Posts tagged ‘Reviews’

October 18, 2021

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci

by Team Riverside
Stanley Tucci Taste

Hardback, Penguin Fig Tree, £20, out now

You must be careful when reading this book.  You might end up with a shopping list that suddenly includes good vodka, Valtellina cheese, and bushels of fresh tomatoes.  I read it on a Sunday afternoon, snacking enjoyably throughout, and had a deeply relaxing time.

Tucci is just as funny, smart and interesting in Taste as he is on his excellent TV show Searching for Italy (https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/stanley-tucci-searching-for-italy-restaurants/index.html).  He gives an enjoyable account of moments in his life through food, including hilarious dialogue with his family, right the way through to a surprisingly relatable account of being stuck indoors in London with his kids during the first lockdown.  Aged about six, watching a food show on television, his mother tells him that the presenter is cooking a duck.  He says “A duck?!!!… From a pond?”  His mother says “I guess so.  I don’t know”.

Dotted throughout are hungry-making recipes.  Achievable cocktails accompany grand epics like the timpano (as seen in the movie Big Night), which turns out to have been a source of both joy and stress in the Tucci household over a run of Christmases.  Jay Rayner has a smashing time cooking it with Stanley Tucci though (see https://www.theguardian.com/food/2021/oct/17/the-day-i-cooked-timpano-with-stanley-tucci-jay-rayner).

Fans of Big Night and Julie and Julia will find cheerful behind the scenes gossip here.  Tucci namedrops with abandon, which is the only possible way to do it with style.  Ryan Reynolds, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Marcello Mastroianni and endless friends from the world of food pop up.  Taste is both thoughtful and sweary, one of my favourite combinations.

I agree that battered family cookware can be heirlooms, as Tucci notes.  There are often things that we associate strongly with the important cooks in our lives.  A friend’s mum always made toffee in the same tin: it had hammer marks where years of toffee bashing had occurred.  These things are precious.

Tucci’s account of his cancer, which leads him to have terrible trouble with food and eating during his treatment and recovery, is moving and important.  That food for him is about connecting with others is clear throughout the book, and his deprivation of this key aspect of life during his illness hurts.  His joy at surviving and being able to get back to eating with the people he loves leaps off the page.

I suspect that many people will buy this lovely thing for other people this Christmas.  Do this by all means, but read it sneakily yourself first.  It’s like being on a sunny food holiday with a generous and entertaining friend.  We have signed copies!

Review by Bethan

October 13, 2021

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by Rebecca Hall

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Particular Books, £20, out now

Rebecca Hall Wake

This new graphic novel and memoir charts historian Rebecca Hall’s search for women rebel slave leaders in archives in the UK and US.  It is gripping, moving, and compelling.

Formerly a social justice lawyer, Hall’s work starts in New York in 1999, and Hugo Martínez’s illustrations show the slaving past literally reflected in the city as Hall walks through it.  It’s a brilliant way of showing how the past is inescapable in the present.  The graphic novel format lends itself to this so well, literally illustrating the similarities in some behaviour and surroundings between then and now. A smartly dressed white man barges into Hall without seeing her, and in a window reflection a white man in a tricorn hat pushes past another Black woman.

There are newly found stories of women-led revolts here, showing that her exhaustive work has paid off, and they are told with deep humanity.

As with Saidiya Hartman’s work on transforming and disrupting the archive, Hall does the work of interrogating why archives are as they are (anyone who loved Wayward Lives and Lose Your Mother will find this essential reading – see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2020/09/23/wayward-lives-beautiful-experiments-by-saidiya-hartman/).  The realisation that current racism and sexism have some of their roots in slavery is manifest. The historian as human is very present – “This work I’m doing is hard, and it hurts.”

Wake gives a vivid account of the difficulty of finding people in official archives when their voices are not recorded, being considered of no importance, or when their only seeming presence is as property.  She is also explicit about the UK archives which barred her from access, and those which felt they held nothing about slavery.

Hall describes herself as being haunted by slavery.  This really is a haunting book, necessarily violent and painful, showing that hard and committed work by historians can be revolutionary. 

Review by Bethan

October 12, 2021

Index, A History of the by Dennis Duncan

by Team Riverside
Index, A History of the

Hardback, Allen Lane, £20, out now

I did not expect to laugh out loud while reading a proper scholarly history of the index.  But I did, several times. And I now know that the little pointing hand in the margin is a manicule: ☞ (see also https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/manicules).

I did not realise that an index might be more than a handy tool.  In the course of Duncan’s account, we find out than an index can be so many other things.  For example, a means of revenge, a strange addition to fiction, or a way to satirise an author.  We get information on the first things organised by alphabet, the first page numbers, and all kinds of natty anecdotes.  One of my favourite bits is 19th century historian J. Horace Round’s extensive diss-fest index entry on his nemesis Professor Edward Freeman, which includes “his ‘certain’ history”, “misconstrues his Latin”, “his failure” and “his special weakness” (p. 14-15).

I am a fan of a good index.  They can drive you nuts if they are absent or shoddy.  Why would anyone make a travel book without at least a location index?  Am I supposed to memorise the location of every café that makes the best bath buns or Black Forest gateaux?  One of the most enjoyable I’ve seen recently is the one for Rob Halford’s Confess, in which the Judas Priest frontman’s life is summarised under the entry for Halford, Rob.  But this leads to another topic covered in the History, namely the suggestion that students might cheat (gasp) by reading only the index instead of the actual book. Another favourite is in Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming (volume 3 from 1973). He references “royalties, use of”, and this refers to the purchase of his dream pipe organ (see https://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~knuth/organ.html).

Index, A History of the has been added to my list of relaxing and entertaining non-fiction that I have found helpful during the pandemic.  During the first lockdown, I realised that the most engaging reading I was doing was well written non-fiction on topics about which I knew nothing (lots of scope here, obviously).  Top hits for me were Born to Kvetch, Gathering Moss, and Entangled Life.

Make time to work your way through this book’s own index.  It is enormous fun and had me cackling.  This is what I’ll be getting for my bookish people for Christmas this year.

Review by Bethan

October 6, 2021

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Daunt Books, £9.99, out now

Filthy Animals is the new collection of short stories from Booker Prize shortlisted writer Brandon Taylor, fans of his characteristically vivid prose and razor-sharp observations will not be disappointed by this stunning collection.

Taylor has a gift for portraying social discomfort in excruciating detail and this is perhaps best on display in the first story in the collection ‘Potluck’. Lionel, a character recovering from a suicide attempt becomes caught up in the world of Charles and Sophie, both dancers involved in an open relationship. Their encounters are ambiguous but powerful, affectionate but also distant and strange. In stories such as ‘Mass’ there is often an emphasis on the characters physicality, many of them are training to be professional dancers and there is an acute, Degas-like focus on their muscular bodies as a site for potential greatness and also a possible site of disaster. There is a kind of slipperiness throughout the book, many of the interactions between characters turn rapidly from friendly to hostile and back again. But love is always present, after so much anxiety and fraught relationships, the tenderness of ‘Anne of Cleves’ caught me off guard, it’s a beautifully realised story about a relationship blossoming between two women.

The stunning, cinematic quality of Taylor’s prose never fails, each story has a complete world within it, even when the characters fail to communicate verbally, the atmosphere is palpable. I recommend this book especially for fans of Lucia Berlin.

Review by Phoebe

September 18, 2021

Mindful Mr Sloth by Katy Hudson

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Raintree and Curious Frog, £6.99, out now

Mindful Mr Sloth

Sasha has an enviable treehouse and a bunch of activities that she’s ready to do at high speed.  She even has lists of books she’s read – including a personal best reading time of 20 seconds!  This is all excellent fun, but when a sloth bonks down on the treehouse roof, she learns that slow can be fun too.

This very appealing children’s picture book shows a lovely day being had while also providing a useful way in to mindfulness (or just to slowing down and paying good attention).  The illustrations themselves provide a great reward for attending: vibrant and cheerful, and little details that repay seeing rather than just looking.

There is a helpful focus on the natural world (and not just sloths), showing that mindfulness and its rewards are possible everywhere.  Offering quiet and stillness as positive ways to enjoy the smell of flowers or the sound of birdsong, rather than just as corrections to what adults consider ‘too much’ noise or activity, is also welcome.

Who would not want to learn mindfulness from a sloth?

Review by Bethan

September 12, 2021

Ethel Rosenberg by Anne Sebba

by Team Riverside
Ethel Rosenberg cover

Hardback, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £20.00, out now

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the United States for treason in 1953.  A married couple, and the parents of two young children, their case became a cause célèbre as a miscarriage of justice, a cultural reference point, and a symbol of US domestic attitudes during the Cold War.  Amid all of this, the human story of Ethel Rosenberg has been lost, and this is what Anne Sebba’s engrossing biography corrects.

With access to new information from Ethel’s sons and others who knew her, as well as scrupulous archive research, Sebba meticulously reconstructs the life of this ordinary and extraordinary woman.  We find out about her upbringing in a New York Jewish family facing hard times.  We are left with the impression of an intelligent, talented and hardworking woman from a difficult family background, who was determined to make her way in life – in education, in singing, as a trade unionist, and as a wife and mother.

The book offers a vivid account of how some Americans came to communism in the 1930s, and how ordinary people started spying for the Soviet Union.  Sebba unpicks what Ethel Rosenberg did and didn’t know about the leaking of atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and gives a detailed analysis of her trial.  She conveys the swirl of McCarthyism and anti-communist fever, and the impact of ingrained anti-Semitism.

Sebba spares us nothing, so it can be a tough read at times, but it is so worthwhile.  It is no wonder that the biography has been praised by Claire Tomalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Philippe Sands, among others.  Among the moments of light in the frequently grim story that Ethel’s two young children live through, are the moments of solidarity and care shown to them from unexpected quarters (including at one point W. E. B. Du Bois).  Outstanding.

Review by Bethan

September 7, 2021

Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles

by Team Riverside
Small Bodies of Water book cover

Hardback, Canongate, £14.99, out now

I have just had my first swim in a year and a half.  It was a completely joyous experience, and I was reminded how important swimming is for me.  Many memories of places and people are bound up with it.

Nina Mingya Powles’s essays, collected in Small Bodies of Water, were the perfect thing for me to read just after this memorable swim.  She combines memoir with nature writing, weaving strands about family, identity and home through the work.  Swimming features, as do sensory delights of food and travel.  Her essay on cold water swimming, Ache, was one of my favourites.  She is a generous writer, sharing experiences with us, even painful things like personal and shocking experiences of racism. 

Born in Aotearoa New Zealand, spending time in China and now living in London, the author’s experiences and interests coalesce in her writing: “Mum collects mandarin peels and cut lemon skins and places them in the dish after cooking, so that as the oven cools, it gives off a bittersweet, hot-sugar scent.  The rinds begin to dry out and curl in the warmth while the dog sleeps at our feet.  Not far away, we can hear waves roaring in a southerly gale.  Our skin smells of salt and oranges.” (p. 124)

A poet who won the Nan Shepherd prize for nature writing, Nina Mingya Powles writes as beautifully as you’d expect, and wears her thoughtfulness and reading lightly.  References to some of Riverside’s favourite books kept popping up.  Braiding Sweetgrass, Crying in H Mart, Mixed Race Superman, Wayward Lives and The Living Mountain all feature, and gave me the pleasurable feeling of having a very intelligent friend talking about things I had just read.  Her discussion of old family objects and writings as a sort of enduring but complicated archive usefully echoes Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory. 

I know I will read this again, and I have already lined up two people to lend it to.  It feels like a gift someone has given you, and that you want to share with others.

Review by Bethan

August 27, 2021

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

by Team Riverside

Jonathon Cape, Hardback, £14.99, out now

The narrator of Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies is adrift in a sea of language. She works as a translator in the courts of The Hague, and her work, allowing others’ voices to flow through her own is mirrored in her personal relationships. She often acts as a cipher for the other characters, as she herself is uncertain of where she belongs, their voices are channelled through their interactions with her. At times the novel behaves like a series of monologues, many of them on the theme of violence.

A fellow translator relays an encounter she has translating for a man accused of being high up in a genocidal regime, a man is mysteriously attacked in the same neighbourhood where the protagonists’ friend lives. The sense of the narrative being troubled by violence intensifies when the narrator takes a job translating the testimony of a former dictator. Their interactions are tense and ambiguous, bureaucratic and yet laden with meaning.

Sometimes I felt as if I was observing the world of the novel through the protagonists’ eyes as she viewed the events, at once passive and watchful. Kitamura controls the pacing of the novel masterfully, and every interaction is flawlessly rendered, not one phrase is wasted. I would highly recommend Intimacies for fans of Rachel Cusk and Brandon Taylor.

Review by Phoebe

August 18, 2021

Emily Noble’s Disgrace by Mary Paulson-Ellis

by Team Riverside
Emily Noble's Disgrace

Hardback, Mantle, £16.99, out 19 August

Edinburgh’s seaside Portobello district in 2019, and Essie Pound is part of a specialist cleaning team clearing a flat after an elderly woman’s body is found two years after her death. Part of Essie’s job is to look out for objects in the flat that might explain more about who the person was and why she died.  But Essie gets pulled into a deeper mystery, one that takes her back into Portobello’s pasts as well as her own.  Investigating more formally is young police officer Emily Noble.  Their work is bound to coincide. 

Essie says: “Just like Isabella Dawson, my whole life is hidden.  From me.  And from everyone else too.  But not because I’ve buried it in someone else’s rubbish.  More because I don’t have anything or anyone to remind me of what it might have been.”

Mary Paulson-Ellis is a new crime and mystery author for me, but I will definitely be seeking out her other standalone novels (which feature some characters from this book).  I’m a fan of Elly Griffiths and Ann Cleeves, for their readable characters and good plots, and Paulson-Ellis definitely delivers on these.

Emily Noble’s Disgrace made me remember the excellent biography The Trauma Cleaner, in which author Sarah Krasnostein covers not only Sandra Pankhurst’s life in trauma cleaning but also her transition (https://wellcomebookprize.org/book/trauma-cleaner).

There are strong women characters, and reflections on women’s lives.  Some of the themes in the book make for hard reading – for example, suggested child death, and fat phobia.  But the story is compelling, the writing is strong, and I read this cover to cover in a day.

Review by Bethan

August 8, 2021

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

by Team Riverside

Picador, Hardback, £16.99, out now

Michelle Zauner is perhaps best known for her music, produced under the moniker Japanese Breakfast, but this memoir proves that her talent stretches across multiple mediums. Zauner was in her 25th year and a struggling artist when her mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. She upended her life and returned to her hometown of Eugene, Oregon to take care of her as her illness became terminal. The memoir is told as a kind of non-linear narrative, moving through Zauner’s reminiscences about her relationship with her mother which was extremely close yet often challenging, a familial relationship knotted with cultural differences (Zauner’s father is white and she was raised in America) and deep love.

Food becomes a touchstone throughout the book, Korean food particularly became a way for Zauner to connect with her mother, Chongmi, and other members of her mother’s family even after their deaths: ‘When I go to H Mart, I’m not just on the hunt for cuttlefish and three bunches of scallions for a buck: I’m searching for memories. I’m collecting the evidence that the Korean half of my identity didn’t die when they did.’

The result is a touching and sensual book. I felt Zauner’s profound love for her mother radiating off the page at every turn, but particularly in her depictions of her mother’s small acts of care. When Zauner tells her mother she wants some cowboy boots, Chongmi not only buys her some but carefully wears them in first. I thoroughly recommend Crying in H Mart for fans of creative non-fiction and contemporary food writing.

Review by Phoebe

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