Archive for ‘Reviews’

July 23, 2017

The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin Random House, £8.99, Out now

A bona-fide stranger-than-fiction story, the twists and turns of re-released true crime sensation The Adversary will have you exclaiming “I don’t believe it!” to no one in particular as you read.Adversary

Beginning with an account of the 1993 murder of a wife and two children by their husband and father, Jean Claude Romand, the narrative then spirals rapidly out of control as the killer – a respected French doctor and member of the World Health Organisation – is revealed to have been living a double life of colossal proportions.

As a tale it’s utterly astonishing; but it’s the moments where author Emmanuel Carrère pauses to reflect on the proceedings – whether he’s tracing Romand’s footsteps while trying to get into his headspace or drawing comparisons between the murderer’s deceased family and his own – that truly affected me. Unexpectedly lyrical and philosophical, his interjections are just as engrossing as the plot, and make sure that the book never feels ghoulish or lurid despite its fixation on a horrific crime. This isn’t writing to titillate – it is measured, respectful and questioning, and all the more powerful for it.

In short, Carrère has crafted nothing less than a modern In Cold Blood. Genuinely unputdownable.

Review by Tom

July 22, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Walker Books, £7.99, out nowAngie Thomas THE HATE U GIVE

A gripping and highly relevant new YA novel, speaking to many of the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement.  Starr sees her best friend Khalil shot by a police officer, and is instantly not only bereaved but at the centre of an explosive situation.

Starr is already in a difficult position: she’s not sure where she belongs, as a 16 year old living in a poor neighbourhood and attending an upmarket (mainly white) school.  It’s a novel of political and romantic awakening, with a compelling storyline and believable teen and adult characters.

The only drawback for me was that it made me feel old – one of the teenagers is named after a band member from Jodeci, prompting other characters to comment that their very old (i.e. late 30s) parents also love this band!  There are several moments of kindness, solidarity and humour in this very readable novel, which has won high praise from YA superstar John Green.

It is a US smash hit and a mind-expanding read, requested by several of our customers as soon as it was released, I expect this to be a hit in the bookshop this summer.  A movie is due soon too.

Review by Bethan

July 17, 2017

Dr James Barry: a Woman Ahead of Her Time by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield

by Team Riverside

This excellent new biography charts the rollercoaster life of Margaret Anne Bulkeley, Du Preez DR JAMES BARRYborn in Cork into genteel chaotic poverty, who became Dr James Barry – leading and innovative army surgeon in the nineteenth century.

An almost unbelievable yarn, Margaret’s remarkable life takes in Edinburgh, Cape Town, Canada, and many other places en route.   A believably flawed character, several times I found myself gasping at the audacity of her behaviour.  Some serious new archival research has been undertaken for this book, but the learning is worn lightly and the book zips along with much action, adventure, and drama.  No wonder it was BBC Radio 2’s Fact not Fiction book choice.

This is a great addition to the literature of the history of medicine and surgery, but is equally important as women’s history.  Advice: if you don’t already know the story of this life, don’t read a summary beforehand – let the book unfold and you’ll be treated to a truly vivid narrative.

The authors are very good at identifying the current names of locations so the reader can place the action.  Some of it happens in London, and in particular Southwark, and so this is another great read for Riverside Bookshop locals.  This was a perfect holiday read for me.

Review by Bethan

June 21, 2017

To London, Poems by Michael Shann

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Paekakariki Press, £10, out nowMichael Shann TO LONDON

This lovely letterpressed book features many local sights and spots which will be familiar to our customers.

Local author Michael Shann has captured the sensory joy of Borough Market perfectly: “to weave through the waft of grilling beef/paella, mulled wine and cheese/to take it all in and still to keep moving/past the gawp of a monkfish”.  How excellent to have the Market on the page just when it needs our support and appreciation the most – http://boroughmarket.org.uk/articles/borough-market-bounces-back.

Lovely too to see the Redcross Garden immortalised here – we are fans of this tiny beautiful Bankside space (http://www.bost.org.uk/open-places/red-cross-garden/).

This pocket sized special edition would make a lovely gift for anyone with links to London Bridge or Southwark, and a great memento of a visit.  The beautiful illustrations by Kirsten Schmidt make it extra special.

Review by Bethan           

June 20, 2017

Earthly Remains, by Donna Leon

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Cornerstone, £18.99, out nowDonna Leon EARTHLY REMAINS

Commissario Brunetti, the senior Venetian police officer and star of Leon’s previous books, is sent to recuperate from stress in a secluded house on Sant’Erasmo, an island in Venice’s laguna.  While there he makes friends with a local man.  They spend days rowing in the laguna, tending to the man’s bees, and talking.  But the bees start to die, and then his friend is found dead…

I have read many of the Brunetti books, and this is the best so far in my view.  Set in Venice, the books are stuffed with spectacular surroundings, wonderful food, and chaotic corruption in public life.  They are easy to read, and strangely addictive.

Brunetti wrestles with what is right when dealing with crimes, but also when dealing with the opaque and shifting concerns of the various authority figures he comes across, and as he addresses the other complexities of family and political life. I don’t always agree with the politics presented in the books, but I have a sneaking fondness for his arch and progressive wife Paula.

A previous winner of the prestigious Silver Dagger Crime Writing Award, Donna Leon has maintained both her popularity and the quality of her work over a long and impressive career.  Ecological themes feature increasingly strongly in her work, as this interview makes clear, and this only adds to the relevance of her work (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/15/donna-leon-interview-commissario-brunetti-earthly-remains).  Earthly Remains is a thoughtful, interesting summer read.

Review by Bethan

June 14, 2017

Calm by Tim Parks

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Vintage, £3.50, out nowvintage-minis-window-170614.jpg

“Don’t think, Tim.  Do not think!  Do not give yourself commands not to think!  Silence!”

In this short delicious extract from his book Teach us to Sit Still, Parks is a very funny and very honest guide to the world of meditation.  In response to serious health issues including chronic pain, he decides to learn to meditate, in a relatively extreme way, by attending a silent Vipassana retreat for multiple days.

He struggles with many things that will be familiar to meditators.  His legs feel like they are on fire from the unfamiliar poses.  He is enraged by catering trollies outside the meditation room.  He is suspicious of some of the ideas promulgated and often tries, unsuccessfully, to suspend critical judgement: “I remembered something I had translated once from a book on pre-Vedic philosophy: ‘so as not to be hurt, before coming near the fire, the wise man wraps himself in the meters’. The arcane instruction had impressed, I remembered it, and I had a vague idea it might now be appropriate in some way, but it also sounded like something from Indiana Jones”.

Alongside the funnies there is a serious endeavour to learn something new and take a different approach to suffering, which makes for engaging reading.  If you fancy giving mindfulness and meditation a go yourself, you can always try London teacher Tessa Watt’s excellent Mindfulness book.

This is part of a brand new series of extracts called Vintage Minis, out now for only £3.50 a pop.  Read Nigella Lawson on Eating, Joseph Heller on Work and Roger Deakin on Swimming.  Full list here, or see how many you can spot in the attached photo of our lovely shop window! (https://www.penguin.co.uk/vintage/vintageminis/)

Review by Bethan

May 31, 2017

Rural London – Discover the City’s Country Side, by Kate Hodges

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Michael O’Mara Books Ltd, £9.99, out nowKate Hodges RURAL LONDON

This beautiful gift book is small enough to be shoved in your backpack as you head off to get your nature fix in London.  Enticing photos and good directions make this one of those guides that is as good to fall into on the tube as it is to work out where to find a wildlife friendly pond to picnic next to (Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park).

Some of the places listed I can vouch for myself.  I like the crazy little triangular castle at Severndroog which has amazing views over London; Spitalfields City Farm, home of the Oxford v Cambridge Goat race; and Bunhill Fields, the city oasis that’s also the burial place of William Blake.  But I was really impressed with how many of the places listed I’d never heard of – what about seeing herons at the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology park, or learning woodworking at the Green Wood Guild in Stepney?

There are useful suggestions of relaxing pubs and outdoor activities, and also a list of festivals such as the Marylebone Summer Fayre and the Cultivate Festival in Waltham Forest.  Many of the things listed are free, and also easily accessed by public transport.  If you’re hot in the city just now, this book will help you get a bit of country escapism without having to go too far.

A great local tip for next time you’re in the bookshop – it’s not too far to the fabulous Red Cross Garden, free and friendly for Bankside.  http://www.bost.org.uk/open-places/red-cross-garden/

Review by Bethan

May 28, 2017

The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Harvill Secker, £16.99, Out now. 

This is the second novel by the great French novelist, Laurent Binet. Those who read his first, critically acclaimed novel, HHhH (previously reviewed by Stuart for this blog in 2012 https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2013/01/01/hhhh-laurent-binet/), will instantly recognise his signature style of narrative intrusion that makes him one of the most exciting and inventive authors about today. Binet has again chosen to use a factual historical event as the starting point to his novel. HHhH was based on the plan to assassinate high-ranking Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich, the new novel, The 7th Function of Language, starts with the death of French critic and semiotician,

Laurent Binet 7TH FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE

Roland Barthes. Binet blurs the lines between history and fiction in a really clever and often funny way, from the very first line he is questioning the nature of the novel as a form and how it relates to reality,“Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so.”

Roland Barthes was knocked down by a laundry van on his walk home on the 25th February 1980 and died from his injuries a month later, that bit is true. However, the death appears a bit more mysterious, as Barthes was on his way home from visiting the Socialist candidate for the French Presidency, Francois Mitterrand. But what if Barthes death wasn’t an accident? What if it was in fact an assassination? This is where the story turns into fiction, or at least speculation. In his hand he was holding a top-secret document that was stolen from him as he lay on the road. What did the document contain? Who Killed Roland Barthes? Superintendent Jacques Bayard is assigned the task of solving the mystery. He meets numerous French intellectuals who live rock-star-like existences in the clubs, bars and cafes of Paris. The story is fast paced and exciting and Binet’s style is a magical balance of being both really, really clever and super funny.

Review by Charlie

 

May 22, 2017

Night Trains – the Rise and Fall of the Sleeper, by Andrew Martin

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Profile Books, £14.99, out nowAndrew Martin NIGHT TRAINS

This entertaining new book from railway expert Andrew Martin might be entitled ‘beyond the Orient Express’.  Martin rides the remaining night (or sleeper) trains of Western Europe at a time of great change for the railways, with several of the historic night routes and trains going out of commission.  He is partly doing the journey in memory of his railwayman father, who took him and his sister on holidays organised by the British Railwaymen’s Touring Club.

Martin is an amusing guide, and the book is stuffed with good anecdotes and facts.  There are mentions of books, films and paintings involving sleeper trains that make you want to chase down the references immediately.  Discussing a painting by Caillebotte called Le Pont d’Europe, he notes: “It shows a man looking down on the station from the bridge.  There is a strolling flâneur, perhaps a depiction of Caillebotte himself.  He is possibly eyeing up the man looking down on the station.  The woman walking alongside the flâneur has been interpreted as a prostitute.  It’s unlikely that both interpretations could be true.  A dog is heading purposefully over the bridge in the opposite direction, and doubtless it, too, is going off to have sex” (p. 29).

He finds that night trains are not always glamorous and are sometimes exciting in the wrong way (he gets robbed and also wakes to find a stranger in his cabin).  His journeys are sometimes interrupted by the refugee crisis as borders are closed, and lines disrupted.  He touches briefly on this, but it’s not a primary theme of the book.

This would make a good original gift for train fans, and for anyone who (like me) loves travelling overnight on trains.  I had never heard of the Nordland Railway but this made me want to go next winter: “the Nordland begins by skirting a fjord.  There is the same thrilling proximity of rail and sea that you get on the Cornish main line at Dawlish, but that’s over after five minutes, whereas this lasts for a hundred miles”.

Review by Bethan                

April 17, 2017

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Pushkin Press, £10.99

Josephine and her husband Joseph have left behind unemployment, friends and family in the ‘hinterland’ for a new life in new city. They find dingy digs and uninspiring Helen Phillips BEAUTIFUL BUREAUCRATadministrative jobs, and are just glad to be earning.  We are with Josephine right from the start as she attends her job interview, and this sets the tone for the book: “The person who interviewed her had no face.  Under other circumstances  if the job market hadn’t been so bleak for so long – if the summer hadn’t been so hot and muggy – this might have discouraged Josephine from stepping through the door of that office in the first place”.

This short snappy novel deals with large life things. Fresh and interesting ideas about birth, death and relationships are delivered with great style, and the praise quote from Ursula K Le Guin on the jacket is both well-deserved and appropriate.  I have found this book impossible to categorise, as is true of many of le Guin’s books.  I also thought of Jose Saramago (particularly All the Names) and early Margaret Atwood (particularly The Edible Woman).  But the book is wholly itself.  Phillips manages to retain emotional impact despite sometimes bizarre goings on.

This would make a perfect ‘off the beaten track’ holiday book, being very readable and entertaining.

Review by Bethan

April 3, 2017

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, by Francesca Cavello and Elena Favilli

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Penguin Random House, £17.99, out now

This excellent crowdfunded children’s book is flying out of the shop just now – when we were out of stock we were being asked aGOODNIGHT STORIES FOR REBEL GIRLSbout it every day.

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls features single-page stories about extraordinary women, and each is accompanied by an illustration from one of a range of talented international artists. This means that the book is a pleasure to dip into, and feels fresh and enjoyable to pick up.

The women included are from very diverse backgrounds, and are drawn from history as well as the present day.  I was fascinated to read about Ashley Fiolek, a Deaf motocross racer born in the USA in 1990 who says: “I don’t think about vibrations; I don’t think about anything at all.  I’m part of the bike now”.  I also loved the story of the Cholita climbers of Bolivia, who decided that it need not be only men who got to see they view from the nearby mountain.  And so they just set off, wearing their skirts (cholitas).  Born around 1968, the group may be climbing something right now.  I was also pleased to find the stories of women I was more familiar with, including Amelia Earhart, Maya Angelou, and Malala Yousafzai.

The stories are told in language suitable for primary age children and up.  The book is from the US, and UK readers may not agree with every authorial interpretation of history given, but it’s still full of exciting stuff.

Review by Bethan

March 18, 2017

Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Scholastic, £6.99, out nowLisa Thompson GOLDFISH BOY

When a visiting toddler from next door goes missing, 12 year old Matthew tries to solve the case.  He has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and spends a lot of time looking out of his window as it’s hard for him to leave his room… but can he start to overcome his illness and find out what has happened?

This is a convincing and engrossing mystery story which I’d recommend for older readers (if the reader is OK with a missing child storyline, I reckon they should be OK with the book).  Excellent YA mysteries like Gene Kemp’s Juniper and Rosa Guy’s The Disappearance made me a mystery fan for life, and I think this book will do the same for readers now (another Juniper fan reviews it here – http://awfullybigreviews.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/juniper-by-gene-kemp-reviewed-by-ellen.html).  It’s a little slow to start but worth sticking with.

Goldfish Boy is also a kind and creative treatment of OCD, including how treatment works, and has received positive reviews from some people with OCD (see http://www.abeautifulchaos.co.uk/2016/12/the-goldfish-boy-mental-health-book.html).   Thompson thanks OCD-UK for their help and the quality of her research and empathy show, particularly in her illustration of how OCD can affect families and the painful and distressing nature of the illness (http://www.ocduk.org/ocd).   It has triggered comparisons with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and may find some readers in common.  I can definitely recommend it anyone, adult or child, in search of an intriguing quick read.

Review by Bethan

February 18, 2017

Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure by A L Kennedy

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Walker Books, £8.99, out nowa-l-kennedy-uncle-shawn-and-bill

“Badger Bill was having a very bad evening, maybe the worst of his whole life.  He was stuck inside a bag.  It was an extremely scratchy and horrible bag and it smelled as if someone who was also a badger had been crying inside it a few days earlier and then maybe after that had been sick”.  So begins Bill’s scary but also very funny adventure, in a new children’s book from Riverside favourite A L Kennedy (see https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2016/10/18/serious-sweet-by-a-l-kennedy/).

Despite featuring four depressed llamas who also need rescuing by the unusual Uncle Shawn, this book is stuffed with kindness as well as proper laughs.  If the reader can cope with the scary bits in Roald Dahl’s books, I think they can manage this: it’s recommended for age seven and up and everyone I know who has read it so far has loved it (three adults and one seven year old).

As well as being a proper adventure with quality baddies, the book is surprisingly comforting on the experiences of being anxious and scared, and also on showing courage in the face of these feelings.  Gemma Correll’s illustrations are just as funny as the text (we sell her excellent cards in the shop too).

There is also a character called Ginalolobrigida Llama.  Nuff said.

Review by Bethan

January 31, 2017

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

by Team Riverside

Hardback, £12.99 – Out Nowgwedoline-riley-first-love

The fifth novel from the woefully underappreciated young British genius Gwendoline Riley might be her best one yet. First Love is narrated by Neve, a thirty-something writer who lives in London with her older husband Edwyn. As she combs over her past – friendships, courtships, hateships, love – and the choices that have borne her here, Neve paints a sentence-perfect picture of a testing literary life and a relationship that lurches queasily from cloying tenderness to wince-inducing cruelty. It’s a short but perfectly measured book in which every line pops and buzzes and sings. “Considering one’s life requires a horribly delicate determination, doesn’t it?” begins the novel’s blistering third and final act; “To get to the truth, the heart of the trouble.” This is urgent, gorgeously stylish, devastating new fiction that does just that: gets to the truth, and cuts to the heart. It’s a masterpiece.

Review by Stuart

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

January 21, 2017

Talented bookseller required!

by Team Riverside

We are looking for a permanent part time bookseller to join our team.

You must have:

  • Great customer service experience, ideally in a bookshop
  • The flexibility to work Thursdays, Sundays and occasional extra days as cover, with some extra hours for holiday cover.
  • A deep and abiding love of books!

To apply, please send your CV and a covering letter to Suzanne Dean, by email or post or by hand, as soon as possible…  If you’d like more information, please phone or drop into the shop.

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January 8, 2017

Frog and Toad – the Complete Collection, by Arnold Lobel with foreword by Julia Donaldson

by Team Riverside

Hardback, HarperCollins, £19.99, out nowarnold-lobel-frog-and-toad-collection

First published in the 1970s, Lobel’s Frog and Toad short stories are remembered with affection by many children of that period, including me. I rediscovered them as an adult and found the kindness and gentle humour of the stories had stayed with me all that time.  I have bought the books for early readers, adults, and many ages in between.

The collected stories are now available in a lovely collected hardback edition released last year, with a new foreword by Gruffalo author and huge Lobel fan Julia Donaldson. She notes that the books are “intended for beginner readers but also are great for parents to read aloud at bedtime.  They are fables really, about endearing human weaknesses such as greed, self-consciousness, laziness and addiction to routine”.

Frog and Toad are best friends who face life’s small and larger challenges together. The characters are easy to relate to.  In The Letter, Toad explains to Frog that the morning is “my sad time of day” when he always waits for the mail to come, even though he never gets any mail.  Frog sits with him and they feel sad together.  Frog then goes home and writes Toad a letter, which reads: “Dear Toad, I am glad that you are my best friend.  Your best friend, Frog”.   Toad is very pleased with this letter, although it doesn’t arrive for four days because Frog has given it to a snail to deliver.

The stories are children’s classics, especially in the US, but have a deeper cultural and personal significance as well (see http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/frog-and-toad-an-amphibious-celebration-of-same-sex-love).

We also stock the more portable paperback editions of the individual story collections. The engaging two-tone pictures complete the endearing quality of the book.   A book to keep forever.

Review by Bethan

November 30, 2016

We Found a Hat, by Jon Klassen

by Team Riverside

By the same author as the classic I Want My Hat Back, this is a spare and beautiful picture book. It managesjon-klassen-we-found-a-hat to be extremely funny and also very thoughtful. It is perfect for reading aloud with young children, but is also an ideal gift for reflective adults.

Even the synopsis on the back of the book is a masterpiece: “Two turtles have found a hat.  The hat looks good on both of them.  But there are two turtles.  And there is only one hat.”  The scene is set for a tense drama, involving loyalty and the nature of reality.  And a hat.

How many children’s books can you say would be ideal gifts to celebrate friendship, love, weddings and civil partnerships? Buy this book for yourself and read it many times over the rest of your life.  An instant classic.

Review by Bethan

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 5, 2016

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Faber and Faber, £10, out nowp-d-james-the-mistletoe-murder

This is a very welcome collection of four new short stories from the much missed author of exceptional psychological crime mysteries.  Val McDermid’s introduction commends James for taking us to places that are “dark, vicious and shocking.  But always beautifully written”.

My favourite is the deeply menacing and highly believable A Very Commonplace Murder, which reminded me of a Shirley Jackson short story in its precise and convincing suburban horror.  A man asks for a key to view a rental flat, and the house agent suspects he is not genuinely interested in renting it.  The agent is right.  “It was the first time he had been back since it all happened sixteen years ago.  He came neither as a pilgrim nor a penitent.  He had returned under some compulsion which he hadn’t even bothered to analyse”.  And so we are compelled to find out what happened in this flat, and what this man’s relationship to it was.

I was glad to meet favourite detective Adam Dalgleish again in The Twelve Clues of Christmas.

In a lovely small hardback edition, this is great gift for fans of crime fiction, especially those who thought we’d never have another new thing from P D James to savour.  If you’re buying one Christmas crime book this year, make it this one.

Review by Bethan

October 18, 2016

Serious Sweet, by A L Kennedy

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Jonathan Cape, £17.99, out nowa-l-kennedy-serious-sweet

Funny, angsty, unconventionally romantic…  A L Kennedy’s Booker-longlisted novel is very readable.  Meg is a bankrupt accountant, living in Lewisham, trying to stay sober and working for an animal sanctuary (there is an excellent dog in this book).  Jon is a senior civil servant who hates his Government job and most of his colleagues.  He is troubled by things he is asked to do but appears stuck.  Both characters are trying to do their best in current day London, a city which can feel dangerous and uncaring.  But will their separate stories collide during the 24 hours covered by the book, and if so how?

Serious Sweet feels completely current, and the frequent stabs of humour reflect Kennedy’s stand-up experience.  There is enough bitterness to make the sweetness stand out.  This is just what you’d expect from this thoughtful writer, who always engages fearlessly with contemporary concerns.  I recommend reading the book at a gallop, to get the most out of the single day structure.

For collectors of London novels, this is a must-have.  Wholly convincing instances of kindness to strangers, often on London’s public transport, are recounted.  The unexpected village nook, Shepherd Market in Mayfair, is clearly inspirational for novelists at the moment, as it also stars in Francesca Kay’s excellent The Long Room (https://www.faber.co.uk/9780571322527-the-long-room.html).   Kennedy also gives us the best description of the new London skyscrapers anywhere.  It is possibly worth reading the whole book just for this.

I’ll always take a chance on reading A L Kennedy, author of the funniest short story I’ve ever read (The Mouseboks Family Dictionary, in her collection Now That You’re Back – http://www.a-l-kennedy.co.uk/book/now-that-youre-back/).  It still makes my cry with laughter.

Life is not perfect, or sometimes even tolerable, but there can be more chances.

Review by Bethan

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

September 7, 2016

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Contraband, £8.99, out nowgraeme-macrae-burnet-his-bloody-project

This Booker-longlisted novel is the story of a 17 year old boy facing the death penalty for a triple murder committed in a remote village in the Scottish highlands.  It is 1869, and Roderick Macrae is the son of a crofter who is living in a feudal society.  His Bloody Project is presented like a true crime story, with an account by the killer of what happened and documents from other parties involved.  The novel is introduced by the author, in his own name, suggesting that Roderick Macrae was a relative of his.  You have to bring your brain to this collection of purported primary sources, and the main question you have to answer is not whether Macrae committed the crime, which he admits, but whether he was mad at the time.  If it could be proved that he was insane, he might avoid the otherwise inevitable death penalty.

What has happened to Macrae that may have led to this point?  Through his partial account we hear of brutality, unfairness, bereavement and extreme poverty.  As a study in the abuse of power, and the impunity that goes with it, the book is excellent (to be more specific would be to risk spoilers).  The language used by every character in the documents is evocative and convincing – for example, Macrae calls winter in the village the ‘black months’ and summer the ‘yellow months’.

His Bloody Project grips tighter and tighter as the pages run out.  As we find out more about the murders and the killer, we inevitably think more about how we test whether a defendant was insane or not, an issue as present today as in 1869.  Equally relevant now, is the question – when you are subject to the law but the law does not protect you when you need it, can the society you live in really be said to be based on the rule of law?

Review by Bethan

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

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 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