What We're Reading - 8 January 2021

Lucy Nathan
Opinion - Books Friday, 8th January 2021

The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables

Nicholas Clee
After I had recommended in this column Patrick Hoffman's thriller Clean Hands, Clare Drysdale at Grove Press (Atlantic) very kindly sent me the novel of his I hadn't read, Every Man a Menace. From the first paragraph, you know he's good. The prose, like Elmore Leonard's, has a pleasing rhythm: it swings. Hoffman's novels share Leonard's amorality, though not the larkiness. In Every Man a Menace, we follow various characters in the chain of supply of MDMA, from facilitators in Bangkok, to Russian-Israeli nightclub owners and middlemen in Miami, to buyers and dealers in California. As in Hoffman's other novels, it's the women who are the smarter, tougher, more ruthless, and yet more sympathetic.

Neill Denny
From druids to hearts of oak, from the Royal Oak to the green man, The Oak Papers by James Canton (Canongate) looks at the oak tree from every conceivable angle. The author is a man consumed by his subject, sitting for hours, days even, underneath the splendid, 800 year-old Honywood Oak at the Marks Hall Estate in Essex. It is the last survivor of 300 oaks felled in the 1950s, whose half-buried stumps still remain in the pine woods that replaced them. The book comprises nature observations extracted from Canton's diary, plus interviews with people who know about oaks and their role in ecology, plus snippets of oak-related poetry and history. The book is an exploration of all things oak and why the author feels so soothed in their presence. The one thing it lacked for me were photographs of the blessed tree, but perhaps that is a deliberate omission to make the imagination work harder.

Jo Henry
I'm deep into the first round of judging for the adult fiction category of the Selfies book awards, and so far have enjoyed reading about how to achieve a satisfactory arranged marriage, the life of a crooked art dealer, a time-travelling university lift and a number of alternative universes. In other news, my latest book club read is the wonderfully gothic Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Penguin Classics), a 'popular' Victorian author (according to Wikipedia). She was extraordinarily prolific, publishing more than 80 novels as well as producing a magazine and six children. Lady Audley's Secret compares favourably to Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (it was published a few years later), and I recommend it to anyone who likes 19th century literature with a very satisfying villain.

Lucy Nathan
Not sure I'll ever stop banging on about how much I love everything Erin Kelly writes - she is just so good. Hodder kindly sent me a proof of her new book, Watch Her Fall (out in April), and it is brilliant. It's set in the world of ballet, and opens on a new production of Swan Lake, starring Ava Kirilova and choreographed by her father Nicky. Although she's at the peak of her career, Ava is lonely and paranoid, and maybe with good reason. This book is about the strength of ballerinas and the brutality of a career that looks beautiful and delicate from the outside, and it's also got one of the best twists I've ever read, the sort of absolutely ideal twist that is unexpected but makes perfect sense when you flip back to look for clues. I read it in a day and couldn't put it down - Kelly's writing is immersive, beautifully crafted, packed with suspense and perfectly plotted.

Julie Vuong
Winter, especially December, always bring me back to the classics. Usually I reach for an old friend, a Dickens or Agatha Christie, but Middlemarch (Penguin Classics) has been lingering for far too long on my unread stack. I didn't expect to find it so 'readable', for want of a better word, and I have flown through the first half. The Guardian recently counted Edward Casaubon as one of literature's 10 most dislikeable characters, so I'm even more eager to find out what happens! I know I'm 150 years late to the Middlemarch party but no spoilers please. 

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