Archive for ‘Reviews’

September 23, 2020

Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman

by Team Riverside

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

Wayward Lives book cover

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

September 10, 2020

Death In Her Hands, Ottessa Moshfegh

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Phoebe

September 9, 2020

Look Up! by Nathan Bryon, illustrated by Dapo Adeola

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £6.99, out now

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

September 7, 2020

Recollections Of My Non-Existence

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £16.99, out now

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

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

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

Review by Phoebe

September 2, 2020

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh

by Team Riverside

Hamish Hamilton, Hardback Fiction, £12.99, out now

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

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

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

Review by Phoebe

August 26, 2020

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Tom

August 24, 2020

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

August 19, 2020

Weather by Jenny Offill

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

August 10, 2020

Temporary opening hours

by Team Riverside

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

Weekdays:

10am to 4pm

Saturday: 10am to 5pm

Sunday: 11am to 4pm

August 5, 2020

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

July 25, 2020

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99, out now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

July 19, 2020

Meesha Makes Friends by Tom Percival

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

July 14, 2020

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

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

February 18, 2020

Actress by Anne Enright

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

February 12, 2020

We Love You, Mr Panda by Steve Antony

by Team Riverside

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

The legendary Mr Panda returns.

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

February 11, 2020

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

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

February 1, 2020

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

by Team Riverside

Francesca Wade SQUARE HAUNTING

Faber, Hardback, £20.00, out now

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

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

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

Review by Phoebe

January 21, 2020

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Phoebe

January 8, 2020

Bottled Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Cat

 

January 5, 2020

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

January 4, 2020

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

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

December 3, 2019

A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

November 13, 2019

Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

November 2, 2019

Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

October 5, 2019

Corregidora by Gayl Jones

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

September 8, 2019

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Granta, £8.99, out nowSarah Moss GHOST WALL

I finished this slight novel in a corner of Oxford Circus tube station so that I wouldn’t be disturbed by commuters in the concluding moments of Silvie’s story.  This is a book that crept up on me as I read it and then has been ringing between my ears ever since. Seventeen-year-old Sylvie (whose name is short for Sulevia, chosen by her father, after an ancient British goddess) is a funny, brave and beguiling narrator.  Sylvie has been taken by her Father and Mother to an iron age re-enactment week in rural Northumberland.  They are joined by an Experimental Archaeology professor and some of his students. What transpires is a masterly exploration by Moss of class, sexual and regional oppressions and the dangers of idealising the rituals of the past.

If Ghost Wall were a film it would be a Best British Bafta winning Andrea Arnold film.  The descriptions of an oppressive summer and Sylvie’s burgeoning sexuality are glorious. “Her belly was rounder than mine, a pale curve dented by her belly button. I suddenly wanted to touch. I looked away. She splashed past me. Dan and Pete looked unconcerned, as if they saw women half naked in public every day, but I saw Pete glancing away and then back and then away again. Molly, up to her waist, reached round to unhook her bra from behind in a way I’d seen on TV though not, for example, in the girls changing room.” (p.56).

Moss vividly transports the reader to a stiflingly hot, uncomfortable summer.  We experience Sylvie’s tastes of exhilarating freedom and crushing debasements with her, as she comes of age in a brutal and brilliant climax.  I feel this is an important piece of fiction about female friendship and what it means to be a victim.  Silvie is an inspired heroine and no typical victim.  Moss isn’t afraid to look at toxic masculinity in both its blatantly violent and also subtle, middle class, well-educated forms.  The result is a quick read that leaves you gasping for breath and willing Sulevia to take hold of the goddess-like qualities she can just about touch with her fingertips.

Review by Eleanor

September 7, 2019

Mouth Full of Blood by Toni Morrison

by Team Riverside

Hardcover, Chatto and Windus, £20, out nowToni Morrison MOUTH FULL OF BLOOD

This is an outstanding and highly relevant selection of essays from the great American novelist and intellectual.  She reflects on writing and literature, on prejudice and racism, and on politics and technology (among other things).

She gives highly personal tributes to friends and inspirations, including beautiful pieces on James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe and their influences on her own writing.  On James Baldwin, she writes: “I never heard a single command from you, yet the demands you made on me, the challenges you issued to me were nevertheless unmistakeable if unenforced: that I work and think at the top of my form; that I stand on moral ground but know that ground must be shored up by mercy; that ‘the world is before [me] and [I] need not take it or leave it as it was when [I] came in’.” (p. 229). I have just read some of Achebe’s essays (see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2018/08/26/penguin-modern-series/).  Morrison’s explanation of the importance of his work in enlarging the horizons of writers who came after makes me determined to read his novels.

I did not intend to read Mouth Full of Blood straight through but rather to savour it, but ended up devouring it over a couple of weeks.  Morrison has great clarity of mind and expression, and is unafraid of dealing with difficult and painful subjects.  She remains deeply humane, and often funny too.

Despite the age of some of the pieces, the collection remains fresh and engaging.  Some themes are timeless.  On racism and fascism, and and how to recognise them, she writes: “Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third.  The move towards a final solution is not a jump.  It takes one step, then another, then another” (p. 14).

Review by Bethan

August 26, 2019

Dinner with Edward – The Story of an Unexpected Friendship by Isabel Vincent

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Pushkin Press (One imprint), £12.99, out nowIsabel Vincent DINNER WITH EDWARD

This is an engaging true story of a New York friendship between Edward, an elderly widower, and Isabel, a Canadian journalist recently moved to the city.

Over several exquisite home cooked meals Edward and Isabel talk about the large and important things in life – love, food, loss.  Isabel has been covering the Bosnian war, where she met her Serbian husband, and has a new job.  Her marriage is failing, and she has a young daughter.  Edward is the father of her friend, and he is recently widowed after having been married to the love of his life for many years.  He had worked as a tailor, a welder, and in a factory.  He and his wife wrote plays as well as raising their children.

The food and drink in the book are mouth-watering.  I must try his way of making a bourbon and pastis cocktail, which can be adapted with absinthe to make green fairies (p. 54).  I sometimes want books which are consoling or comforting without losing their edge, and this definitely met this criterion.  It was a helpful distraction in a stressful week.  It also reminded me of the very great sensual pleasures of eating and drinking thoughtfully.

Dinner with Edward is not rose tinted: Edward’s daughter warns Isabel that her father can be quite controlling, and this manifests in him insisting that Isabel try dressing or making up in a particular way (p.71).  However, it is clearly only ever done on Isabel’s own terms, and does inject a little Cinderella feeling into a bleak time in her life.  Sometimes you just do need some great clothes that you can’t afford.

The book is very New York – I had never heard of Roosevelt Island (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roosevelt_Island) – and the thrills of hunting down delicacies in little shops and markets feature strongly.  I loved the glimpse of a life open to new friends and acquaintances.  In the age of online friends, we can make unexpected ones if we approach things with an open heart.  Edward continually finds people interesting, and takes emotional risks despite having had several terrible heartbreaks in his life.  The joys can that can be found in hard times leap out, as does the importance of being open to possibilities and saying yes to things.  A little gem.

Review by Bethan

August 20, 2019

August bank holiday opening

by Team Riverside

We will be open on Monday 26 August from 11am to 5pm.

August 20, 2019

The Way to the Sea – the Forgotten Histories of the Thames Estuary by Caroline Crampton

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £16.99, out nowCaroline Crampton THE WAY TO THE SEA

The Isle of Grain, Deadman’s Island, Bedlam’s Bottom, Shivering Sands.  There are strange and evocative names scattered over this liminal place, the Thames Estuary.  The Way to the Sea is a readable and engaging tour of this diverse and often mysterious landscape.

Starting at the head of the river, Crampton travels the length of the river telling both her own story and the river’s as she goes.  Her parents sailed to Britain from South Africa.  They moored in St Katherine’s Docks, just over the river from the Riverside Bookshop, and then settled in the UK.  As a child it was normal for the family to travel from Kent in the own boat, docking upriver for a weekend away.  She captures the sensory experiences of the river, its distinctive smells, its mud and sudden fogs.  Some of the mystery of the estuary comes from communities that seem to be outside the mainstream of British life, either by choice or circumstance.

Some of the stories she tells are relatively well known, like the highly explosive wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery which sunk in 1944. Monitored remotely by river authorities, if it were to explode it would cause widespread damage.  Lesser known stories also pop up, including the RSPB takeover of former Ministry of Defence land at Rainham Marshes.  Easily accessible by train from central London, visitors can now see rare birds (and if you are lucky, a weasel) amid the ruined shooting ranges and pylons (https://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z/rainham-marshes/).

Crampton is excellent at pulling interesting fiction and non-fiction references into her narrative.  It was a pleasure to be reminded of Thames fiction including Phillip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, and Richard Jefferies’ After London.  Joseph Conrad is often cited uncritically in discussions of the Thames Estuary, and it is excellent that Crampton gives proper space to Chinua Achebe’s 1975 lecture ‘An Image of Africa’ which, as Crampton writes, “skewers the racist assumptions that pepper Conrad’s writings” (p.94).  The Way to the Sea is a useful companion piece to Rachel Lichtenstein’s Estuary, which takes a more artistic but equally interesting approach.  Lichtenstein’s book references Robert Macfarlane’s excellent film, the Wild Places of Essex, which is another useful watch to complement this book (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00qsxy5).

The personal and historic photos which break up the text help make this a quick and interesting read.  If you have an interest in the Thames, past or present, this is a satisfying addition to your library.

Review by Bethan