Archive for ‘Reviews’

January 16, 2022

Islands of Abandonment – Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn

by Team Riverside
Islands of Abandonment book cover.  A house on stilts stands in the sea

Paperback, William Collins, £9.99, out now

I read Islands of Abandonment in hardback during one of the lockdowns last year.  I was transported to wildly different newly-wild places around the world, even as I couldn’t stir much from home: a former military base on a Scottish island; an abandoned agricultural institute in the Tanzanian mountains; the drowned homes and fields of the Salton Sea in California.  Flyn explores what the natural world can do when left mostly alone by humans.  She focuses on places that were once hubs of human activity, where decaying buildings and landscape changes are the inheritance of the land. 

The book features evocative colour photos, including a series of four Google Earth shots showing the transformation of a regular suburban home in Detroit into a ruin with trees growing through it alongside disappearing sidewalks.  It made me think of the loss of people’s homes and communities, alongside the resurgence of other kinds of lives.  Flyn’s descriptions are as vivid as the photos.  She visits an abandoned canteen near Chernobyl: “The whole room is dominated by an enormous stained-glass scene that takes up the entire far wall: a moon rising in the west, into a sky of electric blue and crimson; and in the east, a burning sun, haloed in purple and orange and gold.  Around and between, four godlike women rise, in simple robes, cups over each breast: the seasons”.

The attention and respect Flyn gives to non-human life reminds me of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s transformatory book Braiding Sweetgrass (see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2020/07/14/braiding-sweetgrass-indigenous-wisdom-scientific-knowledge-and-the-teachings-of-plants-by-robin-wall-kimmerer/).  Flyn’s attempts to see the whole of the life, both non-human and human, in the places she visits echoes Robin Wall Kimmerer’s approach.

Often in these ostensibly abandoned places, some people remain.  They might be caretakers, witnesses, those in search of a different way of being on earth.  For example, former lab technician and current informal caretaker Martin Kimweri attends the former science facility in Tanzania, and looks after the many white and black mice whose ancestors were kept by the scientists.  Flyn also comes across those who have stayed in their homes as other people left and the world changed utterly around them, as well as people who travel out into these spaces looking for something new.  She is sensitive to these stories, which are necessarily those of outsiders.

As a woman who likes exploring places on her own, I appreciate Flyn’s solo venturing.  Islands of Abandonment can be read as nature writing, adventurous travel, conservation literature or reflections on how cultures deal with the end of civilisations.  It’s no wonder that authors including Kathleen Jamie and Adam Nicolson have praised Islands of Abandonment (the hard to classify nature of the work reminded me of both these authors, see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2020/08/24/surfacing-by-kathleen-jamie/).  Flyn’s thoughtful responses to what and who she sees make this a thoughtful and strangely positive read. 

Review by Bethan

January 10, 2022

Change Sings: a Children’s Anthem by Amanda Gorman and Loren Long

by Team Riverside
Change Sings book cover

Hardback, Penguin Books, £12.99, out now

Change Sings is a positive and inspiring picture book, showing how children can make a difference in their home area and beyond.

“I’m a chant that rises and rings.  There is hope when my change sings”.  Amanda Gorman is an activist and poet probably best known the UK for the poem she wrote for Joe Biden’s inauguration, The Hill We Climb (read it here, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/20/amanda-gorman-poem-biden-inauguration-transcript).  She was 22 when she delivered it.

Loren Long illustrated Barack Obama’s children’s book Of Thee I sing, and her work in Change Sings is similarly uplifting and lively.

It’s helpful to have a children’s book that shows that working for change can be cheerful, friendly, and fun, even when serious things are at stake.

The combination of Amanda Gorman’s poem (perfect for reading aloud) and Loren Long’s vibrant and engaging illustrations makes the book a source of joy in difficult times.  I feel like Desmond Tutu would have approved (I’ve been rereading The Book of Joy following his death and it’s as useful as ever).  For anyone needing more instant uplift, some images of the Archibishop Emeritus might help (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-59793545).  Change Sings is a pleasure to share.

Review by Bethan

January 4, 2022

London Shop Fronts by Emma J Page and Rachael Smith

by Team Riverside
London Shop Fronts book cover

Hardback, Hoxton Mini Press, £22.95, out now

Did you know that Fortnum and Mason’s was started by one of Queen Anne’s footmen, who had a side business flogging off used candle wax from the queen’s household?  Or that the wooden flooring in Liberty’s department store is from a nineteenth century warship?  These are the kind of excellent nuggets that feature alongside engaging photos in this beautiful coffee table book (see some of the photos here https://www.hoxtonminipress.com/products/pre-order-london-shopfronts).

I was delighted to see good representation of bookshops (shout out to colleagues at Marchpane and John Sandoe) alongside famous London shops such as the old-school art emporium L Cornelisson and the legendary Beigel Bake on Brick Lane.  Many of the entries include an update on how the businesses have managed during the pandemic, reminding us that some are small independent and/or family companies.  SE1 is well represented too, with the famous M Manze pie and mash shop and Terry’s Cafe.

Some of those working in the shops tell us why they love it, including Guido Gessaroli of the Coffee Run in the Seven Sisters Road: “This is the London I came here for… Diverse, multicultural, a friendly neighbourhood.  The area is sometimes considered a bit shabby, but to me it feels real and down to earth”.

Most places included were new to me, and this book made me want to eat and shop my way around London purely to visit them.  I’d love it if the next edition had a map of sites so that you could arrange walking tours between the places. 

The shop fronts and interiors that have been preserved are especially valuable, and are my favourite things in the book.  New designs that are clearly intended to lift the hearts of anyone even walking down the street are delightful too (Saint Aymes and Mira Mikati, I mean you).  Plot your London days out now, and use this jolly book to do it.

Review by Bethan

January 3, 2022

The Bloodless Boy by Robert J Lloyd

by Team Riverside
book cover of The Bloodless Boy

Hardback, Melville House Publishing, £18.99, out now

Snow falls as the scientist Robert Hooke and his former assistant Harry Hunt are called to a child’s body which has been found on the Fleet riverbank.  The body has been drained of blood.  The city of London in 1678 is febrile with anti-Catholic feeling and the shadows of the recent civil war are all around.

This is an excellent historical mystery, and much of the action takes place around where the Riverside Bookshop now is.  London Bridge, Southwark, the Monument, Bishopsgate, Westminster… for anyone who knows this area well, The Bloodless Boy will take you through areas at once familiar and strange.  In Whitechapel market, “Black powder from hundreds of chimneys and from the fires, braziers and stoves set up to keep the traders warm, dusted the hard, refrozen snow”.

It is like C J Sansom’s Shardlake series, combining a compelling mystery with detailed research that’s lightly worn, and featuring some real-life characters (in this case John Locke and King Charles II as well as Hooke). 

It is clear that Lloyd has expertise in the history of science and the history of ideas.  I knew I was going to enjoy the book when it opened with a cast list of characters including a fanatic, an assassin, and one who is both “a clergyman, and perjurer”.

Originally published in 2013 and reprinted now in a gorgeous hardback edition, The Bloodless Boy has won praise quotes from Lee Child, Andrew Taylor and Christopher Fowler among others.

A great London book and a gripping and pacy story.  Recommended.

Review by Bethan

December 18, 2021

Bestsellers 11th – 18th December

by Team Riverside

Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey – How Was That Built?

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

John Le Carre – Silverview

Richard Osman – The Thursday Murder Club

Claire Keegan – Small Things Like These

Abdulrazak Gurnah – Afterlives

Hannah J. Parkinson – The Joy of Small Things

Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle

Various Authors – The Haunting Season

Susanna Clarke – Piranesi

Michaela Coel – Misfits

Stanley Tucci – Taste

Dave Eggers – The Every

Various Poets – The Liberty Faber Poetry Diary

Amor Towles – The Lincoln Highway

December 14, 2021

Moominland Midwinter (colour edition) by Tove Jansson

by Team Riverside
Moominland Midwinter book cover

Hardback, Sort Of Books, £14.99, out now

This new special edition of Moominland Midwinter is a complete treat.  It has colour plates and a big map, and is beautifully produced (as books from this publisher usually are).  The colour plates were produced by Jansson in 1961 for the Italian version of the book and make their first UK appearance here, sixty years later (you can see some of the gorgeous plates here – https://www.moomin.com/en/blog/moominland-midwinter-color-illustrations/#57813284).

I loved Moominland Midwinter when I came across it in 2017 and reviewed it then – https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2017/10/15/moominland-midwinter-by-tove-jansson/.

There is also a fantastic picture of grumpy Moomin ancestors on p. 89 which is worth the price of the book alone.

Review by Bethan

December 13, 2021

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries chosen by Otto Penzler

by Team Riverside
book cover The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries

Softcover, Head of Zeus, £18, out now

This is a great range of very satisfying Christmas mysteries.  Feeling like pulp crime? Try John D. MacDonald.  Classic crime? Try Ellis Peters.  Something modern?  Try Sara Paretsky.  There are also stories from lots of all time great crime writers, including John Mortimer, Agatha Christie and Colin Dexter.

I read many of these stories last Christmas when this collection came out in hardback.  Now it’s out in a striking softback edition with a smart vintage style Gothic revival cover.  For a book with over 700 pages, it’s very comfortable in the hands.  Some stories are very short and some are longish, which means you can find something that fits your time as well as mood.

I found it put me on to several crime writers who were new to me, which made for some fun reading this year (I have been cheerfully reading Ellery Queen and Rex Stout as a result).

It’s so attractive that it would make a successful present, but ideally only for someone you can borrow it off later.

Review by Bethan

December 8, 2021

London in the Snow by Hoxton Mini Press

by Team Riverside
cover of London in the Snow book

Hardback, Hoxton Mini Press, £16.95, out now

London in the Snow is not only about the humans.  There are elephants with shovels, camels looking a bit chilly, and pigeons making the best of it. 

This charming small hardback photo book has a good range of black and white images from the 1900s to the 1960s, and they are not just the usual subjects (for a sample of the images, see (https://www.hoxtonminipress.com/products/london-in-the-snow-book-10-vintage-britain). There are parks and zoos, synagogues and cathedrals, streets and schools, canals and the river.  I like that there are diverse images from a diverse city.  My favourite photo is a young Sikh man in 1900 tobogganing with the intensity of a champion.  This is a well edited and entertaining selection.

Snow is unusual enough in London that Londoners still react in a variety of ways when it falls.  We might run wild in the park or steer clear of a deserted Oxford Street.  We might valiantly keep working in freezing conditions, or skate across a frozen pond to usher swans towards open water like a woman in this book (perhaps).

We love the Opinionated Guide series from this independent press (see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2021/07/12/london-green-spaces-by-harry-ades/).  This latest book in the Vintage Britain series is as beautifully made as its predecessors, and would make a cheerful gift.

Review by Bethan

December 6, 2021

Michael Rosen’s Sticky McStickstick by Michael Rosen and Tony Ross

by Team Riverside
book cover for Sticky McStickstick

Hardback, Walker Books, £12.99, out now

Early in the pandemic, Michael Rosen got very ill with Covid.  This smashing children’s picture book charts his recovery and the friends who helped him get better.  These include not only the NHS staff, and his supportive family, but also his faithful walking stick, Sticky McStickstick.

Tony Ross’s sensitive and lively illustration is the perfect match for Rosen’s account of his recovery.  From being able to get out of bed, to walking, to going upstairs and making a cup of tea, the recovery is long but each stage is celebrated.  I find it so cheering that Rosen salutes the things that help him move around more: a wheelchair, a walking frame and finally Sticky.  The subtitle says it all: The Friend Who Helped Me Walk Again.  Sticky has a lot of personality.

From the poet who brought you These are the Hands, a song of gratitude to the NHS (see https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/these-are-hands/), it is no surprise that Rosen gives all credit due to the staff who saved his life and then helped him to recover as best he could.  This would be a good book for explaining serious illness and recovery to children, but also for anyone going through it themselves.  Like the best children’s books, this is really for everyone.  He deals well with fear, and also with keeping on trying.  “Maybe you’ve been ill.  Or maybe you know someone who’s been ill.  When we’re ill, we change, don’t we?  And then we do what we can to get better.  People help us.”

Review by Bethan

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 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

October 29, 2021

There’s a Ghost in this House by Oliver Jeffers

by Team Riverside
There's a Ghost in this House

Hardback, HarperCollins, £20, out now

This is a delightful, mildly spooky picture book from the author of Lost and Found. 

There are supposed to be ghosts in our host’s large old house, but she has never seen them – can you?  With the help of tracing paper inserts and atmospheric photos, we can not only find the ghosts but also see the hijinks that they get up to.

It is a brilliant idea, and a timeless book.  It goes for funny rather than scary, and the ghosts are quite endearing.  You find yourself thinking that living in a haunted house might be quite jolly.

We have signed copies in store.  Happy Halloween!

Review by Bethan

October 18, 2021

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci

by Team Riverside
Stanley Tucci Taste

Hardback, Penguin Fig Tree, £20, out now

You must be careful when reading this book.  You might end up with a shopping list that suddenly includes good vodka, Valtellina cheese, and bushels of fresh tomatoes.  I read it on a Sunday afternoon, snacking enjoyably throughout, and had a deeply relaxing time.

Tucci is just as funny, smart and interesting in Taste as he is on his excellent TV show Searching for Italy (https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/stanley-tucci-searching-for-italy-restaurants/index.html).  He gives an enjoyable account of moments in his life through food, including hilarious dialogue with his family, right the way through to a surprisingly relatable account of being stuck indoors in London with his kids during the first lockdown.  Aged about six, watching a food show on television, his mother tells him that the presenter is cooking a duck.  He says “A duck?!!!… From a pond?”  His mother says “I guess so.  I don’t know”.

Dotted throughout are hungry-making recipes.  Achievable cocktails accompany grand epics like the timpano (as seen in the movie Big Night), which turns out to have been a source of both joy and stress in the Tucci household over a run of Christmases.  Jay Rayner has a smashing time cooking it with Stanley Tucci though (see https://www.theguardian.com/food/2021/oct/17/the-day-i-cooked-timpano-with-stanley-tucci-jay-rayner).

Fans of Big Night and Julie and Julia will find cheerful behind the scenes gossip here.  Tucci namedrops with abandon, which is the only possible way to do it with style.  Ryan Reynolds, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Marcello Mastroianni and endless friends from the world of food pop up.  Taste is both thoughtful and sweary, one of my favourite combinations.

I agree that battered family cookware can be heirlooms, as Tucci notes.  There are often things that we associate strongly with the important cooks in our lives.  A friend’s mum always made toffee in the same tin: it had hammer marks where years of toffee bashing had occurred.  These things are precious.

Tucci’s account of his cancer, which leads him to have terrible trouble with food and eating during his treatment and recovery, is moving and important.  That food for him is about connecting with others is clear throughout the book, and his deprivation of this key aspect of life during his illness hurts.  His joy at surviving and being able to get back to eating with the people he loves leaps off the page.

I suspect that many people will buy this lovely thing for other people this Christmas.  Do this by all means, but read it sneakily yourself first.  It’s like being on a sunny food holiday with a generous and entertaining friend.  We have signed copies!

Review by Bethan

October 13, 2021

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by Rebecca Hall

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Particular Books, £20, out now

Rebecca Hall Wake

This new graphic novel and memoir charts historian Rebecca Hall’s search for women rebel slave leaders in archives in the UK and US.  It is gripping, moving, and compelling.

Formerly a social justice lawyer, Hall’s work starts in New York in 1999, and Hugo Martínez’s illustrations show the slaving past literally reflected in the city as Hall walks through it.  It’s a brilliant way of showing how the past is inescapable in the present.  The graphic novel format lends itself to this so well, literally illustrating the similarities in some behaviour and surroundings between then and now. A smartly dressed white man barges into Hall without seeing her, and in a window reflection a white man in a tricorn hat pushes past another Black woman.

There are newly found stories of women-led revolts here, showing that her exhaustive work has paid off, and they are told with deep humanity.

As with Saidiya Hartman’s work on transforming and disrupting the archive, Hall does the work of interrogating why archives are as they are (anyone who loved Wayward Lives and Lose Your Mother will find this essential reading – see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2020/09/23/wayward-lives-beautiful-experiments-by-saidiya-hartman/).  The realisation that current racism and sexism have some of their roots in slavery is manifest. The historian as human is very present – “This work I’m doing is hard, and it hurts.”

Wake gives a vivid account of the difficulty of finding people in official archives when their voices are not recorded, being considered of no importance, or when their only seeming presence is as property.  She is also explicit about the UK archives which barred her from access, and those which felt they held nothing about slavery.

Hall describes herself as being haunted by slavery.  This really is a haunting book, necessarily violent and painful, showing that hard and committed work by historians can be revolutionary. 

Review by Bethan

October 9, 2021

Bestsellers 2nd – 9th October

by Team Riverside

Sally Rooney – Beautiful World, Where Are You

Richard Osman – The Man Who Died Twice

Karina Lickorish Quinn – The Dust Never Settles

Sosuke Natsukawa – The Cat Who Saved Books

Caroline Criado Perez – Invisible Women

Shon Faye – The Transgender Issue

Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey – How Was That Built?

Merlin Sheldrake – Entangled Life

Riku Onda – The Aosawa Murders

Pat Barker – The Women of Troy

Stanley Tucci – Taste: My Life Through Food

William Boyd – Trio

Richard Osman – The Thursday Murder Club

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Bob Mortimer – And Away…

October 6, 2021

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Daunt Books, £9.99, out now

Filthy Animals is the new collection of short stories from Booker Prize shortlisted writer Brandon Taylor, fans of his characteristically vivid prose and razor-sharp observations will not be disappointed by this stunning collection.

Taylor has a gift for portraying social discomfort in excruciating detail and this is perhaps best on display in the first story in the collection ‘Potluck’. Lionel, a character recovering from a suicide attempt becomes caught up in the world of Charles and Sophie, both dancers involved in an open relationship. Their encounters are ambiguous but powerful, affectionate but also distant and strange. In stories such as ‘Mass’ there is often an emphasis on the characters physicality, many of them are training to be professional dancers and there is an acute, Degas-like focus on their muscular bodies as a site for potential greatness and also a possible site of disaster. There is a kind of slipperiness throughout the book, many of the interactions between characters turn rapidly from friendly to hostile and back again. But love is always present, after so much anxiety and fraught relationships, the tenderness of ‘Anne of Cleves’ caught me off guard, it’s a beautifully realised story about a relationship blossoming between two women.

The stunning, cinematic quality of Taylor’s prose never fails, each story has a complete world within it, even when the characters fail to communicate verbally, the atmosphere is palpable. I recommend this book especially for fans of Lucia Berlin.

Review by Phoebe

September 18, 2021

Mindful Mr Sloth by Katy Hudson

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Raintree and Curious Frog, £6.99, out now

Mindful Mr Sloth

Sasha has an enviable treehouse and a bunch of activities that she’s ready to do at high speed.  She even has lists of books she’s read – including a personal best reading time of 20 seconds!  This is all excellent fun, but when a sloth bonks down on the treehouse roof, she learns that slow can be fun too.

This very appealing children’s picture book shows a lovely day being had while also providing a useful way in to mindfulness (or just to slowing down and paying good attention).  The illustrations themselves provide a great reward for attending: vibrant and cheerful, and little details that repay seeing rather than just looking.

There is a helpful focus on the natural world (and not just sloths), showing that mindfulness and its rewards are possible everywhere.  Offering quiet and stillness as positive ways to enjoy the smell of flowers or the sound of birdsong, rather than just as corrections to what adults consider ‘too much’ noise or activity, is also welcome.

Who would not want to learn mindfulness from a sloth?

Review by Bethan

September 12, 2021

Ethel Rosenberg by Anne Sebba

by Team Riverside
Ethel Rosenberg cover

Hardback, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £20.00, out now

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the United States for treason in 1953.  A married couple, and the parents of two young children, their case became a cause célèbre as a miscarriage of justice, a cultural reference point, and a symbol of US domestic attitudes during the Cold War.  Amid all of this, the human story of Ethel Rosenberg has been lost, and this is what Anne Sebba’s engrossing biography corrects.

With access to new information from Ethel’s sons and others who knew her, as well as scrupulous archive research, Sebba meticulously reconstructs the life of this ordinary and extraordinary woman.  We find out about her upbringing in a New York Jewish family facing hard times.  We are left with the impression of an intelligent, talented and hardworking woman from a difficult family background, who was determined to make her way in life – in education, in singing, as a trade unionist, and as a wife and mother.

The book offers a vivid account of how some Americans came to communism in the 1930s, and how ordinary people started spying for the Soviet Union.  Sebba unpicks what Ethel Rosenberg did and didn’t know about the leaking of atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and gives a detailed analysis of her trial.  She conveys the swirl of McCarthyism and anti-communist fever, and the impact of ingrained anti-Semitism.

Sebba spares us nothing, so it can be a tough read at times, but it is so worthwhile.  It is no wonder that the biography has been praised by Claire Tomalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Philippe Sands, among others.  Among the moments of light in the frequently grim story that Ethel’s two young children live through, are the moments of solidarity and care shown to them from unexpected quarters (including at one point W. E. B. Du Bois).  Outstanding.

Review by Bethan

September 9, 2021

Bestsellers 2nd to the 9th of September

by Team Riverside

Sally Rooney – Beautiful World, Where Are You

Riku Onda – The Aosawa Murders

Pat Barker – The Women of Troy

Kazuo Ishiguro – Klara and The Sun

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Emily St. John Mandel – The Glass Hotel

Caitlin Moran – More Than a Woman

Fran Lebowitz – The Fran Lebowitz Reader

Bernadine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

Rutger Bregman – Humankind

Clare Chambers – Small Pleasures

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

Merlin Sheldrake – Entangled Life

Sebastian Faulks – Snow Country

Elena Ferrante – The Lying Life of Adults

September 7, 2021

Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles

by Team Riverside
Small Bodies of Water book cover

Hardback, Canongate, £14.99, out now

I have just had my first swim in a year and a half.  It was a completely joyous experience, and I was reminded how important swimming is for me.  Many memories of places and people are bound up with it.

Nina Mingya Powles’s essays, collected in Small Bodies of Water, were the perfect thing for me to read just after this memorable swim.  She combines memoir with nature writing, weaving strands about family, identity and home through the work.  Swimming features, as do sensory delights of food and travel.  Her essay on cold water swimming, Ache, was one of my favourites.  She is a generous writer, sharing experiences with us, even painful things like personal and shocking experiences of racism. 

Born in Aotearoa New Zealand, spending time in China and now living in London, the author’s experiences and interests coalesce in her writing: “Mum collects mandarin peels and cut lemon skins and places them in the dish after cooking, so that as the oven cools, it gives off a bittersweet, hot-sugar scent.  The rinds begin to dry out and curl in the warmth while the dog sleeps at our feet.  Not far away, we can hear waves roaring in a southerly gale.  Our skin smells of salt and oranges.” (p. 124)

A poet who won the Nan Shepherd prize for nature writing, Nina Mingya Powles writes as beautifully as you’d expect, and wears her thoughtfulness and reading lightly.  References to some of Riverside’s favourite books kept popping up.  Braiding Sweetgrass, Crying in H Mart, Mixed Race Superman, Wayward Lives and The Living Mountain all feature, and gave me the pleasurable feeling of having a very intelligent friend talking about things I had just read.  Her discussion of old family objects and writings as a sort of enduring but complicated archive usefully echoes Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory. 

I know I will read this again, and I have already lined up two people to lend it to.  It feels like a gift someone has given you, and that you want to share with others.

Review by Bethan

August 27, 2021

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

by Team Riverside

Jonathon Cape, Hardback, £14.99, out now

The narrator of Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies is adrift in a sea of language. She works as a translator in the courts of The Hague, and her work, allowing others’ voices to flow through her own is mirrored in her personal relationships. She often acts as a cipher for the other characters, as she herself is uncertain of where she belongs, their voices are channelled through their interactions with her. At times the novel behaves like a series of monologues, many of them on the theme of violence.

A fellow translator relays an encounter she has translating for a man accused of being high up in a genocidal regime, a man is mysteriously attacked in the same neighbourhood where the protagonists’ friend lives. The sense of the narrative being troubled by violence intensifies when the narrator takes a job translating the testimony of a former dictator. Their interactions are tense and ambiguous, bureaucratic and yet laden with meaning.

Sometimes I felt as if I was observing the world of the novel through the protagonists’ eyes as she viewed the events, at once passive and watchful. Kitamura controls the pacing of the novel masterfully, and every interaction is flawlessly rendered, not one phrase is wasted. I would highly recommend Intimacies for fans of Rachel Cusk and Brandon Taylor.

Review by Phoebe

August 18, 2021

Emily Noble’s Disgrace by Mary Paulson-Ellis

by Team Riverside
Emily Noble's Disgrace

Hardback, Mantle, £16.99, out 19 August

Edinburgh’s seaside Portobello district in 2019, and Essie Pound is part of a specialist cleaning team clearing a flat after an elderly woman’s body is found two years after her death. Part of Essie’s job is to look out for objects in the flat that might explain more about who the person was and why she died.  But Essie gets pulled into a deeper mystery, one that takes her back into Portobello’s pasts as well as her own.  Investigating more formally is young police officer Emily Noble.  Their work is bound to coincide. 

Essie says: “Just like Isabella Dawson, my whole life is hidden.  From me.  And from everyone else too.  But not because I’ve buried it in someone else’s rubbish.  More because I don’t have anything or anyone to remind me of what it might have been.”

Mary Paulson-Ellis is a new crime and mystery author for me, but I will definitely be seeking out her other standalone novels (which feature some characters from this book).  I’m a fan of Elly Griffiths and Ann Cleeves, for their readable characters and good plots, and Paulson-Ellis definitely delivers on these.

Emily Noble’s Disgrace made me remember the excellent biography The Trauma Cleaner, in which author Sarah Krasnostein covers not only Sandra Pankhurst’s life in trauma cleaning but also her transition (https://wellcomebookprize.org/book/trauma-cleaner).

There are strong women characters, and reflections on women’s lives.  Some of the themes in the book make for hard reading – for example, suggested child death, and fat phobia.  But the story is compelling, the writing is strong, and I read this cover to cover in a day.

Review by Bethan

August 2, 2021

Arlo the Lion Who Couldn’t Sleep by Catherine Rayner

by Team Riverside
cover of Arlo, a picture book

Paperback, Macmillan, £7.99, out now

Lions need a lot of sleep, as everyone knows… but for Arlo it’s too hot, too cold, too prickly, too noisy.  Like everyone who struggles with their sleep, Arlo wonders if he will ever sleep again.

Catherine Rayner’s beautiful picture book sets the tone for a peaceful bedtime for small children.  Arlo’s friend Owl swoops down to offer advice on how to relax and get ready for a restful night.  Rayner’s exquisite pictures with their soothing but still vibrant colour palette give life to a simple and effective bedtime story.  The lions and owl are not cartoon or comic book, but are natural.

As a veteran struggler with sleep, I found this book comforting and helpful (and I am clearly about 40 years over the target audience age).  It’s helpful without being prescriptive or preachy. I would also be delighted to have any or all of these stunning pictures on my wall.

The only potential problem I foresee is tired parents and carers dozing off before any children who are being read to!  It’s a treat for the end of the day.

Review by Bethan

July 20, 2021

We Want Our Books by Jake Alexander

by Team Riverside
We Want Our Books

Hardback, Pan Macmillan, £12.99, out now

Rosa has so many interesting questions that her dad suggests they visit the library to get the answers.  But the library is closed and boarded up, because it’s going to be knocked down and replaced by a restaurant.  There will be no library to provide answers.

In this striking picture book, Rosa and her family do their best to protest against the closure by reminding people of how useful and important libraries are.  But no one seems to listen, as people are either too busy or think that the protest is beneath their notice.

But it turns out that more people care about the library than only Rosa’s family, and that all together they can make a difference.

We Want Our Books is a love letter to libraries and a believable story about the highs and lows of grassroots protest. 

I still get a rush of joy whenever I walk into a public library, when I remember that I can find a book that might change my life and that I can borrow it for free.  And if you need a reminder of how lovely libraries can be, treat yourself to a look here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/epic-libraries-around-the-world.  Libraries need our support – support yours!

Review by Bethan

July 4, 2021

How to Listen by Katie Colombus

by Team Riverside
How to Listen

Paperback, Kyle Books, £12.99, out now

This is the most instantly useful book I have read this year.  The subtitle shows exactly what it is for: “Tools for opening up conversations when it matters most”.

Produced with the Samaritans and drawing on the experiences of their volunteers and service users, whose useful and detailed insights appear throughout the book, this is a straightforward guide to active listening.  It is very easy to read and no special skills are needed.

The Samaritans use the helpful acronym SHUSH for active listening: Show you care, Have patience, Use open questions, Say it back, and Have courage (https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/if-youre-worried-about-someone-else/how-support-someone-youre-worried-about/what-do-if-you-think-someone-struggling/).

“Have Courage” is very relevant.  Often we would like to ask how someone is, but we are worried that we might make things worse or not be able to deal with that person’s distress.  Samaritans service user James says: “It’s really not about being a specialist or having particular knowledge.  It’s about being a compassionate human being.  I wish people had the confidence to realise they are able to offer real help just by listening”.

How to Listen warns against giving advice or relaying your own experiences, suggesting instead that listeners prioritise giving people the space to express and explore their own problems and to come to their own solutions.  This has been a revelation for me.  It provides useful advice on spotting people who may be in distress and helps you listen to them properly without distractions.  One thing to do the next time you’re talking to someone: put your phone away and really pay attention.

Review by Bethan

July 4, 2021

Current Bestsellers

by Team Riverside

Our Bestsellers from 28th June to the 4th of July:

Brit Bennett- The Vanishing Half

Delia Owens- Where The Crawdads Sing

Maggie O’Farrell- Hamnet

Natalie Haynes- Pandora’s Jar

Jonathon Lee- The Great Mistake

Elena Ferrante- The Lying Life of Adults

Various Authors- Murder Takes A Holiday

James Hawes- The Shortest History of England

Peter Ackroyd- London: The Biography

Elif Shafak- 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

Richard Osman- The Thursday Murder Club

Sasha Swire- Diary of An MP’s Wife

Irvin and Marilyn Yalom- A Matter of Death and Life

Kazuo Ishiguro- Klara and The Sun

Kenneth Cukier- Framers

Clare Chambers- Small Pleasures

Susanna Clarke- Piranesi

Xialou Guo- A Lover’s Discourse

Meriel Schindler- The Lost Cafe Schindler

Tim Marshall- The Power of Geography

June 28, 2021

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Picador, £14.99, out now

The Office of Historical Corrections

“…I loved the past of archives, but there was no era of the past I had any inclination to visit with my actual human body, being rather fond of it having at least minimal rights and protections”.  Cassie, the narrator of the title novella in The Office of Historical Corrections, is an officer at the new US Institute for Public History.  She goes out and about correcting historical inaccuracy in the Washington area, a new civil service style job.  But what happens when there is a total subversion or avoidance of truth, and some bodies are clearly in the firing line?

This is the best collection of short stories I’ve read in ages.  Every one is sharp and entertaining.  Claire is called out by a college colleague for wearing a Confederate flag bikini, but doubles down, and doubles down again – why?  Cecelia’s mother is determined to get recognition for her father’s wrongful imprisonment in Alcatraz, but a visit to the former prison with estranged family happens instead.  The end of Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain is one of my favourite endings to a short story. 

Roxane Gay calls Danielle Evans “the finest short story writer working today”, and I think she’s on to something.  Race, gender and grief feature over and over.  I think this collection will be read for years and years.                    

Review by Bethan

June 23, 2021

The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson

by Team Riverside
The Gospel of the Eels

Paperback, Picador, £9.99, out now

I was speaking a couple of years ago with someone who was helping with a citizen science project which was monitoring eels in London rivers. They would empty a trap set for the eels, measure them, and release them.  They were told by the research lead that they did not need to take a photo of the eels each time.  “There are lots of things we don’t know about eels, but what they look like isn’t one of them”.

The Gospel of the Eels goes after these mysterious animals, explaining that there are large parts of the eels’ lives that remain unknown to science, including exactly where and how they breed.  What is clearer is that European eels are in danger of becoming extinct, and that urgently solving some of their puzzles might help protect them even though something might be lost with their mystery.  Svensson quotes Rachel Carson: “And as they passed through the surf and out to the sea, so they also passed from human sight and almost from human knowledge”.

Svensson is interesting on eels’ impact on modern life. Sigmund Freud spent time early in his career studying eels, and Svensson makes a good case for this influencing his later theories (‘Sigmund Freud and the eels of Trieste’ is possibly one of my favourite chapter titles ever).  He spots eels in literature, including work by Graham Swift and E.T.A. Hoffman.

Among the natural history and current science, Svensson recalls eel fishing with his father as a child.  Some of the fishing detail is frankly revolting to a non-fishing person, but the experiences become a place to explore his relationship with his father. Svensson notes that life for working class families like his in Sweden changed hugely during the last half of the twentieth century: “… it had become possible for a road paver and day care worker mum, my parents, to live a life that was different in every way from the lives previous generations of the working class had known”.  He finds that attending to eels leads him to pay better mind: this reminded me of some of the arguments made by Julia Bell in Radical Attention (https://peninsulapress.co.uk/product/radical-attention).

The premise of The Gospel of the Eels sounds strange, but it is not strained or annoying.  It’s well-translated popular science with memoir, and a pleasure to read.  Why gospel though?  When science lacks answers, faith can fill the gap.  Perhaps if we can fix things for the eels, we can start to fix things for ourselves. 

Review by Bethan