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What the critics liked

Readers expecting a lyrical evocation of the countryside may be disappointed, says Jamie Blackett in the Telegraph, but Bella Bathurst’s Field Work: What Land Does to People & What People Do to Land (Profile £16.99) “is more important than that”. It is “anthropology not hagiography”, a genuine attempt to get “under the fingernails of the people who work in land-based industries” and understand why they carry on “doing what they do, usually for little financial reward, often in great discomfort and in the face of adversity”.

Bathurst “also sheds light on our extremely urban and fragmented society and what it has asked of the countryside”, says James Rebanks in The Sunday Times. She moves into a cottage on a 180-acre hill farm in Wales, where she witnesses the “daily struggle” of an elderly farmer, Bert, to keep his farm viable. “She sees, and lets us see, the toll that farming takes.” Bathurst travels around Britain, to sheep sales with an auctioneer and to the abattoir and shop of a family butcher. She meets the founders of a rural dating agency, experiences the anxiety of TB testing and joins a knacker on his rounds: “There was a giraffe once… took a lot of folding, I can tell you.”

Bathurst has a talent “for asking the right questions, which in farming are: why is it like this? How did we get into this mess?” Field Work guides us through “complex rural issues that are hardly ever well explained and which rarely escape simplistic ideological judgements”. The book is a beautiful hybrid of social history, memoir and nature writing, says Alex Preston in The Observer. It brings “an entire world out of the shadows”. Bathurst shows us “how interesting all life is if viewed with the correct mixture of sympathy and curiosity”.

Great Circle (Doubleday £16.99) spans more than a century, moving between contemporary Hollywood, Prohibition-era Montana, wartime London, Alaska, Seattle and New Zealand, says Susie Boyt in the FT. Maggie Shipstead’s “accomplished and ambitious” novel also has “two memorable heroines”. One is Marian Graves, a fearless aviator, obsessed with flying since her childhood in 1920s rural Montana – a character “so real that I twice googled her to check. (She is not.)”. The other is Hadley Baxter, a “witty and masochistic” film star who, 60 years after Marian’s disappearance in Antarctica, is playing her in a Hollywood film about her final adventure, “a wildly daring and possibly fatal circumnavigation of the globe”.

This is a tremendously well-written book, says Claire Allfree in The Telegraph, “epic in spirit and scope, swooping across continents and through time… effortlessly”. The cast is huge, from Marian’s “wraith-like” mother, Annabel, “pole-axed by maternal terror” at the birth of Marian and her twin brother, Jamie, to the whores in a brothel “to whom a young Marian delivers whisky during Prohibition”.

What is so impressive is how deeply we come to care about each of these people, says Lynn Steger Strong in The New York Times, and how the ending “manages to pull each thread in a way that feels both thrilling and inevitable”.

Available as an audiobook on Kobo.

Vintage fiction: The Pursuit of Love

“I’m writing a book about us when we were little,” Nancy Mitford wrote to her sister Jessica on April 13, 1945. “It’s not a farce this time but serious – a novel, don’t be nervous!” The Pursuit of Love, Nancy’s fifth novel, was a roman à clef: the vivid, spirited Radletts and their eccentricities were mined from her own aristocratic family.

It’s narrated by Fanny, sensible cousin, daughter of “the Bolter” (named for her inability to remain faithful) and witness to the dramas of beautiful Linda and her siblings: “always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair… they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives”. When not congregating in the airing cupboard for essential Hons meetings, or to discuss matters of sex, gleaned from Ducks and Duck Breeding, there was the thrilling possibility of being “hunted” by Uncle Matthew and his bloodhounds.

The story’s genius lies in its wicked humour, said Olivia Laing in The Observer, “which remains relentlessly uplifting even as the Blitz begins to smash all the hopes of that prewar Arcadia”. Linda escapes into a series of “wildly unsuitable liaisons” before falling in love with an “endearingly wicked” French duke, Fabrice de Sauveterre (based on Nancy’s own great love, Gaston Palewski).

Published in December 1945, the book was an instant success and sold in its thousands – Mitford heard the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were giving copies as Christmas presents, “which tickles me very much”. As her friend Evelyn Waugh, who suggested the title, once wrote to her: “The charm of your writing depends on your refusal to recognise a distinction between girlish chatter and literary language.”