The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables
The annual treat that is the Wolfson Prize takes the heavy lifting out of choosing some first-rate history to get stuck into. Shortlisted this year is Judith Herrin's Ravenna, Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe (Allen Lane). The incongrous fact that Ravenna, the Italian equivalent of Lowestoft or Falmouth, became the final capital of the Roman Empire has stayed with me since school. Herrin explains the background and the 300-year period when Ravenna really was one of the most important places in the world. We have Romans, Goths, Lombards and the Byzantines and the extraordinary architecture, and perhaps the finest collection mosaics in the world, that they left behind. Nine years of research went into this masterwork, and it shows on every page.
Recommended to me by a friend as an antidote to the reading slump, The High House by Jessie Greengrass (Swift) has indeed proved to be compulsively readable. In the growing genre of so-called climate fiction we're in the not-too-distant future and in what I take to be an East Anglian landscape, although she - cleverly - is never specific about where it's set. Communities are being battered by extreme weather including floods, drought, fire - clearly all too possible with even the UK now regularly experiencing these phenomenon - and a small but loosely connected group of people prepare for the coming crisis. The compromises they have to make really do make you think how you'll cope in these circumstances. Fine to bake your own bread - but where will the flour come from? The challenges they have to overcome and the dynamics of the protagonists are brilliantly described; like Ishiguro, she shows rather than tells.
As I read Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery by Rosalie Knecht (Verve Books), I thought: "This could be a No Exit book" - and then I learned that Verve is a No Exit imprint. Like a number of the publisher's authors, Knecht writes in the noir tradition, with a distinctive take on it. It is Vera, and not, as Chandler wrote, a man, who must go down the mean streets. The year is 1967, and in California young people are embracing flower power; but Vera in New York, some distance from enjoying liberation, has worked for the distinctly uncool CIA, and as this novel opens is fired from her job for being a lesbian. She sets up as a private detective, opening a low rent office off Union Square. A commission by a couple from the Dominican Republic to find their nephew leads her again (following her adventures in Argentina in Who Is Vera Kelly?) into the murky world - made no less murky by her country's interfering - of Latin American politics. All noir detectives, from Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe on, are mysteries; through the most laconic of means, Knecht invites us to question whether her title is apt.
I am enjoying Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead so much (Doubleday, out on 4 May). It's a huge, sprawling, epic historical novel following aviator Marian Graves, from her father leaping off a sinking ship holding his twin babies in his arms to her days flying Spitfires in the Second World War to her final journey in 1950 (although I haven't got there yet - no spoilers, it's in the blurb). It also follows actress Hadley Baxter half a century later, as she prepares to play Marian in a film. This novel is full of detail which is absolute heaven to read - there are so many characters, each of them rounded and fascinating, and so much plot. It's an endlessly interesting book and Shipstead has the most beautiful turn of phrase which is evident on every page.