Posts tagged ‘Review’

June 3, 2016

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

by Team Riverside

Hardback, £9.99, Egmont ‘Classics’wind egmont classics

Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s classic The Wind in the Willows was republished last year in a beautiful hardback edition by Egmont ‘Classics’, complete with an appendix of activities for children, a well-conceived glossary (as some of Grahame’s words are challenging) and E. H. Shepherd’s original and unforgettable pen illustrations. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The recommended reading age is 9 – 11 years but a confident reader of seven or eight could be enthralled either reading it themselves or having it read to them and indeed anyone from a five or six year-old to ninety or more could fall in love with this book and remain in love for life.

The unusual and wonderful thing about The Wind in the Willows is that it has references adults will appreciate (to Ulysses for instance, the politics of Grahame’s day, and other literary allusions), some moments of genuine profundity (the haunting chapter ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ is a case in point) – and abundant humour, warmth and excitement that will entertain children as well. Indeed every aspect of this novel is exceptional. The prose is exquisite, the atmosphere palpable, the descriptions of the natural world amongst some of the best in children’s literature and not a page goes by without some gentle humour. The characterisation deserves special notice and is unusually sophisticated for a children’s book; Mole, in particular, is a peculiar, humorous and endearing little creature but all of Grahame’s cast are marvellously realised.

Children’s classics of this period excel in their delicacy, beauty and strangeness. They seem to possess a quality difficult to describe but feels ‘strange’ to our 21st century ears. This quality might also be called ‘magic’. There is an ‘otherness’ to The Wind in the Willows (and several other bygone treasures such as Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, The Secret Garden, Charlotte’s Web…) that it is virtually non-existent in modern children’s literature and so enchanting that it is impossible not to feel that Grahame has written something resonant and timeless, and that while we are reading we are doing something very worthwhile.

Review by Emily

May 2, 2016

The Mountain Can Wait, by Sarah Leipciger

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Tinder Press, £7.99, out nowSarah Leipciger THE MOUNTAIN CAN WAIT

A distracted young man, Curtis, is driving along a mountain road at night.  A woman flashes into his headlights, is struck by the truck, and disappears.  He keeps driving.

Curtis’s single father Tom manages planting for logging in the Canadian Rockies.  His teenage daughter, like his son, appears alienated from him.  The children’s mother is gone.  His estranged mother in law seems to live with nature almost like a witch, and his colleagues are seasonal outdoors workers.

A strong story and believably flawed characters give rise to interesting questions.  If a father teaches his children to hunt, shoot and fish, is he caring for them or just getting them ready for his abandonment of them?  Is physical courage in protecting your children enough?  If you have to be absent for work, is it inevitable that you are emotionally absent as well, and how do you know if you are?  How do we live with nature now?  If you have done something bad, must it inevitably catch up with you, and how do you live before you know?

The mountains, lakes and woods inform every part of the story. The mountains aren’t straightforward and reliable though – I was reminded of Annie Dillard writing about Dead Man Mountain: “sometimes here in Virginia at sunset low clouds on the southern or northern horizon are completely invisible in the lighted sky. I only know one is there because I can see its reflection in still water”.  Like Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time, which I loved (see https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/at-hawthorn-time-melissa-harrison/), The Mountain Can Wait contains evocative and unsentimental nature writing. Swimming alone in an icy mountain lake, Tom “coasted out deeper into the lake, taking mouthfuls of the mineral-rich water and spraying it out again.  It tasted like pine, like iron, a little like blood”. Like a bracing swim in a lake, this cool and sharp book is recommended.

Review by Bethan

April 19, 2016

Citizen – An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin Books, £9.99, out nowClaudia Rankine CITIZEN

This book has been out for ages.  It has been in the shop for ages.  It won the Forward Poetry prize for best collection last year.  So why am I writing about it now?

I am writing about it because I can’t stop thinking about it, and because it opened something profound in my head.   Because it added to my intellectual toolkit and challenged the way I think about racism.  Because I have bought it for others.  Because I recommend it all the time but still can’t really find words to adequately describe it, and because it’s not like anything else I’ve ever read.

Rankine writes with honesty and great style about racism, both as experienced in her personal life and in public life.  She tells stories which are both effortlessly relatable and deeply shocking, the more for being truthful – for example, she arrives for an appointment with a new therapist who screams at her to get out of her yard before realising that she is, in fact, a client.  Her work benefits from being heard aloud, as much poetry does.  I heard her perform this piece (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/citizen-vi-train-woman-standing ) and it was like an electric shock ran through the room waking everyone up.  Her pieces about Serena Williams alone are worth buying Citizen for.  The book itself is a beautiful object, with art and photographs scattered throughout.  It’s not a comfortable read, but transformative books rarely are.

Review by Bethan

March 1, 2016

Ten Days, by Gillian Slovo

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Canongate, £14.99, out 3 MarchGillian Slovo TEN DAYS

Martin Luther King said that “riots are the language of the unheard”. Developed from Slovo’s successful 2011 verbatim play The Riots at the Tricycle theatre, this readable novel offers multiple voices and a wholly convincing and gripping anatomy of how a London riot happens. It is a scorching summer, and on a fictional South London estate a series of incidents involving the police trigger rioting. We follow the stories of Cathy and her family and friends, who are resident on the estate; Peter, the Home Secretary; and Joshua, the brand new head of the Metropolitan Police. Politics, people and police all collide over ten days, and things may not be what they seem.

Ten Days reads like a thriller, and is more complex and nuanced than you might expect, giving genuine insights into the challenges and motivations of the characters. Slovo deals fearlessly with issues of class, race, poverty and power.  The plot rolls out relentlessly, leaving the reader desperate to find out what happens to key characters. Slovo thanks senior police officers, among others, in her acknowledgements and certainly the account of the police experience feels authentic.

It is a properly London novel, and a worthwhile addition to the literature of London disorder and violence. This may be why it has been chosen for London Cityread 2016 (http://www.cityread.london/ten-days/).  I stayed up far too late finishing it and suffered the next day as a result, but it was worth it.

Review by Bethan

January 4, 2016

Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Faber and Faber, £18.99, out nowEdna O'Brien LITTLE RED CHAIRS

In 2012, in memory of the Sarajevo siege which began in 1992, “11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along… the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs for the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains”. So opens Edna O’Brien’s new novel.

An on the run Serbian alleged war criminal sets up as a New Age healer in a village in Ireland, and one local woman in particular is mesmerised by him. The fallout from this for her and others is dealt with humanely in this often shocking but always thoughtful book. I was reminded of some aspects of the story of Radovan Karadžić, currently awaiting judgement following a five year trial for war crimes in the Hague (http://www.icty.org/x/cases/karadzic/cis/en/cis_karadzic_en.pdf).

Impunity in committing war crimes, and attempts to hold individuals to account for them, are such huge issues that the destruction wrought on individual human lives can be lost. O’Brien manages to capture and convey such human stories in this remarkable novel. Exile of all types and refugee status are also explored: it feels like nothing is too challenging a subject for the author to address. She humanises refugees and exiles, which is more important than ever given the current refugee crisis.

Review by Bethan

September 15, 2015

The Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante

by Team Riverside

Out now, £11.99 eachElena Ferrante THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD

A woman in her sixties, at home in Naples, receives a call from the middle-aged son of her best friend. His mother is missing. She has disappeared, cutting her image out of photos and removing all her belongings. Her lifelong friend is not surprised, noting it has been thirty years since her friend – referred to as being an electronics wizard during the 1960s – first told her of her wish to disappear. This beginning of the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go.

I decided to read the quartet because we couldn’t keep them in the shop. We’d order, they’d sell out. People had heard about them from friends, or been lent the first book and then been unable to wait to borrow the second, and then the third (The Story of a New Name, followed by Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay).

Now I’m about to read the fourth and final book, The Story of the Lost Child. After the opening disappearance, we see the post-war childhood beginning of the difficult and complex friendship between the two women, Elena and Lila, in a poor area of Naples. What difference does an education make to a woman’s life? Marriage? Children? Violence? Money? Family? Wartime shadows? The novels give us a lifetime up close, but so convincingly that I am desperate to find out how all the stories end. And not much else will get done till I’m finished.

Review by Bethan

August 1, 2015

The Fish Ladder – Katharine Norbury

by Team Riverside

Bloomsbury Circus, out now

Katharine Norbury was abandoned as a baby in a Liverpool convent, raised by caring adoptive parents, and then had a family of her own. The book opens as she starts a series of British nature journeys with her young daughter, prompted by bereavement following a miscarriage.

In this nature memoir, Norbury describes her life and her relationship with nature with candour and flair. She is compelled to trace her biological mother, and takes us to the end of this difficult journey.

She heads off alone to remote spots: as a woman who often walks out alone, it pleased me to have another woman walker describe her own experiences so effectively. “The more space I put between myself and the wakeful inhabitants of the mainland, the better I felt. The sea shone pearl-grey, opaque, and the sky lightened above it with a bloom as soft as a plum”.

Mixed in are stories from Celtic mythology, andKatharine Norbury THE FISH LADDER thoughts about adoptive families (and non-adoptive ones). The theme of those who are grieving finding some solace, distraction or balm from the natural world has been covered in much recent writing, perhaps most famously in H for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. If you liked that, this will appeal. But it is also very readable for anyone thinking about what family means, how marriages can work, and how nature can be a part of our everyday lives.