What We're Reading - 5 November 2021

Lucy Nathan
Opinion - Books Friday, 5th November 2021

The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables


Jo Henry
A recent recommendation from a bookseller at the tiny Waterstones in Liverpool Street Station introduced me to Lissa Evans, and I'm delighted - Old Baggage (Black Swan) is one of those books you don't want to end. Mattie was, in her youth, a militant suffragette, having endured much violence at the hands of the police (plus ca change...) while in the pursuit of equal representation.  Now nearing 60, she lectures on the history of the WSPU in drafty civic halls while setting up a new club on Hampstead Heath for a group of disparate teenage girls, partly to try and counter the appeal of an embryonic Fascist youth group set up by a past comrade (a wonderfully poisonous character) but also to try and interest her members in politics, history and nature while giving them a sense of self-worth. Mattie is a wonderfully complex character, outspoken, intelligent and probably rather uncomfortable to have as a friend. But I'm loving the crispness of the prose as she moves from triumph to disaster, and will definitely look out for other books by the author now.

Nicholas Clee
Jamie Reid has made a speciality out of stories of daring and skulduggery set against the background of the racing world. First there was Doped, a deserving winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award; later came Monsieur X, about a man's attempts to exploit the French pari-mutuel betting system; in between there was Blown (Racing Post), similarly evocative of a shady world but with a more heroic figure at the centre. John Goldsmith, who trained racehorses outside Paris before the Second World War and who was bilingual, was recruited to the SOE, and sent on three missions behind enemy lines. He accompanied a French  general in a hazardous walk to freedom across the Pyrenees, fought with the Maquis, and all the while kept ahead of the Nazis until, lingering too long in a Paris cafe, he was captured; he was interrogated, locked in a third-floor hotel room, and escaped by negotiating a narrow ledge below the window. As in all his books, Reid's writing is atmospheric and pacey.

David Roche
Lucy Kellaway is my favourite caller out of bullsh*t business speak and has been doing it in the FT for more years than most. Her Sense and Nonsense in the Office book is a must but appears to have been allowed to go out of print by Pearson (?). Lucy's new book is an autobiography of sorts with the snappy title Re-educated: How I Changed my Job, My Home, My Husband, & My Hair (Ebury). It takes us through different parts of her life but really covers what happened after she separated from her husband, bought a new house, became a teacher, and set up a new company - Now Teach - to encourage business people to become teachers later in life and share the benefit of their experience and knowledge. She is refreshingly honest about her experiences and how much she herself has learned throughout the process, and often hilarious in her self-deprecation. One reads with clenched teeth at times but can only admire her endeavour, determination, and the essential value of an excellent, omnipresent sense of humour.

Neill Denny
My recent excursion to the myths of Norfolk, courtesy of Elly Griffiths and her Night Hawks, has made me return to The Lore of the Land by Westwood & Simpson (Penguin). With the splendid sub-title A Guide To England's Legends, from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys, this monumental piece of non-fiction(ish) is an astounding piece of work. Over 900 pages, a £30 hardback nearly 20 years ago, every county in England warrants its own chapter. In each are dozens of entries of local ghosts, cursings, giants, saints, myths, legends and curiosities, a mad and engaging encylopedia of the non-scientific. Needless to say, Black Shuck, the spectral dog of doom that forms a plot device in The Night Hawks, is covered in detail by Westwood & Simpson in their Norfolk chapter, with references across the county as far back as the twelth century, and no less than 74 sightings since 1977. Reassuringly, 'only 17 could be connected with death or misfortune.'

Lucy Nathan
True Crime Story by Joseph Knox (Doubleday) was so much fun, and a welcome change of pace from the unrelenting darkness of Knox's Aidan Waits crime series. It's about Zoe Nolan, a 19-year-old university student who walked out of a party in her university accommodation and vanished into thin air, and cleverly, it's told through the testimonies of her friends, family, and others who knew her, along with photographs and emails. Knox himself is a character in the novel, an interesting twist and a bit of a red herring at the same time, as the friend of Evelyn Mitchell, the author who is gathering together interviews with Zoe's nearest and not-so-dearest. This is such a clever, readable book that really tapped into my unfortunate love for true crime. It was told from multiple perspectives yet always easy to follow - all the characters had very distinctive voices (speaking of voices, I hear that the audio book is incredible), and all emerged as multi-layered and interesting, from Zoe's twin Kimberly to her shady boyfriend Andrew to the old-before-his-time Fintan. It was a pleasure to watch this mystery unfurl.