Tag Archives: Sondra Silverston

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…

Books of the Year 2019: Part One

It’s that time again. Books of the year lists are being wheeled out right, left and centre. I’d love to tell you I’d managed to trim mine to a single post of gems but I’m not the Cover imagedecisive type so I’m afraid it will be the usual four, falling roughly into quarters, all with links to reviews on this blog. For those of you who think I’ve jumped the gun, I’m still a bookseller at heart, hoping to help out anyone desperate for gift ideas for their book-loving friends.

My reading year got off to a flying start with Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer whose premise is irresistible. A woman is about to sit down to supper when her sister calls. She’s killed another man and needs Korede’s peerless cleaning skills. Set in Lagos where Korede is a nurse and Ayoola charms men, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a short, darkly funny novel, an enjoyable caper with a sharp edge and a page-turning pace. I was delighted when it turned up on both the Booker Prize longlist and the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist.

Two books stood out for me in February, each very different from the other. Given my country’s preoccupation with Brexit, Robert Menasse’s The Capital was something of a bittersweet read. This sprawling novel takes a sharply satirical view of the European Commission, exploring its many accumulated weaknesses before returning to the founding values which make me want to remain part of the EU’s flawed club. Rather like the institution it’s satirising, Menasse’s novel is not without faults but there’s much to enjoy.

Entirely different, Joan Silber’s carefully constructed Improvement reads almost like a series of tightly linked short stories which explore the ripple effectsCover image of a car accident through a range of sharply observed characters. Silber’s writing is subtly understated leaving her readers to draw their own conclusions. Sadly, Improvement is her only book published here in the UK: all I can say to her publishers is ‘more please’.

Leapfrogging March into April, Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans also explores the fallout from a hit and run accident which kills a Moroccan immigrant who had been running his restaurant in a small Californian desert town for decades. Lalami tells her story in short chapters through a diverse set of characters whose backstories are meticulously sketched in. It’s a quietly powerful novel which seemed to have had less coverage than it deserved here in the UK

The second of April’s treats is a bestseller which left me wondering why I hadn’t already read it. Paolo Cognetti’s beautifully expressed The Eight Mountains is about the friendship between two men who meet as boys when they’re eleven years old: one who has never set foot outside the mountains in which he was born, the other a city boy from Milan whose father yearns for a return to his own mountain roots. It’s a beautiful novel, a testament to friendship and a loving tribute to a challenging but gorgeous landscape.

Cover imageRounding off April’s favourites, Ayelet Gunder-Goshen’s lusciously jacketed Liar tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Tel Aviv 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 her 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. Politicians take note. Rare for a lesson in morality to be delivered with such acuity and style.

There, I seem to have ended 2019’s first quarter with politics, something which I’ve been trying (but failing) to avoid since mid-way through the year when I though I might be about to spontaneously combust with fury. Let’s see if I can stay away from it in the second instalment which will cover May and June.

Fly Already by Etgar Keret (Various translators): Stories with personality

I’d scored one Israeli success this year with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar when Etgar Keret’s short stories, Fly Already, turned up, looking like another. Made up of twenty pieces, some no longer than a page or two, Keret’s idiosyncratic collection is both funny and poignant, counterbalancing comedy with a sharp observation of human nature.

It begins with a characteristic bang as a father tries to persuade a potential suicide from jumping while his five-year-old son cheers the ‘superhero’ on in the eponymous story. In another, a lowly circus worker gets a liking for being shot out of a cannon but how long can it last? Vengeance proves not to be as sweet as anticipated in ‘Tabula Rasa’, one of the longer pieces, which sees a group of children, afflicted with a rare genetic condition, brought up in an institution, each with their own secret donor or so they believe but the truth is very different. The narrator of ‘Car Concentrate’ uses the crushed Mustang in his living room as a talking point but gradually we learn he’s not as slick as he seems while the car hides a very dark secret.

Several of the stories have more than a touch of the surreal. Nocturnal worries give way to fantastical humour in ‘At Night’. Hard not to love a story that opens ‘Stella, Ella and I were almost ten years old the day Dad shape-shifted.’ Some are sinister – ‘Arctic Lizard’ is narrated by a child soldier in a Trumpian third-term dystopia – while others are playful – ‘Ladder’ begins with an angel’s performance review in which Raphael, dissatisfied by Zvi’s inability to project serenity, hints at a transfer downstairs. Just one piece, made up of emails interspersed with other stories, jarred a little for me and even that ended with a surreal surprise which made me laugh out loud.

These are brief, punchy stories, inventive and confident. Some of Keret’s pieces are disconcerting – more than a little wacky – others are pure comedy, often using humour to make a point, but all are memorable. The complications of humanity are sweetly satirised and even the rich who come in for some thoroughly justified lampooning are treated with a sympathetic understanding. It’s a hugely enjoyable collection, full of surprises. I’d not heard of Keret before although I gather he’s acquired an international reputation. If this collection’s anything to go by it’s richly deserved.

Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (transl. Sondra Silverston): Truth will out

Cover imageLook at that jacket. Isn’t it tempting? It was its premise that attracted me to Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel but I can’t ignore that cover. Not only is it eye-catching, it fits the book perfectly. Set towards the end of a Tel Aviv summer, Liar 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.

Seventeen-year-old Nofar is working the last few shifts of her summer job at an ice-cream parlour, preparing to face her final year in school. In walks Avishai Milner, sore from being turned down for yet another gig. He snarls an insult at her after she corrects his speech, pursuing her as she dashes out. When he touches her arm, she lets out a resounding scream which unleashes all her long pent-up frustration drawing the attention of passers-by who think the worst. Milner finds himself charged with attempted rape while Nofar is bathed in unaccustomed attention. Two other people know what really happened: one is a deaf-mute beggar the other is Lavi who’s watched it all from his bedroom window. Both Lavi and Nofar are suffering the appalling awkwardness of an adolescence unblessed with beauty. Unable to find a way to talk to Nofar with ease, Lavi decides to blackmail her. Over the course of two weeks, Nofar becomes the darling of the media, entangling herself further in deceit. Meanwhile Milner is in turmoil, the detective on the case thinks she hears a deaf-mute muttering, Nofar’s beautiful sister finds herself no longer the centre of attention and Lavi falls for Nofar. With the trial looming, Nofar realises she’s painted herself into a corner.

Gundar-Goshen smoothly shifts perspectives between characters telling her story from the point of view of Nofar and Lavi while weaving the backstories of more minor players through her narrative. No one, it seems, is entirely truthful: everyone is guilty of bending the truth one way or another. Gundar-Goshen’s characters are just like us: each has their own agenda; they mean well but truth is sometimes inconvenient. Her observation is merciless:

A deaf-mute beggar stood beside them, hand extended, and they pretended to be blind 

Her depiction of adolescent self-consciousness excruciatingly accurate

Nofar lived in the world as if she were an uninvited guest at a party

All of this is delivered with a smartly knowing wit leavened with compassion. It’s 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 – rather like that jacket.