What We're Reading - 5 March 2021

Lucy Nathan
Opinion - Books Friday, 5th March 2021

The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables


Nicholas Clee
What a special treat to get a new novel by the marvellous Mary Lawson. She is not prolific: A Town Called Solace (Chatto) is only her third novel since she made her debut with Crow Lake in 2002. Such profound simplicity clearly takes a while to hone. You might call her a quiet novelist, except that there is a good deal of melodrama in her fiction; the term is apt, though, for the unobtrusive way in which she achieves such telling effects. A Town Called Solace is set, as are Lawson's three previous novels, in Northern Ontario, and follows in turn seven-year-old Clara, whose sister has run away from home; Elizabeth, Clara's neighbour, whose heart is failing; and Liam, the inheritor of Elizabeth's estate. With extraordinary skill, Lawson pulls together the plot strands. Some of her most memorable scenes are on the surface unremarkable, until you get to the end and wonder whether you've been holding your breath, so transfixed have you been by the poignancy and truthfulness of the writing. How does she do it? It's not reproducible. It's her own particular magic.

Jo Henry
For the last few days Facebook has been reminding me that three years ago I was in Vieng Xai, in north-eastern Laos, where the Pathet Lao lived in mountain caves for the nine years of the American war, hiding from the approximately one bomb every eight minutes being dropped there despite no official declaration of war. So I was delighted to see in my local church's fund raising bookstall a Colin Cotterill mystery, Disco for the Departed (Quercus), that I hadn't read. It is set in Laos in the mid 1970s, and our hero is the elderly - and Vietnamese trained - Dr. Siri, who post revolution acts as Laos' only coroner. The action takes place in and around the atmospheric and now abandoned caves in Vieng Xai, where the doctor and his trusted nurse solve an old mystery with a mixture of great human intuition and some help from Dr. Siri's shamanistic spirits - and despite the intervention of some Cuban black magic.

Lucy Nathan
I've seen a lot of people online recommending The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice (Headline Review), so when I found the copy I bought and neglected to read about ten years ago, I had to crack it open. And it is such a treat: set in 1954, it opens when Penelope Wallace accepts a rather unorthodox invitation to a tea party from Charlotte, her soon-to-be best friend. Penelope's life is split between the crumbling manor house she lives in with her Elvis Presley obsessed brother Inigo and her mother Talitha, a legendary beauty, and her new friends, such as Charlotte's sardonic magician cousin Harry, who asks Penelope to help him make his former love Marina jealous. This book sparkles like champagne: it's so funny, and every single character dances off the page. There's a delicious note of melancholy running through it, but that doesn't take away from the sheer joy of it.

Neill Denny
Currently reading The End of the Ocean by Maja Lunde (Scribner/S&S UK). Half-way through this book, and it's a strong love/hate relationship. Love the plot: ageing environmentalist takes plucky direct action to save the glaciers; meanwhile, 20 years in the future, desperate European refugees are forced north as the Continent turns to desert. Hate the slow pace: just too slow, a lot of meandering dialogue, tedious introspection and over-detailed descriptions, and not enough info on the dystopian nightmare itself. I want to see more of burning France! Also, and this is petty I know, but I find it increasingly annoying that a book published in London and written by a Norwegian slavishly uses American spelling all the way through, or rather thru! Makes me feel like a refugee inside my own language. But, like all good love/hate relationships, I'll stick with it because I really want to find out how it ends.   

David Roche
Mayflies (Faber) is the first Andrew O'Hagan novel I have read and it certainly will not be the last. It's only just turned March but I doubt I am going to find another novel that will comfortably beat this one when it comes to choosing my personal book of the year come December. It's a book in two parts, with the first painting the picture of a group of young pals from Glasgow going on a trip to Manchester to see bands, chat up girls, get lashed and have a good time. It's not Lad Lit in any way and the observations are acute and affectionate. The second half is a couple of decades later and explores the relationship of the two lead characters and how their lives have changed, and the way that their friendship copes with what life has to throw at them. This is an emotional ride which really sucks you in. It is exquisitely written and made me exhale with a big sigh and just sit still, thinking deeply, when I closed the book at the end - I'm sure I'm not the only one who reacted strongly to it. How good is it? I immediately ordered a hardback for myself and a paperback to give to someone important. I can see myself giving a few copies of this book to people who matter to me.

Julie Vuong
Every so often, I get a craving for a dense fantasy novel with maps at the front. While I'm partial to revisiting my favourites such as The Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, I was recommended the Pellinor series by Alison Croggon (Walker). The first instalment, The Gift, follows a slave called Maerad who quickly learns she's more than a milkmaid and is destined for greater things. It's fast-paced and full of the common tropes of the genre, which I didn't mind too much. What I found a little disappointing was how information was casually thrown in to make sense of an upcoming scene, and that everything was just a bit too coincidental. Also, I could have done with more world building. The fantasy novels I think work best go deep into how societies and systems work; everything from the quotidian stuff like the tax system, postal network and food, to the magical structures. That said, The Gift was enjoyable and I'll be continuing with the series, perhaps just not yet.