Archive for ‘Reviews’

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

June 22, 2021

The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee

by Team Riverside
The Great Mistake

Hardback, Granta, £14.99, out now

Andrew Green was ‘the father of Greater New York’, a founder of Central Park and the Public Library, the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History among other things.  But he didn’t come from money, and he was shot and killed aged 83.  So how did he get to this point?  Who killed him and why?  And what was his great mistake?

The Great Mistake is a humane and very readable novel of one remarkable life.  You might wonder how you’d relate to Andrew Green, but his wish to live life and his decisions on what to do without in order to achieve his goals are very resonant.  “… after…the pyrotechnic accompaniments others put on to celebrate his achievements, he still went to bed with some version of the same concerns he had always had.  Who he was.  Who he should be.  Things he could have said or done”.

His intense and long relationship with a politician, Samuel, influences much, as does the death of his mother (a hard-working woman who always longed for time outside in green space, and didn’t get it).  He is repelled by his work as a young man on a post-slavery plantation in Trinidad, both while doing it and after, and this also affects his ambitions.  The role of reading and books in helping to form a life recurs throughout, as do questions over who has access to books and who does not.

Historic New York sprang up around me as I read. “He watched labourers returning home with dinner kettles.  Ragpickers bothering apple ladies.  Horses set to collapse under the products of commerce they had carried, back and forth, all day long.  New York didn’t set out to charm you.  It was like God that way”.

As well as learning about Andrew, we follow police Inspector McClusky who is investigating his murder, and we are introduced to yet another side of life in New York.  The Great Mistake is a satisfying read in many ways, as a life story, as a crime story, as an exploration of what’s important, and as a song for New York.  So enjoyable.

Review by Bethan

June 21, 2021

Assembly by Natasha Brown

by Team Riverside

Hamish Hamilton, Hardback, £12.99, out now

Assembly by Natasha Brown is more than deserving of the glowing reviews it has already received. It’s a slight volume, the plot unfolds over a series of fleeting but intense vignettes and each is crafted to perfection, not a single word is wasted. At times it feels reminiscent of prose poetry or maybe a sparse drama. The narrator is quiet and controlled but burns with quiet anger, acutely aware of the injustices that plague her. She is a black British woman who has found significant success in the corporate world but seemingly at significant psychological and physical cost to herself. She is often a vessel for other characters racist hang-ups, one colleague vents to her about his hatred of diversity initiatives, another calls her office phone to tell her her hair is ‘wild’ and her skin is ‘exotic’. She has a jovial posh boyfriend, who like her attended Oxford and the action unfolds as she anticipates attending his parents lavish anniversary party.

Recently a reviewer compared Assembly to Mrs. Dalloway, but I thought of Brandon Taylor whose novel Real Life has similarly exquisite prose and a protagonist who is out of place in their surroundings and also of The Great Gatsby, although while Natasha Brown’s protagonist is, like Nick Carraway, among the rich and powerful, she is not impressed. When I got to the last page I was sorry to finish Assembly I thoroughly recommend it.

Review by Phoebe

June 7, 2021

What Happened to You? by James Catchpole and Karen George

by Team Riverside
What Happened to You?

Paperback, Faber and Faber, £6.99, out now

Joe is having a great time at the playground on his own, battling sharks and crocodiles.  But a new kid comes along and says what new kids always say – “You’ve only got one leg!” and “What happened to you?”.

Joe is super fed up of always getting these questions, and as more kids turn up, more questions (and questionable theories) abound.  But soon the kids discover that there is more interesting stuff they can be doing with Joe… and it involves battling sharks and crocodiles.

This fun and sensitive book provides a great way in to talking about disability with kids, and also has very helpful notes for adults on how to do this when “your child wants to know everything about every disabled person they see, all at once, at TOP VOLUME…”.  Some really good advice follows – “…it’s still worth your child knowing that disabled people are just like anyone else, getting on with their busy day, not looking to be a teachable moment”.  It reminded me of the very excellent blogs by Gem Turner on exactly this topic (https://gemturner.com/explaining-disability-to-children/).

What Happened to You? is a fun and enjoyable read, with lively and cheerful illustrations.  Cracking!

Review by Bethan

May 30, 2021

Lost in the Clouds by Tom Tinn-Disbury

by Team Riverside
Lost in the Clouds

Paperback, DK, £6.99, out now

Lost in the Clouds is a sensitive and useful picture book for young children about bereavement and grief.

Billy knows that his mum has died, and he likes to think of her as a cloud in the sky.  Sometimes Billy’s days with his dad are good, when they can have fun and still feel close to Mummy.  But sometimes the sky is dark and stormy and Mummy feels too distant, and Daddy feels distant too.  On a day just like this, Billy builds a tower to the sky to try to be closer to Mummy.

Warm and evocative illustrations show how grief can feel, and also demonstrate that joy and fun can still happen even amid great loss.

Although the story is from Billy’s perspective, his dad’s difficulties and kindnesses are manifest too.  “Daddy wasn’t quite the same on these days.  He would be quieter and his eyes would always be looking far away, as if he was trying to find Mummy in the distance somewhere”.

There are handy notes and further resources in the back of the book on helping children deal with grief.  For older children and adults, I always recommend Michael Rosen’s classic The Sad Book (https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/08/25/michael-rosens-sad-book-quentin-blake).   There is a very sympathetic cat who pops up throughout Lost in the Clouds, and is especially fine on the back cover, putting a paw out to test the weather for Billy and his dad.

Review by Bethan

May 25, 2021

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M Danforth

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Borough Press, £14.99, out now

This is the most enjoyable book I have read for ages.  It is a huge slab of gothic horror written with dash and spiky humour.  Danforth’s own website describes the book like this, and it’s not wrong: “Picnic at Hanging Rock + The Blair Witch Project x lesbians = Plain Bad Heroines” (https://www.emilymdanforth.com/pbh).

In 1902, at the exclusive Brookhants School for Girls in Rhode Island, two girls are gruesomely stung to death by wasps.  More deaths (inevitably) follow.  Is this related to a book that some of the girls have become obsessed with, in which Mary MacLane sets out her desire to live life to the full?

In parallel, we follow the present-day story of three women involved in making a Hollywood film about the happenings at Brookhants.

The opening pages show you immediately what’s in store.  There is a map which includes the Tricky Thicket and Spite Manor.  Part One is called I Await the Devil’s Coming.  There are unexpected footnotes and biting commentary from an unidentified narrator.  Cousin Charles, who chases one of the girls into the wood where she gets stung to death, is unpopular with the narrator: “Maybe some of the girls had, in fact, later said that he looked rakish and fine, but for now let’s discount their certainly incorrect opinions”.

Anyone who spent their early teens reading hugely long hardback horror novels as I did (I’m looking at you, special edition of The Stand) may well get a nostalgic feeling while reading this epic.  There are pleasing horror references for fans throughout, but they don’t detract from the unique atmosphere Danforth creates.

Plain Bad Heroines is pure escapism from page one.  A strong array of memorable LGBTQ women rampage throughout. Excellent.

Review by Bethan

May 16, 2021

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

by Team Riverside

Serpents Tail, Hardback, £14.99 out now

Detransition, Baby the first full-length novel from Torrey Peters is a chaotic and heartfelt whirlwind that asks what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a mother. Katrina, a recent divorcee has discovered she is pregnant, her boyfriend and employee, Ames, formerly Amy, hasn’t told her about his past where he lived as a transgender woman but wants to involve his ex-girlfriend Reese, also a transgender woman, in the mothering of their unborn child. Their lives become intertwined in a kind of queer soap opera, can Reese and Ames resolve their past? Can Katrina co-parent with Ames and Reese? Will Reese get to be mother like she has always wanted?

The novel is rigorously plotted, Reese and Amy’s past relationship is seamlessly interspersed with Katrina and Ames relationship in the present, Reese’s history also forms part of the narrative. Torrey Peters demonstrates enormous narrative skill, her digressions on subjects that range from juvenile elephants to Reese’s large cast of friends never feel tangential to the story. The novel feels epic and complex and funny, like a sort of queer Tristram Shandy, and I thoroughly enjoyed every page.

Review by Phoebe

May 15, 2021

Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

by Team Riverside
Notes on Grief

Hardback, 4th Estate, £10, out now

“I finally understand why people get tattoos of those they have lost. The need to proclaim not merely the loss but the love, the continuity. I am my father’s daughter. It is an act of resistance and refusal: grief telling you it is over and your heart saying it is not; grief trying to shrink your love to the past and your heart saying it is present”.

Adichie’s much-loved father died in June 2020, and this tender and anguished short book contains her reflections on her grief. Best known for her modern classic novels, including Half of a Yellow Sun, and essays including We Should All Be Feminists, this is written in her usual fluid style despite the pain it conveys.

The pandemic complicates everything. Family members are on different continents and flights are cancelled. Arrangements have to be made on Zoom, where weeks before routine family chats including her father had been filled with laughter and everyday chat.

It is about loss, but it is also about the deep love she has for her father. Many people have been hit with unexpected and devastating bereavement over the last year. This relatable and timely book might end up being a life raft for some.

Review by Bethan

May 5, 2021

This is Your Time by Ruby Bridges

by Team Riverside
Ruby Bridges This is Your Time

Paperback, One (Pushkin Press), £8.99, out now              

This is Your Time is a stunning new book by Ruby Bridges, who as a six-year-old in 1960 was the first black child to attend an all-white primary school in New Orleans.

The book is small in size but huge in meaning.  Bridges talks about the hate she faced outside her school gates every day from white adults who wanted to keep segregation.  There is a black and white photograph on every other page, including some truly shocking images.  A tiny Ruby is escorted into school by four federal marshals; racist protesters hold up a black doll in a coffin; and images of police targeting civil rights demonstrators in 1963 and 2020.

But there are also hope and joy, friendship and solidarity, and great faith in young people.  Bridges writes to young readers: “I am so inspired by you and by everyone out there making change happen.  I know, and you must remember… what can inspire tomorrow often lies in our past”.  She knows this because of her lifetime of work telling young people her story.

The cover is a detail from Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live with, which I had never seen, and which is extraordinary (https://www.kennedy-center.org/education/resources-for-educators/classroom-resources/media-and-interactives/media/visual-arts/norman-rockwell–the-problem-we-all-live-with/).

Ruby Bridges’ message of courage and friendship is essential for all people.  A gift to the future from one whose courage helped shape the best of the present.

Review by Bethan

April 29, 2021

Bank Holiday Monday 3rd May

by Team Riverside

This Bank Holiday Weekend we will be opening the following hours:

Saturday 1st May – 10am- 6pm

Sunday 2nd May – 11am – 5pm

Monday 3rd May – 11am – 5pm

April 24, 2021

The Rock from the Sky by Jon Klassen

by Team Riverside
The Rock from the Sky

Hardback, Walker Books, £12.99, out now

This excellent picture book has possibly my top back cover text ever: “There is a spot.  It is the perfect spot to stand.  But somewhere above there is also a rock.  A rock from the sky”.

The Rock from the Sky is new from Jon Klassen, author of Riverside all-time-favourite the Hat Trilogy (https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2016/11/30/we-found-a-hat-by-jon-klassen/). There really is a rock from the sky with dramatic consequences (Chekhov’s rock, perhaps).  Some characters will be familiar… I think this is one of the turtles from We Found a Hat.  Although it may be a different turtle in a similar hat.  It is hard to say.

There are shades of Wes Anderson in the title cards for each section.  It is also stuffed with very quotable lines.  The turtle picks a spot to stand in. “What do you think of my spot?” “Actually I have a bad feeling about it”.    “A bad feeling?”.  “Yes”.

Funny, relatable, memorable.  I love it.

Review by Bethan

April 20, 2021

Weirdo by Zadie Smith and Nick Laird

by Team Riverside
Weirdo book cover

Hardback, Penguin, £12.99, out now

Maud the guinea pig loves judo.  She’s only just arrived at Kit’s house, as a surprise birthday present.  But Kit’s other pets aren’t impressed – they’ve got a schedule to stick to and it doesn’t include her.  One of them calls her a weirdo … but what is a weirdo, and is she one?

Luckily Maud happens upon the very cheerful Emily Brookstein, who tells her that “life’s too short not to be a weirdo”.

This excellent picture book has wonderful illustrations, colourful and joyous, by Magenta Fox.   Zadie Smith is best known as a ground-breaking novelist and essayist (her book of essays, Intimations, has been one of our bestsellers of the last year).  Nick Laird is a novelist and poet, also usually writing for adults.

A kind and ultimately happy book about embracing your differences and life being much more interesting for everyone as a result.  Just lovely.

Review by Bethan

April 19, 2021

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

by Team Riverside

Daunt Books, Paperback, £9.99 out now

Real Life, the debut, Booker Prize shortlisted novel from American writer Brandon Taylor is a triumph. Real Life is a campus novel which follows Wallace, a gay black protagonist as he navigates the academic institution, a burgeoning romance and the fallout of childhood trauma. The novel takes place in a Midwestern university where Wallace is often singled out. Taylor’s depiction of racism on campus is uncompromising, a dinner party scene, in particular, reaches a striking and uncomfortable crescendo.

While reading this novel I was struck, not just by the story, by Taylor’s immense technical skill. Taylor’s prose is unparalleled, spare and focused, yet at times dreamlike, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf or Henry James. A section where the book moves, cinematically, from the protagonists present to his childhood in Alabama, took my breath away. I highly recommend this book to fans of James Baldwin and Donna Tartt, and I will be eagerly awaiting Brandon Taylor’s collection of short stories, published in June.

Review by Phoebe

December 7, 2020

The Stubborn Light of Things: a Nature Diary by Melissa Harrison

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Faber and Faber, £14.99, out now

cover of The Stubborn Light of Things

A kingfisher sat on a riverside branch, so close that I could see blackblue feathers in the early morning light.  I was in a London park, near where I live, last weekend.  I was alone, with no special equipment or expertise, but I was paying attention to the river.  The kingfisher hunched, and tidied itself up, and after a few minutes flew off when a runner came along.

If you have found yourself noticing nature more during this year, this book of essays by Melissa Harrison is for you.  Compiled from her columns in the Times, in the early pieces Harrison is living in South London and gives great descriptions of the nature and wildlife of Tooting Bec Common.  Who knew you could see a hobby flying over Lambeth?  “There are pockets of South London that seem utterly rural: paths edged with cow parsley and dog roses and overhung by oaks through which the sunlight filters down, green-dappled and shifting” (p. 44).

Half way through the book, Harrison relocates to rural Suffolk, and a different kind of natural life.  “There are baby rabbits everywhere right now, and sitting in my oak I watched an alert doe shepherd four kits out from the warren by the path to feed…  The evening sun picks them out as they play, gold-edged and painterly: humble but quite lovely in the low, warm light” (p. 174).  One of the things I love about The Stubborn Light of Things is that Harrison doesn’t say that it is easier or better to be a nature watcher in one place or the other.  Her curious gaze finds things to wonder at in both places, a reminder that we only ever need to start where we are.

As readers of her gripping novels At Hawthorn Time and All Among the Barley will know, she is not afraid of addressing difficult things, and here she references the climate emergency and local campaigns to protect wildlife (for a review of one of her novels, see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2015/05/24/at-hawthorn-time-melissa-harrison/).

After reading this, I found similar ideas in On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz (which I am half way through).  Horowitz walks round her Manhattan city block with several different people who are expert at different things, and finds out how little we notice in the normal run of things (one of the people is expert at being a toddler and another is expert at being a dog – see https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/08/12/on-looking-eleven-walks-with-expert-eyes/). 

Harrison’s popular lockdown podcast encouraged us to pay attention, and this book helps us do just that.  Joanna Lisowiec’s exquisite illustrations and gorgeous cover art elevate a good read into a beautiful item.

Review by Bethan

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