What We're Reading - 6 August 2021

Lucy Nathan
Opinion - Books Friday, 6th August 2021

The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables

Neill Denny
Perhaps Lee Child is to blame, a Brit writing as an American, but certainly that is the style Chris Whitaker has gone for, and he pulls it off seamlessly in We Begin At The End (Zaffre), even if he lives in 'Hertforshire (sic) with his family' according to the inside back cover. We are in very small town America, and a convicted murderer is returning home after years in prison to pick up the threads of his life. Everyone knows everyone, and most of it isn't good. At times, I find the macho American noir concision of some of the writing too try-hard for my taste (example A - and this is a complete sentence: 'An acre of tended grass ran to quaking aspen bold green against spring sky'), but the plot is cracking and I am hooked. As were the CWA judges, who gave it this year's Gold Dagger. 

Jo Henry
Joanna Cannon's debut novel The Trouble with Sheep and Goats was an early success in what seems to be called the 'uplit' genre, and her second novel, Three Things about Elsie (Borough Press), is very much in the same genre. This is not to belittle her achievement, and that of other authors writing similar books. Like Elizabeth Is Missing, and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, the novel looks sympathetically at people who are often marginalised - in this case an elderly lady with dementia living in a care home. Florence's struggle to try to work out a mystery from her youth through her very clouded mind, and her relationship to her friend Elsie, is humanely and sympathetically told, while Cannon's pithy use of language ("Elsie's father left for the war and returned as a telegram on the mantlepiece") means that the book is quietly and triumphantly readable.

Nicholas Clee
Jean Hanff Korelitz's The Plot (Faber) is a story of literary theft that is itself not entirely original: Terence Blacker's Kill Your Darlings (Bloomsbury, 2000) also starred a creative writing teacher who passes off a late student's work as his own. In The Plot, it's a plot rather than a whole novel that Korelitz's anti-hero, Jacob Finch Bonner, appropriates: one that the obnoxious Evan Parker divulges to him a few months before dying of a drug overdose. Jacob, whose career has been in freefall since publication of a "promising" debut, assumes that he is now the only person in the world familiar with Evan's outline; he writes it up, and achieves a success of Woman in the Window proportions. Then the anonymous messages start arriving... Thriller fans will not be surprised by Korelitz's twist, but will enjoy her acidic portrait of the literary world.

David Roche
I am told that Jonathan Franzen was more likely to have been referencing Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch than ITV's long-running TV series when naming his new book Crossroads (4th Estate). His latest novel, out in October, is set in the Seventies in small town America, and lays out the comings and goings of a dysfunctional family in a way that Franzen does so well. The Hildebrandt family is made up of Russ and Marion and their four children, and there are midlife crises, drugs, school crushes, parental absurdities and coming of age struggles. Their current flaws are interwoven with their interesting back stories, and it's often hilarious while in parts acutely cringe-making. I could not put this down and sailed through its 580 pages loving every minute. It's apparently the first of a trilogy - I look forward to finding out what's next for the Hildebrandts.

Lucy Nathan
I took a little break from the Cazalets but I'm back again, delighting in the third volume, Confusion (Pan). Set during the latter half of the Second World War, it follows our family through deep grief, affairs, coming-of-age, post-natal depression, marriages both happy and unhappy, and everything you could possibly hope for from a book so rooted in the inner worlds of fascinating characters. This book feels so real - how perfectly and specifically Howard manages to describe each emotion. It's a wonderful quintet of books, although if you want a happier ending for them all, it's probably best to stop after four.