Archive for ‘Reviews’

January 28, 2019

Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Jonathan Cape, £16.99, out now

Posy Simmonds Darke.jpgPosy Simmonds’ latest neatly combines arch Metropolitan satire with a slow-burn, snowballing thriller narrative (truly something for everyone…) – we know from the intriguing cover that elderly, miserly art dealer Cassandra Darke will come into contact with a pistol, and, presumably, some deadly goings-on – the question is, how? And it’s a particularly tantalising question given that we’re introduced to the character in a very relatable, rather domestic way, as she navigates the Christmastime hell of Oxford Street; but as always with these things, all is not well beneath the surface…

Over the course of Simmonds’ twisty tale we’re treated to a time-jumping narrative and a host of crooked characters, including Darke herself; who looks, thanks to the fantastic illustrations, like a kindly grandmother from a seaside postcard, but is thoroughly, undeniably unpleasant. Plausibly so, though; she feels completely real, at once bitter, entitled, self-made, domineering, intellectual, unapologetic, and regretful. A real cocktail, but far from loathing her, Simmonds’ expertly plays with our perceptions – I admired, pitied, feared, hated and supported her all at once, and so a human centre is artfully given to every stubborn, obstinate whirlwind of a person we’ve bumped up against in our lives. And as the plot thickens and the threat of violence looms, maybe it’s good to have a right bullish so-and-so on your side…

Like Raymond Briggs, and Orlando Weeks, whose The Gritterman we reviewed here, Simmonds’ cosy illustrations rub up intriguingly against the darker aspects of the narrative; and, in more poignant moments, add real emotional heft.

And there’s even some interesting interrogations of art in the mix – Darke frequently butts heads with her ex-husband’s stepdaughter and lodger, a budding conceptual artist, in sequences which reflect larger generational ideas about art and authenticity. Critiques of the value of high-falutin’ modern art in a world quite possibly going to hell in a handcart aren’t new, but the way Simmonds comes at it, by showing us her characters’ hypocrisies on a micro level, feels fresh and cutting without being judgemental. These characters struggle with how to be good, and make things of value, just like the rest of us.

Review by Tom

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January 19, 2019

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Abacus, £8.99, out now

This book made me laugh out loud while alone on the Tube, despite my best efforts andrew sean greer less(Londoners will know what a travel faux pas this is).  Several sections took me a while to get through, due to crying with laughter and being unable to see the text.

Arthur Less is a middle-aged American novelist who has just broken up with his longstanding younger boyfriend… the boyfriend whose wedding he has just been invited to.  Less decides he must leave the country immediately and embarks on a round of bizarre literary engagements all around the world, just so that he can avoid the wedding.  There is something very comforting about watching someone fail to cope with heartbreak in such an epic way.  Mishaps and encounters pop up for Less, but can he really outrun his old romance?

It’s not fluffy.  A sentence that lingered for me, out of context, was “We believe they burned their own city to the ground”.  It is, however, a kind novel.  This is rare for a funny book.

Praise quotes from Armistead Maupin, Ann Patchett and Karen Joy Fowler should be a sign of greatness, and they are all correct.  I want to read another book like this immediately, but I don’t think there is one.

Smart and relatable, Less is beautifully written and an easy quick read.  It has a good dog in it.  Oh, and it won the Pulitzer.  Heaven in a sky blue cover.

Review by Bethan

January 15, 2019

Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Oneworld Publications, £9.99, out now

How refreshing to get a completely different take on a period that can seem so familiar!  miranda kaufmann black tudorsShortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize, this is an outstanding history which tells the stories of ten African lives in Britain, and usefully sets each in context.

There is a strong local connection to the Riverside Bookshop.  Reasonable Blackman, an independent silk weaver, lived here in Tooley Street in the parish of St Olave’s.  Two of his children died during the plague and he and his wife and remaining child were shut up in their house with a red X marked on the door.  They were not permitted to leave, to prevent the further spread of infection.  An independent skilled craftsman, he supported a family of five with his fine goods.  Tooley Street then was known as a rough and ready area, with many alehouses – Kaufmann quotes Christopher Hudson writing in 1631: “alehouses are nests of Satan where the owls of impiety lurk and where all evil is hatched…” (p. 117).

If you enjoyed David Olusoga’s Black and British: a Forgotten History, you must definitely read this (I loved Olusoga’s book, as it completely transformed both my knowledge of and my attitude towards British history).  Black Tudors would also be perfect for those who like readable social history, focussing as it does on everyday lives.  It includes the stories of a countrywoman, a rural worker, a sailor, and many more diverse and intriguing people besides.

Kaufmann is clear about the relevance of her work in the current political and social climate: “As debate about immigration becomes ever more vituperative and divisive, it is vital to understand that the British Isles have always been peopled with immigrants. The Black Tudors are just one of a series of peoples who arrived on these shores in centuries past” (p. 262).

Entertaining and enlightening, this would be a perfect non-fiction holiday read.

Review by Bethan

January 8, 2019

Luna Loves Library Day by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Andersen Press, £6.99, out now

Luna’s mum drops her off at the library, where Dad meets her and they have an coelho and lumbers luna loves library dayadventurous day!

This beautiful picture book for young children shows libraries to be exciting and safe places.  It celebrates all different kinds of reading, and there is even a bonus miniature story book set inside so you can read along with Luna and Dad as they have an enjoyable cuddle while reading together.

There are light touch mentions of young children whose parents are separated, and what comes after.  The lively illustrations show a dual heritage family.  Endorsed by Amnesty International, this is a gorgeous positive book that makes even adult readers want to get back to their local library.

Review by Bethan

January 6, 2019

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Quercus, £12.99, out now

A teacher is murdered in Shoreham-by-Sea in Sussex.  Her school has an historic elly griffiths stranger diariesconnection with ghost story writer R M Holland.  As pupils and colleagues try to come to terms with her death, the story surrounding it unfolds with Gothic overtones.

Investigating is Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur, an excellent character with an acid tongue and a sharp mind.  On arriving at a witness’s home, she sees that the witness has been reading The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, and remembers that the murder victim had been “sitting in the dark with her herbal tea.  Someone really should tell these women about Netflix” (p. 138).  Her genial home life gives me the same cosy feeling I get reading this aspect of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti crime stories (see https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2017/06/20/earthly-remains-by-donna-leon/).  She is an old student of the comprehensive where the murder happened, and knows all the rumours and ghost stories which surround the school.  The story is told from the perspectives of Harbinder, Clare (a colleague of the victim), and Clare’s daughter Georgia, who is a pupil at the school.  Also woven in are sections of R M Holland’s ghost story.

It helped that the abandoned cement works and nearby strip of workers’ houses where some of the action takes place are familiar to me, as I used to go past them on the bus… and I had often thought that it was quite a creepy place.  But I’m pretty sure this personal experience isn’t necessary for others to enjoy the book!

This was a perfect holiday read for me.  I had never read any Elly Griffiths, but a friend bought me this standalone mystery novel for Christmas.  I devoured it in two days when I should have been doing other things.  I am now looking forward to reading her series set in Norfolk, which my friend says is just as good.  There are two good dogs in this book.

Review by Bethan

December 2, 2018

The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Scribner, £14.99, out now

The list of places Nancy Campbell covers in researching The Library of Ice was enough to Nancy Campbell THE LIBRARY OF ICEmake me keen to read it.  Upernavik Museum in Greenland, Vatnajökull in Iceland, Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam…

Campbell is an artist, writer and poet, and The Library of Ice could be considered travel writing, cultural history, nature writing, or memoir.  It’s not necessary to pick these bits apart: the book as a whole works well as a meditation on ice.  She is an engaging guide, and her curiosity leads to adventures in the archives and outside.

The book is full of intriguing and pleasing facts and stories.  I was pleased to learn of the origins of Torvill and Dean’s immortal Bolero skating performance, and of Robert Boyle’s attempts to research the phenomenon of cold and his irritation at the difficulty of his experiments.

Despite my longstanding Antarctic obsession, I did not know that George Murray Levick of the Scott expedition in 1912 was so horrified at what he found to be the ‘hooligan’ and ‘depraved’ behaviour of the penguins that he censored his scientific reporting on the Adélies.  In the Natural History Museum archive survives a copy of a report Levick wrote for colleagues, limited in circulation and with a note on the front saying: ‘The sexual habits of the Adélie penguin, not for publication’.

Campbell’s awareness of damage from climate change informs much of the book, and her accounts of traditional knowledge of ice reminded me of some of the testimony from Mary Robinson’s excellent book Climate Justice (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2018/10/08/climate-justice-hope-resilience-and-the-fight-for-a-sustainable-future-by-mary-robinson/).

If you enjoy good books about cold places, such as Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita or The Magnetic North, this will be a chilly pleasure.

Review by Bethan

October 17, 2018

Eve was Shamed – How British Justice is Failing Women by Helena Kennedy

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Chatto & Windus, £20, published 11 October 2018

Eve was Shamed is a timely and comprehensive update on women as they engage with Helena Kennedy EVE WAS SHAMEDthe UK’s criminal justice system, from a legendary feminist human rights lawyer.  The depth of her experience over years of legal practice and activism makes this a must-read. You don’t have to agree with everything she says to benefit from her thoughtful and erudite commentary.

17 years after I first read her classic book on women and the law Eve was Framed, Eve was Shamed shows where we have made progress and where so much remains to be done.  Her account includes experiences of women lawyers, survivors of domestic or sexual violence, prisoners, judges, and others.  She finds that “despite the dramatic changes which have taken place in women’s lives over the last four decades, women are still facing iniquitous judgements and injustice within the legal system.  All the legal reforms have produced only marginal advances”.  (p. 317)

Kennedy’s dual commitment to feminism and to human rights is particularly interesting.  Her values inform her approach to her work, including her analysis of difficult or controversial situations in public life.  She recounts occasions when this has led to conflict with people she has been allies with, and it is evident that she values the process of discussion and exchange that leads to resolution, even where this is uncomfortable or challenging.  She notes: “feminism is about justice if it is about anything, and that means for men as well as women.  Justice for women is not secured by reducing justice for men.” (p. 324)

She has lost none of her passion or commitment on the things that matter to her, making her a useful model for how to survive and remain effective during bleak times.  Her considered solutions to problems are offered throughout, and this means that despite the subject matter you feel that real change is possible.  Jacky Fleming’s inspirational cartoon remains helpful (see https://www.jackyfleming.co.uk/product/never-give-up/).

Review by Bethan

October 10, 2018

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love by Kathleen Collins

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Granta, £8.99, out nowKathleen Collins WHATEVER HAPPENED TO INTERRACIAL LOVE

Not published until 2016, decades after Collins’ death, these short stories are dazzling rediscoveries. Set during the civil rights era, they explore this radical time with equal parts joy and heartbreak. I love the way her writing describes fully realised characters and the emotional connection between them. In ‘The Happy Family’ the narrator describes a younger man from the titular family, “Andrew had such an incredible presence that even I was often intimidated by him. He was one of those people whom you almost do not assign an age. He had the ability to focus himself on a moment, bring all his presence to bear and so charge the air that you were a bit shaken.”(p.78) When this man falls in love with a family friend, the description of it is beautiful, “I would give anything to see them again, loose limbed and free, coming into the apartment and heating it with a glow, an intensity so strong it made you tingle…” p.78-9)

I agree with Zadie Smith about this collection, she said “To be this good and yet to be ignored is shameful, but her rediscovery is a great piece of luck, for us.” (http://kathleencollins.org/advance-reviews-for-interracial-love/)

 

Review by Cat

October 8, 2018

Climate Justice – Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future by Mary Robinson

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Bloomsbury, £16.99, out now

I wanted a book to remind me that climate change can be tackled, and to inspire me toMary Robinson CLIMATE JUSTICE engage with this massive problem without leaving me doom laden and depressed.  This useful book by former Irish President and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson does just that.  Taking a rights and justice approach is natural for her.  “This injustice – that those who had done least to cause the problem were carrying the greatest burden – made clear that to advocate for the rights of the most vulnerable to food, safe water, health, education, and shelter would have no effect without our paying attention to the world’s changing climate”.

Robinson places the stories of people on the frontline of climate change at the heart of this short book, and sees her job as getting their voices heard.  It was the stories of these activists, mainly women, which I found most useful.

Constance Okollet is a small scale farmer from Uganda who has organised women in her community to challenge climate change, has given evidence internationally on the direct impact on her region of extreme weather: “in eastern Uganda, there are no seasons any more”.

Through activism, Okollet met Sharon Hanshaw of Biloxi Mississippi (founder of Coastal Women for Change) and other climate witnesses.  Hanshaw, a former beauty salon owner who saw her community devastated by hurricane Katrina, said: “Connecting with women who were facing similar issues across the globe, and standing up and working for solutions, was inspiring.  It is women who bear the brunt of climate change”.  (Read more of Hanshaw’s story here: https://lithub.com/climate-change-needs-to-be-about-economic-justice/)

The price some of the activists pay for their work is heavy.  Robinson describes a tearful Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim of the Republic of Chad speaking of reporting back to the elders of her region: “I tell them that I will have a solution soon…  They think I am finding a solution, but I know how slowly the fight against climate change is going and that a solution is not coming tomorrow.  The solution for this problem will not be for them.  It will not be for now.”

There has been some criticism of the book for failing to focus sufficiently on failures of states in addressing climate change (see for example Cara Augustenborg in the Irish Times – https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/climate-justice-review-irish-sins-cloud-inspiring-stories-1.3643596).  Others may notice that Robinson does not for example address population control, or the issue of whether nuclear power should be part of the renewable energy that replaces energy from fossil fuels.  But the book is not intended as a primer on climate change (though it can be read with no specialist knowledge).  It is a call to positive action against despair, and is best summed up by the advice of Hanshaw, citing her civil rights activist father: “pray and believe, and always believe in what you can do instead of can’t do”.

Review by Bethan

October 3, 2018

The Borough Market Cookbook by Borough Market with Ed Smith

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hodder and Stoughton, £25, out now

This gorgeous cookbook marries tempting recipes with luscious photos of both the dishes and the market.  The recipes are unusual but achievable, and unsurprisingly give star billing to the exceptional ingredients for which the market is famous.Borough Market Cookbook display

I immediately wanted to make (or more accurately, eat) the barbeced courgettes, burnt lemon and za’atar.  Suzanne fancies Autumn Panzanella and Cat would like rhubarb and ricotta on toast.  We could all do with a Gooseberry Syrup Gin Cocktail right about now as well.

The book is arranged by season, and includes helpful lists of what’s best at each time of year.  It manages to capture some of the sensory delights of the market – Turnips greengrocer Fred Foster writes: “I like to think of our produce displays as live art.  They draw people in and provide a backdrop to the Market… The seasons are crucial because ultimately they affect what the displays are made from.  As the seasons change, the displays change.  It’s continual.  You can define the time of year by the colours you see”. (p. 205)

The first mention of the market by London Bridge was in a Norse chronicle in 1014 – a thousand years of tasty snacks, feast preparations, and irresistible tasters.

As London Bridge’s local independent bookshop, we are big fans of our local market and have been known to head over there for emergency baklava to provide instant mood lifts for our hardworking booksellers.  For a poetic take on the market, see also Michael Shann’s recent poetry collection To London (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/to-london-poems-by-michael-shann/).

Review by Bethan

September 22, 2018

The Old Slave and the Mastiff by Patrick Chamoiseau

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Dialogue, £14.99, out now

Old Slave ChamoiseauPatrick Chamoiseau’s latest novel is a little masterpiece: perfectly-formed, mesmerising, thrilling, moving, eye-opening, distressing, poignant, the lot.

This is a deeply singular piece of work that takes a simple, if grim, narrative – the titular old slave, who has spent his life in bondage on a Caribbean plantation, flees it one day pursued by the plantation owner and his horrifying hound – and explodes it. The old man’s journey through the surrounding jungle towards possible freedom becomes a simultaneous freeing of his mind; what we’re experiencing, through Chamoiseau’s gobsmackingly poetic prose, is a kind of anti-brainwashing on the part of our hero, an awakening to the world, to the present, and to a past both personal and cultural which he has tamped down in order to survive the humiliation of his servitude.

The fact that a chase narrative of heart-pounding proportions runs perfectly in tandem shows Chamoiseau’s staggering mastery of his craft; they’re so perfectly intertwined that the old slave’s physical, spiritual and mental progress become one hypnotic, hallucinatory broth. He discovers as he runs scraps of his old language, is spellbound and shaken by newly-remembered Creole folk tales and the creatures which haunt them, and gradually rekindles the fires of a selfhood long discarded; all while fighting to stay one step ahead of a despicable slaver and fiction’s most malevolent dog.

The sum of this is a distinctly idiosyncratic addition to the canon of literature addressing slavery, one that lays bare on a micro level the psychological torment and cultural subjugation heaped on a slave while managing, incredibly, to be uplifting, at times joyful; the old man’s flight, and his mental and spiritual re-entry into the world, is powerfully moving. It’s hard to think of another character in recent fiction I’ve wanted to succeed more.

And speaking of characters – none of this would work if Chamoiseau’s protagonist didn’t resonate with the reader, but he, the plantation owner and even the dog feel carved out of stone, somehow managing to be both archetypes and intensely individual. For such a short, fast-paced novel these guys are brilliantly and vibrantly illuminated, meaning that even the undeniable villains of the piece become multidimensional.

And once again it’s translator extraordinaire Linda Coverdale behind the superlative translation, and whose note at the beginning in which she details the challenges of adapting Chamoiseau’s Creole and Creolized-French-peppered script is fascinating.

It’s a completely captivating book. Buy it, read it and read it again.

Review by Tom

September 9, 2018

The Great North Wood by Tim Bird

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Avery Hill Publishing Limited, £9.99, out now

This beautiful graphic novel tells the story of South London’s great north wood.  Remnants of the wood can be found in the names and places of Norwood, Sydenham, Forest Hill, Honor Oak Park, Crystal Palace, Gipsy Hill and others.Tim Bird THE GREAT NORTH WOOD

Using a local fox to guide us from prehistory to today, The Great North Wood shows how important the forest was to the development of South London and celebrates its continuity to today.  On the way we learn some excellent facts.  I was intrigued to find out that Pear Tree House block of flats in SE19 was built to be “a control centre in the event of a nuclear attack on London”, and the book even includes a floorplan of the reinforced concrete basement.  Sharp modern realities exist alongside ancient magic in this enchanting account.

As so many of our regular customers head home from London Bridge to these areas, I am sure that they will recognise the depictions of bus stops and chicken shops.  The gorgeous colour palette helps make this a book to return to again and again.

Many South Londoners will be getting this for Christmas from me.  Hopefully they aren’t reading this.

Review by Bethan

August 27, 2018

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £16.99, out now

Nick Drnaso Sabrina

This graphic novel has been making waves outside the comics scene, exemplified by its inclusion – gasp – in the Man Booker prize longlist this year, the first funny-picture-word-bubble book to be so.

And it’s easy to see why. This intelligent and affecting work has in its crosshairs a swathe of modern maladies, from the pervasiveness of fake news and conspiracy legitimacy to the prevalence of non-specific alienation and mental illness. Make no mistake, this is heavy – just listen to the plot: the titular Sabrina has, out of the blue, disappeared, and her quietly distraught boyfriend has moved in with an old school-buddy, the nominal centre of the story. He wants to help his friend, with whom he’d all but lost touch, but he’s got problems of his own – namely a failed marriage and a young daughter he never gets to see. And when new information about Sabrina’s situation emerges, his troubles are about to multiply in a distinctly 21st century way…

From this framework Drnaso constructs an unsettling, paranoid world, but it’s a very recognisable one, cleaving very close to our current reality. It’s a testament to his skills as a storyteller that every damning reference to modernity – from one character’s urge to another not to unplug his phone (which the latter is using for a pivotal phone-call) as he needs it charged for work, to a constant, inescapable onslaught of emails a protagonist must at one point suffer – feels natural and unforced. Awkward Skype calls, violent video games, online hate-campaigns, clickbait… they’re all peppered throughout without feeling like clutter. He hunts big game effortlessly while propelling a queasily gripping narrative, a world away from traditional missing-person procedurals but just as enthralling. Certain sequences really bring out the armpit-sweat.

But what of the graphic part of this graphic novel? Sabrina’s visuals are, frankly, bland, its characters simply depicted, androgynous snow-man shapes with dot eyes and thin lines for mouths; at times, they make Tintin look photorealist. When they experience strong emotion, there’s a haunting disconnect between their rudimentary features and their apparent anguish; but mostly each ambiguous countenance suits this sterile world of platitudinous conversation, missed signals and repression. Every backdrop is minimally, if accurately, drawn, bright colours are almost entirely absent, and somehow this banal milieu quickly becomes engrossing in its own way. Indeed, at key points in the narrative this unreadability on the part of the characters drives the tension wonderfully, as we cannot suss out their intentions or judge where they stand. Simply put, what at first might seem like an unexciting creative decision quickly reveals itself to be a brilliant and innovative use of the form.

All-in-all this is tough, smart, powerful stuff, form and content perfectly married to craft a cold world of unspoken pain and suffering. If it ticks your boxes, we’d also recommend Art Spiegelman’s superlative Maus, another amazing, devastating graphic novel which we happen to stock as well.

Review by Tom

August 26, 2018

Penguin Modern series

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £1 each, out nowPenguin modern display 180826

This is a superb series of mini books featuring extracts from works by twentieth century authors published by Penguin.  The list is excellent and it is almost impossible to resist grabbing a fistful and bunking off work.

Several of the books are an easy way in to authors I have been meaning to read for ages.  The short collection of essays by Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, boosted me into reading her full collected essays, Sister Outsider.  In an hour’s reading, I had my brain shaken up and challenged by Lorde’s intersectional ideas and beautiful prose.

Other favourites so far include Chinua Achebe’s Africa’s Tarnished Name.  The great Nigerian novelist gives us a series of short essays, and describes a visit to Northern Rhodesia in 1960 made while he was living as an exile in the US.  He boards a bus and sits in the front, next to the driver’s seat.  “When finally I turned around, probably because of a certain unnatural silence, I saw with horror that everyone around me was white.  As I had turned around they had averted their stony gazes, whose hostility I had felt so palpably at the back of my head.  What had become of all the black people at the bus stop?  Why had no one told me?  I looked back again and only then took in detail of a partition and a door”.  He does not move, and when asked by the ticket collector why he is sitting there says: “… I come from Nigeria, and there we sit where we like in the bus”.  He stays in his seat until he reaches his destination, and disembarks to cheers from the black passengers.

Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail feels timely and useful.  “Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity”.

There are options for pure entertainment and for risky reading.  Whether you need an emergency back up book in case you finish your current one on the tube, or whether you want to treat yourself to a pick and mix of striking ideas and great writing, this series is irresistible.  For the full list see http://www.penguinmodern.com/.  We love our display, too.

July 28, 2018

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

by Team Riverside

Jessica Love JULIAN IS A MERMAIDHardback, Walker Books, £11.99, out now

Julian is a small boy on the subway with his Nana… but he is also a mermaid.  After seeing three gorgeous women dressed up as mermaids on the journey, he tells Nana: “Nana, I am also a mermaid”.  Julian dresses himself up as a mermaid while Nana is in the bath.  He feels wonderful… but how will Nana react?

This is a stunningly illustrated picture book, with a joyous message at its heart.  The colour and life in the pictures make you want to look and look, from the kids playing in the water from the hydrant to the older ladies swimming in the pool.

If you want a book with a superb grandparent in, this would also do the job!  As with the best picture books, this is one for all humans, not only small children.  Read Julian is a Mermaid and feel part of the kindness and delight that it celebrates.

Review by Bethan

July 1, 2018

Going to the Volcano by Andy Stanton and Miguel Ordóñez

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hodder Children’s Books, £12.99, out now

Stanton and Ordonez GOING TO THE VOLCANOThis book is extremely silly and a guaranteed good laugh for anyone aged about two and up.  Dwayne and Jane-o want to see the volcano… they’ll catch a plane-o and climb down a chain-o… their enthusiasm is not in doubt but what will happen when they get there?

Well, the bright and engaging pictures tell the epic story of how friends and followers join them on their quest, including Roger the incredible colour changing cat and Dr Eyjafjallajökull.  There are good in-jokes for adults as well as children, but they are not allowed to get in the way of a very funny story to read aloud.  Fans of Stanton’s Mr Gum series will recognise the humour.

I treated the character list at the end as a Where’s Wally style list of folks to go back and find in the pictures, giving the book a good spin for older children.  Also it was full of bonus jokes.  This book is a proper treat.

Review by Bethan

May 20, 2018

Our Place – Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late? by Mark Cocker

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Jonathan Cape, £18.99, out now

Mark Cocker OUR PLACEThe answer given by nature writer and environmentalist Mark Cocker is ‘maybe’.  This unusual book gives a brief history of attempts to protect nature in Britain over the last 150 years, told through the stories of some of the organisations and individuals involved.  It is framed by the catastrophic findings of the 2013 State of Nature report, which found that 60% of native species in the UK had declined over the last 50 years, 31% badly, and that over 600 species were under threat of extinction.  Cocker notes that the figures “don’t indicate the bottom of a curve: they chart the direction of an arrow.  It means that, however bad things are, they will get worse without major change”.

Cocker is critical of the largest of the environmental organisations, including the National Trust and the RSPB, finding them sometimes overly concerned with competing for members and also unsuccessful in critical campaigning.  He finds that failures to work together mean that whole-ecology approaches are being undermined by separate projects.  But he allows that their difficulties may reflect something of the British public’s own ambivalence towards nature.  He quotes a letter to the Daily Mail from a National Trust member apparently responding to the Trust’s campaign on climate change: “Thanks to Dame Helen Ghosh’s political agenda outside the true objectives of the National Trust, that’s £100 membership saved this year.”

He also gives due credit to individuals both within and without these groups who have been effective in seeking to protect nature, or who remind us to pay attention.  I loved the example of his friend and colleague Tony Hare, who on looking at “a square foot of turf dotted with miniscule scarlet fungi and prostrate lichens” reminded his friend that “what was happening here was the same as any rainforest”.

The approach taken is not straightforward polemic.  Cocker successfully mixes history with accounts of several localities as informal case studies showing how particular types of areas are faring.  As a result, Our Place is readable and interesting.

Where the book has limitations they are deliberate and mostly acknowledged.  There is not much about international frameworks or organisations working for the natural environment in my view, and marine protection is almost entirely missing.  But as a personal rallying call for a different attitude to nature protection in the UK, it works, and shows that any of us can choose to pay attention to this critical concern.  I echo his praise for those amateurs and professionals who study and protect even the unpopular or obscure bits of our natural world, and especially those who make this possible for children and young people.

Review by Bethan

May 19, 2018

Sight by Jessie Greengrass

by Team Riverside

Hardback, JM Originals, £14.99, out now

jessie greengrass sight

Sight, Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel, weaves an unnamed narrator’s meditations on her decision to be a mother, her own mother’s early death and her relationship with her grandmother in with historical stories of discovery and progress.

Greengrass dissects these scientific studies for their emotional resonance. Of Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of X-Rays one of the things she is interested in is his disappointment, where “afterward nothing was different at all, and although he had seen through metal and seen through flesh to what was hidden…what had been left was only so much quibbling at the bill” (p.45). Other cases that get this thorough treatment are Freud’s study of a phobic five-year-old known as Little Hans, as well as his relationship in general with his daughter Anna, and John and William Hunter’s 18th century discoveries on pregnancy.

In deciding whether or not to have a baby (we know from the start that she will settle in the positive) the narrator reflects on what she would be giving up in order to become a mother. The novel also questions what parents must then lose again in order for their children to reach adulthood successfully.  On the narrator’s thoughts around her young daughter’s maturing past toddler-hood Greengrass’s insight is heart-breaking: “I know her less and less the more that she becomes herself. This is how things ought to be, her going away while I remain.” (p.2).

But what would be the alternative, we are asked, Anna Freud living in her father’s house with his analyst room still in the centre of it untouched – “a still unconsecrated monument” (p.125)?

All the stories interlink with the idea that someone has to lose something for society to seem to progress – parents have to lose the lives they had before in order to have children, and then lose the children again, women have to die painfully in labour so that surgeons can learn how to perform caesarean sections. Even the loss of mystery that seeing the interior of her hand brings is felt as death-like by Bertha Roentgen when her husband demonstrates his discovery (p.46).

Sight also quietly wonders who the people are who have to make these sacrifices. Do mothers lose more than fathers? “The child was, for Johannes, still largely hypothetical: his life so far remained predominantly unchanged and what I felt as a set of prohibitions and a physical incapacity… was for him hardly more than anticipation waiting for Christmas to come…” (p.159). Whose corpses rot in basements so that we can see what our origins look like, as the unnamed dead model for Jan van Rymsdyk’s engraving The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus did? The answer more often than not is women or, as in Freud’s case of Little Hans, children.

At linking these stories to form the overarching questions I found Greengrass’s novel to be smoothly expert and I’m not surprised it has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year.

Review by Cat

May 7, 2018

Rosie – Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Penguin, £14.99, out now

This is a brutally honest autobiography covering the childhood of the author of superb Rose Tremain ROSIEfiction including The Gustav Sonanta, Sacred Country and Restoration.  Her account of her 1950s childhood spans an idyllic family farm, a middle class London house, a freezing cold boarding school, and a Swiss finishing school.  It seems clear that her parents and grandparents did not love her very much, if at all.

It is essential reading for any fan of her work, not least as she helpfully indicates where stories from her life have found their way into her fiction. In her novel Trespass, someone’s mother ruins their birthday by getting trapped in a swimsuit and making everyone else feel dreadful.  This is a real event, and the effects have been lifelong, meaning Tremain struggles to celebrate her birthday.  “… In my heart, I’m looking out for darkening skies, for the sound of the sea, for the thing that will sabotage the day – the thing that nobody else has seen”.

One saving grace is her nanny, Nan, who showed her how to love and be loved.  During a revelatory conversation with a colleague she discloses to another person for the first time the loveless nature of much of her upbringing.  The colleague replies: “… listen to me: you were lucky.  You could have been a depressive mess by now, or you could be dead from drugs or drink, but you’re not.  Nan saved you.  She was your angel”.

Her mother is shown as very cold, but Tremain is fair in describing how she too was unloved by her parents, or at least loved less than her brothers.  Her mother was also sent away from home at a very young age, which affected her for the rest of her life.  Tremain’s even handed description of a horrifying event which happens to her mother while Rosie is a teenager feels both fair and sympathetic.  Her father, as in her life, feels essentially absent from this book.  He is a not-very-successful playwright and he seems sometimes to go beyond merely disengaged to being actively hurtful and hostile.

Her determination to write is a joy in the book, as are her discoveries of reading and music.  Her friendships are vital to her and we see the beginnings of lifelong ones here.  She writes of her friends with affection and crispness.  Rosie renames herself Rose as she ends her childhood.  She makes her young adulthood all her own.  What might seem a mean time restriction on an autobiography works very well, and you could not ask for a more candid author.  Recommended.

Review by Bethan

March 31, 2018

Alphonse, that is not OK to do! By Daisy Hirst

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Walker Books, £6.99, out nowDaisy Hirst ALPHONSE THAT IS NOT OK TO DO

“ONCE there was Natalie… and then there was Alphonse too.  Natalie mostly did not mind there being Alphonse.”   This is a great way to start a picture book about the relationship between a small sister and brother.

Through bright and cheerful illustrations, Hirst shows the ways in which Natalie and Alphonse usually get on.  But then Alphonse eats Natalie’s favourite book, on a day which has already been bad (“lunch was peas”).  Natalie is angry and upset, and Alphonse doesn’t know what to do.  The themes of being cross and hurt, not knowing how to make things better, and the difficulty and relief of making up are easy to relate to.  As an adult this is one of the reasons why I like the book very much, and also why I think it is great for children aged about 2 and up, especially if they have siblings.

I like that the family live in a flat with a 1980s style balcony – I feel like these types of homes are not shown very often in illustrated children’s books, so it feels like a real gift here.  Alphonse, that is not OK to do! features an excellent (if slightly alarmed) cat, and what I think is a cameo appearance by The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  What more could you ask for?

Review by Bethan

March 20, 2018

Easter opening hours

by Team Riverside

Easter opening hours

Thursday 29 March – 9 to 6CLAP HANDS HERE COME THE CHICKS

Good Friday – 11 to 6

Saturday 31 March – 10 to 6

Easter Sunday – CLOSED

Easter Monday – 11 to 6

Tuesday 3 April – 9 to 6

Happy Easter from everyone at Riverside!

March 11, 2018

My Life as a Russian Novel by Emmanuel Carrère

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out now

Emmanuel Carrere My Life Russian Novel

Linda Coverdale’s superlative translations of the work of French powerhouse Emmanuel Carrère continue to delight us at Riverside – this latest sees the writer and filmmaker tell the story of a love affair, a family history and a possibly-doomed documentary in a “non-fiction novel” heavy on sex and introspection.

At the book’s beginning Carrère is ostensibly investigating the curious tale of a Hungarian soldier who, during World War 2, was imprisoned by the Russians, transferred to a psychiatric institution and somehow forgotten about, only being released in the noughties. A fascinating story; but also a feint, as we soon discover it’s not the anecdote itself that interests Carrère but its passing similarity to the life of his Nazi-collaborator grandfather, a similarly disturbed figure who was “disappeared” after the end of the occupation. It’s this buried history that hangs over the Carrères like a dark cloud, and one which this book sees him trying to purge in one way or another.

The unexpected lyricism that made his wonderful The Adversary so effective is well served here by a narrative that interrogates love, betrayal, and ennui, flitting effortlessly from travelogue to existential rumination, erotic fantasy to historical reportage. But what’s really interesting is that Carrère often doesn’t come across at all well; a slave to his neuroses and passions, irrational and impulsive, he embarks on a poorly thought-out film project in a Russian town in tandem with a poorly thought-out relationship with a woman whose non-bohemian existence he can’t help but feel ashamed of. In both cases, as apparently in all things, he seems driven not so much by constructive sentiments as demons from his past, and having an author bare all on the page in such a borderline masochistic way is both shocking and powerful.

Props must go once again to Coverdale also; as with the best translators, the continuity of the author’s voice across the works she has interpreted is evident – which is perhaps not easy when her subject is so mercurial – and her word choices paint a vibrant picture of a narrator who is at once urbane aesthete and helpless obsessive. In short, exactly the kind of person you want to read about.

Review by Tom

March 6, 2018

On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions by Kate Figes

by Team Riverside

Kate Figes ON SMALLER DOGSHardback, Virago, £14.99, out now

A wonderful book featuring our occasional shop dog Zeus, seen here running Riverside on Christmas Eve https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/happy-christmas-from-team-riverside/.

On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions has already received very positive reviews (see Alison Burns’ review here: http://bookoxygen.com/?p=7761) and Kate Figes appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to discuss it (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09smh89).

We are delighted to have this book at Riverside and send good wishes to our friends Kate and Zeus.

January 31, 2018

The Last Wilderness: a Journey into Silence by Neil Ansell

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Tinder Press, £18.99, out nowNeil Ansell THE LAST WILDERNESS

Neil Ansell wrote Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills, a transporting account of living alone in a remote hut in Wales, which has become a modern classic of nature writing.  It was beautifully written, dealing with the choice and personal consequences of human silence and solitude.  His descriptions of the nature that surrounded him (and particularly the birdlife) were vivid.

The Last Wilderness addresses many of the same themes.  Ansell visits a truly wild area of Scotland in a series of solo trips over a year, and also recalls his journeys all over the world.  The silence in this book is not optional.  He is losing his hearing.  He notices over the year that he can no longer hear the songs of different birds.

He still delights in birds: “I might catch a glimpse of a water rail emerging shyly from among the reeds, or a jewel of a kingfisher driven to the coast by bad weather inland.”  His recollections of childhood encounters with nature can also be very funny.  A crow lands on his head and he feels very proud, “… and then it drove its beak into the very top of my skull, as if it was trying to crack a nut”.  He sometimes reminds me of Chris Packham when he’s talking about this period of his life.  Ansell remains engaged with the present, and he reflects as he wanders on the likely impact of climate change on the places he visits.  The area explored is around Knoydart, and is remote and wild enough to appeal to anyone with a love of nature and solitude.

Review by Bethan

January 16, 2018

Under the Same Sky by Britta Teckentrup

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Caterpillar Books, £10.99, out now

Under the Same Sky is a beautiful hardback picture book, from the author of the striking book Moon.Britta Teckentrup UNDER THE SAME SKY

Teckentrup explores the idea of what we share, being here together on this planet, through a gentle rhyme ideal for reading aloud.  “We live under the same sky… in lands near and far.  We live under the same sky… wherever we are”.

Her ingenious use of paper cutting illuminates the text and the message perfectly.  There are likeable illustrations with a focus on the natural world, which will be appreciated by fans of Chris Haughton and Jon Klassen.

As ever with the best picture books, I have bought this one for children and adults. The dedication says it all – ‘For a united world’.

Review by Bethan

January 8, 2018

The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson

by Team Riverside

The Red Parts by Maggie NelsonmaggieNelsontheredparts

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out now

Before Maggie Nelson was born her mother’s sister was murdered in a shockingly violent way, an unsolved crime which overshadows the family in the subsequent decades and which Nelson has previously explored in her collection of poetry Jane: A Murder. In 2005 the case is unexpectedly re-opened, The Red Parts, as described in its subtitle, is an autobiography of the trial that follows.

Nelson’s previous book, The Argonauts is a combination of theory and memoir, The Red Parts has these features too, but also mixes in the generic conventions of true crime.

This true crime element is the driving force behind the story, and its tropes seem reassuringly familiar, the hardworking cop, the witness who first discovered the body, the gory description of the aftermath of violence done to a woman’s body. Although of course in the wise hands of Nelson these ideas are not presented without emotionally thoughtful analysis.

When asking her mother why she didn’t tell Maggie that she had had a minor accident, her mother questions what would be the point in doing so.  Maggie replies that, “Some things might be worth telling simply because they happened.” (p31)  Indeed Red Parts questions the ethics over who has the right to tell a story, does she have the right to write about Jane when she never met her, for example? Nelson also discusses whose stories get told at all, by anyone, is Jane’s murder still receiving attention from TV channels interested such as 48 Hours Mystery, and crime bloggers because she was pretty, white and middle-class?

Although she never met her aunt, her violent end shapes her mother’s way of bringing up two daughters, as well as the way her mother reacts to Maggie’s father’s death years later. Nelson is thorough in her analysis of what it means to live under the daily perceived threat of masculine violence, present because of her aunt’s murder, but also just because she’s a woman, so of course it’s there anyway. She is reminded in the gruesome true crime documentaries of course but also in most mainstream culture, Taxi Driver is a particularly difficult film for her and her mother to see, and she reads James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, a book about Ellroy’s murdered mother and his, “subsequent sexual and literary obsession with vivisected women.”(p69), alongside her investigations.

Nelson’s prose deals with the book’s difficult questions with a deftness that, of course, doesn’t ever answer anything, but makes The Red Parts a special and effecting read.

Review by Cat

November 26, 2017

Icebreaker – a Voyage Far North by Horatio Clare

by Team Riverside

Hardcover, Chatto and Windus, £14.99, out nowHoratio Clare ICEBREAKER

An ice cold exploration of Finland and ships, told with style and wit by the author of Down to the Sea in Ships.  Clare travels on the icebreaker Otso, which is clearing a path through the Arctic Circle.

Reflecting on climate change, Clare discusses A Farewell to Ice by Peter Wadhams who wrote of how changes in the sea ice will impact human life profoundly over the coming years (https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/273799/a-farewell-to-ice/).   He also introduces us to the characters of those who do the dangerous work of icebreaking.  There is something very appealing about reading about a whole area of work and life about which you know nothing.  In this way it is similar to Mark Vanhoenacker’s joyous book about being a modern pilot, Skyfaring.

There are pleasing nuggets of information, as you find in the best travel books.  I am looking forward to using the Finnish word kalsarikännit, which is “The feeling when you are going to get drunk home alone in your underwear – with no intention of going out.”  I am already familiar with hygge but this is a useful addition to my vocabulary.

Another pleasure of this book was the reminders to read or reread other eclectic Arctic literature, of which Clare is a fan.  He reminded me to reread Arto Paasilinna’s Year of the Hare (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/06/books/a-skewed-and-skewering-look-at-finland.html).

This would be a great present for any armchair (or actual) traveller who favours ice, snow and the Arctic.  Clare’s turn of phrase is vivid: “The ice stretches to opaque horizons.  As the lines of the forest fall away behind us, all bearings seem lost”.

Review by Bethan

November 25, 2017

It’s Christmas!

by Team Riverside

‘Tis the season to be jolly and we have lots of amazing Christmas stuff in stock:

-Advent Calendarschristmas cards

-Single Christmas Cards

-Packs of Christmas Cards

-Festive Wrapping Paper

-Christmas Gift Bags

-Ribbon and Bows

-Gift Tags

… And Christmas Joy!

 

 

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

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