What We're Reading - 30 July 2021

Lucy Nathan
Opinion - Books Friday, 30th July 2021

The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables


Jo Henry
Casting around for my next book, I discovered I had a Collins Classics copy of Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner, which I have never read. And what a treat! A rollicking adventure yarn, it has something in common with Treasure Island, published some 15 years earlier, although it is set on and around the south coast of England where gangs of countrabanders did their best to make a living while avoiding the Excise men, soldiers and local magistrates; if caught, they would swiftly find themselves dangling at the end of a rope. Our (anti)hero, young John Tenchard, inadvertently finds himself caught up with a band of smugglers and is soon hotfoot on the trail of some buried treasure. Will he manage to solve the clues left behind by the treacherous renegade Colonel John Mohune, aka Blackbeard, and escape unscathed? I don't know yet, but am enjoying the chase!

Nicholas Clee
Why are the novels of Ferdinand Mount not better known? Perhaps we assume that fiction is a nice hobby for him: he has been head of Mrs Thatcher's Policy Unit and editor of the TLS, and he is the author of various works of history and politics as well as of two memoirs. But if you're a fan of A Dance to the Music of Time, you might like to try Mount's Chronicle of Modern Twilight sequence, which won't disappoint in the comparison. In the prize-winning Of Love and Asthma (Vintage Digital; otherwise o.p.), we are in roughly the territory explored in Anthony Powell's work, with a self-effacing narrator and an eccentric, upper-class cast; but whereas Powell's characters are ego-driven, Mount's are misfits, less equipped to mould the world to their wills - "Hobohemians", he has called them. The novel - about the narrator's friendship with an unreliable fellow asthma sufferer, later to become an unreliable entrepreneur - is deliciously observed, funny and, as the title of the sequence implies, poignant.

Neill Denny
Henry 'Chips' Channon diaries 1918-38 (Hutchinson), week 2. Such a massive book, so densely packed, I'm starting to wonder if trying to read it in one go is a mistake, it is better perhaps to be dipped into. Certainly, the endless parade of balls, dinners, parties and weekends in the country is starting to become too rich a diet even for my taste. Channon doesn't seem have a job as such, apart from going to balls and sucking up to high society, but his view of the world through the bottom of a champagne glass is surprising clear, his stamina endless, and the footnotes from Simon Heffer (the editor) are a minor triumph in themselves. I keep finding myself repelled by the world Channon so revels in, but also drawn in, and I am learning a vast amount about the tangled politics of the inter-war period. Apparently Channon is on the wrong side of the appeasement argument, but that is still a way off...

David Roche
Third time lucky in my attempt to read Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life (Picador), and it seems I'm not the only one who has struggled to get past the first 50 or so pages. When I posted a photo of the books I intended to read this holiday, I immediately got two responses from friends who also had grappled unsuccessfully and now asked if we could form a mini Yanagihara book club to incentivise us all to get this done. And I'm delighted that I persisted and was immensely rewarded as a result - I guess that many people feeling so passionately about a book has to count for something. Once you get past the 'Friends' first few chapters, two characters in particular are explored in more depth, relationships mature, the narrative develops beautifully, and the involvement in their lives, cares and flaws is cemented. It is deeply moving and compelling. Like many I have seen before me, I could not put this book down and for the last 500 or so pages we were pretty much inseparable. It needs the time to get hitched so I recommend picking your slot.    

Lucy Nathan
Matt Haig seems to provoke a lot of strong opinions: some readers say he saved their lives, others have found his most recent title The Comfort Book hopelessly twee (you may be able to tell that I'm in the second category here, although I really enjoyed his novel How To Stop Time). But I'm here today to talk about The Midnight Library (Canongate). I was tempted to say 'If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all' and to leave this review there, but that isn't the purpose of this column. I found this book frustratingly simplistic in pretty much every way, in terms of both plot and philosophy. I love sliding doors and alternate realities in fiction but I didn't feel that it was realised in an interesting or vibrant way in this book, or that the writing had any grace or beauty. It also skimmed the surface of mental illness and suicide in a way that I found borderline insulting. Haig has plenty of fans and followers; I'm sure he won't be too worried I'm not on that list.