Independent Bookshop Week is a time to celebrate not just the places where we can get our next best novel but all the people and places which go into making that happen.
Big Issue books editor Jane Graham shares her favourite reads from lesser-known publishers.
By Joshua Cohen (Fitzcarraldo, £12.99)
The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen (Fitzcarraldo, £12.99)
That this Jewish historian’s story is subtitled ‘An account of a minor and ultimately even negligible episode in the history of a very famous family’ tells you much about the witty, self-deprecating tone of this dazzling, delightful novel. It might be more helpful to pondering purchasers if I simply replicated the extremely funny first page here, but sadly I don’t have enough space. Suffice to say Joshua Cohen’s true-ish tale of an American academic (a thinly disguised Harold Bloom) who finds himself playing host to a rather high-profile and somewhat pass-remarkable Israeli family is one of the most inspired, original and entertaining novels I’ve read since Benjamin Labatut’s equally compelling When We Cease to Understand the World.
The Netanyahus, Cohen’s sixth and best book, has the exuberance and smarts of an on-fire stand-up comedian, a tone it somehow maintains even when it pauses to impart mini lectures on the history, philosophy and shifting identity of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. There are critics queuing up to pronounce Cohen a genius; it would be a churlish attention-seeking act if I didn’t declare myself to be another one of them.
In the Company of Men
By Véronique Tadjo, translated by John Cullen
(Small Axes, £9.99)
In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo, translated by John Cullen (Small Axes, £9.99)
You might not be in the mood to read a book about the horrors of a rapidly spreading epidemic, but this surprisingly elegiac novel about the Ebola outbreak that ravaged West Africa in 2014-16 is well worth your attention. Written before the Covid pandemic, Tadjo punctuates her story with a wealth of forms and tones – from poems to folk songs to prayers – so that her alert to the wildfire devastation of the disease also paints a picture of the land and people who become its victims. Once, readers in the West might have read this with a detached fascination. Today it strikes at the heart of a planet newly conscious of the uncontrollable power nature has upon human beings, and the effect of protectionist politicking.
The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet
By Sylvain Tesson, translated by Frank Wynne
The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet by Sylvain Tesson, translated by Frank Wynne (Oneworld, £14.99)
If the title of this book doesn’t send you into a kind of dreamy somnambulist reverie then you might not be its ideal reader. With its equally alluring cover – a horizonless snowy backdrop broken only by a tiny padding leopard – I found it hard to resist.
On the face of it this is the story of renowned French writer/adventurer Tesson and wildlife photographer Vincent Munier’s attempt to capture an image of the elusive snow leopard, said by some to reside in the mountains of remote Tibet, and by others to have become extinct. The crew journeys through a 5,000-metre high, -25C hunting ground to prove the latter wrong. But there is much more to this elegantly written book than the story of a search. It is also a philosophical consideration of the benefits of silence, waiting and personal reflection; an ode to the psychological effect of natural beauty; and a poetic eulogy to the planet, and the (not always) harmonious relationship between human and animal.
By Kaitlyn Greenidge (Serpent’s Tail, £14.99)
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge (Serpent’s Tail, £14.99)
This is a powerful and memorable novel telling the story of a young, Black, dissatisfied woman named Libertie, living in Brooklyn just after the Civil War, keen to carve out her independence in the face of an ambitious, steely mother. We might guess what kind of obstacles the instinctive, intelligent Libertie will encounter as she comes of age, full of questions and ideas and plans. But Greenidge has created a heroine so believable and sympathetic we still tremble with rage and sadness when they hit.
Many aspects of the historical struggle for young Black women are addressed here – the politics of skin tone, the ignorance and arrogance of segregation, the perpetual fear of likely violence – but Greenidge is also a wonderful writer and hypnotic storyteller with a lightness of touch which ensures she avoids a didactic tone, even in this most political of novels.
The Ghost of Frédéric
By Chopin Éric Faye, translated by Sam Taylor
The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin by Éric Faye, translated by Sam Taylor (Pushkin, £9.99)
Based loosely on the true story of Rosemary Brown, a spirit medium with moderate musical education who insisted her piano music was ‘dictated’ to her by Beethoven, Bach, and Chopin, this is a diverting mystery following a journalist who enlists an ex-secret police agent to investigate composer Vera Foltynova’s claims that she is being visited by the ghost of Chopin. It teases as it goes, swinging from investigative realism to mystical fancy, so that the mystery is not just about Vera’s credibility, but which side of the rational/fantastical argument the book will settle upon.
By Claudia Pineiro, translated by Frances Riddle
(Charco Press £9.99)
Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Frances Riddle (Charco Press, £9.99)
Crime writer Claudia Piñeiro is something of a phenomenon in her native Argentina, that country’s third most translated author after the legendary Borges and influential novelist Julio Cortázar. It’s easy to see why; this is a compelling and empathetic tale of a mother (the tenacious Elena) determined to prove that her daughter did not hang herself in a church belfry, as the police maintain, but was murdered. Elena must contend not only with the dismissive authorities but with the limitations of her old and wearying body. Memories of raging arguments with her daughter complicate her mission further. This is a beautifully written detective story with few cliches and an unlikely but beguiling protagonist.
The Startup Wife
Tahmima Anam (Canongate £14.99)
The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam (Canongate, £14.99)
There is so much to love about this righteous, furious, fast-burning novel. It begins with a brilliant young woman’s tech brainwave, and follows the journey of her revolutionary app from lightbulb moment to overwhelming success. Each step brings revelations regarding her fluctuating friendships and marriage, the power-grabbing misogynistic industry she works in, and the corrupting nature of high-profile prosperity.
Anam’s writing is very funny and full of spot-on observations about the gradual elbowing out of clever women in favour of charismatic men, and the infantile Gordon Gekko language which still plays in certain industries (there are scenes which read exactly like the early episodes of every series of The Apprentice). There are also aspects of the story which keep
you guessing until the very last page – whether you find it satisfying or unfortunate might reveal a lot about how you’ve thus far experienced the world.
The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus
By Adam Leigh (whitefox, £8.99)
The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus by Adam Leigh (whitefox, £8.99)
This tale of an antsy advertising executive whose modest contentment is destroyed by the huge success of his parenting website has a playful, conversational tone which makes for a pacey and pleasurable read. The titular hero is a likeable self-deprecating fellow with an internal voice not unlike that of Jonathans Ames or Coe, his comic observations underscored with some weightier thoughts on the nature of personal and public success. Anyone looking to enter the entrepreneurial minefield might also pick up some useful titbits, but the ultimate message is, be careful what you wish for.
The Beauty of Impossible Things
By Rachel Donohue (Corvus, £14.99)
The Beauty of Impossible Things by Rachel Donohue (Corvus, £14.99)
The Irish uprising continues with the highly anticipated follow-up to Rachel Donohue’s bestselling debut, The Temple House Vanishing. Sensitive Natasha has just turned 15 when her small quiet town is overwhelmed by visitors, drawn by news of strange swooping lights in the sky in the middle of an oppressive summer heatwave. A local teenager disappears and the scene is set for a dark magic tale which summons the eerie, ominous mood of The Pied Piper of Hamelin or Picnic at Hanging Rock. This theme of a mystical portentous fairytale which creates smalltown fervour is common in Irish storytelling, and still pervades its novels, poems, and TV and film dramas. You can almost hear the gentle, worried accent as you read. But Donohue writes with an apparently effortless grace which brings an enjoyable freshness to a careworn tale of woe.
Fresh Water for Flowers
By Valérie Perrin, translated by Hildegarde Serle
(Europa Editions, £8.99)
Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin, translated by Hildegarde Serle (Europa Editions, £8.99)
The literary trend for life-affirming novels about trauma and loneliness (think Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine or The Elegance of the Hedgehog) continues with French writer Valérie Perrin’s story of a cemetery caretaker shaken out of her comfortable routine by an unsolicited disclosure. There are times when it descends into live love laugh territory (“The darkness has to intensify for the first star to appear”) but if you can forgive the earnest cliches, this unravelling of an intriguing mystery about a long-disappeared husband and a lost child has a charm which is comforting to indulge.
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