Tag Archives: Livia Franchini

Paperbacks to Look Out For in January 2020: Part One

Cover image There’s a satisfying array of January paperback goodies on offer for those lucky enough to get a bookish gift card or two for Christmas, all but one of which I’ve read already.  I’m kicking off with one of my books of 2019, Kate Atkinson’s latest addition to her Jackson Brodie series, Big Sky, which is an absolute treat. After a hiatus of nine years, Jackson’s living in a cottage in his native Yorkshire looking after his teenage son while Julia, Nathan’s mother, finishes off the latest in the TV police procedural series in which she stars. It’s not long before Jackson becomes embroiled in a case that encompasses historical sex abuse, modern day slavery and people trafficking. If you haven’t yet read the first four in the series, Atkinson neatly fills in Jackson’s backstory, but why not just snap up all five and settle down for the rest of the month.

I had hoped that Delphine de Vigan’s Loyalties would also be one of my books of the year after the wonderful Based on a True Story but, sadly, it missed the mark for me. It tells the story of a young boy, caught up in the fallout from a bitter divorce, and explores the ties of silence that bind society together in a sometimes mistaken loyalty. Perhaps it’s unfair to make the comparison given how very different in style and subject the two novels are but, although the writing is as pinpoint sharp as in her previous novel, this one failed to hold my attention in the same way.Cover image

My expectations for Livia Franchini’s debut, Shelf Life, were also overturned but in a good way. It tells Ruth’s story through the shopping list she made the week her fiancé dropped his bombshell and left her after ten years. Quite a daring structure for a debut novel but Franchini handles it well as Ruth attempts to hide her misery, taken in hand by her friend and antithesis, the extrovert party-girl, Alanna. Somehow, I’d expected a slightly fluffy read but with its poignant depiction of social awkwardness and isolation, Franchini’s novel is far from that.

I’d heard good things about Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions but had not yet got around to reading it when Liar turned up. Set towards the end of a Tel Aviv summer, it tells the story of a young girl who becomes caught up in a scandal after an exchange between her and a fading reality TV star is misinterpreted then seized upon by a media hungry for sensation leaving seventeen-year-old Nofar trapped in an untruth she’s allowed to take root. A thoroughly enjoyable novel with a clear message: lies tend to lead to a deeper deception that can only end in tears. Rare for a lesson in morality to be delivered with such acuity and style.

The only title I’ve not yet read in this first batch is Józef Wittlin’s The Salt of the Earth which sounds like another lesson in morality. It begins in the remote Carpathian mountains where Piotr’s limited ambitions are fixed on a job with the railway, a cottage and a bride with a dowry until he finds himself drafted into the army to fight in the First World War. ‘In a new translation, authorised by the author’s daughter, The Salt of the Earth is a strongly pacifist novel inspired by the Odyssey, about the consequences of war on ordinary men’ say the publishers.

That’s it for the first selection of January paperbacks. A click on any of the first four titles will take you to my review and to a more detailed synopsis for the fifth should any have taken your fancy. If you’d like to catch up with January’s new title they’re here and here. Second instalment soon…

Shelf Life by Livia Franchini: A list for life

Cover imageI’m an inveterate list maker. It’s my way of organizing myself and remembering to do things. And I always make a list before shopping. Who knows what I’d come home with otherwise? Hardly surprising, then, that I was attracted to Livia Franchini’s Shelf Life which tells Ruth’s story through the shopping list she made the week her fiancé dropped his bombshell and left her.

Ruth and Neil have been together for ten years. He’d spotted her through the window of the travel agent he worked for just yards from her nursing school, engineering a meeting through her friend Alanna. Ruth had been working as a senior nurse at a care home catering to the aged rich for some time when Alanna popped up in her live again after a long absence. Theirs is an uneasy friendship: Alanna is a girly girl, given to confidences, indiscretions and beautiful with it; Ruth is intensely private, responsible and mousey. Struggling to find a way to live on her own after Neil’s departure, supposedly to a Cornish mindfulness commune, Ruth hides her misery the best she can. When Alanna announces her own engagement, Ruth’s astonished to be asked not only to be her maid of honour but to arrange the hen party which sees her entering a foreign land of cocktails, clinging dresses and hedonism. Things take a dark turn that night and another the following morning as Ruth nears the end of her list.

Taking a shopping list as a structure for your debut novel is a daring tack to take – lots of potential for clunkiness – but Franchini handles it well. I began her novel looking for the link with each item but her story drew me in so that I forgot about all that. Ruth’s character is well drawn and carefully constructed, her friendship with Alanna smartly done. There’s much more to Alanna that you might at first think. Neil has his own say, leaving you wondering why Ruth hadn’t kicked him out years ago then remembering her loneliness. Woven through Ruth’s narrative are email exchanges, texts and chats from Ruth’s schoolmates, most of which work well but some felt a wee bit contrived. Through it all runs a vein of nicely judged humour culminating in the hen party which sets readers up well for the shock that ensues. With its poignant depiction of social awkwardness and isolation, Shelf Life is far from the slightly fluffy read I’d somehow assumed it to be and all the more interesting for it.

Books to Look Out for in August 2019: Part Two

August’s first instalment progressed smartly through the twentieth century while staying in the United States but this second preview lacks any neatly cohesive thread, I’m afraid. You may have noticed that it’s the centenary year of the Bauhaus school of design, the background for Theresia Enzensberger’s Blueprint which opens at the beginning of the 1920s. Luise dreams of becoming an architect, enrolling herself in the Bauhaus university where she’s taught by Walter Gropius and Wassily Kandinksy. While her art school friends immerse themselves in their work, street fights are breaking out in Berlin. ‘From technology to art, romanticism to the avant-garde, populism to the youth movement, Luise encounters themes, utopias and ideas that still shape us to the present day’ say the publishers. I already have my eye on Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game which shares the Bauhaus theme but I’m tempted by this one, too.

Back to the States for the next two titles beginning with Lot by Bryan Washington, set in Houston where a mixed-race boy, working in the family restaurant and fending off his brother’s blows, is coming to the realisation that he’s gay. ‘Bryan Washington’s brilliant, viscerally drawn world vibrates with energy, wit, and the infinite longing of people searching for home. With soulful insight into what makes a community, a family, and a life, Lot explores trust and love in all its unsparing and unsteady forms’ say the publishers promisingly.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels is set in San Diego where Big Angel is about to hold what may well be his last rowdy birthday party when his mother dies. Big Angel’s half-brother is in attendance at what is now both a party and a wake, all too well aware of his mixed race. The weekend passes in a celebration of both lives and the telling of a multitude of stories. ‘Teeming with brilliance and humor, authentic at every turn, The House of Broken Angels is Luis Alberto Urrea at his best, and cements his reputation as a storyteller of the first rank’ say the publishers.

It’s its structure that attracts me to Livia Franchini’s debut, Shelf Life, which comes highly rated by Sophie Mackintosh who described it as ‘whip-smart and slyly heartbreaking’. Thirty-year-old Ruth works in a care home and has just been dumped by her fiancé. As she works her way through the week’s shopping list item by item, she tells her story which reveals a life spent looking after everyone else but herself. Sounds a bit thin, doesn’t it, but as a lover of lists I can’t resist the lure of this one.

I’m signing off August with Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything, which begins in 1989 when Saul Adler is hit by a car on Abbey Road. Apparently unscathed, he visits his girlfriend who insists on photographing Saul on the famous crossing then dumps him. Saul takes off to Berlin, two months before the Wall comes down. In 2016, he’s hit by a car on Abbey Road, dipping in and out of consciousness as a group of people gather at his hospital bedside, including his ex-girlfriend. ‘Slipping slyly between time zones and leaving a spiralling trail, Deborah Levy’s electrifying new novel examines what we see and what we fail to see, until we encounter the spectres of history – both the world’s and our own’ Very much like the sound of that.

That’s it for the second batch of August’s new titles. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have caught your eye, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…