What We're Reading - 22 November 2019

Opinion - Books Friday, 22 November 2019

The BookBrunch team reveal what's on their bedside tables


Neill Denny
The Lives of Lucian Freud (William Feaver) is not the sort of book I would normally buy, since I have irrational aversions to A) any book larger than a house brick, B) any two-part biography. This book fails on both counts. However - and organisers of the Booker take note - at the Baillie Gifford awards dinner guests receive a randomly selected copy of one of the shortlisted books, and I walked away with Freud under my arm on Tuesday night. Too early to make a judgement, but just from the first few pages it is obvious the author knew Freud inside out, and if ever there was a subject crying out for a good biography, it is the rogue and genius painter. And this only covers the life to the age of 46, so Bloomsbury will be congratulating themselves on the prospect of a second volume.

David Roche
The Gordon Burn Prize is one of the more interesting awards out there and, as a cornerstone of the Durham Book Festival, it is certainly one of the most enjoyable evenings in the literary calendar. This year's winner is For the Good Times (Faber) by David Keenan. It is about the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the Seventies, and the kids who "go rogue" and discover the intensity and seduction of power and risk. If you want to go in hard with a novel about these times, for me this is the recent one to read over Anna Burns' Milkman. As with many winners of this prize, and the late Gordon Burn's own work, it is hard-hitting and unforgiving in its directness, but has a humour that will keep you smiling as you grimace.

Nicholas Clee
The modern novel to which I return even more often than I do to Kingsley Amis' The Old Devils is John Updike's Couples (Penguin). The two have something in common: Martin Amis described The Old Devils as his father's best novel, and Couples as Updike's worst. Yes, phrases such as "inner petals drenched in helpless nectar" (he's not talking about flowers) are not infrequent as Updike anatomises the sexual manoeuvrings of a group of New England adulterers in the early Sixties. But the novel brims with wit and precise, tender observation: like many great artists, Updike makes seductive and glamorous what he must also show to be - he is a religious writer - sinful. These couples are real to me.

Julie Vuong
Fiction seems to have forgotten English football's lower rungs, where the high performance training grounds of the Premier League are replaced by school gyms, and packed stadiums give way to shed stands. It's here Ross Raisin's protagonist Tom Pearman, a once promising England youth player, is coming to terms with a new life at Town, a club languishing at the bottom of the table, and with his own sexuality. This is matched with the struggles of Leah Easter, the captain's wife, who realises her own dreams have been substituted for her husband's career. For me, the storytelling was too sparse: it felt like sitting in the gods at a stadium, away from the action. Raisin should be applauded for tackling sexuality in football, however, and A Natural will find loyal fans across the sports and LGBQT divide.

Lucy Nathan
I am about 50 pages into An Ice-Cream War, William Boyd's second novel. Like most people, I loved Any Human Heart, and I also enjoyed Sweet Caress, and I want to love this book just as much; but so far, there isn't that immediate emotional connection. However, I'm not completely sure that there's supposed to be, and I'm looking forward to reading more. Boyd's writing is so darkly comic and so lush with perfectly chosen descriptions that I could enjoy pretty much anything by him.

Jo Henry
Shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction last year, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar was billed as being in the same vein as Golden Hill, one of my books of the century so far. When one of Mr Hancock's captains returns with a mermaid rather than a full cargo, Mr Hancock and his household are thrust into a new - and not entirely comfortable - milieux. Even though I'm not entirely convinced by our heroine's transformation from hardened harlot to witchy wife, this is a delicious romp through the stews of 18th-century London, with a touch of the supernatural.

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