August 29, 2016

Cabin Porn – Inspiration for your Quiet Place Somewhere, by Zach Klein and Stephen Leckart

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £10.99, out nowKlein and Leckart CABIN PORN

What do you need for your ideal hideaway?  A mountain view and an icy lake?  Dense woodland and a log burning hot tub?  A warm nook for reading, or a breezy beach veranda for birdspotting?  If this is the kind of thing you dream of, this book will make you smile from the beginning to the end.  Stuffed with great photos of boltholes all over the world, the combination of escape and nature plus contentment is irresistible.

The book is a selection of highlights from the blog http://cabinporn.com/, where it is possible to spend an inordinate amount of time looking at beautiful places and sighing wistfully.  This lovely paperback also has short essays with enticing titles such as ‘how to live 30 feet in the air’ and ‘how to make a homestead in the wilderness’.  However, I must confess to not actually having read a single one of these most-likely-excellent pieces, as I have fallen into the pictures and can’t get out.  I don’t think I have ever reviewed and recommended a book in which I’ve not read any of the words!

I prescribe one volume of this topped up with occasional dips into Danish cosiness manual Hygge (which we also have… see https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1112343/the-book-of-hygge/) for maximum comfort and consolation.  Curl up and enjoy.

Review by Bethan

August 20, 2016

Dead Man’s Blues, by Ray Celestin

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Mantle, £12.99, out nowJacket cover

For his second crime mystery novel, Celestin takes us to Jazz age Chicago.  Louis Armstrong is transforming the cornet solo, and Al Capone largely owns the city, which is corrupt at every level.  The novel opens with a gangster funeral almost Roman in scope, where the crowds are showered with blue petals from airplanes.

Three sets of unconventional detectives have cases that converge.  Dante Sanfilippo is a New York booze runner returning to Chicago from exile in New York at the request of Capone, who wants internal gang troubles investigated.  Michael Talbot and Ida Davis, agents at the Pinkertons private detective agency, are looking for a missing heiress.  Jacob, a police photographer, is investigating a gruesome alley death, on his own time.

And so we are introduced to the several different worlds of the city.  The diversity of the characters, in terms of race and class, gives us access to these.  There is complacent old money, garish new money, smoky jazz clubs, dangerous meat yards, and lakeside views.

Ida and Michael will be familiar to readers of The Axeman’s Jazz (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2015/06/06/the-axemans-jazz-ray-celestin/).   Those who loved the vivid portrayal of 1919 New Orleans in that novel will be equally pleased with the 1928 Chicago of Dead Man’s Blues.  You don’t have to have read the first one to read this – it can stand alone – but this is the second in a planned quartet, each set in a different city, so it is worth reading in order.  Luckily we have both in stock!

Review by Bethan

August 8, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Penguin Viking, £12.99, out nowElizabeth Strout MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON

Lucy is in hospital in New York, separated from her husband and young children while her illness rumbles on.  Her mother, who she has not seen for many years, comes to visit her, staying by her bedside for several days.  The reasons for the physical and emotional distance in the relationship, and the significance of this brief but intense time of conditional reconnection, are illuminated beautifully in this short and powerful novel.

Strout is sharp and sometimes funny, not only on family relationships but on New York life generally: “I have gone to places in this city where the very wealthy go.  One place is a doctor’s office.  Women, and a few men, sit in the waiting room for the doctor who will make them look not old or worried or like their mother”.  But the heart of the book is about the shame and stories of family life, and how we can suddenly be reimmersed in these at moments of strain.  Strangely comforting and always interesting, the revelations keep coming right to the end.

I’m now keen to read her earlier work, Olive Kitteridge, having been overwhelmed by the television version with Frances McDormand.  My Name is Lucy Barton well deserves its place on the Booker Prize Longlist, along with the excellent Hot Milk (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/hot-milk-by-deborah-levy/).

Review by Bethan

August 3, 2016

August bank holiday opening times

by Team Riverside

Happy bank holiday for Monday 29 August 2016!  Our opening times that day will be 11am to 6pm.  Hope to see you then!

July 31, 2016

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Serpent’s Tail, £14.99, out nowSarah Perry THE ESSEX SERPENT

Victorian religion, science and superstition battle it out over a possible giant sea serpent off Essex. Cora, whose abusive husband has just died, sets out with her unusual young son Francis and working class activist friend Martha to investigate.  Finally able to explore her own interests, this amateur naturalist wonders if the serpent might be a surviving relative of her heroine Mary Anning’s ichthyosaur.

While in Essex, Cora meets Will, an Anglican priest, with whom she immediately connects – and with whom she immediately disagrees over the serpent.  Will’s wife Stella welcomes Cora into her home, and becomes close to Francis (who I read as autistic, and whose effective portrayal here reminds me to “think smarter about people who think differently”, see https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2015/11/03/neurotribes-the-legacy-of-autism-and-how-to-think-smarter-about-people-who-think-differently-by-steve-silberman/ ).  Left behind in London, Luke, an innovative but impoverished surgeon, is in love with Cora and resentful of her new relationship with Will, while his wealthy friend Spencer considers philanthropy, in part as a possible way to get closer to Martha.

The Essex Serpent is a fresh and gripping story about class, difference, attraction and most of all friendship.  The epigraph from Montaigne is identical to that used by Rose Tremain in her recent The Gustav Sonata, another beautiful exploration of how friends are (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/the-gustav-sonata-by-rose-tremain/ ).  This book will appeal to those who loved Sarah Waters’ Victorian novels, Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, and the gothic elements to fans of Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney.  Perfect holiday reading.

Review by Bethan

July 17, 2016

The Hatred of Poetry, by Ben Lerner

by Team Riverside

hatred of poetry pic 2

The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner

Paperback, Fitzcarraldo, £9.99

Ben Lerner is one of our subtlest, most erudite and original writers so it was with great anticipation I opened his latest publication: a short essay in the form of a simple yet beautifully bound paperback published by Fitzcarraldo, whose impeccable taste, evident in both who they choose to publish as well as how they present their offerings, seems to be unrivalled (they recently produced the equally brilliant Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, bound in a similarly chic jacket). Lerner’s language may alienate some readers: we plunge straight into iambic pentameter, parallelisms and conjunctive adverbs. Words such as: ‘innominate’, ‘lubricity’, ‘fungible’, phrases like ‘vector of implication’, and sentences such as: ‘The virgule is the irreducible mark of poetic virtuality’ are to be found on nearly every other page. While some elements of this essay smack just a bit of affectation and faux literariness (the overly-aestheticized large print, for instance, and the italicised topic headings in the margin that summarize key points in the text: ‘unfolding of the word’, ‘E pluribus unum’, ‘I, too’) and may grate a little, on the whole the essay is so accomplished that I am sure Ben Lerner will garner many more fans than detractors.

He begins by tracing poetry’s history, from the first ‘poet’ Caedmon, through Plato’s Republic and Sydney’s Defense to the present day, analysing society’s conscious and subconscious assumptions about poets and poetry along the way; Lerner, being a published poet as well as novelist, has had his fair share of exposure to these, which involve, he says, ‘both embarrassment and accusation’. His central thesis is that poetry is ‘an art…hated from without and within’, and such duality is the hinge upon which he levers much of his discussion, unearthing contradiction and dichotomy wherever he turns his gaze. Reading ‘bad’ poetry, he says, simultaneously alerts us to what good poetry might do and be. ‘[T]he closest we can come to hearing the ‘planet-like music of poetry’ is to hear the ugliest earthly music’. Awful and dazzling poets, by virtue of their awfulness and brilliance respectively, both show us heavenly poetry, though it is easier to agree on a very bad example of something than a very good one. The central impulse, even within poetry itself, Lerner suggests, is to stop writing in favour of silence and linguistic (if not literal) death (he cites Rimbaud and Oppen as cases in point). The avant-garde, he argues, for all their posited hatred of conventional poetry and attempts to explode the form, still create poems; and poems remain poems however transgressive and subversive they are. And this almost magnetic attraction towards void, empty space and erasure, towards nothing rather than something, or if not nothing then something one remove from itself; something encased and re-contextualised, possessing, as Keats would say, ‘negative capability’, Lerner deeply relates to: ‘I tend to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose…’ he writes, ‘where the line breaks were replaced by slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.’ He even sees contradiction in the disappointment in poetry’s lack of political power in the present, which unites, he says, the futurist and the nostalgist.

Lerner’s fascination with the poetic impulse towards both creation and destruction yields particularly rich results when he devotes himself to what he does best: detailed critique and appreciation of individual lines of poetry. His analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘I dwell in Possibility’ is itself a thing of beauty, his identification of Shelley’s belief in the usefulness of poetry with its very uselessness, and his unpicking of the paradox at the heart of Whitman‘s verse (who ‘sing[s] difference but cannot differentiate himself without compromising his labour – which is part [in turn] of why his labour has to be a kind of leisure’) are masterly. His mini essay on the virgule is even more dazzling, if possible, for being as diminutive as the mark it discusses, than it would be if it had been drawn out. Despite his brilliance, however, Lerner is also likably human, freely admitting he has never been put into a trance by Keats’ odes and doubting any critic has either, while his diamantine dissection of William McGonagall’s awful ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ affords the reader a giggle or two. He is also humble, continually referencing his erstwhile and ‘brilliant’ teacher Alan Grossman, writing: ‘I come to realise with greater and greater clarity how central Grossman’s thinking is for me’.

What we are left with after this exploration is what Lerner describes as the common tendency to ‘virtualize’ poetry – evident in everyone from Keats, to Whitman, to Dickinson – a sort of universal recognition that poetry cannot and never will be enough, so must be negated even as it is created; and thus, possibly, we may approach if not the Ideal itself then at least knowledge of it. Even Claudia Rankine, Lerner writes, deploys the lyric (two collections of her poetry have as their subtitle: ‘An American Lyric’) subversively in order to highlight the ‘felt unavailability of traditional lyric categories’, in which, once more,  ‘‘Poetry’ becomes a word for that possibility whose absence we sense in these poems’.

Lerner’s conclusion? That all of the impossible demands and criticisms levelled at poetry throughout history are actually an ‘unwitting way of expressing the Utopian ideal of Poetry’, which he himself believes he came closest to experiencing in the liberating, mercurial and magical changeability words possess in early childhood, when ‘any usage signified’. Even in adulthood, however, poetry is ‘a vocation no less essential for being impossible’. And hatred can be a part of its appreciation – even it’s nurturing, for – in a concluding sentence that in its effortless style, originality and contradictory brilliance can be taken as a token of the whole that precedes it – Lerner exhorts readers to perfect their contempt of poetry, to deepen rather than dispel it, so that, in ‘creating a place for possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies), it might come to resemble love.’

Review by Emily

July 12, 2016

Neil Gaiman/Chris Riddell signed copies now in store!

by Team Riverside

Signed copies of the gorgeous new edition of Gaiman’s classic Neverwhere, now in.  Get yours before they go…Neil Gaiman NEVERWHERE

We also have the small book How the Marquis Got His Coat Back, also set in the Neverwhere universe, if you need a little extra fix too.

July 11, 2016

Skyfaring – A Journey with a Pilot, by Mark Vanhoenacker

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out nowMark Vanhoenacker SKYFARING

The cover of this book makes me want to jump on a plane and fly off somewhere.  As someone who likes flying, despite serious concerns about climate change, I thought I might like this book.  I was wrong.  I love it.

If I’m looking for escape in a book, I’m most likely to find it in one concerning a subject completely new to me which is explained with style and generosity.  Skyfaring meets these criteria effortlessly.  Vanhoenacker is a deeply enthusiastic, knowledgeable and thoughtful guide to the several worlds of aviation.  The book is stuffed with excellent facts and anecdotes (I was delighted to learn that when friends or relatives of airplane crew are passengers on a flight with them, they are often fondly referred to as ‘Klingons’).  For a taster of his prose and some lovely pictures, see http://www.vox.com/2016/5/2/11520288/pilot-airplane-photos and http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/25-incredible-views-from-plane-passengers-windows-collected-by-an-airline-pilot.

Sometimes the book feels very personal, as when the author talks about why he became a pilot, or when he provides a personal gloss on a feature of flight that might seem at first sight mundane or technical.  He is not afraid of bringing art, philosophy or emotion into a scientific subject, or of relating all of these to real life: “Georgia O’Keeffe was afraid of flying but obsessed with the clouds she saw from aeroplanes, which she painted with an all but religious devotion…  I try to remember, when I haven’t flown for some time, and the handles of the bags of food shopping which I’m carrying though a cold and rainy November dusk are about to break, that such a lake of light may be over the clouds that rest above the street”.

For me he has brought a sense of wonder back to commercial flight, something that can seem tedious and constrained.  I feel transported, refreshed, and ready to pay attention.  A lovely book.

Review by Bethan

July 5, 2016

Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hamish Hamilton, £12.99, out nowDeborah Levy HOT MILK

The mother made me want to scream.  Out loud.  “She will wake up and shout, ‘Get me water, Sofia,’ and I will get her water and it will always be the wrong sort of water.”  Brilliantly effective and funny, this is a sharp and speedy summer read.

Sofia has brought her mother Rose to an exclusive private clinic on the Spanish coast.  This clinic may nor may not be run by a quack.  They can’t afford the fees and Rose’s symptoms change all the time.  Sofia is a former anthropology PhD student who has been working as a barista in London, and her idiosyncratic observations on her situation give the book its bite.  It’s not clear what, if anything, is physically wrong with Rose, but her power over her daughter is unmistakable.

Under the hot sun, on the rocky shore and in the jellyfish infested sea, things start to change.  This is a strangely memorable novel, which left me thinking about memory, identity, and control.  It also has a notable dog in it.

Review by Bethan

June 29, 2016

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Chatto and Windus, £16.99, out nowRose Tremain THE GUSTAV SONATA

Gustav lives with his widowed mother in Switzerland, just after the Second World War.  A young boy, he is raised by his mother to value Switzerland’s neutrality, and told to master his own emotions.  Gustav forms an intense friendship with a new arrival at his school, a Jewish boy called Anton, who is set to be a piano prodigy but is plagued by performance nerves.  The Gustav Sonata charts their lifelong friendship, showing the complexity and importance of such relationships in a way that reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet.  Gustav’s father was a Swiss policeman – but how did he die, and does it have any connection with his mother’s strong dislike of Anton and his Jewish background?

But neutrality and mastery may not get you the intimacy you crave.  To be connected with life and other people, you might need to take risks.  And isolation is not a neutral state.

I am a Tremain fan, especially of her outstanding novel Sacred Country, a great story about a trans person.  But you don’t have to be a fan of hers to enjoy The Gustav Sonata, as it’s a very readable and thoughtful historical novel.  In her exploration of the gaps in what people kept silent about after the Second World War, she evokes some of W G Sebald’s concerns.  But the theme of friendship remains the primary concern, and she does justice to the epigraph she has chosen from Montaigne: “If anyone should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I feel it could not otherwise be expressed than by making the answer, ‘Because it was he, because it was I’”.

June 19, 2016

Gratitude, by Oliver Sacks

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Picador, £9.99, out nowOliver Sacks GRATITUDE

Gratitude is a final gift from the excellent neurologist and writer of popular science, Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015.  These short but beautiful pieces encapsulate all that is best about his writing.  Humane, kind, interesting and funny, they offer his reflections on a life well lived from one who knew its end would come shortly.  Shortly after finding out his cancer was back and inoperable, he wrote: “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts.  This does not mean I am finished with life.  On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight”.

Probably best known for his books Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks’ own life has not been without bumps, as his two volumes of autobiography show.  Here, we learn more about his deeply personal love of science.  How excellent that as an 11 year old fan of the periodic table, he was delighted to be able to say “I am Sodium” and remained equally pleased at 79 to say “I am gold”.  His reflections on his different experiences of Jewish family life, in London and beyond, are intriguing.  A book to read, and read over.

Review by Bethan

June 13, 2016

Closed for stocktake – Thursday 30 June 2016

by Team Riverside

We will be closed for our annual stocktake on Thursday 30 June.  If we whip through it we’ll open later in the afternoon and shut at 6pm, but if not we’ll stay closed and open again as usual on Friday 1 July at 9am!

June 3, 2016

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Emily

May 31, 2016

East West Street – On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, by Philippe Sands

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Orion Books, £20, out nowPhilippe Sands EAST WEST STREET

International human rights barrister Philippe Sands opens his remarkable new book with a quote from Nicolas Abraham: “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others”.  Sands tries to fill some of these gaps in the stories of both his family and two lawyers who developed the legal concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity that featured for the first time in the Nuremberg tribunal – Hersch Lauerpacht and Rafael Lemkin.  Remarkably, there turn out to be connections between all of these people and the (now Ukrainian) city of Lviv, a site of mass murder of Jewish residents during the Second World War.

The best thing I’ve read this year, East West Street is both personal and international in scope.  Sands undertakes remarkable archival and other research and succeeds in uncovering surprising and illuminating stories, which help to explain both how international law developed as it did and why it was important that it did so.  In this he echoes the approach of Hartley Shawcross, British prosecutor at Nuremberg, who in his closing trial address used a single devastating case study to force home the inhumanity of Nazi war crimes (Sands recounts this at p. 346-7).  It takes a skilful and confident writer to manage the risks involved in bringing the huge themes of history back, over and over again, to real individuals.  He does so seamlessly, creating a book that reads as compulsively as a detective story.  The photos of people and original documents scattered throughout the text make it even more engaging.  The related film, My Nazi Legacy: What our Fathers Did, is also well worth watching (http://www.wildgazefilms.co.uk/my-nazi-legacy-2015/) .

Sands’ perspective as a lawyer involved with the International Criminal Court and war crimes tribunals from Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia makes the work highly relevant when thinking about human rights now.  70 years after Nuremberg, how do we deal with crimes against humanity?  Do we have the courage required to remember that real individuals are caught up in these huge convulsions, and the greater courage not to look away?

Review by Bethan

May 24, 2016

This Must be the Place, by Maggie O’Farrell

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Tinder Press, £18.99, out now – limited number of signed copies available in storeMaggie O'Farrell THIS MUST BE THE PLACE

Daniel is an American academic married to a reclusive former film star, and living in rural Ireland.  His happy second marriage to Claudette has produced two young children, to add to the ones he left in California and never sees.  But he seems happy enough, until he hears a radio interview from 1986 with one of his exes – the big Ex, as it turns out.  He decides to find out what happened to her, and risks his current relationship and everything else in the process.

As we find out more about how Claudette came to run away from her career, and the consequences of Daniel’s investigations, O’Farrell introduces voices from characters we instantly believe in and want to know more about.  One of the most memorable scenes in the novel concerns a small child being taken to a children’s dermatology clinic, “for kids who are inflamed with eczema, head to foot, kids for whom normal clothes and unbroken sleep are impossibilities”.  It is beautifully written, funny, touching and desperate.  The action moves easily between current day Donegal and Paris, international film sets in the 1990s and the Scottish Borders in the 1980s (among other places).

This turned out to be a perfect holiday read for me, with a pacy plot and thoughtful things to say about long term adult relationships.  I have read all of O’Farrell’s novels and enjoyed this one the most.  A selection on the Radio 2 Book Club, it’s already a swift seller in our shop.  If you’re a fan of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or A M Homes’s May We All be Forgiven, I predict you will love this.

Review by Bethan

May 23, 2016

May bank holiday hours!

by Team Riverside

We will be open from 11am till 6pm on Monday 30 May.  Happy Bank Holiday!

May 10, 2016

I am Henry Finch, by Viviane Schwarz and Alexis Deacon

by Team Riverside

Schwarz and Deacon I AM HENRY FINCHPaperback, Walker Books, £6.99, out now

A deserved winner of the excellent Little Rebels Award for radical children’s books (https://littlerebelsaward.wordpress.com/2016/05/09/alexis-deacon-invites-children-to-come-up-with-an-alternative-to-capitalism/ ), this beautiful picture book made me roar with laughter.

Henry Finch is a small bird who comes to realise that he exists, and thinks, and that he can use his thoughts to tackle THE BEAST.  It’s an introduction to philosophy for toddlers and small children… but also just very entertaining, with deceptively simple and funny drawings.  Definitely a book for adults as well as children.  Superb.

Review by Bethan

May 2, 2016

The Mountain Can Wait, by Sarah Leipciger

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

April 19, 2016

Citizen – An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

April 16, 2016

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte

by Team Riverside

tenant of wild

Paperback, Vintage, 7.99

Ashamed of not having read anything by Anne Bronte but only her sisters I recently began reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and was astonished (though perhaps should not have been) firstly by how psychologically convincing the characters are, and secondly by the strangely addictive quality the writing possesses; considering its length (it is nearly 600 pages in the recent, extremely beautiful Vintage editions illustrated by the gifted Sarah Gillespie) I was amazed at how quickly I was half, then three-quarters, then all of the way through it, and wishing it was not over and that I could read more.

The main reason to recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, however, is that Anne Bronte has created a strongly – even radically – feminist heroine in Helen Huntingdon; one who shuns the institution of marriage when circumstances call for it (an act most nineteenth century novelists – especially early nineteenth century novelists like Anne – shied away from; as they shied away from depictions of male depravity that Anne is utterly fearless in recounting) despite paying a price that at some points seems impossibly high, refusing to be swayed from following a path her own integrity marks out for her. This strength of character is common to all the Bronte’s work, of course, but Anne’s portrayals of women are by far the most revolutionary and only recently beginning to attract the recognition they deserve. It is also worth noting that her male characters possess a far more convincing inner terrain than either Emily or Charlotte’s; Heathcliff may be iconic and overwhelming, but iconic and overwhelming characters are not usually noted for their plausibility, relatability or tendency to inspire empathy. All these aspects make it both extremely sad and surprising that Charlotte Bronte herself dismissed her younger sister’s literary efforts and had so little insight into just how progressive they were.

For all these reasons, I would encourage anyone whose interest in the Brontes has been sparked by the recent TV program or who is simply wishing to embark upon a worthy, provoking and highly enjoyable Victorian novel, to invest their time in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; high-quality literature and effortlessly involving, it is the perfect marriage on many fronts.

Review by Emily

Tags:
April 1, 2016

Being a Beast, Charles Foster

by Team Riverside

BeingaBeastcover

Hardback, Profile Books, £14.99, out now

If the belated but welcome Spring sunshine has you feeling newly mindful of our wildlife and hankering for all things natural then I couldn’t recommend anything better than Charles Foster’s latest book, Being a Beast ( – short of actually departing for the country and taking up residence in a badger set, that is; which Foster has helpfully done for us), which is a breath of fresh, heady – and slightly crazed – air. Foster, amongst many other things (he is a vet, philosopher, anthropologist, acupuncturist, academic, Oxford Fellow…the list apparently continues), is an ardent natural historian; he used to hunt animals for sport, he confesses, but is now intent on hunting them in an entirely different way: placing himself, as much as a human being can, in their skins in an attempt to know what it is like to ‘be’ them. To that end, and for prolonged periods, he lived in their physical environments, deprived of human comforts, reporting his intimate and thought-provoking experiences back to us. In Being a Beast he takes on the challenge of finding out what it is like to be a badger, an otter, a city fox, red deer and swift, combining neuroscience, psychology, natural history and memoir in a quest which takes him the length, breadth and depth of the British Isles.

As well as being a dauntless explorer (could you lie in a freezing highland stream for hours or sit in a river in Namibia watching leeches looping up your ankles en route to your groin?) Foster is also an erudite, witty, humble and entertaining writer. Take this passage, for instance, in which he reminisces about the days when shamanic ritual could transport performers into other states of consciousness:

‘You had to dance to the drum around a fire until you were so dehydrated that blood spouted out of your ruptured nasal capillaries, or stand in an icy river and chant until you could feel your soul rising like vomit into your mouth, or eat fly agaric mushrooms and watch yourself floating into the forest canopy. Then you could pass through the thin membrane that separates this world from others, and your species from other species. As you pushed through, in an epiphanic labour, the membrane enveloped you, like the amniotic sac in which you issued from your mother.’

Foster’s attempts to experience animals’ consciousness by immersing himself in their phenomenal worlds stem from a similarly impassioned desire to ‘be’ a beast (apparently he has been obsessed with birds and animals since he was a child), involves a similarly intense ‘labour’, as well as the odd moment or two that really could be described as epiphanic.

Even for those usually uninterested in nature writing Being a Beast is a winner: who can resist discovering what earthworms taste like, for instance (the terroir varies, apparently, according to region, like wine)? This is vital, dynamic, exhilarating writing that uncovers deadened senses, invokes empathy, fosters compassion and the all-important feeling of oneness. In delving into the ‘being’ of various ‘beasts’, Foster does something else too: he allows us to see ourselves more clearly – human or otherwise.

Review by Emily

March 28, 2016

Exposure, by Helen Dunmore

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hutchinson, £16.99, out nowHelen Dunmore EXPOSURE

An engaging thriller with a very human heart, this cold war spy story is fresh and believable.  Giles, a long time Soviet mole in the 1950s British security services, calls in a favour from his old co-worker Stephen.  Giles is in hospital and must have stolen secret papers removed from his flat.  Lily, Stephen’s wife, watches as Stephen becomes embroiled in an impossible situation, caught up in espionage, politics, secrets and lies.

Dunmore examines the human side of a classic spy story – mainly through the story of Lily and her children.  Many of the questions that arise are still pertinent today.  How do friends and family react when you are in trouble with the law?  Can you count on the system to correct an injustice?  When you have been a refugee and exile, does that determine how you perceive and deal with the authorities and other threats?

Exposure is full of effortlessly convincing period detail, not only in setting but in attitudes.  Commonplace antisemitism and the reputational risk of homosexuality appear.  This is a must read for fans of le Carré or William Boyd.  A good holiday read too, and we have a special edition in store which is available exclusively in independent bookshops like ours!

Review by Bethan

March 15, 2016

Easter opening hours

by Team Riverside

PEPPA'S EASTER EGG HUNTHappy Easter from all of us at Riverside Bookshop! Our holiday opening hours are:

Good Friday – 11am to 6pm

Saturday 26 March – 10am to 6pm

Easter Sunday – CLOSED

Easter Monday – 11am to 6pm

March 2, 2016

Signed copies now in store…

by Team Riverside

Excellent signed copies of several books now in store – perfect for gifts or treating yourself.Ruby Wax FRAZZLED

  • Ruby Wax, Frazzled
  • Alexander McCall Smith, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine
  • Jonathan Coe, Number 11
  • Ella Woodward, Deliciously Ella Every Day

Get them before they go!

March 1, 2016

Ten Days, by Gillian Slovo

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

February 10, 2016

London Fog: the Biography, by Christine L. Corton

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Harvard University Press, £22.95, out nowChristine L Corton LONDON FOG

This very readable history of London fog was a surprise hit this winter. Beautifully illustrated, with colour pictures well integrated into the text, Corton provides not only a good summary of why fogs happened and why they stopped but also gives an erudite account of how they affected people’s lives (and deaths).

Cultural responses to the phenomenon are explored in detail. It’s no surprise to find Whistler, Turner and Dickens here, but I was delighted to be introduced to Rose Maynard Barton and Yoshio Markino.

The book is stuffed with good London anecdotes and unusual images, which make it an excellent London gift. One of my favourites is the photo of a goalie struggling to see the pitch – let alone the ball – at a Spurs match in 1945, when opponents Moscow Dynamo were accused of fielding 12 men while the visibility was poor. They had also chosen the referee, apparently, and he refused to stop the match…

If you are already thinking about climate change, and how human behaviour can influence weather for the good or bad, this is a useful and not too heavy addition to your reading list. It is one of the several excellent new books on weather and nature this year (for more examples, come and see our display table on the top floor – we particularly like Thunder and Lightning too).

Review by Bethan

February 8, 2016

Happy Valentine’s Day from Riverside Bookshop

by Team Riverside

‘A story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage’ – Lorrie Moorevalentines window 2016

February 5, 2016

The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Canongate, £14.99, out now

The Outrun

The Outrun

A young woman flies back into Orkney with her newborn baby – pausing at the airport to introduce the baby to her husband, who is being flown out, in a straitjacket, to a psychiatric hospital. Amy Liptrot, the author of this engaging addition to the nature/memoir selection, was the baby in question.

The rest of the book is as candid and compelling as the opening. Liptrot is open and graphic about her alcoholism, which becomes particularly brutal while she is working in London in her twenties. Her account of her recovery, from several failed attempts at rehab to a successful intense course and a return to Orkney, is illuminating. This isn’t a ‘nature as healer’ book, and it is resolutely unsentimental about island life. It interleaves the events of Liptrot’s life with beautiful passages of nature writing.

Her account of searching for the rare corncrake at 3am in the ‘simmer dim’ half light of an Orkney summer night is vivid, and I found I picked up lots of unexpected information about the life and wildlife of the islands. It is pleasing to learn that an Orkney wild swimming club is called the ‘Polar Bears’, and that until 1977 sheep were individually winched on and off a particular rock on one of the islands. Her unexpected joy in the natural world is well expressed: “There are moments that thrill and glow: the few seconds a silver male hen harrier flies beside my car one afternoon; the porpoise surfacing around our small boat; the wonderful sight of a herd of cattle let out on grass after a winter indoors, skipping and jumping, tails straight up to the sky with joy”. This was a pleasure to read, despite its sometimes bleak subject matter, and I recommend it.

Review by Bethan

January 15, 2016

Lila: Marilynne Robinson

by Team Riverside

Marilynne Robinson LILAThe third novel in Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, Lila is the eponymous story of the Reverend John Ames’ much younger wife, whose poverty-stricken and itinerant childhood in Dust Bowl America has shaped her into a deeply insecure, yet compassionate and courageous human being. The narrative is a mixture of omniscient third person narration and Lila’s own internal reflections, the impetus to move forward mainly derived from the vacillations of the fledgling and highly unusual relationship between herself and the aged Reverend, so that even after they are married the reader worries about the durability of the union, their very affection for one another part and parcel of their fear: ‘The more she might seem like a wife to him,’ Robinson writes, ‘the more he would fear the loss of her.’ It means that in a novel which meanders chapter-less through a plethora of apparently random details and decades, we never come to rest – or wish to – right up to the last page, so entwined do we become with Lila’s own fear-laden consciousness.

Though Robinson’s project is essentially spiritual, it is her deft characterisation (in this case, of Lila’s quietly burgeoning love for her husband, who has himself known great personal loss) along with her exquisite prose that make for an affecting and transcendent reading experience, rather than any overt dogma. The reason the spiritual dimension of Robinson’s world is so palatable is that it is ensconced in the everyday: a field, a little valley, a flock of pelicans, a day of snow and silence. What is more, her characters’ redemptive trajectories are couched in the gentlest, driest humor, so distinctively Robinsonian: Lila’s childhood friend’s experimentation with a member of the opposite sex, for example, is described as her getting ‘very curious’ and ‘finding out whatever it was she wanted to know’; once this curiosity has been sated she moves on to other things; ‘it had taken Lila’, Robinson tells us, ‘a little longer.’

At its’ heart Lila is concerned with reconciling a God of love with a world of suffering but because Robinson never alights on an explanation and places the debate in such halting and beautiful terms – in the mouths of characters whose search for meaning for the most part ends in uncertainty – the novel is far from a sermon. Take the concluding words of a letter written by the Reverend to Lila before they are married and little more than strangers, for instance: ‘I have struggled with this my whole life’ [Ames writes]…‘I still have not answered your question, I know, but thank you for asking it, I may be learning something from the attempt’. And this attempt by Lila to understand a biblical verse that has captured her imagination:

And there was a voice above the firmament that was over their heads; when they stood, they let down their wings. She didn’t want to know what the verse meant, what the creatures were. She knew there were words so terrible you heard them with your whole body. Guilt. And there were voices to say them. She knew there were people you might almost trust who would hear them too, and be amazed, and still not really hear them because they knew they were not the ones the words were spoken to.’

It is in such a spirit of gracious humility that Robinson makes her offering, and it is hard not to be moved and awed by the result.

 

Review by Emily

January 12, 2016

Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett

by Team Riverside

Claire-Louise Bennet PONDIt’s rare to discover a truly original book but Pond is just that. A series of short ‘stories’, sometimes no more than a few paragraphs, this highly eccentric and experimental work revolves around an unnamed woman whose rural isolation is the occasion of her meandering meditations upon everything from bananas, control knobs, a conglomeration of stones in a wall and modern dating etiquette.

Bennett withholds the conventions of fiction (namely plot and characterization) to the point of infuriating some readers I would imagine, though perhaps this is her intention. One ‘chapter’, for instance, consists solely of this ditty which is just two very short paragraphs:

‘Oh, Tomato Puree! When at last you occur to me it is as something profuse, fresh, erupting…

Oh Tomato Puree – let me lay you out and pummel those rigid furrows and creases!…’

It continues in a similar fashion.

While such strangeness can weary at times (when the reader is enmeshed in some particularly diaphanous, trance-like passage, for instance), the effort on the reader’s part to forge some sort of meaning is worth it. Bennett refuses to let anything figure – to let anything stand for pretty much anything at all; metaphor, we sense, is anathema to her; but there is a reason for this. In a brilliant passage that implicitly comments upon her own artistry and is simultaneously a cameo manifesto for the entire novel, she writes of her self/protagonist:

‘…she went off to place a cautionary notice next to the pond – which, by the way, has absolutely no depth whatsoever. If it were left up to me I wouldn’t put a sign next to a pond saying pond, either I’d write something else, such as Pig Swill, or I wouldn’t bother at all….’

She goes on to state that she knows the sign is to prevent children coming upon the water too quickly but says she herself, if ‘brought to a purportedly magical place one afternoon…only to discover the word pond scrawled on a poxy piece of damp plywood right there beside it…[would] be hopping.’

At the end of this chapter she removes the sign altogether, her reasoning being, as mystics and philosophers have pointed out before her (and there is definitely something of the mystic about Bennett’s protagonist), that words erect an artificial interface between us and the world, preventing us ‘moving about in deep and direct accordance with things.’ And it is true, as you read Pond, you feel all the strangeness of a heightened reality, much more a decipherer than simply a reader, as you do with most books. Despite the impression that Bennett’s writing is steeped in philosophers – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gaston Bachelard and Derrida among them – there is such lightness, such whimsy, that reading Pond is not like reading a philosophical work at all, however resonant it may feel; for ironically, despite Bennett’s protestations to the contrary, her implicit suggestion that there is no ‘depth’ to her work only serves to make it all the more esoteric and enigmatic.

The experiments of post-modernism have left little room for literature to move forwards, but Bennett, in subtle yet inimitable fashion, has been able to suggest how it might. Pond is sign-posted. There are no poxy pieces of plywood, just plenty of magic.

Review by Emily

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 169 other followers