Archive for ‘Reviews’

June 9, 2022

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Picador, £14.99, out now

A complexly wrought debut novel by Julia May Jonas, Vladimir is the story of an unnamed female professor whose husband is facing allegations of sexual harassment from his students when she develops an obsession with Vladimir, a promising writer in his own right, who has recently joined the department.

Vladimir forms part of a spring of recent American campus novels along with Lee Cole’s Groundskeeping and Elif Batuman’s Either/Or. The campus setting is alternately lampooned as a greenhouse for elitists and treated as a microcosm for wider society. At first, I was wary of the already well-trod subject matter, abuse of power in academic settings, campus debates over free speech, writer’s feelings of envy towards each other. But Vladimir’s morally ambiguous narrator is far from a cliché. She refuses to see herself as a victim of her husband’s actions, speaks dismissively of his accusers and act manipulatively towards Vladimir, playing on his vulnerability as a man with a troubled wife and a young child.

As an unreliable and, at times unlikeable, narrator she is incredibly well drawn. As the novel develops her ideas and behaviour become increasingly horrifying and last third of Vladimir was wild and unpredictable. Vladimir is complex and surprising debut and I highly recommend it for fans of Ottessa Moshfegh and Rachel Cusk.

June 7, 2022

Granny Came Here on the Empire Windrush by Patrice Lawrence and Camilla Sucre

by Team Riverside
cover of Granny Came Here on the Empire Windrush

Paperback, Nosy Crow, £7.99, out now

Granny Came Here on the Empire Windrush is a completely gorgeous picture book for young primary school age children.  The story is by Riverside favourite Patrice Lawrence (we are particular fans of her young adult mystery, Eight Pieces of Silva).

Ava loves spending time with her Granny.  They sing together and love to spend time with each other.  When Ava needs help to decide which admirable person to dress up as for school, it’s obvious that Granny should help her work this out.  Granny tells Ava all about wonderful women like Mary Seacole, Rosa Parks and Winifred Atwell. 

She starts to talk about her own life, coming to the UK from Trinidad and making her life here.  Ava realises that maybe she doesn’t have to look very far to find someone who has shown real courage.

As Granny looks through her memory box, we learn her story, and the courage that it takes to go so far from your first home and make a new life for yourself.  I loved the emphasis here on family storytelling, and Sucre’s thoughtful illustrations bring the emotions of the narrative to life.  The colour contrasts between the muted new place when Granny is homesick, compared to the vivid colours of her remembered island home, become extra important when she meets her future husband and her new city becomes colourful for her.

I loved the romance of Granny’s relationship: “I met your grandad.  He was the conductor on the bus that took me to work every day.  At first, we would just smile at each other.  Then it was ‘good morning’.  Soon, in spite of the noise in the factory, I looked forward to my morning journey… And my journeys home, when he would cross the whole of London just to come and meet me”.

This reminded me that there is an exhibition I’m keen to go to at the London Transport Museum right now called Legacies: London Transport’s Caribbean Workforce.  The webpage has lots of lovely links to music and other resources which would complement Granny Came Here on the Empire Windrush too.

This is a sensitive and relatable book, tied to the lives of the Windrush generation and their families, but clearly speaking to timeless themes of making new lives and families far from home.  I loved the author’s dedication, which shone through the story too: “To those that come from across the world.  I hope you find love and peace.”

Review by Bethan

June 1, 2022

Do Right and Fear No-One by Leslie Thomas QC

by Team Riverside
cover of Do Right and Fear No One

Hardback, Simon and Schuster, £20, out now

This autobiography of an outstanding civil rights lawyer, who has specialised in inquests, doubles as an incisive and detailed account of many of the most important human rights cases of the last 30 years.  Thomas always puts the people involved at the heart of his account.  I felt that the book, while being candid about his own story including his legal learning curves and sometime errors, was an opportunity for him to foreground the lives of those whose stories are often ignored.

This is the story of a South London working class Black man who gets to the top of his profession doing cutting edge legal work.  Much of Thomas’s early life was lived in Battersea, Clapham and Balham, and Riverside readers will find many places they know.  As a Queen’s Counsel (senior barrister) Leslie Thomas has represented bereaved families in inquests in many deaths in custody and police shootings.  His work includes landmark cases such as those of Azelle Rodney and Mark Duggan.  He has also played a critical part in legal examinations of disasters including such as the Grenfell Tower fire and Hillsborough, as well as developing a practice in the Caribbean, and all of this work is discussed in detail.  The chapter dealing with the second inquest into the New Cross Fire, moving in itself, also shows a moment of revelation for Thomas: “…it made me realise that what mattered wasn’t the lawyers’ political spin on the case, which is sometimes very easy to do, but what was best for the clients”.

One of the things I liked most about Do Right and Fear No One was its accessibility.  Areas that may be unfamiliar to readers, such as what the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights are and how they apply to real life, or how inquests work and what they are for, are explained clearly and concisely without this feeling patronising.  I found this so useful.  Demystifying the law is vital, particularly areas that people may feel no connection with until they erupt into their own lives – for example when they suddenly have to attend an inquest for someone close to them.

Thomas gives due credit to families, colleagues and others who he has worked alongside, placing his legal work in context.  For anyone who visited the outstanding ICA exhibition War Inna Babylon – the Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights last year, Do Right and Fear No-one will be an essential read (see https://www.ica.art/exhibitions/war-inna-babylon). 

Thomas’s mother Pearl sounds like a truly remarkable woman, working all hours and supporting her children to do their best.  Talking about his father Godfrey, who he had a difficult relationship with at times, his account reminded me at times of David Harewood’s story in Maybe I Don’t Belong Here (https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/david-harewood/maybe-i-dont-belong-here/9781529064131).  Both men reflect on the racism their fathers faced, and the long-lasting effects this had on their health, especially in later life.

My one criticism of the book is that the publisher did not include an index.  This detailed book should be widely read and easily searchable.  Publisher: please commission an index for the paperback.  If anyone needs convincing of why indexes are great, see my review of Dennis Duncan’s excellent book on just this subject.

On a lighter note, I really liked Thomas noting that he used to talk fast “as South Londoners do” – this is definitely true of me.  This is a great read.

Review by Bethan

May 26, 2022

Groundskeeping by Lee Cole

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Faber and Faber, £16.99, out now

Groundskeeping is a beautifully written debut novel that contends with questions of class, family and love. Cole’s protagonist Owen is working as a groundskeeper at a university when he meets Alma, a writer who has taken up a prestigious fellowship. Over the course of their relationship Owen is forced to better understand his relationship to his family, his home state and what role he will play in his changing life.

The novel is set in 2016, and Cole handles the political differences between the characters thoughtfully. Owen vehemently disagrees with his mother and stepfather, both Trump supporters, but they show a great deal of kindness to Owen and Alma. Their political views sit in stark contrast with the hospitality they show to Alma, who is Muslim. Cole renders rural Kentucky complexly; this is a contemporary novel that handles the subject of class with such intelligence and care. The rift that develops in Owen and Alma’s relationship is founded in her classism, even though she is a second-generation immigrant she has a comparatively privileged background, she went to an Ivy League college, she mocks Owen when he is accepted to a lesser-known writing fellowship.

The prose is dazzling, the world of the novel is created through gorgeous sensory detail, this is one of the best written debut novels I have read this year.

May 24, 2022

Welsh Plural: Essays on the Future of Wales – editors Darren Chetty, Grug Muse, Hanan Issa, Iestyn Tyne

by Team Riverside
cover of Welsh Plural

Paperback, Repeater Books, £12.99, out now

The editors of Welsh Plural have gathered some of the most interesting and relevant writers from Wales to consider what Welsh identity means today.  This is anything but niche: for anyone thinking about what identity, belonging and borders mean or could come to mean, this is helpful.  It is no surprise that this anthology has won praise from Nikesh Shukla and Gary Younge.

The book’s cover illustrates a willingness to engage in critical thinking that characterises this collection.  It shows a beautiful section of the Wrexham Quilt, made by a military tailor in the mid-nineteenth century.  “Like this book, it conveys a patchwork of experiences, from religious scenes to tributes to the industrial heritage of Wales.  Other motifs show giraffes, elephants and palm trees – souvenirs of Wales’ part in the conquests of the British Empire, made possible by armies clothed by tailors such as James Williams”.

The range of topics covered and approaches make this a compelling read.  There is a Choose Your Own Adventure style guide to being a Welsh novelist by Gary Raymond.  Charlotte Williams, who is examining outcomes for children of colour in Welsh education for the Welsh Government, discusses this alongside her own experience of being the only child of colour in her Welsh classroom in the 1960s.  Darren Chetty explores Welsh pubs called The Black Boy, both their history and how they handle their name now.  And there is much more.

I felt I had been given a gift of original and challenging thoughts.  Some themes came out strongly for me, particularly the intersection of racialised people and Welshness.  Several writers give valuable and vital accounts related this.  There are also conflicts and disagreements between the pieces, which suggests that the editors intended to allow space for complexity, nuance and difference.  I found this approach invigorating, and helpful.  I was grateful that the book was in English, allowing me as a non-Welsh speaker access.  Diolch yn fawr iawn, pawb.

Reading this on holiday in Wales at the time of the local elections felt important.  I am most envious of anyone who got to attend the related event in Machynlleth (which I heard about from colleagues at the smashing Pen’rallt Gallery Bookshop – it sounded like an excellent evening).  Reading Welsh Plural also brought the small publisher Repeater Books to my attention, whose range looks well worth digging into.

By coincidence, I followed this up by reading Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass (paperback, Bloomsbury, £9.99).  Hayes’ investigation into what the idea and law of trespass means in the UK now also engages with the issues of land, walls and identities.  As in Welsh Plural, there are moments of joy and celebration among the sometimes difficult content.  Hayes and his dog see a row of deer appear by magic as they walk through a wood: “This kind of moment is only available off the path.  It is prosaic, but it feels like a miracle, it feels meaningful, and it leaves me with my heart thumping in my throat…  I would swap a hundred nice walks along a pretty Right of Way for this one moment of magic”.

Review by Bethan

May 3, 2022

Chris Naylor-Ballesteros – Frank and Bert

by Team Riverside
cover of Frank and Bert

Paperback, Nosy Crow, £6.99, out now

What should you do if your best friend always wants to play hide and seek but never wins?  Frank the fox faces just this dilemma with his bear friend Bert.

In this simple and funny picture book for young children, we explore ideas about what makes a good friend.  Frank gives Bert an extra-long count so that he can hide really well… but Bert’s unravelling scarf gives him away.  Should Frank stick strictly to the rules of the game, and tell Bert he’s been found, or should he let Bert have a moment of glory?

This is a cheerful story but is also a useful introduction to the complexities of friendships.  For little children who are starting out on friendships, it might be useful to know that the kind thing to do isn’t always the same as the rule-based thing to do.  Reading this made me realise how much social interaction of this type is not obvious at all, but has to be learnt.

I approve strongly of another of Frank’s expressions of friendship, which is re-knitting Bert’s unravelled scarf so that the friends can play hide and seek together again (it looks like a chevron stitch pattern to me).  Friendship, kindness and knitting – what’s not to love?

Review by Bethan

April 30, 2022

Sam Sedgman and Sam Brewster – Epic Adventures

by Team Riverside
Book cover of Epic Adventures

Hardback, Macmillan, £12.99, out now

Epic Adventures is a pleasingly large non-fiction picture book for children about great train journeys.  From the Shinkansen bullet train in Japan to the Trans-Siberian express, this colourfully illustrated book inspires the wish to jump on a train and head off on an adventure.  As we are just opposite London Bridge station, this urge is particularly strong just now!

You can tell this was written by a real train fan, as it has excellent facts and is suffused with enthusiasm.  Sedgman is also author of train-based adventure stories for children including The Highland Falcon Thief, and the accessible prose in Epic Adventures shows that he is used to writing for children.  He addresses the colonial heritage of some of the railways concerned, and the displacement they caused, which is important.  I also appreciated the emphasis on rail as a more environmentally friendly form of travel.

My favourite of the many colourful illustrations is the northern lights overhead as the Arctic Sleeper speeds through to Norway.

As a fan of armchair rail travel (see The World’s Most Scenic Rail Journeys and Mighty Trains, on television) this inspires me to do some actual rail travel as soon as possible.  Good for perhaps age 7 and up, Epic Adventures has history and geography, festivals and food.  A nicely exciting gift for a young would-be traveller.

Review by Bethan

April 25, 2022

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

by Team Riverside
cover of Sea of Tranquility

Hardback, Picador, £14.99, out now

Three people, separately and at different points over three hundred years, experience an anomaly.  In the middle of their ordinary lives, there is an instant of blackness, a violin, a strange sound.  Then everything reverts to normal.  One of these is an exile from England in Canada in 1812; one a novelist visiting Earth on a book tour; one is Vincent, a young woman walking through a wilderness.  Also linking them is the detective Gaspery-Jacques Roberts from the 25th century, who is investigating this glitch in time and space.

Sea of Tranquility follows St. John Mandel’s outstanding novel The Glass Hotel (see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2020/08/05/the-glass-hotel-by-emily-st-john-mandel/).  Several characters, including Vincent and Mirella, appear here.  I shouted out loud, I was so delighted to see Vincent again.  The humanity and relatability of the characters is clear, so much so that their extraordinary circumstances came to seem normal to me as I read.  Off world colonies and multiple worlds are made familiar to us by the concerns of those living in them: fear in the face of danger, suspicion of overarching authorities, affection for home, and the pull of those you love.  Olive, visiting Earth and more specifically Salt Lake City, says: “There’s something to be said for looking up at a clear blue sky and knowing that it isn’t a dome”.

Like Octavia E. Butler, whose novels I am belatedly discovering, St. John Mandel uses her futuristic work to explore ideas about ethics and responsibility.  If you knew what was going to happen to everyone you met, would you be able to resist intervening in their lives?  Who gets to decide what is the ‘right’ world, the ‘correct’ timeline, and why?

The novelist Olive Llewellyn speaks of pandemics to her book tour audiences, and the Covid-19 pandemic features as a historical incident.  But as a new virus pops up on the news during the tour, her reactions to it feel very familiar to us.  As do her feelings, in 2203, being asked about being away from her young daughter for work.  A woman praises Olive’s husband for looking after her daughter.  “Forgive me,” Olive said, “I fear there’s a problem with my translator bot.  I thought you said he was kind to care for his own child”.

I enjoyed this novel so much.  There is also a good cat in this book.

Review by Bethan

April 13, 2022

All Through the Night by Polly Faber and Harriet Hobday

by Team Riverside
cover of All Through the Night

Paperback, Nosy Crow, £6.99, out now

All Through the Night is a cheerful and entertaining picture book for young children about “people who work while we sleep”.  We find out about cleaners and paramedics, journalists and bakers, and all kinds of folk who make our lives possible.  It is a friendly and useful explanation about busy life carrying on even while we sleep.

The narrator’s mum goes out every evening to work, driving her big orange bus, and helping people get about.  She is the one who helps everyone get to work and get home again.  There is also a shout out for mums and dads of newborn babies who have to stay up before their babies have learned to sleep at night.  The police are called to a noisy street but it is only a fox family rampaging through the bins. 

All Through the Night is a treat for repeated re-reading.  Children will love to spot the bus on every page; the delivery driver from the previous page dropping flour and sugar to the baker; the fox cubs who’ve been at the bins disappearing behind a bush while the railway repair worker use their digger.

For children whose caregivers work nights, I think this will be an affirming thing – to see their person’s work in a story book.

I love that the author and illustrator in their book dedications both thank people who work at night.  This fits with the very personal and sincere feel of the book, which has the same joy as the classic Richard Scarry book What do People Do All Day? (https://uk.bookshop.org/books/what-do-people-do-all-day/9780007353699) but it is much more realistic!

Review by Bethan

April 10, 2022

Bestsellers 03/04/2022-10/04/2022

by Team Riverside

Elif Shafak – Island of The Missing Trees

Michael Lewis – The Premonition

Riku Onda – The Aosawa Murders

Bella Mackie – How To Kill Your Family

Tom Burgis – Kleptopia

Eckhart Tolle – The Power of Now

Taylor Jenkins Reid – The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Eliot Higgins – We Are Bellingcat

Kotaro Isaka – Bullet Train

Damon Galgut – The Promise

Michael Bond – Paddington

Stanley Tucci – Taste

Colm Toibin – The Magician

Dave Eggers – The Every

David Baddiel – Jews Don’t Count

April 5, 2022

Galatea – a Short Story by Madeline Miller

by Team Riverside
book cover of Galatea

Hardback, Bloomsbury, £6.99, out now

This is an excellent new short story from the author of Circe and The Song of Achilles.  I’ve not read those yet but I will do now, having read Galatea.

Galatea is being kept a virtual prisoner in hospital on the wishes of her husband, with the complicity of the medical staff.  Her husband, a sculptor, created her out of stone to be his perfect woman: compliant, beautiful, and with no will or wishes of her own.  But Galatea is developing a secret plan for her own freedom, and that of her young daughter Paphos.

The story is Miller’s response to Ovid’s telling of the Pygmalion myth: “…others (myself included) have been disturbed by the deeply misogynist implications of the story.  Pygmalion’s happy ending is only happy if you accept a number of repulsive ideas: that the only good woman is one who has no self beyond pleasing a man, the fetishization of female sexual purity, the connection of ‘snowy’ ivory with perfection, the elevation of male fantasy over female reality”.

Miller offers a sharp take on abuse and control in relationships, and specifically men’s control of, and ideas about, women.  As Galatea says: “The thing is, I don’t think my husband expected me to be able to talk”. 

Accordingly here, some of the content is challenging.  This is appropriate given the subject.  I don’t always find fiction with mythical or fantasy elements convincing, but the ease and confidence with which this is written makes Galatea feel very real.  I felt like Galatea herself was demanding that I witness her struggle, her cleverness, and her courage.

Issued in a beautiful small blue hardback form, it would make a great gift for the right person.  I immediately reread it on finishing and it was even better the second time around.  A vital read.

Review by Bethan

March 31, 2022

Paradais by Fernanda Melchor, trans. Sophie Hughes

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Fitzcarraldo Editions, £10.99, out now

The second of Fernanda Melchor’s novels to be translated into English and also longlisted for the International Booker Prize, Paradais is a slight volume nonetheless packed with violence and tension. Polo, the protagonist, is a teenage alcoholic stuck in a dead-end job working as a gardener for a luxury housing complex. He is abused by his mother and his boss and his only real friend is the spoilt Franco, an overweight internet addict with a dangerous obsession with his neighbour, an attractive married woman. Polo’s anger and frustration with his family, his employer sends him spiralling towards destruction.

I haven’t read such a brilliant and horrifying study of the extremes of capitalism and machismo since American Psycho. Melchor’s description is rich and visceral, the oppressive heat outside and claustrophobic house where Polo lives are rendered in complex claustrophobic detail.

Paradais is a shocking and brilliant follow-up to Hurricane Season, I highly recommend this novel for fans of Ottessa Moshfegh and Bret Easton Ellis.

Review by Phoebe

March 29, 2022

Gretel the Wonder Mammoth by Kim Hillyard

by Team Riverside
Gretel the Wonder Mammoth book cover

Paperback, Ladybird, £6.99, out now

Gretel emerges from the ice to be feted as a Wonder Mammoth: an instant celebrity who makes lots of friends.  But she is the last mammoth on Earth, which is always going to be tricky…

Her friends love her, as she is kind and strong and tells the best bedtime stories.  When everyone thinks you are jolly and strong, how can you tell them that you are “scared… and sad… and worried… all at the same time”?

Kim Hillyard shows us that sometimes the bravest thing you can do is let your friends know how you are feeling, and that this is how things can start to get better.  The friendly illustrations bring Greta’s world to life, and I found the colour palette warm, lively, and comforting.

Gretel’s friends prove most useful.  They listen carefully, stroke her woolly feet, answer her questions, and help her find new things that she enjoys.  Gretel is still the last mammoth, but she has reclaimed her Wonder and is no longer alone.

This sensitive picture book for young children is one of those brilliant things, a book that is really for all humans.

Review by Bethan

March 28, 2022

Don’t Ask the Dragon by Lemn Sissay and Greg Stobbs

by Team Riverside
Don't Ask the Dragon book cover

Paperback, Canongate, £6.99, out now

Alem is alone on his birthday and asks many different creatures what he should do – he is wondering where he should call home.  None of them know but they all give him the same advice: “don’t ask the dragon – he will eat you!”

Alem is one to think for himself, so when he meets the dragon, he listens.  The dragon turns out to be helpful, interesting… and vegetarian.

From celebrated poet and memoirist Lemn Sissay, with engrossing pictures from Greg Stobbs, this is an optimistic picture book for young children.  A fun rhyming book to read aloud, this would be perfect for storytime.

With the new animal friends he’s made, Alem celebrates his birthday and discovers that home was inside him all along.  For readers of Lemn Sissay’s excellent autobiography My Name is Why, the themes in this book will be especially resonant (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/aug/29/my-name-is-why-lemn-sissay-review).  To find your own place when you are alone can be extremely hard, but also sometimes joyful.

The party pictured at the end of the book is one I would very much like to go to.

Review by Bethan

March 27, 2022

Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson

by Team Riverside
Milo Imagines the World book cover

Paperback, Two Hoots, £7.99, out now

We travel on the subway with young boy Milo and his sister, on a journey they make every month.  It’s a trip that causes complex emotions…”as usual, Milo is a shook-up soda.  Excitement stacked on top of worry on top of confusion on top of love.  To keep himself from bursting, he studies the faces around him and makes pictures of their lives”.

The delicious and engaging illustrations in this picture book for young children draw us into Milo’s world.  Imagining the stories of the strangers he sees on the train, he assumes that a smartly dressed boy lives in a castle with servants, and that a woman in a wedding dress is off to marry a man a city hall.  But why do we assume these things about people we don’t know?  Can Milo reimagine the stories he gives to people?

When it emerges that he and the other boy are both visiting their mums in prison, Milo finds out that there are so many ways to imagine the lives of others. 

One of the most moving and cheerful things for me about Milo Imagines the World was the effortless portrayal of family love transcending and enduring through imprisonment.  I also liked that Milo processed what was going on through drawing pictures of what he was thinking, which his mum got to enjoy during his visit.

Not even remotely preachy, this book is a complete delight.  And it might make you see your own tube journey, and the people you’re sharing it with, in a much more interesting way.

Review by Bethan

March 15, 2022

Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka

by Team Riverside
book cover Bullet Train

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out now

As the Shinkansen bullet train speeds out of Tokyo, several of those on board seem to be on missions to kill.  But who will kill, who will die, and why?

This is a speedy and satisfying locked-room crime novel.  It’s not clear at the outset how the disparate group of characters are connected.  What links a father bent on revenge, a hitman obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, and a professional killer who’s concerned that he’s unlucky and wants to quit?  And what are the roles of those off the train, including a woman who is phoning with instructions?

So many questions, and Bullet Train presents an engaging mystery for readers to try and solve.  It’s violent, but given the sheer number of murderers this is perhaps not surprising.  This was part of my ongoing Japanese crime reading jag, following on from The Aosawa Murders (https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2020/07/25/the-aosawa-murders-by-riku-onda/).  Isaka is a prize winning author in Japan, and the movie starring Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock is due out this summer (see https://www.imdb.com/title/tt12593682/).

For an escapist and entertaining crime read, this is a good choice.

Review by Bethan

March 13, 2022

Cold Enough For Snow by Jessica Au

by Team Riverside

Fitzcarraldo Editions, £9.99 paperback, out now

Cold Enough for Snow is a startling and subtle mediation on family and belonging from the winner of the inaugural Fitzcarraldo Novel Prize. It is incredibly vivid and sensuous but it is also a gentle read, Au takes us movingly through different scenes, unhurried by plot. At times it’s reminiscent of a series of anecdotes, scenes from the life of the narrator and the narrator’s family are strung together through the conversations between mother and daughter as they wander through Tokyo, eating dinner, visiting tourist attractions. The prose radiates quiet beauty, every detail from the weather to the food that they eat is realised in precise detail. I highly recommend this novel for fans of Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti.

Review by Phoebe

February 16, 2022

The Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

by Team Riverside

Paperback, W H Allen, £9.99, out now

cover of the book The Madhouse at the End of the Earth

The Madhouse at the End of the Earth is an engrossing account of a journey to Antarctica in 1897.  One thing after another goes wrong for the crew of the Belgian whaling ship the Belgica, and they get stranded for the whole of the winter darkness, their ship frozen in a sea of ice.

Among those on board is a doctor, Dr Frederick Cook, who will later be imprisoned in his native USA for fraud.  But as those on the ship suffer the effects of cold, dark, and malnutrition, his innovation and care keeps his colleagues alive.  As things get worse, and the Captain withdraws, Cook seems able to turn his hand to anything.  One part of the story that stayed with me was Cook creating a treatment for crew members suffering from scurvy and depression (among other things) of standing unclothed and in private in front of a fire.  As Sancton notes: “His wild idea to have his ailing shipmates stand naked in front of a blazing fire is the first known application of light therapy, used today to treat sleep disorders and depression, among other things.”

The Madhouse at the End of the Earth works in many different ways.  It’s a story of adventure and survival, failures of leadership, and physical and mental courage.  It contributes to the history of medicine, as Sancton discovers that Cook’s case study is still used by Jack Stuster, a behavioural scientist who works with NASA, among others.  As a study of how people cope, or don’t, under extreme strain, it is fascinating.

Also on the unlucky ship is Roald Amundsen, later famous as an epic Antarctic explorer in his own right.  The insight given here into his early life is intriguing.  He emerges as stoic in himself, and unbending in his attitude to others.

Sancton evokes the harshness of the Antarctic landscape and the claustrophobia of the trapped ship very well.  “Where the water ended, the snow began, as if the ocean had risen half way up the Himalayas”.  The descriptions of sounds of rats eating the crew’s limited food are suitably revolting.  His impressive use of archive materials including the ship’s logs, crew diaries, and accounts published later by those who had been on board lends credibility to his review of the psychological states and emotions of those he is writing about.

He notes the colonial context to this journey, namely Belgium’s grotesque history in Africa at the time of the expedition.  I was troubled by the title, uneasy about the use of ‘madhouse’, but I eventually felt it made sense for the time Sancton was writing about.

I read it over two days while on holiday, and felt lucky to have the chance to race through it.  Because the story was unfamiliar to me, despite my having read a lot about Antarctic exploration, I tensely awaited each new development.  It held me till the last page.

Review by Bethan

February 13, 2022

Happy Hour by Marlowe Granados

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Verso £10.99 Out Now

Isa and her best friend Gala arrive in New York in the Summer of 2013 with a mission in mind, to have as much fun as possible. They recall the heroines of golden age Hollywood; in another era they could be Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Isa and Gala’s literary ancestors might have treated this scene as a marriage market, but the novel is free of commitment, although not without romantic entanglements and their consequences. Isa and Gala’s friendship is the most important relationship in the novel, their friendship is loving but not idyllic, Isa more than once refers to it as a ‘marriage’ with all the history and tensions that go along with that description. Clothes are a secondary, yet crucially important romance, work is something to be avoided where possible and ambition a laughable fancy.

Happy Hour dispels the myth that glamour is analogous to wealth, Isa and Gala are permanently down on their luck, scraping a living by selling clothes on a vintage stall and taking ad hoc modelling and babysitting jobs. In spite of this, they manage to mainly have a fabulous time, only an uncomfortable jaunt to the Hamptons is enough to show Isa that the fair might be coming to an end.

Granados turns sharp and witty prose to great affect here. I would highly recommend Happy Hour for anyone seeking an intelligent but fun read in the mode of Anita Loos, Dorothy Parker or Nora Ephron.

Review by Phoebe

February 1, 2022

London’s Hidden Walks volume 4 by Stephen Millar

by Team Riverside
cover of London's Hidden Walks vol 4

Paperback, Metro, £11.99, Publisher

The pocket-sized London’s Hidden Walks series is well researched and handy.  The latest addition, subtitled Every Street Has a Story to Tell, is a genial and inspiring guide to some hidden London treasures.

Who knew that the Spanish Civil War memorial was right next to Fulham Palace?  Or that the cabman’s shelter in Pimlico, a small green wooden hut serving refreshments, is one of the sole survivors of more than sixty such?  History, architecture, art, literature and generally bizarre things all feature.

South London is especially well represented here, with Clapham, Peckham and Tooting all featuring.  Even in areas I know very well, I’ve learnt to look for some surviving gems because of this book.

Nicely illustrated with quirky photos and useful maps, this is a pleasure to read before you set out, as well as providing suggestions for good restaurants, pubs, and shops on the routes.  The inclusion of notable ghost signs is especially welcome (I used to like the Barlow and Roberts ghost sign on Southwark Street near here, but it seems to be gone now – https://ghostsigns.co.uk/2021/10/barlow-roberts/). This book encourages us to look up: there is often something interesting up there.

Review by Bethan

January 19, 2022

We All Celebrate! by Chitra Soundar and Jenny Bloomfield

by Team Riverside
book cover of We All Celebrate!

Hardback, Tiny Owl, £12.99, out now

“Celebrations bring us together with music, dance and feasts.  Our celebrations are not only steeped in customs and traditions, they evolve and change as we do”.  We All Celebrate! is a bright and cheerful picture book from Riverside favourite Chitra Soundar, with jolly illustrations by Jenny Bloomfield.

A lively and informative text lets us join in with celebrations all over the world.  As we look forward towards spring, this is a great book to read.  I love the sound of Hamani, the Japanese festival of cherry blossoms, where those celebrating meet friends and picnic under the pink frothy trees.  Holi, celebrated in some parts of India, involves throwing coloured powder and water over folks dancing in the street, and sounds like huge fun.

Ideal for primary age children, for reading together or alone, We All Celebrate! reminds us that however different our backgrounds we often consider the same things worth celebrating.  Birth, the return of the sun, our ancestors… and we often enjoy special food, or clothes, or lights.

We All Celebrate! is effortlessly inclusive, and taught me a lot of things I didn’t know.  It has a truly international sweep and I felt the world opening up around me, with fireworks and dancing.  This is the perfect picture book for these dark winter evenings.

Review by Bethan

January 16, 2022

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

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

Paperback, William Collins, £9.99, out now

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

January 10, 2022

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

by Team Riverside
Change Sings book cover

Hardback, Penguin Books, £12.99, out now

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

January 4, 2022

London Shop Fronts by Emma J Page and Rachael Smith

by Team Riverside
London Shop Fronts book cover

Hardback, Hoxton Mini Press, £22.95, out now

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

January 3, 2022

The Bloodless Boy by Robert J Lloyd

by Team Riverside
book cover of The Bloodless Boy

Hardback, Melville House Publishing, £18.99, out now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

December 18, 2021

Bestsellers 11th – 18th December

by Team Riverside

Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey – How Was That Built?

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

John Le Carre – Silverview

Richard Osman – The Thursday Murder Club

Claire Keegan – Small Things Like These

Abdulrazak Gurnah – Afterlives

Hannah J. Parkinson – The Joy of Small Things

Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle

Various Authors – The Haunting Season

Susanna Clarke – Piranesi

Michaela Coel – Misfits

Stanley Tucci – Taste

Dave Eggers – The Every

Various Poets – The Liberty Faber Poetry Diary

Amor Towles – The Lincoln Highway

December 14, 2021

Moominland Midwinter (colour edition) by Tove Jansson

by Team Riverside
Moominland Midwinter book cover

Hardback, Sort Of Books, £14.99, out now

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

December 13, 2021

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries chosen by Otto Penzler

by Team Riverside
book cover The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries

Softcover, Head of Zeus, £18, out now

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

December 8, 2021

London in the Snow by Hoxton Mini Press

by Team Riverside
cover of London in the Snow book

Hardback, Hoxton Mini Press, £16.95, out now

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

December 6, 2021

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

by Team Riverside
book cover for Sticky McStickstick

Hardback, Walker Books, £12.99, out now

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

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

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

Review by Bethan