Archive for ‘Reviews’

November 2, 2020

Snow by John Banville

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Faber and Faber, £14.99, out now

cover of Snow by John Banville

Snow is an engrossing noirish mystery from the author of Blue Guitar and The Untouchable.  It’s 1957 in County Wexford, and a priest is found dead and castrated in a snowbound country manor.  Inspector Strafford, called to investigate, suspects a cover up may be in progress.  He’s a Protestant from the upper classes of society, and class and religion affect everything that happens in this story.  He is an appropriately lonely outsider, driven to get to the truth and wondering what he will do with it when he finds it.

Banville usually writes crime or mystery novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, including the superb Quirke mystery series.  Snow is a must read for Quirke fans as some of those characters appear here. The sharp wit we expect from Banville/Black is evident here.  “It had snowed continuously for two days, and this morning everything appeared to stand in hushed amazement before the spectacle of such expanses of unbroken whiteness on all sides.  People said it was unheard of, that they had never known weather like it, that it was the worst winter in living memory.  But they said that every year when it snowed, and also in years when it didn’t snow.” (p. 3)

There are several knowing nods to other crime fiction – Snow opens with a body in a library, for starters.  But while it’s a proper mystery, this is not cosy crime.  There is corruption, and hypocrisy, and Banville skewers these where he finds them.  He is not afraid of tackling difficult themes.  Isolation is not picturesque here, but it can be witty: “He had seen a robin yesterday, too, somewhere.  It was the time of year for them.  Christmas.  Yule logs.  Holly wreaths.  Loneliness.” (p. 172).

Get this for a mystery-loving friend for Christmas, and read it sneakily yourself before wrapping it.  Enjoy the atmospheric twilit cover while you’re at it.

Review by Bethan

October 26, 2020

Threads of Life by Clare Hunter

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Sceptre, £9.99, out now

cover of Threads of Life

The book’s subtitle is A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle.  It is not grandiose or heavy, but rather an entertainingly written with focus sharply on those who have sewn textile art to tell stories.

Some stories were familiar and some completely unknown.  Sewing features as part of war, propaganda, survival, protest.

The emotional connections between makers and their work emerge strongly.  Particularly moving is the story of the Changi quilt, which Hunter visits at the Red Cross archive with a descendant of one of the makers.  She notes that it was made by women prisoners of war in a Japanese camp in Singapore during the Second World War, to communicate with their men (who were held separately – see also https://changi.redcross.org.uk/). 

Hunter is interesting on her own making, and is a “banner-maker, community textile artist and textile curator”.  The book is partly memoir.  Her frequent focus on activism in the text is a bonus.

I had not heard of the stories of women in Chile, who used the sewing of arpilleras (embroidery on burlap) to protest against the Pinochet dictatorship.  “The arpilleras depicted domestic scenes of loss: a woman standing by herself in the doorway of her home, a family mealtime with one empty place.  There were also exterior scenes: a marketplace with no food on its stalls, unemployed youngsters scavenging for cardboard to sell, policemen making an arrest, a tree with pictures of lost relatives instead of leaves all backgrounded by the Andes mountains and a shining sun or bright moon” (p. 155 – see also https://slate.com/human-interest/2014/09/history-of-quilting-arpilleras-made-by-chilean-women-to-protest-pinochet.html).

Threads of Life will send you off on a bunch of reading jags, and also make you search for images of the works discussed.  An illustrated version of the book with colour plates would be wonderful, but in the absence of that get ready to be introduced to the stories behind intriguing sewn art from all over the world.

Review by Bethan

October 21, 2020

The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hamish Hamilton, £14.99, out now

The Lost Spells book cover

The Lost Spells is the beautiful small sister of the Riverside favourite The Lost Words (https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2017/10/03/the-lost-words-by-robert-macfarlane-and-jackie-morris/).

Superb illustrations of the natural world accompany poems or spells, to bring us closer to the non-human lives we live alongside.  Morris’s The Snow Leopard remains one of my favourite books of all time (https://www.jackiemorris.co.uk/the-snow-leopard/).  The images in the verses are as vivid.  From snow hares to swifts, proper attention is paid.  A hare runs through the snow: “Each long line of tracks a row of inkwells in the white”.            

This art can act as a summoner, to bring these animals and plants into our everyday lives. If we don’t notice them, we miss out, and are less likely to act to protect them.  The Lost Spells is a pleasure to fall into, despite its constant awareness of nature being under threat.

Happily, it doubles as a puzzle book – there’s a magic glossary at the back showing the animals and plants you can hunt for in the illustrations.  You can hunt in real life too, as it is pocket size so that you can take it out and about with you, which is a delightful thought (even if you are curled up indoors staying warm).  Just looking at the pictures will take you to another place.  The perfect gift for a nature lover.

Review by Bethan

October 20, 2020

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, trans. Ginny Tapeley Takemori

by Team Riverside

Granta, Hardback Fiction, £12.99, out now

A genre-defying novel from the bestselling author of Convenience Store Woman, newly translated into English. Natsuki has spent her whole life not fitting in, failing to live up to the expectations of her family. She confides in her mysterious cousin Yuu and her toy hedgehog, Piyuut, who she believes is an emissary sent by the Magic Police on Planet Popinpobopia. But a tragic event during a family vacation in the wild Nagano Mountains sets Natsuki on a path of alienation, with catastrophic consequences.

Murata’s second novel in English deals with some of the same themes as her first, but while Convenience Store Woman asks how to rebel against familial and domestic structures, Earthlings asks if these structures are necessary at all. The events of the novel are shocking and unpredictable. The structure resembles that of a horror film, Natsuki’s traumatic experiences with a neglectful mother and an abusive teacher drive her deeper and deeper into a fantasy world where she is waiting to be collected by aliens from her home planet. She attempts to escape her family through a loveless marriage, but not even this can save her from their controlling influence. Her behaviour becomes erratic, even sadistic, and culminates in a bloody conclusion, involving her cousin, her husband and a return to the mountains.

Whilst I thought this was a steep departure from Convenience Store Woman, which I thoroughly enjoyed, this second novel in English confirms that Murata is a fantastically exciting writer and I can’t wait to read what she writes next.

Review by Phoebe

October 13, 2020

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright! ed. Fiona Walters and illustrations Britta Teckentrup

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Nosy Crow, £25, out now

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright! book cover

This gorgeous anthology of animal poems for children has just arrived, and it is a complete joy.  There’s a poem for every day, varying from the funny to the serious, and the short to the reasonably epic.  There are poets here I recognise and many that I do not.  This book is ostensibly for children, but like the best children’s books is really for all humans.

For autumn, a spider poem by Bashō:

                            With what voice,

And what song would you sing, spider,

                            In this autumn breeze?

The Britta Teckentrup illustrations are vivid and engaging.  We at Riverside are massive fans of her work, especially the stunning Under the Same Sky (https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2018/01/16/under-the-same-sky-by-britta-teckentrup/). 

This is a book to keep and share forever.  It’s big, and heavy, and perfect for curling up with on a chilly autumn evening.

Review by Bethan

September 23, 2020

Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Serpent’s Tail, £17.99, out now        

Wayward Lives book cover

This is an extraordinary and moving book, finding women’s hidden histories in the archives.  Hartman makes the invisible visible, in many cases literally with vivid images that will stick in your mind long after you’ve finished reading.  Photos, newspaper clippings, and contemporary documents let you see for yourself the stories of women refusing to live like slaves, and striving for freedom and joy.

Focussing on young black women in America in the early twentieth century, Hartman uses a vast range of archival material, and draws out the words and voices of those women wherever she can.  Her approach is creative and hugely engaging, and you can tell it’s going to be something different from the cast of characters listed at the start of the book.  Included are “Mabel Hampton: Chorine, lesbian, working-class intellectual, and aspiring concert singer” and “The Chorus: All the unnamed young women of the city trying to find a way to live and in search of beauty”.  Some of the content is inevitably quite distressing. There is deprivation and glamour, imprisonment and rebellion, servitude and love.

The book’s subtitle is Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, and the lives of the women we encounter reveal the personal cost of social injustice and change.  In an interview about writing the book, Hartman said she asked herself: “What is it like to imagine a radically different world, or to try to make a beautiful life in a situation of brutal constraint?” (https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/saidiya-hartman-on-working-with-archives/). It’s not like anything else I’ve ever read.  The closest thing I’ve found (and also excellent) for revealing hidden women in the archive is Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive by Marisa J. Fuentes (https://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15502.html).  

Michelle Alexander, author of the seminal book The New Jim Crow, rightly calls Wayward Lives “… a startling, dazzling act of resurrection”.  This is exactly what it is.  Stunning.

Review by Bethan

September 10, 2020

Death In Her Hands, Ottessa Moshfegh

by Team Riverside

Jonathon Cape Vintage, Paperback, Fiction, £14.99, out now

Vesta Gull lives by herself, dependent on her dog Charlie for company, she feels alienated from the people in local town, she is seemingly destined to spend the rest of her life alone, until she discovers a threatening note in the woods and her world is transformed. ‘Her name was Magda, nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.’

Moshfegh’s other novels such as My Year of Rest and Relaxation seem to be inspired by writers such as Bret Easton Ellis, but Death In Her Hands is an altogether different adventure, a mystery in the mode of Shirley Jackson. In this case the ghosts vividly inhabit Vesta’s imagination, she is haunted by the voice of her controlling late husband and by the dead body of the girl she believes is lying in the woods. The people she imagines, such as ‘Blake’ the author, she thinks, of the note are often as real as the townspeople she encounters, creating an unsettlingly fragile boundary between real events and Vesta’s imagination.

As a fan of Moshfegh’s writing I found this to be an interesting foray into the mystery genre, Moshfegh twists the reader’s expectations all the way up to the novel’s horrifying and brilliant conclusion.

Review by Phoebe

September 9, 2020

Look Up! by Nathan Bryon, illustrated by Dapo Adeola

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £6.99, out now

This is a cheerful picture book about a small girl’s mission to share her love of space.  Rocket is a stargazer who lives in a town, and is determined that folks where she lives should come to the park to watch the meteor shower.

Rocket’s brother Jamal is lovely but he’s always looking down at his phone… like everyone else, he needs to look up!

With a shout out to the legendary Mae Jemison, Look Up! is a great way to show primary children how exciting space can be, and that it’s available to everyone.  The enthusiasm in the book is infectious, helped by the lively and fun illustrations.  I particularly liked the astronaut cat who appears on every page.  I’ve already bought three copies as presents, and I’m pretty sure these won’t be the last.     

Review by Bethan

September 7, 2020

Recollections Of My Non-Existence

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £16.99, out now

Rebecca Solnit’s latest work is a slim volume of memoir recounting her experience of living alone in San Francisco. Through the lens of her own journeys and interactions, Solnit takes us through subjects such as the art world, environmentalism, gendered violence, gentrification, and the writer’s own struggle to have her voice heard.

In some ways Solnit treads similar ground to her previous works, such as Wanderlust and Men Explain Things To Me, however her personal insight into these subjects is invaluable. I found her perspective on the changing landscape of San Francisco particularly interesting.

As always, Solnit’s prose is measured, although the main focus of the book is on how women are silenced, Solnit arms her reader with information and hope. She writes often of her friends, and how these connections have sustained her personally and professionally. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in feminism, writing and activism.  

Review by Phoebe

September 2, 2020

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh

by Team Riverside

Hamish Hamilton, Hardback Fiction, £12.99, out now

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An unsettling new vision from the author of The Water Cure. On the day every woman gets their first period they are assigned either a blue or a white ticket, the first signalling that they will not have children, the second indicating that they must. Calla is given a blue ticket, but later in her life she develops an intense, forbidden longing for a child. When she acts on this urge she is thrown into conflict with a mysterious and threatening regime that pushes her onto a journey into exile.

Blue Ticket takes its place in the pantheon of feminist dystopian novels, the women are central to the narrative, their dissent is not just prohibited, it is dangerous. Mackintosh deftly explores the boundaries between natural urges and the systems that constrain them. Although Mackintosh’s prose is heavy with description and poetry, I could see and touch all that she described, Blue Ticket is also surprisingly fast-paced. I found myself holding my breath towards the end, waiting to discover Calla’s fate.

Whilst the questions of the book are weighty, Mackintosh avoids addressing these to the reader directly, Blue Ticket is above all an intensely poetic exploration of freedom, choice and desire.

Review by Phoebe

August 26, 2020

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

by Team Riverside

Ben Lerner TOPEKA SCHOOLHardback, Granta, £16.99, out now

Poet, author and essayist Ben Lerner’s latest novel, soon to be out in paperback, is as absorbing, dryly humourous and intellectually incisive as ever.

Lerner’s work is often described as autofictional, and in this instance the coming-of-age story of Adam Gordon, a gifted high-school student in Topeka Kansas during the ‘90s (like Lerner) and budding poet (like Lerner) whose parents are psychologists (like Lerner’s) seems to hew close to his lived experience. As in his excellent previous novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, his general approach involves laying a forensic bedrock of reality, from the references to and even cameos by historical figures like Bob Dole, Paul Manaforte, Fred Phelps and Tupac to discussions of real works of art and films, institutions and global events. In this recognisably concrete world, Adam’s encounters with his violent “bro” friends, figures of the nascent alt-right movement, Westboro Baptist Church and developing field of psychology are weighted with the reality of an anthropological study, or longform reportage.

Disquietingly convincing, too, are his investigations into the persuasive power of words. The journeys of he and his parents enfold psychoanalysis, poetry, rap, political debate and constant internecine argument, and the weaponising of rhetoric – the verbal deftness of the point made often trumping the veracity of what’s said, in a queasy presaging of modern political discourse – tends to be the order of the day. In this way, young Adam Gordon’s micro-level experiences reflect the coming world of alternative facts and virulent division towards which he, and his country, are being pulled.

Which is all interesting and vital enough, but Lerner adds to this an occasional grain of the surreal which harks straight back to his poetic beginnings. There are slippages between time periods and points of view, and visual motifs – paintings, hospital rooms – that return at odd, flashing moments, as if the novel is beset by glitches. This feels like a very modern form of surrealism, less dreamlike flight of fancy than the kind of punch-drunk informational overload brought on by a heavy internet binge. In this way, the abstract and concrete sit comfortably and beguilingly together, in a work which is just as adept at communicating bursts of feeling as it is at adroitly analysing. Essential modern reading.

Review by Tom

August 24, 2020

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Sort Of Books, £9.99, out nowKathleen Jamie SURFACING.png

My favourite in this collection of essays is ‘In Quinhagak’, where Scottish nature writer and poet Kathleen Jamie travels to a small village by the Bering Sea, mainly home to Yup’ik people.  She makes genuine connections with people she spends time with there, noticing different ways of experiencing time, and alternative ways of relating to history and land.  She finds the Yup’ik people’s ownership of their land, and care for it, intriguing, contrasting it with the almost total private ownership of land in Scotland (p. 89).

In ‘Links of Noltland 1’, working alongside archaeologists on remote Orkney, Jamie gets to see Neolithic treasures near their original sites, including the famous Westray Wife (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westray_Wife).  She is invited for dinner with a group at a colleague’s house.  After dinner, “…the others were sprawled on their orange sofas watching some old Quentin Tarantino film on Netflix.  They looked like the seals hauled out on the weedy shore.  If seals could watch Netflix, they would” (p. 154).  The humour throughout the book reminded me how much I loved her raucous poem The Queen of Sheba (https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/queen-sheba).

Inevitably, the climate emergency shadows everything.  Jamie is thoughtful about it, and is not defeated.  She notes impacts observed by people living on land they have been familiar with for generations.  “We all know it.  We can’t go on like this, but we wouldn’t go back either, to the stone ploughshare and the early death.  Maybe that’s why the folk here don’t embrace their Neolithic site much.  It’s all too close to the knuckle.” (p. 156).  Early trips to Tibet, and memories of her mother and grandmother, make this a wide-ranging and always interesting collection.

As a huge fan of her previous collections Sightlines and Findings, I had asked for this for my birthday and was delighted to get it.  Reflective, enjoyable, and enlightening.

Review by Bethan

August 19, 2020

Weather by Jenny Offill

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £12.99, out nowJenny Offill WEATHER.jpg

How does a person who cares (possibly too much) for others respond to their woes, and to the all-time-great woe of the climate emergency?  Serious subjects are addressed with joy and great style in this funny and kind short novel from the author of The Department of Speculation.

Lizzie lives in New York with her husband and son.  But this is regular Brooklyn, not glitzy, and her snapshots of ordinary life are a treat. She chats to Mohan, who’s working at the bodega.  “I admire his new cat, but he tells me it just wandered in.  He will keep it though because his wife no longer loves him”.

She’s a librarian with an academic background, and her old tutor (now hosting a podcast on climate change) hires her to answer podcast correspondence.  The listeners’ emails are revealingly fraught or apocalyptic.  A podcast guest “…signs off with a small borrowed witticism.  ‘Many of us subscribe to the same sentiment as our colleague Sherwood Rowland.  He remarked to his wife one night after coming home: “The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world.””

The perils of taking too much responsibility for others are teased out: Lizzie ends up taking a car service (taxi) she can’t really afford too often, as the driver’s business is failing and she doesn’t want him to suffer.  How she eventually ends this entanglement is striking.

Offill has spoken candidly about trying to address a huge issue in a short novel.  Being in relative denial about the impacts of the climate emergency is a fact of everyday life, so as a reader it’s interesting to watch Lizzie move away from ignoring it and towards acceptance of the situation.  I agree with the Guardian interviewer who concluded: “At its core, the story asks: what happens after we start to pay attention?”.  (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/feb/08/jenny-offill-interview – it was this interview that made me want to read the book, and also prompted me to finally read Stan Cohen’s States of Denial).

Enjoyable and relatable, but also very serious and relevant.  A great short read with wisdom and heart.

Review by Bethan

August 10, 2020

Temporary opening hours

by Team Riverside

Hello London Bridge!  We have slightly adjusted our opening hours this week:

Weekdays:

10am to 4pm

Saturday: 10am to 5pm

Sunday: 11am to 4pm

August 5, 2020

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Macmillan, £14.99, out nowEmily St John Mandel THE GLASS HOTEL.jpg

If you like your novels to take you to a series of elsewheres, and give you characters to get obsessed with, The Glass Hotel may be your perfect book.

It moves through striking settings: skyscraper Manhattan, a deluxe glass hotel in the Canadian wilderness, and a ship that the young and beautiful woman Vincent falls from as the novel opens.  But who is Vincent, and why does she disappear?  And why has someone etched in acid on the hotel lobby window “why don’t you swallow broken glass”?

Mandel has said that she wanted to write about the collapse of a too good to be true investment scheme, and those affected by it (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/apr/04/emily-st-john-mandel-i-admire-novelists-who-are-pushing-the-form-forward-in-some-some).  But the book is about our ability to delude ourselves more generally, to be able to carry on living with some level of knowledge of what is going on, but to be in denial about the true meaning of our actions until everything collapses.  I had read Stan Cohen’s classic States of Denial just before reading this, and his themes of knowing and not knowing at the same time were echoed over and over in The Glass Hotel.

The Glass Hotel reflects the very different worlds an individual can occupy and move between.  From poverty to wealth, abundance to ruin, work to permanent leisure.  Vincent comments on the similarity between wealthy urban areas around the world after visiting Singapore and London, noting that they are a culture or nation of their own – “the kingdom of money”.  One character, a former businessman, notices the world of shadows – people living in the margins compared to his more mainstream life.  He sees people in Las Vegas holding up signs advertising ‘girls to your room in 20 mins’ (p.247).  “He’d seen the shadow country, its outskirts and signs, he’d just never thought he’d have anything to do with it”.

It is also about how the people from your past might come back to haunt you, literally or figuratively.

The possibility of finding joy in difficult situations, and the value of resilience, recurs.  Vincent’s brother Paul, meeting her after some time apart, notes: “He studied Vincent closely for signs of trouble, but she seemed like a reserved, put-together person, someone who’d conducted herself carefully and avoided the land mines.  How did she get to be like that, and Paul like this?”.

I fell into this novel and didn’t want to stop till I’d finished.

Review by Bethan

July 25, 2020

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99, out now

This might be the best mysterRiku Onda THE AOSAWA MURDERS.jpgy I’ve ever read.  I immediately reread it and liked it even better second time around.

A prominent local family host a party at their smart villa in a seaside town in 1970s Japan.  Seventeen people are poisoned and only one member of the family survives: teenage Hisako, a blind girl.  Hisako claims that all she can remember is a blue room, and a flower.

Convinced that she is guilty of murder, a local police inspector tries for years to prove it.  But an easier suspect takes his own life, and people start to move on.  A gathering together of multiple forms of testimony helps to find an answer at last.

The Aosawa Murders is made up of witness accounts, stories and other ‘found’ testimony.  You read along, almost as an investigator yourself, and the process is extraordinarily engrossing.  It reminded me of the things I liked best about Graham Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, but ultimately it’s not really like anything else (https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2016/09/07/his-bloody-project-by-graeme-macrae-burnet/).

Riku Onda’s writing is beautiful and the translation seamless.  The setting is so vivid it becomes a character in itself: “But the ocean here isn’t refreshing at all.  Gazing at it doesn’t give you any sense of freedom or relief.  And the horizon is always close, as if waiting for an opportunity to force its way onto land.  It feels like you’re being watched, and if you dare look away for just a moment the sea might descend upon you.” (p. 14)

The need to reread immediately is a reflection of the intricate and satisfying plot.  I suspected I could make more connections by having a second pass of the evidence, and I did.

The book literally gave me chills.  There were a couple of moments where I gasped aloud.  It’s both understated and electrifying and I’m still not sure how the author achieves this.  The Aosawa Murders has opened up a whole world of Japanese crime writing for me.  I went straight on to read The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada.  I will never forget The Aosawa Murders.

Review by Bethan

July 19, 2020

Meesha Makes Friends by Tom Percival

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Bloomsbury, £6.99, out nowTom Perceval MEESHA MAKES FRIENDS

Meesha has a loving family and a joyful and creative spirit, but she finds it hard to make friends.  This latest picture book in Tom Percival’s Big Bright Feelings series deals with this common experience sensitively and with helpful practical suggestions.

Appropriate for infants and up, the gorgeous illustrations show how the world can be a little monochrome when we feel alone.  Meesha makes her own toy friends out of bits and pieces, but finds that while they are very compliant, they are not much fun to play catch with!

The feelings of being alone in a crowd, and of lacking the skills to get involved with what other children are enjoying, are explored in an accessible way than many (including adults) will be able to relate to.

When someone takes a risk to come and talk to Meesha, will she be able to take a chance and involve him in her games?  The author gives us handy hints: “… if you ever see someone who looks a little bit ‘on-their-own’, try to include them.  Ask them what they like to do.  You never know, it might be something that YOU love to do as well, and you might just have met your new best friend!”

A kind and useful book.  If you like this, I also recommend Ruby’s Worry, an excellent book by the same author about getting help when the worry monster visits.

Review by Bethan

July 14, 2020

Braiding Sweetgrass – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £9.99, out now Robin Wall Kimmerer BRAIDING SWEETGRASS.jpg

“Even a wounded world is feeding us.  Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy.  I choose joy over despair.  Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift” (p. 327).  I came across Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist and popular science and nature writer, through references to her earlier work Gathering Moss.  She is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York.  Gathering Moss has been mentioned in literary reviews, in nature writing, in science writing, and on the thoughtful blog Brain Pickings (https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/05/13/gathering-moss-robin-wall-kimmerer/).  Anything so niche, which appeals across such broad spectrum of readers, intrigued me.

I still haven’t managed to read Gathering Moss, mainly as it’s hard to find in the UK, but I am completely bowled over by her latest work, Braiding Sweetgrass.  Wall Kimmerer shares her vast knowledge and wisdom about plants and the natural world and introduces a completely new (and yet also ancient) way of thinking about nature.  She draws on her many roles: as a Native American, a mother, an observer, a scientist and a joyful activist.

She provides a refreshing and vital alternative approach to thinking about human and non-human life.  Language is key here: for her, and the indigenous cultures she describes, every living thing is a who, not a what.

Her writing about specific engagements with nature is as engrossing as her big picture analysis, and often the two meet. As she and other volunteers gather to help salamanders across a busy road, so they will not be killed by passing cars, the second Gulf War begins.  “Somewhere another woman looks out her window, but the formation of dark shapes in her sky is not a skein of spring geese returning” (p.349).

There is nothing fluffy or foolish about her coherent and radical ecology.  “… it seems to me we humans have gifts in addition to gratitude that we might offer in return.  The philosophy of reciprocity is beautiful in the abstract, but the practical is harder” (p. 238).  She is ready to engage with the practical questions of how we live now, as a planet, as a species, as nations and as individuals.

Review by Bethan

February 18, 2020

Actress by Anne Enright

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Jonathan Cape, £16.99, out 20 February Anne Enright ACTRESS

Katherine O’Dell is an actress, and her daughter Norah tells her story.  From the Irish theatre of the 1940s to London’s West End and the early days of Hollywood, famous Katherine’s life is exciting and often turbulent.  But no-one could predict that she would shoot someone.  Why did this happen?

Norah notes: “I was twenty-eight and the time of the assault.  I struggled on for the next year or more, but there came a day when I could not make it in to work.  I was writing a book, I said.  And then that became true.  I wrote, not one, but many books.  But I never wrote the one I needed to write, the one that was shouting out to be written, the story of my mother and Boyd O’Neill’s wound”.

From the Booker winning author of The Gathering and The Green Road, all of the things Anne Enright is known for are present here.  There is family drama, mothers and daughters, snappy lines and a story that seizes you and doesn’t let you go.

Norah begins to feel able to tell her mother’s story after Katherine’s death, prompted in part by irritation with how the story is being co-opted by others.  But how can she get to the truth?  Can she tell her own story too?

My colleague read this first, and rightly said this was a must-read for fans of fiction about theatre.  The dry wit reminded me of another all-time great theatre book, Penelope Fitzgerald’s At Freddie’s.

Review by Bethan

February 12, 2020

We Love You, Mr Panda by Steve Antony

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Hodder Children’s Books, £6.99, out nowSteve Antony WE LOVE YOU MR PANDA

The legendary Mr Panda returns.

As ever he is long on kindness and manners, and short on rudeness and entitled behaviour.

This time he is offering free hugs (after checking first with each potential recipient).  He is all ready to hug a smelly skunk and a potentially bitey crocodile.  But everyone would seem to prefer to hug someone else.  It is a difficult moment when you realise that perhaps no-one wants to hug you.  But maybe someone will offer Mr Panda a hug instead?

Engaging bright pictures and a relatable character make this a great addition to a winning series.  This perfect Valentine’s gift is guaranteed to raise a smile.

Review by Bethan

February 11, 2020

The Missing – The True Story of My Family by Michael Rosen

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Walker, £8.99, out nowMichael Rosen THE MISSING

Great-Uncle Oscar, Great-Aunt Rachel, Great-Uncle Martin and other family members were missing from Michael Rosen’s post-war childhood.  Although those who had disappeared were spoken of, there was mystery around what had happened to them.  (A poem for Oscar and Rachel is available at https://michaelrosenblog.blogspot.com/2019/01/clockmender-oscar-rosen-and-his-wife.html).  For Rosen, some of the mysteries were not resolved until he was doing the research which formed this book.

This outstanding short book is written for children aged about ten and up, as well as adults.  It is a useful and appropriate way to start talking about the Holocaust with children.  He tells his family story through accessible and moving prose interspersed with his poems.  In a moving interview in the Guardian, he talks about the long impact of the silence about those who were missing (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/dec/28/michael-rosen-family-history-jewish-culture).  As the article notes: “Unusually, the book is aimed at children aged 10 and over, as well as adults. Rosen decided to write it that way after visiting a school where a pupil denied the Holocaust to his face. “This young man put up his hand and said: ‘It didn’t happen, did it?’” As the teacher panicked, Rosen remembers counting to three and patiently saying: ‘Well, no, it did happen.’”

Rosen shares original family letters, postcards and photos which make the stories even more compelling, and show readers that you can do your own research about things that are important to you.  You don’t need to be a specialist.

Fans of Rosen’s work will meet people they remember: his memorable childhood friend Harrybo; his beloved father; and his grandfather (who turns out to be the inspiration for this excellent poem from You Tell Me http://bepalmer.blogspot.com/2012/05/).  I had this book as a child.  I can remember so many of those poems now.

One of the things that makes the book truly exceptional is the framing of the stories as being absolutely similar to stories of current refugees.  “This story is about things that happened to my family a long time ago, back when photos and films were in black and white.  But when I think about it, my relatives were refugees – a lot like the people you may have seen on the news recently…  So I hope this book becomes part of a bigger conversation about the refugee crisis.  About how to find fair and decent ways of helping people like my relatives” (p. 5).   Deep humanity emerges from the book which contrasts with the inhumanity that caused the deaths of all these much-missed people.  This makes The Missing both beautiful and essential reading right now.

Review by Bethan

February 1, 2020

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

by Team Riverside

Francesca Wade SQUARE HAUNTING

Faber, Hardback, £20.00, out now

Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting is an incredible achievement, informative and detailed yet thrilling and poetic. It is a shared biography of five fascinating women: H.D., a poet, Dorothy L. Sayers, a detective novelist, Jane Ellen Harrison, a classicist and translator, Eileen Power, a historian and broadcaster and Virginia Woolf, a writer and publisher. The book is based around Mecklenburgh Square, a square on the fringes of Bloomsbury where, coincidentally, all of these accomplished women resided at one time or another. This book is not just a history of these women and their work but also of a time where women were starting to live and work independently.

The subject matter itself is fascinating but Wade’s prose is what elevates this beyond the realm of academic biography. The stories of these women’s lives while residing in Mecklenburgh Square are told with astonishing sympathy, I felt a great affinity for these women while reading about their lives, loves, and their striving to have their work recognised.

Wade has rightly gained a great deal of praise for this stunning work of biography; I would recommend it to anyone who has ever wanted A Room of One’s Own.

Review by Phoebe

January 21, 2020

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

by Team Riverside

Serpent’s Tail, Hardback, £14.99, out nowCarmen Marie Machado IN THE DREAM HOUSE

Carmen Maria Machado’s astonishing follow up to her debut collection of stories Her Body and Other Parties is a memoir detailing the abuse she suffered at the hands of an ex-girlfriend. Machado recounts the story of the relationship through the lens of different literary tropes and genres: ‘The Dream House as Pulp Novel’, ‘The Dream House as Soap Opera’.

The story is fragmented but the prose is clear-eyed and sharp. Machado mixes the personal and political effortlessly, both confiding in the reader about her own experience of abuse and contextualising her experience as part of a wider problem, that of the silence around abuse in LGBTQ relationships: ‘we are in the muck like everyone else’, she states. The book is an incredible feat of writing by Machado, the most terrifying section of all is, somehow, a ‘choose your own adventure’ section, and the ending is a surprising, uplifting twist.

Machado is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the great prose stylists of our time, this book is further proof of her extraordinary ability as a writer. As Machado states in her preface: ‘If you need this book, it is for you.’

Review by Phoebe

January 8, 2020

Bottled Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Fairlight Moderns, £7.99, out nowSophie Van LLewyn BOTTLED GOODS

This little book is written ‘in flash’ meaning that each chapter could be a stand-alone piece of very short fiction, but all together they make sense as a whole novella. The overarching narrative concerns the life of Alina, a teacher living in communist Romania in the 1970s. Her life becomes increasingly unbearable after her brother-in-law flees the country and the communist authorities’ interest in her and her husband grows. As a fan of flash fiction anyway, I enjoyed how the small chapters allowed this tension to build and it was interesting to experience this in a different way to a standard novel. A lot of the chapters also have pretty cool titles, for example, ‘What We Had To Give Away So That We Could Buy a Fourteen-year-old Dacia So that We Would Have an Independent Means of Transportation in order to Flee From the Country.’ That particular chapter is presented as a table, by the way!

Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019, Bottled Goods is funny in a dark kind of way and also contains elements of magical realism. One character can shrink other people down in order to keep them away from trouble and out of the hands of the secret police. There are other aspects of folklore which pop up in a plot that is otherwise rooted in the harsh reality of communist Romania.

Fairlight Moderns are a new publisher and are obviously ready to take risks on exciting fiction such as this. I think this is great and the longlist for the Women’s Prize shows that it has paid off.

Review by Cat

 

January 5, 2020

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Fleet, £16.99, out nowColson Whitehead THE NICKEL BOYS

This is a completely gripping novel based on the horrific true-life events at the Arthur G Dozier School for Boys, in Florida.  Elwood has just started to be involved in the civil rights protests sweeping the US in the 1960s, but can he use what he has learnt to survive in the notorious Nickel Academy?

Elwood is inspired to join the civil rights movement after listening to a Martin Luther King record bought by his grandmother.  He tries to stick to everyone’s rules, but events overtake him and he ends up in a reform school.  Torture and death are rumoured for some of the boys at Nickel Academy.  How can you survive, or keep your soul alive, where there appears to be no rescue on the horizon?  Can you do both of these things at the same time?

I read this short novel in a single sitting, knowing that I would not be able to think properly about anything else until I had finished it.  The characters felt so real, I had to know what happened to them.  Knowing that it was based on real events, I was concerned that the novel should do justice to the horrors uncovered (see https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/apr/22/a-type-of-justice-florida-reform-school-yields-evidence-of-more-graves, and https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/20/colson-whitehead-reality-is-kids-shot-by-racist-cops for Whitehead’s own views on his novel).  It absolutely does.

The Nickel Boys speaks to current debates around historical abuse, institutional racism, and how we deal with the shadows of the long past.  It engages with questions of whose voices are listened to and whose are not: why did it take so long for the authorities to listen to survivors?

Review by Bethan

January 4, 2020

The Wolf the Duck and the Mouse written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Walker Books, £6.99, out nowBarnett and Klassen THE WOLF THE DUCK AND THE MOUSE

This is a very funny picture book, suitable for all humans.  The wolf eats the mouse, who quickly discovers that a duck (a previous wolf-dinner) is already living a very nice life inside the wolf.  They become fast friends and enjoy dinners and dancing in their new home.  This internal party time is less fun for the wolf, however…

It’s worth reading this book for the expressions on the animals’ faces alone.  There are many dramatic developments and they are delivered with great style.

This team have produced several excellent books, but this is my favourite so far.  Here at Riverside we are also massive fans of Jon Klassen’s Hat trilogy (https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2016/11/30/we-found-a-hat-by-jon-klassen/).          Read this book and feel your life improve immediately.

Review by Bethan

December 3, 2019

A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Pushkin Press, £9.99, out nowChristiane Ritter A WOMAN IN THE POLAR NIGHT

I fell upon this book at The Book Hive in Norwich, and read it immediately.  This beautiful new edition of a 1934 is a fresh and joyous account of a woman wintering over in the Arctic. She says everyone should spend a year in the Arctic to get their priorities right.

Christiane Ritter, a visual artist from Austria, spent the winter in an extremely isolated small hut with her husband and another hunter in Spitsbergen/Svalbard.  She was often alone, and her writing about this is some of my favourite in the book.  At one point, she spends nine days on her own trying to stop the hut being entirely buried under snow and ice.  After the storm is over, peace reigns.  “But it is as though things up here have acquired a light of their own, as though they themselves emitted rays of the most beautiful and mysterious hues.  All the mountains, tremendous in the foreground and sharply edged in the distance, are glassy-bright with rigid ice, glass bright the foreland and glass bright the cliffs along the shore that, transfigured by frost and surf into high, round domes of ice, drop steeply into the sea”.

Her experience of loss of self and sense of connection to all other living things at this point reminded me strongly of a beautiful moment in Alan Lightman’s book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, where he feels a connection to “all of nature, and to the entire cosmos” (see https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/03/27/alan-lightman-searching-for-stars-on-an-island-in-maine/).

The three hunt, clean and repair the hut, and undertake perilous journeys.  To have a woman’s perspective is intriguing, including on how she is treated by the men, and how she observes her own responses to extreme conditions.  Her particular version of rar (Arctic insanity) involves trying to clean the hut’s floor. It turns into an ice rink.

The hut is not a pure escape from the world.  Some chilly blasts of news from rare visitors remind us that this is the 1930s and a worrying time: one of them asks, is there a war yet?  More cheerfully, when the group visit their neighbour Sven (who is in fact very far away), they are impressed by his two charming dogs.  Whenever the people are talking, the dogs wag their tails.  Christiane realises that as it’s usually just Sven and the dogs, they are used to him talking just to them – so they assume this is what he is doing now, and reply.

There is a brilliant sharp foreword from Sara Wheeler, another author who writes beautifully about cold places (see the excellent Terra Incognita).  A real treat.

Review by Bethan

November 13, 2019

Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Andersen Press, £6.99, out nowMatthew Cordell WOLF IN THE SNOW

Wolf in the Snow is an adventurous and heart-warming winter story.  Told through pictures, with almost all of the words being the sounds made by the human and non-human animals, this is an instantly engaging story.

A little girl in a red coat leaves her school just as a blizzard is starting.  As the snow becomes heavier, she finds a wolf cub who has accidentally become separated from their pack.  She tries to get the cub back to the pack, and will not abandon it.  But when she becomes lost, will anyone be able to find her and bring her home?

Like all the best children’s books, this is appropriate for every age.  I’m not surprised that it won the Caldecott medal.  I love that the author’s note at the beginning includes: “thanks to Kira Cassidy of the Yellowstone Wolf Project for taking the time to answer my questions about wolves and wolf behaviour”.  The wolves and humans manage to be equally relatable, which is a remarkable achievement.  It also has lovely messages about connection, taking risks to help others, love and friendship.  A perfect gift book for winter, if you can bear to give it away.

Review by Bethan

November 2, 2019

Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Sort Of Books, £20, out nowTove Jansson LETTERS FROM TOVE

These letters spanning more than fifty years give a compelling inside into the full and important life of a great writer and visual artist.  Tove Jansson is best known in the UK as the author of the Moomins, and The Summer Book, although she was also a painter (and much of her work featured in a recent exhibition in London – https://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/2017/october/tove-jansson/).

Born in Finland in 1914 to a graphic artist and a sculptor, Jansson was a committed and honest letter-writer, reflecting on the times and places she lived as well as personal relationships.  For anyone who loves the island where The Summer Book is set, these letters provide insights over years into how Jansson and her family and friends lived and worked there.  Her late 1930s travels to Italy and France transport the reader to a sun-drenched but uneasy southern Europe.

Helpful editing from Boel Westin and Helen Svensson provides good context on what is happening in Jansson’s life and the world more generally, without being intrusive.  Westin wrote Jansson’s authorise biography, Life Art Words, and knows her subject inside out (see also https://www.moomin.com/en/blog/an-artist-a-friend-a-lover-a-new-book-compiled-from-tove-janssons-private-letters-reveals-new-sides-of-the-moomin-creator/#d660ea76 for how the letters were selected).  The letters are grouped by correspondent.  You get a rounded picture of the individual as she writes to very close friends, to her mother, her partner, her publisher.

Some of my favourites are her wartime letters to her closest friend, Eva Konikoff, who escaped from Finland to the US before the war began.  She talks about the divisions and pressures of war, even within her own family: “Under the pressure of being obliged to keep quiet, anxious about their own little circle, everyone hunches more deeply into their shell.  The great events unfolding around us, rather than widening our horizons, have shrunk them into petty stubbornness, we get manically hooked on the phraseology of misdirected nationalism, on slogans, boundaries grow less and less flexible, logic goes out of the window.  But the old prejudices and principles continue to be defended.”  (p. 138).  Her experiences living through the Second World War, where one of her brothers is fighting and she does some agricultural war service, are formative.

Fans of her Moomin strips and novels will also find that many of the themes of those works draw on events and characters from Jansson’s life.  At one point she considers dedicating Moominpappa at Sea to her father, with whom she had a very strained relationship, but thinks better of it as the character is based on him.

It is a real privilege to be admitted to the intimate thoughts of a favoured writer, and this collection is as compelling as any of her writings.  A complete treat.

Review by Bethan

October 5, 2019

Corregidora by Gayl Jones

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Virago, £9.99, out now Gayl Jones CORREGIDORA

The first paragraph hooked me right away: “It was 1947 when Mutt and I married.  I was singing in Happy’s Café around on Delaware Street.  He didn’t like for me to sing after we were married because he said that’s why he married me so he could support me.  I said I didn’t just sing to be supported.  I said I sang because it was something I had to do, but he would never understand that.”

A long overdue new edition of this important American novel has just been published by Virago.  Praised by James Baldwin and Tayari Jones, and helped into print in the 1970s by Toni Morrison, Corregidora has lost none of its impact over the last 40 years.

It is 1947, and Ursa is singing the blues.  Her husband wants her to stop her nightclub work now that she is married.  He beats her up, leaving her unable to have children.  Her recovery and relationships after her hospitalisation are at the heart of the book.  But Ursa is also haunted by her family’s history, and particularly the horrific abuse suffered at the hands of the slave owner Corregidora.

I had never heard of this author before finding her in Toni Morrison’s recent collected essay, Mouth Full of Blood (https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2019/09/07/mouth-full-of-blood-by-toni-morrison/).  This brutal novel grips right from the start, and there are no holds barred when Jones deals with women’s lives, sexuality, and the racism which infects Ursa’s past and present.  I read it in a single sitting, unable to put it down.

Review by Bethan