What We're Reading - 30 October 2020

Lucy Nathan
Opinion - Books Friday, 30th October 2020

The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables


Jo Henry
In 1929 Laura Cumming's mother Betty, aged 3, was kidnapped from a beach in Lincolnshire - not, however, by a stranger, but by someone from her past. Returned within the week, Betty herself knew nothing about this until some 50 years later, and it's left to her daughter to uncover the details of what happened - and why. With the bare bones of the event revealed in a memoir Cumming persuades her mother to write, she manages to tease out a very convincing version of the story by interrogating photographs, speaking to the very few witnesses still alive and using her imagination. Cummings is the art critic of the Observer, and the story she tells in On Chapel Sands (Chatto & Windus) is wonderfully visual. The Guardian’s review called it 'a love letter to her mother', which it is, but it is also a slice of extraordinary social history and a fascinating mystery story. Highly recommended.

Nicholas Clee
Michael Robotham won his second Gold Dagger last week, for Good Girl, Bad Girl (Sphere). The novel introduces two new characters, whose story continues in the more recent When She Was Good: Cyrus Haven, a forensic psychologist, and Evie Cormac, a disturbed teenage occupant of the care system. You have to go with the set-up: the extreme, bloody catastrophes in Cyrus' and Evie's pasts; the surely irregular level of access that Cyrus gains to a murder investigation; the mature self-awareness and articulacy of Evie's narrative. I was happy to accept these propositions, turning the pages compulsively.

Lucy Nathan
It feels as though we're living in pretty bleak times at the moment, which means that I have turned to warm and lovely books - and there is nothing more warm and lovely than Laura Wood's YA novels. A Snowfall of Silver (Scholastic) is her latest, and it was completely charming from the first page. Not only do we get to revisit characters from Wood's first novel, the equally gorgeous A Sky Painted Gold, there's also an absolutely blissful story following Freya, who dreams of being an actress, as she joins a touring theatre company as a costume assistant. The book combines a satisfying coming of age story with a perfectly paced romance and a host of brilliant side characters. If things feel grey at the moment, there's nothing better to read than any of Laura Wood's books.

Neill Denny
A reassessment of China's war-time role is the premise of China's Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism by Rana Mitter (Belknap Press). China fought the war from 1937, not 1939 like us laggards in the West, when it was invaded by Japan, and it lost at least ten million people in the conflict. But because most of the fighting was conducted by Chang Kai-Shek's Nationalists, Mao and the Communists, who won the civil war after 1945 and subsequently downplayed the enormous struggles endured by the Chinese during the war. But now the Chinese are discovering a new, nationalist pride in how they helped to defeat Japan. And, Mitter argues, it's time we gave the Chinese more credit for their efforts, symbolised by their role as one of the founders of the UN in 1945 and first signatories of the universal declaration of human rights in 1948. All in all, an interesting counterpoint to the usual negative view of China. 

David Roche
I always look forward to a new Robert Harris as you can be fairly sure what you will get: well researched history, some interesting characters - often from opposing sides - that have their own involvement that intersects with and influences the events, and a page turning story. His latest, V2, (Faber & Faber) is no exception. Towards the end of the war, Nazi Germany is facing defeat and ramps up its remarkable technical prowess in rocket development to bomb London from a distance with the frightening V2 that travels three times the speed of sound and takes 5 minutes from launch to deliver its 1 ton of high explosives warhead. British female spies with mathematical genius are hired to detect where the launch bases are located and sent to occupied territory to zero in. A return to his gripping best after the slightly disappointing A Second Sleep.

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