Archive for November, 2021

November 30, 2021

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

by Team Riverside
Small things Like These book cover

Hardback, Faber and Faber, £10, out now

It is 1985 in a small town in Ireland, and Bill Furlong is flat out delivering coal and wood in the snow before Christmas.  As he, his wife and young daughters prepare for the holidays, he finds out by accident that something is wrong at the local convent.  Why are the girls he sees there distressed?

This is a perfect novella.  I bought it for someone else for Christmas but now have to keep it for myself, unfortunately for them.  Keegan writes the kind of sentences that make you stare at them to find out why they work so well.

Furlong “had come from nothing.  Less than nothing, some might say.  His mother, at the age of sixteen, had fallen pregnant while working as a domestic for Mrs Wilson, the Protestant widow who lived in the big house a few miles outside of town.  When his mother’s trouble became known, and her people made clear they’d have no more to do with her, Mrs Wilson, instead of giving his mother her walking papers, told her she should stay on, and keep her work”.  This makes Furlong unusual in his community, and also helps him to reflect on what is happening at the convent. 

The story responds to the scandals of the Magdalene Laundries and mother and baby homes in Ireland.  Furlong realises that something is not right, but what can he do?  The church is part of daily life, and to challenge it is dangerous.  A woman warns him: “Tis no affair of mine, you understand, but you know you’d want to watch over what you’d say about what’s there? Keep the enemy close, the bad dog with you and the good dog will not bite.  You know yourself”.

Small Things Like These helped me think about how we live alongside injustice, suffering and impunity every day, and decide not to see it or to do anything about it.  What might it take to end such collusion?  What happens when we finally allow ourselves to see that something treated as inevitable or invisible is unbearable? 

After reading Small Things Like These I had to read Belonging by Catherine Corless with Naomi Linehan, the true story of how an amateur historian helped expose the shocking story of the missing babies of the Tuam mother and baby home in the Republic of Ireland.  It is an outstanding account of how diligent research and campaigning can bring human rights violations to light, and hold to account those who have acted with impunity (see this detailed review in the Irish Independent – https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/book-reviews/catherine-corless-memoir-is-a-story-of-the-living-as-much-as-the-dead-40859120.html).  A colleague directed me to Motherbabyhome, an extraordinary work of conceptual and performance poetry by Kimberley Campanello which memorialises the 796 children who lost their lives, and is partly based on files provided by Corless to the poet (http://www.kimberlycampanello.com/motherbabyhome).  Seeing some of the archive documents found by Corless, alongside the names of some of the children involved, is moving.  These themes also recur throughout the excellent Quirke crime novel series by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black).  Art like this helps us process what has happened, and what is happening.

Keegan’s book is full of small kindnesses as well as troubles.  The love in the family, who do not have much but are glad of what they do have, is uplifting.  A free bag of coal is left on the doorstep for those who can’t afford it, but then Furlong worries that he should not have accepted gifts from those who can’t afford to give them.  These are the ethics of everyday life.

Small Things Like These is not saccharine, just readable and relatable.  My main feeling after this is to re-read Ariel Dorfman’s Manifesto for Another World.  Make of that what you will.

Review by Bethan

November 27, 2021

Bestsellers 20th – 27th November

by Team Riverside

Frank Herbert – Dune

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

Harper Lee – To Kill A Mockingbird

Jessica Harrison eds – The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Sosuke Natsukawa – The Cat Who Saved Books

Sarah Moss – The Fell

Noor Murad, Yotam Ottolenghi – Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love

Elena Ferrante – The Lying Life of Adults

John Le Carre – Silverview

Sally Rooney – Beautiful World, Where Are You?

Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey – How Was That Built?

Merlin Sheldrake – Entangled Life

Amor Towles – The Lincoln Highway

Matt Haig – The Midnight Library

November 21, 2021

Bestsellers 14th November – 21st November

by Team Riverside

Riku Onda – The Aosawa Murders

Elizabeth Strout – Oh William!

John Banville – Snow

Taylor Jenkins Reid – The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey – How Was That Built?

Noor Murad and Yotam Ottolenghi – Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love

Harper Lee – To Kill A Mockingbird

Stanley Tucci – Taste: My Life Through Food

John Le Carre – Silverview

Frank Herbert – Dune

Nora Ephron – Heartburn

Rutger Bregman – Humankind: A Hopeful History

Susanna Clarke – Piranesi

Charlie Macksey – The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse

Caroline Criado Perez – Invisible Women

November 20, 2021

The Fell by Sarah Moss

by Team Riverside
The Fell book cover

Hardback, Picador, £14.99, out now

A wildly tense but very thoughtful novel set during the lockdown of autumn 2020.

Kate, the single mother of teenage son Matt, is ordered to remain at home.  After several days, she feels that she cannot stand it for another minute.  Fell walking near her home is how she usually manages her mental health, and so she decides that a short walk has become essential.  She leaves home without telling her son or anyone else, although she is seen by her next door neighbour Alice who is shielding and unable to leave her house.  She plans to be quick but time passes and she does not come home.  Should her son call the police or rescue services?  What if she is arrested and charged, and cannot afford to pay the fine?  Alice faces the same dilemma, and Alice’s adult children (who have strong views about telling her what to do but seem not very helpful in practice) urge her to tell the police that Kate has illegally left the house.

Kate’s thinking will resonate with many: “She forgets everything these days, stands to reason that when you deprive people of external stimulus their brains slow down, almost a survival strategy, who could bear to be running on all cylinders and locked in like this, you’d go mad, poison yourself with your own fumes”.  While walking, she falls in an isolated spot, and cannot get home.  Dark falls.

The Fell is a very quick read but covers so many important human things.  What are our duties to each other in extreme situations?  How much can we prioritise our needs over those of others?

In addition to the voices of Kate, Matt and Alice, we hear from Rob the mountain rescue guide who is sent to find her.  Rob faces his own challenges: forced to leave his daughter to attend the rescue, she is unhappy and disappointed and is sure to let him know it.  Between these four perspectives, Moss delivers sensitive and relatable thoughts about how lockdowns and individual stay-at-home orders have played out in real life.  These lives touch and overlap and human connections happen.

I did not think I would ever want to read a pandemic novel during a pandemic: there is quite enough of all that going on in my real life without it spilling over into my leisure reading.  But The Fell is the best type of fiction.  It is compelling on its own terms, as I was desperate to find out what happened, but also useful in unpicking what the crisis means about us, as individuals, as communities, and as a society.  This is exactly what Moss is brilliant at, especially in Summerwater and Ghost Wall (see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2019/09/08/ghost-wall-by-sarah-moss/).  The Fell is helping me to process what’s going on, and work out what I think about it.

Review by Bethan

November 16, 2021

Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi

by Team Riverside
Somebody Loves You book cover

Paperback, &Other Stories, £11.99, out now

As a child, Ruby stops speaking.  Her loving family don’t understand, but keep loving her anyway.  Her sister is tough and caring, her mother is sometimes ill and sometimes not, and the suburban neighbours are in and out, as are the Aunties and Biji (Ruby’s grandmother).

This sensitive short novel is a very quick read but you’ll want to linger over the language.  For fans of her poetry collections Small Hands and Dear Big Gods, Arshi’s fresh and illuminating prose will be no surprise.  The chapter titles make you feel like you’re reading a collection of prose poems (I particularly liked De-Catastrophisation (for beginners)) and the story flows easily and well.  It’s not a hard book to read but it’s a hard book to put down.  I read it in a single sitting.

The racism that Ruby and her family face runs throughout the book.  Despite dealing with traumatic things, Arshi’s sharp turns of phrase are often funny: “But I don’t believe my father is an elephant; he is most like a canary.  His main role in our family is to detect early signs of disturbance and then to flap his wings and warble a little.  Of course, usually no one takes notice, or if they notice it’s too late, but that isn’t, strictly speaking, the canary’s fault”.

The cover art is exquisite and echoes the importance of the garden to Ruby’s mother.  I could stare at it all day.

Somebody Loves You sings.  Read it and listen.

Review by Bethan

November 15, 2021

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght

by Team Riverside
Owls of the Eastern Ice book cover

Paperback, Penguin, £10.99, out now

Ice, snow, owls: sold.

Naturalist and PhD student Slaght goes to Primorye in remotest Russia in 2006 to research and protect the world’s largest owl, the Blakiston’s fish owl (see excellent pictures in Helen Macdonald’s rave review, here – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jul/22/owls-of-the-eastern-ice-by-jonathan-c-slaght-review-an-extraordinary-quest).  Slaght describes it: “Backlit by the hazy gray of a winter sky, it seemed almost too big and too comical to be a real bird, as if someone had hastily glued fistfuls of feathers to a yearling bear, then propped the dazed beast in the tree.” 

This is an account of work at the sharp edge of conservation and research.  Slaght is working at a time when local economies are changing rapidly.  Logging and free market ventures are expanding into areas of remote and limited fish owl habitat, and it becomes imperative that conservationists work out what the threats are, and what opportunities exist to protect the owl.

This is travel writing as much as nature writing.  Slaght conveys how quickly the ancient forest and surrounding environment can change, from conditions that are beautiful and wild to extreme and life-threatening.  There are rivers and pools warmed by radon, Amur tigers hunting, hermits and wilderness.  Endurance is required to get through the hardships he and his colleagues face in finding, tagging and relocating the owls over several years.

Literally toxic masculinity features, as hunters and others working in the area sometimes engage in extreme drinking to forge trust with strangers like Slaght, who not only is an outsider but also an American and an ornithologist.  Several times he’s part of a party that must not break up until the vodka bottle is empty, and sometimes the ‘vodka’ is ethanol.  But he gets to work alongside committed lifelong conservationists and assistants, and finds that people will often help him and his colleagues when they need it most.

The owls are known locally as “the owls who ask for a fur coat”.  In Russian when a pair sing to each other, it sounds like each is saying “I want a fur coat”.  Owls of the Eastern Ice is a truly engrossing and transporting book.

Review by Bethan

November 13, 2021

Bestsellers 6th – 13th November

by Team Riverside

Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey – How Was That Built?

Damon Galgut – The Promise

Riku Onda – The Aosawa Murders

Taylor Jenkins Reid – The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Susanna Clarke – Piranesi

Frank Herbert – Dune

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Tom Chivers – London Clay

Florence Given – Women Don’t Owe You Pretty

Stanley Tucci – Taste: My Life Through Food

Sosuke Natsukawa – The Cat Who Saved Books

Tim Marshall – The Power of Geography

Various Authors – A Scandinavian Christmas: Festive Tales For a Nordic Noel

Nigel Slater – A Cook’s Book

George Orwell – 1984

November 6, 2021

Bestsellers 30th October – 6th November

by Team Riverside

Riku Onda – The Aosawa Murders

Stanley Tucci – Taste: My Life Through Food

Frank Herbert – Dune

Taylor Jenkins Reid – The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Sathnam Sangera – Empireland

Elizabeth Strout – Oh William!

Caroline Criado Perez – Invisible Women

Damon Galgut – The Promise

Shon Faye – The Transgender Issue

John Le Carre – Silverview

Bernadine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

Richard Osman – The Thursday Murder Club

Bob Mortimer – And Away…

Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey – How Was That Built?

Abdulrazak Gurnah – Afterlives