Posts tagged ‘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 12, 2021

London Green Spaces by Harry Adès

by Team Riverside
London Green Spaces

Paperback, Hoxton Mini Press, £9.95, out now

After a year of intermittent lockdowns, when I was lucky enough to have a lively local park near me and to be able to visit it, I am very ready to try out some new London green spots. London Green Spaces is one of a gorgeous new series of small London guidebooks, and this book makes it fun to start a day-out wishlist.  Even looking at the photos cheered me up.

I thought I knew most of the cool parks and green bits in London, but there were several in here I’d never heard of.  London Green Spaces offers an enticing reminder of the big places too, the ones that you know about but haven’t visited for a while, like Richmond Park or Epping Forest.  Useful cover maps and suggested walks would help make a day of it.

The Red Cross Garden in London Bridge features, and I can vouch for its sanctuary-like feel as a respite from the Borough Market crowds at the weekend (https://www.bost.org.uk/).  The book is good on these small places as well as the grand sweeping ones.  I’d add the Crossbones Graveyard, just round the corner from the Red Cross Garden, though you always need to check the opening hours (https://crossbones.org.uk/).

Other craveable titles in the series include Vegan London, London Pubs, and Independent London.  You’re in London (maybe)… it’s summer (sort of)… if you’re able to get out and about these books will help you lively up your plans. 

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

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 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 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

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

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

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 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 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 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 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

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