fire, and the Glorious Revolution; but we also get the sights (when not obscured by pollution), smells (mostly noisome) and sounds (clamorous) of the capital as it more than doubled in population. We learn about dwellings and coffee houses, fashions and food. We picture the Thames teeming with trading ships and warships - a subject that Lincoln, curator emeritus at the National Maritime Museum, is well equipped to explore. It is an exciting experience.
Here's a piece of advice: don't start The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean (Hodder) at night, because you will end up going to bed ridiculously late before lying awake for hours, feeling creeped out and disconcerted. Did I enjoy this book? Not sure 'enjoy' is the right word. It's about a young Vietnamese woman being held captive on a remote farm who is horrendously abused, physically, mentally, emotionally, and sexually. It was hugely effective and compelling, impossible to put down, brilliantly written - Dean is very good at getting inside a woman's head, something I would not say about all that many male authors. It's a really successful novel that shone a light on the horrors of human trafficking, and there are moments of triumph, but considering the horrors depicted throughout the book, the ending felt too much like a fairytale for me.
My book club is taking solace in the early 20th century, reading The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (Penguin). I can't now remember what I felt about Lily Bart when I first read this many years ago, but with a late 20th/early 21st century sensibility, I find myself not just aghast as ever at the choice that then confronted a woman of a certain class (marry well or your life is effectively over), but also somewhat exasperated by Lily's helplessness. Wharton herself was brought up in the milieu of rich New York and has a sharp eye for the social mores of the time, with much to say about the place of women in that society (purely ornamental if not financially independent). Lily is certainly much more sinned against than sinning, but she manages to thwart her own plans to achieve a suitable marriage time and time again. Is her failure to buy into the transactional nature of relationships enough of a redeeming feature to admire her? I'm still not quite sure.
My memory is dreadful and I can happily watch re-runs of the likes of Morse and be pleasantly surprised all over again by the plot reveal at the end. I remember Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell with fondness but can't recall a thing about it. Reading reviews of Susannah Clarke's new novel Piranesi (Bloomsbury) did draw me to it and I put it in my Christmas wishlist in BookBrunch's roundup in December in the hope that a copy might appear on my doorstep or hearth. Nada. With its publishers (and Santa) either not reading this or failing to take the hint, I finally bought a copy and dived in last week. I won't spoil it for anyone but will just recommend it highly to anyone who wants to be transported by fiction into a grand and lonely world of expansive elegance and faded glory but with a connection for the times we are going through now. It's very imaginative, clever, puzzling, and thought provoking. Better than JS&MN? No idea. Yes. I don't think I will forget this one.
In the last week or so I have seen on TV two film dramatisations of books I have previously enjoyed, always a dangerous moment. The film of The Lost City of Z suffered as the lead actor lacked the intensity to play the (frankly batty) explorer Percy Fawcett - where was Daniel Day-Lewis when you needed him - but the film of Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger (Virago) fell at another hurdle. The great joy of the book, one of my favourite novels of the last 20 years, is that you believe for much of it that the doctor, Faraday, is an objective observer of the sinister events, rather than (perhaps) the perpetrator. Only at the end do you realise what has been going on, that we have strayed far into the land of the unreliable narrator. The film, I'm afraid, lays it on with a trowel, they may as well as dressed him up in a cape and have him twirl a moustache, and implies, quite wrongly, that Faraday was initially motivated by a childhood slight from the eldest of the doomed Ayres children. Other aspects of the film were flawless, but the adaptation itself was flawed.