Archive for ‘Reviews’

August 2, 2021

Arlo the Lion Who Couldn’t Sleep by Catherine Rayner

by Team Riverside
cover of Arlo, a picture book

Paperback, Macmillan, £7.99, out now

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

July 20, 2021

We Want Our Books by Jake Alexander

by Team Riverside
We Want Our Books

Hardback, Pan Macmillan, £12.99, out now

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

July 4, 2021

How to Listen by Katie Colombus

by Team Riverside
How to Listen

Paperback, Kyle Books, £12.99, out now

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

July 4, 2021

Current Bestsellers

by Team Riverside

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

Brit Bennett- The Vanishing Half

Delia Owens- Where The Crawdads Sing

Maggie O’Farrell- Hamnet

Natalie Haynes- Pandora’s Jar

Jonathon Lee- The Great Mistake

Elena Ferrante- The Lying Life of Adults

Various Authors- Murder Takes A Holiday

James Hawes- The Shortest History of England

Peter Ackroyd- London: The Biography

Elif Shafak- 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

Richard Osman- The Thursday Murder Club

Sasha Swire- Diary of An MP’s Wife

Irvin and Marilyn Yalom- A Matter of Death and Life

Kazuo Ishiguro- Klara and The Sun

Kenneth Cukier- Framers

Clare Chambers- Small Pleasures

Susanna Clarke- Piranesi

Xialou Guo- A Lover’s Discourse

Meriel Schindler- The Lost Cafe Schindler

Tim Marshall- The Power of Geography

June 28, 2021

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Picador, £14.99, out now

The Office of Historical Corrections

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

June 23, 2021

The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson

by Team Riverside
The Gospel of the Eels

Paperback, Picador, £9.99, out now

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

June 22, 2021

The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee

by Team Riverside
The Great Mistake

Hardback, Granta, £14.99, out now

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

June 21, 2021

Assembly by Natasha Brown

by Team Riverside

Hamish Hamilton, Hardback, £12.99, out now

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

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

Review by Phoebe

June 7, 2021

What Happened to You? by James Catchpole and Karen George

by Team Riverside
What Happened to You?

Paperback, Faber and Faber, £6.99, out now

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

May 30, 2021

Lost in the Clouds by Tom Tinn-Disbury

by Team Riverside
Lost in the Clouds

Paperback, DK, £6.99, out now

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

May 25, 2021

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M Danforth

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Borough Press, £14.99, out now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

May 16, 2021

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

by Team Riverside

Serpents Tail, Hardback, £14.99 out now

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

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

Review by Phoebe

May 15, 2021

Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

by Team Riverside
Notes on Grief

Hardback, 4th Estate, £10, out now

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

May 5, 2021

This is Your Time by Ruby Bridges

by Team Riverside
Ruby Bridges This is Your Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

April 29, 2021

Bank Holiday Monday 3rd May

by Team Riverside

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

Saturday 1st May – 10am- 6pm

Sunday 2nd May – 11am – 5pm

Monday 3rd May – 11am – 5pm

April 24, 2021

The Rock from the Sky by Jon Klassen

by Team Riverside
The Rock from the Sky

Hardback, Walker Books, £12.99, out now

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

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

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

Funny, relatable, memorable.  I love it.

Review by Bethan

April 20, 2021

Weirdo by Zadie Smith and Nick Laird

by Team Riverside
Weirdo book cover

Hardback, Penguin, £12.99, out now

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

April 19, 2021

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

by Team Riverside

Daunt Books, Paperback, £9.99 out now

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

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

Review by Phoebe

December 7, 2020

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

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Faber and Faber, £14.99, out now

cover of The Stubborn Light of Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

November 2, 2020

Snow by John Banville

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Faber and Faber, £14.99, out now

cover of Snow by John Banville

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

October 26, 2020

Threads of Life by Clare Hunter

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Sceptre, £9.99, out now

cover of Threads of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

October 21, 2020

The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hamish Hamilton, £14.99, out now

The Lost Spells book cover

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

October 20, 2020

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, trans. Ginny Tapeley Takemori

by Team Riverside

Granta, Hardback Fiction, £12.99, out now

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

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

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

Review by Phoebe

October 13, 2020

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

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Nosy Crow, £25, out now

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright! book cover

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

For autumn, a spider poem by Bashō:

                            With what voice,

And what song would you sing, spider,

                            In this autumn breeze?

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

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

Review by Bethan

September 23, 2020

Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman

by Team Riverside

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

Wayward Lives book cover

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

September 10, 2020

Death In Her Hands, Ottessa Moshfegh

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Phoebe

September 9, 2020

Look Up! by Nathan Bryon, illustrated by Dapo Adeola

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £6.99, out now

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

September 7, 2020

Recollections Of My Non-Existence

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £16.99, out now

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

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

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

Review by Phoebe

September 2, 2020

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh

by Team Riverside

Hamish Hamilton, Hardback Fiction, £12.99, out now

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

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

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

Review by Phoebe

August 26, 2020

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Tom