The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables
I'm just starting Hamnet (Tinder Press), Maggie O'Farrell's much anticipated and now Women's Prize shortlisted retelling of the life of William Shakespeare's short lived son, who probably inspired one of his best-known plays. I'm already immersed in a drowsy summer afternoon in a strangely empty house in Stratford. Hamnet's twin sister, Judith, takes to her bed with some odd looking swellings - and Hamnet cannot find any adults around to seek help from. His mother is tending her bees in the fields, and the tension underlying the bucolic setting is already ratcheting up; I know that I am in the hands of a master storyteller.
Reading John Lanchester's 2018 essay about Agatha Christie, thanks to its temporary release from behind the London Review of Books paywall, prompted me to buy A Murder Is Announced (HarperCollins), a Miss Marple mystery that Lanchester praises and that - I'm pretty sure - I hadn't read. I think that even Lanchester, an admirer, underestimates Christie's widely derided prose, which seems to me to create exactly the effects she wants: irony, mystery, tension, disquiet. Where she really excels, though, is in set-ups (rather than, except in a few celebrated instances, solutions - I guessed this one). Here, she opens with a local newspaper classified ad: "A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30pm"...
Lockdown day 53, and the need for travel via the medium of books is more urgent than ever. This week's escape capsule is The History of Seafaring by Donald S Johnson and Juha Nurminen (Conway), a truly monumental piece of publishing. Over 300 illustrations, getting on for 400 pages, it is printed on top-quality paper and weighs, according to one review, over 6 lbs. I'm never sure what the commercial case is for books like these, but it is a stupendous feat of scholarship for which I am grateful. It's a labour of love from two authors with a feel for the subject, which is basically anything to do with navigation and seafaring from the neolithic to GPS, and all points in between including King Arthur, the Vikings, Christopher Columbus, Cook and Shackleton. You can almost taste the salt and feel the wind in your hair.
In for a pandemic, in for Armageddon. The Precipice - Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity (Bloomsbury) by Toby Ord is surprisingly a book of hope, given that he believes there is a 1 in 6 chance that an existential crisis will hit in the next century and the future potential of the human race may be blunted permanently. Ord examines our self-inflicted risks such as nuclear winters and climate change, and potential new threats such as engineered pandemics and artificial general intelligence reaching singularity. This work crosses multiple disciplines of science and PPE, but is nicely structured for the lighter reader, such as myself. Of the 468 pages, 241 are the general book, which is followed by 7 appendices giving more detail on specific areas e.g. ethics, risk, policy and research; 132 pages of notes that are for the heavy lifters who want to drill down into greater detail; and then the extensive bibliography and index.
'I'll just read a few chapter of Magpie Lane,' I thought this afternoon, 'so I can put it in What We're Reading.' Then I completely neglected the rest of my life for the next five hours and read the entire thing. Lucy Atkins' new novel (Quercus) is just brilliant - although I will read pretty much any book that features a spooky old house with a dark past, this one has such a wonderful air of menace. It is set in Oxford (brilliantly evoked) and is about a little girl who has gone missing and her nanny Dee, who - like the house - has a dark past. A clever and engaging thriller, perfect for anyone who, like me, also loves Erin Kelly, Liz Nugent and Sabine Durrant.