What We're Reading - 21 May 2021

Lucy Nathan
Opinion - Books Friday, 21st May 2021

The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables


Neill Denny
Atlantic Wars: From the Fifteenth Century to the Age of Revolution by Geoffrey Plank (OUP) considers the ocean around and on which wars constantly swirl as a single basin of conflict. The basic narrative is violence enabled by technology, as Europeans build ocean-going vessels and use them to exploit the coasts of America and Africa at the point of a gun. Plank is at pains to examine the effects on indigenous populations, surprised by the arrival of mobile, wooden fortresses off their shores, but we also meet Muslim slave raiders terrorising Iceland, Basque whalers fighting in Newfoundland, and the sophisticated kingdoms of West Africa. Shortlisted for next month's Wolfson prize, this is comprehensive, detailed, big-picture history.

Julie Vuong
I knew I was in for a wild ride from the first sentence of Octavia E Butler's classic sci-fi Kindred (Headline Books). 'The last time I went back home I lost my arm', our protagonist says. For Dana, this final trip is a time travel to the slave plantation where the young master, a controlling, jealous yet sometimes tender figure, turns out to be her distant ancestor. Her mission is to keep him alive long enough for him to sire his daughter and keep Dana's line of the family alive. But can she bear to support the life of someone so dangerous? It's such a great hook and presents a tension I've not read before. The result is Kindred probes the kind of subject matter that some may find distasteful to debate today. It's incredibly fast, brutal and bloody - and also one of the most thought-provoking books I've read in a while. 

Lucy Nathan
The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward (Viper Books) is one of the most sensationally twisty and gripping books I've read in a long time. It is dark, and grotesque at times, but there is an odd and sad warmth at the core of the book, which stars an odd, reclusive loner, his cat, the sister of a missing girl - and another girl, whose existence is dark and horrifying. So many thrillers are advertised as having an incredible twist at the moment - the Gone Girl effect, still raging on after all these years - and as a result, sometimes I feel as though I'm ploughing through pages and pages of set-up before being presented with a rather bland 'twist' that feels like a bit of a letdown. But this book is absolutely full of shocks and surprises that make complete sense. It's a Russian doll of a book - an incredibly clever literary thriller, with countless secrets at its core. 

Jo Henry
I was a great fan of Diane Setterfield's debut novel The Thirteenth Tale which sold in its millions, but have taken a long time to get to her latest, Once Upon a River, published in 2018 by Transworld. But what a treat! Set in a number of small villages scattered not far from the source of the Thames, this is a book about storytelling that also is a brilliant embodiment of the art of storytelling itself. A small child is recovered from the river. She is dead, but then revives - and everyone who sees her feels a mysterious pull to keep her. Who is she? How is she going to impact on the lives of the many people involved in her story? Full of satisfying mystery, well rounded characters and a great sense of time and place, I do not want this to end.

David Roche
A new Kazuo Ishiguro novel is a real treat so I couldn't wait to get my teeth into Klara and the Sun (Faber), which has already been reviewed excellently by two of my colleagues on here. I am a big admirer of Ishiguro's prose and the simplicity it appears to have which is so difficult to achieve. I also enjoyed this book very much and thought about it beyond the last page for a while. However, Klara, the 'Artificial Friend' whose story we follow, lacks something that I love in, say, Stevens in Remains of the Day - the straight-faced mask that hides the repressed, and ever so human, depth, warmth and emotions that swim underneath but cannot be shown, and the struggle that results. The fact that Klara is not human meant I couldn't engage to the same degree - and as a result I probably missed the point, and the brilliant allegorical nuances that I was supposed to get!

Nicholas Clee
Kevin Power's White City (Simon & Schuster) is a modern-day version of Martin Amis' Money, with drugs replacing booze (though there's a fair amount of drinking too), and Dublin and Serbia replacing London and New York. There are a few nods to Amis' novel: his John Self gets humiliated on a tennis court, while Power's Ben (we do not learn his surname) gets humiliated on a rowing machine; Self has "blackouts" instead of naps, while Ben has "comas". Like Amis' anti-hero, Ben is hopelessly uncontrolled in his appetites, and, it turns out (I'm not spoiling the plot, because this does not come as a surprise), a dupe.  The prose of both authors is rich in comic conceits. There is more pain in Power's novel, though. Ben is a lost soul, for whom, in spite of his narcissism and haplessness, one feels an appalled sympathy.