Posts tagged ‘Reviews’

June 19, 2019

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

by Team Riverside

Hardback, DoubleDay, £20, out nowKate Atkinson BIG SKY

“Nadja Wilk and her sister, Katja.  They came from Gdansk, where they had worked in a hotel.  Real people with real lives, not just ciphers for the tabloid newspapers”.  Big Sky, the latest instalment of Atkinson’s series featuring private detective Jackson Brodie, starts with Nadja and Katja.  Ready to leave their hotel jobs for better chances in the UK, they Skype with impressive businessman Mark Price who promises good placements and offers to pay for their travel.  But: “The office was a fake.  Anderson Price associates was a fake, Mark Price was a fake.  Only the Rolex was real”.  As always, Atkinson nails the nature of violence against women in this funny, smart and devastating book.  She deals with hard subjects brilliantly, giving characters who elsewhere might simply be exploited victims both relatable features and agency.

We find Jackson looking after with his 13-year-old son while taking various low rent private eye jobs.  Jackson is still for justice, though not always in a strictly legal way.  He remains focussed on the unwanted and uncared-about.  The book’s epigraph is revealing.  Malcolm X: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it.  I’m for justice, no matter who is for or against it”.

Many memorable characters from previous books turn up, which felt to me like a huge treat.  Skilfully plotted, this gripping mystery sees many strands and lives woven together.  A woman is murdered in her garden; a young girl hitch-hikes a lift from a lonely sea front; an interesting teenage boy looks after his young half-sister in between shifts at a ghost train and failing seaside theatre.  Jackson remains an engaging commentator on the meaning of unexpected events.  Watching a mother beat the living daylights out of someone who may have a clue about her missing child: “Jackson glanced around to see how the rest of the café’s denizens were reacting to this, but they all seemed to have quietly disappeared.  Jackson didn’t blame them.  Wives and mothers, he thought, you never wanted to get on the wrong side of them.  Madonnas on steroids”.

Atkinson’s sentences are both completely precise and deceptively easy to read.  I think it must take a great deal of work to produce something that seems so effortless.

There are two good dogs in this book.

Review by Bethan

June 8, 2019

Everything in its Place – First Loves and Last Tales by Oliver Sacks

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Picador, £20, out nowOliver Sacks EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE

This collection of essays from great science writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015, is a real treat for anyone who loved his previous works.

As with his other books, the essays are readable, beautifully written and engaging.  Known for his books The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia and Migraine among others, he also wrote about his own life.  His insatiable curiosity shines through, and it’s clear that this carried on throughout his long and interesting life.  He covers a wide range of topics, from the joy of swimming to his love of libraries, to a piece about ferns, and the life of Humphrey Davy.

He addresses the ethics of writing about people who are or have been unwell in a clear and helpful way.  His book review of Michael Greenberg’s A Summer of Madness raises the question, as Greenberg is writing about his teenage daughter Sally’s first experience of mania.  Writing the book “… was not a quick or easy decision for either Sally or her father.  Greenberg did not grab a pen and start writing during his daughter’s psychosis in 1996 – he waited, he pondered, he let the experience sink deep into him.  He had long, searching discussions with Sally, and only more than a decade later did he feel that he might have the balance, the perspective, the tone that Hurry Down Sunshine would need.  Sally, too, had come to feel this, and urged him not only to write her story but to use her real name, without camouflage.  It was a courageous decision, given the stigma and misunderstanding that still surround mental illness of any kind” (p. 182).

My favourite essay is Travels with Lowell, an account of a road trip he takes with photojournalist Lowell Handler to find out more about Tourette’s.  In the course of the trip, they visit La Crete, a Canadian town where many of the population have Tourette’s and town life accommodates this.  I loved his observation after visiting: “There is, among Orthodox Jews, a blessing to be said on witnessing the strange: one blesses God for the diversity of his creation, and one gives thanks for the wonder of the strange.  This, it seemed to me, was the attitude of the people of La Crete to the Tourette’s in their midst.  They accepted it not as something annoying or insignificant, to be reacted to or overlooked, but as a deep strangeness, a wonder, an example of the absolute mysteriousness of Providence” (p. 106).

This is a deeply humane and engrossing collection.  Read this and then read Gratitude, a book for all time (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2016/06/19/gratitude-by-oliver-sacks/).

Review by Bethan

May 6, 2019

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Head of Zeus, £14.99, out nowMichelle Paver WAKENHYRST

This excellent supernatural horror mystery opens in 1913 with a 16-year-old girl in rural Suffolk seeing her father leaving the house with an ice pick and hammer.  Maud runs after him shouting for help.  Too late, she witnesses her father brutally murder someone in the lane outside.  But was she really just a witness?  And how did she know to shout for help before the attack?

Flash forward 50 years.  The press have decided to dig deeper into the story, partly inspired by her father’s paintings.  Now cult classics in the 1960s, he painted them in while in a secure hospital following the murder.  At least one journalist thinks Maud may have committed the murder herself.

Something about Suffolk lends itself to gothic murder stories, and Wakenhyrst draws effectively on East Anglian myths.  Mysterious nature surrounds the isolated gentleman’s residence where Maud and her father live, with the Fens as present in the book as any other character (including Chatterpie the magpie who is the cover star).

Paver explores the lives of women and girls in this remote setting, from maids to ladies of the house.  While class separates individuals, women’s solid societal position as less clever, less important, less human than men prevails.  Wakenhyrst is psychologically convincing, examining the ground between madness and possible supernatural influences.  How people interpret events is interesting, as is the value given to each interpretation: “The rules governed every moment of Maud’s day and there were two different kinds.  One sort belonged to the lower orders: it was called superstition and Father detested it, which meant that the servants observed their rules behind his back…  The other rules were Father’s – and much stronger, as he had God on his side”.

The tale is creepy and chilling, but thought-provoking.  It would lend itself to a firelit room with creaky floorboards, though I enjoyed it on a sunny day outdoors.  It’s not cosy crime, with some of the plot being truly horrifying.  We have one signed copy left of this physically beautiful book, so get it while it’s hot.

Review by Bethan

May 4, 2019

Underland – A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hamish Hamilton, £20, out nowRobert Macfarlane UNDERLAND

Underland is an exploration of the subterranean world, and Macfarlane interprets this widely.  He ranges from a glacier in the middle of a warm mountain range to the tunnels under Paris, from mines under Yorkshire to London Bridge (which is hollow and can be climbed through by those in the know).  He does not shy away from difficult subjects, dealing with war crimes and human rights violations in European caves and crevasses, as well as the Anthropocene and climate change.

It is always a pleasure to read a new Robert Macfarlane book.  Here at the Riverside Bookshop we loved The Lost Words (see https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2017/10/03/the-lost-words-by-robert-macfarlane-and-jackie-morris/).  He writes beautifully and manages to include very diverse fields of knowledge without alienating the reader or appearing like a dilettante.  His account of visiting an underground lab exploring dark matter gave me the first explanation of this phenomenon I felt even vaguely able to understand (p. 56).  He can make mysterious landscapes vivid, as when walking in the Julian Alps: “Holes in the trunks of the beeches hold micro-gardens of moss and ferns.  Dwarf pines spread between the boulders of the streambank.  Harebells, gentians and edelweiss star the understorey.  Little trout flick as quick shadows in the bigger stream-pools.  Towering above us are scree-slopes and bone-white summits jagging several hundred feet up from the ridge line” (p. 231).

Happily for me, Underland also includes much ice and snow.  There are reflections on physical culture and the impact of global warming: “There is something obscene both to the ice and its meltings – to its vastness and vulnerability.  The ice seems a ‘thing’ that is beyond our comprehension to know but within our capacity to destroy” (p. 363).  This reminded me of some of the things I liked about the Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2018/12/02/the-library-of-ice-by-nancy-campbell/).

The book is as much about challenging our experiences of time and space as anything else. How do we find language that will be understood for certain thousands of years from now, in order to warn those in the far future of our sealed tombs of nuclear waste?  Do we carve warnings into rock in English?  Macfarlane notes that only about 1,000 people read Cuneiform on Earth now, where once it communicated powerful proclamations across vast spaces – how do we know English will still be understood?  Should there be ceramic tiles with pictograms?  Showing what?  He asks us to expand our thinking: “…a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us” (p. 15).

Fans of Macfarlane’s writing on mountains, lost ways and obscure words have a treat in store with Underland.  A bonus for the curious and engaged.

Review by Bethan

April 23, 2019

Heiða, a Shepherd at the End of the World by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir

by Team Riverside

Hardback, John Murray, £16.99, out nowSteinunn Sigurdardottir HEIDA

Heiða details a year in the life of a solo woman sheep farmer hard by the highlands of Iceland.  Heiða Ásgeirsdóttir took over her family farm at Ljótarstaðir in her early 20s, when her father became ill.  She is an environmental activist and poet as well, and during the year considers standing for Parliament for the Left-Green Movement (she is already a local councillor).  From the farm, she can see highland pastures, a glacier, mountains.  This is an engrossing quick dispatch from an unusual life.

Volcanic eruptions as well as extreme cold and snow on her remote farm make for hard work.  Her commitment to her 500 sheep and other animals is evident, and leads to both her extreme work ethic and her worries when things go wrong.  She is clear about the essential role farmers like her can play in conservation: “Icelandic agriculture is very close to my heart, no less than environmental conservation.  As I see it, the two are totally intertwined since the farmer is entirely dependent on nature for his survival and has a duty, in my view more than in any other profession, to defend it by any means possible” (p. 161).  Sometimes she works co-operatively with other farmers and family members, and you begin to understand how such working is essential to survival in extraordinary places.

She is resisting construction of a power plant near her farm, which would involve flooding part of her land.  She resists despite the anxiety it causes her: “In these kinds of circumstance, I feel as if a knife has been thrust between my ribs – almost as if I’m having a heart attack” (p. 128).  She also talks usefully about surviving depression: “now I also began to come to better terms with the things that I couldn’t fix, and to forgive myself for making mistakes…” (p. 273).

She notes that the farm has been worked since the 12th century.  Refreshingly, she expresses her commitment to the land alongside her stance against discrimination: “I can’t bear prejudice based on skin colour, race, sexual orientation, nationality” (p. 249).

When Heiða gets to relax, it sounds heavenly, but you are clear it is hard won: “A winter’s night with a book is the best.  Surrounded by stillness in my own mountain palace, lit up by stars and the moon;  and maybe by the world’s most spectacular display of Northern Lights” (p. 205).  There are memorable animals, including her cat Huggan (Solace) who can’t stand the smell of sheep and herds mice into the house.  Also her excellent German Shepherd puppy Fífill (Dandelion).

The book is likely to be popular – Heiða has been interviewed in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/apr/14/heida-asgeirsdottir-icelandic-shepherd-new-biography) and will appear at the Hay Festival.  I wish they had done an illustrated version of this book, as the places and people are so intriguing.  This will appeal to lovers of nature writing, to those who love to read about completely different lives, to anyone who wants a story of women doing it for themselves and to other activists who find themselves at the forefront when they already have vastly too much to do…

Review by Bethan

April 2, 2019

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out nowSamantha Harvey WESTERN WIND

It is a time of change in the isolated Somerset village of Oakham.  Four days before Lent 1491, the wealthy landlord appears to have been swept away by the flooded river.  But was he murdered?  Did he take his own life?  Is he, in fact, dead at all?

The parish priest, young John Reve, narrates the story of the four days, starting with day four and working backwards.  Revelations come satisfyingly fast, as the scheming local Dean investigates and queasy secrets are revealed in the confessional and elsewhere… But there is more to this story.

Tensions have risen in the village over whether a recently built (and recently collapsed) bridge, intended to end Oakham’s isolation, should be replaced.  Oakham is wedded to its own traditions, some of which are clearly pagan, but is unable to ignore the world outside.  Not least as the Bishop has been imprisoned, and the local monastery is angling to seize village lands.

The missing landlord had recently returned from a pilgrimage in Europe, and described in sensuous terms the banquet of commodities on offer: “Spanish olive oil, as golden-green as those young grain fields; silk from Sicily; Indian pepper, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg; dried rhubarb and galingale from eastern China; aloes from the lands around the Red Sea; cloves that are violent on the tongue; brocades and great noble tapestries; Syrian ash in Venetian glass and scented soap; Asian elephant tusks and unicorn horns that change hands in Alexandria and go to Paris  for carving; Indian emeralds, rubies, sapphires, diamonds, lapis lazuli from the Oxus, Persian pearls and turquoise”.  The contrast with the literally stagnating muddy pariochial village, whose crops are failing this year, is painful.  It feels like Harvey may be asking us to draw parallels with the deep and raw debates happening now about the UK’s relationship with Europe.

The Western Wind is a gripping historical crime mystery, evocative and psychologically convincing, and would appeal to fans of C J Sansom, Ellis Peters, and Hilary Mantel.  Harvey shows us what can happen when change affects faith, the climate, and how we see ourselves in the world.

Review by Bethan

March 19, 2019

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Pushkin Vertigo, £8.99, out nowMargaret Millar VANISH IN AN INSTANT

A young woman covered in blood walks down a snowy small town street, and a man’s body is found with stab wounds nearby.  Minor league lawyer Meecham tries to get the woman released from jail, and there seems to be much more to the story than is evident…

Reprinted in a smart new paperback edition, this 1952 American mystery classic has introduced me to Margaret Millar (who is possibly my new addiction – I have already been trying to find out which of her other books I can get hold of).  An excellent Noir style thriller, Vanish in an Instant is more than just a great page turner.  The psychological aspects of the work ring true, and the style is fresh and engrossing.  “On the observation ramp above the airfield she could see the faces of people waiting to board a plane or to meet someone or simply waiting and watching, because if they couldn’t go anywhere themselves, the next best thing was to watch someone else going.  Under the glaring lights their faces appeared as similar as the rows of wax vegetables in the windows of the markets back home”.

I would recommend this for fans of well written crime, particularly to anyone who enjoys Patricia Highsmith or Raymond Chandler. Val McDermid finds Margaret Millar “stunningly original” in her review of Beast in View (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/books/review/women-crime-writers-eight-suspense-novels-of-the-1940s-and-1950s.html).

The Pushkin Vertigo stuff is always worth a go – I completely loved Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Suspicion (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2017/08/05/suspicion-by-friedrich-durrenmatt/) .  I hope they will publish more of Millar’s work on this showing.  I am ready to feed my new addiction.

Review by Bethan

March 12, 2019

Hair, it’s a Family Affair! by Mylo Freeman and The Mega Magic Hair Swap! by Rochelle Humes and Rachel Suzanne

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Cassava Republic, £6.99 out now; Paperback, Studio Press, £6.99, out nowMega Magic Hair Swap and Hair it's a Family Affair

These are two gorgeous picture books for young children celebrating how different hair can be.

Hair, it’s a Family Affair! is from Princess Arabella author Mylo Freeman, and has the same style of bright and joyous illustrations fans will recognise from those books (we are particular fans of Princess Arabella’s Birthday).  We get to see Grandma’s amazing Afro from the past, and cousin Kiki’s hair that is sometimes purple and sometimes pink.  Even Dad’s hair is feted, though he doesn’t really have any…

In The Mega Magic Hair Swap! two friends get their wish to exchange their hair.  It’s very relatable for any curly haired person who has envied the straight swooshy hair of friends.  But the baby no longer recognises his sister and even Tiger the dog runs away.  Will the magic coconut grant the girls’ wish to go back to how they were before?

Two bright and lively books showing how our different hairstyles help make us who we are.

Review by Bethan

March 9, 2019

Words in Pain – Letters on Life and Death by Olga Jacoby edited by Jocelyn Catty and Trevor Moore

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Skyscraper, £15, out nowOlga Jacoby WORDS IN PAIN

First published in 1919, Words in Pain is a collection of letters written from a woman to her doctor and other friends and family following her diagnosis with a terminal illness.  Olga Jacoby, young mother of several adopted children, writes with clarity and verve of her love of life and nature, of her rationalist and humanist beliefs, and of her dislike of organised religion.

Jacoby’s doctor was Christian and many of the often kind and humorous letters aim to provide him with a different perspective on life’s meaning.  Jacoby can also be sharp and angry however, and so we have a rounded perspective on a woman applying her rational mind to her extraordinary situation.  She is always courageous and often conciliatory: “death does not frighten me now.  I think it is like taking chloroform; don’t struggle against it, hold the hand of a friend, and it is not half bad with its promise of rest for me and Heaven for you” (p. 5).

The book will be useful to anyone interested in the history of adoption.  All her children know they were adopted, and her work to prepare them for her death is impressive.  Her love for their individuality is clear: “Charles, the farmer-to-be… has been planning… how he can arrange to make farming pay, without killing ducks, chicken or even field-mice.  I do not think he has yet found a satisfactory solution” (p. 25).

It is an intriguing book to read from a disability and chronic illness perspective, too.  Her attitudes vary and are sometimes (to a modern reader) very dated, in this and other matters.  At one point she demands of her friend: “Do not give in and say ‘I am disabled’.  As long as you do not feel disabled you cannot be so” (p. 75).  Later, as she becomes more unwell, she welcomes the use of a wheelchair as a way to conserve her energy.  She always has absolute ownership of her own life and experiences.  She talks about rationing limited energies in a way very reminiscent of the useful spoon theory (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoon_theory): “I have had to draw on a stock that a year’s incessant struggle had left small.  No wonder that I deal out each ration now with minute carefulness and some fear that capital (this most valuable capital of all) may fail me at last” (p. 168).

The new edition has a helpful update on what happened to the family after Olga’s death from her great-granddaughter Jocelyn Catty, and useful notes from Trevor Moore providing context to the references.  Jacoby remains in control and engaged till the last, reading, writing, thinking and debating.  A remarkable record of a remarkable woman.

Review by Bethan

March 3, 2019

The Science of Meditation by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £9.99, out now

Science of MeditationIf the sheer breadth of mindfulness, meditation, wellbeing and guidance books is really stressing you out, let us recommend The Science of Meditation, by science journalist Daniel Goleman and professor of psychology and psychiatry Richard J. Davidson.

This impressive work’s greatest strength is its ability to operate on many levels at once. On the one hand it’s an interrogative history of the scientific study of meditation, detailing the (more often than not, flawed) ways in which the results of this esoteric practice on the mind and body have been tested and evaluated. This technical content, while extensive, is never too dense, and always clearly laid out – so whether you’re learning about the neural profiles consistent with different meditative states, or how a sense of purpose in life can release an enzyme capable of protecting the strands of your DNA, you’re always taken through complex ideas one step at a time. it’s comprehensive but never woolly – in their own words, our guides aim to “keep it simple”.

On the other hand, it is an argument for the wide-ranging benefits of meditation. When Goleman and Davidson aren’t merrily shooting down vast swathes of studies into mindfulness practices for potentially biasing their test-subjects and making specious assumptions, they’re digging deep into sturdier research that shows the myriad ways in which these techniques can help a person. Lieutenant colonels diminish the symptoms of PTSD, zen students show improved resistance to pain, Tibetan monks (with PhDs in science) cultivate enhanced levels of compassion… The upshot, argue the authors, both long-time meditators, is that depending on your needs these practices can do a whole lot more than a) calm you down and b) bring you closer to oneness with the universe.

Which brings us to the book’s final function: that of a very useful guide on how to utilise different forms of meditation (it turns out there are quite a few) in your own life, depending on what you want to achieve from them. And – of course – they have the science to back up why each form may be the right one for you and your joint pain, or your anxiety, or your self-criticism.

Clear-headed, rigorous and insightful, this is the book for you if you want neuroscientific certainties with your spiritual enlightenment, and as a study of what we can say for sure about meditation and its psychological and physiological potential at this time it certainly feels damn near definitive.

Review by Tom

 

January 28, 2019

Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Jonathan Cape, £16.99, out now

Posy Simmonds Darke.jpgPosy Simmonds’ latest neatly combines arch Metropolitan satire with a slow-burn, snowballing thriller narrative (truly something for everyone…) – we know from the intriguing cover that elderly, miserly art dealer Cassandra Darke will come into contact with a pistol, and, presumably, some deadly goings-on – the question is, how? And it’s a particularly tantalising question given that we’re introduced to the character in a very relatable, rather domestic way, as she navigates the Christmastime hell of Oxford Street; but as always with these things, all is not well beneath the surface…

Over the course of Simmonds’ twisty tale we’re treated to a time-jumping narrative and a host of crooked characters, including Darke herself; who looks, thanks to the fantastic illustrations, like a kindly grandmother from a seaside postcard, but is thoroughly, undeniably unpleasant. Plausibly so, though; she feels completely real, at once bitter, entitled, self-made, domineering, intellectual, unapologetic, and regretful. A real cocktail, but far from loathing her, Simmonds’ expertly plays with our perceptions – I admired, pitied, feared, hated and supported her all at once, and so a human centre is artfully given to every stubborn, obstinate whirlwind of a person we’ve bumped up against in our lives. And as the plot thickens and the threat of violence looms, maybe it’s good to have a right bullish so-and-so on your side…

Like Raymond Briggs, and Orlando Weeks, whose The Gritterman we reviewed here, Simmonds’ cosy illustrations rub up intriguingly against the darker aspects of the narrative; and, in more poignant moments, add real emotional heft.

And there’s even some interesting interrogations of art in the mix – Darke frequently butts heads with her ex-husband’s stepdaughter and lodger, a budding conceptual artist, in sequences which reflect larger generational ideas about art and authenticity. Critiques of the value of high-falutin’ modern art in a world quite possibly going to hell in a handcart aren’t new, but the way Simmonds comes at it, by showing us her characters’ hypocrisies on a micro level, feels fresh and cutting without being judgemental. These characters struggle with how to be good, and make things of value, just like the rest of us.

Review by Tom

January 19, 2019

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Abacus, £8.99, out nowandrew sean greer less

This book made me laugh out loud while alone on the Tube, despite my best efforts (Londoners will know what a travel faux pas this is).  Several sections took me a while to get through, due to crying with laughter and being unable to see the text.

Arthur Less is a middle-aged American novelist who has just broken up with his longstanding younger boyfriend… the boyfriend whose wedding he has just been invited to.  Less decides he must leave the country immediately and embarks on a round of bizarre literary engagements all around the world, just so that he can avoid the wedding.  There is something very comforting about watching someone fail to cope with heartbreak in such an epic way.  Mishaps and encounters pop up for Less, but can he really outrun his old romance?

It’s not fluffy.  A sentence that lingered for me, out of context, was “We believe they burned their own city to the ground”.  It is, however, a kind novel.  This is rare for a funny book.

Praise quotes from Armistead Maupin, Ann Patchett and Karen Joy Fowler should be a sign of greatness, and they are all correct.  I want to read another book like this immediately, but I don’t think there is one.

Smart and relatable, Less is beautifully written and an easy quick read.  It has a good dog in it.  Oh, and it won the Pulitzer.  Heaven in a sky blue cover.

Review by Bethan

January 15, 2019

Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Oneworld Publications, £9.99, out nowmiranda kaufmann black tudors

How refreshing to get a completely different take on a period that can seem so familiar!  Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize, this is an outstanding history which tells the stories of ten African lives in Britain, and usefully sets each in context.

There is a strong local connection to the Riverside Bookshop.  Reasonable Blackman, an independent silk weaver, lived here in Tooley Street in the parish of St Olave’s.  Two of his children died during the plague and he and his wife and remaining child were shut up in their house with a red X marked on the door.  They were not permitted to leave, to prevent the further spread of infection.  An independent skilled craftsman, he supported a family of five with his fine goods.  Tooley Street then was known as a rough and ready area, with many alehouses – Kaufmann quotes Christopher Hudson writing in 1631: “alehouses are nests of Satan where the owls of impiety lurk and where all evil is hatched…” (p. 117).

If you enjoyed David Olusoga’s Black and British: a Forgotten History, you must definitely read this (I loved Olusoga’s book, as it completely transformed both my knowledge of and my attitude towards British history).  Black Tudors would also be perfect for those who like readable social history, focussing as it does on everyday lives.  It includes the stories of a countrywoman, a rural worker, a sailor, and many more diverse and intriguing people besides.

Kaufmann is clear about the relevance of her work in the current political and social climate: “As debate about immigration becomes ever more vituperative and divisive, it is vital to understand that the British Isles have always been peopled with immigrants. The Black Tudors are just one of a series of peoples who arrived on these shores in centuries past” (p. 262).

Entertaining and enlightening, this would be a perfect non-fiction holiday read.

Review by Bethan

January 6, 2019

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Quercus, £12.99, out nowelly griffiths stranger diaries

A teacher is murdered in Shoreham-by-Sea in Sussex.  Her school has an historic connection with ghost story writer R M Holland.  As pupils and colleagues try to come to terms with her death, the story surrounding it unfolds with Gothic overtones.

Investigating is Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur, an excellent character with an acid tongue and a sharp mind.  On arriving at a witness’s home, she sees that the witness has been reading The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, and remembers that the murder victim had been “sitting in the dark with her herbal tea.  Someone really should tell these women about Netflix” (p. 138).  Her genial home life gives me the same cosy feeling I get reading this aspect of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti crime stories (see https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2017/06/20/earthly-remains-by-donna-leon/).  She is an old student of the comprehensive where the murder happened, and knows all the rumours and ghost stories which surround the school.  The story is told from the perspectives of Harbinder, Clare (a colleague of the victim), and Clare’s daughter Georgia, who is a pupil at the school.  Also woven in are sections of R M Holland’s ghost story.

It helped that the abandoned cement works and nearby strip of workers’ houses where some of the action takes place are familiar to me, as I used to go past them on the bus… and I had often thought that it was quite a creepy place.  But I’m pretty sure this personal experience isn’t necessary for others to enjoy the book!

This was a perfect holiday read for me.  I had never read any Elly Griffiths, but a friend bought me this standalone mystery novel for Christmas.  I devoured it in two days when I should have been doing other things.  I am now looking forward to reading her series set in Norfolk, which my friend says is just as good.  There are two good dogs in this book.

Review by Bethan

December 2, 2018

The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Scribner, £14.99, out nowNancy Campbell THE LIBRARY OF ICE

The list of places Nancy Campbell covers in researching The Library of Ice was enough to make me keen to read it.  Upernavik Museum in Greenland, Vatnajökull in Iceland, Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam…

Campbell is an artist, writer and poet, and The Library of Ice could be considered travel writing, cultural history, nature writing, or memoir.  It’s not necessary to pick these bits apart: the book as a whole works well as a meditation on ice.  She is an engaging guide, and her curiosity leads to adventures in the archives and outside.

The book is full of intriguing and pleasing facts and stories.  I was pleased to learn of the origins of Torvill and Dean’s immortal Bolero skating performance, and of Robert Boyle’s attempts to research the phenomenon of cold and his irritation at the difficulty of his experiments.

Despite my longstanding Antarctic obsession, I did not know that George Murray Levick of the Scott expedition in 1912 was so horrified at what he found to be the ‘hooligan’ and ‘depraved’ behaviour of the penguins that he censored his scientific reporting on the Adélies.  In the Natural History Museum archive survives a copy of a report Levick wrote for colleagues, limited in circulation and with a note on the front saying: ‘The sexual habits of the Adélie penguin, not for publication’.

Campbell’s awareness of damage from climate change informs much of the book, and her accounts of traditional knowledge of ice reminded me of some of the testimony from Mary Robinson’s excellent book Climate Justice (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2018/10/08/climate-justice-hope-resilience-and-the-fight-for-a-sustainable-future-by-mary-robinson/).

If you enjoy good books about cold places, such as Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita or The Magnetic North, this will be a chilly pleasure.

Review by Bethan

October 8, 2018

Climate Justice – Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future by Mary Robinson

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Bloomsbury, £16.99, out nowMary Robinson CLIMATE JUSTICE

I wanted a book to remind me that climate change can be tackled, and to inspire me to engage with this massive problem without leaving me doom laden and depressed.  This useful book by former Irish President and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson does just that.  Taking a rights and justice approach is natural for her.  “This injustice – that those who had done least to cause the problem were carrying the greatest burden – made clear that to advocate for the rights of the most vulnerable to food, safe water, health, education, and shelter would have no effect without our paying attention to the world’s changing climate”.

Robinson places the stories of people on the frontline of climate change at the heart of this short book, and sees her job as getting their voices heard.  It was the stories of these activists, mainly women, which I found most useful.

Constance Okollet is a small scale farmer from Uganda who has organised women in her community to challenge climate change, has given evidence internationally on the direct impact on her region of extreme weather: “in eastern Uganda, there are no seasons any more”.

Through activism, Okollet met Sharon Hanshaw of Biloxi Mississippi (founder of Coastal Women for Change) and other climate witnesses.  Hanshaw, a former beauty salon owner who saw her community devastated by hurricane Katrina, said: “Connecting with women who were facing similar issues across the globe, and standing up and working for solutions, was inspiring.  It is women who bear the brunt of climate change”.  (Read more of Hanshaw’s story here: https://lithub.com/climate-change-needs-to-be-about-economic-justice/)

The price some of the activists pay for their work is heavy.  Robinson describes a tearful Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim of the Republic of Chad speaking of reporting back to the elders of her region: “I tell them that I will have a solution soon…  They think I am finding a solution, but I know how slowly the fight against climate change is going and that a solution is not coming tomorrow.  The solution for this problem will not be for them.  It will not be for now.”

There has been some criticism of the book for failing to focus sufficiently on failures of states in addressing climate change (see for example Cara Augustenborg in the Irish Times – https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/climate-justice-review-irish-sins-cloud-inspiring-stories-1.3643596).  Others may notice that Robinson does not for example address population control, or the issue of whether nuclear power should be part of the renewable energy that replaces energy from fossil fuels.  But the book is not intended as a primer on climate change (though it can be read with no specialist knowledge).  It is a call to positive action against despair, and is best summed up by the advice of Hanshaw, citing her civil rights activist father: “pray and believe, and always believe in what you can do instead of can’t do”.

Review by Bethan

September 22, 2018

The Old Slave and the Mastiff by Patrick Chamoiseau

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Dialogue, £14.99, out now

Old Slave ChamoiseauPatrick Chamoiseau’s latest novel is a little masterpiece: perfectly-formed, mesmerising, thrilling, moving, eye-opening, distressing, poignant, the lot.

This is a deeply singular piece of work that takes a simple, if grim, narrative – the titular old slave, who has spent his life in bondage on a Caribbean plantation, flees it one day pursued by the plantation owner and his horrifying hound – and explodes it. The old man’s journey through the surrounding jungle towards possible freedom becomes a simultaneous freeing of his mind; what we’re experiencing, through Chamoiseau’s gobsmackingly poetic prose, is a kind of anti-brainwashing on the part of our hero, an awakening to the world, to the present, and to a past both personal and cultural which he has tamped down in order to survive the humiliation of his servitude.

The fact that a chase narrative of heart-pounding proportions runs perfectly in tandem shows Chamoiseau’s staggering mastery of his craft; they’re so perfectly intertwined that the old slave’s physical, spiritual and mental progress become one hypnotic, hallucinatory broth. He discovers as he runs scraps of his old language, is spellbound and shaken by newly-remembered Creole folk tales and the creatures which haunt them, and gradually rekindles the fires of a selfhood long discarded; all while fighting to stay one step ahead of a despicable slaver and fiction’s most malevolent dog.

The sum of this is a distinctly idiosyncratic addition to the canon of literature addressing slavery, one that lays bare on a micro level the psychological torment and cultural subjugation heaped on a slave while managing, incredibly, to be uplifting, at times joyful; the old man’s flight, and his mental and spiritual re-entry into the world, is powerfully moving. It’s hard to think of another character in recent fiction I’ve wanted to succeed more.

And speaking of characters – none of this would work if Chamoiseau’s protagonist didn’t resonate with the reader, but he, the plantation owner and even the dog feel carved out of stone, somehow managing to be both archetypes and intensely individual. For such a short, fast-paced novel these guys are brilliantly and vibrantly illuminated, meaning that even the undeniable villains of the piece become multidimensional.

And once again it’s translator extraordinaire Linda Coverdale behind the superlative translation, and whose note at the beginning in which she details the challenges of adapting Chamoiseau’s Creole and Creolized-French-peppered script is fascinating.

It’s a completely captivating book. Buy it, read it and read it again.

Review by Tom

August 27, 2018

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £16.99, out now

Nick Drnaso Sabrina

This graphic novel has been making waves outside the comics scene, exemplified by its inclusion – gasp – in the Man Booker prize longlist this year, the first funny-picture-word-bubble book to be so.

And it’s easy to see why. This intelligent and affecting work has in its crosshairs a swathe of modern maladies, from the pervasiveness of fake news and conspiracy legitimacy to the prevalence of non-specific alienation and mental illness. Make no mistake, this is heavy – just listen to the plot: the titular Sabrina has, out of the blue, disappeared, and her quietly distraught boyfriend has moved in with an old school-buddy, the nominal centre of the story. He wants to help his friend, with whom he’d all but lost touch, but he’s got problems of his own – namely a failed marriage and a young daughter he never gets to see. And when new information about Sabrina’s situation emerges, his troubles are about to multiply in a distinctly 21st century way…

From this framework Drnaso constructs an unsettling, paranoid world, but it’s a very recognisable one, cleaving very close to our current reality. It’s a testament to his skills as a storyteller that every damning reference to modernity – from one character’s urge to another not to unplug his phone (which the latter is using for a pivotal phone-call) as he needs it charged for work, to a constant, inescapable onslaught of emails a protagonist must at one point suffer – feels natural and unforced. Awkward Skype calls, violent video games, online hate-campaigns, clickbait… they’re all peppered throughout without feeling like clutter. He hunts big game effortlessly while propelling a queasily gripping narrative, a world away from traditional missing-person procedurals but just as enthralling. Certain sequences really bring out the armpit-sweat.

But what of the graphic part of this graphic novel? Sabrina’s visuals are, frankly, bland, its characters simply depicted, androgynous snow-man shapes with dot eyes and thin lines for mouths; at times, they make Tintin look photorealist. When they experience strong emotion, there’s a haunting disconnect between their rudimentary features and their apparent anguish; but mostly each ambiguous countenance suits this sterile world of platitudinous conversation, missed signals and repression. Every backdrop is minimally, if accurately, drawn, bright colours are almost entirely absent, and somehow this banal milieu quickly becomes engrossing in its own way. Indeed, at key points in the narrative this unreadability on the part of the characters drives the tension wonderfully, as we cannot suss out their intentions or judge where they stand. Simply put, what at first might seem like an unexciting creative decision quickly reveals itself to be a brilliant and innovative use of the form.

All-in-all this is tough, smart, powerful stuff, form and content perfectly married to craft a cold world of unspoken pain and suffering. If it ticks your boxes, we’d also recommend Art Spiegelman’s superlative Maus, another amazing, devastating graphic novel which we happen to stock as well.

Review by Tom

July 28, 2018

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

by Team Riverside

Jessica Love JULIAN IS A MERMAIDHardback, Walker Books, £11.99, out now

Julian is a small boy on the subway with his Nana… but he is also a mermaid.  After seeing three gorgeous women dressed up as mermaids on the journey, he tells Nana: “Nana, I am also a mermaid”.  Julian dresses himself up as a mermaid while Nana is in the bath.  He feels wonderful… but how will Nana react?

This is a stunningly illustrated picture book, with a joyous message at its heart.  The colour and life in the pictures make you want to look and look, from the kids playing in the water from the hydrant to the older ladies swimming in the pool.

If you want a book with a superb grandparent in, this would also do the job!  As with the best picture books, this is one for all humans, not only small children.  Read Julian is a Mermaid and feel part of the kindness and delight that it celebrates.

Review by Bethan

July 1, 2018

Going to the Volcano by Andy Stanton and Miguel Ordóñez

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hodder Children’s Books, £12.99, out now

Stanton and Ordonez GOING TO THE VOLCANOThis book is extremely silly and a guaranteed good laugh for anyone aged about two and up.  Dwayne and Jane-o want to see the volcano… they’ll catch a plane-o and climb down a chain-o… their enthusiasm is not in doubt but what will happen when they get there?

Well, the bright and engaging pictures tell the epic story of how friends and followers join them on their quest, including Roger the incredible colour changing cat and Dr Eyjafjallajökull.  There are good in-jokes for adults as well as children, but they are not allowed to get in the way of a very funny story to read aloud.  Fans of Stanton’s Mr Gum series will recognise the humour.

I treated the character list at the end as a Where’s Wally style list of folks to go back and find in the pictures, giving the book a good spin for older children.  Also it was full of bonus jokes.  This book is a proper treat.

Review by Bethan

May 19, 2018

Sight by Jessie Greengrass

by Team Riverside

Hardback, JM Originals, £14.99, out now

jessie greengrass sight

Sight, Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel, weaves an unnamed narrator’s meditations on her decision to be a mother, her own mother’s early death and her relationship with her grandmother in with historical stories of discovery and progress.

Greengrass dissects these scientific studies for their emotional resonance. Of Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of X-Rays one of the things she is interested in is his disappointment, where “afterward nothing was different at all, and although he had seen through metal and seen through flesh to what was hidden…what had been left was only so much quibbling at the bill” (p.45). Other cases that get this thorough treatment are Freud’s study of a phobic five-year-old known as Little Hans, as well as his relationship in general with his daughter Anna, and John and William Hunter’s 18th century discoveries on pregnancy.

In deciding whether or not to have a baby (we know from the start that she will settle in the positive) the narrator reflects on what she would be giving up in order to become a mother. The novel also questions what parents must then lose again in order for their children to reach adulthood successfully.  On the narrator’s thoughts around her young daughter’s maturing past toddler-hood Greengrass’s insight is heart-breaking: “I know her less and less the more that she becomes herself. This is how things ought to be, her going away while I remain.” (p.2).

But what would be the alternative, we are asked, Anna Freud living in her father’s house with his analyst room still in the centre of it untouched – “a still unconsecrated monument” (p.125)?

All the stories interlink with the idea that someone has to lose something for society to seem to progress – parents have to lose the lives they had before in order to have children, and then lose the children again, women have to die painfully in labour so that surgeons can learn how to perform caesarean sections. Even the loss of mystery that seeing the interior of her hand brings is felt as death-like by Bertha Roentgen when her husband demonstrates his discovery (p.46).

Sight also quietly wonders who the people are who have to make these sacrifices. Do mothers lose more than fathers? “The child was, for Johannes, still largely hypothetical: his life so far remained predominantly unchanged and what I felt as a set of prohibitions and a physical incapacity… was for him hardly more than anticipation waiting for Christmas to come…” (p.159). Whose corpses rot in basements so that we can see what our origins look like, as the unnamed dead model for Jan van Rymsdyk’s engraving The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus did? The answer more often than not is women or, as in Freud’s case of Little Hans, children.

At linking these stories to form the overarching questions I found Greengrass’s novel to be smoothly expert and I’m not surprised it has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year.

Review by Cat

March 11, 2018

My Life as a Russian Novel by Emmanuel Carrère

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out now

Emmanuel Carrere My Life Russian Novel

Linda Coverdale’s superlative translations of the work of French powerhouse Emmanuel Carrère continue to delight us at Riverside – this latest sees the writer and filmmaker tell the story of a love affair, a family history and a possibly-doomed documentary in a “non-fiction novel” heavy on sex and introspection.

At the book’s beginning Carrère is ostensibly investigating the curious tale of a Hungarian soldier who, during World War 2, was imprisoned by the Russians, transferred to a psychiatric institution and somehow forgotten about, only being released in the noughties. A fascinating story; but also a feint, as we soon discover it’s not the anecdote itself that interests Carrère but its passing similarity to the life of his Nazi-collaborator grandfather, a similarly disturbed figure who was “disappeared” after the end of the occupation. It’s this buried history that hangs over the Carrères like a dark cloud, and one which this book sees him trying to purge in one way or another.

The unexpected lyricism that made his wonderful The Adversary so effective is well served here by a narrative that interrogates love, betrayal, and ennui, flitting effortlessly from travelogue to existential rumination, erotic fantasy to historical reportage. But what’s really interesting is that Carrère often doesn’t come across at all well; a slave to his neuroses and passions, irrational and impulsive, he embarks on a poorly thought-out film project in a Russian town in tandem with a poorly thought-out relationship with a woman whose non-bohemian existence he can’t help but feel ashamed of. In both cases, as apparently in all things, he seems driven not so much by constructive sentiments as demons from his past, and having an author bare all on the page in such a borderline masochistic way is both shocking and powerful.

Props must go once again to Coverdale also; as with the best translators, the continuity of the author’s voice across the works she has interpreted is evident – which is perhaps not easy when her subject is so mercurial – and her word choices paint a vibrant picture of a narrator who is at once urbane aesthete and helpless obsessive. In short, exactly the kind of person you want to read about.

Review by Tom

January 31, 2018

The Last Wilderness: a Journey into Silence by Neil Ansell

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Tinder Press, £18.99, out nowNeil Ansell THE LAST WILDERNESS

Neil Ansell wrote Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills, a transporting account of living alone in a remote hut in Wales, which has become a modern classic of nature writing.  It was beautifully written, dealing with the choice and personal consequences of human silence and solitude.  His descriptions of the nature that surrounded him (and particularly the birdlife) were vivid.

The Last Wilderness addresses many of the same themes.  Ansell visits a truly wild area of Scotland in a series of solo trips over a year, and also recalls his journeys all over the world.  The silence in this book is not optional.  He is losing his hearing.  He notices over the year that he can no longer hear the songs of different birds.

He still delights in birds: “I might catch a glimpse of a water rail emerging shyly from among the reeds, or a jewel of a kingfisher driven to the coast by bad weather inland.”  His recollections of childhood encounters with nature can also be very funny.  A crow lands on his head and he feels very proud, “… and then it drove its beak into the very top of my skull, as if it was trying to crack a nut”.  He sometimes reminds me of Chris Packham when he’s talking about this period of his life.  Ansell remains engaged with the present, and he reflects as he wanders on the likely impact of climate change on the places he visits.  The area explored is around Knoydart, and is remote and wild enough to appeal to anyone with a love of nature and solitude.

Review by Bethan

November 26, 2017

Icebreaker – a Voyage Far North by Horatio Clare

by Team Riverside

Hardcover, Chatto and Windus, £14.99, out nowHoratio Clare ICEBREAKER

An ice cold exploration of Finland and ships, told with style and wit by the author of Down to the Sea in Ships.  Clare travels on the icebreaker Otso, which is clearing a path through the Arctic Circle.

Reflecting on climate change, Clare discusses A Farewell to Ice by Peter Wadhams who wrote of how changes in the sea ice will impact human life profoundly over the coming years (https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/273799/a-farewell-to-ice/).   He also introduces us to the characters of those who do the dangerous work of icebreaking.  There is something very appealing about reading about a whole area of work and life about which you know nothing.  In this way it is similar to Mark Vanhoenacker’s joyous book about being a modern pilot, Skyfaring.

There are pleasing nuggets of information, as you find in the best travel books.  I am looking forward to using the Finnish word kalsarikännit, which is “The feeling when you are going to get drunk home alone in your underwear – with no intention of going out.”  I am already familiar with hygge but this is a useful addition to my vocabulary.

Another pleasure of this book was the reminders to read or reread other eclectic Arctic literature, of which Clare is a fan.  He reminded me to reread Arto Paasilinna’s Year of the Hare (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/06/books/a-skewed-and-skewering-look-at-finland.html).

This would be a great present for any armchair (or actual) traveller who favours ice, snow and the Arctic.  Clare’s turn of phrase is vivid: “The ice stretches to opaque horizons.  As the lines of the forest fall away behind us, all bearings seem lost”.

Review by Bethan

November 19, 2017

Autumn by Ali Smith

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin Random House, £8.99, out now

 

AutumnMuch has been made of the fact that this is Ali Smith’s “Brexit novel”, which in some ways is to do it a disservice. Because if, like me, the term “Brexit novel” makes you shudder internally and want to reach for the new Lee Childs instead, you’d be missing out on a fascinating entry which manages to look at our newly-divided Britain with a fresh eye.

The plot concerns the curious relationship between Elisabeth Demand, a precariously-employed “casual contract junior lecturer” visiting the town in which she grew up, and Daniel Gluck, her centenarian former neighbour who now lies dying in a hospice. But this is just the springboard from which Smith leads us through a whirlwind of dreams and memories, in tandem with her always-enjoyable day-to-day interactions deftly delivered with the usual eye for eccentricity.

And all this is of course set very much in the present, against the backdrop of the country’s historic decision to leave the EU. Working as she is in a medium where we’re used to clever allusions, parodies, fables and metaphors instead of approaching things head-on, there’s something almost illicitly exciting in the way she occasionally allows her asides about Brexit to be so on-the-nose, never shying away from directly addressing the matter at hand. This feels every inch a book written in the direct aftermath of the referendum, simultaneously angry, confused, ruminative, wounded and playful – which must be a very hard concoction to pull off as successfully as it is here.

At times it feels like Smith is examining this disorienting time in the same way that Gunter Grass so brilliantly tackled the incremental rise of Nazi Germany in The Tin Drum; by focusing alternately on scenes of domesticity, surreality and hard, painful truth.

And as in many of Smith’s novels, it’s somehow dreamlike yet relatable, like a glimpse inside a brain at once the same and totally different to your own. Written in the distinctly idiosyncratic prose – peppered with elastic quips, digressions through language and the occasional startling image – which has won her such a loyal fan-base, it’s no surprise that such a talented writer, wrestling with so seismic a period in our history, has turned out a piece of work as singular as this. Get it down you.

Review by Tom

November 13, 2017

The Alarming Palsy of James Orr by Tom Lee

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £12.99, out now

Alarming PalsyAnother week, another deeply unsettling novella. Tom Lee’s dream-like tale of suburban living gone awry would make a good companion piece to Matthew Weiner’s Heather, the Totality; but where that short novel felt very American in its evocation of a divided, gentrified New York, Lee’s is distinctly, queasily English, exploiting the tensions behind middle-class social mores.

Unremarkable family man James Orr wakes up one morning to discover he has contracted Bell’s Palsy, which has caused the left side of his face to droop unresponsively. In the hands of Lee, dealing with this plausible (if unlikely) malady becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare, as Orr – like the haplessly metamorphosed Gregor Samsa – tries his best to navigate his life and responsibilities in a world where he has been indelibly transformed.

Suddenly unable to work at his client-facing company, he is forced to confront the grim reality of days unmoored from any sort of routine. Meanwhile his unblemished cul-de-sac community of identical homes is under siege, as youths are using its quiet streets for sexual encounters in their cars. As head of the neighbourhood residents’ committee, James may have to do something – but his predicament is a doubly unfortunate one, as he finds that his face is sufficiently disabled that he often can’t speak or make himself understood.

Tough stuff for anyone to deal with; but like in any bad dream, an inexplicable edge begins to creep into our hero’s behaviour. As his visage is obscured so too are the motives behind his actions, and the unpredictability of the narrative as he becomes increasingly erratic makes for compelling reading.

This is a novel which utilizes its idyllic setting perfectly in a way that recalls Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby or The Stepford Wives, and the slow and innocuous way that an atmosphere of dread is built is remarkable.  A quick, punchy read that stays with you long after the final page.

Review by Tom

October 20, 2017

Ruth and Martin’s Album Club

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Unbound, £14.99, out now

Ruth Martin Album Club.jpgA really interesting conceit here, and well executed; Ruth and Martin’s Album Club is a compendium of record reviews – the twist being that each one is being judged by a celebrity who is hearing it for the first time. For those who agree with Frank Zappa’s famous maxim that writing about music is like “dancing about architecture” and like their reportage on the subject to come with just a bit extra, look no further.

It’s reminiscent of the 33/3 series of books, in which writers delve into the minutiae of a beloved LP of their choosing, but this has an enjoyable casualness to it which makes each entry a joy. Every album has a prologue written about it by the incredibly well-informed Martin Fitzgerald, and these are pleasingly illuminating. He’s got a loose prose style that feels punchy and good-humoured, the compere before the main event – which consists of folks like J.K. Rowling, Ian Rankin, Chris Addison and Bonnie Greer laying out their pre-and-post-conceptions of a classic album they’re hearing for the first time.

This format allows for little windows into the lives of our writers (Martin’s question, put to all participants, of why the hell they haven’t listened to what they’ll be reviewing before turns up some curious answers) just as much as it does fresh perspectives on timeless records. It’s particularly invigorating to hear contributors admitting to not enjoying the kind of hallowed LPs that no one is ever allowed to confess a dislike of, and while I’d disagree with every iota of Times journalist Danny Finkelstein’s distinctly unimpressed review of The Velvet Underground and Nico, it feels delightfully subversive to see it being described in print as merely “OK”.

You also get to hear what Tim Farron thinks about N.W.A, which is information you didn’t know you needed, but most assuredly do. Perfect Christmas fodder for the musically-minded if you’re efficient enough to be looking for presents this early.

Review by Tom

October 17, 2017

To the River: a Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Canongate, £9.99, out nowOlivia Laing TO THE RIVER

This fresh and interesting account of Laing’s midsummer exploration of the Ouse river is now available in a good new edition of the excellent Canons series.

Originally published in 2011, this is nature writing partly in the vein of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, or Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun.  Exploring East Sussex in part to get away after a horrible relationship break up, Laing brings a sharp eye to the natural world in what may feel like a very familiar area: “It is astonishing what wood and earth together will yield, given a spark and a puff of air.  A windowpane, say, bubbling and settling into cool green sheets, like ice on a winter’s day” (p. 31).  She preserves a genuine sense of wonder at the natural world, while never prettifying what she experiences.

There are excellent literary stories throughout the book, particularly about Virginia and Leonard Woolf who are strongly associated with this area.  I am a fan but didn’t know that after their house in London was bombed, “the Woolfs went down to salvage what they could from amidst the dust and rubble: diaries, Darwin, glasses, her sister’s painted china.  A melancholy business, but she says she likes the loss of possessions, the liberation” (p. 207).

The steamy heat Laing walks through rises off the page, and we are reminded that midsummer is still something magical, even in the midst of modern life.

Review by Bethan

October 3, 2017

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hamish Hamilton, £20, out nowMacfarlane and Morris LOST WORDS

This is the most exquisite book I have seen this year.  The Lost Words features beautiful illustrations of British wildlife by the amazing Jackie Morris, who did the classic children’s picture book The Snow Leopard (due out soon in a new edition).  Words are by Robert Macfarlane, one of our outstanding nature writers, known for The Old Ways and Mountains of the Mind.  In his book Landmarks, Macfarlane had focussed on nature words being lost from everyday usage, particularly those from local dialects (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/08/landmarks-review-robert-macfarlane).

These two working together make for an enchanting combination.  There is a great interview with Jackie and Robert explaining how they made the book, and Jackie explains: “So, it was Robert’s idea to make this a ‘spell-book’ – to have three spreads per word, the first marking a loss, a slipping away, the second being a summoning spell, and the third being the word spelled back into language, hearts, minds and landscape.”  (See https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/on-writing/cover-story/2017/jul/designing-the-lost-words/)

This book, for all ages, defines key English nature words.  And so, for otter: “Otter enters river without falter – what a/supple slider out of holt and into water!”

This is a big book – 37 by 28cm, giving full space to the luminous illustrations.  It would make an gorgeous present for anyone with a love of the natural world.  If that wasn’t enough, each purchase supports Action for Conservation, funding the next generation of conservationists and with a particular focus on disadvantaged and socially excluded children.  The goldfinches on the cover are reason enough to buy it, and as Riverside visitors will know we have our own tame charm of goldfinches upstairs in the shop (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/a-charm-of-goldfinches-grace-our-bookshop/).

Review by Bethan

August 27, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Bloomsbury, £18.99, out now

Lincoln in Bardo.jpgIf you turn over George Saunders’ first full-length novel, you’ll be bombarded by so many quotes on the back cover from writing titans that it might lead you to believe that he’s the literary equivalent of the second coming of Christ. Jonathan Franzen says we’re lucky to have him, Zadie Smith asserts that we’ll read him “long after these times have passed”, Thomas Pynchon, Khaled Hosseini, Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Lorrie Moore and more besides all sing his praises.

And the wonderful thing is, they ain’t wrong. Saunders is a singular voice, a writer whose celebrated short stories have combined Pythonesque whimsy, incomprehensible corporate/new age jargon, deep existential ennui and a strong ethical conscience to create a style that is instantly recognisable and wonderfully original. His works are uniquely his own, as funny as they are often heart-breaking – you will laugh, you will cry – and his debut novel is thankfully no different.

A bizarre story – Abraham Lincoln’s deceased eleven-year-old son Willie tries to navigate a transitional stage of the afterlife known as the Bardo over one night of ghostly weirdness – is complemented by an equally bizarre form; when Saunders isn’t leading the plot through playscript-like dialogues narrated from within the Bardo he’s employing an even more remarkable narrative convention, that of telling the tale of the surviving Abraham Lincoln by amalgamating passages from (fictional) history books. This creates a procession of voices mostly many-times removed from the events they clamour to describe. It sounds odd, is odd, but is as wrong-footing and unexpectedly affecting as anything he has written.

It’s not often you read a book that feels as deliciously, daringly new as this. And the fact that, like Saunders’ short stories, it somehow feels casual, unpretentious and effortless just shows the extent of this fascinating author’s talent.

Review by Tom