The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables
Francesca Wade's Square Haunting - which my colleague Jo Henry also enjoyed - is, I suppose, a group biography. But the term may mislead: the five women in the book are not a familial group, were not friends, and did not share aims as writers. But they did all live for a time in Mecklenberg Square in Bloomsbury, and what Wade is interested in is what the address meant to them: a chance of liberation, of a reconciliation between what society expected of them and their ambitions. The five are the imagist poet HD; Dorothy L Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey; the classicist Jane Ellen Harrison; the economic historian Eileen Power; and, of course, Virginia Woolf. Wade's knowledge of these writers' works is deep, and it pays off: her literary examples - crudely reductive in too many literary biographies - subtly illuminate her subjects. What might in other hands have been a rickety assemblage is here a compelling account of brilliant women's lives in often inhospitable times.
Kate Atkinson is one of my favourite writers, and it felt like time to reread Life After Life (Black Swan) again. It's just as brilliant as I remembered, going back and forward through time as it explores the possible lives of Ursula Todd and moves through the 20th century. It's structured tightly and cleverly, but my favourite thing about Atkinson's novels is always the sparkle and wit of her writing. Every time I reread one of her books, there's more to discover.
Patrick Gale can usually be relied on to provide a good read, and his 2005 novel Friendly Fire (Harper Perennial) is no exception. I raced through this compelling story of Sophie, the brainy girl from a children's home who wins a scholarship to the local prestigious boarding school (based loosely on Gale's own alma mater, Winchester, which makes the archaic, complex background perfectly believable). Sophie falls for fellow student Lucas, but their friendship is challenged by new boy Charlie. Friends and rivals, the three explore their sexuality while competing both intellectually and socially. It is set in the 1970s, and their relationship with a much-admired teacher - which eventually leads to tragedy on a grand scale - has one aghast at the inappropriateness of it all. But Gale is excellent at exploring emotions and relationships with great nuance, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book.