Archive for ‘Reviews’

November 19, 2017

Autumn by Ali Smith

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin Random House, £8.99, out now

 

AutumnMuch has been made of the fact that this is Ali Smith’s “Brexit novel”, which in some ways is to do it a disservice. Because if, like me, the term “Brexit novel” makes you shudder internally and want to reach for the new Lee Childs instead, you’d be missing out on a fascinating entry which manages to look at our newly-divided Britain with a fresh eye.

The plot concerns the curious relationship between Elisabeth Demand, a precariously-employed “casual contract junior lecturer” visiting the town in which she grew up, and Daniel Gluck, her centenarian former neighbour who now lies dying in a hospice. But this is just the springboard from which Smith leads us through a whirlwind of dreams and memories, in tandem with her always-enjoyable day-to-day interactions deftly delivered with the usual eye for eccentricity.

And all this is of course set very much in the present, against the backdrop of the country’s historic decision to leave the EU. Working as she is in a medium where we’re used to clever allusions, parodies, fables and metaphors instead of approaching things head-on, there’s something almost illicitly exciting in the way she occasionally allows her asides about Brexit to be so on-the-nose, never shying away from directly addressing the matter at hand. This feels every inch a book written in the direct aftermath of the referendum, simultaneously angry, confused, ruminative, wounded and playful – which must be a very hard concoction to pull off as successfully as it is here.

At times it feels like Smith is examining this disorienting time in the same way that Gunter Grass so brilliantly tackled the incremental rise of Nazi Germany in The Tin Drum; by focusing alternately on scenes of domesticity, surreality and hard, painful truth.

And as in many of Smith’s novels, it’s somehow dreamlike yet relatable, like a glimpse inside a brain at once the same and totally different to your own. Written in the distinctly idiosyncratic prose – peppered with elastic quips, digressions through language and the occasional startling image – which has won her such a loyal fan-base, it’s no surprise that such a talented writer, wrestling with so seismic a period in our history, has turned out a piece of work as singular as this. Get it down you.

Review by Tom

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November 13, 2017

The Alarming Palsy of James Orr by Tom Lee

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £12.99, out now

Alarming PalsyAnother week, another deeply unsettling novella. Tom Lee’s dream-like tale of suburban living gone awry would make a good companion piece to Matthew Weiner’s Heather, the Totality; but where that short novel felt very American in its evocation of a divided, gentrified New York, Lee’s is distinctly, queasily English, exploiting the tensions behind middle-class social mores.

Unremarkable family man James Orr wakes up one morning to discover he has contracted Bell’s Palsy, which has caused the left side of his face to droop unresponsively. In the hands of Lee, dealing with this plausible (if unlikely) malady becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare, as Orr – like the haplessly metamorphosed Gregor Samsa – tries his best to navigate his life and responsibilities in a world where he has been indelibly transformed.

Suddenly unable to work at his client-facing company, he is forced to confront the grim reality of days unmoored from any sort of routine. Meanwhile his unblemished cul-de-sac community of identical homes is under siege, as youths are using its quiet streets for sexual encounters in their cars. As head of the neighbourhood residents’ committee, James may have to do something – but his predicament is a doubly unfortunate one, as he finds that his face is sufficiently disabled that he often can’t speak or make himself understood.

Tough stuff for anyone to deal with; but like in any bad dream, an inexplicable edge begins to creep into our hero’s behaviour. As his visage is obscured so too are the motives behind his actions, and the unpredictability of the narrative as he becomes increasingly erratic makes for compelling reading.

This is a novel which utilizes its idyllic setting perfectly in a way that recalls Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby or The Stepford Wives, and the slow and innocuous way that an atmosphere of dread is built is remarkable.  A quick, punchy read that stays with you long after the final page.

Review by Tom

November 10, 2017

Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner

by Team Riverside

heather

Hardback, Canongate, £14.99, out now

A few months ago I was forced to use that most clichéd of literary review terms – “unputdownable” – to describe Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary; now I’m having to cough it up again, because Heather, the Totality stayed glued to my hands until every page was read.

This immersive debut novel (or perhaps novella, at less than 150 pages) is by none other than Matthew Weiner, creator and showrunner of Mad Men, former writer and producer for The Sopranos, and now apparently master of all things written.

It consists of two narratives which throughout the novel begin slowly to intertwine. The first concerns the relationship between upwardly-mobile, deeply insecure couple Mark and Karen Breakstone and the changes wrought by the arrival of their daughter, the titular Heather. The second, thrown into stark relief by the distinctly middle-class worries and malaise pervading the first, is the increasingly distressing story of Bobby – son of a heroin-addicted, negligent and abusive mother – and his journey from unwanted, self-reliant boy to psychologically disturbed, intimacy-deprived young adult.

Weiner plays both tales off against one another brilliantly, illustrating not just the obvious contrasts but also the insidious similarities between them; common threads of helplessness, denial, masculine lust and yearning for escape. And as the gap closes and Bobby’s narrative begins inexorably to bleed into that of the Breakstones’, the novel becomes unbearably tense.

Coming as it does from a former scriptwriter, one might expect whip-smart dialogue and sharply-rendered description; instead, Weiner takes a more detached approach, swooping over the incidents of his characters’ lives like a helicopter trailing a getaway car. In doing so, he confirms himself as a master of the sort of slow-burn narrative where it takes half-a-lifetime’s worth of errors and misfortunes to eventually blow up horribly in everyone’s faces, which won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone used to Mad Men’s season-long build-ups and eventual pay-offs.

At certain times the lean, functional prose style almost puts one in mind of a Biblical or Classical fable – at others, a police report. And Weiner has a laser-focused eye for people’s private obsessions and insecurities made even more incisive by his unemotional form. This is a novel where even when big events take place, its characters find themselves obsessing over petty little things – as when Karen reveals she is pregnant to Mark, and is “giddy with relief” apparently not because she of their immanent parenthood, but because her husband reacts with “sufficient excitement” to her way of delivering the news, which she has spent a week planning.

As might be clear from the details of the narrative, there’s also a socially conscious edge present here, and despite having made his name with a television show known for its lavish 60’s setting, Weiner’s novel feels absolutely modern and timely. All-in-all, a jet-black parable of society, privilege and powerlessness. Let’s hope it’s the first book of many.

Review by Tom

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October 23, 2017

Lampedusa – Gateway to Europe by Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Maclehose Press, £12.99, out now

Lampedusa – Gateway to Europe is a book of extraordinary and moving first hand Bartolo and Tilotta LAMPEDUSAtestimony from Dr Pietro Bartolo who runs the medical services for refugees landing on (or shipwrecked near) the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean.  Those he treats are often in profound states of suffering after terrifying flights from their home countries.  He is also deals with the bodies of those who have died on the journey.  Often, the living and the dead arrive together.

Dr Bartolo interweaves the story of his own life, and particularly how he came to be doctor on the island where he was born, with accounts of individual refugees he has met over the last 25 years.  His father was a fisherman, and his family are shown as hard working people with a deep respect for the sea.  He writes: “There is an unwritten rule that you might only understand if you were born on an isolated island like ours: leaving another human being at the mercy of the waves, no matter who they are, is unacceptable – unthinkable, in fact.  This is a law of the sea.  It is taken so seriously that when the Italian government prohibited taking migrants on board a boat, fishermen often defied the law and ended up in court” (p. 87).  He recounts one maritime disaster after another, relentless deaths and terrible injuries, which continue to this day.

He tells the story of the miraculous revival of one young refugee, Kebrat, who has been given up for dead when she is landed on the pier during the catastrophe of 3 October 2013, in which at least 368 people lost their lives.  After 20 minutes of emergency work, her heartbeat is re-established: “I had experienced the greatest surge of emotion in my twenty-five years of first aid work” (p. 190).

The author and his team were seen in the film Fire at Sea (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jun/09/fire-at-sea-review-masterly-and-moving-look-at-the-migrant-crisis).  Newly translated from the Italian, the book is recommended by Philip Gourevitch, who wrote the extraordinary story of the Rwandan genocide We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families.

My personal view, shared by many others I am sure, is that when the histories of our period are written, future generations will be incredulous that we allowed so many to die while they were fleeing death at home.

The nightmare in the Mediterranean is not over.  Bartolo is frustrated by the variation in media coverage, which is sometimes at saturation point and sometimes completely absent.  This book stands as a lasting corrective to that.  It is an instant classic of refugee and migration writing, and an overwhelming indictment of the human actions that make this happen.

Review by Bethan

October 20, 2017

Ruth and Martin’s Album Club

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Unbound, £14.99, out now

Ruth Martin Album Club.jpgA really interesting conceit here, and well executed; Ruth and Martin’s Album Club is a compendium of record reviews – the twist being that each one is being judged by a celebrity who is hearing it for the first time. For those who agree with Frank Zappa’s famous maxim that writing about music is like “dancing about architecture” and like their reportage on the subject to come with just a bit extra, look no further.

It’s reminiscent of the 33/3 series of books, in which writers delve into the minutiae of a beloved LP of their choosing, but this has an enjoyable casualness to it which makes each entry a joy. Every album has a prologue written about it by the incredibly well-informed Martin Fitzgerald, and these are pleasingly illuminating. He’s got a loose prose style that feels punchy and good-humoured, the compere before the main event – which consists of folks like J.K. Rowling, Ian Rankin, Chris Addison and Bonnie Greer laying out their pre-and-post-conceptions of a classic album they’re hearing for the first time.

This format allows for little windows into the lives of our writers (Martin’s question, put to all participants, of why the hell they haven’t listened to what they’ll be reviewing before turns up some curious answers) just as much as it does fresh perspectives on timeless records. It’s particularly invigorating to hear contributors admitting to not enjoying the kind of hallowed LPs that no one is ever allowed to confess a dislike of, and while I’d disagree with every iota of Times journalist Danny Finkelstein’s distinctly unimpressed review of The Velvet Underground and Nico, it feels delightfully subversive to see it being described in print as merely “OK”.

You also get to hear what Tim Farron thinks about N.W.A, which is information you didn’t know you needed, but most assuredly do. Perfect Christmas fodder for the musically-minded if you’re efficient enough to be looking for presents this early.

Review by Tom

October 17, 2017

To the River: a Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Canongate, £9.99, out nowOlivia Laing TO THE RIVER

This fresh and interesting account of Laing’s midsummer exploration of the Ouse river is now available in a good new edition of the excellent Canons series.

Originally published in 2011, this is nature writing partly in the vein of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, or Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun.  Exploring East Sussex in part to get away after a horrible relationship break up, Laing brings a sharp eye to the natural world in what may feel like a very familiar area: “It is astonishing what wood and earth together will yield, given a spark and a puff of air.  A windowpane, say, bubbling and settling into cool green sheets, like ice on a winter’s day” (p. 31).  She preserves a genuine sense of wonder at the natural world, while never prettifying what she experiences.

There are excellent literary stories throughout the book, particularly about Virginia and Leonard Woolf who are strongly associated with this area.  I am a fan but didn’t know that after their house in London was bombed, “the Woolfs went down to salvage what they could from amidst the dust and rubble: diaries, Darwin, glasses, her sister’s painted china.  A melancholy business, but she says she likes the loss of possessions, the liberation” (p. 207).

The steamy heat Laing walks through rises off the page, and we are reminded that midsummer is still something magical, even in the midst of modern life.

Review by Bethan

October 15, 2017

Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Sort Of Books, £10.99, out nowTove Jansson MOOMINLAND MIDWINTER

One of the best book things ever has just happened to me.  I discovered that the Moomin prose books are not the same stories as the Moomin comic strips.  This means that there is a whole world of unknown Moomin that I can explore, and I can do it through the beautiful new hardback editions of four of the prose books just issued by Sort Of Books.  This is the reader equivalent of buried treasure.

Moomintroll wakes up from his winter hibernation early, and is surrounded by his sleeping family.  Feeling lonely, but also adventurous, he heads out to see what the winter world is like, and who he can find there.  He makes new friends, and their insights are valuable: after Moomintroll and Too-ticky see the Northern Lights, Too-ticky notes, “I’m thinking about the aurora borealis.  You can’t tell if it really does exist or if it just looks like existing.  All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured”.  The gorgeous illustrations and fold out map (complete with Lonely Mountains and Grotto) complete the magic.

A long time fan of Jansson’s Summer Book, a novel for adults, I have found similar themes of kindness and adventure in her Moomin books (see Ali Smith on The Summer Book here – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/jul/12/fiction.alismith).  I agree absolutely with Philip Pullman when he writes: “Tove Jansson was a genius of a very subtle kind.  These simple stories resonate with profound and complex emotions that are like nothing else in literature for children or adults”.  I can vouch for the joy of reading them for the first time as an adult.  These are books for every human.  In case the books are not enough, I can also head to Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Tove Jansson exhibition (http://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/2017/october/tove-jansson/).

There should be a word for the rare feeling that you get when reading a book that is new to you, but which you realise will be a favourite for the rest of your life.  There isn’t one that I can think of, but this book would have occasioned it.

Review by Bethan

October 3, 2017

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hamish Hamilton, £20, out nowMacfarlane and Morris LOST WORDS

This is the most exquisite book I have seen this year.  The Lost Words features beautiful illustrations of British wildlife by the amazing Jackie Morris, who did the classic children’s picture book The Snow Leopard (due out soon in a new edition).  Words are by Robert Macfarlane, one of our outstanding nature writers, known for The Old Ways and Mountains of the Mind.  In his book Landmarks, Macfarlane had focussed on nature words being lost from everyday usage, particularly those from local dialects (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/08/landmarks-review-robert-macfarlane).

These two working together make for an enchanting combination.  There is a great interview with Jackie and Robert explaining how they made the book, and Jackie explains: “So, it was Robert’s idea to make this a ‘spell-book’ – to have three spreads per word, the first marking a loss, a slipping away, the second being a summoning spell, and the third being the word spelled back into language, hearts, minds and landscape.”  (See https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/on-writing/cover-story/2017/jul/designing-the-lost-words/)

This book, for all ages, defines key English nature words.  And so, for otter: “Otter enters river without falter – what a/supple slider out of holt and into water!”

This is a big book – 37 by 28cm, giving full space to the luminous illustrations.  It would make an gorgeous present for anyone with a love of the natural world.  If that wasn’t enough, each purchase supports Action for Conservation, funding the next generation of conservationists and with a particular focus on disadvantaged and socially excluded children.  The goldfinches on the cover are reason enough to buy it, and as Riverside visitors will know we have our own tame charm of goldfinches upstairs in the shop (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/a-charm-of-goldfinches-grace-our-bookshop/).

Review by Bethan

September 23, 2017

Baking with Kafka by Tom Gauld

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Canongate, £12.99, out nowTom Gauld BAKING WITH KAFKA

You may have seen Tom Gauld’s excellent bookish cartoons in the Guardian Review pages, which are reliably smart and thoughtful as well as very funny (https://www.theguardian.com/profile/tom-gauld).

This latest collection of his work is especially good for those who like books, or science, or both.  His humour is usually deceptively gentle but skewers some modern human moments.  I especially like his very understanding cartoon about the perils of non-scientists buying congratulations cards for scientists (http://myjetpack.tumblr.com/image/164181515985).

The cartoons often feature great literary jokes, and as he sometimes does work for the New Yorker and the New Scientist, I’m sure there are other jokes I’m not getting!  His cartoons make me smile every time I see them.  He is the author of Mooncop and You’re all Just Jealous of my Jetpack.

This is a perfect gift as it is a beautiful hardback (I am already thinking of this for at least four Christmas presents, hopefully none of the likely recipients read this blog).

Review by Bethan

 

 

September 17, 2017

Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Virago, £9.99, out now

Darling DaysA cracker of a memoir this, Darling Days tell the story of author and activist iO Tillett Wright’s distinctly off-the-wall upbringing in the squalor of downtown New York.

With its depiction of an exhilarating if hand-to-mouth existence in the East Village of the 1980s, the punk and new wave subcultures spawned there and the drugs that desolated its communities, Darling Days follows in the footsteps of autobiographies like Patti Smith’s Just Kids or Richard Hell’s I dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp – both by poets and novelists who share not just glittery New York-based life stories but also a way with strong, beautiful prose. Tough acts to follow, but Tillett Wright more than holds his own on both counts.

He’s certainly had an interesting life straight out of the gate, born to a mother who was equal parts Amazonian warrior and Playboy centrefold, a model, hard drinker, addict and widow (her former husband having been shot by police in dubious circumstances). The pair’s adventures, clashes and anecdotes make for compelling, bewildering and sobering reading; there are several sections in the book, after the young iO has done something like rush to find a cop to protect her mother from an abusive boyfriend, when you find yourself saying, he’s how ­young at this point?

But all these wild experiences can make for sub-par reading at best if the author can’t bring them to life on the page. Thankfully, Tillett Wright’s writing is frankly brilliant; he has a fantastic way with imagery, razor-sharp descriptions of locales and characters bursting fully-formed into your mind’s eye. Angular faces, voluptuous bodies, mean streets and crumbling blocks are drawn in brilliant chiaroscuro style… and, as with Smith and Hell, there is something intangibly New York about it. At times his keen eye for this slum of a city and its crooked inhabitants is almost Dickensian.

The vivacity of Tillett Wright’s storytelling and style really can’t be emphasised enough, and his tale is a captivating one. For a living, breathing slice of a fascinating period of American life, look no further.

Review by Tom

 

 

September 11, 2017

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Portobello Books, £9.99, out now     Andres Barba SUCH SMALL HANDS

Marina’s parents have been killed in an accident, a trauma that she conceptualises through the sounds of the words used to break the news to her; “Your father died instantly and your mother died just now.”, as well as the smooth white lines of the car seat that she was looking at before the vehicle the family were in is fatally flipped over. The beauty of Barba’s novella, translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman, is in these details, small horrors described in sentences that are allowed to luxuriate in the visceral heat of childhood, for instance when Marina wets herself after learning she will be sent to an orphanage, “She felt the hot, acidic urine run down her legs to her shoes and she felt the shame, which was also hot: a dark, robust, inescapable mass.”

When she gets to the orphanage accompanied by her doll, also Marina, we are introduced to the rest of the girls who live there. These children who Marina can’t distinguish between, are heard from in unison, Greek chorus style. To them Marina’s arrival is a disruption of their shared sense of self and through her they are shocked into the realisation that they are individuals. Their proceeding obsession with her is disturbing in its violence and sexuality.

The full and descriptive sentences in Such Small Hands are really the best thing about it, and they are particularly moving at the beginning, so much so that when I’d finished it, which I did quickly -it’s a short book, I went back and read the opening part again.  A good one if you like books that describe the dark side of childhood or confusing experiences being richly explored through language.

Review by Cat

 

September 7, 2017

The Gritterman by Orlando Weeks

by Team Riverside

Signed Hardback, Particular Books, £17.99, out now

Gritterman coverFormer Maccabees frontman Orlando Weeks has taken a surprising career-turn into bittersweet picture-books with The Gritterman, a beautifully illustrated and touching tale about a local gritter’s last night on duty.

Our unnamed hero takes us through his life and times in prose written with an understated, colloquial charm, discussing his work (ice cream man on summer days, gritterman on winter nights), late wife and private ruminations. His beloved night-time role consigned to the scrapheap by global warming and a terse letter from the council, he’s a man whose quiet profession – and way of life – is being extinguished by the relentless march of modernity.

Just as his faithful van putters along on its final mission, so he, an elderly man quite alone in the world, moves towards his ultimate destination. But while elegiac, The Gritterman is not depressing, instead finding a sweet triumphalism in a sad situation. As our narrator says; “Being alone and loneliness aren’t the same thing”.

All of this is paired with wonderful drawings by Weeks; and if lovely hand-drawn illustrations, sad scenarios and wintry landscapes are putting you in mind of Raymond Briggs, you wouldn’t be far wrong. Weeks’ melancholic, low-key style and domestic focus feel like a continuation of the kind of themes Briggs famously explored in works like The Snowman and Father Christmas, while his scratchy coloured pencil illustrations marked by subdued blues and flashes of colour recall The Snowman in particular.

But unlike Briggs’ work, this isn’t a comic, instead making use of the ample white space that a novel’s form allows to suggest isolation, and thick blankets of snow. And Weeks’ style is ultimately looser. The gritterman is rendered an incomplete ghost, fading fast; his world a foggy, unfocused one perpetually obscured by inclement weather.

It’s the little details in this book that make it shine, from the “dink on [his van’s] left wheel arch that’s the same shape as Scotland” to the turkey chow mein dinner our protagonist painstakingly prepares, a chunk of which he later removes from his molar with the corner of a Christmas card. Between them and the pictures you could pore over for hours, it’s the reading equivalent of what’s known as chrysalism; the intangible satisfaction of being snuggled up in bed while listening to a raging storm outside.

Review by Tom

 

 

August 28, 2017

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty illustrated by David Roberts

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Abrams, £10.99, out nowBeaty and Roberts ADA TWIST SCIENTIST

This is a very funny, smart and inspiring children’s picture book from the team that brought you Rosie Revere, Engineer.

Winner of the Little Rebels book award 2017 (see https://littlerebels.org/2017/06/25/ada-twist-scientist-is-the-2017-little-rebels-award-winner/), and a New York Times bestseller, Ada Twist, Scientist tells the story of a small girl who starts doing scientific experiments to get answers to the many important questions that occur to her.  “’Zowie!’ said Ada, which got her to thinking:/’What is the source of that terrible stinking?’/’How does a nose know there’s something to smell?’/’And does it still stink if there’s no nose to tell?’”

Ada does indeed possess “all the traits of a great scientist”, and gains the support of her family and friends as she sets out to solve the wonderful mysteries of the world.

Beautiful illustrations complement the text perfectly, drawing out the humour and affection in the words (watch out for a slightly reluctant cat on most pages).  This book has been instant hit with every adult and child I’ve bought it for, so far covering ages two to 69…  One parent reported back that questions starting with “why…?” have now increased in number in their household after the example of Ada!

In a nice nod to important women in the history of science, a note in the back explains that Ada Marie is named for Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie.  Buy it for kids and read it yourself.

Review by Bethan

August 27, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Bloomsbury, £18.99, out now

Lincoln in Bardo.jpgIf you turn over George Saunders’ first full-length novel, you’ll be bombarded by so many quotes on the back cover from writing titans that it might lead you to believe that he’s the literary equivalent of the second coming of Christ. Jonathan Franzen says we’re lucky to have him, Zadie Smith asserts that we’ll read him “long after these times have passed”, Thomas Pynchon, Khaled Hosseini, Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Lorrie Moore and more besides all sing his praises.

And the wonderful thing is, they ain’t wrong. Saunders is a singular voice, a writer whose celebrated short stories have combined Pythonesque whimsy, incomprehensible corporate/new age jargon, deep existential ennui and a strong ethical conscience to create a style that is instantly recognisable and wonderfully original. His works are uniquely his own, as funny as they are often heart-breaking – you will laugh, you will cry – and his debut novel is thankfully no different.

A bizarre story – Abraham Lincoln’s deceased eleven-year-old son Willie tries to navigate a transitional stage of the afterlife known as the Bardo over one night of ghostly weirdness – is complemented by an equally bizarre form; when Saunders isn’t leading the plot through playscript-like dialogues narrated from within the Bardo he’s employing an even more remarkable narrative convention, that of telling the tale of the surviving Abraham Lincoln by amalgamating passages from (fictional) history books. This creates a procession of voices mostly many-times removed from the events they clamour to describe. It sounds odd, is odd, but is as wrong-footing and unexpectedly affecting as anything he has written.

It’s not often you read a book that feels as deliciously, daringly new as this. And the fact that, like Saunders’ short stories, it somehow feels casual, unpretentious and effortless just shows the extent of this fascinating author’s talent.

Review by Tom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August 21, 2017

Transit by Rachel Cusk

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Jonathan Cape, £16.99, out now

Transit CuskRachel Cusk returns with Transit, the paperback of which will be arriving next month. As a taster, here’s our review of this distinctive and multifaceted novel.

Centred around a series of domestic vignettes, Cusk’s latest follows a narrator who goes not just unnamed for the majority of the novel but unremarked upon, an incisive and mysterious ghost whose duties around a London she has returned to in the wake of a divorce lead her to encounter a cast of old flames and new neighbours. Coldly, detachedly, she questions and interrogates those she meets, leading them into confessions that hold a mirror up to her own apprehensions.

The narrator (and very possibly Cusk’s alter ego) is an intriguing proposition – the kind of peculiar operator who sees fit to ask her hairdresser whether he thinks freeing oneself causes someone else to become imprisoned. She speaks almost entirely in the kind of searching philosophical inquiries that seem at odds with the workaday scenarios she inhabits, putting existentialist queries to friends and acquaintances, handymen and (of course) hairdressers; but it’s through the prism of her idiosyncrasy that these encounters are ultimately lent powerful meaning.

Whether it’s the builder whose failing health may jeopardise his career and livelihood or the ex-partner who appears so unchanged in the decades since their breakup that he may even be wearing the same shirt, much human frailty, eccentricity and beauty is on display here, dug up from beneath the surface mundanity by our guide’s relentless examinations. And, of course, there is the narrator herself; whose chilly, once-removed demeanour may well be reflecting how alone the newly-divorced mother feels in a world of couples, cliques and happy families. It’s a really interesting work, with a great deal to say about the human condition and much in it that readers will recognise about themselves.

Review by Tom

 

 

 

August 14, 2017

In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott

by Team Riverside

Hardback, HarperCollins, £16.99, out nowRebecca Stott IN THE DAYS OF RAIN

In the Days of Rain is an engrossing and deeply personal account of a childhood in a fundamentalist Christian sect.  What happens after you leave?  How do you get answers about your own life when silence prevails and some of the people you might ask are dying or dead?  This complex and moving book is a daughter’s story of being brought up within the Exclusive Brethren, in which her father and grandfather were preachers.

The sect ordered followers to retreat from the world, and many commonplace things were banned.  Stott’s nuclear family left when author was six but the break was never really discussed afterwards, and much of her extended family are still members of the Brethren.

The book opens with the adult children gathering in East Anglia as their father is dying.  He asks his daughter to help write his memoir of life in the sect, including the parts he has previously found impossible to discuss, about the sect’s turbulent period in the 1960s.  What results is Stott’s own account, including not only chunks of social religious history but also reflections on how it affects family relationships.  This includes Stott’s own children, born well after her relationship with the sect ended.  Best known as a writer on Darwin, Stott’s explanation of how she both discovered Darwin’s work and then wrote about it is particularly effective.  An engaging story, well told and strangely hopeful.

Review by Bethan                                

August 5, 2017

Suspicion by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Pushkin Vertigo, £4.99, out nowFriedrich Durrenmatt SUSPICION

The dying police inspector Barlach thinks that a surgeon practising in Switzerland may be a Nazi war criminal.  He gets himself transferred from his friend’s hospital in Bern to the suspect’s institution, and a new kind of nightmare begins.

This superb and unusual mystery novel, first published in 1951/2, has been reprinted now by Pushkin Vertigo, an imprint republishing quality crime fiction of the 20th century.  The publisher says Suspicion is “a genre-bending mystery recalling the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and anticipating the postmodern fictions of Paul Auster and other contemporary neo-noir novelists.”  (See https://www.pushkinpress.com/product/suspicion/).   I found it easy to read, but it also engages with the highly challenging subject matter in a thoughtful and interesting way.  Dürrenmatt is not afraid of taking an intellectual and moral stance, which is important when dealing with torture and crimes against humanity.

Suspicion is beautifully written and translated.  Dürrenmatt was also a playwright, with The Physicists being his most famous work.  Despite the subject matter, this book is a perfect short holiday or travel read, and I would particularly recommend it to fans of Simenon or Lionel Davidson.  I have already ordered all the other Inspector Barlach books that I can find.  A new addiction has been born.

Review by Bethan

July 29, 2017

Phone by Will Self

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Penguin Viking, £18.99, out now

The final part of Will Self’s modernist trilogy famous for its lack of paragraphs and preponderance of big words, Phone is more of the same; frequently frustrating, stubbornly literary and ultimately brilliant. Written again without paragraphs in his trademark run-on style, this is fiction that accePhone Will Selflerates off the page as you read, in a torrent of euphemisms, witticisms and aphorisms.

It’s heady stuff. We’re constantly being uprooted, pulled from thought to thought, place to place, character to character and time to time without warning (and always mid-sentence). We spend spells in the brains of (among others) Zach Busner, an aging psychiatrist who’s equal parts OIiver Sacks and King Lear; a spy called the Butcher, who applies the tricks of his trade to night-time homosexual conquests; and Gawain, the closeted military man he seduces.

We’re completely submerged in each character’s psyche, hearing the songs they can’t get out of their heads, the reminiscences from forty years or four seconds ago, and even, in the case of the Butcher, the private mental conversations they have with their genitalia. Which means that as occasionally arduous as the act of following this cluttered and restless prose can be, it’s as near an analogue to actually being inside a person’s consciousness as I’ve ever read. To accurately depict the life of the mind is an astonishing feat, and Self nails it in laudable style.

Our author is really pushing the envelope here, and like similarly impenetrable works like Ulysses or Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy, Phone is incredibly rewarding once you’re knee-deep in it. Plus it’s really funny, which always helps.

Review by Tom

 

 

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