Archive for ‘Non fiction’

January 22, 2017

City of Lions by Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands

by Team Riverside

josef-wittlin-and-philippe-sands-city-of-lions

Paperback, £12, Pushkin Press, out now

This beautifully made small book is an excellent companion read to Philippe Sands’ award winning East West Street: on the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (see my review here, https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/east-west-street-on-the-origins-of-genocide-and-crimes-against-humanity-by-philippe-sands/).  It comprises two essays on what is now known as the city of Lviv, in Ukraine.  Exile Józef Wittlin, writing in 1946, recalls the city when he knew it before the Second World War.  Human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, whose mother’s family were from Lviv and whose story is told in East West Street, gives his account of the city in 2016.

The book’s striking cover shows the many names the city has had over the last 100 years – Lviv, Lwów, Lvov, Lemberg.  Europe’s sometimes brutal twentieth century history has overrun this place over and over again.  Evocative black and white photographs and maps add a ghostly and sometimes melancholy note throughout.  Small publisher Pushkin Press can be proud of this book – read it, then read their republished The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig from 1942 (http://www.pushkinpress.com/book/the-world-of-yesterday/).

Both Wittlin and Sands’ accounts show their great attachment to the city, while dealing with the terrible things that happened there. They speak to each other, providing a vivid addition to the literature on exile and belonging.  Wittlin writes: “Balabans, Korniakts, Mohylas, Boims, Kampians – what sort of a motley crew is this?  That’s Lwów for you.  Diversified, variegated, as dazzling as an oriental carpet.  Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans are all Lvovians, alongside the Polish, Ruthenian and Jewish natives, and they are Lvovians ‘through and through’” (p. 49).  Visiting the local museum 70 years later, and thinking about Wittlin’s quote, Sands asks: “… where were the spaces devoted to the former residents of the city, the Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans?… What of the legacy of the Polish and Jewish inhabitants whose presence had been eclipsed?” (p. 130).

These memories of and reflections on the City of Lions, where many of Wittlin’s streets and buildings remain though their names and occupants have changed, help us to process and acknowledge the past. In our troubled present, inhumanity and change continue.  But there is also hope, as Sands concludes: “We too can play at games, as the world erupts once more.  We too can close our eyes, and imagine that beyond the dark clouds that settled over this unhappy city, a ray of light broke through, and that it still offers hope today” (p. 130).

Review by Bethan

December 14, 2016

New signed copies now in!

by Team Riverside

Going fast, here they are:Philippe Sands EAST WEST STREET

Philippe Sands – East West Street

Alexandra Shulman – Inside Vogue

Alan Johnson – The Long and Winding Road

Sebastian Barry – Days Without End

Yuval Noah Hariri – Homo Deus

Thomas Hocknell – Life Assistance Agency

November 7, 2016

Cats, by Jane Bown

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Guardian/Faber and Faber, £14.99, out nowjane-bown-cats

In this beautiful photography book, all of portrait photographer Jane Bown’s trademark skills are on display.  The cats she has photographed over five decades, mainly in black and white but sometimes in colour, stand out as a series of complex individuals.

Bown, who died in 2014, worked for the Guardian/Observer for decades, and many of her works now hang in the National Portrait Gallery (see http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp07814/jane-bown?role=art).  Her photographs of Samuel Beckett and Mick Jagger, as well as others, are regarded as classics.  Why should a great artist not turn her attention to cats?  Her own cats feature prominently, but there are also market cats and kittens, show cats and stragglers.  You can get a taste of what’s inside here:  https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2016/oct/01/cat-snaps-jane-bowns-feline-photographs-cats

In a handy medium sized format, this would be the perfect gift for someone who loves excellent photography, or cats – but ideally both!

Review by Bethan

November 1, 2016

New signed copies in!

by Team Riverside

New in – catch them before they go:

Susan Hill, The Travelling Bag

Eimear McBride, The Bohemians

Sebastian Barry, Days without End

Yuval Noah Hariri, Homo Deus

Paddy Ashdown, Game of Spies

Alan Johnson, The Long and Winding Road

Johnny Marr, Set the Boy Free

Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down

October 16, 2016

The Return – Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, by Hisham Matar

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Penguin:Viking, £14.99, out nowhisham-matar-the-return

Hisham Matar’s father Jaballa Matar, an active opponent of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990 and imprisoned in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim jail.  After 1996, there was no word of what happened to him.  This beautifully written memoir concerns not only Matar’s memories of family life before his disappearance, but also the desperation of those left not knowing their loved one’s fate.  Read on Radio 4, the book has received remarkable reviews from (among others) Colm Tóibín and Hilary Mantel.

The book is particularly moving on the effect of the disappearance on everyday life.  Matar’s mother continued videoing football matches for her missing husband for years after he disappeared.  In their exile, Matar and his family do everything they can think of to find out what has happened to Jaballa.  At the same time, Matar develops as a novelist, publishing among other things the well-reviewed Anatomy of a Disappearance.   After Tony Blair’s rapprochement with Qaddafi in 2004, Matar, who was living in London, notes: “none of us felt safe.  Officials from the Libyan embassy attended the first reading I gave from my first novel.  A report was sent to Tripoli and I became a watched man.  It was deemed no longer safe for me to visit my family in Egypt, which caused a second exile” (p. 174).  While the book concerns Matar’s relationship with his father, his mother also stands out as a remarkable woman in her own right.

I learnt a lot about Libya’s history from this remarkable book, and its impacts on those who live through it.  While The Return gives some truly horrendous accounts of human rights violations, it is also a book about deep resilience and love.

Review by Bethan

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

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

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

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

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 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

November 18, 2015

A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield

by Team Riverside

Hardback £20, Canongate, out now

“There is so much in this world to make me happy. Small things such as cats, a good meal, one’s garden, trees in spring and autumn, clouds, colours, fabrics, clothes, companionship, books and music and films, a driSimon Garfield A NOTABLE WOMANnk in the friendly atmosphere of an English pub, a ride in a bus, a letter from a friend, staying in bed when one is tired, firelight, starlight, waves breaking against rocks, evening sunlight on a flight of bombers”.

Jean Lucey Pratt writes this in 1944, aged 34, a woman living alone and working in Slough as the bombs fall around her. She takes much joy in life, as this extract shows, and is not afraid of giving her own views on the remarkable times she’s living through. In these edited journals, started when she was 16 and continuing into old age, she is painfully honest about her romantic life (I was absolutely willing her to find someone half decent to get off with). Like all the best published diaries, we feel that we are getting a view into someone’s secret inner life, but she also illuminates the uncertainties of living through a time of great international and domestic turbulance.

Jean is anything but fluffy, despite the excellent cats that march through these pages. Her diary is a real page turner, and well edited by Simon Garfield (who has previously published some of her contributions to the Mass Observation study). I enjoyed spending time with her enormously, and only wish she could have seen this delicious volume published during her lifetime.

Review by Bethan

November 15, 2015

The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning: a Polar Journey, by Wendy Trusler and Carol Devine

by Team Riverside

Hardback £25, HarperCollins, out now

Wendy Trusler and Carol Devine have created a beautiful visual and written record of a 1995-96 volunteer expedition to clean up rubbish on the South Shetland Islands in Antarctica. The book is illustrated with photographs both from the trip and fWendy Trusler ANTARCTIC BOOK OF COOKING AND CLEANINGrom previous historic outings by Scott and Shackleton, among others. It also features delicious and achievable international recipes used by Wendy to feed large groups of volunteers and friends during the tour – tasty looking White Bean and Roast Garlic Pate, Honey Oatmeal Bread, Frozen Chocolate Cream…

Contemporary journal entries from both authors candidly show the delights and strains of being ‘alone and together’ in Antarctica. Relationships within the camp and with those back home, as well as colleagues from other national research camps, become of prime importance.

For anyone whose imagination and interest strays towards Antarctica, or who likes unusual cookbooks or tales from women travellers, this is a must. One of the most unusual and beautiful books we have in the shop.

Review by Bethan

November 10, 2015

Carl Cattermole, H.M. Prison: A Survival Guide

by Team Riverside

Carl Cattermole HM PRISON A SURVIVAL GUIDECarl Cattermole’s short, sharp, shockingly good guide to life on the inside is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read all year. Unlike so many of the squillions of things that get ushered into print each month, H.M. Prison: A Survival Guide is a book that feels like it urgently needed to be written, and equally urgently; needs to be read. It’s the upshot of a truly generous impulse; to demystify the prison experience and to offer pragmatic help to a huge amount of people who are often vulnerable, confused and scared. It should also, of course, be required reading for anyone and everyone on the outside.

Eschewing the lurid tales and grim machismo that characterize so many prison memoirs, 20-something Londoner Cattermole’s nifty book is a straight-talking, utterly no-nonsense account of what life is like if you get sent down. It’s beautifully and wittily written, and indeed beautifully and wittily illustrated; by Private Eye’s very own ‘Banx.’

The ‘Survival Guide is eye-opening, at times eye-watering, and thoroughly educational in every sense. Like all the best books; it works as a kind of empathy generator. It’s also dirt-cheap (£4!). And it’s not-for-profit. And it looks and feels great. What more could you want? This is that rare kind of book that actually helps to make the world a better place.

Review by Stuart

November 3, 2015

Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter about People Who Think Differently, by Steve Silberman

by Team Riverside

Allen and Unwin, £16.99, paperback out now

A worthy winner of the Samuel Johnson non-fiction book prize, this is a fascinating and highly readable history of autism. We alsSteve Silberman NEUROTRIBESo get to meet several interesting people affected by autism, and an invitation to reconsider what we think we know about it.

Silberman, a journalist for Wired magazine, became interested in autism in 2001 when he heard of an ‘epidemic’ of autism among the children of Silicon Valley employees – parents who tended to be computer programmers and engineers. The book opens with The Wizard of Clapham Common Henry Cavendish, genius 19th century scientist and inventor, who Silberman retrospectively diagnoses as autistic.  Silberman is an informative guide through geek culture, disability in Nazi Germany, faulty diagnoses of toxic parenting, Rain Man and more.

Critically, the author is respectful of autistic people. Oliver Sacks in his foreword notes that Silberman particularly sought out autistic people for his research.  A further mark of quality is that it is dedicated to Lorna Wing, a psychiatrist and doctor who transformed thinking about autism for the better first in the UK and then internationally both through her work and her involvement in the establishment of the National Autistic Society. He concludes: “Designing appropriate forms of support and accommodation is not beyond our capabilities as a society, as the history of the disability movement proves. But first we have to learn to think more intelligently about people who think differently”.   This is an excellent, accessible book, and a worthwhile call to consider the riches that can come from diversity.

Review by Bethan

October 19, 2015

Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories, by Thomas Grant

by Team Riverside

John Murray, out now, £25

A child of the Bloomsbury group, Jeremy Hutchinson became a leading QC at the criminal bar in postwar Britain. Fellow lawyer Thomas Grant has written Hutchinson’s life in an unusual style – a shortish biographical sketch, followed by in depth accounts of Hutchinson’s most famous cases. This approach successfully illuminates not only a well-spent life, but alsThomas Grant JEREMY HUTCHINSON'S CASE HISTORIESo the contribution of an exceptional advocate at pivotal moments of change in British social and cultural history.

As a lawyer who often defended the unpopular or those in conflict with the establishment, much of his work concerned freedom of expression. Obscenity trials feature – he represented Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial as well as the National Theatre concerning their production of The Romans in Britain. He also defended the rights of journalists Duncan Campbell and Jonathan Aitken when they were prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, and also represented the notorious cold war spy George Blake. The movement towards a more open and freer society is traced through Grant’s well drawn studies.

Hutchinson emerges not only as a great advocate, but as a genial and thoughtful man. Now 100, his postscript to the book shows him to be as committed to the principle of access to justice as ever: “When at long last in 1950 the Legal Aid Act was passed, the idea was that everyone should be able to obtain legal advice if unable to pay for it because, after health, the most important element in a civilised society is the ability of every citizen to assert and protect these rights: in other words a ‘national legal service’.” He notes that “real prison reform calls for imagination, courage and determination; the dismantling of legal aid a mere stroke of the pen”. Recommended.

Review by Bethan

September 26, 2015

This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, by Samanth Subramanian

by Team Riverside

Samanth Subramanian THIS DIVIDED ISLANDAtlantic Books, out now

Just longlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize, this well written account of the Sri Lankan civil war does not take sides. Indian Tamil journalist Subramanian approaches a notoriously tangled and controversial subject through the stories of diverse individuals. These include former combatants from the Tamil Tigers and the army, refugees and other members of the diaspora, journalists, medics and other civilians. We learn some of the human cost of this awful conflict.

He finds that Sri Lanka lends itself to this style: “It never required much to begin a conversation in Sri Lanka. The very air was primed for it. In a country so full of uncertainty, all life, and all death, was rehearsed through conversation. It was a form of art, well honed and practiced with skill.”

No previous knowledge of Sri Lankan history is necessary and so it is a useful primer, but also very revealing for those who know more. The problems facing Sri Lankans at home and abroad now are shown. No easy answers present themselves. The author documents his own, sometimes conflicting, reactions to the stories he is told. This makes the book feel honest, current and engaging.

This Divided Island is a must-read for anyone thinking of visiting this beautiful but troubled place, as well as for those who want to know more about the civil war and its aftermath. In places his reporting is the best kind of travel writing, immediate and vivid in his descriptions of transport, food, and places. Despite the grimness of some of the content, the clarity of the writing and the writer’s affection for the place make this an engaging and swift read.

Review by Bethan

August 19, 2015

Gods of Metal, Eric Schlosser

by Team Riverside

Penguin, paperback out now £1.99Eric Schlosser GODS OF METAL

Somehow I had stopped really thinking about the piles of nuclear weapons placed all over the world: owned, operated and sought by fallible humans. In this substantial and important new piece of reportage, Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation, Executive Producer of There Will be Blood) updates us on the threats posed by nuclear weapons today.

He describes repeated security breaches at US nuclear bases, spending time with anti-nuclear weapons campaigners imprisoned for breaking in. He reflects on their pacifist and radical forerunners.

Looking to the future, he details attempts made by non-state actors to gain access to nuclear weapons and weapons-manufacturing materials: “In October 2009, ten militants entered the central headquarters of the Pakistan Army in broad daylight, wearing military uniforms and carrying fake IDs. They took dozens of hostages, killed high-ranking officers, and maintained control of a building there for eighteen hours. The two leading commanders of Pakistan’s nuclear forces were stationed at the base.” (p. 73).

Published by Penguin 70 years after the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this thoughtful and thorough work is a must read. Get ready to have your consciousness raised: as the author writes when thanking experts for their help, “I’m not sure how they sleep at night”.

Review by Bethan

August 9, 2015

Top 10 Fiction and Non-Fiction: August 2015

by Team Riverside

Harper Lee GO SET A WATCHMANLena Dunham NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL

No surprise this month – Harper Lee is back, back, back. The holiday reading season has also revived several titles including The Girl on the Train, which benefited from a Radio 4 adaptation. Incidentally, Go Set a Watchman is not the only literary sequel in town: The Meursalt Investigation is an Algerian writer’s companion novel to The Outsider, set 70 years after the Camus classic.

Top 10 Fiction

1 Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee
2 The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
3 How to Be Both – Ali Smith
4 Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The First Bad Man – Miranda July
7 The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
8 The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
9 Curtain Call – Anthony Quinn
10 The Meursalt Investigation – Kamel Daoud

Bubbling under: Wake Up, Sir! – Jonathan Ames

Top 10 Non-Fiction

1 Not That Kind of Girl – Lena Dunham
2 Gut: The Inside Story of our Body’s Most Underrated Organ – Giulia Enders
3 The Churchill Factor – Boris Johnson
4 Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari
5 Think Like an Artist – Will Gompertz
6 Yes Please – Amy Poehler
7 London: A Travel Guide Through Time – Matthew Green
8 The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan
9 Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own – Kate Bolick
10 London Thames Path – David Fathers

Bubbling under: How We Are – Vincent Deary

August 1, 2015

The Fish Ladder – Katharine Norbury

by Team Riverside

Bloomsbury Circus, out now

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

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

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

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

July 4, 2015

The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

by Team Riverside

Growing up in Yorkshire, brother and sister Matty and Cathy are ordinary teenagers living in a pub with their parents. Their family is close, loving, and funny. Everything changes when Matty is knocked down in a hit and run, and suffers devastating brain injuries. Matty’s life is saved, but he enters what turns out to be a Persistent Vegitative State (PVS).

In Cathy Rentzenbrink’s courageous and illuminating memoir, she charts what happens to Matty but also to herself and her parents as they deal with the consequences of one life changing moment. A very readable narrative, it Cathy Rentzenbrink THE LAST ACT OF LOVE is also a personal and thoughtful account of a complex and difficult situation. She shows that what may be right is not always evident and may change over time, and details the pervasive effects of grief, guilt and trauma. Using press cuttings and legal reports as well as family memories, we get a useful and unflinching analysis of the very human difficulties that can arise in cases of PVS. While the subject is bleak, the strength, love and commitment that sustain the family run throughout. Highly recommended.

Review by Bethan

May 24, 2015

Top 10 Fiction and Non-Fiction: May 2015

by Team Riverside

HOW TO USE YOUR ENEMIES David Nicholls US
The Penguin Little Black Classics series is still going gangbusters here at the Riverside, although it’s the non-fiction titles that are the big sellers. The most popular of the 80 books is How to Use Your Enemies (no 12 in the series), a 17th century Spanish priest’s guide to exploiting your foes (and friends too). If you’re not minded to be Machiavellian, there’s plenty more literary inspiration among our bestsellers this spring…

Top 10 Fiction

1 Us – David Nicholls
2 The Bees – Laline Paull
3 The Children Act – Ian McEwan
4 How to Build a Girl – Caitlin Moran
5 A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson
6 The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair – Joel Dicker
7 Outline – Rachel Cusk
8 The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
9 Family Life – Akhil Sharma
10 The Ballad of a Small Player – Lawrence Osborne

Bubbling under: Wake Up, Sir! – Jonathan Ames

Top 10 Non-Fiction

1 Penguin Little Black Classics (80th anniversary)
2 Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari
3 H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald
4 Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art – Julian Barnes
5 Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble – Antony Beevor
6 On Palestine – Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe
7 Flash Boys – Michael Lewis
8 The Year of Reading Dangerously – Andy Miller
9 A Buzz in the Meadow – Dave Goulson
10 The Establishment – Owen Jones

Bubbling under: On the Move: A Life – Oliver Sacks

April 23, 2015

The Internet is Not the Answer

by Andre

Andrew Keen THE INTERNET IS NOT THE ANSWERSocial media satire The Circle made you scared about the screens that have enslaved us. Now Andrew Keen’s polemic against the winner-takes-all Web 2.0 will make you angry. It’s a smart, concise exploration of the impact of new technology, but also a howl of rage at the digital disruptors relishing the havoc they have caused. “Failure is success” is the bizarre, Orwellian mantra of the Silicon Valley innovators – and big failure followed by bigger success is the story of Travis Kalanick. He likes to boast that he was sued for a quarter of a trillion dollars by the world’s entertainment companies over his peer-to-peer service Scour. Ultimately, it may have failed but – along with Napster – not before laying waste to the music industry. Now he’s unleashed Uber, a taxi app that’s prompted protests from traditional taxi drivers around the world.

Perhaps that’s just progress. But consider Instagram, which sold to Facebook for a billion dollars when it had 13-full time employees. Around the same time, Kodak was closing 13 factories and 130 photo labs and laying off 47,000 workers. Last year Facebook forked out $19 billion for WhatsApp, which had 55 employees. These are the frightening numbers behind the job-killing digital economy. And those internet giants that do recruit an army of coders to their cults pay hardly any tax and contribute little to the local economy. Keen’s particularly scathing on the segregation in San Francisco (and he’s found an ally in Rebecca Solnit), where the digital overlords travel to work in private buses and never have to leave their plush office complexes. There are plenty more villains – and a few heroes – in this history of the internet. He compares Google with the Stasi, rails against the oddball libertarians who became billionaires and rubbishes the long tail theory, which claims that any creative person can make a living thanks to the reach of the Web (mid-list authors are actually disappearing). As William Gibson said: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

April 11, 2015

Top 10 Fiction and Non-Fiction – April 2015

by Team Riverside

Guy de Maupassant FEMME FATALERichard Flanagan NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH

If you’re in need of literary inspiration, here’s a snapshot of our bestselling novels and non-fiction (including the 80 titles in the Penguin Little Black Classics series) this spring…

Top 10 Fiction

1 Penguin Little Black Classics (80th anniversary)
2 The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
3 How to Build a Girl – Caitlin Moran
4 The Children Act – Ian McEwan
5 The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro
6 The Guest Cat – Takashi Hiraide
7 Family Life – Akhil Sharma
8 The Secret Place – Tana French
9 Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes
10 We Are Not Ourselves – Matthew Thomas

Bubbling under: All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews

Top 10 Non-Fiction

1 Penguin Little Black Classics (80th anniversary)
2 Flash Boys – Michael Lewis
3 The Establishment – Owen Jones
4 Rebel Footprints – David Rosenberg
5 This Changes Everything – Naomi Klein
6 The Utopia of Rules – David Graeber
7 H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald
8 So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – Jon Ronson
9 The Moth – various
10 The Shepherd’s Life – James Rebanks

Bubbling under: Napoleon the Great – Andrew Roberts

March 21, 2015

A London Year

by Andre

Paperback now available – £12.99

A LONDON YEAR365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals and Letters – compiled by Travis Elborough & Nick Rennison

“With Thelma to the George Inn, Southwark, for a lunch of steak-and-kidney pie, cherry pie and beer. Expected hordes of American tourists but found only English, including three young men with posh accents who went through a repertoire of advert slogans, radio catchphrases and anecdotes about cricket, bloodsports and motors, even calling beer ‘ale’.” – Peter Nichols, Diary, 16 June, 1971

Part of the pleasure of this anthology of diary entries (one or more for each day of the year) is discovering the familiar from a distance. So for Southwark residents like us, there’s playwright Peter Nichols on a certain type of tourist in Borough High Street 44 years ago. Or how about the Quaker merchant Peter Briggins on the retail opportunities of the frozen Thames during the Great Freeze (21 January, 1716):

“Afternoon I went to London Bridge & saw booths & shops as farr as the Temple but they say there is booths to Chelsey, & below Bridge from about the Tower booths & many huts & people crossed over. There was they say 2 oxes roasted.”

With the capital as the changing backdrop, this is a remarkable portrait of London penned by more than 200 diarists, including Samuel Pepys, Kenneth Williams, Alan Bennett, Mary Shelley, James Boswell, Virginia Woolf and George Gissing. From the 16th century to the 21st, it’s an eyewitness account of everyday life that takes in grisly deaths in Tudor times, Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, anti-Vietnam war protests, World War I Zeppelin raids and Derek Jarman’s night out in Soho.

September 15, 2014

Ruth Rendell & Penelope Lively

by Andre

Ruth Rendell THE GIRL NEXT DOORAmmonites and Leaping Fish PENELOPE LIVELYIt’s a truism that old age brings a reawakening of childhood memories. For almost every writer, memory is a rich resource, but things get especially interesting when they undergo that memory reboot in their seventies or eighties. At the age of 84 – and 50 years since her debut From Doon with Death – Ruth Rendell has written a captivating novel about that experience. The Girl Next Door is nominally a crime novel, though the killer is identified at the beginning and the crime (a double murder) occurred in 1944. The case is brought to light by the unearthing of a pair of severed hands. What’s fascinating is the effect the grisly discovery has on the 70-somethings who used to play on the site as children. Memories are stirred and lives are shaken up at a time when the days, months and years might appear to be predictable and unchanging.

Penelope Lively’s brief, meditative memoir, Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time, is a treasure trove of memory – from childhood in Alexandria to the ‘hospital years’ of old age – filtered through her precise and discursive prose. She is especially good on the working of memory and how it becomes “the mind’s triumph over time”, as well as childhood amnesia and the importance of teaching history (our collective memory). At 81, Lively has written a rich, absorbing memoir that has you hoping for further novels from this former Booker Prize winner.

March 8, 2014

A Very Short Introduction

by Andre

For the overburdened reader, ‘a very short introduction’ is among the most welcome of phrases. Now you can browse dozens of books on our snazzy new spinner that will each fill a specific gap in your knowledge, without detaining you for more than a few hours. Oxford University Press has literally hundreds of slim, accessible volumes in its Very Short series, and we’ve got dozens of these titles available in the shop. Click on any book cover below for just a selection of this diverse, authoritative series that’s proved popular with both students and general readers.

December 15, 2013

Books of the Year 2013

by Andre

Books_of_2013We’ve expanded our trawl of the literary pages for the books of 2013 to come up with a definitive list of the 10 favourites (click on the image for a clearer view of the books – all available at the Riverside, of course). Here’s our top 10 poll of polls based on the books with the most nominations from critics and fellow authors in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard, The Spectator, Financial Times, New York Times, Metro, The Independent, Daily Mail and Sunday Times.

1 The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
“…a deliciously compellingly dazzling jewel about beauty, fate and life.” – Simon Sebag Montefiore, Evening Standard

2 Margaret Thatcher – The Authorised Biography: Volume 1 – Not For Turning
“…an exceptional political biography with dozens of incidental pleasures — it is full of Dickensian walk-on parts and deliciously redolent of its period.” – Philip Hensher, Spectator

3 Tenth of December by George Saunders
“The stories are clever and moving, and the title story is the best piece of fiction I’ve read this year.” – Roddy Doyle, Guardian

4 The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
“…an extraordinary story of literary accomplishment, passionate war-mongering and sexual incorrigibility.” – John Preston, Spectator

5 The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
“I read… The Luminaries three times in my capacity as Man Booker judge, and each time round it yielded new riches.” – Robert Macfarlane, Guardian

6 Love, Nina: Despatches From Family Life by Nina Stibbe
“…no book this year made me laugh more.” – John Lanchester, Guardian

7 Harvest by Jim Crace
“…easily the best-written novel of the year.” – Philip Hensher, Spectator

8 Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee
“…charts a life that travelled the full 360 degrees on the wheel of fortune.” – Helen Simpson, Guardian

9 Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
“…her most challenging, complex and compelling novel yet.” – Ian Rankin, Guardian

10 Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin by Damian McBride
“Bankrupt of morals and bankrupt of style, it is a nonpareil of peevishness, and self-delusion shines from it like a Christmas star.” – Hilary Mantel, Guardian

Several of these titles were, in fact, level pegging but at the top The Goldfinch did just edge out Charles Moore’s richly rewarding – and surprisingly funny – account of Thatcher up until the 1982 Falklands victory. The P-Fitz biography did well to make the top 10 as it was only released in November. Stoner by John Williams got plenty of picks as a favourite of 2013, even though it first appeared in 1965. And bubbling under: The Circle by Dave Eggers, The Childhood of Jesus by J M Coetzee and All That Is by James Salter (“no question, the best novel I read this year,” said Richard Ford of the senior American author).

November 17, 2013

Live From Downing Street: Nick Robinson

by Andre

Updated paperback out now – £8.99

Nick Robinson LIVE FROM DOWNING STREETThe BBC political editor is one of TV’s most familiar faces – and one of the most annoying if you accept Alastair Campbell’s assessment of Nick Robinson (“a jerk”). Well, I’d rather read Robinson’s engaging, witty history and insightful memoir than Campbell’s obsessive, late-night scribbling. It’s not an autobiography but it does begin – after a perfectly worthy, BBC-style introduction – with a revealing chapter on his youthful fascination with current affairs (Today presenter Brian Redhead was a neighbour) and his dogged research as BBC producer for a Dimbleby. Even when he switches to reporting, Robinson still seems to write a lot of memos and happily describes himself as a “pointy head” in contrast to BBC Rottweiler interviewers (Paxman, Humphrys, Neil).

Nevertheless, he’s a tenacious reporter who was bloodied early in the Blair years when, he claims, Mandelson tried to get him sacked, as well as being – for the most part – a staunch defender of his trade. While he acknowledges the soundbite culture’s gone too far, he reminds us of Draconian restrictions on reporting parliament from the 1600s to the 1950s. Politicians wouldn’t even deign to be interviewed. (In 1955, Clement Attlee was asked if there was “anything else you’d care to say about the coming election?” His answer in full: “No.”)

Robinson draws perfect sketches of the political pas de deux between each prime minister and the Beeb. Churchill loathed the BBC, which had (wrongly) denied him a platform in the 1930s; Wilson was a paranoiac who preferred ITV; Thatcher was positively hostile. He gets angry about propaganda during the Falklands War and regrets his failure to give Robin Cook’s opposition to the Iraq war airtime when employed by ITV (Robinson avoided the Blair-BBC death duel). Of course, this impartial correspondent’s candour becomes cloudier the closer he gets to the present but his profound questions about the future shape of British broadcasting make this essential reading for students of politics and the media.

August 10, 2013

Winter: Adam Gopnik

by Andre

Adam Gopnik WINTER“Winter is coming,” as the Starks say in A Game of Thrones. It may not be uppermost in our minds during this balmy August, but New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s wonderful, wide-ranging meditation on winter will prepare you for the diminishing December days by stirring an appreciation of our 19th century taming of the season, which went from “being seen as bleak and bitter to sweet and sublime”. Raised in Canada, the essayist knows what a real winter means; his subject is also an excuse to introduce us to ice hockey – a “dross of brutal messiness” in John Updike’s phrase – and its emergence in Montreal.

Gopnik glides through a variety of aspects of the season with all the grace of Goethe on his ice skates (an engraving shows the German poet looking smug on the ice in the 1850s, when the pastime became “essentially social and overtly sexual” according to Gopnik). And while Germans such as the artist Friedrich are credited with transforming winter in our imagination through a “Romantic resistance to the Enlightenment idea of reason”, it’s heartening to see that the British played a part in everything from early ice skating (Pepys writes of this “very pretty art” in 1662) and fashionable Alpine holidays to stiff-upper-lip polar expeditions and, in the 1830s, even central heating. “North Americans who have spent a winter in England and who, clutching teacups and shivering in shaggy sweaters, wonder if they will ever be warm again, may find it hard to believe that this was the first warm modern place,” writes Gopnik.

He’s also good on the “ambiguous festival” that is the Dickensian Christmas and the clamour for the festive season to be less commercial, which is nothing new: US newspapers have been calling for Christmas to be “dematerialized” since the 1880s.